The Best, the Worst and the Interesting: NZIFF 2017 Wrap Up Part II

In Part 2 of our NZIFF 2017 wrap up, we look at the moments on and off screen that stuck with us from this year’s offerings, and the surprise films, from a violin drone virtuoso to a small-town American meditation on architecture.

In Part 2 of our NZIFF 2017 wrap up, we look at the moments on and off screen that stuck with us from this year’s offerings, and the surprise films, from a violin drone virtuoso to a small-town American meditation on architecture.

Erin Harrington: So what were everyone’s top audience moments? Film moments? Favourite image/shot?

There are a few things that are sticking with me: some of the slow, tracking exteriors of the house in A Ghost Story; having an impromptu beer with Gaylene Preston before The Other Side With Hope; the incredible shot of Nicole Kidman + son heading down the escalator in The Killing of a Sacred Deer; the ‘a-ha!’ sense of communal satisfaction at the end of The Teacher and A Fantastic Woman.

David Larsen: I think my top audience moments were all ones of spontaneous applause.

The one that sticks in my mind was midway through the Animation Now shorts programme – the Best-Of selection that ran in Wellington and the other non-Auckland centers, and in passing, I felt pretty envious of Auckland’s pre-festival weekend of non-stop animation. The programme was wildly uneven for a Best-Of; the general audience consensus afterwards (this is mostly based on extensive eavesdropping) was that several of the longer shorts didn’t do much for most of us. But slightly more than half the programme got a very good response, and the one New Zealand film, Fire In Cardboard City, was a real crowd-pleaser.

A friend of a friend had done some work on it, and I watched it with that special “Oh please don’t suck” feeling you have when you know you’re likely to be asked what you thought by someone who doesn’t want to hear, “Um…” It was funny, visually and conceptually clever, and the audience felt alive and happy. And afterwards people clapped, which they hadn’t been doing, even for the better films. As Brannavan said in Part I of our wrap up, there’s something powerful in seeing films with other people and with few expectations – especially when you’re used to media screenings. I had the inevitable handful of run-ins with self-oblivious film disruptors (usually phones were involved) but the majority of my audiences were good ones.

A friend of a friend had done some work on it, and I watched it with that special “Oh please don’t suck” feeling you have

Doug Dillaman: Strangely, my best audience moment was also at Fire at Cardboard City. I know Phil Brough, the director, and he happened to be seated in front of me. I was flying solo, and had someone’s daughter next to me. She sat quietly, respectfully, through a range of largely classy, largely faintly dull films on the Animation for Kids 8+ programme. Within thirty seconds, she was engaged with Fire at Cardboard City, and quite vocally. Normally, I’m very anti-talking in the cinema – like “have actually researched taser laws” anti – but you’ve got to go with the flow at children’s movies, and her coos of appreciation and excitement were so adorable. And the fact that she had no idea the guy who made that was in front of her and could hear every last exclamation of glee thrilled me to no end. You can say any number of polite or enthusiastic things to a friend after their film, but you can’t beat unfettered spontaneous passion. (On the flip side, there’s also the woman who brought her dog to the Civic for Belle de Jour, but I covered that in the review, and should really let that go.)

Brannavan Gnanalingam: Striking shots: I think the “beheading of the rapist” shot in Marlina the Murderer got the biggest spontaneous audience applause out of the films I saw. For a film that was so austere, the director Mouly Surya did an impressive job in making it emotionally potent. God’s Own Country had some of the most heartfelt audience reactions I saw – and seeing it on the big screen at the Embassy was a treat. For such a small intimate film, it really worked blown up.

I hosted a few Q&As, and Annie Goldson got plenty of good questions and interactions with Kim Dotcom. Having hosted the Q&A for Errol Wright’s and Abi King-Jones’ The 5th Eye last year, I was worried that there’d be a repeat of that: lots of rambling conspiracy-theory laden statements, with a tacked on, “do you reckon?” at the end. However, Goldson got some very interesting and technical questions (which she handled superbly by the way). I did hear however that a whole contingent of Crown Law lawyers went to that screening, so they may well have been curious given their involvement in defending the Crown’s position in the Dotcom cases.

DL: Favourite image… seriously, every frame of Stalker. I know we’re not requiring this year’s crop to contest the field with Tarkovsky. But every. Single. Frame. I would have a shot from the final bar scene as my desktop wallpaper now if there were any good enough ones floating around online.

Jacob Powell: I’m in the same camp with David with regards to Stalker, being transfixed by the huge Civic rendering of Tarkovsky’s immersive frames. Stalker was made to be viewed this way. It is pure cinema, in which you can truly lose yourself for a couple of hours.

DL: Also the two snow camouflage moments in Wind River – I found the snowscapes throughout beautifully shot, but that late moment of Jeremy Renner rearing briefly up out of the snow to deliver justice/vengeance/personal therapy was quite beautiful to see. I think of the non-repertoire films, the most striking one visually (and almost the one I enjoyed the most) was Columbus, though I’m struggling to pick one image over all the others.

A number of films were distinctive because of the faces in them – expressive or utterly not, as with the masks in Hema Hema – and if I was going to pick one face that I’ll remember from this festival, other than the daughter’s in the very final scene of Stalker, it would be Meinhard Neumann’s in Western. So much of the film’s complexity and ambiguity was in his expression.

I have an easy time choosing a favourite image, though not for lack of choice.

DD: I have an easy time choosing a favourite image, though not for lack of choice. There were plenty that were beautiful or poetic, and I’d easily pick a dozen from A Ghost Story, the surfing scene in Heal The Living, almost any composition with a building in Columbus or with swelling microscopic life in Minute Bodies. But my single favourite image is Isabelle Huppert’s final look to camera in Happy End. The format of this discussion hasn’t left us much room to argue thus far, but I’m on the opposite pole of Brannavan on both Let The Sunshine In (which I reviewed) and Happy End (which he did). I loved Haneke recontextualizing his entire filmography – there’s quotes from everything from Benny’s Video to Amour – as a comedy. He’s so often seen as a hectoring scold, and that each film has An Important Message, and this felt like such a brazen fuck you to simplistic readings. Also, his cinematic rigour is just pure catnip for me. Anyway, that final look to camera (which brought down the house with laughter) combines writing, direction, camera and performance into a perfect moment that could only work in a cinematic context. You could make a coffee-table book of Stalker or Columbus or A Ghost Story and your appreciation might be superficially similar, but that moment in Happy End wouldn’t work – it only works in motion, because it does what cinema does best.

JP: Shots (or perhaps scenes) that stand out in memory for me this year were perhaps less about #OnePerfectShot moments than about the way they portray an idea. The transitions of time in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story were haunting in a completely unexpected way. I had almost cut this film from my final list, but I encountered positive comments online from three diverse sources the day I was going to assign the last of my 10-trip concession slots. I switched out the Haneke (Happy End) at the last minute, figuring I’d get to that eventually even if on the small screen. And hell am I glad I did. A Ghost Story proved an enigmatic wonder.

Another sequence that jumps easily to mind is the initial interview scene between Elisabeth Moss’s media person, Anne, and Claes Bang’s philandering art museum curator, Christian, from Ruben Östlund’s The Square. The scene is staged and shot to heighten discomfort but it is the absurdity in the writing and naturalistic awkwardness conveyed between the two actors that made this delicious viewing for me.

EH: I’m a bit like you Jacob, I went to A Ghost Story on a bit of a whim, as work’s been a bit of a tsunami this year so my viewing has been quite reduced and very strategic in terms of screening times and content. I didn’t expect it to be such an emotional sucker punch, and I had friends and colleagues there who all left blithering wrecks. I can’t wait to watch it again. At the other end, my only real disappointment was the Assange documentary Risk, which I thought did very little with its significant access. I came out feeling like I’d wasted an opportunity to see something else.

I love that buzz immediately after a film when people are trying to decipher it, almost starting afresh. Particularly, when it’s a polarising film.

BG: I’m interested in the films with widely divergent viewpoints. There were very few walk-outs in the films that I went to, but I know that almost everyone at the Wellington screening of Let The Sunshine In seemed to hate it – except for me and a couple of friends. The audience however seemed to enjoy Happy End on the other hand – which I thought was fairly poor. The Film Festival to me is one of the few times as cinema-lovers nowadays that feel like an old-school event. Most audiences may have heard something about the film – it got an award at Cannes, or got some buzz from reviewers at a particular festival – but most are just going to it on a hunch e.g. ooh it’s got Binoche, it must be zany and French (poor Camille Claudel viewers); it’s Kiwi, so I’ll check it out; the programme makes it sounds vaguely interesting. Most other films during the year, by the time they arrive here, there’s hype, fan-boys, and Metacritic ratings etc. so by the time you’re watching it, you’re just slotting into an already developed discourse. Or is it just me? I love that buzz immediately after a film when people are trying to decipher it, almost starting afresh. Particularly, when it’s a polarising film.

JP: One thing that I look for every year at festival, is the opportunity to be surprised. It is becoming a rare experience these days to approach a film with virtually no knowledge about it, and I have, in the past, met some of my most treasured cinematic moments in this way, such as with The Beaver Trilogy in 2001 and Silent Souls in 2011. Each year I live in hope of another grand surprise, but in 2017 my transcendent moments came primarily from more familiar sources. Sami Blood, Stalker, Faces Places, Waru, Blade of the Immortal, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and My Life as a Courgette—all films by writers or directors I follow, or that I’d come across in forum discussions long before festival programme announcements – wowed or gut-punched me, or, in some cases, both. Conversely, my most hopeful surprise picks – On Body and Soul, A Date for Mad Mary, and Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl! – each proved entertaining, and quirky, but were not the standouts they promised they might be. The less familiar picks in my schedule that did ring my bell this year were the poppy, subversive genre fun of Tragedy Girls and the archly-grim deadpan of life behind the iron curtain in Czech film The Teacher.

How did you all go with surprise films this NZIFF? Any standouts, good or bad?

DL: Fewer this year than in years past, actually.

EH: Agreed!

DL: When my children were still at home, we used to have a festival tradition that everyone could pick one film, no restrictions (other than legal ones!) that all of us had to go to. That was how I ended up seeing A Separation, which from memory I’d glanced at in the programme and thought looked interesting more for the location than for anything else – one of the kids decided it was their punt of choice. My main hope for it was that it not be wildly child-irrelevant; and from that starting point, I got to see one of my favourite films of that or any festival. (I have no memory of what I chose for us to watch, but the other child chose Troll Hunter. It was a good year.)

This year: several as-good-as-I-hoped experiences with films where my hopes were very high (notably Happy End, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), several severe disappointments (I think I should be allowed to count Top of the Lake: China Girl as several severe disappointments on its own), but most of my real surprises were further from the extremes. I would not tell anyone that Trophy is essential viewing, but I went to it basically to fill in a schedule gap, and I found it exemplary – an issue documentary which avoids most of the usual pitfalls, raises genuinely difficult questions, and does us the vital service of quietly, thoroughly demonstrating the hollowness and danger of social media outrage.

EH: My most pleasant ‘surprise’ was Ngā Whanaunga Māori and Pasifika shorts – another last minute selection. I generally find the shorts selections we get down here to be a bit of a mixed bag in terms of tone and quality, no matter the theme or medium, but the majority of this selection was really quite strong: funny, warm and provocative, with some robust storytelling and characterisation, and a striking twin focus on sexuality and young people’s relationships. There’s some A-grade young actors coming through! There was also a welcome connection, inadvertently, between this session and a wee Māori and Pasifika theatre festival that had just taken place at The Court Theatre. We had a decent sized audience, and it was rewarding to have deaf director Jared Flitcroft in attendance talking / signing about the deaf-hearing co-production of the short Tama, which for my money had some of the most thoughtful sound design of any film I saw at the festival.

DL: Interesting thing being in Wellington for most of the festival – I’m curious to know if Bran found this, and if Erin had a similar experience in Christchurch – I avoid international coverage of films likely to play at NZIFF, and although I always seem to end up knowing who won what at Cannes, I’ve disagreed with the judgements there often enough that they don’t raise particular expectations. But I do have a lot of Auckland cinephile friends on social media. Being in Wellington meant a lot of them were seeing a lot of films well before I did. This meant I saw Columbus knowing it was one of Doug’s favourite films up to that point in the festival; I had the same reaction, and Doug and I disagree often enough that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to, but it did nudge the film away from being able to surprise me in a pure sense. On the other hand, so many people had told me Manifesto disappointed them that it was able to surprise as well as delight me – I had had reasonably high expectations when I booked for it, but they were mostly gone by my screening date.

I cherish those moments so much of having zero expectation and being blown away.

DD: I feel bad for depriving people of surprises, so sorry about that, David. I cherish those moments so much of having zero expectation and being blown away. (I’m envious of the experiment Mike D’Angelo pulled in 2007, where he showed up to Cannes having not kept up with movie websites for several months, and having arranged things so he had literally no idea what film he was going to see before it unspooled. In some cases, he didn’t know the director, or even the title, until the end.) But also, the schedule is so sprawling, and a film like Columbus sounds so modest on paper, that short of full-throated evangelism it’s hard to get people to prioritize it. (I managed to convince at least two others, both of whom loved it and would have skipped it, so I feel validated.)

Anyway, probably my biggest surprise was Tony Conrad: Completely In The Present. Coming at the tail end of a series of ok-ish art biopics, I settled in for the obligatory set of talking heads and archive footage, and to be fair, I got some of that. But also: Tony Conrad is an artist whose work has an overwhelming physicality to it, from his flicker films to his microtonal drone music. He’s restlessly curious, unafraid of making something absolutely terrible in the service of exploration, and even takes over the film at one point. It’s a film that deserved to be seen at scale, that inspired me, and that I wish I’d seen earlier so others could have been driven to check it out. (The other big, nasty surprise was The Evil Within, which I was expecting to enjoy laughing at and instead came out feeling covered in muck. That’s sort of a recommendation.)

BG: I had few surprises this year, but for a variety of reasons (mostly due to the fact I didn't take time off as I usually do) I wasn't able to see as many films as usual. This meant I went for films that I figured I would like: Portuguese (I really liked The Ornithologist, but ran out of time to review it), auteurs that I was already familiar with, or those with a bit of a festival buzz. I'm with David in that I tend to avoid too much international coverage, and similarly, I am ambivalent about the Cannes reaction. I am aware of the Auckland buzz, but this year, I didn't get caught up in it as much. Most years, I have a chat to a couple of people at the Film Festival and ask for a recommendation of an outsider film – I didn't get the chance this year. That usually becomes my surprise film – Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August for example.

DL: The film I loved the most of which I’d expected the least was Ethel & Ernest. I expected it to be perfectly fine – a barbed expectation, if you share my view that really good and really bad films are both more rewarding than competent-enough middlers – and I came away on a wild high and in floods of tears. (Thirty minutes later I sat down to Stalker. That was one of my two best festival days this year.)

My other big positive surprise was It Comes At Night, about which I don’t want to say too much; suffice to say the surprise is existential and baked into the film’s self-presentation. It was as tense and strong as I’d hoped, but not at all in the ways I’d expected. It was also somewhat representative of my top festival experiences this year in that it was shatteringly bleak. (Ethel & Ernest and My Life As A Courgette are about as happy as my top ten list gets, and actually, neither is the bubbliest of films.)

A final surprises anecdote, again featuring my children: a few years after the year of A Separation and Troll Hunter, we had a year where they could only go to screenings on a handful of days. (We’d stopped home schooling by then and the holidays fell infelicitously). So they told me to get them tickets for whatever I was seeing on those days, and since no choice was involved, they decided to go into all the films blind. Seeing a dozen or so films without preconceptions or even knowledge of the titles in advance turned out to be a very good experience for them. (It also produced a fascinating insight into the weakness of one particularly manipulative documentary – my older child was startled afterwards to be told that it was, in fact, a documentary, as opposed to the string-jerking rather formulaic drama it had seemed like.)

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