As we wrote in our program overview, this year’s Sydney Film Festival is one where delving deep into the program guide is vital. In our annual Staff Picks piece, we look to do just that, offering up an eclectic array of films that we think you should seek out come June.
Jeremy Elphick: Although it’s been the better part of a year since I watched By The Time It Gets Dark at its Locarno Film Festival premiere, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s sophomore film has lingered in my mind in a way few works manage to do. There are images from the film I’ve wanted to revisit, and I’d resigned myself to the fact that this would only be possible when the film hit home video. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to watch it again in a cinema, especially not in in Sydney. It’s a bold pick for a relatively commercial festival; the refreshing introspection and honesty it achieves results from a relatively leaden approach to pacing, one likely to divide audiences. Few films grow on me in such a way, after a single viewing.1 The reflections and ruminations throughout – on filmmaking as a process, history and national trauma, and various existential ennui – gnaw at the film’s deceptively gentle surface.
In the last decade, João Pedro Rodrigues has emerged as one of the most exciting and provocative directors in Portugal, establishing an acutely distinctive style. This isn’t an easy feat in a country with such a critically lauded cinematic landscape. In The Ornithologist (pictured above), Rodrigues has produced a film that comprehensively justifies his reputation. Rodrigues appropriates the story of Saint Anthony of Padua into a conceptually impressive, winding odyssey, which finds a lot of its brilliance in the manner in which this narrativeunfolds and reveals itself to the audience. The way it approaches recontextualising a pointedly Catholic story, into something both highly personal and explicitly queer is overwhelming, joyous, and bittersweet. It’s one of the strongest films I saw last year, and one I’d recommend over and over to anyone looking for suggestions on what to catch this year at SFF.
Conor Bateman: A film that I caught in cinemas years back and which has lingered in my mind since is the Georgian feature In Bloom, which had its Australian premiere at Sydney Film Festival in 2013. Its muted colour palette was matched by its refreshingly muted approach to well-worn plot beats; two girls find a gun but spurn Chekhov. The directors of that film, Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, return to Sydney Film Festival with My Happy Family, another look at patriarchy and orthodoxy in Georgia, though this time from the perspective not of the youth but a woman in her 50s. The simple logline is all I needed to see: a respected teacher up and leaves her family (a husband of thirty years and two adult sons) to move into an apartment by herself without ever stating why.
An easy pick for me this year is Untitled, the documentary collage made in tribute to the late documentarian Michael Glawogger by editor Monika Willi. I’m not familiar with Glawogger’s film work, and haven’t really considered Willi’s documentary editing before (she’s a longtime collaborator of Michael Haneke) but the collage documentary is something of particular interest to me. In our first Sydney Film Festival news piece I compared the film to Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, in the way that it pulls together disparate filmed footage in a way that avoids the found footage documentary label; everything is already connected by virtue of initial production. The film is ultimately a testament to editing and for that I am especially excited.
Jaymes Durante: Since Terrence Malick has vowed to return to a more structured style of filmmaking in future projects, Song to Song, his music-themed film starring Michael Fassbender and Rooney Mara, could be one of our last chances to languish in the freewheeling, script-free experimentation that has defined his career since The Tree of Life. I’ve always been a firm defender of Malick’s late-career output, which has split the discourse pretty plainly into two camps. Criticism wars aside, there’s something very novel about having to sacrifice every ounce of scoffing reticence and give yourself completely over to a Terrence Malick film, and if you can, it’s tantamount to a religious experience. The wholehearted earnestness, commitment to grandiose philosophising and constant reaching for something holy and divine are attributes that get him labelled a pretentious navel-gazer, but they’re rare, especially in a cultural climate that dubs Doctor Strange a deity and prefers Starlord to substance. If there’s room for superheroes, there’s room for Malick’s wandering cyphers of nature and grace. Plus, Song to Song features cameos from Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and John Lydon. Is Terrence Malick cool again?
Further North, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner director Zacharias Kanuk is back with Maliglutit (Searchers), an Inuit reworking of John Ford’s The Searchers, in which a man returns from a caribou hunt with his son to find his wife and daughter kidnapped, and embarks on a journey across the arctic to get them back. Far from Ford’s rolicking colonialist adventure, Maliglutit looks pared down and simplified, allowing for a more austere and refined telling of a classic revenge tale.
If, like me, the final long take of Sebastián Lelio magnificent 2013 film Gloria—with Paulina Garcia, alone and happy, flailing about on a dancefloor to Umberto Tozzi—is seared into your memory, then you’ll be glad to see him returning with A Fantastic Woman, a portrait of trans life in modern Chilé. Judging by the trailer and some early reviews, it looks like a riotous rumination of selfhood and survival, filled with mirrors and music and Almodovarian flair. That sounds great, but what I’ll be looking for is the same depth of empathy that Lelio drew from the title character of his previous film.
Lidiya Josifova: I was lucky enough to witness a hidden gem of a documentary at last year’s festival, Cinema, mon amour. That film’s cinematographer, Tudor Vladimir Panduru, has kept busy since. Two of his recent efforts behind the camera, My Happy Family and Graduation, feature in this year’s program. With glowing reviews arising from its stints at both Cannes and MIFF last year, anticipation is surely intensifying for Sydney audiences as it is for me personally! At this point, I should admit that I am a newcomer to the realm of Romanian social realism, and so I relish the opportunity to delve into director Cristian Mungiu’s meticulously crafted, harrowing familial drama. Drawing on the universal theme of parental sacrifice for the next generation’s success, it promises to be a compelling watch.
While we’re in the neighbourhood, Teona Strugar Mitevska’s When The Day Had No Name adds a unique twist to this year’s line-up from a lesser-known pocket of Eastern Europe. To onlookers, Macedonia’s film industry probably solely recalls Milcho Manchevski’s triumph in 1994 with Golden Lion winner Before The Rain. Just for the chance to broaden audiences’ horizons, Mitevska’s latest feature is a welcome addition. It also looks set to address and unpack aspects of the current socio-political turmoil occurring back at home, an intriguing prospect for the Sydney diaspora community.
There’s no escaping the instant appeal of Kirsten Tan’s debut film, Pop Aye: road movie reinterpreted. For one thing, the drifter-architect protagonist Thana reunites with an old childhood friend who happens to be an elephant. The unlikely duo navigate a rotating cast of other eccentric figures on their way back to their home village and on what’s sure to be a comedic, poignant journey of self-discovery. Can I come too?
Blythe Worthy: The first thing I booked tickets to was the Swiss/French My Life as a Zucchini, a stop motion adult animated comedy-drama directed by Claude Barras. With a screenplay written by Céline Sciamma, glorious maker of sumptuous films like Girlhood (screened at SFF in 2014), Water Lilies and Tomboy, the film is the second adaptation of 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette by Gilles Paris. Focusing on childhood experiences of autism, My Life has been missed by many a critique of this year’s program but should be on everyone’s wishlist. I can’t convey quite how crucial Sciamma’s work is, as her offbeat reflections on adolescence and fluidity in sexuality and gender provide really welcome interludes to the usual coming-of-age droll trotted out at film fests. I’m more than curious to see Sciamma’s distinct voice through animation, and was thrilled to see a relaxed screening on offer for the film, a great initiative.
Though I’m struggling to find literally anyone to come and see it with me, I’m also keen on Cannes-import Risk, a documentary on Julian Assange’s weird seven-year long asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. My interest (beyond Assange’s bottom-feeder-type intrigue) is mainly that it was made by whistleblower fiend and award winning journo Laura Poitras, director of the brill Edward Snowden doco Citizenfour and My Country, My Country. In a similar (and slightly more intense) vein I’m looking forward to Claude Lanzmann’s newest offering Napalm, an exploration of the director’s connection to North Korea, as (like pretty much anyone ever who’s seen it) I greatly admired his 1985 masterpiece Shoah. Thoughtful Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s (Maidan, The Event) Austerlitz will similarly be a good peek into tourist behaviour at Nazi death camp memorials and will round out my politi-doco bill.
Punk and feminist film are really closely intertwined, so I was thrilled when I saw there would be retrospectives on both. Unfortunately I do think Smash it Up (the “punk” portion) is rather uninspiring (read: two Sex Pistols films and ~no~ noncis-dudes bar filmmaker Penelope Spheeris? This is a very narrow and superficial reading of punk rock) however the Feminism & Film retrospectives sort of make up for this oversight. Essie Coffey’s My Survival as an Aboriginal and Two Laws delve into Indigenous storytelling for the Culture & Collaboration section, and Helen Grace and Erika Addis’ award-winning Serious Undertakings among other experimental shorts in Disruption & Deconstruction were the first things to catch my eye. Fans of her technical prowess will be first in line for Laleen Jaymanne’s gloriously loud A Song of Ceylon submission for this category too, a nice return for a film that debuted at SFF in 1985. I’m also looking forward to a moody evening with Margot Nash’s form defying multiple entries for Personal & Political, among other wonderfully volatile offerings. Exploring Sydney’s pretty tumultuous 1970/1980 feminist film scene is really a step forward for SFF, showing the festival is committed to inclusion however it’ll be good when feminist retrospectives are more integrated into the mainstream program instead of being promoted as a niche interest. I mean go to Smash it Up if you want but in my opinion it’ll be way more interesting to see which experimental and punk cinema fans turn up to the real punk retrospective.
Megan Nash: It’s always nice when Australian women filmmakers take up the work of Australian women authors; think of Gillian Armstrong’s adaptations of Miles Franklin’s classic My Brilliant Career, or her work with Helen Garner on The Last Days of Chez Nous. This is why I’m looking forward to seeing Samantha Lang’s 1997 film The Well, which is screening as part of a small run of restorations at the festival. Lang’s film is an adaptation of an unsettling neo-gothic novel by the brilliant WA author Elizabeth Jolley. And like the Armstrong-Garner collaboration, Miranda Otto has a starring role. I’m not familiar with Lang’s previous work, but the fact that her filmography includes an adaptation of Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask – a queer detective novel written in verse – certainly testifies to her interest in Australian women’s fiction. It also suggests Lang is well placed to adapt a novel like The Well, which is similarly preoccupied with ideas of femininity and homosexual desire. Moreover, her film should have a nice thematic continuity with those screening as part of the Feminism & Film retrospective, of which the Disruption and Deconstruction section looks unmissable. Like Blythe Worthy, I’m particularly looking forward to Helen Grace and Erika Addis’s Serious Undertakings (1982), whose description makes the intriguing promise that “images of terror and childcare collide in a groundbreaking film”. Unfortunately The Well is screening concurrently with the premier of The Beguiled, and will in consequence lose many fans of the creepy feminine to Coppola’s much anticipated film.
Speaking of novelistic adaptations with an interest in the feminine and queer, Orlando director Sally Potter returns to SFF this year with her new film The Party. While this promises to be far removed from Potter’s reimagining of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending novel, it does look like it could be a lot of fun. Starring Kirsten Scott-Thomas and Cillian Murphy, The Party is a black comedy advertised as ending “with blood on the floor”. I’m not sure whether this blood is meant to be metaphorical or literal, so I look forward to finding out whether the movie ends up being more awkward-dinner-party-as-social-satire, or more how-to-host-a-murder. With any luck it will offer a little bit of both.
C.J. Prince: Before I even begin explaining why Michael Haneke’s Happy End is one of my most anticipated films of SFF, I feel like I have to defend myself, although I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because Haneke has become a shining example of the kinds of films people think about when they hear words like “arthouse” and “austere” thrown about. Maybe it’s because Haneke has somehow gone mainstream in recent years thanks to Amour, which snagged him a second Palme d’Or and an Oscar, a destination in his career that feels light years away from when his 1989 debut The Seventh Continent infuriated audiences at Cannes. It could also be because Amour turned out to be one of his worst films to date, a Flinstones Chewable version of the acidity in his past works that dealt with broader (and less interesting) themes. But with all of those caveats, I’ll still want to see Haneke’s latest work. Amour aside, his track record has been strong, and while many imitators have come along, none have matched his skill at rubbing the bourgeois’ faces in their own mess. Hopefully, Happy End will see a return to Haneke’s roots rather than a continuing climb towards the middle.
And then there’s that other Cannes film, Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, which has helped rekindle the fiery feud between exhibitors and Netflix. As real as the threat of streaming overtaking theatres may be, the topic has overtaken much of the discussion involving the film itself, which looks like Bong doing his own take on Spielberg’s ‘80s films. Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Giancarlo Esposito are just some of the actors joining Bong this time around after the success of Snowpiercer, and it’s hard to imagine that Okja will be a letdown. Bong is a remarkably consistent filmmaker who deals in remarkably inconsistent tones, and even at his worst he’s a fascinating director, working within familiar genres to create something off-kilter in just the right way. There’s no reason why Okja won’t deliver more of that.
Luke Goodsell: I’ve got my reservations about Sofia Coppola remaking 1971’s Clint Eastwood-starring, Don Siegel-directed The Beguiled, an imperfect but pretty unusual work that stands out from both men’s filmographies — not least because it involves Eastwood’s slow emasculation, in the very same year as Dirty Harry, as an ailing Yankee soldier who falls prey to his bickering Southern hostesses. Then again the film’s empathy with its female characters is debatable; it feels very much told from the Eastwood character’s perspective. If there’s one thing Coppola knows, it’s how to permeate the interior lives of her women on screen, which could make her version of this antebellum Gothic piece a fascinating parallel narrative to the Siegel work. Besides, it’s Sofia, who’s been among my very favourite filmmakers ever since The Virgin Suicides — at this point she could remake Rebel Without A Cause and I’d be first in line (please don’t remake Rebel Without A Cause, Sofia.)
Speaking of artists who’ve had “privileged brat” charges thrown at them, 25-year-old German writer Helene Hegemann makes her directing debut with the perfectly awkwardly named Axolotl Overkill, an adaptation of her own novel of teenage decadence written when she was all of 17. Hegemann’s got so many things I love going for her: she was variously branded a liar, precocious, and pretentious by critics in her homeland, which are all attributes you want in a teen memoir, and by all accounts the film is a wild, chaotic ride through youthful abandon. And if there’s one thing I’m almost always guaranteed to appreciate, it’s movies about drug-addled teenagers wasting away in the Berlin underground.
Ana Asensio’s debut Most Beautiful Island, meanwhile, seems like a more standard woman-in-peril scenario, albeit with plenty of #ageoftrump analogies ready-made for hack journalists. It’s a wildcard of sorts, but something about genre actresses-turned-filmmakers holds curiosity to me — we’ve seen pretty good low-budget thrills in recent years from the likes of Amy Semeitz (Sun Don’t Shine) and Sophia Takal (Always Shine). Island sends an undocumented immigrant (played by Asensio herself) into a nightmare subterranean New York, where rich people play a most dangerous game with the illegals who’re rounded up and trapped for their amusement. It’s been described as a lo-fi Eyes Wide Shut plus it has lots of spiders, which is good enough for my easily-amused sensibilities.
Virat Nehru: I’m part excited, part relieved to finally be able to catch Hotel Salvation at a festival. The premise of the film is intriguing enough – an elderly father takes his son along on a journey to the holy city of Varanasi, intending to check into a hotel where people go to die. There is a resurgence of sorts in contemporary Indian cinema of telling stories indelibly linked to a specific sense of place. This film appears to add to that resurgence. Varanasi as a city has a distinct cultural sensibility that is unlike anything you’ll find in this world (see Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan for example, as a close character study of Varanasi as a city and the role it plays in anchoring the narrative of that film). It’ll be interesting to see where director Shubhashish Bhutiani – who will also be here as a festival guest – takes a premise that appears somewhat off-kilter on paper. The extremely talented Adil Hussain, who vowed SFF audiences a couple of years ago in Partho Sen-Gupta’s Sunrise, gets to sink his teeth into another character driven role, and that alone is cause for celebration.
Documentaries about political figures – especially when a person is currently active within politics – are extremely rare in Indian cinema. Political representation on screen that doesn’t give the whiff of edification or broad strokes propaganda is rare to find in the region. Naturally then, my curiosity peaked when I heard there was a doco about divisive Indian political figure Arvind Kejriwal in the works called An Insignificant Man. There are overt parallels between the rise of a populist figure like Kejriwal in India and others across the world such as Sanders in the United States, who push the ideological platform of giving power “back to the people”. However, Kejriwal is not as easily understood. He’s equally a tragicomic figure, inspiring as much hatred and ridicule as he does admiration among Indian people. In terms of his spectacular rise and not-so-graceful fall, he is closer to Anthony Weiner than Sanders. Weiner, from last year’s SFF, was one of the best things in the lineup and if this doco is able to shed any insight into Kejriwal’s personality as Weiner was able to do with its subject, we are in for a treat.
Talking of tragicomic figures, how can we not talk about Amit Masurkar’s Newton? It’s an absurdist, black comedy about the current state of Indian politics and the bureaucratic nature of democracy in India. Indian absurdist narratives have always had an impact at SFF: there was Raam Reddy’s Thithi last year and Chaitanya Tamhane’s gem Court before that. Prior to this, Masurkar made a slacker comedy – a woefully underused genre in Indian cinema – called Sulemani Keeda. More importantly, I feel this might be the film that finally brings the immense talent of Rajkummar Rao (Shahid, Aligarh, Trapped) to the attention of western audiences. The film has already garnered plenty of praise at the international festival circuit, winning the CICAE award at the Berlinale where it was screened in the Forum section and the jury prize for Best Film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Dominic Ellis: There aren’t a whole lot of films in recent memory that come close to Steve James’ 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams in terms of pure dedication. An eight-year project on a microscopic budget, it was an out-and-out momentous film for American documentary cinema, deserving of its 20 years of Ebert-led praise. Since then, James hasn’t quite emulated the achievement of his sporting opus, but he’s had reasonable success on the festival circuit and on television with his distinctive brand of microcosmic documentaries, taking on hefty issues through personal lenses. With Abacus: Small Enough to Fail, James applies his winning formula to the GFC, looking at the family-owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which was the only financial institution to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 crisis. James has a knack for making even the most ostensibly mundane topics incredibly meaningful and intimate by way of forming close relationships with his subjects, and I expect much the same from Abacus.
Anders Furze: Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash was one of my favourite films of last year, an alternately glamorous and scathing portrait of the hypocrisy sustaining Europe’s jet set. André Aciman’s novel Enigma Variations is one of my favourite novels of this year, a gorgeously written exploration of queer desire. Guadagnino adapts Aciman in Call Me By Your Name, so naturally this is what I’m most excited about at this year’s festival.
Running a close second is The Little Hours, an adaptation of Giovanni Boccacio’s Decameron. Director Jeff Baedy, who wrote I Heart Huckabees, casts Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci as three naughty nuns, with Dave Franco showing up as a hunky farmhand. Yes, Pasolini probably did it better, but adapting fourteenth century Italian literature is not often the domain of contemporary American comedic filmmaking. I’m genuinely intrigued to see how successfully Baedy pulls off the unusual and admirable challenge he has set for himself.
People going mad in claustrophobic and/or isolated confines is one of my favourite things to watch on a screen so I’m in for William Oldroyd’s feature debut Lady Macbeth. Based on an 1865 Russian novel, on paper Lady Macbeth looks like a retread of some well-worn themes: a loveless marriage, the stifling of desire in nineteenth century England, irresolute class boundaries. But advance word suggests that Oldroyd brings uncomfortably intense attention to detail to bear here. I’m all for emancipating the period drama from its more cloying confines.
Finally, Abbas Kiarostami is one of my major cultural blind spots and I hope to begin rectifying that at this year’s festival. Take Me Home, the late filmmaker’s penultimate work (his final film 24 Frames just screened at Cannes) is a dialogue-free documentary taking as its subject a football rolling down various stairways in southern Italy. It screens before 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami, a portrait of the filmmaker through some 25 years of footage. The film is directed by his longtime collaborator Saifollah Samadian. Finally, the festival is screening Kiarostami’s 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry. I’m hoping that the experience of watching this at SFF distills everything that a festival should be about: sitting in the dark contemplating life, death and cinema itself.
Disclosure: Several contributors and editors at 4:3 have worked or interned for Sydney Film Festival. Two editors, Conor Bateman and Jessica Ellicott, were on the Film Advisory Panel for the festival in 2017. A disclosure like this will appear at the end of each piece either of the two publish throughout the 2017 festival.