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Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

Dominic Corry: New Zealand's Oscar heroes

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Movie blogger Dominic Corry traces New Zealand's long and successful history at the Academy Awards.

Anna Paquin got an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Piano. Photo/file
Anna Paquin got an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Piano. Photo/file

New Zealand's relationship with the Academy Awards changed forever on the afternoon of March 1st 2004 when that year's host Billy Crystal joked that there was "nobody in New Zealand left to thank" after Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King snagged its umpteenth Oscar.

In one day we went from a country with a small but honourable presence at the world's most recognised awards ceremony to the belle of the ball. Return of the King won eleven Oscars that day, matching Ben-Hur's record and calcifying the internationally-recognised achievements of Peter Jackson and his hugely talented collaborators.

While the 2004 ceremony marked the unquestioned highpoint of New Zealand's history with the Oscars, it's important to note that there are plenty of other films that have been recognised by the Academy, some of which I am going to highlight here.

New Zealand's first taste of Oscar recognition came in the form of a National Film Unit short called Snows of Aorangi, which can be viewed in its entirety at the exceedingly comprehensive NZ On Screen website.

Perhaps appropriately for an early New Zealand effort, Brian Brake's film focuses on our stunning natural landscape, presenting all sorts of eye-popping imagery, most notably the slopes of Mount Cook. It was nominated for Best Short Subject (Live Action) at the 1959 Oscars. Maybe this film is the reason everyone in Hollywood says "I've never been, but I've heard it's beautiful" when asked about New Zealand.

New Zealand's proximity to the Antarctic means that we often get mentioned in any films that feature the locale. It would be three more years until Ernest Borgnine uttered the words "New" and "Zealand" sequentially in Ice Station Zebra, but in 1965, One Hundred and Forty Days Under The World was nominated in the Documentary - Short Subject category.

The film directed by Kell Fowler is a fascinating insight into base life in the Antarctic, and features all manner of epic imagery.

Functioning as a kind of spiritual follow-up to Snows Of Aorangi, Michael Firth's Off The Edge is a full-length documentary that follows a bunch of skiers as they plummet down some of New Zealand's best slopes. The exhilarating and often vertiginous film garnered a nomination for Best Documentary - Feature at the 1977 Oscars and gave way in the '80s to an entire industry of similar films.

Released a year before New Zealand's first full-length animated movie, Footrot Flats, Bob Stenhouse's animated 1986 short The Frog, the Dog and The Devil is a visually striking little ripper that holds up remarkably well.

You can watch the film in it's entirety here and I highly recommend that you do - I can't say I've seen anything quite like it made in this country. It's not hard to see why it was nominated for Best Animated Short at the 1987 awards. There were only three films nominated in the category that year, and a fellow nominee was the first ever Pixar film Luxo Jr from where the company gets its iconic "hopping lamp" logo. Neither film won.

While these various shorts and documentaries encouraged nascent Kiwi filmmakers, we got our first taste of broad Oscar glory at the 1994 ceremony where Jane Campion's The Piano was nominated for eight awards and won three.

With Schindler's List dominating on the day, Campion received the traditional Oscar "consolation prize" award of a Best Screenplay win. Lead Holly Hunter won Best Actress and little Canadian-born Kiwi Anna Paquin charmed the world by hopping back into her seat after winning the Best Supporting Actor category, instead of heading backstage to do press.

Paquin's Best Supporting Actress win at age eleven was evoked nine years later when the thirteen-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for Best Actress for the 2002 global breakout hit Whale Rider. One can't help but be reminded of both incidents with the nomination this year of Beasts of the Southern Wild's nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis for Best Actress.

A year after Campion's glory, Peter Jackson got his first hit of Oscar attention when he and partner/collaborator Fran Walsh were nominated for Best Screenplay in the 1995 ceremony for their breakout arthouse hit Heavenly Creatures. Nobody could've predicted then that the next time he'd be part of the proceedings would be for a huge popcorn epic.

The year after Whale Rider brought some Maori faces into the Oscars, Taika Waititi would display some very Kiwi insouciance to a global audience when he pretended to be asleep when his name was read out as the director of Best Live Action Short nominee Two Cars, One Night, which is also available to view on the NZ On Screen website.

Although the previous year featured all the Return of the King wins, Taika's mid-ceremony nap counts as my all-time favourite Kiwi Oscar moment.

King Kong, Jackson's follow-up to Lord of the Rings, garnered four nominations (and three wins) in 2006 and even though 2009's The Lovely Bones fell flat with critics and audiences, it warranted a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination for the perennially underrated Stanley Tucci.

Which brings us to this year's awards, where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is up for three gongs (Hair & Make-Up; Production Design and Visual Effects). Wholly deserving in all these categories, it shall be interesting to see if the prequel trilogy builds in esteem over the release of the three films.

There is a widely-held perception that Return of the King's haul was recognising the LOTR trilogy as a whole, but few people are predicting the same fate for the new trilogy.

I'll be rooting for them though. Those rock monsters were rad.

Amped for this year's Oscars? What's your favourite Oscar-recognised Kiwi film?

Dominic Corry

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

One of New Zealand's most vocal and enthusiastic film critics for over ten years, Dominic's cinematic opinions can also be heard on radio and seen on television. His list of favourite movies is always evolving, but is generally likely to feature The Lady Vanishes (1938); Vertigo (1958); The Parallax View (1972); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978); Aliens (1986); Midnight Run (1989); Metropolitan (1990) and Primer (2002). He also reviews snack food.

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