Sydney Film Festival Wrap Up

It has been a week and a half since the 60th Sydney Film Festival drew to a close and I apologise for only getting this blog together now! It was an intense week and a half with about twenty five film screenings all up. This year was a good step up from the last two, the quality of films remained outstanding, the program was well thought out and the entire event was smoothly run, of course The Hubb was a great place to recuperate between screenings and Ngurrumbang had its premiere!

Although it didn’t win any of the awards it was great to see it projected on a 40” screen with a sold out audience, thanks goes to Alex Ryan (Director) for giving me the opportunity to cut it. The best thing you could hope for with a short film is it finds an audience and gets seen by people, we are now in a very good position to do just that and I look forward to bringing you more news of Ngurrumbang’s festival screenings over the next year.

Composer Rob Clark, Actor Cameron Stewart, Writer Jonathan Shaw, Director Alex Ryan, Producer Jiao Chen, Actor Jesse Guivarra, Editor Anthony Cox and Production Designer Sally AddinsallComposer Rob Clark, Actor Cameron Stewart, Writer Jonathan Shaw, Director Alex Ryan, Producer Jiao Chen, Actor Jesse Guivarra, Editor Anthony Cox and Production Designer Sally Addinsall

If you were following my Twitter at all during the festival you would have noticed I was very busy tweeting my reviews! Alongside me was fellow film buff and long time friend Meegan. I have collated our tweets together with the films we saw at the festival with the ones we liked or didn’t like so look out for them in the near future as many will be coming to a cinema sometime soon.

Mystery Road Directed by Ivan Sen.

In his astonishing and mesmerising new film, Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds; Dreamland; Toomelah, SFF Official Competition 2011) uses the conventions of the Western and the police procedural in a subtle examination of the social and political context of a small town in the Australian Outback.

Indigenous detective Jay Swan (an impressive Aaron Pedersen) returns to his remote hometown and his first case is the murder of a teenage girl. Having spent a considerable amount of time in the big city, when Jay returns he is alienated from both the police force and his community, including his own daughter. Though thwarted in his investigations by a lack of cooperation from the locals, and a lack of interest from his fellow cops, Jay gradually unravels a complex crime web.


A Hijacking Directed by Tobias Linholm

Tobias Lindholm's multiple award-winning feature takes a distinctive approach to the story of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates. The drama alternates between the stressed crew on the Rozen and the shipping-company boardroom back home. Søren Malling, best known for his roles in Danish TV series Borgen (which Lindholm also wrote) and The Killing, plays the stern CEO. He sees himself as an ace mediator, and decides to take charge, interfering with the experienced professional (played by a real-life hostage negotiator). Meanwhile, back at sea, the captive crew live in stifling conditions. The mild-mannered chef (Pilou Asbǣk) is one of the few who keeps his head.

The Act of Killing Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous

When maverick documentarians Errol Morris and Werner Herzog saw an early cut of this film, they signed on as executive producers. This says much about the boldness and originality of Joshua Oppenheimer's project. The director spent three years filming survivors of the 1965-66 Sumatran massacres, where he discovered that the killers involved were openly boastful of their crimes. Then he met Anwar Congo, a small-time gangster who was promoted to death-squad leader when the Indonesian government was overthrown in 1965. Anwar abetted the military regime in their mass slaughter of alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, killing hundreds with his own hands.

Today, Anwar is neither evasive nor repentant, but braggingly upfront about every aspect of his murderous activities. In his earlier days, Anwar made a living selling black-market movie tickets. He and his friends modelled themselves on their Hollywood idols, with sharp suits and slick hair. Bizarrely, they agree to take part in the film, because they want to be movie stars - and Oppenheimer obliges, using every genre trick in the book. The killers play themselves, write the scripts and… play the victims. The result is a film so chilling, so surreal, that you're compelled to watch frame by astonishing frame.

Stoker Directed by Park Chan-wook

For his first English-language film, Korean master Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, Joint Security Area) has crafted a haunting neo-Gothic thriller filled with unforgettable images and thrilling performances by three of Australia's finest actresses.

When India Stoker (Jane Eyre's Mia Wasikowska) loses her father (Dermot Mulroney) in a car accident, her seemingly idyllic life is shattered. After long-lost uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) arrives and moves in with India and her unstable mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), things begin to turn strange. Despite the arrival of a kindly aunt (Jacki Weaver), who warns of impending disaster, we watch this dysfunctional family slowly unravel. In a story dripping with atmosphere, brooding menace, teenage angst and budding sexuality, a shocking climax seems inevitable.

Dirty Wars Directed by Richard Rowley

Jeremy Scahill, the reporter whose exposé of the Blackwater mercenary firm gained worldwide attention, grabs another hot-potato headline topic. A night raid in a remote province of Afghanistan, around which authorities are decidedly cagey, is the starting point for Scahill's account of the stealthy rise of American covert operations. In the spotlight is the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), formed in 1980 with a direct line to the White House, and implicated in secret activities from Afghanistan to Yemen.

Director Richard Rowley's style - fast edits, slick visuals and music from the Kronos Quartet - is fittingly more akin to an action film than current affairs. This is a story about things hidden in plain sight, and it's difficult to avoid the creeping sense of paranoia in this barnstorming documentary. The film won the Cinematography Award for U.S. Documentary at Sundance.


The Iceman Directed by Ariel Vromen

The excellent Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, SFF Official Competition 2011; Boardwalk Empire) delivers a chillingly brilliant performance in this story of a notorious real-life hit man who killed more than 100 people over two decades.

Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, whom we first meet in the '60s as a bit player in the porn industry. He comes to the attention of a mob boss (Ray Liotta) who appreciates Richard's iciness. Soon Richard is doing hits, often partnering with Robert (Chris Evans of The Avengers), who has an ingenious method of body disposal. All the while, Richard appears to be a loving family man, keeping his sociopathic tendencies away from his devoted wife (Winona Ryder) and children.

With a stellar cast also including David Schwimmer, Stephen Dorff and James Franco, The Iceman is reminiscent of the great mob films like Goodfellas and The Godfather.

What Maisie Knew Directed by Scott McGehee, David Siegel

Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård and Steve Coogan (see also The Look of Love) star in a darkly comic but emotionally authentic film about a six-year-old living through a bitter divorce between her rock-icon mother and distracted father. As Maisie is shuttled back and forth, she relies more and more on her parents' new partners, who are themselves falling in love.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Suture, SFF 1994) draw powerful performances from a stellar cast, with a knockout turn by young Onata Aprile. Told from Maisie's perspective, the film delicately portrays a girl who is eager for love and must claim it where she can. Without demonising any of the characters, What Maisie Knew is an insightful look at the impact of divorce, finding tenderness and joy as well as sadness.

The Broken Circle Breakdown Directed by Felix van Groeningen

A remarkable film in every respect, and one that takes you on a constantly surprising and emotional journey of love, passion, tragedy and joy, The Broken Circle Breakdown won the Audience Prize at the Berlinale, where it was rapturously received. Infused with gorgeous bluegrass music, and with performances of rare power and magnetism, the film takes you on a rollercoaster ride that leaves you exhilarated and reeling. More than mere background music, bluegrass is integral to the story, linking the main themes of life, love, death, America and parenthood.

Elise and Didier have been together for seven passionate years. When their little girl Maybelle is diagnosed with a serious illness, all the turning points in their intense and moving relationship seem to flash by. They remember their love at first sight, courtship and passion, coming closer through their bluegrass band, braving marriage, pregnancy and the joy of parenthood. But as the stress and sorrow of Maybelle's treatment takes its toll, Didier and Elise begin to respond in different ways - their love in threat, just when they need it most.

Felix van Groeningen has created a masterful, exuberant film; one which miraculously seems to encompass all of human emotion.


For Those In Peril Directed by Paul Wright

Selected for the Cannes Critics' Week competition, For Those in Peril is the auspicious feature debut of Paul Wright, who made the prize-winning shorts Hikikomori, Believe and the BAFTA-winning Until the River Runs Red.

This visually innovative film is set in a remote Scottish community, where Aaron (George MacKay) is the lone survivor of a fishing accident that claimed the lives of five men including his older brother. Spurred on by seagoing folklore and local superstition, the village blames him for this tragedy, making him an outcast amongst his own people. Considered either the source of bad luck, or a coward, Aaron is increasingly alienated by the community. To make matters worse, he refuses to believe that his brother is dead, and promises to one day recover him from the sea.

Into the contemporary action, Wright inserts home video footage that poignantly conveys the sense of loss and deep grief that the community shares. With pitch-perfect performances from a great cast, Wright sensitively paints a portrait of a town wracked with grief, and anger. Relief, when it comes, is in the form of a moment of magical transcendence.

Meegan May with Sully and Mike from Monster's University
Meegan May with Sully and Mike from the Australian premiere of Pixar’s Monsters University

Monsters University Directed by Dan Scanion

Ever since college-bound Mike Wazowski (voice of Billy Crystal) was just a little monster, he has dreamed of becoming a Scarer - and he knows better than anyone that the best Scarers come from Monsters University (MU). But during his first semester at MU, Mike's plans are derailed when he crosses paths with hotshot James P. Sullivan, 'Sulley' (voice of John Goodman), a natural-born Scarer.

The pair's out-of-control competitive spirit gets them both kicked out of the University's elite Scare Program. To make matters worse, they realise they will have to work together, along with an odd bunch of misfit monsters, if they ever hope to make things right.


Lovelace Directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

In 1972 the pornographic theatrical film Deep Throat became a phenomenon and crossed over into mainstream society. Made for only $25,000, it is said that the film grossed anywhere between $100 million and $600 million. The film's star, Linda Lovelace, who became notorious for her ability at fellatio, earned just $1250 for her performance but became an instant star and a poster girl for sexual freedom.

Lovelace tells the story of the woman behind the phenomenon. In a brave and magnetic performance, Amanda Seyfried depicts Linda's transition from girl next door to porn star to anti-porn campaigner. Peter Sarsgaard oozes charm and malevolence as her cruel husband Chuck Traynor. There are wonderful supporting performances from an almost unrecognizable Sharon Stone as Linda's religious mother, and James Franco as Hugh Hefner.


Grigris Directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun

The great African filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who served on SFF's Official Competition Jury in 2012, has made some of the most profound and important films to emerge from the continent in the past two decades, including A Screaming Man, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2010. His new film is not only beautiful to look at, it is a superb humanist drama with thriller elements.

Set in Chad, Grigris is an energetic and poignant film about a young man who dreams of rising above economic and physical impediments. Despite a paralysed leg, 25 year old Grigris (an excellent Souleymane Démé) dreams of becoming a dancer. Displaying nimbleness on the dancefloor despite his serious disability, Grigris is the toast of the nightclubs. His dreams are dashed when his uncle falls critically ill, and in order to save him Grigris is forced to work with illegal petrol traffickers. This dangerous gambit has grave consequences, and all that Grigris has worked so hard to achieve is brought into danger.

Appearing at SFF straight from its Competition berth at Cannes, Grigris is a visually sumptuous, uplifting film and a thoughtful portrait of a war-ravaged country on the brink of change.

Child’s Pose Directed by Călin Peter Netzer

Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, Child's Pose is a riveting drama that centres on a mother's twisted affection for her son, and the repercussions of her actions when his well-being is placed in jeopardy.

60-year-old Cornelia (the phenomenal Luminita Gheorghiu) leads a life of privilege, social power and abundant wealth in contemporary Bucharest, but life is not perfect. More than anything in the world, she longs for her 34-year-old son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) to reciprocate her affections. But the pair barely speak, something the domineering Cornelia blames on Barbu's live-in girlfriend. When Barbu is involved in a tragic car accident and runs down a child on a highway, Cornelia is thrust back into his life. Seeing her chance to regain control, she commences a frighteningly well-orchestrated campaign to save her son from prison. But Barbu, boiling with anger yet hopelessly emasculated and infantilised, refuses to play along.

Propelled by Gheorghui's towering, tour-de-force performance and a razor-sharp attention to class and generational resentments, Netzer's engrossing film lays bare the moral bankruptcy of upper-class Romanian society and its institutions in expert fashion. Disquieting but also compassionate, this examination of guilt and the crippling effects of loss makes for a fascinating, unforgettable cinema experience.


Everyday Directed by Michael Winterbottom

The highly prolific UK auteur Michael Winterbottom (who has two films at SFF this year - see also The Look of Love) filmed this remarkable project over five years in order to tell the story of a family separated by a prison sentence.

While Ian (John Simm) serves time, Karen (Shirley Henderson) must raise their four children herself. The episodic film is structured around a series of visits: first the family visiting Ian in prison and then, years later, his painfully brief visits home.

As time passes, the film very realistically captures subtle changes, as the children (played by four real-life siblings) grow - and how the distance between them and Ian grows too. With great performances, and moments of both sadness and joy, Everyday is a story of survival and love, and a celebration of the small pleasures of everyday life.

A Few Hours Of Spring Directed by Quelques heures de printemps

Featuring superb performances by Vincent Lindon (Welcome) and Hélène Vincent (Life Is a Long Quiet River), and a beautiful and understated score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, this is a very powerful drama about the difficulties of a mother-and-son relationship.

At the age of 48, and just released from prison, Alain has nowhere else to go, and settles into a deeply uncomfortable routine with his mother Yvette, who is very set in her ways. Lacking effective communication, the relationship becomes more and more strained. Alain finds some solace in a relationship with Clémence (Emmanuelle Seigner), but his personal problems obstruct any progress. The discovery that Yvette is seriously ill forces mother and son to consider each other in a new light.

Without resorting to sentiment, director Stéphane Brizé (Mademoiselle Chambon) has created an honest and affecting tale with a heartbreaking and life-affirming climax.

Oh Boy Directed by Jan Ole Gerster

German hit Oh Boy is part slacker comedy and part chronicle of Berlin's transition to hipster cool, filled with reminders of that city's rich and checkered history.
College dropout Niko (Tom Schilling) has been dumped by his girlfriend, and is in trouble with the law. To make matters worse, his father has just discovered that he dropped out of university years ago and cuts him off financially. When his disappointed father asks him what he has been doing for the last two years, Niko answers "I've been thinking." Meanwhile a beauty from his past confronts him with the emotional wounds he inflicted on her. All Niko wants is a cup of "normal coffee," but even this eludes him. "Do you know the feeling when people around you seem to behave in a strange way?" Niko wonders. "And the longer you think about it, the more it dawns on you that it's not other people who are strange, but yourself?" As Niko struggles with the growing sense of being an outsider, a series of chance encounters have a profound influence on his future.
Shot in an alluringly grainy black and white,
Oh Boy is breezy, witty film with a serious edge. The film recently won most of the major prizes at the German Film Awards, including Best Film and Best Director.


Mood Indigo Directed by Michel Gondry

One of contemporary cinema's most visually inventive directors, Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, The Green Hornet), takes on Boris Vian's beloved novel Froth on the Daydream in this spectacular film. Reeling you in through an array of astonishing images, Gondry tells the surreal and poetic love story of Colin and Chloe.

Colin (Romain Duris, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, SFF 2005) and Chloe (Audrey Tautou, Amélie, Coco Before Chanel) meet, fall in love and enter into an idyllic marriage. Then Chloe begins to suffer from a strange illness: a water lily begins to grow in her lungs. Colin is forced to spend all his money in an attempt to cure her, as the world around them begins to fall apart.

A whimsical, magical and romantic tale, Mood Indigo finds Gondry at his most innovative and captivating.


Prince Avalanche Directed David Gordon Green

Paul Rudd (Knocked Up)and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) deliver wonderful performances in this absurd but surprisingly touching comedy about a mismatched pair who spend a summer repainting traffic lines down the centre of a country highway ravaged by wildfire.

Stern Alvin (Rudd) and his girlfriend's slacker brother Lance (Hirsch) leave the city to take on this monotonous job, set in a remarkably beautiful landscape. The two have little contact with other people and find countless petty reasons to argue. To while away the time, Alvin writes love letters to his girlfriend and Lance dreams of the parties and girls he is missing out on. Through the arguments, a delicate bond is formed.

With this return to his indie roots, director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express) won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlinale.


You’re Next Directed by Adam Wingard

Aussie actress Sharni Vinson is dynamite in this crackerjack cavalcade of carnage. The Davison family's rich and neurotic members gather at their country mansion; their squabbling has barely started when a much more pressing problem presents itself. A masked gang of killers have axes and other nasty implements to grind against the Davisons and it's not long before the corridors of the creaky old pile are crowded with corpses. But the gate-crashers haven't counted on Erin, the extraordinarily fearless Australian girlfriend of scaredy-cat son Crispian Davison.

Cult favourite Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator) is terrific as the Davison's medication-reliant matriarch and the screenplay sprinkles just the right amount of black humour into the river of red stuff that flows once the party poopers get down to business. This pulse-pounder was runner-up in the Midnight Movie audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival.


Borgman Directed by Alex van Warmerdam

Enter with caution into the dark, malevolent, wickedly funny and decidedly strange world of Alex van Warmerdam's creation. Straight from its Competition presentation in Cannes, the first Dutch film to achieve this in 38 years, Borgman may very well cause lingering nightmares.

The film opens with a priest and some villagers arming and readying themselves for a battle with what appears to be a subterranean community. Shotguns and spears at the ready, the vigilantes set out to destroy their enemies, but Borgman manages to narrowly evade them and warn the others, who all slip away from their underground abodes.

A dishevelled Borgman next appears at a suburban home, politely asking permission to take a bath. Though this initial interaction does not go well, Borgman has soon ingratiated himself into the household of an arrogant, comfortable couple, their three children and nanny. At first he is gentle and kind, and seems to have a greater connection with the members of the family then they do with each other, but soon the sinister Borgman starts wielding his inexplicable influence. The body count rises, Borgman is joined by his very creepy associates, and the scene is set for all hell to break lose.

Van Warmerdam's singular vision is eccentric, wild and indelible.

Audrey of the Alps Directed by Grace McKenzie

Twenty-something Audrey isn't entirely sure what she wants to do with her life. Other young women in her position would most likely backpack or volunteer, but Audrey decides to sign on as a shepherd for the season. In the high pastures of the French Alps, Audrey and her boyfriend take on the daunting task of marshalling 1700 recalcitrant sheep, a handful of goats and six dogs. Often at odds with her pragmatic employers, Audrey struggles to learn shepherding ways, until she finally discovers her inner strength.

Director Grace McKenzie's close rapport with her subjects is evident in their openness towards her always-at-the-ready camera.


Pluto Directed by Shin Su-won

A riveting and disturbing vision of youthful ambition, Pluto takes us into an elite Korean high school where the students go to extremes to be admitted into prestigious universities. June is transferred to the school, only to then discover that he has replaced a student who committed suicide. His fellow students are competitive to a dangerous degree, all determined to get into the exclusive class for the top 10 students. A secret group seem to be the keepers of the privileged information, and in order to gain access June is ordered to accomplish a series of missions. When a student is murdered, June becomes the prime suspect, leading him to drastic measures.

Uncompromising, beautifully shot and scored to depict a cold and unforgiving milieu, Pluto is not only a fine-tuned study of teen angst but a fascinating and memorable thriller.

Stories We Tell Directed by Sarah Polley

The third feature in Sarah Polley's luminous career as a filmmaker - following her Academy Award®-nominated Away from Her (SFF 2007) and Take This Waltz (2011) - is both intensely intimate and genre-twisting. Stories We Tell is a moving portrait of Polley's family - her many siblings, actor-writer father, and actress mother - and a legacy of secrets and lies. As with many families, there are a multitude of stories that have been told through the years. Polley, the youngest child, mines this oral tradition in this groundbreaking film, seamlessly blending past and present, the real and the imagined.

Many and varied perspectives emerge from this storytelling, cleverly evoking questions about the elusive nature of memory and truth. Polley's characteristically unflinching yet compassionate gaze delivers an exceptional level of depth and emotion. As Polley says, "If I have learned anything from making this film, it is that we can't all be right and we can't all be wrong. So we must be unintentionally distorting things to varying degrees in order to feed our own version of what we need the past and history to be, and in our way, we must all be telling the truth as well."

Twenty Feet From Stardom Directed by Morgan Neville

From the first infectious chorus of Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side' ("And the coloured girls go do di-doo di-doo"), this doco is a shout-out-loud feel-good homage to the some of the unsung best in the music business. Sure, the legends are all here - Mick Jagger, Ray Charles, David Byrne, Sting, Stevie Wonder. The focus, however, is beyond the spotlight, to the backup singers - mainly women - who make the tunes really swing. Twenty Feet from Stardom follows their history from gospel-church inspiration to the Phil Spector sound, from '60s Britain to the present.

Featured talent includes Darlene Love, who was just 18 when she recorded her powerhouse lead on The Crystals' 'He's a Rebel' - she did a lot of 'ghosting' in those days. Judith Hill was set to perform on Michael Jackson's tour before his sudden death. Other not-to-be missed appearances include Merry Clayton screaming "Rape! Murder!" for the Stones and Claudia Lennear shakin' her booty for Ike and Tina. In the background, the ever-present question lurks: why don't these tremendous talents take centre stage? Director Morgan Neville combines intimate access to the singers - including Australian Jo Lawry who performs with Sting - with drop-dead wonderful performances.

Marcus Smith, Anthony Cox, Alfred Hitchcock, Meegan May, Mario
Marcus Smith, Anthony Cox, Alfred Hitchcock, Meegan May and Mario at the Sydney Film Festival Hubb.

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