The New Zealand International Film Festival is rolling its wonderful way around the country. Here are ten top picks by The Spinoff Auckland editor Simon Wilson, plus five tips on how to make the most of the festival.

Five good things to do at the film festival?

1. If it’s on at a grand old theatre, see it at the grand old theatre: the Civic in Auckland, Embassy in Wellington, Royal in Christchurch and Regent in Dunedin. The seats might or might not be great but the auditorium, the size of the screen and the whole experience of being in that wonderful building are greater than great.
2. Look out for new venues too. In Auckland the brand-new ASB Waterfront Theatre seats 650 people but feels strikingly intimate, has very comfortable seats and the movie gear is top line and brand new, installed courtesy of a mystery donor especially so the theatre could host events like this.
3. All the "special feature" films – opening and closing nights, etc – are likely to be excellent, especially if they’ve won a big award at Cannes or Sundance. Those two festivals, for my money, have the best record of choosing movies whose storytelling sweeps you up and away, that look and sound fabulous, that celebrate subtle, complex, powerhouse acting, that deal in important themes with complexity and intelligence. You know, great films. We’re blessed with a festival programming team that has the skills and determination to secure these movies, especially the ones they get straight from Cannes.
4. Take risks. A great film you expected to be great is one thing, but a film that surprises and delights you beyond expectation is even better. You won’t find those unless you take a few risks. The programme helps and so does google, and there are trailers for many of the films on the FF website.
5. Buy a ten-trip pass. Although the most popular films will be in the larger venues, it’s the smaller venues that can sell out more quickly – so book for them. Big evening screenings, especially Thursday-Saturday nights, may sell out too. But don't forget those daytime screenings. Make your mind up on the day and nip off from work. It’s one of the great winter pleasures.

Top ten: a selection
Here’s my top 10, listed alphabetically. I’ve looked past the big featured films. The festival has The Square (biting Swedish satire), BPM (angry and exhilarating AIDS protest), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (more surrealism from the maker of cult hit The Lobster), Loveless (by the maker of the brooding Russian masterpiece Leviathan) and The Beguiled (director Sofia Coppola with stars Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning), all of them winners at Cannes this year, and they’re all pretty splendid. Film festivals are for great big films but they are also for the unearthing of other treasures …

6 Days
Toa Fraser made his name in movies with No. 2, a warm-hearted but also intense Mt Roskill family drama (Hollie Smith made her name with it too, singing Bathe in the River). Since then he’s made a ballet movie, period English drama, colonial and pre-colonial New Zealand adventure and now the true-life story of a terrorist attack in London in 1980 and the reaction of the British SAS. It’s easy enough to see hyped-up macho parallels between 6 Days and his "Māori kung fu movie" The Dead Lands, but the study of characters in anguish lies at the heart of Fraser’s work, whether or not there is also lots of fighting. This is Fraser’s second non-New Zealand film, but its exploration of the role of the special armed forces will resonate strongly here. (And just to show he keeps mixing it up, he has a second film in the festival: The Free Man, a documentary about thrill-seeking Kiwi freestyle skier Jossi Wells.)

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
Every battle has its champions, and the great champion of democratic urban life is Jane Jacobs. Speed-read her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities beforehand if you like, but the movie will give you the heart of it. Jacobs was the planner and theorist who set out the case against motorways and suburban sprawl in favour of the civilising vibrancy of inner-city communities. We sure need her kind still.

The Farthest

They made a golden record for the Voyager trip to the ends of the solar system and beyond, and I’m going to the movie so I can hear what aliens are going to hear. Well, not really. This spaceship launched 40 years ago, so no Katy Perry, but the timing doesn’t explain why no Ella Fitzgerald or Maria Callas either. Back then, it turns out, all of humanity’s musical accomplishments could be summed up with Beethoven, Bach, a gamelan orchestra and Chuck Berry. I’m hoping for really great pictures of space, because it couldn’t not have, could it? And to learn amazing stuff, because that's also a given. Also I’m hoping for thrilling humanity, because the blurb talks about the wonder and joy of the scientists who made the expedition happen, and that should be something to behold. That little explorer, you know, will outlast us all by billions of years.

A Gentle Creature
Rule of thumb: always see at least one Russian film. Because, strangely, unlike nearly all other cultures, almost the only insights we ever get to life in Russia, and in the other countries that used to be in the Soviet Union, is through movies. And because they are, more often than not, just astonishing. We’re spoilt for choice this year with a new print of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (the film Geoff Dyer wrote a book about) and Loveless, by Leviathan filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev. But I’m also dead keen on seeing A Gentle Creature, the story of a woman trying to get a parcel to her husband in prison. Sounds like a searing parable not just of Putin’s Russia but of the world we might all be living in, far more than we think.

A Ghost Story
So the ghost has a sheet over his head and apparently it’s the most moving, mesmerising and exhilarating thing ever. Any movie with such a stupid setup must be extraordinary or it wouldn’t work at all, that's my thinking. Plus it’s got Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.

I Am Not Your Negro
Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal might have used up most of the oxygen in postwar intellectual America, but it’s Baldwin who speaks far more urgently to us now. Radical, black, queer, angry, a literary genius whose subject was American identity and whose means of addressing it was lyrical and polemical fire. We were so privileged to have Baldwin essayist Teju Cole at the Auckland Writers Festival this year (see his book Known and Strange Things), and now we get this acclaimed, extremely topical film biography. New York Times critic A.O. Scott calls it “a thrilling introduction to his work, a remedial course in American history, and an advanced seminar in racial politics.”

My Year with Helen
Helen Clark is still awkward in front of a camera, even when she’s with as supportive and admiring a friend as filmmaker Gaylene Preston. And it’s oddly discomforting to watch New Zealand diplomats being played, and coming to know it, which is what happened when Clark made her run for UN secretary-general last year. But the biggest revelation is also the scariest: the film suggests that the job must go to the person who has done the best at not offending any of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Imagine what it would take to stay friends with the US, Russia, China, Britain and France. Possibly superhuman diplomacy, but far more likely just easy wine-and-cheesability. When a man projects that kind of character, he’s called avuncular, sometimes even wise. When a woman does it, she’s an irrelevant granny. Helen Clark never had a chance. No woman of genuine merit may ever have a chance. Possibly no man either. Inside this apparently easy-going film about our Helen is an excoriating critique of the UN, and it has no trouble bursting out.

Starless Dreams
Looking for that genuine eye-opening experience of a world you don’t live in? Try Starless Dreams, which has been an online and festival sensation since it launched last year (best documentary, London Film Festival). It’s the story of young women inmates in an Iranian prison, filmed with an empathy that brings them vividly to life. Sometimes inspirationally defiant, sometimes shocking, sometimes heartbreaking, the stories of their lives are very likely to change yours.

Top of the Lake: China Girl
Nicole Kidman is all over the festival this year, starring in two blockbuster movies (The Beguiled and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, by Yorgos Lanthimos, who made The Lobster) as well as Top of the Lake. It's series 2 of Jane Campion's political psychodrama/police whodunnit/what-the-fuck-just-happened-and-who-the-hell-am-I-anyway mystery story and will screen just once, in a six-hour session (yes, with a couple of breaks). Elisabeth Moss (also in another festival offering, The Square) reprieves her detective Robin Griffin from the first series but the action has shifted to Sydney, where a suitcase with grisly contents washes up on Bondi Beach. Campion is not the only artist preoccupied with what the world does to women and what women can do in the world, but does anyone else approach that theme with such unflinching, complex, furious and compassionate honesty? She's not the only filmmaker lifting the artistic bar for TV to glory either, but in my book she's right up there. I should declare a bias, being married to one of her producers, so take it instead from one of the tough-to-please critics at Cannes: TOTL is “an overwhelmingly ambitious and unforgettably thoughtful piece of fiction that’s told with the lightest of touches.” And it has Brienne of Tarth.

Wow. Eight short films by Māori women filmmakers about the death of a child at the hands of a caregiver, stitched together to become one. Urgent, heart-wrenching, challenging and, as Mihingarangi Forbes has commented, “hugely important … a film everyone in the family should see and talk about”.