There was something a little bit different about the Sydney Film Festival this year. Dashing between screenings at the State Theatre, the Event Cinemas on George Street, the Dendy Opera Quays and Newtown or even the Cremorne Orpheum, there was a distinct lack of rain. Normally you can set your watch by the deluge that opens up as soon as the festival starts, but it valiantly held off until the final weekend. So our driest SFF on record might also be one of our most fun.
We managed to fit in around 40 films this year, and while we reviewed quite a number of them, you can find out thoughts in brief on all the contenders below. Some were outstanding, others barely rate a rental. Many of the films were completely divisive, such as PERSONAL SHOPPER, CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER or IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD. Which is terrific thing about the Festival: everyone has an opinion, and they are all completely right.
This represents our journey through the 12 days of the Sydney Film Festival. Our festival was a week off day jobs, sleeping in, getting up early to write, catching the bus in seconds flat and hurriedly swapping films as we heard about something new. It was packed lunches, day bags, cheeky desserts, bottles of water and lozenges for the inevitable sore throat. There were nights when the fourth film of the day, starting at 9:15pm, seemed like madness. There were days when every film was a transcendent experience. This is a personal reflection on the Sydney Film festival, tweeted and everything.
Links to the full reviews have been provided where available, but check out our full coverage of the festival at our 2016 Sydney Film Festival portal. Our tweeting throughout the Festival has also been saved on Storify.
★★★★★ – Certified Bitstastic
LOVESONG: A bittersweet love story that defies convention, focusing on the intimate moments between two strong female leads. With strong performances by Riley Keough and Jena Malone, it doesn’t always provide us with the expected happy endings that are expected of such narratives, but nevertheless serve as a testament to the notion of enduring love. Our pick for favourite of the festival. Full Review >>
GOLDSTONE: Ivan Sen’s follow-up to Mystery Road is grander and more intensely exploratory than its predecessor. Filled with plenty of nods to Sen’s beloved Western genre, there a few moment in this film where the stakes feel anything less than high. Slick, darkly comic, and always thrilling, this is the best of what cinema has to offer. Full Review >>
UNDER THE SUN: One of the most creative solutions to filming a documentary in the closed system of North Korea, Vitaly Mansky’s essential film exposes how real a staged scenario can be. accompanied at all times and told where to shoot, suggesting that very little ‘reality’ could come of this documentary. Yet Mansky cleverly leaves the camera rolling, capturing the literal men behind the curtain who “suggest” what the various participants will say next. Full Review >>
★★★★½ – Super Highly Recommended
CERTAIN WOMEN: Kelly Reichardt’s deliberate pace emphasises the strength of the characters in this measured study. Following vignettes of four women, Reichardt’s film simply lays out these stories in a row as lasered character studies. She once again leaves us with no conclusive answers to her character’s dilemmas, and like all things she does, allows us to come to our own conclusions at a distinct pace. Full Review >>
TICKLED: Truth is stranger than fiction in a head-shaking, hilarious and ridiculously tense doco about the world of competitive tickling that’s full of twists. Narrated by Farrier’s wry and comical attitude, a mixture of Louis Theroux’s bullshit detector and John Oliver’s outsider observations, TICKLED is nevertheless an often terrifying examination of cyber-bullying and intimidation. Full Review >>
FIRE AT SEA: An observational documentary about the refugee crisis on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, Gianfranco Rosi’s Golden Bear winning film contrasts tradition with the passage of the mostly Syrian refugees. Not using any narration or much on-screen text, it simply lets us watch the reality of the refugee tragedy. If you are running (or voting) in the upcoming Australian or US elections, FIRE AT SEA should be mandatory viewing.
THE RED TURTLE: Direct from winning the Un Certain Regard Special Prize at Cannes, Studio Ghibli’s co-produced film is masterclass in visual storytelling. Without using any dialogue, it tells the story of a man who washes ashore on an isolated island, but his repeated attempts to escape are stymied by an unseen force. Oftentimes abstract and lyrical, the story unfolds in a gentle and dreamlike fashion, and director Michael Dudok de Wit has ensured that the Studio Ghibli legacy will continue outside of Japan and into a new generation of filmmakers. Full Review >>
THE HANDMAIDEN: Often over-the-top, but also gorgeously shot and erotic to the point of parody. In other words, it’s the latest masterpiece from Park Chan-wook. The adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith takes a distinctly different turn in this Korean/Japanese period thriller, built around stunning visuals, captivating performances and one of the most menacing uses of an octopus since Oldboy. Full Review >>
★★★★ – Highly Recommended
PATERSON: Jim Jarmusch returns with a quiet and literally poetic portrait of a bus driver (Adam Driver) and his wife (Golshifteh Farahani) in New Jersey. Similar to the work Jarmusch produced between Permanent Vacation and Night on Earth, there is an unhurried minimalism to this film. PATERSON finds the poetry in the everyday, and it’s just a wonderful way to pass the time. Full Review >>
LETTERS FROM WAR: A stark yet romantic look at the Portuguese Colonial War, finding beauty and transformative language against hardship, using lilting and poetic (you guess it) letters back and forth between a serving medical doctor and his pregnant wife. Sharply reminiscent of Tabu, and not just because of the stunning black and white photography from João Ribeiro, the thematic dissection of Portuguese colonialism and the follies of war carries an equal amount of gravity to it. Full Review >>
HIGH-RISE: Transplanting J.G. Ballard’s 1970s treatise on modernism, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation is as beautiful as it is terrifying. Hiddleston comes into the film as a detached creature already, his stiff upper-lip Britishness contrasting with his bemused observations of the rich. As global politics increasingly divide rich and poor, and these structures are now commonplace, Ballard’s tale has even more weight than it did forty years ago. Full Review >>
LAND OF MINE: An incredibly tense film set in the aftermath of the Second World War, as a group of teenage German prisoners of war are forced to undergo the painstaking task of removing thousands of land mines from Denmark’s coastline. In some ways, director Martin Zandvliet follows a horror movie structure, as various members of the cast are slowly picked off by a nameless enemy, but it’s just a more melancholy version of that. An important slice of history made real. Full Review >>
IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD: Another divisive one at this festival and Cannes earlier in the year. Despite those infamous Cannes reactions, this slow burn film puts the close-up on subtle character moments, in an intense cinema experience, asking audiences to stare raw emotion quite directly in the face through a series of continuous tight shots and heightened music cues. Full Review >>
GIRL ASLEEP: Delving into territory dominated by Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze, director Rosemary Myers brings a touch of magical realism to Australian sensibilities, blending theatre and film effortlessly. Built around a coming-of-age story for socially awkward Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore). GIRL ASLEEP is ultimately an empowering film for young women, with a positive message about self-image and refuting male entitlement. Full Review >>
★★★½ to ★★★¾ – Better Than Average Bear
ALICE IN EARNESTLAND: An inky black comedy take on the South Korean revenge genre, as one woman goes down the metaphorical rabbit hole. South Korea has a particular penchant for revenge films, most notably through Park Chan-wook’s stylish and violent “Vengeance Trilogy” and Bong Joon-ho Mother, and Ahn Gooc-jin’s debut feature film aims to be a comedic skewering of those conventions. Full Review >>
MAGGIE’S PLAN: Wholly conscious of its own pretentiousness, and embracing it in such a way that it is almost a satirical look at the indie genres, Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore star in Rebecca Miller’s comedy that recalls some of Woody Allen’s “funny, early” films in its approach.
OYSTER FACTORY: An observational look at life in a small Japanese town, where change is more rapid than the people’s way of life. hot in the style of director Kazuhiro Soda’s other documentary films, and simply titled “Observational Film #6” in the opening credits, OYSTER FACTORY follows the local decline in the industry, and the need to hire cheaper Chinese labourers to complete the manual shucking work. Full Review >>
SWISS ARMY MAN: Paul Dano dragging the bloated and farting corpse of Harry Potter through the wilderness is a vision that speaks to the strength of the independent film scene at the moment. A film that will take a little time to digest for some, while for others it will soar majestically, like so many jet-propelled bodies. Strangely touching musing on depression and disorder, even if there’s a creepy stalker vibe by the end. Full Review >>
GIMME DANGER: Jim Jarmusch’s second film in the festival is a chronicle of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, beginning with their downfall in 1973 and going back to see how the band came together, fell apart and went on to influence rock and roll for the following forty years. Told through interviews with Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, James Williamson, Steve Mackay, Mike Watt and more, archival and stock footage, it’s a very different document to other rock profiles. Essential for Stooges fans, although others may have to do some rock homework in advance.
CHEVALIER: A fun bit of absurdism from the director of Attenburg, one that waves a pointy finger at male pissing contests. In the incredibly simple yet layered premise, a group of six men on a fishing trip compete to see who is ‘the best’ at everything, based on a series of arbitrary tests that cover everything from singing to literally measuring erect penises. Full Review >>
VIVA: A soulful crowd-pleaser of a film that is equal parts music and social commentary. Jesus (Héctor Medina) struggles to make ends meet as a hairdresser, but dreams of showcasing his fledgling talent in the local drag club turn south with the return of his estranged ex-boxer father Angel (Jorge Perugorría). Featuring music by Stephen Rennicks (Room), VIVA is at its strongest and most emotional during the drag performances, where the stars give it their all. VIVA rises about its occasionally predictable genre leanings. Full Review >>
MEKKO: Set in Oklahoma, the worst place in the world to be homeless (as one character puts it) because “even the rich are poor,” Mekko (Rod Rondeaux), a native Muscogee, has just been released from almost two decades behind bars. A gritty yet observational experiment that marks creator Sterlin Harjo as a strong storytelling voice. Full Review >>
WHAT’S IN THE DARKNESS: Following the discovery of a body by the lake, Jing (Su Xiaotong) herself is drawn into her detective father Qu Zhicheng’s (Guo Xiao) investigations. The moment is a lightning rod of awakening for Jing, signalling her transition out of childhood as she experiences both a sexual and emotional metamorphosis, mirroring writer-director Wang Yichun’s memories of her childhood. A coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a murder mystery is both intimate and chilling. Full Review >>
NOTES ON BLINDNESS: Like an incredibly sober version of Drunk History, this unique docu-drama from UK filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney has actors actors Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby to lip sync to actual audio recordings theologian John Hull, as he gradually went blind in the early 1980s. It’s an amazing insight into the world of blindness, told in a deeply philosophical (albeit occasionally academic due to the nature of its subject) manner.
FUKUSHIMA, MON AMOUR: Taking it’s title from Alain Resnais’ post-War Hiroshima Mon Amour, Germany’s Doris Dörrie explores a snapshot of the aftermath of the devastating 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear accident. Recovering German Marie (Rosalie Thomass) and geisha Satomi (Kaori Momoi) find each other, and through the rebuilding of the latter’s home, they hope to exorcise ghosts both personal and figurative. Told in black and white, it’s a curious film, but one that ultimately leaves with a much-needed sense of hope.
BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH: A rare Saudi Arabian film, from writer/director Mahmoud Sabbagh, about the titular municipal work (Hisham Fageeh) who meets stylish and wealthy Instagram maven Bibi (Fatima Al Banawi). Their chemistry is difficulty to follow-up on, as public dating and physical contact is strictly forbidden. The most pointed moments come as Barakah ponders how they got to this point through a series of archival images before religious law took over. it follows traditional rom-com structures, but few have as much social commentary as this.
★★★ – Worth A Look
CUCKOLD: A South African tale of an unconventional love triangle is perpetually on the cusp of going somewhere. While CUCKOLD might shoot for being a critique of male entitlement, it lands on being a lingering examination of it, and they are definitely not the same thing. The genuinely tense scenes come in the last moments of the film, never giving the viewer the satisfaction of a resolution, and we are left only with a hint of what that embedded entitlement might lead to. Full Review >>
THE LURE: The box says “vampire mermaid musical,” and that’s precisely what you get with this ’80s Polish throwback. Two siren mermaids, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Gold (Michalina Olszanska), emerge off the coast of Warsaw, and are lured into civilisation by the bass playing of a local nightclub band. The convoluted mash of motifs might just be a boob delivery system, with the back half of the film making no literal sense or following a traditional structure. One thing is for sure: there is nothing else on this planet quite like THE LURE. Full Review >>
AQUARIUS: The winner of the Official Competition at the Festival this year, it’s about a retired music critic played by Sonia Braga who resists the development of her apartment block by being the last holdout against the developers. A quiet character-based exploration of changes in a beachside area of Brazil, it’s a strong showcase for the nuanced Braga. Full Review >>
THE ENDLESS RIVER: Opening with a sweeping overture and old school Hollywood titles, Oliver Hermanus’ spin on the Western genre is framed around the bloody murder of one family, and two lost souls trying to find a reason to reconnect in rural South Africa. Beautiful shot with commentary around race relations that still exist in South Africa, the uneven back half keeps this from soaring, even if the soundtrack often does just that.
APPRENTICE: Fun fact! Much of this Singaporean film was written in Surry Hills Library in Sydney. Taking 5 years to make, and being a co-production between as many countries (Singapore, Germany, France, Hong Kong, Qatar), the examination of the capital punishment system in Singapore, concentrating on the impact it has on families through Aiman, a 28-year-old prison guard whose father was hanged, but is asked to step up as the apprentice to the chief executioner in a Singaporean prison. A focused character study.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP: The Jane Austen novel upon which this was based, Lady Susan, is a mere slip of a thing at 60 pages. Whit Stillman’s all-star British society comedy is full of rapid dialogue and quips, and like the people it depicts, is always aware of its coyness. Nevertheless, it’s fancy free and full of words and phrases you’ll be mimicking for weeks. Impress your friends with a classy put-down!
★★½ – Wait For the DVD/Blu-ray
KIKI: The thematic sequel to Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning. The modern Kiki scene is a subset of that original ballroom, yet we can see how it has evolved over time as well. Jumping around from interview to interview, the viewer neither gets a sense of what the current culture is all about, nor is there line-through for any of the people featured. KIKI is a snapshot in time, but fails to achieve the legendary status of legacy it follows. Full Review >>
LIFE AFTER LIFE: This winner of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Firebird Award misses the tonal mark in an unconventional ghost story. Leilei (Zhang Li) is possessed by the spirit of his deceased mother, and matter of factly tells his father Mingchun (Zhang Mingjun) that she has returned to transplant a tree that she planted when she was younger. In one scene, the duo try to load the uprooted tree onto the back of their truck. Copying a method they’ve seen of a group aimlessly moving a rock, they slowly twist and turn the tree up a plank, but just as they are about to reach the top, the tree falls off and forces them to start again. It might be speaking to the cycle of death and rebirth, but it’s a perfect way of describing the viewing experience of LIFE AFTER LIFE. Full Review >>
PERSONAL SHOPPER: There’s a lot to unpack in PERSONAL SHOPPER. Too much in fact. Indeed, the winner of the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival is difficult to even categorise. At times a tense thriller, but this ghost story has too many ideas going on at once to be effective. Full Review >>
★★ – Rental or Streaming For Sure
TEENAGE KICKS: Another coming-of-age drama, this one is set against Sydney’s inner city angst, specifically that of Miklós (Miles Szanto) as he tries to make sense of his own sexuality and the responsibility he feels for the death of his brother Tommy. It could be readily re-titled A Series of Unfortunate Decisions for all the bad ones Miklós makes, in an uneven set of incidents that exchange heavy-handed metaphor for character. As a Sydneysider, we just want to point out that these people are in no way able to afford a flat that close to the centre of King’s Cross.
CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER: Yet another polarizing film, Brady Corbet’s portrait of a bratty child might be gorgeously shot, but has all the enjoyment of watching a kid throw a tantrum in a supermarket. Set during the negotiations around the Treaty of Versailles in 1918 and 1919, the rise of power of the leader is told through three chapters chronicling three “tantrums” the boy throws. The severe jump at the end is literally disconcerting for viewers. It took all of our energy to not stand up and shout “Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you!” before leaping from the Mezzanine. Watch the first three Omen films instead.
PSYCHO RAMAN: Also known as Raman Raghav 2.0, being a completely reinvented version of Raman Raghav, a real-life 1960s serial killer who terrorised India. Director and co-writer Anurag Kashyap wears the influences of David Fincher’s Seven on his sleeve, from the stylish titles to the pumping soundtrack, but leaves us with a difficult film to watch. A brutal film, even if the violence is mostly off-screen, it loses track of its own horrible subjects, including a corrupt cop that makes the serial killer seem nice.
Once again, links to the full reviews have been provided where available, but check out our full coverage of the festival at our 2016 Sydney Film Festival portal. Our tweeting throughout the Festival has also been saved on Storify.