The Listener at the NZ Film Festival: top five films

by David Larsen / 07 August, 2013
Helene Wong, Hugh Lilly and David Larsen each pick their top five festival films.
Helene Wong's picks


Four very loosely connected stories, inspired by true events, illustrating the human cost at the lower reaches of a China under fast-forward development pressure. Sobering and often shocking, driven by committed, believable performances and the rhythms of a society constantly on the move.

A Touch of Sin


Most of us will never get down there, but after this it will feel like you’ve just come back. Not only because we’ve seen its vastness and wonder through great photography, but because we’ve absorbed the everyday detail of living there through the eyes and words of ordinary people like ourselves. Our experience of it becomes subjective, intimate and entirely imaginable.


Fresh, appealing characters written with insight and affection. A cast that brings them to life with light, natural strokes. A strong grasp of the world of its story. It’s funny and dark and sad, and I predict this local low-budgeter will connect with an enthusiastic audience.



The vampire movie for people who don’t like vampire movies. Brilliant concept, dead-on deadpan and executed with superb visual and tonal control. If there were a lifestyle mag for vampires, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston would be its cover darlings. Welcome back, Jim Jarmusch.


Proof that it’s not all about the band. A select group of top-drawer backup singers at last get their due, and we get to hear just how gobsmackingly talented they are. You leave reverberating from some truly wondrous moments, transported with the sheer joy of singing.

David Larsen's picks

Why did I suggest we do top five lists? I now find I have a top seven. Damn you, decimal system, you are both arbitrary and cruel. But this was my idea. So:

My top film of this festival was Mood Indigo. My next six are almost impossible to rank, but by dint of strict attention to the core metric - “How loudly did I want to shout SEE THIS FILM, PLANET EARTH! afterwards?” - I have managed to tighten my focus. Here, in alphabetical order, are my top five films from the best festival fortnight I can remember.


The Dance of Reality

Demented, magnificent, and as welcome as daylight after an Antarctic winter: one of cinema's great lunatic auteurs returns after long silence, armed with an exuberantly transgressive bear-hug of a movie. Everything good and bad about the South American magic realism tradition is on display here, working a weird refraction on Alejandro Jodorowsky's childhood memories: memoir as waking dream, shot through with antic nightmare. Toxic in large doses? Almost certainly. But I couldn't get enough of it.


You say you want a grand historical war epic? Cast of thousands, a vast canvas, the great and the good of the acting world turning up for inspired cameos, comedy vying with tragedy and neither losing? Nine years out of ten you'd be all out of luck. Catch this if you can.


If it were nothing but a non-stop feast of visual invention, I would still be happy this exists. But under the plumage there's muscle and bone. Love found and love imperilled, youth topping its roller coaster and commencing a long plunge down towards death, seemingly endless possibilities draining down to a few last precious dregs: a great modern fairy tale. Happy ending by no means to be taken for granted. And yet no recent film has left me feeling more upbeat.


It looks like an experiment in narrative minimalism – pare a story down to its essentials and then keep on paring. How far can you go and still take your audience with you? I'm more inclined to view it as an exercise in creative ambiguity, a story so much composed of hints and glints that it could be any of a dozen stories. Either way, purely brilliant, and an absolute head trip to watch.

Upstream Color


The simplest film on my list, and the most fiercely joyful, walking a precisely judged line between realism and optimism. A ten year old Saudi girl begins to be aware of the ways in which her world is telling her to stand out of the light and keep her mouth shut. She has better things to do. So many well judged creative decisions here, and the result is a small, perfect story which casts a long shadow.

Hugh Lilly's picks

Keeping in mind that, before the festival began, I had already seen two of the year’s most startlingly inventive and original films, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, these are the five cinematic experiences I enjoyed the most at #nziff 2013, in no particular order:


The first feature from the Chilean multi-hyphenate Alejandro Jodorowsky in more than two decades is a mind-boggling, extravagant, and resolutely challenging work—precisely the sort of filmmaking for which the festival circuit exists, and which our own festival is thankfully able to celebrate. The film, an absurdist, strongly political tragicomic adaptation of the 84-year-old director’s autobiography of the same name, is, apparently, an application of his own brand of psychotherapy, “psychomagic,” and stars Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis, as his own grandfather. The white-haired director appears in the film periodically as an avuncular guide and lyrical narrator. We see his unhappy childhood in Tocopilla, punctuated by physical blasts of stern parenting, and, as the story continues, all manner of surreal happenings: a Buddhist, with various symbols painted on his body, attempts to explain his philosophy through folksong; there’s a scene of dogs in various costumes, including one dressed as a tiny fire-fighter; Jodorowsky’s mother in the film, who communicates only in an operatic soprano, at one point strips naked and applies black shoe-polish to both their bodies.

Much of it is hilarious; some of it is meaningless and inexplicable, all of it keeps the film wonderfully weird. There’s a lot of nudity—indeed, this might be a banner year at the festival for films prominently featuring male genitalia—and the film overflows with ideas, socio-political commentary, and hyper-real imagery, made all the more attractive through the use of a striking, vibrant colour palette. Like many of the films in every NZIFF, The Dance of Reality will never be seen on a cinema screen in this country again—but it made for a perfect end to this year’s festival …not that the official closing-night selection was anything to sniff at:


Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch is totally incapable of making an uncool movie, and his newest might be his coolest yet. Ravishingly hip, Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire movie with a twist: it depicts not a single act of vampirism. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, arguably the most stylish actress on the planet, play Adam and Eve—yes, that Adam and Eve. They’ve been undead now for eons—he played chess with Byron, and they’re pals with Christopher Marlowe (a great John Hurt, who’s given some very good one-liners). It’s a subtly funny premise to which a fantastic sub-plot/-theme is attached: Adam lives as a reclusive rock musician in modern-day (i.e., dilapidated) Detroit. Jarmusch’s trademark gloriously languid pacing has never been more in sync with the story he’s telling; ditto his fixation on psychedelic music, drone, ambient, and soul—and the film, shot by I am Love cinematographer Yorick le Saux, looked gorgeous beyond words under the Civic’s appropriately celestial ceiling.


Animated by an insatiable, infectious bliss, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s comedy about the unavoidable aimlessness that afflicts all Metropolitan twentysomethings in this day and age was the funniest film out of the 42 I saw in the festival’s 17 days. I had a huge grin on my face for its entire 86-minute run-time. With Frances Ha, which she co-wrote with Baumbach, Gerwig completes her rise from mumblecore darling to full-fledged movie-star. She memorably played opposite Ben Stiller in Baumbach’s previous film, Greenberg, stealing just about every second scene from him. Here she plays the title character, an itinerant ballet-dancer trying to work out exactly what kind of person she is—she’s certainly “not a proper adult yet,” as she says when she realises she can’t pay for dinner because she only has a debit (and not a credit) card—and who her real friends are. (A thought: might Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” be Frances’ favourite contemporary novel?)

Frances Ha

Adam Driver, who so brilliantly delivers zingers left right and centre on GIRLS, is here given a supporting role that displays his innate comic timing with a breadth that Lena Dunham’s show doesn’t quite allow. The film’s attractive black-and-white cinematography—just one element that begs comparisons with Woody Allen’s Manhattan—is all the more incredible for the fact that it was achieved with a 5D; the level of grainy detail and sumptuous, inky-grey shadowing is magnificent. The real star here, though, is Gerwig: the film is hers from start to finish—from its joyous first-act sprint through her day-to-day life to its surprisingly affecting and well-rounded subplots about sisterhood and the importance of family.

NB: Frances Ha begins a limited release in Auckland from August 15, with other centres to follow in the weeks thereafter.


La Grande Bellezza

The Beatitudes,” by the Russian composer Vladimir Martynov, is a deeply affecting piece of music in its own right, but its use in Paolo Sorrentino’s new film might move you to tears. The film is an ambitious drama about a nostalgia-obsessed writer, Jep Gambardella, his hard-partying lifestyle, and the writer’s block he suffers as a result. It’s more accurate, though, to say that the central character of the film is the city of Rome itself, in the same way that the main character in any of Terrence Malick’s films isn’t Kit or Holly, Pocahontas or Captain Smith, or any of the soldiers in The Thin Red Line, but life, the universe and everything in it. Sorrentino is known for his penchant for spectacularly overreaching, to the point where even his most abject failures, among them 2011’s This Must Be The Place and 2004’s L’amico di Famiglia, have in them exceptionally entertaining morsels. This new film is different. Here, his massive, Felliniesque scope is justified; we sense that we’ve experienced a part of Jep’s life with him, not just watched a movie about it. The film is imperfect—the soundtrack in fact accurately represents this, with Górecki’s now-overused third Symphony, and some lesser Arvo Pärt making frequent appearances—but, to coin a phrase, it’s as holistic a movie-going experience, in terms of knowing a character inside and out, as I’ve had all year. (NB: I didn’t see Norte: the End of History, which I understand beats this, at least in this aspect, by miles.)


I wrote about it during the festival, but Andrew Bujalski’s new movie, which centres on a computer-chess tournament and takes place over a single, sweltering weekend in the early 1980s, is a marvel. It’s as if the film itself is a time machine, transporting the viewer back to a time before the computer Wore Tennis Shoes, before Wargames, before The Matrix, before The Pirates of Silicon Valley. A time when nerds were human beings, fallible and argumentative, not Jobsian demi-gods who could never be wrong. (These guys do take as much LSD as Jobs probably did back in the day, though.) If the Academy manages to snag this for a small release, run and see it; if not, find the oldest working CRT television you can and watch it on that.

Special mentions: the terrific restoration of Utu, the closing speech of which was the most moving two minutes I experienced all festival; the world premières of Giselle and the excellent Fantail, both of which should enjoy glamorous travels on the international festival circuit; The Spectacular Now; Museum Hours; Camille Claudel, 1915, and last but certainly not least, the hugely enjoyable new Ben Wheatley film, A Field in England.

Frustrations and disappointments: Magic Magic, which had a good premise but was able to extract from it only one good scene; The Act of Killing; the childishly exaggerated first half of Mood Indigo (but certainly not its dolorous last stretch, draining to flickering black-and-white, and silence); and Carlos Reygadas’ much-anticipated but deliberately confused Post Tenebras Lux.

Click here for more Listener coverage of the NZ International Film Festival.
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