The New Zealand International Film Festival that just wrapped its fortnight in Christchurch seemed like the best one to play in the city in all the time I’ve been here, at least. Not so much for the quality of films, which is subjective, but for the undeniable buzz around the restored Isaac Theatre Royal as a venue and central meeting place. There is a way in which the festival must be a social event – not just done but seen to be done. You want to be in a crowded lobby with the others who are viewing your film. A top ten:
1 Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). As a Friday evening film, this was the ideal antidote to a week of media bullshit (worms, cucumbers, Mike Hosking, Ashley Madison). This is a deep and nuanced film about performance, age and the dangerous and unstable appeal of youth, written by Assayas for star Juliette Binoche as a Persona-like piece. Kristen Stewart is marvellous in it too.
2 Cemetery of Splendour (Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, 2015). “The act of sleeping is an act of escape,” Weerasethakul has said, hinting at a political reading of his mesmerising film about, well, sleep. It seemed fitting that a man next to me slept through nearly all of it, as an act of sympathy.
3 Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015). Call it psychedelic ethnography. There was a wizard in the audience and there was a shaman on the screen.
4 The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014). The world’s first Ukrainian sign language feature is dark, strange and original work. I didn’t understand a word and I didn’t mind.
5 The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, 2015). Maddin at his most Maddin-ish: brilliant, excessive, singular, fiercely original and far too much. He and Johnson recreate a wealth of alternative, lost cinema worlds and histories that tunnel in and out of each other.
6 The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014). Oppenheimer’s simpler and less flamboyant companion (not sequel) to his sensational The Act of Killing puts more attention on the victims of the Indonesian coup of 1965. It is a film made in the long shadow of a still misunderstood atrocity, a film about historical amnesia and fading memory. To act (to perform) was central to the first film; to see clearly is central to the second. By the end, we finally feel that we do.
7 The Club (Pablo Larrain, 2015). The premise of Larrain’s black comic The Club suggests that the sitcom Father Ted could somehow become a harsh allegory about the Catholic Church’s cover up of abuses. Move the bad priests to a remote house by the sea, where no one can see them. A brutal, emotional film.
8 Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015). Just when you think that Gibney, adapting a book by journalist Lawrence Wright, has gone soft on Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, he takes a very tough line on his successor David Miscavige and Miscavige’s celebrity enabler, Tom Cruise. Hubbard seems here to be a nutty, fondly-remembered eccentric while Miscavige seems more cunning and tyrannical, humourless and corporate, with his armies of lawyers and his pseudo-military uniforms. But given that Gibney was sceptical about Wikileaks in an earlier doco, it seems ironic that in the end it was the internet that really started to undermine Scientology’s control of its own image and information.
9 Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). This is sleek and efficient science-fiction, economically and even humorously told by a dour Garland. There are shades of Under the Skin or a pessimistic Her – with similar male anxieties.