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July 13, 2009 | by  | in Film |
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New Zealand International Film Festival 09

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Inciting a chorus of “is it that time of year again?”, July is my favourite month as it welcomes the 2009 International Film Festival. A cineaste’s mid-year Christmas, getting your hands on a fresh new programme is always exciting. Thanks to my cushy job writing for this rag I went to this year’s opening and was among the first to see the programme, as well as scoring a sweet goody bag complete with a box of cereal and some bagel chips. While others schmoozed, I covertly chasse-d into a small alcove and manically flipped through my programme, scanning the pages for the choicest cinematic cuts on offer.

The festival opens with a privileged look at Jane Campion’s Bright Star, based on the relationship between the romantic poet John Keats and his lover Fanny Brawne. As a fan of Keats I am excited about this film, which Sight and Sound have bravely called Campion’s finest to date. Closing the festival is the other major draw-card Broken Embraces, the new film by Pedro Almodóvar, which features a flawlessly beautiful Penelope Cruz.

In between are over 140 screenings of everything from one-minute animations to the four-hour Steven Soderburgh opus Che. This year is the most ‘international’ festival yet, with, by my count, 38 countries represented (including Kazakhstan which has two films, neither featuring Sacha Baron Cohen). New Zealand features prominently, with Armagan Ballantyne’s The Strength of Water, penned by Briar Grace-Smith. Patriots should also be honoured to find the retrospective of Barry Barclay featuring his Tangata Whenua series, as well as Graeme Tuckett’s tribute to the man, The Camera on The Shore.

I cannot hide my delight that Ponyo is here, a return to more simple and amusing Miyazaki in the tradition of My Neighbour Totoro. On the flipside is Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, a film I am compelled to go see, especially with an audience. During a festival screening of Lynch’s Inland Empire I witnessed the most walk-outs I have ever seen. If Antichrist is even half as shocking as it’s supposed to be I may witness more.

While bigger films will get general releases, do note it took forever for Gommorah to arrive after last year’s festival. Therefore if you can’t wait, go, but do try to get along to rarities we may never see again, such as the exploitation pic Wake in Fright and The Cat and the Canary. The latter especially, as it will be scored live by the Wellington Orchestra. Other one-offs will be the screening of Chantal Akerman’s debut Jeanne Dielman, and the Homegrown programmes which offer kiwi shorts and animations.

Feminists will be psyched that the Masters section (honouring directors) is dominated by women. Here you will find Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard, and Agnes Varda’s new-wave masterpiece Cleo from 5 to 7. Male directors have a good show too, with John Woo’s Red Cliff which will be glorious on Embassy’s screen, and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, featuring Isaach de Bankole, and my main man Bill Murray.

Moon, a retro-looking man-on-the-moon film starring the fantastic Sam Rockwell and scored by Clint Mansell, evokes 2001, so sci-fi fans should check this one out. Another film that looks fascinating is Van Diemen’s Land, an Australian film chronicling the escape of a prisoner during early settlement. The Incredibly Strange section features two of my biggest curiosities, the new Park Chan –wook (Oldboy) film Thirst, and the documentary The Best Worst Movie, which looks at the cult status of the classic Troll 2.

Music fans can see the concert film All Tomorrow’s Parties and Largo, which spends an evening at the famous LA bar. Art fans will find Chuck Close, a portrait hopefully as lucid as his paintings, and the world premiere of The Man in the Hat which follows Wellington’s own famous art dealer Peter McLeavey. Architecture fiends will enjoy Visual Acoustics, celebrating the photography of Julius Shulman. Some anime fans are probably more excited about Oshii Mamoru’s (Ghost in the Shell) The Sky Crawlers than Ponyo. While zombie fans will explode when they find Dead Snow features—wait for it—Nazi zombies.

Picking a few films to recommend from a programme this jammed with cinema is practically impossible. The only way to get the most out of the festival is to pour through the programme as many times as you can. Pick obscure films that sound interesting but balance this with the big films you really want to see too. A ten-trip day pass ($95) works out at $9.50 a film, which is great value, really. Bill Gosden and his crew have done an exemplary job (without a major sponsor this year) so go and see as many as you can.

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