“Mostly I write”, Cave begins in the trailer to 20,000 Days on Earth, the opening film for this years festival, before giving an uncharacteristic statement of doubt: “but if I ever stop for long enough to question what I’m actually doing – the why of it – well I couldn’t really tell you. I don’t know.” Mystery Road opened last year’s festival and Not Suitable for Children, opened the festival in 2012 – Nashen Moodley’s first year as festival director – with both films defined by their Australian context. Evidently, the opening night has always been geared towards the Australian nature of the festival, and the choice of the Nick Cave documentary comes off as a very logical choice. The film itself follows a fairly unique concept, diving between fiction and documentary as the premise of the film “a fictional day (the 20,000th) in the life of Nick Cave” blends with the realities, friends, and daily experience he has constructed in his existence in the real world.
Nick Cave has always been a divisive figure in the Australian music industry, especially given the stature bestowed on him by the critical establishment. Considering this, 20,000 Days on Earth doesn’t look like a film that simply pays fan service to Cave. In fact, it looks to be a film serving to widen the perspective on both sides of the Cave debate; painting him as a flawed, uncertain and self-effacing character, likely to present Cave in a human light rarely given in portrayals of him. From early reception of the film, Nick Cave isn’t on a pedestal throughout the film giving a didactic view of what music should be, but is instead arguing about the difference between chips in Britain and Australia or giving sincere moments of self-reflection. The premise of 20,000 Days on Earth definitely has the capacity to be similar to a highlight from last year’s festival, Mistaken for Strangers. The film – although primarily focused on Tom Berninger – humanised and demystified his brother Matt Berninger, the lead singer of The National, known for a public persona defined by a seriousness in a similar vein to Cave. 20,000 Days on Earth is a prime choice to open the festival, focused on a quintessentially Australian, yet world-focused artist, emblematic of Sydney Film Festival itself. From an early glance, it looks like this is definitely one to catch.
Tom at the Farm is the fourth feature from French-Canadian wunderkind (and past Sydney Film Prize) winner Xavier Dolan, albeit the first of his films based off of an existing source material. The story follows the titular Tom (Dolan), who arrives at his deceased lover’s funeral only to discover that the family are unaware he exists or the sexual orientation of their son. What ensues is a taut thriller, Peter Bradshaw claims it has “touches of Hitchcock and Polanski”, and should see Dolan once more bring his unique approach to genre.1
Frank (pictured above) is the second feature from Lenny Abrahamson (last year’s SFF feature What Richard Did) and it’s unabashedly hip. Following an indie rock band who move from an arduous recording session to fame at SXSW, it’s a funny and often dark story of music and fame. Oh yeah, and also Michael Fassbender wears a massive papier-mâché and/or ceramic head the entire film. The film isn’t whimsical for whimsy’s sake, though. It’s actually a loose re-telling of the story of Frank Sidebottom, alter ego of Chris Sievey, a Manchester-based musician who would end up as an animator on Pingu. Sievey died of throat cancer in 2010 and former bandmate (and now celebrated author) Jon Ronson, wrote the screenplay for Abrahamson’s film as a tribute to his friend. Seems that this indie hit is much more than meets the massive ceramic eye.
The Unknown Known is an Errol Morris film. This alone should make you book your ticket. Morris, who won an Oscar for The Fog of War (about former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara), has made a sequel of sorts to that film with his latest feature, which is a longform interview with former (and more recent) US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In a recent interveiew with Salon, Morris said that history was “all just smugness, self-justification and self-satisfaction”, which places both Known and Fog in a clearer light. A lot of the response to this film has seen Morris decried as having failed to get truth from, or pierce the veil of, Rumsfeld’s oddly cheery persona. Perhaps then the film is of interest not out of truth-seeking, but as recognition of spin and political character definitions in the modern day.
Joe has Nicolas Cage with a beard in the woods. That’s a one-line sell to this movie. To extrapolate, though, Cage is supposed to have given one of the best performances of his career in the new film from David Gordon Green (back two years running after 2013’s Prince Avalanche). It also co-stars Tye Sheridan (of the superb Jeff Nichols film Mud) as a young man suffering from an abusive father who finds an unlikely role model in ex-con Joe (Cage). The film is based on famed Mississippi writer Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, a “lean, mean, and original” story that, in the hands of Gordon Green, should be a powerful and contemplative film.
God Help the Girl is another film about music except this one’s actually a musical. Penned and directed by Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, the film is adapted from a series of EPs and an album (all released in 2009) that chronicles a summer in the life of Eve, a young woman suffering with emotional problems who finds a way out of despair by writing songs. The film stars Aussie Emily Browning, as well as Skins star Hannah Murray, who for their performances were awarded the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award (Ensemble) prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Ruin is the latest film from Australian filmmakers Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson, who wowed the SFF back in 2011 with the extremely powerful Hail. This new film was shot in Cambodia on a minimal budget and with Khmer-speaking actors and details a whirlwind love story involving murder, nature and the perils of escape. It won a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, awarded to both directors and cinematographer Ari Wegner by jury president Paul Schrader.
The Redfern Story from Darlene Johnson seeks to recount the inception of the world’s first all-Indigenous theatre group, the National Black Theatre. The company had a tumultuous history in its 5 years of activity from 1972-1977, struggling to get even minimal government assistance before losing it all together. The eventual closure in 1977 of the Theatre marked the tragic end to a period of intense difficult and provoking creativity. This documentary should give a far more detailed and insightful glance into one of Australia’s most enigmatic, yet short-lived, theatre companies.
Omar is the latest from director Hany Abu-Assad who sought to provide an “artistic point of view” to the “political issue” of the Palestine-Israeli conflict in Paradise Now. It won the Golden Globe in 2005 and was nominated for an Academy Award, causing waves in the film world that eventually settled on the side of Abu-Assad. His latest film is focused on the same conflict and after 9 years since his previous film, expectations are high.
Black Coal, Thin Ice won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale this year, putting it in the same position Child’s Pose was last year at Sydney Film Festival. With Diao Yinan’s latest film, we’re looking at a murder investigation likely to continue the director’s trend of taking a basic premise and transforming it into something incredibly rich, multi-faceted and unique. The trailer is defined by intricate and engaging cinematography and that alone places it on our short list for the festival.
A write-up of the SFF’s Robert Altman retrospective can be found here.
We here at 4:3 want to disclose that a number of writers on our staff have worked or interned for Sydney Film Festival over the last two years. Individual disclosures will appear at the bottom of SFF-related news items and essays but will not appear at the bottom of any reviews from the 2014 festival.