Twenty Best New Zealand Movies


In 2012, prior to the release of Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, New Zealand’s film industry’s worth was declared around $2.4 billion (the enormous Bollywood film industry’s worth is little over $2.9 billion, according Forbes’ 2015 estimate). Feature film production has been one of the very important sectors for New Zealand’s economy. Although, the industry attained its international breakthrough through the critically acclaimed films (partially funded by UK or US producers) like “The Piano”, it was Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy that changed the game. His large production crew based in New Zealand created a great technological skill base in the country. International audiences have fallen in love with the breathtaking landscapes of New Zealand, exhibited in prominent Hollywood blockbusters. Wellington’s Weta Digital Studio continues to offer various post-production and special effects facilities. In 2013, New Zealand secured Avatar movies deal.

But, apart from working on international productions, the New Zealand film industry has made some brilliant home-grown films. There were complaints that the big-budget productions, set in New Zealand, have immensely affected the local film-makers trying to find money. Few other film-makers have stated the difficulty in finding technical crew for the local films due to higher wages. Despite such complaints the nation’s domestic content has vitally increased and were commercially successful. Taika Waititi’s recent off-beat comedy “Hunt for Wilderpeople” had an incredible success at New Zealand box-office, taking in record $1.3 million in the opening weekend.

The first screening of a motion picture in New Zeland happened around the year 1896 and a documentary made in 1900 happens to be the oldest surviving film in New Zeland industry. The industry’s first film was premiered in 1914, but the national film industry was boosted only during the late 1970’s after the establishment of New Zealand Film Commission. Directors like Roger Donaldson, Geoff Murphy, and Vincent Ward were the prominent film-makers of the era. They were subsequently followed by Peter Jackson (his early splatter-fests has a cult following), Jane Campion, Lee Tamahori, Niki Caro, and Taika Waititi. However, most of the New Zealand film-makers who earned a name through local films eventually had to seek projects in UK or USA. Peter Jackson is alleged to be an exception to this ‘migration’ tendency (noted in Wikipedia article: Cinema of New Zealand). Taika Waititi is also able to do charming, low-budget films, while pursuing for a career in Hollywood (he is making “Thor: Ragnarok”). 

Prominent actor Sam Neill has been one of the keenest observers of the New Zealand cinema. His documentary “Cinema of Unease” (part of BFI’s “Century of Cinema” series) analyzes the dark and strange movies made in New Zealand. He explores the madness and other forms of dysfunction that thrives amongst the community. Most importantly, he chronicles the arrival of fresh voices from the often marginalized Maori and Samoan communities. I hope the following list would provide a window to approach some of the nation’s domestic cinema.

 Roger Donaldson’s political thriller was said to be one of the first New Zealand movie to attract large audience base and believed to have provoked the establishment of film commission. This film was Australian actor Sam Neill’s second movie appearance. Based on a novel by C.K. Stead, the narrative is set in imaginary future, where New Zealand is under a fascist regime. Sam plays the central young man role, who is disinterested in politics. But circumstances make him a criminal of the state and he is caught between revolutionary guerillas and totalitarian government. Compared to the Hollywood features of the same era, “Sleeping Dogs” has a rugged production quality that may not go well with contemporary viewers. But it is worth watching for Neil’s breakthrough performance. 

Geoff Murphy’s classic entertainer bestows the joy and mayhem we usually find in 70s American chase movies. A hoodlum named Gerry takes off a rental car with a stolen license. He names the car ‘Pork Pie’. On his journey to south, he picks up couple of people. One of them is John, who is in the pursuit of his walked-out wife. The group’s string of exploits on the road grabs the attention of local police force. The magnificent scenery adds more to the entertainment quotient. 

Smash Palace (1981) 

Roger Donaldson’s compelling tale of a father is diffused with a sense of unease and defeat. It is set in some remote corner of New Zealand, where the car-obsessed Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence) has his own wrecking yard. The man’s frustration’s finds an outlet through racing cars. His obsession with race impacts his marriage life. Shaw’s unhappy, delicate wife Jacqui, a Frenchwoman, pursues an affair with his best friend. Their eight year old daughter Georgie (a touching performance from Greer Robson) is largely abandoned. The situation becomes darker when Shaw finds out about his wife’s affair. This emotional roller-coaster is not for those seeking an entertaining experience.

Utu (1983)

Geoff Murphy’s historical drama is set in the 1860s New Zealand, the era when Maoris fought against the British for betraying them over a land treaty. Murphy and his cinematographer Cowley’s efforts in “Utu” were hailed for setting new technical benchmark in New Zealand cinema. The attack scenes were viscerally thrilling and the entire shoot in wilderness was amazingly done. The lack of complexity in the historical portrayal and in certain characterization (by today’s standards) may be considered as a flaw, but still it is one of the important works about a lesser known bloody past of the nation.  

Vigil (1984)

Vincent Ward’s grim but poetic coming of age tale was the first New Zealand movie to compete at Cannes Film Festival. The film chronicles the life of a lonely 11 year old girl, known as Toss, living in her parents’ isolated farm. A tragedy befalls the family and the arrival of a stranger increases Toss’ emotional conflicts. Critics hail “Vigil” as one of the first best personal cinema to have come out of New Zealand. I love the films impeccable, gorgeous imagery. It doesn’t have the profound depth (both in characters and narrative) you find in contemporary movies dealing with isolated communities, but it is watchable for Fiona Kay’s remarkable, haunting performance. 

Geoff Murphy’s cult sci-fi, based on Craig Harrison’s novel, opens with a memorable shot of a naked man on his bed, waking up in the morning (like Danny Boyle’s protagonist in “28 Days Later”) with no idea of his current predicament. He is a scientist named Zac Hobson and soon finds out that he may be the only person alive in the world. The rest of the population seemed to have just disappeared. To his surprise, he finds a beautiful woman survivor named Joanne. They are sexually entangled, but the arrival of Api, a strongly built black male, escalates the tension. They work together to prevent the ultimate destruction of the world. “The Quiet Earth” is definitely not for all sci-fi fans, but I feel that it is a fine reflection on the human condition (although the subject matter is explored more profoundly in other sci-fi novels).  

Vincent Ward’s highly impressive adventure fantasy opens in 14th century English village, swept up by the fear of the plague – ‘Black Death’. A young boy named Griffin keeps getting strange visions and believes that if he led his villagers to an abandoned mine, they can be saved. A group tunnel their way out of the darkness and happily emerge on the other side. Soon, they Griffin and his group find out that they have arrived at New Zealand, circa 1988.  The film had some stunning visuals for its time. It received a five minute standing ovation at Cannes Film Festival and won numerous awards in other festivals. “The Navigator” is not a time travel or sci-fi movie. It’s a mystical work with healthy dose of magical realism. 

This biopic chronicling the troubled life of New Zealand’s celebrated writer Janet Frame signaled the arrival of one of the most talented film-makers – Jane Campion. The narrative is set in the 1920s and 30s when young Janet Frame grew up in her impoverished family. She was a plump little girl with red hair. Although Janet was considered a wallflower she had passion in creating stories (encouraged by her father at a young age; he presented a journal to write). She became a teacher, but a panic attack changed her life’s course. She was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and spent eight years of her life in a mental institution. Even though Janet’s story has enough space to make a sugar-coated, upliftment story, Jane Campion sensibly offers a portrait that doesn’t shy away from the darkest aspects. Kerry Fox’s performance was one of the best I have ever witnessed on-screen. Her pure portrayal must be a lesson for actors on how to infuse life into the characters (it’s sad that this great actress didn’t get many such roles in her career). 

The Piano (1993)

Jane Campion’s poetic masterpiece was set in 1850s New Zealand. The director uses a distinct voice as a form of expression for her protagonist Ada (Holly Hunter), a woman who hasn’t spoken since she was six years old. An arranged marriage takes Ada and her 11 year old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) from native Scotland to remote North Island forests of New Zealand. Her husband Stewart (Sam Niell) is a socially awkward man who leaves out Ada’s only solace in this isolated life -- piano (in the beach, considering it as unwanted burden). Her tormented situation becomes direr with the introduction to a local man George Baines (Harvey Keital). “The Piano” clinched both the best actor and supporting actor (female) awards for the year (Anna Paquin was the youngest actor to hold the gold statuette). Campion and cinematographer Dyburgh lyrical frames still looks breathtaking (in each repeat viewing). It is a must watch film for any movie-lover seeking emotionally challenging humanistic cinema. New Zealand movie industry got its major international breakthrough with this film. 

"Next time I write in this diary, Mother will be dead. How odd, yet how pleasing", wrote Pauline Rieper in her diary, a 9th grade student, who brutally killed her mother. It was a murder that shocked the 1950s New Zealand. Peter Jackson’s controversial drama explores the friendship between Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and her friend/co-conspirator Juliet Hume (Kate Winslet). The girls who were marginalized among their peers designed an elaborate fantasy world (“Borovnia’), cooking up stories of bloody revenge and so on. Although Peter Jackson gained cult status with his splatter-fest movies like “Bad Taste” & “Brain Dead”, this foray into digital film-making gave him a grand success. The film keeps the objective facts of the crime and focuses on the girls’ chilling detachment from reality.

Lee Tamohari’s timeless treatise on domestic violence offers a very distressing movie experience. Based on the novel Alan Duff, Tamohari’s debut feature takes place in South Auckland’s urbanized ghetto. Maoris, the marginalized members of the society, have lost touch with their tribal past to only be further weighed down by alcoholism, gang violence, unemployment and rampant poverty. The narrative focuses on the Heke family, held together by a strong-willed woman Beth (Rena Owen). Even though the film gets a bit melodramatic at few circumstances, it is one of the significant movies about a community, deprived of culture and livelihood. In 1999, a sequel was made (“What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?”). 

Rain (2001)

Christian Jeffs’ brilliant mood-piece is set in an underpopulated seaside town, where the 13 year old girl Janey is enjoying her vacation with family. The parents are on the verge of divorce and all they do is sit around and drink whiskies. Mother Kate has a sexual escapade. And Janey is on the path to explore her own budding sexuality. Alicia Fulford who plays Janey gives a mature performance, finding the perfect balance between childish innocence and the increasing awareness about sexuality. Although the story-line is pretty simple, it was a very sensitive coming-of-age and fractured-family tale. And, of course the movie experience is enriched by splendid visuals. 

Whale Rider (2002)

Niki Caro’s fascinating tale of woman empowerment (based on Witi Ihimaera’s 1986 novel) is set in a small fishing village, in the eastern coast of New Zealand and is more optimistic about the modern survival of Maori community. The people of the village believe in the legend of Paikea – a demi-god ancestor who arrived to New Zealand on the back of a whale. Since then, the first born of the Paikea descendant is considered as Whangara chieftain. But Chief Paka is disappointed that none of his sons show interest in becoming a ‘chief’, a title which has no relevance in the stifling, modern times. Koro’s mature 12 year old grand-daughter Pai (Keisha-Castle Hughes) feels that she has the strongest will to be a chief. How she carves out her place in this rigid patriarchal society is the core of this elegant movie. This is yet another New Zealand film with a highly nuanced performance from a child actor (Keisha recently played the role of Obara Sand in “Game of Thrones”). 

Adapted from Maurice Gee’s novel, Brad McGann’s multi-layered, emotionally devastating film is one of my top three favorite movies made in New Zealand. The film is about a beautiful friendship between celebrated war photographer Paul Prior (Mathew MacFadyen) and a teenager named Celia (Emily Barclay). Paul has returned to his hometown after 17 years to attend his father’s funeral. Paul’s encounter with Celia makes him travel into his father’s seedy ‘den’ of secrets. ‘Sins of father’ is the central theme, although it is explored in a non-cliché manner. The authenticity & intimacy of human emotions you feel in this movie will definitely move you to tears.   

Director Roger Donaldson (“No Way Out”, “Thirteen Days”) who gave us the classic Kiwi entertainer “Sleeping Dogs” returned back to his native country with the true story of 68 year old motorcycle enthusiast Burt Munro. Munro perfected his Indian bike and went on a trip (to Bonneville Salt Flats, USA) to attain the dream of becoming the world’s fastest motorcyclist. Anthony Hopkins was the perfect choice to play the central role. It took Mr. Roger Donaldson some 25 years to get Munro's tale to the big screen. His love of Burt's story is readily apparent in the way he handles the material. The film broke the New Zealand box-office records during its release. 

Robert Sarkies’ follow-up to his cult-classic “Scarfies” (1999) focuses on the infamous Aromoana massacre. In 1900 a seaside village’s residents were terrorized (for 22 hours) by a lone gunman with a semi-automatic rifle, stalking and shooting them down. Sarkies goes for a contemplative approach (that’s reminiscent of Malick’s “Badlands”) to tell this conjoining tale of survivors and victims. Actor Karl Urban (“Star Trek, “Dredd”, Pete’s Dragon”) plays policeman Nick, who is part of the local under-resourced police force. Sarkies sensibly avoids the sensationalistic viewpoint to fully concentrate on the tragedy felt by the intertwined community.   

Boy (2010)

Actor/director Taika Waititi’s simple, introspective coming-of-age tale finds hope & whimsicality from a saddest corner of the world. Waititi’s brilliant sensibilities in balancing the eccentric humor and the community’s alienation or loneliness make him one of the prominent film-makers of New Zealand. The way he contemplates on parental neglect through an inventive, surreal tone feels so touching at times. James Rolleston’s performance as the 11 year old boy thoroughly wins over our empathy. Despite traveling in a familiar territory, there’s nothing mawkish or cliched here. 

Waititi’s vampire mockumentary (or faux-documentary), written with “Flight of the Concords” fame Jemaine Clement, is creative enough to circumvent the follies of this much criticized sub-genre. The narrative tracks down group of old-fashioned vampires, living in modern-day Wellington, age-group ranging between 183 and 8,000. Waititi once again sprinkles his brand of deadpan comedy and ironic observations, never missing out to keep the emotional integrity on check.

James Napier Robertson’s touching biopic of troubled Chess genius Genesis Potini is escalated to greater levels by the soulful central performance by Cliff Curtis (“Three Kings”, “Blow”). Genesis, afflicted with bi-polar disorder, taught the game of chess to underprivileged kids, who grew up among alcoholics, drug abusers and hoodlums (eventually turning those kids away from life of violence and poverty). The narrative is not a slight bit mawkish and Mr. Robertson sensibly approaches the Genesis’ mental illness, unlike many American movies. The use of Chess pieces to incorporate Maori mythology and metaphors for life itself blesses us with a profound movie experience. 

Waititi, before his Hollywood debut (“Thor: Ragnarok”) as director, made this low-budget but immensely charming dramedy. Once again the central theme is parental neglect plus the joy and pains of being a misfit. This wry comedy showcases the rollicking adventures of a plump, precocious 13 year old boy (Jules Dennison) and his foster father (Sam Niell). Both of them are also the subjects of a nation-wide manhunt. Waititi always finds room for compassion and humor in the grimmest of scenarios, while never belittling or caricaturizing this characters. The warm-hearted performance of Sam –from the years of “Sleeping Dogs” to “Jurassic Park” to “Wilderpeople” – bestows such a relishing experience. 

Notable Omission:

Chris Graham’s feel-good comedy about four rowdy Samoans (with all-Polynesian cast) is riddled with fine party spirit (unlike the pretentious American adult comedies). This film was a perfect vehicle to render slice of life about the Samoan community.  Of course, there is a bit of negative stereotypes here to maximize some laughs. 

Movie-lovers could try and watch these following New Zealand films too: Foottrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989), Housebound (2014), Scarfies (1999), What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? (1999), The Price of Milk (2000), Eagle vs Shark (2007), The Dead Lands (2014) Topless Woman Talk about their Lives (1997).

I couldn’t find/watch Peter Jackson’s mockumentary “Forgotten Silver” (1995).

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