This round-up first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 29th December 2013
Looking back over a year of fairly intensive cinema-going, one might feel a little underwhelmed. We’re up to three Hangovers, six Fast & Furiouses and countless derivations from comics and videogames, and you’d be forgiven for thinking Hollywood is taking the mickey (and our money) just a little bit.
Thankfully, the expertly curated annual New Zealand International Film Festival still salves those winter blues and, with any luck, the favourites will return for wider audience appreciation in 2014. For the best of those films which enjoyed a general release this year, read on.
A stunning documentary about a French teenager who turns up half a world away, purporting to be a much younger American boy missing for several years. Despite a manifestly different physical appearance, the family welcome him “back” into the fold. The stranger-than-fiction tale which unfolded was gripping and disturbing in equal measure.
Better known for cruelty, Michael Haneke proved he can also be compassionate in this Cannes-prized, Oscar-winning two-hander about an elderly Parisian couple whose twilight years grow increasingly dim as one deteriorates into ill health. Despite the heartrending subject, superlative performances and subtle direction made Amour a masterclass in European film-making.
Rust and Bone
More French emotional trauma followed in the younger and buffer form of Matthias Schoenaerts’ battered street fighter and Marion Cotillard’s broken orca trainer, whose blossoming love affair was forgiven its melodrama because of fine acting and some terribly moving scenes. I even wept through a Katy Perry song. Twice.
Performance (A Late Quartet)
Four top-class actors, a zingy script, and moral dilemmas of the “who shouldn’t I be sleeping with?” kind – Performance took the seemingly chaste world of the professional string quartet and had us hanging on every bow lift as marital relations were frayed and egos were smited.
Mads Mikkelsen deserved the critical acclaim for his nuanced performance as a kindergarten teacher accused of impropriety by a small child. Brilliant acting, a credible script and a particularly devastating betrayal at the hands of his community had our blood boiling and hearts hammering throughout.
What a joy it was to see director Geoff Murphy’s classic Utu restored beyond its former glory and returned to the big screen. This veritable Kiwi western made us miss Bruno Lawrence all over again while we marvelled at the sheer bombast of a film that still manages, 30 years on, to make us laugh, gasp and tear up.
Antarctica: A Year on Ice
A breathtaking Kiwi-made documentary about the travails of those working year-round on the bases in Antarctica, this perfect mix of poignant interviews, hilarious insights and amazing time-lapse photography was a festival highlight worthy of a second viewing.
Behind the Candelabra
Matt Damon’s hair shone as gold as Michael Douglas’s slippers, yet thanks to the superb script and Steven Soderbergh’s fine direction, it wasn’t the bizarre episodes of facial reconstruction which had us in thrall so much as the Hollywood stars’ ability to convey a touching and credible love affair. Liberace is probably dancing in his grave.
Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon’s energetic update of Shakespeare’s seminal rom-com showcased the linguistic and comedic talents of a bunch of little-known American actors, and the 12-day shoot in his Californian home not only looked like a whale of a time for the cast, but provided enormous entertainment for anyone with a heart and the merest scraping of a wit.
Mia Wasikowska was enchanting as an enigmatic young woman who falls under the spell of her mysterious uncle, for whom mother (Nicole Kidman on top form) has her own designs. Murder and mayhem ensue in an exquisite gothic fairytale so breathtaking, I gave it five stars based on an aeroplane viewing.
Despite last year’s The Artist pipping him to the innovation post, a young Spanish director persevered with his own labour of love and brought us this year’s piece of beautiful, silent, black and white whimsy. Taking Snow White’s story back to 1920s Andalusia, the dark-eyed beauty became a bull-fighter with a troupe of travelling little people.
One Direction: This is Us
I know. I was surprised, too. British boyband extraordinaire One Direction allowed Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock all access to a portion of their multi-month world tour. The screamed-out shows, the catchy music and the charming boys themselves proved that talent contests do, occasionally, unearth real stars.
What Maisie Knew
Julianne Moore deserves next year’s Best Actress gong for her turn as the narcissistic rockstar splitting from Steve Coogan’s self-involved bad father, much to the detriment of their tiny daughter. Familial dysfunction has never been so engaging – nor so credibly, downright awful.
“Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space” didn’t really do it justice. Gravity was in fact the most exciting 90 minutes you could spend in a dark room with 3D glasses strapped to your face, thanks to a breath-holdingly simple premise and cinematographic wizardry. Audiences raved. Even Nasa said they got it mostly right.
Two stars of the small screen, sadly the late James Gandolfini and the thankfully alive and perky Julia Louis-Dreyfus, have a go at dipping their toes in the pond of second-time-around love. A simple yet deliciously squirm-inducing plot device propelled us through fantastic dialogue delivered by two engaging middle-aged people with an easy chemistry. Enough said.
20 Feet from Stardom
The backing singers finally got their moment in the spotlight, thanks to this magical documentary which belatedly gave four decades of “supporting talent” their due. With singers who are consistently better than most of our contemporary popstars, the film showcased extraordinary talent, great humility and many illuminating stories.
Some will baulk at the idea of three hours in the cinema, but this adaptation of Tim Winton’s short stories by a raft of Australian film-makers proved “event cinema” at its most worthy. The Turning delivered all the joy, beauty and devastation of 17 individual but gently intertwined tales around life’s core themes – love, family, faith and fishing.