Decade in review: 10 New Zealand films that summed us up

The 2010s started with Taika Waititi’s breakout movie; it ended with him being tipped for a Best Picture Oscar. But this wasn’t just the Taika Decade. Here are 10 movies that epitomised New Zealand cinema in the 2010s, as judged by Josie Adams, Sam Brooks and Alice Webb-Liddall.

Boy

It’s not the first film Taika Waititi made. It’s not even the first one he got international accolades for (that would be the Oscar-nominated Two Cars, One Night). But it is the first one the public lost its shit over. We kicked off the decade with Taika Waititi’s first smash hit, starring a young James Rolleston.

Rolleston is the titular Boy, and Waititi plays his estranged, strange father Alamein. Set in 1980s Northland, at the peak of Michael Jackson’s career and during the rule of the Crazy Horse gang (total membership: three), Boy captured a part of New Zealand that could have been grim and found the joy in it. / Josie Adams

The Dead Lands

In 2014, Toa Fraser’s The Dead Lands brought te reo Māori to the big screen. Hongi (James Rolleston, now a teenager), seeks revenge on war-bent chief Wirepu, who killed his father. Te Kohe Tuhaka plays the villainous chief perfectly: he’s larger-than-life, terrifying, charismatic, and ruthless. When Wirepu and his men cross into the Dead Lands, Hongi must face the ghosts and memories that live inside it to get the vengeance he seeks.

The Dead Lands weaves traditional storytelling with all the excitement of a modern action flick – it’s a damn good movie, and the te reo is a great educational bonus for those of us who aren’t fluent. 

A Netflix series based on the movie just got green-lit, proving it’s got appeal for audiences who aren’t so familiar with Māori storytelling and legend. /JA

What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) was Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s first directorial duet, and it was music to the eyes. The deadpan delivery that made Kiwi comedy famous in shows like Flight of the Conchords was translated to the screen and it made waves both here and overseas. Want proof of its huge impact? What We Do in the Shadows is currently the basis for not one but two spin-off television shows. / Alice Webb-Liddall

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen

Merata Mita was a powerful, pioneering force behind Māori cinema and this documentary made by her son brings out the best of her work and her history. Merata Mita was the director behind the 1980s films Bastion Point and Patu! Her son Heperi Mita is an archivist and filmmaker, a skillset that works brilliantly to frame his mother’s art.

Heperi’s 2018 documentary is an ode to creativity and passion, but it’s also an in-depth, unusual family portrait. /JA

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Waititi’s third Kiwi classic of the decade was Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Not only did it rake in the awards, but it introduced the world to Ryan Reynold’s BFF Julian Dennison. Wilderpeople was an enormous, deserved hit, and it ended up overtaking Waititi’s own Boy for the title of highest-grossing New Zealand film. / AWL

Fantail

Fantail (2013) is a film that now seems ahead of its time. A thriller that engages with race and class with fierce intelligence and genuine grace, anchored by a performance by Sophie Henderson (who also wrote the film) that’s both fearless and vulnerable. The film critiqued New Zealand culture, and what it means to live in a bicultural country where the lines are increasingly blurred, particularly for those who are living on the line of being marginalised, and being othered. / Sam Brooks

Tickled

It’s not surprising that the man who brought you an interview with a guy who had sex with a dolphin and a saga about a clamp-mad yacht thief co-directed Tickled. This 2016 documentary about “competitive tickling” takes a wild turn as David Farrier and Dylan Reeve uncover what seems to be a secret fetish ring. It’s what Farrier does best – digging up the most strange, horrifying stories and bringing them to light using hard-nosed investigative chops cut through with genuine sweetness. / AWL

The Changeover

Based on the Margaret Mahy story, this 2019 fantasy/sci-fi proves New Zealand can do creepy coming-of-age horror as well as any Swede. Although this film is bursting with the combined star power of Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, and Lucy Lawless, it’s young Erana James that takes the centre stage in her fight against Spall’s evil witch. / JA

The Breaker Upperers

Local comedy legends Jackie Van Beek and Madeleine Sami finally got to write, direct, and star in a film and they chose to make it about breaking up couples and getting up the duff. 

Van Beek’s character is uptight and deadpan, Sami’s is bubbly and full of questionable choices. James Rolleston is just really into rugby and after a tough few years for the actor, we were all so happy for him to play a big dumb-dumb and have a good time. / JA

The Hobbit Trilogy

You’re unlikely to find them on the critics’ choice lists. It’s debatable even whether they should qualify as “New Zealand films”. But there’s no mistaking the impact Peter Jackson’s second Middle-earth trilogy had on New Zealand: at the box office and across culture, politics and Wellington Airport. 



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