The most wonderful time of year is upon us once again. No, Santa's not coming down the chimney just yet but for Kiwi cinephiles the arrival of the New Zealand International Film Festival is its very own festive event. It can be tough to know what's hot from year to year – and 2019's selection is particularly fantastic. Here are a few highlights from the programme that simply can't be missed.
Film-maker focus: These are the latest offerings from major film-makers around the world – the jewels in any programme's crown. There are a few truly exciting stand-outs this year, including French master Claire Denis' much buzzed-about High Life , which is sure to be a fiendish, strange, sci-fi contraption like no other.
Many of the most exciting emerging film-makers of our time are featured in the line-up. Key picks include Under the Silver Lake , the follow-up to director David Robert Mitchell's brilliant It Follows. Meanwhile, gloriously retro, spooky and sensual imagery can be expected from Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy) in his latest confection In Fabric . Beloved British film-maker Mike Leigh is also featured here with his period drama Peterloo while Olivier Assayas, whose Personal Shopper is one of the finest films of the decade, returns with a far lighter but nevertheless fascinating offering in Non-Fiction . However, the film I'm perhaps most excited about is Chinese film-maker Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night , an audacious, form-bending effort that features an extensive interlude in 3D.
These are some insanely enticing titles from Cannes Film Festival, the most prestigious of all fests. This year, the key acquisition is undoubtedly festival centrepiece:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
, Celine Sciamma's acclaimed period romance film that is already being hailed as the film to beat for year-end lists. Brazil's frighteningly pseudo-authoritarian regime is tackled head-on in the widely-discussed and divisive
while Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's
It Must Be Heaven
A family's real-life lie and the movie that complicated it
Star Wars fans get their first look at the new Sith Trooper
Robert De Niro and Netflix bet that New York can be a new Hollywood
promises lighter but still pointed satirical fare. Meanwhile, out of Sundance Film Festival, Lulu Wang's well-liked
is a moving and warm portrait of a family saying goodbye to a loved-one. The South American
will also be highly anticipated, a Herzogian heart-of-darkness story that's drawing comparisons to Apocalypse Now.
It's an especially thrilling year for classics with practically every item on the programme a total knockout. Francis Ford Coppola's newly minted "final cut" of
, one of the very best films ever made, has to be the most exciting. If you haven't seen this hallucinatory and haunting masterwork, you'll never get a better chance. Sticking with films in the running for "best of all time", Andrei Tarkovsky's
, about a medieval religious painter, is a jaw-dropping Russian blockbuster from one of the finest film-makers the world has ever seen. Then there's a screening of
, the iconic and hallucinatory 1983 portrait of a world guided by technology, unparalleled in scope. Auckland Philharmonia Live Cinema is also back, this time accompanying Alfred Hitchcock's
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog
, regarded by the master as the first "true" Hitchcock film.
Agnes and friends:
The NZIFF marks the passing of beloved and trailblazing film-maker Agnes Varda, with five of her very best films including
, featuring one of the most fascinating and enthralling erotic scenes ever put to film. Suitable for a year celebrating one of the most important of female film-makers, there are several stellar entries from important women aound the world. Jennifer Kent's follow-up to The Babadook,
, is already infamous as one of the most divisive and hard-to-watch offerings of the year while Darya Zhuk's
looks to be an under-the-radar treat for music-lovers. Sophie Hyde's
, too, features Alia Shawkat in an insightful ode to female friendship.
Oddities: Ant Timpson's Incredibly Strange section houses some of the world's weirdest and most hard-to-place films. This year is a bumper crop including Cannes import Deerskin , featuring The Artist's Jean Dujardin in a deconstruction of masculinity that revolves around a very special deerskin jacket. Yann Gonzalez' Giallo-infused psychodrama Knife+Heart is a particularly wild navigation through a world of sex and sin.
Documentaries: This year's NZIFF line-up is especially documentary-heavy, with a wide range on offer. One of the most exciting is undoubtedly Amazing Grace , the long-thought-lost document of Aretha Franklin's beloved gospel performance that would go on to become one of the best-selling gospel records of all time. This one features some of the most rousing, astonishing vocals you will ever hear. Bring a hankie. For Sama looks to be a vitally important, heart-rending portrayal of the Syrian war; Apollo 11 pieces together archival footage of the titular space shuttle's trip to the moon on expansive 70mm. For my money, a can't miss experience will be Hale County, This Morning, This Evening , an impressionistic and powerful portrayal of black life in Alabama - a complex, revelatory feat of documentation. Lastly, for the true-crime lovers out there, Cold Case: Hammarskjold is the kind of twist-laden semi-thriller in the mould of The Imposter and Three Identical Strangers, this time with staggering real-world implications.
It wouldn't be NZIFF without a spotlight on some wonderful new tales from our place. The buzziest title this year is teacher-turned-film-maker Hamish Bennett's
adapted from his subtle, moving short, Ross and Beth. Early word suggests this will be a kind-hearted, sweet-natured portrait of small town New Zealand. Following its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival,
For My Father's Kingdom
is a documentary portrait of struggles within Tongan culture, the church and the family unit that will undoubtedly pack a punch. As with every year at the festival, there is a great line-up of short films in the NZ's Best section. This year, director extraordinaire Jane Campion chose the group, shining a spotlight on young and emerging Kiwi film-makers in an environment where they are often overlooked. The next Campion, Niki Caro or Taika Waititi could be in there, waiting to shine.