Kiwi Oscar Heroes

When the final Lord of the Rings won Oscar glory on 29 February 2004, jokes were made about running out of New Zealanders to thank. Taika’s nap and Paquin’s stutter made awards night news as well. Along with the big notes of The Piano and the Oscar magnet that is Miramar, there’s also a largely unsung legacy of NZ Academy recognition. Exalt it via NZ On Screen's Kiwis-at-the-Oscars Spotlight: from hobbits, heavenly creatures and whale riders to Two Cars, a woozy gold rush tale, a vertiginous extreme ski doco and more ... (11 titles.)

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Two Cars, One Night

Short Film, 2003 (Drama, Māori)

Youngsters Romeo, Ed, and Polly wait in two cars after dark while their parents are inside drinking. It’s a situation many Kiwis would recognise: cars in loco parentis outside the bar or rugby club. Soon cross-car rivalry warms to budding friendship. Winning performances, and the tender mix of comedy and romance saw the tale of a Te Kaha pub carpark become an international hit. Two Cars won a boot-full of awards, launched Waititi’s career, and was the second NZ short to gain an Oscar nod (Waititi infamously feigned sleep during the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony).

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Off the Edge

Film, 1977 (Sport, Documentary)

Off the Edge is director Michael Firth's ode to the exhilaration of adventuring on the spine of NZ's Southern Alps. Something of a snowy Endless Summer, Firth follows an American and a Canadian as they ski, hang-glide, walk, climb and delve beneath glaciers, over nine months in the Aoraki-Mt Cook area. Thrilling footage amidst requisite spectacular scenery was shot over 45 days, where extreme weather and geography meant few chances for second takes. The film was nominated for an Oscar (Best Documentary, 1977); the LA Times called it, "beautiful and awesome".

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The Piano

Film, 1993 (Drama)

Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) has been mute since she was six. She travels from Scotland with her daughter (Anna Paquin) and her grand piano to colonial New Zealand for an arranged marriage. When her husband, a stoic settler (Sam Neill) sells the piano to Baines (Harvey Keitel), Ada and Baines come to a secret agreement. She can win her piano back key by key by playing for him, as he acts out his desire for her. Jane Campion's Oscar-winning tale of sexual emancipation in the mud and bush is the only NZ film to have won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

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The Frog, the Dog, and the Devil

Short Film, 1986 (Animation)

Bob Stenhouse offers an animated ode to the "nation of drunkards" (as New Zealand was tagged in the House of Lords in 1838). Set in 1902, a shepherd tricks a Mackenzie barman out of a bottle of ‘Hokonui Lightning', but too much pioneer spirit sees him haunted by the devil's daughter (or a case of delirium tremens). The Chicago Tribune called the macabre humour and distinctive look "lushly conceived". It won the Grand Prize at the Hamilton International Animation Festival (1986) in Canada, and was nominated for a 1986 Oscar for Best Short Film (Animated).

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Film, 2003 (Adaptation, Adventure, Fantasy)

Monstrous spiders, dragon-aided epic battles, endangered hobbits and final farewells ... the finale of the Lord of the Rings trilogy boldly upped the ante. Although the first two films had excited viewers, critics and accountants, Return of the King sealed Peter Jackson's place in movie legend. Reviewers praised it with gusto and Return won a staggering 11 Oscars, a total matched only by Titanic and Ben-Hur. Return anointed a Hollywood empire in the Wellington suburb of Miramar; the box office figures weren't half bad, and nor was the effect on NZ tourism.

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Heavenly Creatures

Film, 1994 (Drama, Crime, Thriller, Romance)

The movie that saw splatter-king Peter Jackson lauded by a whole new audience was born from Fran Walsh's long fascination with the Parker-Hulme case: two teenagers who invented imaginary worlds, wrote under imaginary personas, and in June 1954 murdered Pauline Parker's mother. Walsh and Jackson's kinetic vision of friendship, creativity and tragedy was greeted with Oscar nominations, deals with indie powerhouse Miramax, and rhapsodic acclaim for the film, and newbies Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet. Time magazine and 30 other publications named it one of the year's 10 best films.

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Snows of Aorangi

Short Film, 1955 (Sport, Documentary)

Shot by photographer Brian Brake as a NFU tourism promo, Snows of Aorangi surveys New Zealand's mountain landscapes. Brake captures stunning imagery: ethereal ice forests, lightning storms, volcanic craters, glaciers, avalanches, kea. Three skiers are mesmerising as they scythe downhill from Almer Hut: "for a little while they've given themselves to the rhythm of sky and earth" runs the James K Baxter-scripted narration. It was the first NZ film to compete for an Oscar, nominated in the Best Short Subject (Live Action) category in 1959.

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Whale Rider

Film, 2002 (Drama, Adaptation, Māori)

Set at the East Coast town of Whāngārā, Whale Rider tells the tale of a young Māori girl, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who challenges tradition and embraces the past in order to find the strength to lead her people forward. Directed and written by Niki Caro, the film is based on Witi Ihimaera's novel The Whale Rider. Coupling a specific sense of place and culture with a universal coming-of-age story, Whale Rider met with sizeable success worldwide, winning audience choice awards at Sundance and Toronto.

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One Hundred and Forty Days Under the World

Short Film, 1964 (Documentary)

New Zealand’s Antarctic presence is still in its infancy as this striking Academy Award-nominated NFU documentary chronicles the six month polar summer of 1963/64. Sled teams pulled by teams of huskies are despatched to explore far flung corners, nothing is too small — or too great — to be analysed by a battery of scientists, and the base at Cape Hallett is resupplied (it suffered a serious fire shortly afterwards). However, all of this activity seems to make little impression on a remarkable polar landscape constantly threatening to reassert itself.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Film, 2012 (Adaptation, Adventure, Fantasy)

JRR Tolkien's beloved novel The Hobbit follows Bilbo Baggins on a quest to help reclaim the lost dwarf homeland of Erebor from the dragon Smaug. Shoulder-tapped by Gandalf for the mission against some opposition, Bilbo joins a company of dwarves in an epic adventure: vying against goblins, orcs and Gollum's riddles. After the box office blitzing and Oscar-slaying Lord of the Rings trilogy, adapting the precursor novel was an expected journey. Martin Freeman (The Office, Sherlock) is Bilbo, and Peter Jackson is again at the helm in this first of a three-part adaptation.

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King Kong

Film, 2005 (Adventure, Fantasy)

Peter Jackson's love affair with moviemaking and special effects was ignited by seeing the original King Kong (1933) as a child. Jackson's Kiwi-shot remake takes one of cinema's most iconic monster movies, retains the 30s setting and iconic New York finale, and toughens up the "beauty" (Naomi Watts). The film also transforms the male (non-ape) lead from lunkhead to playwright. Exhilarating, Oscar-winning CGI and motion capture bring the great ape to life, alongside rampaging dinosaurs and giant weta inexplicably absent from the maligned 1976 remake.