Human Traces (Aotearoa)

Director: Nic Gorman
Duration: 87 minutes
Tickets and times: Click here for tickets.

Human Traces is a psychological thriller set in the inhospitable terrain of New Zealand's sub-Antarctic islands. Writer-director Nic Gorman's first feature takes a novel approach to its storytelling, presenting a triptych of perspectives on the same series of events; the film is split cleanly into three parts, with each character's viewpoint both challenging and expanding the narrative. It's an impressive swing, and it lands - just. There are a number of nonsensical and heavy-handed moments, but ultimately Human Traces comes into shape as a gripping, suspenseful study of human isolation and paranoia.

The three-chapter structure both helps and hinders. Part one suffers as the entire film's arc is compressed into 30 minutes; it's hard to stay engaged as a series of logic leaps and narrative jumps make for a messy first act, further weakened by a score that tries too early to create a taut atmosphere. But patience is rewarded; as the film returns to the beginning twice more, and fills out the gaps with juicy background information and previously-unseen plot points, the tension is urgently elevated and the story sets into gear. Once there, Gorman wrings some riveting drama from his unreliable protagonists and their escalating desperation, with a number of shocking revelations driving the story to a thrilling end.

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Stunning cinematography and impressive performances help Human Traces save itself from its own waterlogged beginning; it's a fine debut feature for Nic Gorman, and it breaks promising new ground for New Zealand cinema.

- George Fenwick

Beach Rats (Fresh)

Still from Beach Rats. Photo / NZIFF
Still from Beach Rats. Photo / NZIFF

Director: Eliza Hittman
Duration: 95 minutes
Tickets and times: Click here for tickets.

Teenage masculinity is given a lyrically voyeuristic treatment in Beach Rats, which finds up-and-coming British actor Harris Dickinson assumes a flawless Brooklyn accent in this stunning but somewhat unresolved drama. The film follows Frankie, a subdued Brooklyn teen wiling away the summer with his bros and new girlfriend, while also meeting older men on gay chatrooms for sex.

The film takes an often painful look at the toxicity of masculinity and the way it can suppress and hinder young men. Cinematographer Helene Louvart's gorgeous 16mm film gives the narrative a poetic, sensual feel, while Dickinson's incredible performance commands every scene. Staying true to its theme, the film is never blatant about Frankie's true emotions, offering glimpses instead through mere gazes, small words or actions - epitomised perfectly in a scene where Frankie's mother asks him to open up, to which he can only cover his face and shake his head in shame and despair.

The narrative does not quite manage to surpass the boundaries that so often hinder closet-teen stories, which may leave a sour taste for viewers expecting more. But at the same time, the climax - which finds Frankie making a sloppy attempt to unify his double lives, to hauntingly tense effect - is one of the reasons Beach Rats will linger in viewers' minds for long after. The necessity of such an ending is questionable, but it powerfully exemplifies the danger of suppressing one's true self - and the brutality of confronting one's inner conflicts. An impressive second feature from writer-director Eliza Hittman.

- George Fenwick

God's Own Country (World)

A scene from God's Own Country. Photo / NZIFF
A scene from God's Own Country. Photo / NZIFF

Director: Francis Lee
Duration: 105 minutes
Tickets and times: Click here for tickets.

A love story set against the bleak and misty moors of the English countryside, God's Own Country tells the story of a young man named Johnny falling in love and learning to embrace vulnerability. The Brokeback Mountain comparisons have been plentiful, and perhaps inevitable, but there's something subtler and more relevant about God's Own Country that allows the film to operate within its own parameters - and to deliver a third act that breathes with an honesty and compassion that will likely see it age better than Ang Lee's 2005 film.

Francis Lee focuses the camera on the film's central performances, and glosses over nothing when showing the blood and sweat that goes into sheep farming (Lee told the Auckland screening's Q&A that the lead actors spent two weeks learning how to work on a sheep farm). Leads Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu shine with their brooding, restrained performances, while Gemma Jones and Ian Hart lend a quiet empathy as Johnny's grandmother and father.

God's Own Country is an impressive debut that cleverly subverts cliché; Francis Lee's fly-on-the-wall approach to storytelling and carefully poetic style announce him as an exciting new filmmaking talent.

- George Fenwick

Call Me by Your Name (Big Nights)

Call Me by Your Name is one of the best cinematic love stories in recent memory. Photo / supplied
Call Me by Your Name is one of the best cinematic love stories in recent memory. Photo / supplied

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Duration: 132 minutes
Tickets and times: Click here for tickets.

Call Me by Your Name is a masterpiece. A richly woven adaption of André Aciman's acclaimed novel set over one summer in Lombardy, Italy, the film follows Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old Italian-American who has a life-changing first love with his father's American research student, 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer).

Call Me by Your Name develops the central romance with care, taking a measured, thorough pace as it establishes Elio and Oliver's initial connection and drives it towards something deeper. It's more than worth the journey, and once the film reaches its emotional peak, it's overwhelmingly powerful. Elio and Oliver's relationship is handled with a beautiful sensitivity, and eventually becomes so intoxicating to watch that the lush Italian countryside becomes a mere backdrop to the heady, euphoric delight shared between the central pair. Armie Hammer is fantastic as Oliver, but Timothée Chalamet gives a truly breathtaking breakout performance, driven home by a lingering final shot that will remain etched in viewers' minds for long after.

The film's last half hour provides some of the most striking scenes in recent cinema, including an extremely moving conversation between Elio and his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) that subverts the themes of suppression and shame that are often tied to queer love stories. Call Me by Your Name is astonishing, and undoubtedly one of the best cinematic love stories to come out of 2017 - if not of this decade so far.

- George Fenwick

Heal the Living (World)

Director: Katell Quillévéré
Duration: 103 minutes
Tickets and times: Click here for tickets.

Heal the Living is a touchingly human look at the complex and emotionally fraught process of organ donation. By positioning the viewer on either side of a heart transplant - the donor, recipient and their respective families remain anonymous to each other - this French drama delivers rushes of empathy as it alternates between the grief-stricken husband and wife, whose son is pronounced brain-dead, the caring sons of a woman with an ailing heart condition, and the surgeons charged with performing the procedure.

Heal the Living is broad in its scope, with a hint of backstory given to every character - and there are many, from the timid junior surgeon to the former lover of the heart's recipient. This attention to detail does leave the film feeling rather fleeting, and several ideas don't feel fully realised; I can't help but wonder whether the story would be better suited to a television series format. But it's also a testament to Katell Quillévéré's direction that such intricacies can be slipped into a 100-minute film with the plot remaining so organic and compelling.

The film is beautifully shot - a car crash has never been portrayed in such a hauntingly dreamlike way - and the performances shine across the entire ensemble. It's a refreshing hospital drama that manages to shun the genre's trappings of melodrama in favour of a more complex and emotive story.

- George Fenwick

The Inland Road (Aotearoa)

The Inland Road confirms Jackie Van Beek as one of New Zealand's most versatile storytellers. Photo / supplied
The Inland Road confirms Jackie Van Beek as one of New Zealand's most versatile storytellers. Photo / supplied

Director: Jackie van Beek
Duration: 80 minutes
Tickets and times: Click here for tickets.

Disparate lives collide with powerful and confronting consequences in Jackie van Beek's first feature film. The Inland Road is a measured, meditative study of how humans respond to tragedy; the uncomfortable choices that death forces us to make, and the head-rush and confusion that comes with youth.

The film makes excellent use of its stunning central Otago setting, but cinematographer Giovanni Lorusso finds the film's most revelatory and visceral moments in its people, skilfully employing lingering close-ups and careful interior shots to drive the narrative. Van Beek skilfully subverts cliché in her story, choosing to follow the lives of those adjacent to a tragedy rather than those most directly dealing with the fallout. Newcomer Gloria Popata is remarkable, playing Tia with a modest, understated vulnerability, while Chelsie Preston Crayford and David Elliot impress as the husband and wife who (mostly) welcome her in.

The Inland Road requires patient viewing, and some of the central epiphanies are delivered rather heavy-handedly, but the narrative's delicate slowburn ultimately makes for a deeply satisfying journey. It's an exciting debut that confirms Jackie van Beek as one of New Zealand's most versatile storytellers.

- George Fenwick