26 Jan 2024

Five Film Society highlights for 2024

From Widescreen, 12:07 pm on 26 January 2024

Wellington Film Society announced their 2024 programme today and Dan Slevin singles out five titles that should be essential viewing for film fans.

Still from the 1971 science-fiction film Silent Running directed by Douglas Trumbull.

Photo: Wellington Film Society

One of my regular themes here, on Nights and on social media, is how difficult it is to find classic films in Aotearoa these days. The rise of streaming has killed almost all local video stores but the streamers themselves have very weak collections of older films and availability via digital rental is very much up and down.

Luckily, we have the film societies, who give audiences the chance to watch the greats – some rare, some not so rare – on the big screen every week.

Wellington Film Society draws most of its programme from a selection curated by the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies (closely allied to the New Zealand International Film Festival) so except where noted, there’s a strong chance that these picks will also feature at your local society this year.

Silent Running

Still from the 1971 science-fiction film Silent Running directed by Douglas Trumbull.

Photo: Wellington Film Society

Special effects legend Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain*, Blade Runner) only got to direct two features of his own, and the first, the passionate enviro-sci-fi classic Silent Running, has been a personal favourite of mine since my childhood. Bruce Dern plays a passionate astronaut/gardener, one of several tasked with preserving Earth’s biodiversity on three giant spaceships floating out in the far reaches of the solar system. When the project is cancelled and the powers back home effectively give up on any attempts at bringing nature back to the planet, he takes things into his own hands with tragic consequences. I rewatched it a few years ago, and it is as enraging and heartbreaking now as it was then. (*The Andromeda Strain is also playing in this year’s programme.)


Movie still from the 2001 New Zealand feature film Rain featuring Sarah Peirse.

Photo: Wellington Film Society

New Zealand director Christine Jeffs inexplicably has only three feature film credits in 23 years. (A fourth is on its way however, an adaptation of Carl Shuker’s novel A Mistake is due later this year.) Her first film Rain (2001) was also an adaptation, of Kirsty Gunn’s novel of the same name. A dark coming-of-age story in the New Zealand gothic tradition, it features a strong cast (Marton Csokas, Sarah Peirse, and the late Alistair Browning who won the best supporting actor award at that year’s Nokia NZ Film Awards) and striking cinematography from John Toon who has shot all of Jeffs’ pictures.

Joint Security Area

Still from the 2000 Korean film Joint Security Area.

Photo: Wellington Film Society

Korean cinema gets a brief spotlight with three films selected. The one I’m looking forward to most is Park Chan-Wook’s 2000 thriller Joint Security Area. A skirmish along the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas threatens to ignite into something much more dangerous and in an attempt to reduce tensions, an investigation is led by a neutral Swiss Army major with Korean heritage. What she finds is more dramatic and personal than she expects but no less threatening to peace in the region. The film was a massive hit in South Korea at the time and was even given as a gift from the South Korean government to Kim Jong-il during diplomatic negotiations in 2007.


Still from the 1981 horror film Possession featuring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill.

Photo: Wellington Film Society

Sam Neill once told me that his favourite film of his own is the rarely seen 1981 psychological horror film Possession, by Polish writer/director Andrzej Żulawski. Neill plays a spy in West Berlin, married to Isabelle Adjani, who begins to manifest some disturbing behaviours after asking for a divorce. One of the most troubling films of the 80s, Possession has recently had a 4K restoration meaning that it’s not quite as impossible to find as it was for a long time.

Barry Lyndon

Movie still from Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film Barry Lyndon featuring Ryan O'Neal as Barry

Ryan O'Neal as Barry in Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film Barry Lyndon Photo: Warner Bros.

The opening night film for 2024 is one that the WFS has sourced off its own bat so won’t be shared by other societies. Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon will look an absolute peach at the Embassy Theatre. I rewatched it on Blu-ray recently for my Fifty Best Films project and wrote this here:

Because, for all the wonderful painterly compositions and candlelight tableaux, it is the work of the actors and the wit of the script that really makes the film sing. Love Story star Ryan O’Neal is a kind of blank canvas as Barry, surrounded by a catalogue of Britain and Irelands’s greatest character actors, all contributing to a wry commentary on class and ambition.

The film charts Barry’s rise and fall, from handsome and rogueish social climber to disabled and all-but destitute, living off the charity of those who he had once tried to emulate. There are many adventures along the way – the film is very long in true Kubrickian fashion – but never seems to outstay its welcome. Kubrick’s perfect choices in what we now call ‘needle-drops’ also help: Handel, Mozart, Vivaldi and The Chieftains all contribute.

The Wellington Film Society schedule is traditionally split between before the NZIFF and afterwards, but this year there is some uncertainty about the availability of the Embassy Theatre, home of both the society and the festival, as the theatre may be having some maintenance done post-festival which would impact the schedule. Wellingtonians should keep an eye on the society website for updates.

The programmes for all of New Zealand’s film societies can be found at the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies website.

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