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Elisabeth Moss in The Square (photo supplied).
Elisabeth Moss in The Square (photo supplied).

AucklandJuly 19, 2017

Ten films not to miss at the Film Festival – and five ways to make the most of it

Elisabeth Moss in The Square (photo supplied).
Elisabeth Moss in The Square (photo supplied).

The film festival starts in Auckland on Thursday and follows soon after in other centres. Simon Wilson wanted to write about all the films he was keen on seeing but we told him that would fill up the internet, so here’s his restrained response: ten films and five tips.

Five good things to do at the film festival? This:

1. If it’s on at the Civic, see it at the Civic. The seats aren’t great but the auditorium, the size of the screen and the whole experience of being in that wonderful building are greater than great. There’s no better cinema-going experience to be had in Auckland, and that’s saying something because we’ve got some pretty good cinemas now.

2. Book something at the new Auckland Waterfront Theatre too. The festival’s brand-new venue seats 650 people but feels strikingly intimate, it has very comfortable seats and the movie gear is top line and brand new, installed courtesy of a mystery donor especially so the theatre could host events like this.

3. All the “special feature” films – opening and closing nights, etc – are likely to be excellent, especially if they’ve won a big award at Cannes or Sundance. Those two festivals, for my money, have the best record of choosing movies whose storytelling sweeps you up and away, that look and sound fabulous, that celebrate subtle, complex, powerhouse acting, that deal in important themes with complexity and intelligence. You know, great films. We’re blessed with a festival programming team that has the skills and determination to secure these movies, especially the ones they get straight from Cannes.

4. Take risks. A great film you expected to be great is one thing, but a film that surprises and delights you beyond expectation is even better. You won’t find those unless you take a few risks. The programme helps and so does google, and there are trailers for many of the films on the FF website.

5. Buy a ten-trip pass. Rialto and Academy screenings are the most likely to sell out, because of the size of the cinemas, so book for them. The big evening screenings, especially at the Waterfront Theatre and even at the Civic, might too. But don’t forget those daytime screenings. Make your mind up on the day and nip off from work. It’s one of Auckland’s great winter pleasures.

Loveless (dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev).

What to see? This list aside, you won’t need to take my word for it – we’ve asked a whole bunch of this year’s filmmakers to tell us about a film they’re specially looking forward to, and about their own festival films too, and their stories will be posted over the coming days.

Right now, though, here’s my top 10, listed alphabetically. I’ve looked past the big featured films – take it as read that I assume The Square (that’s star Elizabeth Moss in the feature image for this story), BPM, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (by the maker of The Lobster), Loveless (by the maker of Leviathan) and Sofia Coppola’s Beguiled, all winners at Cannes this year, will be pretty splendid. Film festivals are for great big films but they are also for the unearthing of other treasures …

(Screening days for Auckland are given. Check the website and your local programme for other centres and more details, and for quick access to lots of trailers all in one place check here.) 

Jamie Bell in 6 Days (dir. Toa Fraser)

6 Days

Toa Fraser made his name in movies with No. 2, a warm-hearted but also intense Mt Roskill family drama (Hollie Smith made her name with it too, singing Bathe in the River). Since then he’s made a ballet movie, period English drama, colonial and pre-colonial New Zealand adventure and now the true-life story of a terrorist attack in London in 1980 and the reaction of the British SAS. It’s easy enough to see hyped-up macho parallels between 6 Days and his “Māori kung fu movie” The Dead Lands, but the study of characters in anguish lies at the heart of Fraser’s work, whether or not there is also lots of fighting. This is Fraser’s second non-New Zealand film, but its exploration of the role of the special armed forces will resonate strongly here. (And just to show he keeps mixing it up, he has a second film in the festival: The Free Man, a documentary about thrill-seeking Kiwi freestyle skier Jossi Wells.)

6 Days screens in Auckland on August 4 and August 5.

Jane Jacobs in Citizen Jane (dir. Matt Tyrnauer)

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Every battle has its champions, and the great champion of democratic urban life is Jane Jacobs. Speed-read her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities beforehand if you like, but the movie will give you the heart of it. Jacobs was the planner and theorist who set out the case against motorways and suburban sprawl in favour of the civilising vibrancy of inner-city communities. We sure need her kind still.

Citizen Jane: July 22, 27, 31; August 2.

The Farthest (dir. Emer Reynolds)

The Farthest

They made a golden record for the Voyager trip to the ends of the solar system and beyond, and I’m going to the movie so I can hear what aliens are going to hear. Well, not really. This spaceship launched 40 years ago, so no Katy Perry, but the timing doesn’t explain why no Ella Fitzgerald or Maria Callas either. Back then, it turns out, all of humanity’s musical accomplishments could be summed up with Beethoven, Bach, a gamelan orchestra and Chuck Berry. I’m hoping for really great pictures of space, because it couldn’t not have, could it? And to learn amazing stuff, because that’s also a given. Also I’m hoping for thrilling humanity, because the blurb talks about the wonder and joy of the scientists who made the expedition happen, and that should be something to behold. That little explorer, you know, will outlast us all by billions of years.

The Farthest: July 26, 30.

A Gentle Creature (dir. Sergei Loznitsa)

A Gentle Creature

Rule of thumb: always see at least one Russian film. Because, strangely, unlike nearly all other cultures, almost the only insights we ever get to life in Russia, and in the other countries that used to be in the Soviet Union, is through movies. And because they are, more often than not, just astonishing. We’re spoilt for choice this year with a new print of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (the film Geoff Dyer wrote a book about) and Loveless, by Leviathan filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev. But I’m also dead keen on seeing A Gentle Creature, the story of a woman trying to get a parcel to her husband in prison. Sounds like a searing parable not just of Putin’s Russia but of the world we might all be living in, far more than we think.

A Gentle Creature: July 31; August 2.

A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)

A Ghost Story

So the ghost has a sheet over his head and apparently it’s the most moving, mesmerising and exhilarating thing ever. Any movie with such a stupid setup must be extraordinary or it wouldn’t work at all, that’s my thinking. Plus it’s got Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.

A Ghost Story: July 26; August 1.

I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck)

I Am Not Your Negro

True story: I was in a play by James Baldwin once. I was the southern redneck in charge of a lynching. And no, thank you, it wasn’t easy. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal might have used up most of the oxygen in postwar intellectual America, but it’s Baldwin who speaks far more urgently to us now. Radical, black, queer, angry, a literary genius whose subject was American identity and whose means of addressing it was lyrical and polemical fire. We were so privileged to have Baldwin essayist Teju Cole at the Auckland Writers Festival this year (see his book Known and Strange Things), and now we get this acclaimed, extremely topical film biography. New York Times critic A.O. Scott calls it “a thrilling introduction to his work, a remedial course in American history, and an advanced seminar in racial politics.”

I Am Not Your Negro: July 21, 23; August 1, 2, 6.

Helen Clark in My Year with Helen (dir. Gaylene Preston)

My Year with Helen

I’ve seen this one. Helen Clark is still awkward in front of a camera, even when she’s with as supportive and admiring a friend as filmmaker Gaylene Preston. And it’s oddly discomforting to watch New Zealand diplomats being played, and coming to know it, which is what happened when Clark made her run for UN secretary-general last year. But the biggest revelation is also the scariest: the film suggests that the job must go to the person who has done the best at not offending any of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Imagine what it would take to stay friends with the US, Russia, China, Britain and France. Possibly superhuman diplomacy, but far more likely just easy wine-and-cheesability. When a man projects that kind of character, he’s called avuncular, sometimes even wise. When a woman does it, she’s an irrelevant granny. Helen Clark never had a chance. No woman of genuine merit may ever have a chance. Possibly no man either. Inside this apparently easy-going film about our Helen is an excoriating critique of the UN, and it has no trouble bursting out.

My Year with Helen: July 23, 25.

Starless Dreams

Starless Dreams 

Looking for that genuine eye-opening experience of a world you don’t live in? Try Starless Dreams, which has been an online and festival sensation since it launched last year (best documentary, London Film Festival). It’s the story of young women inmates in an Iranian prison, filmed with an empathy that brings them vividly to life. Sometimes inspirationally defiant, sometimes shocking, sometimes heartbreaking, the stories of their lives are very likely to change yours.

Starless Dreams: July 28; August 2, 5.

[Update note: Starless Dreams has been added to the list in place of Risk, Laura Poitras’ updated film about Julian Assange. I’ve seen Risk now: to her credit, Poitras has woven her own changing views of Assange into the spine of the film, but for much of the time, as she confesses, she’s confused about what to say. Risk is slow, not as revealing as you might think and stuck too much on the surface of its subject.] 

Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake (dir. Jane Campion)

Top of the Lake: China Girl

Nicole Kidman is all over the festival this year, starring in two blockbuster movies (Beguiled and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, by Yorgos Lanthimos, who made The Lobster) as well as Top of the Lake. It’s series 2 of Jane Campion’s political psychodrama/police whodunnit/what-the-fuck-just-happened-and-who-the-hell-am-I-anyway mystery story and will screen just once, in a six-hour session (yes, with a couple of breaks). Elisabeth Moss (also in another festival offering, The Square) reprieves her detective Robin Griffin from the first series but the action has shifted to Sydney, where a suitcase with grisly contents washes up on Bondi Beach. Campion is not the only artist preoccupied with what the world does to women and what women can do in the world, but does anyone else approach that theme with such unflinching, complex, furious and compassionate honesty? She’s not the only filmmaker lifting the artistic bar for TV to glory either, but in my book she’s right up there. I should declare a bias, being married to one of her producers, so take it instead from one of the tough-to-please critics at Cannes: TOTL is “an overwhelmingly ambitious and unforgettably thoughtful piece of fiction that’s told with the lightest of touches.” And it has Brienne of Tarth.

Top of the Lake: July 30.



I don’t know whose idea this film was, but wow. Eight short films by Māori women filmmakers about the death of a child at the hands of a caregiver, stitched together to become one. Urgent, heart-wrenching, challenging and, as Mihingarangi Forbes has commented, “hugely important … a film everyone in the family should see and talk about”. (We’ll have more on this film in days to come.)

Waru: August 2, 6.

This story was updated on July 26, as marked.

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