Wellington Film FestivalIt’s Film Festival time of year, that two and a half week period when watching three films a day becomes more than shameful self-indulgence, its almost obligatory.

Like life itself, preparing for the Film Festival is all about choices. You start with a virgin programme and then, over a period of weeks, notes are scrawled, dates are checked, friends are consulted and previews like this are read and then discarded. You check the timetable wondering whether you can leave work to, er, post a letter for a couple of hours on Friday morning; you find yourself at lunchtime checking how long it really does take to walk briskly between Te Papa and The Embassy, and you try and forget those moments during past Festivals when you come out of a disappointing but worthy Finnish drama at the Paramount and pass hordes of happy people who saw the extraordinary Japanese animation at The Embassy instead.

The whittling is relentless as the forces of time and space require choices to be made. To add an other layer of complication to your personal process here’s my list of the less obvious options, some of which I’ve been lucky enough to preview, but mostly I’m hanging out to see them like everyone else.

The rest of the preview, after the jump.

Five Easy Pieces posterThis year guest programmer Richard King has come up with the most extraordinary retrospective selection I’ve ever seen at a Festival, a stunning survey of the last great iconoclastic period of American Cinema – the outlaw 70’s. I have to see all of them on the big screen or my life won’t be complete but I can particularly recommend Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson), The Long Goodbye (Altman) and The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich) to those not as committed as I am.

Half Nelson posterOf the other features in the Festival, the one that comes closest to that 70’s indie spirit is Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck), starring Ryan Gosling (soon to star Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). He plays an inspiring inner city teacher with a drug problem and it’s a wonderful performance in a very good film. Also nominated for an Academy Award this year was Maggie Gyllenhaal for Sherrybaby (Laurie Collyer). There’s another fine performance in The Italian (Andrei Kravhchuk), from 6-year-old Vanya Solntsev as a young orphan looking for his mother. Highly recommended.

Deep Water posterTen minutes into Deep Water (Louise Ormond, Jerry Rothwell) and you’re thinking that they really can make a documentary about anything these days – the 1968 Round The World Yacht Race of all things. Then it starts turning mad, like the central character, and you’re hooked. Quite brilliant, don’t let anybody tell you the story before you’ve seen it.

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten posterOther documentary highlights include a loving and tender portrait of the great Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (Julien Temple). Strummer liked nothing more than gathering friends around a campfire and Temple has done the same – witnesses to Strummer’s life tell their stories lit by flickering orange flames, accompanied by that familiar crackle. Not previewed, but on my list is The Bridge (Eric Steel), about jumpers from San Francisco’s Golden Gate, and Helvetica (Gary Hustwit) which tells the story of the font (you might know its slightly deformed cousin Arial).

Don’t miss Al Barry’s latest roasting of the right, A Civilised Society. Barry uses exemplary research to tell the other side of the brutal economic reform story, this time focusing on education.

The Devil Came on Horseback (Annie Sudfberg, Ricki Stern) is already the most depressing film I’ll see this year. Not just for the documented Darfur atrocities which take up the first half, but for the world’s self-imposed blindness and the futile attempts at enlightenment that are the second half.

Bamako posterThe latest Vanity Fair reminds us that fewer than half of one percent of the death rate in Africa is due to famine or war. A portrait of a vigorous, alternative life in Africa is found in the vivid Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako) as the people of Mali argue their case for economic independence and respect.

Also notable: Matthew Saville’s Noise is a hidden gem with some fine characterisation; the finest short story writer in the world (Alice Munro) is adapted by Sarah Polley in Away From Her; Lars Von Trier says he is retiring due to depression – office comedy The Boss of It All may well be his final fling; and the best title in the Festival goes to No Mercy for the Rude – for everyone who feels the need to talk during the movie.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 18 July 2007.

Cross-posted to Funerals & Snakes.