Wellington Film Festival posterThe Film Festival has been a fixture of Wellington’s winter calendar for nearly 40 years and for those of us who organise our lives around glowing rectangles of one kind or another there is no better way to spend a cold and wet afternoon than in the comfy leather chairs at the Embassy, engrossed in a work of art.

Programming a Festival like Wellington may seem easy but I can assure you it’s getting tougher every year. The sheer volume of independent film is growing beyond all reason (I read that there were around 5,000 films submitted to Sundance last year) and attention must be paid to all four corners of the globe nowadays.

The glossy programme (doing double-duty this year as Festival Guide Book and Souvenir Programme) is 90 pages long and I direct you to it forthwith – my role here is, with the help of some previews from the Festival office, to point your attention towards some of the unheralded titles available amongst the hundreds on offer. This year I only mention films I have seen and readers are asked to add their picks/hopes/reports in the comments.

The Savages stillThe first thing to point out is that, unlike the old days, there is nothing to be gained in trying to guess which films will return for a commercial season. With the loss of the three (otherwise unlamented) Rialto screens in June, there is even less chance of a film coming back than before and the general downturn in attendance this year has made distributors wary. At the moment there are no plans to release The Savages (a well-observed, superbly acted drama with plenty of black humour starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) and even the Jack Black – Michel Gondry comedy Be Kind Rewind is expected to go straight to DVD post-Festival (although strong local sales may provoke a change of mind). Recommendation: if the big screen experience is important to you, don’t wait.

[Preview continues after the jump]

Many films in the Festival are never likely to come back commercially – they may not even have local distribution and thus even a DVD release is unlikely. Of the feature films I got a chance to see before deadline, I was most taken with Silent Light by Mexican Carlos Reygada ( Japón, 2003). In an isolated Mennonite community in Mexico, a husband has to deal with the consequences when he tells his wife of his love for another woman. A fable-like story, exquisitely photographed, with an ending that more than rewards the work you have to put in. I made the mistake of watching it over two nights which reduced its potency by about 75% and I recommend you get to the Embassy screening (if possible) where you can wrap it around you like a blanket.

Somers Town stillDirector Shane Meadows has been a personal and Festival favourite for nearly 13 years and he showed with last year’s This is England that he is striking a rich vein of form. Somers Town stars that film’s Thomas Turgoose (now 16) as Tomo, on the run from an unmentionable family life in Nottingham. In London, he meets another lonely drifter, Polish immigrant Marek, and they spend the Summer larking about and growing up in the streets around St Pancras. Fully funded by the Eurostar company as an act of pure patronage, perhaps it could be a model for the new KiwiRail company to follow.

In the documentary section (with the immensely strong music department justifiably given it’s own section of the programme) there is something for everyone. With no less than three Iraq War docos to choose from you could do a lot worse than Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure about the abuse-revealing photographs from Abu Ghraib. No one frames a story better than Morris and, while all most of the talk about the film has been abstract discussion about the nature of photographic reality, it should arouse plenty of righteous anger simply for the horror it portrays.

Crazy Love is another well-constructed tale. With this one it helps to not know too much detail going in, as the reveals are deliciously handled. Suffice to say that love is blind, in more ways than one.

Barefoot Cinema stillIf you wanted to explain to a stranger why New Zealand is known as Godzone, show them Barefoot Cinema, the documentary about beloved cinematographer Alun Bollinger. His idyllic life in Reefton on the West Coast, his career choices (not least to stay in NZ when his contemporaries in the 70s and 80s left for Hollywood) and of course the AlBol-HelBol 40 year love story. There’s a dark shadow that appears but even that is handled by the family with impeccable grace.

Ant Timpson has revived the somewhat moribund Incredibly Strange Film Festival after several years as a watered-down That’s Incredible sub-section. It still sits a little uncomfortably within the whole but the programming is back to it’s best: you’ll find our cover star tucked away there in Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. Meanwhile King of Kong plays like an amped up version of that crossword documentary last year, this time following vintage video game obsessives and the quest for the world Donkey Kong record. It’s a classic good guy/bad guy set-up and you’ll be as manipulated as any 8-bit Mario, but it’s a lot of fun.

The Return stillFinally, tucked away at the Film Archive for two lunchtime screenings is a little gem called The Return by Wellington filmmaker Kathy Dudding. I have just re-watched my two favourite films, London and Robinson in Space by Patrick Keiller, and was delighted to see Wellington get a similar aesthetic treatment – beautifully composed, perfectly balanced, standing images of modern Wellington (the Harbour and Oriental Bay for the most part) with Dudding’s grandmother’s memories of Edwardian and post-WWI Wellington on the soundtrack. Mesmerising and moving.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 16 July, 2008. Cross-posted to Funerals & Snakes.