This year's New Zealand International Film Festival programme is about to give film buffs their annual freak-out. Russell Baillie takes a sneak peek.

If you were a prize-winning film at Cannes this year, it's almost as if a mid-winter trip to New Zealand came as a bonus with the trophy.

The 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival is a veritable oasis of Palmes. And given that Cannes was considered by many European critics as a vintage year, that bodes well for the Auckland event starting on July 19 and Wellington a week later.

Among the films the festival has grabbed from the Cannes trophy case are Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning Amour with the Austrian director, a past winner, offering an unflinching portrayal of the dying days of an elderly Parisian couple. Other challenging works hot off the Croisette include Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt, and best actress and best screenplay winner Beyond the Hills from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, whose 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days took the Palme d'Or in 2007.

Most likely to induce the what-was-that wonderment that came from last year's festival cosmic double of The Tree of Life and Melancholia could well be the Auckland opening night film Beasts of the Southern Wild - "an exhilarating rush of pagan festivity" and "a wild blend of social realism and eco-sci-fi" set on islands near New Orleans. It won its director Benh Zeitlin, who had already picked up the grand jury prize at Sundance, the Cannes Camera d'Or for best first film.


Another Cannes place-getter is Gomorrah director Matteo Garone's Reality, a Fellini-esque look at one Italian chap's efforts to make a reality telly star of himself. It won Cannes' Grand Prix award, while the Jury Prize went to Brit Ken Loach's latest, The Angel's Share, a kilted caper comedy about a plot to steal a valuable barrel of single malt scotch from a distillery on the west coast of Scotland, which is quite possibly the swearing-est flick at the NZ festival too.

And rounding out the Cannes trophy holders heading this way is In the Fog, the Russian war movie which won the Critics' Prize.

The closing night film is Holy Motors. Opinion at Cannes was divided over Leos Carax's mindbending Lynchian tale of Monsieur Oscar's limousine adventures in a twilight zone Paris, which comes complete with a cameo and a song by Kylie Minogue.

But the best Aussie singing voices in the programme are from The Sapphires, which after its out-of-competition Cannes showing, is shaping up as an international hit. It's a musical comedy about a 1960s Aboriginal girl group heading to Vietnam to sing Motown hits for the troops.

Enough of the Cannes stuff, here's some other possible highlights of the Auckland festival ...

Famous faces
As always, the festival delivers opportunities to see movie stars do what they're paid to do. Sell movies? No, act. Among those breaking out of their typecasting are Twilight star Kristen Stewart, taking the biggest pay cut in the impressive cast of the long-awaited adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On The Road. The film is directed by Walter Salles who made a good job of The Motorcycle Diaries, but reviews on this one have been mixed.

Jack Black teams up with director Richard Linklater for Bernie, about a small-town Texas undertaker who may have hastened the arrival of one of his clients. And Sean Penn, who is definitely more actor than movie star, offers "the strangest performance of his career" in This Must Be The Place where, by the looks of it, he's a shoo-in if they ever make a biopic of The Cure's Robert Smith.

Talking of famous faces and authors, this year's festival devotes a section of its programme to thrillers, entitled "Armed and Dangerous". It features screen adaptations of stories by pulp kings Tracy Letts (Killer Joe, starring Matthew McConaughey among others) and James Ellroy (Rampart, starring Woody Harrelson as a psycho LA cop).


Announced earlier, the majority of the 13 New Zealand features are documentaries including Maori Boy Genius and The Last Dogs, which are screening after world premieres at Northern Hemisphere festivals. But it's not all serious domestic fare. Getting its first bow is How to Meet Girls from a Distance, the film that resulted from the Make My Movie feature-funding contest run through about a "shy guy's attempt to find true love via unethical means".

The festival has Hitchcock with an orchestra - but no it's not the Psycho strings. The Auckland Philharmonia will be providing the live soundtrack to Hitchcock's 1929 Blackmail and Charlie Chaplin's silent short, Easy Street, from 1917.

Elsewhere, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (altogether now: "Heeeeere's Johnny ...") is being screened in high definition digital and obsessive fans of the film are also directed to Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts, which has somehow escaped the "Incredibly Strange" section of the programme and ended up among the docos.

There's a couple of other restored films showing they don't sing 'em, dress 'em or make 'em like they used to. That includes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell; and tunes such as Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend. And Otto Preminger's 1958 Bonjour Tristesse is possibly the most chic flick in the festival, with its tale of jetset Riviera playboy David Niven and Jean Seberg as his rebellious teenage daughter.

There's plenty for kids and fans of European and Asian big-screen animation on offer, including the latest from Japan's Studio Ghibli, From Up on Poppy Hill. Also on offer is a showcase of Poland's Platige Image Film Studio and its cutting-edge prowess in CGI and 3D digital animation.

The documentary quotient of the festival now stretches over four sections - Framing Reality, Musicians! Dancers!, Portrait of the Artist and new grouping: Champions. The last offers docos on everything from dissident Chinese Ai Weiwei to Undefeated, a behind the scenes look at a season of a struggling North Memphis high school football team, which was this year's Oscar winner in the category. The music docos, which have been canvassed earlier in TimeOut, have as headliner Marley, a study of the life and times of the Third World superstar.


In the Framing Reality section, the Peter Jackson/Fran Walsh-produced West of Memphis, about the case of the West Memphis Three, is in heavy company - Werner Herzog's double "death row portraits" Into the Abyss and Death Row have the German documentarian exploring the grim realities of capital punishment in the US.


What: The New Zealand International Film Festival (Auckland)
Where: At The Civic and various other cinemas from July 19.
More info:

- TimeOut