This morning we got the first glimpse at the line-up of the 62nd Sydney Film Festival in the form of their teaser announcement, consisting of 27 feature films and a filmmaker retrospective. Like last year’s teaser announcement, the festival have peppered this preview with international festival favourites sitting alongside some more unknown films, an eclectic bunch of films sure to fill up watchlists.
The big gets announced here are all exciting ones, saddled with high expectations and a wealth of rave reviews; Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence leads the pack, having netted the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year in competition against Oscar-winner Birdman and one of the other highly anticipated offerings here at SFF, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence.1 Andersson’s latest film continues the locked on camera style and production design of his previous two features, 2007’s You, The Living and 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor, and audiences can expect another bleakly funny tale of Swedish life intermingled with a healthy dose of existentialism. The narrative of the film follows two traveling salesmen selling odd novelty items, and the premise alone seems perfect for the almost sketch-like structure of Andersson’s other recent films.
Peter Strickland’s follow-up to Berberian Sound Studio is the experimental erotic drama The Duke of Burgundy, which seemingly focuses on the S&M-driven relationship between two women in the 19th century, but knowing Strickland nothing is quite what it seems. From what we’ve heard, the film contains no nudity, no male actors and an infamous scene about a “human toilet”. As Berberian showed, though, Strickland is fully aware of the genres he is playing around with, and with his latest one can expect a provocative and engaging film about the ideas of sex moreso than the act itself. Also of note is that one of the leads is played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, star of the hugely successful Danish television program Borgen.
On a completely different note, one of the films in the teaser primarily aimed at children is also one worth looking out for – Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea. The latest film from the Irish animator after 2010’s The Secret of Kells (both that and his latest were Oscar-nominated, and both were independently produced) is another stunning hand-drawn feature about family, though in the vein of Miyakazi it plays with mythology and fantasy in equal measure.2
Of note locally are two international features saddled with Australian actors, Sundance hits Slow West and Strangerland. The former, a genre-hopping western, is led by Michael Fassbender (SFF 2014’s Frank) and supported by Australians Kodi Smit-McPhee and super-sub Ben Mendelsohn. The latter stars an Australian acting trifecta in Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving, so that film, from director Kim Farrant, will likely sell out fast.
Straight from the Berlinale, Mark Christopher’s cult classic 54, from 1998, gets its director’s cut seventeen years later. The film had nearly a third of its runtime removed for American release by the then Weinstein-led Miramax, removing the queer elements and reshooting scenes to focus on a hetero love story. Now history has been re-made. Get ready for a dual time capsule, 70s New York meets the cinematic stars of the 90s in Neve Campbell, Salma Hayek, Ryan Phillippe and Mike Myers. The Berlinale program note calls it “weightier, darker, more drug-addled and above all queerer” than its original. Another film about music, Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy also looks to be a winner, with Paul Dano and John Cusack sharing the starring role.
Other international curios on show include sculptor Suha Arraf’s “stateless” feature Villa Touma (produced in Palestine with Israeli financing), Ramin Bahrani’s Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon-starring 99 Homes3, Christian Petzold’s tense post-WW2 drama Phoenix, his follow-up to 2012’s Barbara, Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato and Indian noir Sunrise, from director Partho Sen-Gupta.4
The documentaries announced today are likewise impressive, in fact one of the biggest strengths of SFF over the last decade has been its eclectic documentary programming, thanks largely to undersung SFF hero Jenny Neighbour. As mentioned above, the big centerpiece of the documentary program has got to be Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence. The films is his counterpart to 2013 SFF Official Competition contender The Act of Killing and follows an opthalmologist and his family in Indonesia, who confront the men who killed his brother after Suharto came to power in 1965. Where The Act of Killing was a surreal trip through re-enactment and horror, The Look of Silence looks to be a more meditative affair, though nonetheless potent.
Hot off its screening this week on HBO is Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which adapts Lawrence Wright’s explosive account of the Church of Scientology. Gibney is no stranger to Sydney Film Festival, Going Clear will be his sixth feature screened and third in three years, and from early buzz it might be his biggest film yet. Social media exploded on Tuesday (Aus. time) following its broadcast, and the response of the Church is perhaps just as interesting as the documentary, their strange smear campaign against Gibney a prime example of the Streisand effect.
The rest of the documentaries include Toronto Film Festival standout Beats of the Antonov, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley sparring in Best of Enemies, Kirby Dick’s controversial campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground and Zhou Hao’s The Chinese Mayor, which comes highly recommended by Kevin B. Lee from its screening at True/False Film Festival.
The filmmaker retrospective this year will focus on Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, with ten of his films to be screened, including The Seventh Seal and one of our You Have To See… picks, Smiles of a Summer Night. Whilst it’s hard to complain about Bergman being screened on 35mm this retrospective can’t help but feel like a slight disappointment.5 Bergman’s canonisation in the Criterion Collection means that so many of these films are already available (and easily accessible) on blu-ray, and his films have become synonymous with the public perception of classic foreign arthouse cinema, as well as being taught widely in university film studies courses. The fact that the films will be presented by David Stratton as well feels like the festival re-enacting one of Strat’s late-night SBS screening programmes rather than an imaginative or exciting retrospective series.6 Undoubtedly these films will do well in terms of ticket-sales, pitched directly to older cinema-goers, but outside of that it feels like a wasted chance to showcase a filmmaker perhaps more in need of a career overview. That said, the festival always manages to surprise on the retrospective front in its full program, last year’s James Benning series shows as much, so we’re looking forward to that reveal in a month’s time.
As always there’s a Freak Me Out offering in the teaser, this time it’s SXSW’s heavy metal gore fest Deathgasm which was used this morning as a way to announce that Dendy Cinemas Newtown will be an additional venue at this year’s festival. This comes a few years after the Hayden Orpheum was brought back into the fold an acts as another means through which the SFF can expand its audience. The Dendy is an especially clever idea considering that the festival always clashes with the examination timetable of the nearby University of Sydney; I’d imagine that SFF is actively courting students with both the new location and by running the popular Freak Me Out titles there.
Full Teaser List
54: The Director’s Cut (dir. Mark Christopher)
99 Homes (dir. Ramin Bahrani)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (dir. Roy Andersson)
The Crow’s Egg (dir. M. Manikandan)
Deathgasm (dir. Jason Lei Howden)
The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Peter Strickland)
Eisenstein in Guanajuato (dir. Peter Greenaway)
Kabukicho Love Hotel (dir, Ryuichi Hiroki)
Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad)
Mr. Holmes (dir. Bill Condon)
Necktie Youth (dir. Sibs Shongwe-La Mer)
Phoenix (dir. Christian Petzold)
Slow West (dir. John Maclean)
Song of the Sea (dir. Tomm Moore)
Strangerland (dir. Kim Farrant)
Sunrise (dir. Partho Sen-Gupta)
Villa Touma (dir. Suha Arraf)
Beats of the Antonov (dir. Hajooj Kuka)
Best of Enemies (dir. Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville)
Bikes vs Cars (dir. Fredrik Gertten)
The Chinese Mayor (dir. Zhou Hao)
Dreamcatcher (dir. Kim Longinotto)
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (dir. Alex Gibney)
How to Change the World (dir. Jerry Rothwell)
The Hunting Ground (dir. Kirby Dick)
The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
My Love, Don’t Cross That River (dir. Jin Mo-young)
Retrospective – Ingmar Bergman
Cries and Whispers
Fanny and Alexander
The Seventh Seal
Smiles of a Summer Night
The Virgin Spring