There’s really no other way to experience the Sydney Film Festival than with a Flexipass and we at 4:3 have had a think about what we, as a cohort, would be seeing if twenty of our writers got to pick one film each on a collective Flexipass 20.
Conor Bateman: There are some films that just have perfect premises, or at least premises that are exceptionally hard to ignore. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter has such a premise, tangled up in both cinephilia and real-life tragedy. Less than a decade after the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo was released in cinemas, an urban legend started to spread, catching attention in the oddities sections of newspapers and early online forums. The story went like this – a Japanese woman had found a copy of Fargo on VHS and, because the Coens open their 1996 film with a facetious disclaimer that “This is a true story”, she believed the events of the film were founded on truth. She thought that the darkly comic burial of ransom money in the snow by Steve Buscemi, about three-quarters of the way through the film, was a clue to a yet-undiscovered buried treasure. She went to Minnesota to find it, she went to Fargo and Brainerd, she died in the snow looking for the money. A great story, right? Here’s the thing, though – unlike the Coens’ film, this really is a true story. Well, true-ish. Takako Konishi was found dead in the snow in 2003, not death-by-Fargo, though, but a tragic suicide misreported by the media and misremembered by the locals. Indie filmmakers and Sundance regulars the Zellner Brothers have taken the myth of ‘Fargo-as-treasure-map’ to the realm of collective fantasy, fleshing out the oft-told rumour into both a quixotic and Quixotic journey across a foreign land. The ever-delightful Rinko Kikuchi, of The Brothers Bloom and Pacific Rim, stars as the titular Kumiko and the film is playing in the festival’s Official Competiton.
Jeremy Elphick: The prospect of watching ’Til Madness Do Us Part is as intimidating as it is enthralling. That said, Wang Bing is no stranger to conflict. His debut, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks was a 9 hour masterpiece about the decline of an industrial district in Shenyang, China. His latest work falls just short of 4 hours, revolving around a different form of decay as Bing hones in on a run-down mental asylum. Described as a documentary that approaches its characters “at the moment they are abandoned by their families and society”. The movie exemplifies the notions underpinning the phenomenal China section of the SFF 2014 screening list, with a cinematic move into mainland Chinese cinema; something rarely screened in Australia’s cinemas. Bing’s statement on his film – “the repetition of their daily life amplifies the existence of time. And when time stops, life appears” – places it as an innately humanist piece that deals with it’s focus in a way that is highly respectful to the subjects it concerns itself with. My favourite film at the festival last year was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a lengthy documentary with a particularly intense focus. Hopefully this can follow in these footsteps. There’s only one screening at the festival, but there’s few things that look as consuming, thought-provoking and affecting as this. Considering the nature of the Rebels, Ghosts and Romantics selection, 10am on the 7th of June might be the only chance to see this film. If it holds up to the standard of Bing’s previous documentaries, it’s definitely in the running as one of the festival’s strongest films.
Brad Mariano: I usually don’t get too excited about American indie films, but Kelly Reichardt is one main exception – her slow, meditative films unravel at their own pace and hold a certain level of respect for the viewer; the closest her hypnotic Old Joy had to a climax was two men chatting in a spa bath, and Wendy and Lucy had a woman looking for her dog for the majority of the run time, yet both were transfixing and among the most interesting films of their years. With a rare mastery of tone and pacing, Reichardt achieved the most notice with her breakout Western, Meek’s Cutoff and her new film, Night Moves, has been eagerly awaited. On paper, it sounds the closest she has got to mainstream thriller territory – of three eco-terrorists conspiring to destroy a dam – but exactly how she will treat this story is something I’m interested in seeing, as well as her branching out into the most inherently political material yet. And the polarising reports it’s been getting has only fuelled my enthusiasm – it’ll be a challenging and provocative film by one of the most interested US talents working.
Isabelle Galet-Lalande: Human kebabs, anyone? I’ve always been partial to high-quality slasher flicks, and Shahram Mokri’s Fish & Cat takes the genre to a whole other level. Shot in a single take, this new Iranian horror movie takes place by – you guessed it – a rural lakeside holiday patch, with a fresh crew of twenty-somethings the perfect bait for cannibalistic restaurant operators. While the violence takes its time to settle in, suspense builds beyond breaking point as we become familiar with the characters’ intertwining back stories. The film’s hypnotic, one-shot cinematography by Mahmud Kalari (A Separation) drags you into a prolonged nightmare of stories within stories, and has already been rewarded with a special innovative content award in Venice’s Orizzonti (‘Horizons’) section. With an eerie soundtrack and a couple of perverse jabs at the traditional American horror genre,this looks set to be one of the quirkier offerings in this year’s program.
Andrej Trbojevic: This year’s Sydney Film Festival is being shepherded by 20,000 Days on Earth, the new quasi-documentary about Australian musician and writer, Nick Cave. Conceived and directed by renowned visual artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, who’ve worked on a few of Cave’s video clips, it’s quite exciting to have the esteemed duo’s elan for music exposition (they famously recreated the last Ziggy Stardust gig) turn on Nick Cave, the man and myth, in order to inaugurate cinematic proceedings on 4th June, festival opening night. To avoid the usual pitfalls of your average, staid, rock-legend hagiography, Forsyth and Pollard have conceived the documentary as part-fiction, preferring to appropriate the mythology of Nick Cave as opposed to wholly deconstructing it. The film therefore involves Cave extemporizing, in a typical artist’s scowl and gravitas, in such brilliantly contrived scenarios as chauffeuring, and eavesdropping, on Kylie Minogue, whose seraphic alter-ego was mercilessly snuffed out by Cave in his biggest hit, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”. Although initially doubtful of this tack, upon a necessary writer’s rethink it seems apt when Cave’s corpus, largely comprised of the testimonies of the many depraved and damned outlaws and sinners he has so viscerally evoked from Birthday Party-era onwards, is considered. On top of dropping many classic yarns of Cave’s prodigious career, the film includes footage of Cave frequenting a psychotherapist. Although perusing Cave’s back-catalogue and his diabolic novels would grant you a more authentic access to his psychic filth, such access to Cave’s repressed, infantile conflicts is priceless. I believe the success of the film will ultimately depend on how truthfully they capture Cave’s sincere, Augustinian theology, and in particular the sober glimmer of salvation he has tapped into in his later works, but Pollard and Forsyth are more than qualified for such a fearsome homage to one of Australia’s greatest artists.
Grace Sharkey: Queer people are always searching for themselves on screen. They will find, however, that vast majority of homos in the movies are white, middle class and more often than not, male. Films that deal with queer relationships can apparently only handle one element of Difference or things get too heavy. However, we’re moving forward. We are seeing more women on our screens and more gay ladies at that. Sydney Film Festival has a reasonable showing of queer films this year and one definitely stood out. Desiree Akhavan’s feature film debut Appropriate Behavior is not holding back. Akhavan wrote, directed and stars in what appears to be a semi-autobiographical film about a young queer woman in New York dealing with her ex and her conservative Iranian parents. This is not an uncommon storyline in queer film, the coming out narrative, however, Appropriate Behavior is not doing the other thing queer films do, which is rely on being incredibly depressing. Queer films are melodramatic: Akhavan is funny! Her film looks funny and like a film that is going to have an interesting protagonist whose sexuality is incidental to her, just one part of many. This may not sound like much to get excited over, but when you have seen as many queer films as I have, this is a refreshing turn. Akhavan has described all her work as “gratuitously honest,” and it is almost impossible to not recognise – as almost everyone has – the similarities in tone to Lena Dunham. Akhavan is not Dunham, however, and while both their audiences may overlap, Akhavan is set to become an icon amongst young queer women – a dedicated group to have behind you early in your career. Appropriate Behavior looks to be a fun, important step in queer representation. Lesbians are in right now and I’m glad Akhavan is on our team.
Christian Byers: Ruin is an Australian film by Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Michael Cody of Bastardy and Hail ‘fame’, about two lovers violently drifting across the country, made in Cambodia in Khmer dialect with two 5Ds, barely any money, a crew which had largely paid their own way, no knowledge of the Khmer dialect, a translator on set to inform the directors what had been said at the end of long improvised takes and several local, genuine, bona-fide ice addicts. The sheer passionate lunacy on all sides of the endeavour is enough for me. Courtin-Wilson and Cody know how to shoot run and gun and make it more a blessing than a limitation. Bastardy remains one of the best Australian films I’ve seen and Hail, which blurred reality and fiction in the life of a non-actor ex-con, was one of the most curiously engaging aestheticizations of violence I’ve seen. Make no mistake, if you aren’t down for a chaotic, disorienting, probably semi-psychotic, beautiful, objectionable, languorous fever dream, give it a miss. But for me, in this ‘exciting time’ for a democratised cinema, Ruin is one of the few things that really excites me about the changing culture and one of the few things that makes me think that maybe Australia can be a good place for it.
Saro Lusty-Cavallari: While there are a lot of projects that I was actually following before the announcement of the line up I doubt any of those will end up being true favourites by years’ end. So why not take a risk? This year we have an out-of-competition release from Greece called Miss Violence that has the hauntingly tantalising Wikipedia summary: “At her eleventh birthday, Angeliki commits suicide by jumping off the balcony. She was found with a smile on her face.” I know nothing about the people behind the film but everything I’ve seen, from the awards (Venice’s Silver Lion for Best Director to Alexander Avranas) to the promotional material (the poster is chilling) gives me the feeling that this one could be the little film that could…. utterly destroy you.
Jess Alcamo: Michael Fassbender wearing a papier-mâché head for the entire film. Need I say more? Well yes, according to the 4:3 editors. I am by no means touting this film as the best to see in the festival, but when solemn and troubling masterpieces are afoot and find some beautiful but unnerving way to bury their way into your soul, it’s nice to give some much needed screentime to those genuinely light and funny films. Which is a job I think Frank will accomplish nicely. Frank is loosely based on Frank Sidebottom, a British musician who passed recently in 2010. The film is not a biopic but rather a fictionalised homage to the man, told by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan and based on the experiences of Ronson as the first hipster alive in the 80’s where he played keyboards in Frank Sidebottom’s band. Ronson’s screen surrogate is played by Domnhall Gleeson (of filial fame), with a Yoko-Ono-esque Maggie Gyllenhaal (of mostly sororal fame). The film very much runs the risk of being sickening quirky but in the hands of Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did), I feel quietly confident but also curious to see whether the film is able to move past its absurd premise and create something heartfelt, while remaining firmly in the comedic realm as to not render me completely emotionally tattered after the Festival’s sombre Official Competition.
Felix Hubble: Bobcat Goldthwait has never been afraid to tackle the weird, dark, and wonderful, from his ridiculously cynical comedy World’s Greatest Dad – in which an underappreciated teacher garners plenty of unwarranted sympathy and media attention after he forges a touching suicide note following his son’s death from auto-erotic asphyxiation, to Windy City Heat – a documentary of sorts in which Goldthwait and co. trick Perry Caravello, a comedian and all around crazy person, into thinking that he’s starring in a big Hollywood production with hilarious (if slightly depressing) results. Who better then to direct a horror film about Bigfoot? I mean, there’s a fairly high chance it will be stupid or downright terrible, but on the other hand it could be amazing because Goldthwait’s behind it and it features a Yeti. If you’re looking for something a bit more likely to be a surefire hit in the Freak Me Out program check out Tjahjanto and Stamboel’s Killers, but if you’re up for some Sasquatch action that could go either way you can’t go past Willow Creek.
Jamie Rusiti: My knowledge of horses consists of more primary school afternoons spent watching Saddle Club than I’d like to admit. All I hazily recall of the show, however, are the antics of the principle human characters being the focus, with the horses essentially providing a cursory narrative device for their conflicts. Icelandic director, Benedikt Erlingsson’s debut feature Of Horses and Men re-invents this dynamic in a pioneering drive towards equestrian equality, establishing horses as synonymous with their human companions. Through his characters’ binoculars (used to keenly monitor each other like hunters on safari) Erlingsson establishes a nuanced sense of internal voyeurism, focusing on human beings as themselves competitive creatures of lust and instinct, all the while maintaining an absurd and deadpan sense of humour. Selected as Iceland’s entry to the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, the film is set amidst the idiosyncratic bleak, yet beautiful landscape of his homeland and juxtaposes soft, surreal close-ups with stark, rugged landscapes to conjure the sense of wild nobility we associate with horses in their natural habitat. Erlingsson has no directorial oeuvre to draw reference from, having been an actor most of his career, yet his debut evokes a sense of worldly experience and an ethereal sensibility towards the beautiful, yet ridiculous way in which humanity engages with horses; themselves paradoxical symbols of domestication and liberation.
Matilda Surtees: Pocketed in a little-known chapter of Australian history, the latest work of director Rachel Perkins is Black Panther Woman, a documentary about Marlene Cummins, a member of the brief and only Australian chapter of the Black Panther Party in the early 1970s. Shown as part of this year’s Screen: Black program, the SFF film blurb tries to lure viewers in with the promise of a human interest drama – Cummins was romantically involved with the chapter’s founder, Dennis Walker – and the turbulent experience of radical activism. The historical subject matter stands out: Aboriginal activism is rarely articulated as part of global Black resistance. I suspect the greatest strength for the documentary, though, will be its attention to the specificity of Cummins’ experience with both resistance and repression in the group, grappling simultaneously with racism without and sexism within. Perkins as director will likely help realise this: her debut feature, Radiance, 1998, deftly portrayed its female leads without eliding their racial identity, nor reducing them to it, while her 2008 documentary series for SBS, First Australians, showed her talent as documentary-maker. Black Panther Woman offers the viewer a very rare thing indeed: a film in which the subject-director dynamic is not marked by an inequality of gender or race, or skewed by experiential dissonance – as happens when men make films about women, and when white people make films to tell a story they can’t relate to.
James Hennessy: There are few people so perfectly positioned at the intersection of politics and music as Fela Kuti – the militantly Afrocentric Nigerian saxophonist and bandleader. He lead the charge of Western-influenced African music, which seized on familiar jazz-funk cues to relay powerful anti-colonial messages. His life cries for a focused documentary effort, and Alex Gibney – director of the meticulous Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room – might just give us exactly that with Finding Fela! My body is ready, my soul is willing.
Imogen Gardam: My interest in The Rover mostly stems from my curiosity as to how David Michôd will follow up the break-out success of Animal Kingdom. Very few filmmakers hit it quite so big with their debut feature, and the pressure may get to Michôd. However, he has made an effort to move away from the gritty noir of his first feature, and to avoid re-treading the same beats. The Rover is a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller about a man (Guy Pearce) tracking down a gang that stole his car in the Australian Outback, assisted in spite of himself by a wounded gang member who was left behind (Robert Pattinson). You can’t help but feel that Pattinson, like Michôd, is also trying to escape being pigeon-holed. Best known as the sparkly vampire of the Twilight series, The Rover should be a fairly marked change of pace. It’s not just the cast and crew that need to set themselves apart – the plot of the film itself, with the centrality of the car, is undoubtedly going to be subject to comparisons to Mad Max, while we’re also currently experiencing something of a surfeit of young adult dystopian films (The Hunger Games, Divergent et al). The Rover proposes a future where people travel from all over the world to work in Australia’s mines, in a new gold rush of sorts. It’s an interesting take on post-apocalyptic society and one that creates some intriguing parallels with the current political discourse around mining in Australia. This is the latest outing for the Blue Tongue Films collective, an Australian group of filmmakers including Nash and Joel Edgerton, Keiren Darcy Smith and Luke Doolan.
Isobel Yeap: I used to have a crush on James Franco. I was 14, he was 26. I was going through puberty, he was playing the son of an envious goblin in Spiderman 3. I liked the scene where he cooked eggs for Mary-Jane while dancing. I thought to myself, “I thought only girls could multi-task. He’s perfect!” Now, times have changed. I have (almost) finished going through puberty, and James Franco is “an American actor, director, screenwriter, producer, teacher, author and poet.” He is also a keen defender of the selfie, arguing that selfies are necessary for an aspiring artist because “Attention is power. And if you are someone people are interested in, then the selfie provides something very powerful, from the most privileged perspective possible.” I’m not sure what he means by this. I think he might mean that by taking lots of photos of himself on Instagram, he is able to garner attention. His logic appears to be as follows: attention leads to power, selfies lead to attention, hence selfies lead to power!!!!!! Franco, much like his alter-ego in Spiderman 3 is very power hungry, so it is not surprising that he loves his Instagram. He views it as a sort of powerhouse, churning out endless megawatts of influence and fame. This is just background information. It could be relevant if you choose to see Franco’s new film Palo Alto, which is screening at the Sydney Film Festival. Palo Alto stars a relative of Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman). It is written and directed by a relative of Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather). In this sense, it is like a Hollywood family reunion that all the big stars were too busy to attend. Palo Alto is also based on a book of short stories by Franco. It is called Palo Alto because it is about a group of teenagers (like Franco pre-Spiderman 3) growing up in Palo Alto, California (Franco’s hometown). They experiment with sex and burn things. Sometimes they are violent. I actually have the book and started reading it, but then stopped. Now I can’t find it. I can’t remember why I stopped reading it or if I threw it out. Anyway, I plan to find it and to force myself to read it. I also plan to see the film, and then to compare them. I am hoping that Palo Alto will be something like a selfie with two extra dimensions. I will learn about Franco’s past, his present, his future. It is through Palo Alto, I believe, that Franco will finally become…hegemon of the world.
Lidiya Josifova: The clock’s been ticking a long time in anticipation of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. It’s been in the works since 2002 when Linklater cast Ellar Coltrane, then a tender 7 years of age, as the protagonist Mason. The film sees Linklater step up his long-form cinematic storytelling game in an extraordinary way. Shot in 3 – 4 day slices every summer until October 2013, it’s an extension of the perhaps more naturalistic, authentic filmmaking process Linklater experimented with in his renowned Before Trilogy, which was completed over several decades. Boyhood promises similar success, having already earned him the Silver Bear for Best Director at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. The soundtrack fittingly spans the decade as the film follows Mason’s transformation in real time from 7 to 18 years old, with committed performances by Patricia Arquette and Linklater favourite, Ethan Hawke as his parents. It’s a safe bet to say the film reaches beyond the evolution of its protagonist throughout his childhood, right into the collective nostalgia for the most formative years of our lives.
Dominic Ellis: Bong Joon-ho is one of the most daring filmmakers working at the moment. He made a name for himself with a murder mystery (Memories of Murder); peaked with an allegorical monster flick (The Host); and then touched base with a family-drama-thriller (Mother). So it goes without saying that the world is insanely curious where he’ll go next. Snowpiercer seems to be more in the vein of The Host than the other two – simply in the fact that it’s science fiction – but boasts a pretty unique concept. It’s a remake of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige and covers post-apocalyptic class struggles aboard an arctic supertrain. It’s also Joon-Ho’s English-language debut, and features a slick cast comprising of the likes of Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and The Host star Song Kang-ho. Simply put, this should be epic. While The Host’s special effects were campily glorious, the just-released redband trailer shows just how big this thing is, especially for a budget that’s a fraction of a normal Hollywood epic. But Joon-ho doesn’t do normal. Nor does he do Hollywood. So I suspect this won’t be another full-blown (read: disasterous) South Korean-US crossover a la Kim Jee-woon. Instead, I think we’ll get two hours of excitement loaded with political subtext and dark humor – as we’ve come to expect from the Korean maestro.
Virat Nehru: It is the harsh reality of the Hindi film industry that nowadays arthouse films often go unnoticed when released in India, unable to stand up against the celebrity powered extravaganzas that have come to define the colloquially referred “Bollywood”. There used to be a time, during the Golden Age of Indian cinema, where arthouse films (“parallel cinema” as they were called, in opposition to “mainstream cinema”) had an audience to turn to in India. However, as movie making became more commercialised, Indian arthouse cinema lost its audience in its own country and had to contend with viewership at a select few international film festivals. Canadian film director Richie Mehta’s second venture, Siddharth, has garnered a warm response from audiences at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, as well as winning the top award at the Beijing International Film Festival. Siddharth tells us the story of a zip mender, who fixes broken zippers on the street, searching for his young, twelve year old son, in a landscape where everyone values self-interest above all else. Mehta has gone with acting ability as opposed to star power in choosing his cast. Rajesh Tailang, who plays the father of the lost boy, is a graduate from National School of Drama in Delhi – one of the most prestigious and influential arts and culture institutions in the country. With the success of The Lunchbox and other arthouse films at international film festivals leading the way for their subsequent success at the domestic box office last year, I hope that Siddharth’s positive reception at the Sydney Film Festival can also translate to box office success, as Indian audiences find their lost appreciation of arthouse films
Peter Walsh: Documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) owes much to Roger Ebert. It was Ebert who named Hoop Dreams the best film of the 1990s, and Ebert who drew attention to the Academy’s negligent system of appraising documentaries that led that film to being overlooked. Almost a year after Ebert’s death, James has found an opportunity to settle his debt. Your opinion of Roger Ebert likely turns on whether you appreciate his approach to criticism. On one hand, Ebert was a reliable voice in a critical landscape that still rewards controversy and contrarians. On the other, he was himself guilty of a pragmatic approach to criticism that saw him re-appraise the films he was wrong about, destroying the evidence as he went. Regardless, he was—and might still be—the most well-known film critic in the world, in part due to a critical relativism that saw him comparing films within their genre, with a striking wit, and little patience for fools. His reviews uncovered truths, but did not rest on academic matters. He simply sought—as we do at 4:3—to answer the question: is this film worth seeing? Life Itself, a documentary on Ebert’s career and last months, is directed by Steve James, produced by Martin Scorsese, and adapted from Ebert’s own superb autobiography. It’s worth your time.
Ivan Čerečina: I am as yet unsure whether the Romanian New Wave constitutes an actual artistic movement or if it is just a term produced by lazy film criticism. Regardless, I’m looking forward to the newest film by Corneliu Porumboiu, The Second Game, which, it must be said, does share some similarities with the best film to have come out of Romania in the last decade, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (Andrej Ujiča, 2010). Like Ujiča, Porumboiu uses found footage to explore Romania’s troubled relationship with its history under the Ceaușescu dictatorship. Yet Porumboiu pushes the détournement aesthetic of found footage cinema to its extreme in The Second Game. The film’s images are comprised entirely by the uncut footage of a Romanian football match broadcast on national television in 1988 – a year before the end of Ceaușescu’s rule and with it the communist party in Romania – with absolutely no alterations. No ordinary match, however: we see the national army’s team, Steaua, and the secret police’s team, Dinamo, up against one another in a match that was refereed by Porumboiu’s father himself. The film’s soundtrack is a conversation between Porumboiu and his father, who reflects on his experience refereeing the game. This is a fascinating concept for a film, and I’m interested above all in seeing how the director works with such a restricted approach. It seems almost like some kind of aesthetic gamesmanship – “you bet I can make a film like this!” What’s more, as someone who is interested in this period for the Eastern bloc, I look forward to the history lesson. Porumboiu has been one to watch after winning the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2006 for his debut film 12:08 East of Bucharest, and he also received international attention for Police, Adjective (2009).
The collage at the top of this page is comprised of still images from Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, Night Moves, Fish & Cat and 20,000 Days on Earth. The graphic at the base of the image was designed by Leuver Design for the 2014 Sydney Film Festival program guide. The Sydney Film Festival runs from 4-15 June and tickets can be purchased here.