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Eight Movies You Really Need to See at the 2023 New Zealand International Film Festival

This year's NZIFF standouts include a deeply affecting romance, Sydney Sweeney's most stunning performance yet and a heartbreaking French courtroom drama.
By Sarah Ward
July 21, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
July 21, 2023
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Movies may be everywhere in the streaming age, but so is the curse of being spoiled for choice. Accordingly, it isn't just escaping into a darkened room to watch the latest and greatest pictures that makes film festivals such a treat. It's also watching your way through a curated lineup that, yes, still overflows with options, but has whittled down the wealth of picks to the fest's programming team's absolute favourite choices.

That's every cinema celebration's remit, including the returning New Zealand International Film Festival, which is back for 2023 with more than 100 flicks lighting up Aotearoa's picture palaces. In Auckland from Wednesday, July 19–Sunday, August 6 and in Wellington from Thursday July 27–Saturday, August 12, it's basically cinephile Christmas — even starting in July — and the fest isn't short on new must-sees.

Still trying to decide what to watch? We're here to help, too. If you only catch one film at NZIFF, or a handful, or eight, make them one of our highly recommended and throughly loved tried-and-tested picks.

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PAST LIVES

Call it fate, call it destiny, call it deeply feeling like you were always meant to cross paths with someone: in Korean, that sensation is in-yeon. Partway through Past Lives, aspiring writer Nora (Greta Lee, Russian Doll) explains the concept to fellow scribe Arthur (John Magaro, The Many Saints of Newark) like she knows it deep in her bones, because both she and the audience are well-aware that she does. That's what writer/director Celine Song's sublime feature debut is about from its first frames to its last. With Arthur, Nora jokes that in-yeon is something that Koreans talk about when they're trying to seduce someone. There's truth to her words, because she'll end up married to him. But with her childhood crush Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, Decision to Leave), who she last saw at the age of 12 because her family then moved from Seoul to Toronto, in-yeon explains everything. It sums up their firm connection as kids, the instant spark that ignites when they reunite in their 20s via emails and Skype calls, and the complicated emotions that swell when they're finally in the same place together again after decades — even with Arthur in the picture as well.

Song also emigrated to Canada with her parents as a pre-teen, but achieves that always-sought-after feat: making a movie that feels so intimately specific to its characters, and yet resonates so heartily and universally. Each time that Nora and Hae Sung slide back into each other's lives, it feels like no time has passed, but that doesn't smooth their way forward. Crafted to resemble slipping into a memory, complete with lingering looks and a transportingly evocative score, this feature knows every emotion that springs when you need someone and vice versa, but life has other plans. It feels the weight of the roads not taken, even when you're happy with the route you're on. It's a film about details — spying them everywhere, in Nora and Hae Sung's lives and their faces, while recognising how the best people in anyone's orbits spot them as well. Lee, Yoo and Magaro are each magnetic and magnificent, as is everything about this sensitive, blisteringly honest and intimately complex masterpiece.

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CARMEN

Breaking down a classic tale best known as an opera, rebuilding it as a lovers-on-the-run drama set across the US–Mexico border and making every moment burst with emotion, Benjamin Millepied's Carmen is a movie that moves. While its director is a feature debutant, his background as a dancer and choreographer — he did both on Black Swan, the latter on Vox Lux as well, then designed the latest Dune films' sandwalk — perhaps means that the former New York City Ballet principal and Paris Opera Ballet Director of Dance was fated to helm rhythmic, fluid and rousing cinema. His loose take on Georges Bizet's singing-driven show and Prosper Mérimée's novella before it, plus Alexander Pushkin's poem The Gypsies that the first is thought to be based on, is evocative and sensual. It's sumptuous and a swirl of feelings, too, as aided in no small part by its penchant for dance. And, it pirouettes with swoon-inducing strength with help from its stunningly cast leads: Scream queen and In the Heights star Melissa Barrera, plus Normal People breakout and Aftersun Oscar-nominee Paul Mescal.

When Mescal earned the world's attention in streaming's initial Sally Rooney adaptation, he had viewers dreaming of fleeing somewhere — Ireland or anywhere — with him. Carmen's namesake (Barrera) absconds first, then has PTSD-afflicted Marine Aidan (Mescal) join her attempt to escape to Los Angeles. Carmen runs after her mother Zilah (flamenco dancer Marina Tamayo) greets the cartel with thunderous footwork, but can't stave off their violence. Aidan enters the story once Carmen is smuggled stateside, where he's a reluctant volunteer border guard in Texas alongside the trigger-happy Mike (Benedict Hardie, The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson). As the picture's central pair soon hurtle towards California, to Zilah's lifelong friend Masilda's (Rossy de Palma, Parallel Mothers) bar, they try to fly to whatever safety and security they can find. That may be fleeting, however, and might also be in each other's arms.

Read our full review, and our interview with Benjamin Millepied.

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EO

David Attenborough's nature documentaries are acclaimed and beloved viewing, including when they're recreating dinosaurs. Family-friendly fare adores cute critters, especially if they're talking as in The Lion King and Paddington movies. The horror genre also loves pushing animals to the front, with The Birds and Jaws among its unsettling masterpieces. Earth's creatures great and small are all around us on-screen, and also off — but in EO, a donkey drama by Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (11 Minutes), humanity barely cares. The people in this Oscar-nominated mule musing might watch movies about pets and beasts. They may have actively shared parts of their own lives existence the animal kingdom; some, albeit only a rare few, do attempt exactly that with this flick's grey-haired, white-spotted, wide-eyed namesake. But one of the tragedies at the heart of this adventure is also just a plain fact of life on this pale blue dot while homo sapiens reign supreme: that animals are everywhere all the time but hardly anyone notices.

EO notices. Making his first film in seven years, and co-writing with his wife and producer Ewa Piaskowska (Essential Killing), Skolimowski demands that his audience pays attention. This is both an episodic slice-of-life portrait of EO the donkey's days and a glimpse of the world from his perspective — sometimes, the glowing and gorgeous cinematography by Michal Dymek (Wolf) takes in the Sardinian creature in all his braying, trotting, carrot-eating glory; sometimes, it takes on 'donkey vision', which is just as mesmerising to look at. Skolimowski gets inspiration from Robert Bresson's 1966 feature Au Hasard Balthazar, too, a movie that also follows the life of a hoofed, long-eared mammal. Like that French great, EO sees hardship much too often for its titular creature; however, even at its most heartbreaking, it also spies an innate, immutable circle of life.

Read our full review.

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SAINT OMER

In 2016, a French documentarian with Senegalese heritage attended the trial of a Senegalese French PhD student who confessed to killing her 15-month-old daughter, who was fathered by a white partner, by leaving her on the beach to the mercy of the waves at Berck-sur-Mer. The filmmaker was fixated. She describes it as an "unspeakable obsession". She was haunted by questions about motherhood, too — her mum's and her own, given that she was a young mother herself as she sat in the courtroom. That story is the story of how Saint Omer came to be, and also almost exactly the tale that the piercing drama tells. In her first narrative film after docos We and La Permanence, writer/director Alice Diop focuses on a French author and literature professor with a Senegalese background who bears witness to a trial with the same details, also of a Senegalese French woman, for the same crime. Saint Omer's protagonist shares other traits with Diop as she observes, too, and watches and listens to research a book.

A director riffing on their own experience isn't novel, but Saint Omer is strikingly intimate and authentic because it's the embodiment of empathy in an innately difficult situation. It shows what it means to feel for someone else, including someone who has admitted to a shocking crime, and has been made because Diop went through that far-from-straightforward process and was galvanised to keep grappling with it. What a deeply emotional movie this 2022 Venice International Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winning feature is, understandably and unsurprisingly. What a heartbreaking and harrowing work it proves as well. Saint Omer is also an astoundingly multilayered excavation of being in a country but never being seen as truly part it, and what that does to someone's sense of self, all through Fabienne Kabou's complicated reality and Laurence Coly's (Guslagie Malanda, My Friend Victoria) fictionalised scenario.

Read our full review.

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REALITY

Sydney Sweeney is ready for her closeup. Playwright-turned-filmmaker Tina Satter obliges. A household name of late due to her exceptional work in both Euphoria and The White Lotus, Sweeney has earned the camera's attention for over a decade; however, she's never been peered at with the unflinching intensity of Satter's debut feature Reality. For much of this short, sharp and stunning docudrama, the film's star lingers within the frame. Plenty of the movie's 83-minute running time devotes its focus to her face, staring intimately and scrutinising what it sees. Within Reality's stranger-than-fiction narrative, that imagery spies a US Air Force veteran and National Security Agency translator in her mid-twenties, on what she thought was an ordinary Saturday. It's June 3, 2017, with the picture's protagonist returning from buying groceries to find FBI agents awaiting at her rented Augusta, Georgia home, then accusing her of "the possible mishandling of classified information".

Reality spots a woman facing grave charges, a suspect under interrogation and a whistleblower whose fate is already known to the world. It provides a thriller of a procedural with agents, questions, allegations and arrests; an informer saga that cuts to the heart of 21st-century American politics, and its specific chaos since 2016; and an impossible-to-shake tragedy about how authority savagely responds to being held to account. Bringing her stage production Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription to the screen after it wowed off-Broadway and then Broadway, Satter dedicates Reality's bulk to that one day and those anxious minutes, unfurling in close to real time — but, pivotally, it kicks off three weeks earlier with its namesake at work while Fox News plays around her office. Why would someone leak to the media a restricted NSA report about Russian interference in getting Donald Trump elected? Before it recreates the words genuinely spoken between its eponymous figure and law enforcement, Reality sees the answer as well.

Read our full review.

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HELLO DANKNESS

Take American cinema's many depictions of suburbia over several decades, splice them together savvily and knowingly, but morph them into a savage musing on the US political landscape (hellscape, even) between 2016–21. Hello film lovers, you now have one of the most stunning Australian movies of 2023, a Tom Hanks flick like no other, and a feature that's also an experience: Hello Dankness. Hailing from Soda Jerk and marking the duo's first feature since TERROR NULLIUS roared across screens in 2018, it's another treasure trove of clips edited together to make a helluva statement. It's "a suburban stoner musical rendered in the form of a cybernetic Greek tragedy" as well, as Soda Jerk themselves have dubbed it, and it's like peering into another dimension and our very own at the same time. To help, the artists have amassed samples from more than 300 film and TV clips taken from an array of sources, plus around 250 audio grabs. Donald Trump's Access Hollywood tape and Kendall Jenner's Pepsi ad even pop up.

Among the other content that's featured: everything from The Burbs (hence Hanks), Wayne's World, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar and The Social Network to American BeautyFridayNapoleon DynamiteThis Is the EndEuphoria and PEN15 as well. The list goes on, as intertwined with songs from CatsLes MisérablesAnnie and The Phantom of the Opera. Across a wild 70 minutes, everyone's favourite movies get the second life that no one other than Soda Jerk could've ever dreamed of to unpack a deeply polarised country and period, and tear into America's fake news-, conspiracy-, meme-, pandemic and culture war-ravaged society. No one makes cinema like this duo, even in the sampling space — and there's a reason that Hello Dankness keeps doing the festival rounds internationally and Down Under.

Read our interview with Soda Jerk.

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THE INSPECTION

If war is hell, then military boot camp is purgatory. So told Full Metal Jacket, with Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece making that observation echo and pierce with the relentlessness of machine-gun fire. Now, The Inspection stresses the same point nearing four decades later, plunging into the story of a gay Black man enlisting, then navigating the nightmare that is basic training. This too is a clear-eyed step inside the United States Marine Corps, but drawn from first-time fictional feature filmmaker Elegance Bratton's own experiences. New Yorker Ellis French (Jeremy Pope, One Night in Miami) is the Pier Kids documentarian's on-screen alter ego — an out queer man who has spent a decade from his teens to his mid-20s homeless after being kicked out by his ashamed mother Inez (Gabrielle Union, Strange World), and pledges his post 9/11 freedom away for a place to fit in, even if that means descending into a world of institutional homophobia and racism.

It would've been easy for Bratton to just sear and scorch in The Inspection; his film is set in 2005, "don't ask, don't tell" was still the US military forces' policy and discrimination against anyone who isn't a straight white man is horrendously brutal. Life being moulded into naval-infantry soldiers is savage anyway; "our job is not to make Marines, it's to make monsters," says Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine, Wu-Tang: An American Saga), Ellis' commanding officer and chief state-sanctioned tormentor. And yet, crafting a film that's as haunting as it is because it's supremely personal, Bratton never shies away from Ellis' embrace of the Marines in his quest to work out how he can be himself. There's nothing simple about someone signing up for such heartbreaking anguish because that's the only option that they can imagine, but this stunning movie is anything but simple.

Read our full review.

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THE NEW BOY

Warwick Thornton, Cate Blanchett, Deborah Mailman, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis: name a better Australian quintet. The director of Samson & Delilah and Sweet Country, the two-time Oscar-winner and recent Tár tour de force, the local screen mainstay, and the Bad Seeds bandmates and seasoned film composers all combine not for the ultimate Aussie dinner party, but for The New Boy. None are debuting in their jobs. All are exceptional. They're each made better, however, by the luminous and entrancing Aswan Reid. As well as playing the titular part, the 11-year-old first-time actor lives it among such a wealth of acclaimed and experienced talent — and he's such a find in such excellent company, while saying little in words but everything in every other way, that Thornton's third fictional feature owes him as much of a debt as its applauded and awarded household names.

There's a spark to Reid from the moment that he's first spied grappling with outback law enforcement under blazing rays as Cave and Ellis' (This Much I Know to Be True) latest rousing score plays. His sun-bleached hair couldn't be more fitting, or symbolic, but it's the confident way in which he holds himself as New Boy, plus the determined look on his face, that sears. Wily and wiry, the feature's eponymous figure is toppled by a boomerang, then bagged up and transported to the remote Catholic orphanage doted on by Sister Eileen (Blanchett, Nightmare Alley) in the 1940s. The cop doing the escorting notes that the kid is a bolter, but the nun is just as fast in her kindness. She sees what Thornton wants his audience to see: a boy that beams with his presence and through his sense of self, even though he's been snatched up, taken from his Country and forced into a Christian institution against his will. Sister Eileen is as drawn to him as the movie, but — and not just due to the red wine she likes sipping and the subterfuge she's keeping up about the resident father's absence — she isn't as certain about what to do.

Read our full review, and our interview with Warwick Thornton.

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Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival runs from July–September 2023, including in Auckland from Wednesday, July 19–Sunday, August 6 and in Wellington from Thursday July 27–Saturday, August 12. For more information and tickets, head to the festival website.

Published on July 21, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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