NBR's guide to the International Film Festival Part I

UPDATED with reviews. The film festival is getting larger by the year, presenting a problem of choice among about some 170 individual sessions.

NZIFF 2017
Auckland, followed by Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and nine other centres
July 20-27 (first week)
(in order of first screening)

The New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF) is under way – 49 years since it was first launched as the Auckland International Film Festival.

It’s getting larger by the year, presenting a problem of choice among about some 170 individual sessions, not to mention multiple screenings (other centres may have differing programmes and schedules).

This selection is based mainly on feature films I imagine would please the typical arthouse audience – that is, foreign language comedies, dramas and thrillers from mainly established directors with a few English-language ones thrown in.

Also included are a couple of local choices from the many documentaries and special interest films on offer.

• The Square. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and directed by Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure). A Swedish art gallery curator (Claes Bang) finds his life unravelling in a satire that ranges from social media and beggars to the pretentions of modern art. Also featuring English-language actors Dominic West and Elizabeth Moss, who repeats her lead role in a festival screening of Top of the Lake: China Doll, a second season of New Zealander Jane Campion’s TV mini-series.
Verdict: Those who saw The Lobster will soon recognise the technique of piling up enough bizarre sequences to make an wieldy whole. But it soon begins to make sense and by the end (two-and-a-half hours later) you are left dazed by the skewering of the artistic scene and its parasitical media, the politics of one-night stands, liberal guilt toward Middle East refugees in a bourgeois Nordic society and much else.   

• Hostages. Reconstruction of a 1983 aircraft hijacking in Georgia.
Verdict: Lack of freedom in the Soviet Union produced many escape attempts, none more reckless than the attempt by some young middle-class Georgians to seize control of an Aeroflot flight from Tbilisi to Moscow via Batumi and get over the border to Turkey. Though clearly doomed from the start, the group's defiance of state power and the consequences provide a strong lesson about an era when freedom to travel didn't exist for much of the world.  

• Risk. Profile of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by the director of Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden.
Verdict: The never-ending saga of the world's best-known whistleblower continues with behind-the-scenes action inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Director Laura Poitras also introduces a new personality, Jake Applebaum, and ratchets up the sexual politics within the WikiLeaks community. (Those who saw The Square might recognise another characterisation in the one-night stand between Elizabeth Moss' young female journalist and the all-powerful curator, play bed Claes Bang.) A highlight is a visit by Lady Gaga, who asks Assange about his eating habits in contrast to his philosophical ramblings in other interviews.

• The Party. English living room satire at its best from writer-director Sally Potter as a shadow minister of health (Kristin Scott-Thomas) celebrates her promotion amid personal crises affecting her husband and guests.
Verdict: Brief (71 mins) and bitter black comedy depends on top-drawer performances from its cast (which ranges from Germany's Bruno Ganz to Patricia Clarkson) and acerbic dialogue.   

• The Beguiled. Sofia Coppola picked up the director’s award at Cannes for this remake of an American Civil War drama based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel. Coppola plays up the feminist angle with Nicole Kidman (pictured) in the lead role as the head of a Virginia girls’ school that shelters a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell).
Verdict: Stylish and beautiful looking but plodding and dull in its treatment; the narrative emerges as a character-limiting southern gothic romance rather than a gritty examination of emasculation. The focus on the women's differing desires arising from a male in their midst is an effectively raises tension but is tempered by the slow pace that makes even the taut 94 minutes seem longer.    

• BPM (Beats Per Minute). Grand Prix winner at Cannes and effectively the jury’s second best choice. A French drama about an HIV/Aids activist in the early 1990s and the reluctance of authorities to respond to this health crisis.

• The Teacher. Iron Curtain comedy-drama about a Slovak teacher under investigation for giving poor passes to her brightest students.
Verdict: A hardline communist teacher spins a web of corruption by rewarding or punishing her pupils according to how their parents responds to demand for favours.

• A Fantastic Woman. Chilean director Sebastian Lelio (Gloria) returns with another study of a woman under stress, this time a transgender one played by Daniela Vega.

• 20th Century Women. Autobiographically-based comedy-drama from Mike Mills (Beginners) about a teenage boy (Lucas Jade Zumann, pictured) and his solo mum (Anette Bening) in late 1970s California.

The Distinguished Citizen (El ciudadano ilustre) Argentinian satire about a Nobel Prize-winning author who returns to his rural hometown after making it the centre of ridicule in his novels.
Verdict: Few stereotypes and easy targets are missed as the laidback writer (Oscar Martînez) leaves sophisticated Barcelona for his homecoming in Sala, a declining rural settlement that would be the equivalent of a North Island timber town. The townspeople indulge his wordy lectures without understanding them while he indulges in some less savoury sides of life in a "village"  where politics, boozing, hunting and even the art of painting are not be messed with.

• Berlin Syndrome. Australian-produced thriller about a tourist (Teresa Palmer) trapped by a deranged teacher in the German capital.

• My Year With Helen (NZ). Gaylene Preston traces the former prime minister’s unsuccessful bid to become Secretary-General of the UN.
Verdict: Fly-on-the wall approach delivers an inside story on the UN as an "old boys' club" that doesn't want to be reformed. Clark is torn between presenting herself as the most qualified candidate while most of the focus is on ensuring a woman wins the job. Instead the veto system delivers the least objectionable one. France, China and the US gave Clark the veto – the first perhaps because she doesn't speak French. 

Frantz. A young German woman comes to terms with grief and love in a post-World War I setting (1919) as she mourns for her brother and meets the Frenchman who killed him. Based on a 1932 film by Ernst Lubitsch.
Verdict: A welcome change of pace for writer-director François Ozon, better known for his steamy dramas (Swimming Pool). The restraint is at times too mannered and the choice of monochrome (apart from a few sequences in colour) are intended to create a world largely without contemporary references despite its anti-war message. Paula Beer is a standout opposite Pierre Niney, with both conversing at length in both French and German, making this ideal for foreign language students. It is also likely to rank alongside Sunset Song and The Long Engagement as modern examples of the best films about World War I.

• The Untamed. Mayhem Mexican-style as a stranger disrupts the lives of a married couple.

• Wind River. The screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan, turns director as well for this police procedural set in a remote Native American reservation. Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner (pictured) investigate a young woman's death. 

• It Comes at Night. Horror film with a difference as a survivalist family fights off strangers and a deadly disease.
Verdict: The cabin-in-the-woods narrative receives a cerebral treatment as the threats turn out to be dangers posed by the characters themselves. The cheap thrills are kept to a minimum while the results are genuinely shocking as the death toll rises. 

• The Other side of Hope. A Syrian refugee finds a new life working in a sushi restaurant in Finland.

• 6 Days (NZ). New Zealand director Toa Fraser (The Dead Lands) reconstructs the 1980 siege of the Iranian embassy in London after armed men seized hostages.

• Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil interieur). French actress Juliette Binoche – as a recent divorcée looking for love – calls the shots in a change of pace for writer-director Claire Denis, who is better known for her heavy dramas than romantic comedy.
Verdict: A dud despite Binoche being on camera for most of the 94 minutes and in her most erotic role in ages. The pretentious dialogues with a succession male partners is almost parodic, even for highbrow French arthouse fare. It's worth waiting for Gerard Depardieu's star turn as a counsellor, who tries to make sense of Binoche's confused state while maybe taking advantage of it himself. 

Full details of screenings and times are at NZIFF 2017.

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