I'm four days into my New Zealand Film Festival experience and I haven't encountered a dud movie yet. My timetable is delivering a perfectly calibrated succession of thrills and emotional highs.
I've managed to reconnect with the glory of The Civic, and every film session I've attended has been impressively populated, reflecting the 10 per cent jump in ticket sales over the same time last year reported by festival director Bill Gosden at the opening night gala screening last Thursday evening.
The film his speech preceded, Beasts of the Southern Wild, was as dynamic and unique an experience anyone could ever wish to have at a film festival, and a perfect opening night selection.
It tells the fable-like story of a small wetland community that digs in and refuses to leave when the flood waters rise. Young Quvenzhané Wallis gives one of the most heartbreaking debut performances ever as Hushpuppy, a tiny little force of nature struggling to deal with the change around her.
The film is an indescribable wonder (Sci-fi? Allegory? Fairy tale?) that requires a commitment from the viewer, but it is a commitment that is richly rewarded. It may be a little too convincingly grimy at times, but the magic that drifts off the screen is unlike any I've experienced in a movie theatre before.
Beasts is currently enjoying breakout success on a limited release in arthouse theatres in America, but you can see it at the second Auckland screening on the afternoon of Thursday, July 26.
After such a mind-expanding opening film, I was looking forward to engaging in something a little more genre-leaning in the form of Aussie drama Wish You Were Here, which I saw on Friday morning.
The film was preceded by Ten Thousand Days, a lively and funny short from local director Michael Duignan (Go Girls) starring Benedict Wall as a fatalistic paramour wooing the increasingly underwhelmed Morgana O'Reilly. It was pretty nifty.
Featuring rising actors like Joel Edgerton (Warrior), Teresa Palmer (I Am Number Four) and NZ's own Antony Starr (Outrageous Fortune), Wish You Were Here details a holiday trip to South East Asia from which one of four friends fails to return.
As the truth slowly and deliberately reveals itself through hazy flashbacks, the film does a great job of getting into the heads of the characters and underpins the drama with a (admittedly stereotypically) nightmarish view of what could go wrong on a South East Asian holiday.
Next up I was back to The Civic for Danish drama The Hunt on Friday afternoon. As a big fan of rising Scandinavian actor Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, A Royal Affair), I was eager to see the performance that recently garnered him the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
As a divorced kindergarten teacher whose small town community turns on him when he is (falsely) accused of child abuse, Mikkelsen is devastatingly effective. The incomprehension of a man whose life is crumbling before him comes across in every expression.
The Hunt asks difficult questions about the way adults should deal with children who aren't their own, but it offers little in the way of tangible solutions. It was chilling, plausible and exquisitely put together by director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration).
Later that evening I was back in The Civic for the hotly anticipated screening of The Cabin In The Woods. Turning up in the Incredibly Strange section of the Film Festival following fan outcry over the decision to not release it theatrically in New Zealand, The Cabin In The Woods enticed a large and dedicated crowd to The Civic late on Friday, creating an atmosphere dense with fanboyistic enthusiasm.
The genre-bending film couldn't have gone down better, and I was wholly captivated by its witty script and twist-laden Twilight Zone-ish plot. It's the kind of film you'll enjoy more the less you know going in, but WOW does it deliver. This is my new favourite movie.
With The Cabin In The Woods, you could argue that producer/co-writer Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard have rendered an entire section of genre cinema obsolete. With gusto.
The cast was uniformly excellent, but doing the best work was local hero Anna Hutchison (Go Girls, Underbelly), who was present to introduce the film and further charmed the crowd with a Q&A session following the screening.
If there was any doubt beforehand, The Cabin In The Woods proves definitively that Hutchison has something tangible and uniquely New Zealand-ish to offer mainstream Hollywood cinema. She is awesome.
If you missed The Cabin In The Woods' first Auckland screening, don't miss the second: It's playing Tuesday, July 24 at 4.15pm at The Civic.
Saturday night saw me take in the enticing documentary The Imposter, which detailed with Errol Morris-esque artistry the fascinating tale of a 23-year-old Frenchman who managed to convince a Texan family that he was their teenage son who had disappeared three years earlier aged 13.
Hearing this unbelievable tale from both the man who both perpetrated it and the family that bought into it was ceaselessly gripping, and brought to mind the still-underseen Facebook doco Catfish.
Judging by the high quality of all the films on display in the Nga Whanaunga Maori Pasifika Shorts collection, which I attended Sunday lunchtime, the decision this year to instigate a dedicated Maori and Pasifika short film collection is long overdue.
Particularly impressive was Hamish Bennett's hilarious and affecting The Dump, which stars the irrepressible Orlando Stewart (Wayne Anderson: Singer of Songs) as a divorced dad due a little respect. Simultaneously subtle and powerful, The Dump did a fantastic job of manipulating the audience.
For my second screening on a very film festival-friendly Sunday afternoon (ie, wet and miserable outside), I took in the restored print of the 1926 Norwegian silent film The Flight of the Airship Norge over the Artic Ocean.
Accompanied by a piano soundtrack performed on stage and live, spoken translations of the Norwegian intertitles, this film chronicles a combined Italian/Norwegian expedition to the North Pole in an enormous airship/blimp.
The film tracks the airship across various stops in Europe to the Artic ocean and eventually the North Pole. It's an fascinating snapshot of the world as it was almost a hundred years ago, and many of the images presented look like something beamed in from an alternate universe.
I never got used to the sheer scale of what was on display, and the adventurous spirit that drove the enterprise comes through loud and clear. The promise of airship-driven future transport is celebrated prematurely, lending the film a wistful quality. The audience winced at anachronistic portrayals of walrus and polar bear hunts, but these moments served to locate the film in an alien time and place.
Seeing The Flight of the Airship Norge over the Artic Ocean on the big screen was a truly singular experience, and probably my highlight of the festival so far. Apart maybe from The Cabin In The Woods. That movie freaking ruled.
But the festival has only just started, and there's plenty more awesome to come. See you back here for further discussion.
* What have you seen so far at the film festival? Any of the above? Thoughts? Comment below!