Monday, August 13, 2012

NZIFF 2012: awards wrap-up.

The New Zealand International Film Festival, for the most part, doesn't give awards (with the exception, this year, of a curated section of New Zealand's best shorts, about which more shortly). So I thought I might give some. Because why not?

BEST OPENING TITLE CARD: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. (Although I'm counting the sound design as part of that.)

MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE, TECHNOLOGY DIVISION: DCP. With the Civic Theatre upgraded to DCP, digital titles no longer have the "must-avoid" stigma that they did for me just a few short years ago, and the back to back screenings of MOONRISE KINGDOM on film and THE CABIN IN THE WOODS on DCP left many suspecting the latter may not just be equal but a superior format. (MOONRISE, being shot on 16mm, and seeming to have registration problems during projection, may not be a fair comparison, but anyway). Two of my three favorite "films" (an increasingly quaint word now that "film" is no longer part of their medium) were TABU and THE LONELIEST PLANET, both screened in this format. (TABU, in particular, looked luminescent.) So the good news is that, by and large, digital projection is under control during the festival. On the other hand, it's underlined the factor that the subpar digital projection which features at many local venues outside of the festival is really and truly no longer acceptable. (The author makes plans to see I WISH, which he missed at the festival, realizes it's playing at the Rialto Cinema Newmarket's e-cinema, and cancels such plans as he waits for the rest of Auckland to catch up with the film festival.)

MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE, FILM DIVISION: TWO YEARS AT SEA. It shouldn't have been a total surprise, given its recommendation by film critic Michael Sicinski, but I wasn't expecting to be this profoundly affected, or that it would be in my top three films of the festival. On paper, it's a wisp of an idea, barely deserving of feature status - an almost speech-free portrait of a man living alone in the woods in hermitude. (I went in thinking it was a drama, and it sort of is, but it's based on a real guy who lives like this, closer to documentary in some ways but still dramatized.) What makes this film so special is that it was shot on short ends of black and white 16mm film stock that's no longer being made. Just as we get the sense of loss from our protagonist when he looks at pictures from his past, so too we feel the sense of loss as shots are abruptly truncated or damaged because of limitations of the source stock. The grain is monstrously, overwhelmingly alive - arguably, film grain is as much the subject here as our human character - and seeing a pristine DCP of FROM UP ON POPPY HILL the next day, I couldn't help but long for the life of film grain, now forever gone in a static, crisp DCP universe. The final shot of TWO YEARS AT SEA (which one of NZ's best film writers, the ever-perceptive Steve Garden, adroitly pointed out evoked THE TURIN HORSE) is a gorgeous long goodbye to that grain; it will be missed.

(As a quick aside: DCP can do a wonderful job of capturing film grain; for instance, I saw THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY at Fantastic Fest last year, and it looked gorgeous and astonishingly film-like. But other times, grain doesn't exist; still other times, it inexpertly pops in and out (such as in STUDENT). The application of grain in a post-film universe is something that will be interesting [to nerds like myself, anyway] to chart over the next few years. In the meantime, the alchemical life that film intrinsically brought to even the most static frame is gone by default. Perversely, my second most satisfying film experience, image-wise, was THE WALL - shot on Red Epic, it gets insane levels of detail normal 35mm stock wouldn't capture, and amazing definition in low-light conditions. But projected on 35mm print (for whatever reason), it managed to combine the sharpness of the digital with the softness of film for something altogether transcendent, beautiful, and undoubtedly transient. Three years from now, it's hard to imagine any film following that workflow.)

BEST CHARACTER: the lifeguard, IN ANOTHER COUNTRY. Festival perennial Hong Sang-Soo presented his most accessible film in ages, not just because of Isabelle Huppert's appearance but because of its uncharacteristically clear structural conceit. Overall, it didn't strike me as one of his strongest works. However, no character in any other film made me smile like the not-particularly bright, easily love struck lifeguard (played by Yu Jun-Sang). In a film where everybody has their secret purposes hidden, his guilelessness was not just winning but transcendent.

BEST DOG: Lynx, THE WALL. Both the regular readers of this blog know that I have a complicated (at best) relationship with dogs. If I had known going into THE WALL that despite its clever conceptual sci-fi premise (a woman is separated from the rest of society by an invisible wall), at heart it was really about the friendship between a woman and a dog, I might have skipped it. Thankfully, I didn't know that. But after spending an hour and a half with Lynx, I wanted him as my own. I mean seriously: if you had to be cut off from the rest of the world, why not choose this furry dude as your companion?

BEST ACTOR: Denis Lavant, HOLY MOTORS. He only deserves all the awards ever.

MOST INDELIBLE MOMENT, ONSCREEN: When I say it's from HOLY MOTORS, I think those who saw it might think of any number of moments - from the opening, to the Eva Mendes scene, to the green-screen, to the accordion, to the ending … the list goes on and on. But it's a peculiar moment that I've seen nobody else comment on that's stuck with me. Driving late at night, we cut outside the limo, and as the trees pass by, the image starts degrading. Just as I looked back unconsciously to see if the projector was somehow freaking out (like I could even tell from my seat?), our protagonist wakes up, and the nightmare is clear. It's a short sharp sad moment that's a skeleton key for the whole film, which is, beyond the silliness at its surface, a deeply mournful statement about all the losses we face at the end of this era of cinema. Godard's WEEKEND may be the film that ends with a title card "FIN DU CINEMA", but this film deserved it more.

MOST INDELIBLE MOMENT, OFFSCREEN: Festival director Bill Gosden calling the Civic "fucking awesome" during his closing night speech. It's an amazing place to see movies, and it's sad that 50 weeks of the year we're denied the pleasure, but it makes the festival all the more special.

MOST ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENT: I bailed on the short film programs a couple years back because they were virtually all coming of age stories, a genre that as a rule I don't value very much. When a friend's film* made the finals of New Zealand's best shorts, however, I had to attend, and was pleased to discover that five of the six shorts were not coming of age stories in any meaningful sense. Does this mean that we've finally got stories to tell in this country in short films that aren't about twelve year olds gazing dolefully into the distance as adults do bad things?

LEAST ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENT: The coming of age short won both jury and audience awards. (Insert covering one's ass statement here about how it's a well made film, no offense intended to the filmmaker, it's not his fault I never want to see a coming of age film again, etc.)

MOST DIVISIVE FILM: KILLER JOE. I loved it, personally. Yes, the third act (violent/sexual act everyone's discussing without regards to spoilers but me) is a hell of a slap in the face, but I've come to terms with it as a necessary violation of the audience relationship that we've had up to that point with the character who commits it in order to reset our moral compass. But man, people HATED this film with a passion that I haven't seen since … well, since SLEEPING BEAUTY last year.

MOST AFFECTING FILM: COMPLIANCE. The last film I saw at the festival. I won't tell you anything about it if you don't already know the story; suffice it to say that it's based on a true story which seems too outlandish to be believable, and too infuriatingly sad and horrible to want to believe. The astonishing performances (particularly Ann Dowd, the credulous manager) go miles towards making this film work; while I'm not convinced by every aesthetic decision, its sum impact was so great that merely watching the trailer a few hours after seeing the film left me shaking with anger, tears streaming, after only 30 seconds.

MOST CRUSHING DISAPPOINTMENT (BUT ONLY BECAUSE I'M AN IDIOT): HIMIZU. Should I have known that the casually transgressive Sion Sono (COLD FISH, LOVE EXPOSURE) might not have been the man to count on for integrating real life disaster footage from Fukushima with subtlety and tact? Yes. I should have known that. A mess of a film that became distasteful. (Runners up: BEYOND THE HILLS, IN THE FOG.)

BEST Q&A: David Bruckner, V/H/S. After defending KILLER JOE, I found myself struggling with this omnibus horror film, which comes out of the gate with some casual attacking of women on the street (stripping their tops to expose their breasts whilst being filmed for a porn site) segueing almost directly into the first segment about a guy getting glasses with spy-camera installed so that their voyeur porn dreams can come to life. Since it's a horror anthology, it's not a spoiler to say it doesn't end well, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. However, hearing David Bruckner (who directed this first segment) speak made it a lot clearer what he was getting at and retrospectively increased my appreciation of the sexual politics of his work. That aside, he's a fucking smart and thoughtful guy, I'm grateful to Ant Timpson for bringing him down, and I hope he gets to make a feature soon. And I hope his next trip to New Zealand doesn't feature a question which begins with a certain someone reading Ray Bradbury's definition of horror yet again.

(I should note: in sum, I don't find V/H/S particularly offensive - and certainly not enough to get worked up over - but I think I'm the only person in NZ who had any qualms with the sexual politics of V/H/S whatsoever. Conversely, my Australian Twitter friends have largely loved KILLER JOE but found V/H/S epicly offensive. What that says about cultural relativism, I have no idea.)

WORST AUDIENCE MEMBER: The dude who got up every few minutes during THE WALL to wander around the cinema. Runners up include the woman who refused to turn off her phone despite my request during IN ANOTHER COUNTRY and the pair who ate an entire Renkon meal, then left halfway through STUDENT. In general, popular wisdom to the contrary, I don't think audiences were much better this year; I just did a better job not letting them get to me.

BEST DIRECTORIAL REINVENTION: Ursula Meier (SISTER). Meier's last film, HOME, was a masterpiece of deadpan existential surrealism, about a family who lives next to an abandoned freeway whose life becomes a game of Frogger once the freeway re-opens. (Cheers to critic Mike D'Angelo for the Frogger analogy.) SISTER trades in the surrealism entirely for a story more akin to the Dardennes (albeit a version that uses a tripod and doesn't follow the back of people's heads for ten minutes) about a boy who steals ski gear to make a living and his sister who he lives with. For the first half I was, truthfully, so homesick for the voice that we'd lost that I was having trouble adjusting. But Meier's direction is so assured (thanks in part to all-time great cinematographer Agnes Godard's work) that ultimately I was won over, and the precision in the ending deserves comparisons to THE SON: it's one of the most perfect endings I saw at this festival.

MOST JEALOUSY-INDUCING FILM: SOUND OF MY VOICE. This wasn't the best film I saw at the NZFF: it's either at the bottom of my top ten or just under. But as somebody who's just directed a first feature on a low budget, to see a first feature made with a similar economy of means and no-budget fantastical concept but such compelling narrative and stunning precision editorially was by turns inspiring and depressing. This should be required viewing for every first time low-budget filmmaker that aspires to reach a mass audience.

SEXIEST MOMENT: rope dance, CRAZY HORSE. I could go on at length about my issues with this film formally and in the context of Wiseman's work - and spent a great deal of the running time doing just that in my head - but then this scene happened. (With eleven or so burlesque scenes shown, and human sexuality being what it is, everyone will have different preferences; it's worth noting, however, that the most uniformly admired scene is not a proper performance at all, but an open casting/cattle-call tryout. THAT scene, regardless of one's personal tastes, is truly great filmmaking.)

BEST SONG: "This Must Be The Place", as performed by David Byrne in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE. Despite some qualms about the end, I loved this strange, unlikely film by Paolo Sorrentino. Others did not. But this performance is a wonderful, special, mysterious thing, in a film that seems largely to exist in order to contain strange and unlikely moments.

There's other great films that I didn't talk about (or talk about enough, like TABU and THE LONELIEST PLANET) here, but I have to save something for the next installment of Best Worst Podcast … coming when I can get through speaking a paragraph of thoughts without coughing up a lung.

*The film in question is Thomas Gleeson's HOME, and it's fucking excellent, and also pleasing to see a non-narrative film so well recognized (it won the Friends of the Civic prize). I'm a bit disappointed in myself that I can't discuss NZ films more extensively, but I only saw apart from this program the excellent HOW FAR IS HEAVEN, a beautiful observational documentary that will be returning soon. Of the many local films that I missed, I heard particularly wonderful things about THE RED HOUSE, and am quite disappointed to have missed it. Of course, I also missed Haneke's AMOUR, Kore-Eda's I WISH, Linklater's BERNIE, etc ad nauseum. The festival is, as always, a firehose of riches, and you drink in what you can.

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