This year’s Sydney Film Festival is once again packed full of interesting films, both international hits and hidden gems. In this Staff Picks piece, our writing team goes through the program and picks out some of the films they are most excited to see.
Jeremy Elphick: Wang Yichun’s What’s in the Darkness has been one of my favourite films of the last few months, with its peculiar take on a crime procedural mixed with a subtle critique of gender roles in Hebei. Wang draws heavily on personal experience, giving the film an intimate sense of authenticity rarely seen within the genre – coupled with beautifully crisp cinematography, it’s definitely one to catch on the big screen. One of the more bittersweet screenings of the festival is Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, which has faced a sort of renaissance in the months since the legendary director’s death. Painfully raw in retrospect, the relationship that Akerman records with her mother – in a manner that recalls many of her earlier works – focuses on absolute authenticity above all else, resulting in one of Akerman’s most sincere and moving works. Also screening as a retrospective at the festival is the director’s most well-known and critically lauded work, her 1975 three-hour slow burn Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
In terms of films I’m excited to see, the latest work from Greek New Wave figurehead Athina Rachel Tsangari, Chevalier. Co-written by one of the lesser-seen masterminds of the movement, Efthymis Filippou, 1 Tsangari’s film is likely to define itself with the subtle absurdism of her oeuvre; perhaps alongside a more pointed critique of masculinity and violence in Greece. Another film at the top of my list is The Road, Zhang Zanbo’s documentary on the process of building a superhighway in Hunan; which presents the construction from a myriad of perspectives – from the workers building it, to the managers overseeing it all.
Jessica Ellicott: Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine blew me away at the Berlinale earlier this year, so I was very happy to see its inclusion in this year’s program. It’s exactly the kind of adventurous programming we need more of in Sydney, a city that many great new films seem to pass by (prime examples from recent years: Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language and Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs). Kate Lyn Sheil is brilliant as a kind of fake documentary subject ‘preparing’ to play the part of Christine Chubbuck, the newsreader who infamously committed suicide on live television in 1974. The film’s strange, transfixing mix of formal ingenuity and emotional depth is something to behold.
If you’re not at the 10:30am Monday session of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy then I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with you. It’s one of my all-time favourites and I’ll profess my undying love for it any chance I can get. Late Jerry Lewis’ grotesque ‘80s telathon persona informs his character here in in this fascinating, multi-layered way that I haven’t really seen achieved better in any other work. I think one of the things I like most about it is how Scorsese deals with human ugliness: he presents desperation, ambition and mean-spiritedness in a way that’s noxious but miraculously beautiful. I cannot wait to see it again.
Conor Bateman: One of the most pleasant surprises of this year’s program has been its focus on recent Korean cinema, and I’m particularly pleased by the inclusion of underseen doc Non-Fiction Diary from director Jung Yoon-Suk. I was able to see the film at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival in 2014 and was quietly blown away by its dark humour and subtly scathing social critique – not to mention the fact that all of this happens in a documentary ostensibly about a group of serial killers.
For the most part this year the documentaries have my attention. Having heard Jess rave about Kate Plays Christine I am very much looking forward to catching it; I’m also very excited to see the new film from Alex Gibney, Zero Days, which played in competition in Berlin earlier this year. National Bird sports one of the more interesting program note lines, which is that it was executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. The only other films to have that designation in the last decade are The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, so there’s some big shoes to fill for Sonia Kennebeck’s film, which promises to be an unsettling and ever-relevant look at the drone program in the United States.
Ian Barr: From the handful of new films I’ve seen, there are two clear standouts. I highly recommend The Treasure from Romanian New Wave member Corneliu Porumboiu, though it’s been near-universally acclaimed since its berth in Cannes over a year ago. On the other hand, I’d heard virtually nothing about Pema Tseden’s Tharlo prior to seeing it (apart from strong word for Tseden’s previous film, Old Dog), and was quietly blown away. It fits squarely into the tradition of contemporary Slow Cinema, and perhaps that surface-level formal familiarity has let it pass by without much fanfare since premiering in Venice’s Orrizonti sidebar last year. But Tseden’s film – a neo-noir-ish tale of a lonely Tibetan shepherd and his tentative romance with a woman from a nearby town – uses its deep-focus, black-and-white, static-master-shot long-take compositions (it might be the most visually stunning digital b&w film I’ve seen) with a confidence and purpose that easily sets himself apart from Tsai Ming-liang’s numerous imitators. It’s a wry yet deeply moving film that I hope finds a following.
Looking forward to: Free in Deed (rave reviews + fascinating milieu: “evocative and disturbing look at America’s storefront church circuit”) The Eyes of My Mother (monochrome body horror, eye-catchingly compared to Philippe Grandrieux by Blake Williams), Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt has yet to disappoint me), Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds is this decade’s most promising debut feature) and the newly restored 1976 Filipino film Insiang.
Dominic Barlow: Now, look. We’ve all had our fun saying the phrase “Cronulla riots comedy” with a shudder, and asking why oh why such a thing got made in the first place. Consider this about Down Under, though: Abe Forsythe, Always Greener star and pick of the early-2000s Tropfest crop, catapulted headlong into his first feature film with Ned (2003) at age twenty-one, and only now making a follow-up. He’s directed commercials and ABC productions in the gap, but if his Twitter feed is anything to go by, cinema and the power thereof is firmly in his sights – he rates Memories of Murder, touts Wake in Fright as the best Aussie film, and insists Hail, Caesar! will find a place in the Coen canon. Sure, there’s nothing super niche in that mix, and Ned‘s a juvenile mess, but so is the spaghetti western knock-off that Edgar Wright made at around the same age, and you know he would have been worth the benefit of the doubt had Twitter been around to peck Shaun of the Dead’s premise to pieces (“Yeah, cute title. We’ve got enough Scary Movie knock-offs though, mate.”) On the other hand, Wright wouldn’t touch the London Riots with a ten-foot pole, and it’s highly unlikely that Forsythe is going to hit anything close to the heights of Shaun or Spaced, but… hell, who knows? At the very least, I’m pulling for him to come up with something properly absurd, rather than the South Parkish both-sides-are-wrong moraliser its note suggests.
On the less trepidatious end, I’m pleased to see the festival find new ways of presenting short films than pre-feature bonuses and the perpetually sold-out Dendy Award sessions. The animation showcases curated by Malcolm Turner were terrific and well-attended last year, so they are naturally back for another round, but I’ll also be going to the double-bill of shorts from festival guest and Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, which stacks honour-killing critique A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness with acid-attack exposé Saving Face. Shorts are a vital stepping stone in the road to the exciting feature debuts festival attendees love to get the jump on – Obaid-Chinoy’s own Song of Lahore from last year, for instance – so the more creative ways to get them screened and seen, the better.
Isobel Yeap: I’m excited to see Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog’s new documentary about the Internet. The choice of subject matter represents a deviation from his usual obsession – man’s fight against nature red in tooth and claw, as depicted in both Grizzly Man and Fitzcarraldo. A sceptic may point out that Lo and Behold is funded by cybersecurity firm, NetScout. And yet, one would be hard-pressed to argue for a general underratedness of the internet. One would also be hard-pressed to call Herzog a sell-out. If anything, he is the opposite. He runs a film school called Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, where he seeks to recruit those who have “worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum”. Indeed, Herzog is an enigmatic and magnetic character. Watch him in the Les Blank documentary, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe and watch him eat a literal leather shoe that he has soaked in duck fat, then discuss the time he ran into a cactus on purpose. Watch him explain that when he was shot at during an interview he could proceed because, “It was not a significant bullet.”
Of course, then, Herzog should impress us with some new bizarre facet of the internet that we have not yet confronted. In Lo and Behold, Herzog introduces us to nodes and robotics, Elon Musk, and a club of people who claim to be hyper-sensitive to the radio waves emitted by mobile phones. Perhaps Herzog has realised that in an urban setting, the wildness of nature has been replaced with an equally uncontrollable nexus of machines. With the rise of online harassment and cyberterrorism, our connected world has evolved to be just as sinister as the jungles of South America.
Julieta, Pedro Almodovar’s latest films also looks promising. It is an adaptation of three related short stories by the inimitable master of the short story herself – Alice Munro. I’m a huge fan of Munro’s work, and the three Juliette stories (included in her 2004 collection Runaway) are incredible in their precise and understated comment on human experience. Munro has a way of writing that conveys degrees of psychological complexity in a completely natural, non-intrusive way, and I am interested to see how Almodovar will adapt her. Almodovar has such a talent for composition and colour, such that his film stills often look like photographs. The Skin I Live In (2011), for example, is a wonderful musing on aesthetics as well as a twisted psychological thriller. The pain of heartbreak and betrayal which features in Munro’s stories will be rendered, I hope, in an equally visceral way.
Virat Nehru: It would be a massive understatement if I were to suggest that I’m excited about the latest Anurag Kashyap film that comes to us with the festival title Psycho Raman (but will be released widely as Raman Raghav 2.0) straight after its Cannes Director’s Fortnight premiere. Kashyap has stamped his authority as one of the foremost directors at the helm of the dynamically evolving face of Indian cinema in recent years post the breakout success of his intergenerational gangster epic Gangs of Wasseypur (SFF 2012). Kashyap’s work since the success of Wasseypur has not quite lived up to his own high standards, most notably, the disappointment that was Bombay Velvet (2015). Hence, the arrival of Psycho Raman raises the anticipation levels even higher, with the expectation that this would be a return to form for him.
I’m also keen for the Kannada language feature Thithi by debut director Raam Reddy. The film was appreciated at the Locarno International Film Festival, where it became the first Indian film to be featured in eight years. With a cast of largely non-professional actors and the use of digital filmmaking to establish minimal realism as an aesthetic, the film is a meditation on death with ample doses of bleak humour to punctuate the narrative. From its approach, Thithi is giving me strong vibes of another Indian film, Court (SFF 2015), which was undoubtedly my favourite film of the festival last year. If my intuition is proven right, then we are in for an absolute treat that must not be missed at any cost. Kashyap and Reddy’s work are great examples of the variety that modern Indian cinema has to offer.
Moving away from Indian cinema but keeping with themes of death, bleak humour and absurdist undertones, I’m curious to check out Chinese director Zhang Hanyi’s debut feature Life After Life (original title: Zhi Fan Ye Mao) that screened in the Berlinale Forum earlier this year. The Mandarin language feature is an existential ghost story that looks to combine themes of socio-economic upheaval in an increasingly globalised climate resonant in Chinese auteur-turned-producer Jia Zhang-ke’s work (Still Life, SFF 2007) with Albert Camus’ Sisyphean anguish. As a young person in my early twenties experiencing my very own existential crisis and having never got over my love for Camus, I’m all in for this cathartic act of self-affirmation.
Lidiya Josifova: Although to many, his more recent work The Hunt (2012) may be more familiar, for me the memory of Thomas Vinterberg’s debut feature Festen (1998) prevails. With that tragicomic debut, Vinterberg proved himself adept at exploring complex family dynamics and heavy subject matter. That twist of wit and surreal black humour in the face of familial drama is what draws me to his entry in this year’s festival, The Commune. Although we may not see as much rigorous aesthetic Dogme 95 influence in this new feature (the movement has supposedly more-or-less disbanded), Vinterberg has gone down an intriguing path by touching on his childhood in The Commune. A professional couple decide to invite friends and ‘eccentrics’ into the home they share with their teenage daughter – transforming it into the titular commune, similar to one the director himself resided in from the ages of seven and nineteen. Reviews have pointed to the film’s emotional tension and I am more than a little keen to discover how Vinterberg navigates this new, strange family scenario.
In Romania, where less than thirty cinemas continue to operate, theatre manager/projectionist Victor Purice struggles to keep his business, and his passion, afloat. With its story of perseverance and devotion, Cinema, mon amour promises to be a bittersweet and poignant watch for any festival-goer – cinephiles that we are. The 70-minute documentary seems as much an ode to the resilience and spirit of its subject as an ode to the medium he, and we, adore.
Jaymes Durante: A new Frederick Wiseman film (his 40th!) is an event worthy of jubilation, so the opportunity to settle into a theatre seat for his three-plus hour long latest, In Jackson Heights, is one that I’m not going to pass up. As Jake notes below, Wiseman is known for his expansive studies of public institutions, from relatively insular communities like hospitals and high schools (the economically titled Hospital and High School) to much larger social ecosystems (UCLA Berkeley in At Berkeley; the town of Belfast, Maine in the film of the same title). With In Jackson Heights he has significantly broadened his purview, building a portrait of New York’s dense and diverse Jackson Heights neighbourhood, which has a population of over 130,000. With such an unwieldy subject matter and a natural inclination towards capturing hierarchical systems of organisation and grassroots protest, it’ll be interesting to see where and how Wiseman draws focus. I’ve also never seen a Wiseman film in a cinema before, so that’ll be a nice personal milestone.
I can’t recommend Terence Davies’ magnificent Sunset Song strongly enough. In adapting Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Scottish novel, he strikes a near-perfect balance of poetry and nostalgia, capturing with a song-like cinematic clarity the brutality of nature, the hardships of agricultural tradition and (with a sought-after sincerity missing in much contemporary cinema) the throes of romance and courtship in a world at war, devoid of modern technology. It’ll be interesting to see if the festival choose to screen the film with English subtitles, as the pungent Scottish dialect can be difficult to follow, but thankfully Michael McDonough’s spectacular 65mm cinematography is a thrilling consolation for those unfamiliar with the brogue.
Between Andre Techine’s Being 17, Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster, Sara Jordenö’s Kiki and the world premiere of new Aussie drama Teenage Kicks, there’s an intriguing streak of films with queer themes running through this year’s program, but my pick of the bunch is Andrew Ahn’s Koreatown coming-of-age diaspora drama Spa Night, which flew under the radar at this year’s Sundance but received some really fascinating notices from critics.
Finally, closing the festival is Whit Stillman’s two-handed Kate Beckinsale/Chloe Sevigny Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship. The confluence of those four names should be enough to convince you to buy tickets, ‘nuff said.
Jake Moody: I’m going to mess with the format here and echo Jaymes’ pick of In Jackson Heights, simply because there’s no way I’m going to pass up the opportunity to recommend Frederick Wiseman. This particular piece is an interesting mini-departure from his recent body of work in that it moves away from the purely institutional setting we saw in, for example, At Berkeley, to instead explore a real, pulsating community. In the Official Competition, It’s Only the End of the World is about to become, shamefully, my first Xavier Dolan. I’m hugely intrigued by the early reception of his latest work as something of a reimagining of his previous oeuvre – the stage adaptation brings to mind Tom at the Farm, but the intense chamber drama outline sounds more like Mommy (SFF 2014), and I’d be remiss not to highlight it as a likely challenger for the Sydney Film Prize. My final pick is Aleksandr Sokurov’s Francofonia, which is touted as a spiritual successor to the mesmerising and utterly unique Russian Ark. While those without a yen for French history and art philosophy might often be left cold by a semi-dramatised Louvre-set essay film, Sokurov’s ability to enliven reified subject matter with a capacity for engrossing sound and art design will make this one compelling viewing.
Tope Ogundare: On the strength alone of its trio of central performers, Kelly Reichardt’s sixth feature film Certain Women has the most potent Pavlovian effect on my movie glands. First of all, this film feels like a coming-in-from-the-cold by the sublime Michelle Williams, who seems to have briefly disappeared from cinema after My Week with Marilyn (2011). As actor-director collaborations go, Reichardt and William’s third outing together is worthy of anticipation, as it the presence of the stellar Laura Dern and – of course – the ever rising Kristen Stewart, who seems to be currently carving out a career as a muse for ‘auteurs’. Certain Women is an adaptation of a collection of Maile Meloy short stories and will accordingly involve intersecting lives and storylines à la Altman’s Short Cuts, something of a first for Reichardt, who has thus far excelled at intimate and highly focused portraits of loners and isolated groups. It will be fascinating to see Reichardt marry her precise yet super low-key brand of naturalism with a slightly wider (perhaps more plot-driven) narrative canvas.
My burgeoning love for horror necessitates the presence of the next two picks on this list. Presented in black-and-white by music video director and feature film debutante Nicolas Pesce, The Eyes of My Mother reputedly evokes such varied touchstones as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the films of Pedro Almodovar, which suggests a highly intriguing mish-mash. The premise being about a lonely, young woman whose macabre obsessions lead to macabre acts also evokes Lucky McKee’s low-budget chiller May (2002). Either way, horror remains a thrilling canvas on which emerging filmmakers can display their knack for manipulating the elements of cinema so as to manipulate the viscera of their audiences, which Eyes of My Mother seems to have done with flying colours at Sundance 2016. Having proved his mettle with debut The Loved Ones (SFF 2011), Australian Sean Byrne follows that kitschy prom night gore-fest with The Devil’s Candy, a Texas-set tale of a grungy artist plagued by the occult. Despite borrowing heavily from American high school lore of the Carrie kind, The Loved Ones feels uniquely Australian with its strain of droll humour and irony, so it will be interesting to see if (and how) Byrne reconfigures this transnational combination for his first American feature.
Finally, Aquarius; yet another film about a neighbourhood under threat by Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho whose debut feature, Neighbouring Sounds, screened at SFF 2012. Unlike that film, though, Aquarius focuses not on an entire neighbourhood but on a building (called Aquarius), and – more specifically – its sole resident Clara who battles a company trying to acquire her home for redevelopment purposes. Now while the premise might sound unremarkable, the arresting blend of ethereal realism and psychological intrigue that Filho pulls off in Neighboring Sounds is most definitely not. Plus, the fact that Sonia Braga’s performance set tongues wagging madly at this year’s edition of Cannes only increases my curiosity.
Dominic Ellis: For me, SFF 2016 is all about collective pronouns. War on Everyone and Everybody Wants Some!! are two pretty ginormous films in the scheme of the festival circuit, but deservedly so. Richard Linklater and John McDonagh (the younger McDonagh) are two on-form filmmakers, both coming off the back of the highlights of their respective oeuvres in Boyhood and Calvary. McDonagh’s films in particular have struck a really effective balance between quick-fire wit and grandeur, and I’m hoping War on Everyone will continue the trend. That being said, don’t expect solemn reflections on Christianity in this one, War looks considerably less heavy than Calvary, possibly closer in both genre and pacing to the work (on stage and screen) of his brother, Martin.
If you’re willing to wait until those two hit cinemas (both will probably get local releases), then I’d have a look at Fire at Sea. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing any of Gianfranco Rosi’s films before, but since Fire at Sea took home the Golden Bear a few months back at Berlin, I’ve heard all sorts of rave reviews. By all accounts it is well made, powerful and one of the many acclaimed hot-topic docos on this year’s program.
Disclosure: A number of our writers and editors have worked or interned for Sydney Film Festival. Individual disclosures will appear at the bottom of SFF-related news items and essays where appropriate, and will only be included at the bottom of any 2016 reviews if the writer of said review received any financial payment from Sydney Film Festival this year.