SBS On Demand launched 400 Free Movies today, streaming an impressive selection of over 400 films online for free for the next 12 months. To celebrate the occasion we thought it would be a good opportunity to do a round of staff picks. Here are our recommendations.
Jessica Ellicott: If You Are the One 2 is an absurdly glossy romantic comedy that offers a fascinating reflection (and possible critique?) of the changing values of wealthy young Beijing urbanites. Directed by populist genre-cinema master Feng Xiaogang, it’s one of the highest-grossing films of all time and somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in China, but relatively unknown overseas. Perhaps reflecting China’s rising divorce rate, it begins with a young married couple’s extremely opulent splitting-up ceremony. It’s staged like a bizarro wedding ceremony, complete with horse and carriage and champagne glass pyramids, with the ‘bride’ (played by Yao Chen, one of the most influential people in the world with 71 million Weibo followers) dressed in a black haute couture gown and their friends cheering on their vows of eternal separation. The rest of the film continues in this exaggerated vein, with the majority of the film dedicated to the screwball antics of a couple testing out a ‘trial marriage’ in a luxury tropical villa in Hainan. It’s kind of like The Awful Truth but with an egregious dose of product placement, romanticised nature shots and conspicuous consumption. A must-see.
Brad Mariano: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was one of the biggest surprises when it won the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Infamously, many critics didn’t even have Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film on their radars and had assumed it was one of the esoteric choices they could miss to catch up on sleep or schmooze with A-listers, and went scrambling trying to cram into the very last screening once the prize was announced. But for people following world cinema more closely, it was clearly the culmination of a solid decade for the director. Often simply called ‘Joe’ in the West, he had carved out a distinct aesthetic and body of work, a style which embodied aspects of many labels – contemplative cinema, queer cinema – but defying description. The titular Uncle Boonmee is a character slowly dying, and reimagining his previous physical manifestations through his Buddhist spirituality – not all of which were in human form, and not all of which really make a lot of sense to the viewer; one scene takes “catfishing” to a new level. Shot in segments in a variety of styles – genre, drama, photographic doco, leading up to a transfixing conclusion, Uncle Boonmee is one of the most impressive, original films in recent years.
Conor Bateman: One of the pleasant surprises of this new SBS streaming collection is how many genres and countries it crosses, from Chinese epics, South Korean thrillers to slow-moving dramas from Belgium. My initial picks, then, act to highlight one, oft-underappreciated genre in world cinema, that being the comedy. Heartbreaker is a French romantic comedy firmly steeped in archetype. It follows Alex (Romain Durpris in fine form), a man whose occupation involves him being hired to break up relationships by convincing women that they deserve better than their current partner. When a wealthy gangster gives him ten days to break up his daughter’s engagement, he is forced to act quickly in making the woman fall in love with him instead. The major trouble, as seems to be the way with these films, is that he finds himself falling for her, a big no-no in their line of work. Now that’s the structural conceit but what Pascal Chaumeil’s film does to make it rise above films of that ilk is that it is consistently hilarious and it is fully aware of the tropes it relies upon. The dialogue is witty, the characters wholly charming and the narrative, though completely far-fetched, is emotionally engaging by the film’s end.
The other comedy I want to highlight is a whole lot darker and definitely not the broad crowd-pleaser that Heartbreaker is. Klovn (in the SBS system as “The Clown”) is a Swedish comedy that uses existing characters from the searingly dark sitcom of the same name (think Curb Your Enthusiasm meets It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). The film follows Frank and Casper, two comedians and old friends embarking on a boys-only canoeing trip to a famed brothel, though their plans take a turn after Frank’s wife tells him he isn’t cut out to be a father. Frank’s response: kidnap his nephew and prove to his wife that he can be a good role model for a child. The film takes on taboos, not necessarily with intelligence, but with some hysterically uncomfortable scenes, this is cringe-humour taken to the next level.
Jeremy Elphick: Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2009 flick Air Doll remains one of the most underseen in his catalogue, however, the film navigates a realm of melancholy punctuated by a hopeful sense of existential ennui. The basic premise of the film revolves around an initially simple love story between a man and a sex doll. What emerges is something that initially isn’t too dissimilar from Lars and the Real Girl. That said, Koreeda’s film is able to find its feet after its misleading beginning, developing into a more stark critique of the manifestations of sexuality – as well as the collective loneliness that promulgates it – in Japan today. It’s a film that engages with critical discourse on a more subtle level than films from the directors more outspoken peers. Framing Koreeda’s tale is an incredibly subtle and memorable score from Kashiwa Daisuke’s ‘Worlds End Girlfriend’ project – an intricate articulation that sits at the intersection of electronic glitches and classical piano lines. Air Doll is a film that reminds its audience of the integral role a soundtrack can play in provoking emotion and driving a range of movements, both thematically and within the films slow-moving plot – but Daisuke’s soundtrack is a work of art in its own right and Koreeda’s ability to create a work that feels almost collaborative in its scope makes Air Doll one of the strongest pieces of Japanese cinema in the last decade. It isn’t a fast moving film by any measure, and its crescendos often frame scenes almost antithetic in scope, however, Hirokazu Koreeda’s movie is a welcome lapse from the pace of his contemporaries.
Dominic Barlow: “I definitely feel sorry more people don’t get to see my films. They aren’t inaccessible, and if people got the chance to see them, I know they’d like them.”1 UK director Andrea Arnold is right to be confident judging from her 2009 coming-of-age drama Fish Tank, and it’s pleasing to see it become more accessible than ever on SBS’s rollout. It follows an aspiring dancer (Mia Williams) whose silent introspection and curiosity chafes with her exhaustingly troubled life in a British council estate. This changes when her mother’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) presents himself as a disarmingly unassuming confidant, giving her glimpses of a better life beyond the pale that traps her rudderless family. Arnold’s knack for diegesis-bound realism and understated imagery (presented in 4:3, no less) builds a foundation of warm humanity, making the film’s plunge into a remarkably tense and unpredictable climax all the more gripping. It’s an unflinching and moving work, and if nothing else, it’ll give you the pleasure of watching Fassbender get down like an affable dag to James Brown. Not a bad use of your Internet-streaming time by any means.
Also, fans of Amelie would do well to watch Micmacs, another whimsical film by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Showily shot and edited in the same honey-yellow colouration as that widely-beloved jaunt through Paris, this film opts for a jollier tone through boisterous comedy and rollicking heist-film set pieces. Its penniless hero Bazil (Dany Boon) teams up with a motley crew of adult orphans, to get back at the overrich arms dealers that put a bullet in his brain and his father in the grave. Any pointed satire that premise suggests is never really crystallised, and instead used to prop up the arch villainy of its antagonists. It’s probably for the better, since it works best when its dynamic and amusing cast are pulling off their gizmo-infused grand plans. It’s a fun watch with a Toy Story-like sense of invention and abandon, perfect for a lazy Sunday.
Dominic Ellis: The Guard is some way from being my favourite film on the list – that honour would probably go to Uncle Boonmee – but of the films I’ve seen, it’s probably the one I’d most gladly re-watch given 90 minutes and a bad mood. The McDonaghs are two of the wittiest screenwriters in the business, and while Martin has been well established on both the stage and screen for some time now, John Michael, who wrote and directed this and the recently released Calvary, is only now starting to find international recognition. And rightly so. The Guard, his first film as writer-director, is a very clever take on the buddy cop movie and while that sounds slightly unnerving, it works surprisingly well thanks to a strong script and a killer lead performance by Brendan Gleeson. It’s also helped by the fact that it’s a very funny black comedy that doesn’t get bogged down in its own wit but instead keeps it simple and honest. Well worth a watch if you happened to miss it in 2011 and an impressive debut from a very clever filmmaker.
Ivan Cerecina: I saw Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Love a little while ago as part of an AGNSW screening program not really knowing much about the Polish director despite his considerable international reputation. Having read in the program notes that the film was developed from an episode of Decalogue – the director’s ten-hour television series based on the Ten Commandments – I was expecting a heavy, serious work in full European arthouse mode. A Short Film About Love may exhibit some of these severe highbrow art cinema trappings, but it is in some other ways quite a light film. There’s an extended homage to that other great film about apartment blocks, peeping toms, and desire, Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in the story of Tomek, the 19-year-old orphan who lives with his godmother and spends his nights spying on his attractive older neighbour, Magda. Tomek is torn between keeping his distance from Magda and coming face to face with her, an internal struggle that Kieślowski delicately handles through a quiet, parallel montage. The film is light in the sense that its depiction of love and disappointment with love is shown through the lense of youthful naivety, of a teenager who has never experienced it before. The dialogue is sparse but beautifully handled, full of choice bon mots without ever being overly sentimental. I look forward to revisiting this one along with the director’s A Short Film About Killing, also up for grabs in the SBS selection. Essential late night viewing.
Jamie Rusiti: The premise of Good Bye Lenin! is one that, on paper, sounds absurd: In East Germany, only days before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, devout mother and loyal Communist, Christine (Katrin Straß), witnesses her son rioting against the East German police and abruptly falls into a coma. Eight months later she awakens and is returned to the care of her children, Alex (Daniel Brühl) and Ariane (Maria Simon), with a warning that “the slightest shock could kill her.” This is all well and good, save for the fact that life as she knew it has been completely destroyed and rebuilt with the addition of gargantuan Coca-Cola billboards and Burger King restaurants. Hence, Alex and Ariane embark on a mission to hide the fall of East Germany from their mother, reverting their apartment back to its old drab décor, and constructing false TV news reports for her to watch. Wolfgang Becker’s film feels inseparable from Berlin itself, with vibrant primary colours mimicking the city’s giant pink pipelines and painted remnants of the Wall. And indeed, just as the Wall’s murals are still marked with bullet holes, Good Bye Lenin! exudes an underlying air of tragic sadness beneath its comic façade. Exemplifying a brand of tragicomedy that has continued to grow in contemporary German art-house (eg. 2013’s Finsterworld), the film shows us that perhaps it’s not its premise that is absurd, but the very way in which an ideology can so quickly become all consuming, and then just as abruptly be forgotten.
Felix Hubble: The Wackness will always be a very special film to me. I first caught it when I was fifteen and it was one of those select few at that time (along with Fight Club, Wristcutters: A Love Story and Freddy Got Fingered) that I would watch again and again endlessly on my iPod Video’s tiny 320×240 pixel screen as I went to sleep. It was one of those rare films (at least for my younger self) in which I felt connected to aspects of every character’s lives, and one of the few that could bring me to tears – surprising because I normally hate coming of age flicks (the film, like the few listed above, was probably aided by its ‘2edgy4u’ content). I have no idea how it holds up, but I’m sure its timeless 90s hip-hop soundtrack is still totally bompin’ and it’s probably worth checking out for that alone. I’m super excited to revisit this film five or so years later, as a sort-of time capsule of the filmic preferences of my former self. I can also recommend (for those who haven’t seen it, I’m sure it’s probably not as fun on the re-watch) the Norwegian film Headhunters. I stumbled across Headhunters one night when Netflix suggested it to me and I have to say, I was kind of blown away. As the Netflixers among you are sure to know, Netflix recommendations are often fairly inaccurate, and often consist of solely B-movie filler that contains a lot of what you generally like to see in films recreated in a poor manner, things similar to whatever your housemates are into and stuff you’ve already seen – Headhunters was the exception to this rule. Funny, smart, brutal and captivating overall, Headhunters follows a professional headhunter who leads a double life as a professional art thief, and then some stuff goes down (I don’t want to spoil any of it, just go and check it out). I’m sure it’s not as fun on the rewatch once all its twists and turns have been revealed but on the first watch, Headhunters is a super-fantastic time. Finally, I’d be remiss not to point out that Monty Python’s Life of Brian is on the service (it’s Python, it’s great, and I’m sure you’ve already seen it – if you haven’t, what are you doing with your life), and SBS’s On Demand app is great (on Playstation at least) so I’d highly recommend checking out the rest of their new catalogue.