16 Jun 2023

How to curate your own film festival, for free

11:48 am on 17 June 2023

For all-round cinematic experience, it's hard to beat watching a film on the big screen at your local movie theatre, choc-dipped ice cream and popcorn to hand. For convenience, choice and cost reasons, it's hard to beat watching a film from the comfort of your sofa, especially if you haven't had to pay for it.

Most New Zealanders can get a free subscription to Kanopy and/or Beamafilm, through a New Zealand library card.

These impressive streaming services, metred at six and 10 titles monthly respectively, mean you can curate your own little film festival without leaving the house or spending a cent.

If you're keen on the drama of politics, especially American politics, these streamers artfully enable this habit, with features and documentaries.

Beamafilm's LBJ is a powerful work about the major progressive legislative changes Lyndon Johnson, Texan Master of the Senate, passed as President.

Woody Harrelson delivers a committed, convincing performance as his fellow Texan, the schoolteacher turned "workhorse" to JFK's "showhorse".

"Power is where power goes." LBJ captures Johnson's skill at passing Great Society legislation post-JFK's assassination; major civil rights and healthcare acts, against historic opposition.

The film also evokes Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy's friendly fire. He didn't get on with LBJ at all. Johnson peppers proceedings with vivid, vernacular language. "Better he's inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."

LBJ also benefits from good performances by Richard Jenkins as incorrigible racist Southern Senator Dick Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ladybird Johnson. Rob Reiner directs with a smooth Hollywood touch.

From noble to disgraceful American politics, Chappaquiddick features the 1969 story of drunken Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) crashing a car into Massachusetts water, leaving trapped Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) to drown. His punishment was a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket.

Such is the Kennedy family's influence that it took until 2018 for this film to be made. It's a scandalous story of unaccountable power that is quite shocking to experience. Watch for notable supporting performances from Ed Helms as his cousin Joseph Gargan, and Bruce Dern as father Joe Kennedy.

Weiner also exemplifies novelist Philip Roth's maxim that "American reality out-fictionalises fiction". Anthony Weiner is the scrappy congressman who had to resign from Washington after graphic oversharing. Two years have passed, and he's trying to resuscitate his political career, running for the 2013 New York Mayoralty. "The punchline about me is true," he admits.

The documentary makers get extraordinary ringside access for what is supposed to be his comeback. But Weiner can't keep his bad behaviour under control. As things fall apart, intensely and entertainingly captured at New York pace, it's sad watching Weiner's wife Huma Abedin still stand by her disrespectful man.

Over on Kanopy, 2014's Leviathan is potent political filmmaking. Russian director Andrey Zyvagintsev (Leviathan, Elena) is a great filmmaker.

In arresting images, he captures contemporary Russia's decay and political corruption. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) lives in a seaside house with his wife and son. The corrupt local mayor thinks he can take Kolya's home, land and small business. But Kolya puts up a fight.

“What happens when an event is just so catastrophic that you change?” Nick Cave asks in One More Time with Feeling. Originally the concept was Andrew “Killing Them Softly” Dominik making a concert film around ‘Skeleton Tree,’ the 16th album from Cave and his Bad Seeds. Cave, Warren Ellis (keys and violin) and their bandmates are wonderful musicians with a phenomenal back catalogue.  Dominik atmospherically captures the live performance magic anyone lucky enough to have attended one of their gigs will be familiar with, in shimmering black and white images. 

What makes One More Time with Feeling a weightier documentary is the exploration of the tragic backdrop to the album’s recording. Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur fell from a cliff and died, near their Brighton family home. Cave speaks eloquently and movingly about his family’s trauma, the need for art to continue, and things that are more important than art.

These streamers are also a fine way to improve your knowledge of French culture and language skills.

Things to Come (L'Avenir) is a brilliant 2016 film about philosophy, family, relationships, and secrets.

The formidable Isabelle Huppert is Paris philosophy teacher Nathalie Chazeaux. She's intellectually and professionally fulfilled, gets on well with her two kids, and is happily married to Heinz (Andre Marcon), a fellow philosopher she's been with for 25 years.

But her demanding and manipulative mother rings her incessantly. Students noisily protest the retirement age being raised outside her classroom, and try and block some of her pupils from entering. Major change is about to impact. Nathalie, and Things to Come, continues to ask interesting philosophical questions.

Director Mia Hansen-Love explores these ideas robustly and sensitively in this big-hearted and graceful film.

The story plays out in appealing locations. Paris apartment homes, a seaside Brittany bach, Paris parks and alpine countryside. Things to Come is deftly framed and filmed, putting you there. The emotions heightened with plangent musical choices: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing opera, Woody Guthrie's 'My Daddy', and The Fleetwoods' 'Unchained Melody'.

Blue is the Warmest Colour is a deeply romantic epic, with a star-making performance from Adèle Exarchopoulos. Both streamers have lots of interesting Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve films. Over at Beamafilm, a favourite is Clouds of Sils Maria, directed by Irma Vep's Oliver Assayas.

Unlike reductive Utopia, where John Pilger exploits Aboriginal suffering for his Messiah complex, Samson and Delilah (Kanopy) is an inspiring film.

Warwick Thornton's mighty subjects are two Aboriginal teenagers, Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson). They head from the desert to Alice Springs, looking for a more hopeful life.

McNamara and Gibson's verbally minimalist performances are astonishing, and hard to forget. Samson and Delilah's indigenist visual style and sound design is superb. (As are Samoan Tusi Tamasese's films The Orator - available on Beamafilm - and 1000 Ropes - available on Kanopy).

In addition to writing and directing, Thornton serves as cinematographer. Thornton is a charismatic Kaytetye man, born and bred in Alice Springs. He directs intuitively and masterfully, with abundant compassion.

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