Barney McDonald: NZ On Screen's top 10 NZ feature films

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NZ on Screen has released its selection for its top 10 New Zealand Feature Films. Barney McDonald examines the list.
James Rolleston in the film 'Boy' by New Zealand director Taika Waititi.
James Rolleston in the film 'Boy' by New Zealand director Taika Waititi.

The team at NZ On Screen has stuck its neck out and compiled its pick of this country's Top 10 feature films, providing a kind of 'Desert Island' DVD collection for anyone wanting to watch quality local film or compare their own favourites against the panel's picks.

So the gloves are off and no punches should be pulled when reflecting on the choices the NZ On Screen panel has made. Think about them. Disagree. Champion the choices you agree with. Ask your friends, children, spouse, colleagues and local cinema ushers if they would choose the same films, or any of them at all. In a healthy society, culture can withstand close scrutiny. It begs for it. If we can't look at what we produce and its achievements, can we expect to evolve and flourish creatively?

There are no surprises in this top 10. All of these films made an impact either at the box office, in the media, on film studies courses or in the wider cultural spectrum, which is perhaps where it counts the most. Taika Waititi's Boy, with a domestic box office haul of $9,237,976, is our most successful film by ticket sales (Once Were Warriors is still the bums on seats leader, with 1,054,000 tickets sold to Boy's 845,482).

Released just three years ago, it has already cemented its place in the local lexicon of intrinsically "Kiwi" films that captured its subject and subjects with a canny eye for detail and authenticity. It is also a comedy, a genre we've struggled with over the years. Unsurprisingly, with the exception of Geoff Murphy's 1981 hit Goodbye Pork Pie, it's the only comedy in this top 10.

We make dark films. Actor Sam Neill's 1995 documentary, Cinema of Unease, nailed our tendency to make brooding, barbarous films prioritising violence and dysfunction, not to mention the primordial nature of the coastline, rivers, mountains and bush. Utu, just given a fresh lease on life with a newly released director's redux, The Piano, Vigil, Once Were Warriors, Smash Palace, even Whale Rider and Heavenly Creatures, aren't pretty films to watch.

There is beauty, especially in the scenery and photography, which we excel at, but life is depicted as difficult, complex and bewildering. Neill starred in Sleeping Dogs in 1977, which makes the honourable mentions list, though it could easily be argued that Cinema of Unease should have made the top 10 as a poignant, thoughtful attempt to understand ourselves through cinema. Like a scene involving the Mini in Goodbye Pork Pie, it cuts to the chase.

We are a weird people and we seem to prefer making films about how weird we are. We depict what we know.

In an attempt to placate fans of film history and horror/genre films, the panel added John O'Shea's 1966 musical/romantic comedy Don't Let It Get You and David Blyth's 1984 splatter flick Death Warmed Up to the secondary list [see Irene Gardiner's 'Form Guide' discussion to the left]. Both have merit, but a Top 10 should be lean and mean. Like having 10 nominees instead of six for Best Film at the Academy Awards, honourable mentions give the panel a little space to manoeuvre and a get out of jail free card.

But why not then include Peter Jackson's 1987 "science fiction splatter comedy horror" Bad Taste? It certainly launched a uniquely successful career. Perhaps it warrants inclusion purely on the basis of ticking so many genre boxes at once.

On a similar basis, Jackson and Costa Botes' Forgotten Silver is a genre-defying mockumentary that resoundingly declared a hitherto unexposed sophistication in concept and execution. The film received an almost unheard of 100 per cent positive rating on aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes and was apparently proclaimed by Guinness Book of Records as the greatest film hoax in history. A film about a fake history that made history? Ticks all my boxes.

Much dissension will arise from the exclusion of Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies and possibly his 2009 adaptation of The Lovely Bones. Although Jackson's film company WingNut was involved in all productions, they are generally viewed as Hollywood films made in Wellington. For the purposes of this Top 10, it's sensible to preclude them.

We can and should celebrate their (mostly positive) impact on the local film industry. And for the fact that The Lord of the Rings and The Lovely Bones resulted in Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Frazer and Brian Eno, respectively, working with Jackson (not to mention Howard Shore, Christopher Lee, Blue Velvet's Brad Dourif, the Tolkien estate ...). The list of accomplishments, the Oscar haul notwithstanding, is phenomenal, far outstripping a prudent exclusion from this Top 10.

The bottom line is that the panel's choices provide food for thought. In fact it's very thoughtful of them to stimulate such thought. With that in mind, I think they should have included Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table (1990) in the Top 10, and placed Christine Jeffs' Rain (2001) there too, instead of in the honourable mentions where it could be replaced by Robert Sarkies' bleakly contentious Out of the Blue (2006) and Harry Sinclair's inventive Topless Women Talk About Their Lives (1987). Not that I'm relenting and condoning honourable mentions. (And don't ask me who above would elbow out of the Top 10!)

What is news is that a dozen of the 20 highest-grossing New Zealand movies were made in the last decade. We're hungry for our own films. And the industry is adept at marketing them to the public, especially when they know they are onto a winner.

Although times are tough, let us remember that looking back allows us to look forward. More great films are yet to be made. What might this Top 10 look like in another couple of decades?

NZ ON SCREEN'S TOP 10 NZ FEATURE FILMS

Kelly Johnson and Tony Barry in 'Good Bye Pork Pie'.
Kelly Johnson and Tony Barry in 'Good Bye Pork Pie'.

Goodbye Pork Pie (1981)

Hot on the heels of Sleeping Dogs, Geoff Murphy's low-budget smash definitively proved that Kiwis could make blockbusters too.

The 1981 film 'Smash Palace'.
The 1981 film 'Smash Palace'.

The "Blondini gang" dashed to Invercargill in the yellow Mini and drew Star Wars-sized crowds to local cinemas (bums on seats numbers that are still unmatched).

Smash Palace (1981)

New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called Smash Palace "amazingly accomplished" and Bruno Lawrence's brilliant, brooding performance as an estranged Dad gone bush with his daughter (Greer Robson), reportedly made Jack Nicholson jealous.

Zac Wallace in 'Utu Redux'.
Zac Wallace in 'Utu Redux'.

The Kiwi cinema classic launched Roger Donaldson's US career.

Utu (1983)

In 1983 director Geoff Murphy stormed out of the scrub of the nascent Kiwi film industry with a quadruple-barreled shotgun take on the great NZ colonial epic.

The ground-breaking tale of a M?ori leader (Anzac Wallace) and his bloody path to redress 'imbalance' was "enhanced and restored" in 2013.

Vigil (1984)

If there is a flag-bearer for the 'cinema of unease', it's arguably Toss: an 11-year old girl enduring the vicissitudes of hill country farm life.

Vincent Ward's debut feature was the first NZ film selected for competition at Cannes; LA Times' Kevin Thomas lauded it as "a work of awesome beauty".

Jane Campion's 'The Piano'.
Jane Campion's 'The Piano'.

The Piano (1993)

Jane Campion's breakout Oscar-winning tale of sexual emancipation in the colonial mud and bush is the only New Zealand film to have won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

Alongside acclaimed turns from Sam Neill, Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, 11-year-old Anna Paquin won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet star in 'Heavenly Creatures'.
Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet star in 'Heavenly Creatures'.

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

The film that saw splatter-king Peter Jackson lauded by a whole new audience was born from partner Fran Walsh's fascination with a matricide in 50s Christchurch.

Their kinetic vision of a tragic teen friendship gained art-house acclaim, Oscar nods and praise for newbies Lynskey and Winslet.

'Once Were Warriors' starring Temuera Morrison.
'Once Were Warriors' starring Temuera Morrison.

Once Were Warriors (1994)

Warriors completed an early 90s trifecta for Kiwi cinema and opened the eyes of movie goers to an unexamined aspect of modern NZ life.

Lee Tamahori's visceral depiction of gang and domestic violence was adapted from the Alan Duff novel and saw career-defining roles for Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen.

Keisha Castle-Hughes in 'Whale Rider'.
Keisha Castle-Hughes in 'Whale Rider'.

Whale Rider (2002)

Director Niki Caro adapted Whale Rider from Witi Ihimaera's novel about an East coast M?ori girl's coming of age. Pai's journey won hearts worldwide, including audience choice awards at Sundance and Toronto; and Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest nominee for a Best Actress Academy Award.

Emily Barclay and Mathew Macfadyen in 'In My Fathers Den'.
Emily Barclay and Mathew Macfadyen in 'In My Fathers Den'.

In My Father's Den (2004)

Arguably the Top 10 wild card, this Maurice Gee adaptation quietly won regard for digging up the metaphoric rotting fruit in a Central Otago town.

The 2010 film 'Boy'.
The 2010 film 'Boy'.

It marked the debut of a formidable fledgling talent; it was tragically also the last feature for director Brad McGann, who died of cancer in 2007.

Boy (2010)

Taika Waititi's tale of an imaginative 11-year-old East Coast boy trying to make sense of his world and his just-out-of-jail father, mixed poignancy with trademark whimsy and visual inventiveness. The Crazy Horses gang drew local crowds not seen since Pork Pie's Blondini gang took the yellow Mini south.

- nzonscreen.com

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