SFF 2017: Sydney Film Festival Wrap-Up and Reflections

Sydney Film Festival Wrap Up 2017

It’s always with a mixture of sadness, joy, and exhaustion that we reach the end of the 2017 Sydney Film Festival. Almost on cue, the heavens opened up on the Opening Night to signal the arrival of the 2017’s biggest event on the Sydney film calendar. 

Mostly sitting somewhere between A24 and A27 in the State Theatre, we saw a whopping (and unprecedented for us) 51 films from 21 different countries in 6 different cinemas. Of that number, 10 were Australian, with a particularly strong showing from local/co-produced films this year. Indeed, four Australian film are in our Top 20 of the Festival. Although it wasn’t all fun and games: one brave little notebook gave its life for the cause, and all that sitting is murder on the lower back. So naturally, we can’t wait until the next one.

Links to the full reviews have been provided where available, but check out our full coverage of the festival at our 2017 Sydney Film Festival portal. Our tweeting throughout the Festival has also been saved on Storify. Got a differing opinion? Sound off in the comments below.

A Ghost Story

★★★★★ – Certified Bitstastic

A GHOST STORY: David Lowery’s haunting meditation on grief, life, and the relativity of time.Struggling musician C (Casey Affleck) and his wife M (Rooney Mara) live together in a small house. When C is killed in a car crash, he returns home as a spectre covered in a white sheet. With this film, Lowery gives us a masterclass in how cinema can not only help us better understand time, but also ourselves. Full Review >>

Brigsby Bear

★★★★½ – Super Highly Recommended

BRIGSBY BEAR: A charming and disarmingly funny film about a person who is obsessed with a TV show made for an audience of one. This film, on the other hand, should appeal to just about everyone. The SNL and Lonely Island crew deliver a story about a fish-out-of-water (or bear-out-of-bunker if you prefer). It’s the kind of film that will leave you with a big sloppy grin on your face, and an overwhelming urge to do something positive. Full Review >>

THE BEGUILED: “Edwina, bring me the anatomy book.” This reworking of Thomas P. Cullinan’s book focuses on the Southern Gothic aspects, bringing psychological warfare delicately to the forefront. With glorious naturally lit landscapes and chambers, this hypnotic and intoxicating vibe is in no hurry to get to its mic-drop conclusion. An absolute masterpiece from Sofia Coppola.

THE SQUARE: “If you put something in a museum, does it make it art?” Ruben Östlund’s film is sharp, satirical, and hyper aware of itself. A true gem and worth the accolades. Some may struggle with the back half of the film, where the narrative takes a darker and more somber turn. The ‘ape’ scene is both hilarious and uncomfortable, which is probably the best description of the film in its totality. 

IN MY OWN WORDS: A powerful Australian documentary about the positive changes a single community can make, as well as exploring the barrier that adult illiteracy represents to the Indigenous communities of Australia. Full Review >>

BETTER WATCH OUT: Thoroughly surprising how much this throwback slasher has up its sleeve. When they say it’s Home Alone meets Funny Games, they aren’t kidding. Made with a whole lot of love for the genre, Levi Miller delivers an uncharacteristic turn that shatters his Jasper Jones/Red Dog: True Blue image.

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner appear in Wind River by Taylor Sheridan, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. © 2016 Sundance Institute.

★★★★ – Highly Recommended

WIND RIVER: Confirming Taylor Sheridan’s talents as a writer and director, this atmospheric mystery continues his fascination with people on the fringes, focusing on intense personal drama inside a taut and nuanced mystery/thriller. Full Review >>

ON BODY AND SOUL: A beautiful and deeply contemplative study on the meaning of connection, and those two things that are up there in the title. Alexandra Borbély’s amazingly restrained performance plays off against the visible anguish of Géza Morcsányi. Such a powerful ending, a a deserved winner of this year’s Official Competition.

ALI’S WEDDING: Original, hilarious and flat-out charming, Jeffrey’s Walker’s takes the conventions of a genre and uses them to hold up a mirror to a nation. It might have the trappings of a conventional comedy, but mocks them as much as uses them.If this isn’t huge at the local box office, there’s no justice.  Full Review >>

A QUIET DREAM: There’s echoes of Hong Sang-soo’s distinctive style in here, but this eclectic group of characters hold each other down, and prop each other up. Some may find this meandering, but think of it instead of a beautiful and lyrical slice of a floating life.

RAGE: A tense and multi-layered film that keeps you guessing until the end, exploring connection between those on the fringes of Japanese society. Having previously delivered the excellent Villain, a brooding drama encased within a mystery, it was great to see Lee Sang-il tell another story where the murder mystery convention is merely a backdrop to the laser-focused character studies.

OKJA: “This is a film about a pig,” said Bong Joon-ho at the Closing Night of the Sydney Film Festival. Bong’s science fiction fable might have an adorable lead, but it’s also a rally cry against the interests behind mass production of food. Full Review >>

HAPPY END: It’s a Michael Haneke film, so don’t trust the title. Drawing on references to the filmmaker’s career to date, the Austrian director tackles the European refugee crisis in an inimitable fashion. This may not be Haneke’s most shocking, or even his most satirical to date, but it’s still a showcase of a master still working at the top of his game after four decades. Full Review >>

THE WOUND: A raw exploration of masculinity, closeted homosexuality in a tribal community, and initiation, John Trengove feature debut is confident enough to explore the small observational details and allow the subtext to speak for itself. The silent tension builds to a gut-punch of a finale.

LADY MACBETH: Built around a magnificent and award-worthy performance from relative newcomer Florence Pugh, this is a film that is equal parts moody and disturbing. Viewers should feel appalled at some of the actions of the leads, but will secretly be cheering them on.

THE UNTAMED: An intense, erotic, unnerving and wholly enveloping study about escaping cycles of violence and abuse glimpsed through the prism of sci-fi/horror. You may never look at tentacles in the same way again.

LIBERATION DAY: Ex-Yugoslavian cult band Laibach made headlines when they were chosen to play at North Korean anniversary concert.  A terrific and bizarrely optimistic look behind the curtain of North Korea, where even the act of plugging in a microphone is a bureaucratic ordeal. 

SAMI BLOOD: Set in Sweden during the 1930s, where a young Sami girl (that is, one of the indigenous Finno-Ugric people) experiences massive prejudice. A deeply moving character study on a period of history and an entire people that we knew nothing about. Amazing performance from the young Lene Cecilia Sparrok.

WE DON’T NEED A MAP: Exploring how symbols can be twisted and meaning lost, in this case the Souther Cross flag, filmmaker Warwick Thornton brings some much-needed knowledge to an often impassioned debate. An essential document for a nation. Full Review >>

That's Not Me (Alice Foulcher)

★★★½ to ★★★¾ – Better Than Average Bear

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO: Raoul Peck reworks James Baldwin’s unfinished book into a lightning branded cry about race in America. This might have had more of an academic focus that we were prepared for, especially coupled with Samuel L. Jackson’s measured narration. 

MCLAREN: A solid and respectable summary of a life and legacy, adequately conveying the speed and intensity at which Bruce McLaren lived his life and career. Combination of interviews, archive footage, and occasional recreation is effective as a storytelling technique, with some genuine emotion around key events. Definitely worth a look, even if you only have a passing interest in cars and racing. 

BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL: For Takeshi Miike’s 100th film, the body count might just be the highest as well. While it gets a little episodic in the middle, it builds to a suitably bloody conclusion.

THAT’S NOT ME: Heartfelt and quirky Aussie comedy about finding your place in the world, with some great inside industry references for film fans and aspiring stars alike. Yet the film works best as a character study, and a showcase for star and co-writer Alice Foulcher’s talents. Full Review >>

OTHERLIFE: An Australian sci-fi film with a strong sense of visual style. An engaging narrative with an intriguing concept, albeit one that feels more than a little indebted to other high-concept classics. The cast is great, including Arrow’s Jessica De Gouw, and there’s an overall sense of energy. Worth a watch.

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE: Aki Kaurismäki remains perfectly trapped in a bubble of indeterminate time, but the genuine belief in the essential goodness of people is timeless. The long takes coupled with the deadpan performance of Kuosmanenin particular are disarmingly hilarious at times, but at others they simply test our patience. Nevertheless, it’s hard to dislike a film when its central theme is about the basic kindness of humans. Full Review >>

RUMBLE: THE INDIANS THAT ROCKED THE WORLD: Interesting examination of forgotten contribution of Native America to the music industry. Gets some pretty big names as talking heads. Drifts away from thesis occasionally, but great music choices and film grabs.

WET WOMAN IN THE WIND: As tribute to the anniversary of the Roman Porno genre it:

  • Runs for under 80 minutes ✔️
  • Has nudity/sex every 10 minutes ✔️
  • Is incredibly silly  ✔️
  • Is aimed to tickle your funny bone (#phrasing) ✔️

So yeah, what it says on the tin.

WOLF AND SHEEP: a fascinating study of an Afghan village, told through observation, children, and fable. It’s so rare that we get to see something other than war stories out of Afghanistan, so watching children emulate adults and visions of the green fairy at the heart of local myth is a real treat.

MY HAPPY FAMILY: Coming-of-age stories don’t need to be about teen angst, as 52-year-old Manana’s seemingly sudden design to burst free of her family indicates. Sudden to the audience at least, but carefully planned behind the scenes. Manana’s fierce determination to keep her reasoning secret reveals more about her family and friends and their attitudes towards “a woman’s place” than it does about the lead.

PACMEN: Donald Trump couldn’t possibly win, at least not with Ben Carsons in the running! Australian documentarian Luke Walker goes inside the world of Super-PACs and the millions spent to raise his ranks in the polls. It’s fascinating to watch people fall into the cult of personality, and the conscious manipulation of emotions behind the scenes.

THE PUBLIC IMAGE IS ROTTEN: John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) followed his tenure in the Sex Pistols with the alternative sound of Public Image Ltd. Peppered with tons of PiL clips and tracks from various line-ups and eras, it’s the story of an irrepressible personality who will not go away. A solid overview of an era.

PATTI CAKE$: It’s got a good heart and a fun soundtrack, even if this story follows the narrative rules rather than breaking them. A hell of a performance by Australia’s Danielle Macdonald as the titular wannabe rapper, and an excellent supporting cast. It’s like Rocky for the New Jersey hip hop scene.

INGRID GOES WEST: The age of social media has spawned many essays on, spanning the emoji spectrum from 💕 to 🍆. Matt Spicer’s debut feature, INGRID GOES WEST, gets to the ❤️ of how the platforms have become ubiquitous part of our culture. Finding the right tonal balance between parody and drama, Olsen is pitch-perfect as the fairweather #Instafamous friend while Aubrey Plaza embraces her starring vehicle by kicked her Wednesday Adams routine to the curb. #iamingrid #oneworld #blessed♥ #filmlife📽️ Full Review >>>

THE FARTHEST: An upbeat and optimistic documentary on the Voyager space program, one that actually makes you think humanity might survive somehow as we watch the vessels make their way into interstellar space.

UNA: An intense two-hander from Australian theatre and film director Benedict Andrews starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn in a film about uncovered secrets.  A film that always feels on the cusp of being a revenge thriller, it’s difficult to look away.

Rip Tide - Debbie Ryan

★★★ – Worth A Look

RIP TIDE:  A starring vehicle for the Disney Channel’s Debby Ryan also showcases the scenery of New South Wales’ Illawarra region, in a youth-oriented coming-of-age story with a positive message for young women. Impressively shot in just 18 days, Rhiannon Bannenberg’s second feature is a charming morality tale for a family market.

POP AYE: A gently paced story that reminds us you can never go back home, but you can buy an elephant in a shady back alley deal that gets you close enough to it. Several missed opportunities in a narrative that wanders off and gets a little lost. Internet won’t tell us what the animal conditions were like, so we’ll assume everyone is ok. 

FÉLICITÉ: The focus first half of this film is a magnificent piece on devotion, and a laser focused look at a proud woman who would do anything for her injured son. It’s an amazing use of sound too. Then it loses its way. In a lengthy second half, the pace meanders, and so does the focus. More than once the film felt that it had come to a natural conclusion, and yet it trudged on.

MAYHEM: A fun bit of splatter that plays perfectly in the Freak Me Out section of the Sydney Film Festival. Could’ve used a little bit more office satire to be a true corporate parody, along with a bigger sense of escalation to keep with the ‘tower’ genre (e.g. The Raid, Dredd). Yuen and Weaving are delightful leads though, and it’s fun to spend time with them.

WINNIE: A powerful and important woman gets a fairly straightforward documentary, one that comes at us with some assumed knowledge. It doesn’t really get into fine details on some topics, nor does it give us a sense of the totality of Apartheid, the international response, and the importance of the Mandelas. That said, it works well as a summary.

AMA-SAN: A really fascinating concept that explores a group of Japanese women who are rarely seen or glamourised. Reminiscent of the casual and observational approach of Kazuhiro Soda (Oyster Factory), Cláudia Varejão keeps the cameras rolling and lets the actions of his subjects do the speaking for him. The double-edged sword of this approach is the repetition in a film of this length, yet there is something hypnotic in the watching if you’re in the right mood.

TO STAY ALIVE – A METHOD: A totally punk film with a strangely positive message about finding the inner strength to not give in to suicide. The vignette’s don’t always flow, but Iggy Pop is a captivating presence as always, and his conversations with French writer Michel Houellebecq are fascinating. 

ONE THOUSAND ROPES: Having thoroughly enjoyed Tusi Tamasese’s The Orator a few years ago, we were keen to see what his subsequent work was like. The close-quartered narrative is deeply seeped in Samoan culture and mythology, and at times we feel like we are outside looking in on something we don’t necessarily have to understand. A visually engaging film, which works best as an experiment in storytelling.

SPOOKERS: A fun and often touching look at life inside a ‘haunted house’ and the people who work there, including the need for community and how it helps people through their own issues. Yet it frequently loses direction and stretches the single location over too much film.

LUST FOR SIGHT: Also known as La fureur de voir, it asks us ‘what does it mean to see?’ When a filmmaker with a degenerative eye condition is told by his doctor that he can’t see colours, he sets out to find what that means. Told largely with point of view shots from the filmmaker Manuel von Stürler, it’s an often fascinating (if occasionally meandering) insight into something the majority of people reading this article will take for granted.

Australia Day - Bryan Brown

 

★★½ – Wait For the DVD/Blu-ray

AUSTRALIA DAY: An ambitious attempt at a hyperlinked film in the style of Crash, and one that starts with a literal car crash. Kriv Stenders film often muddles its own powerful message in a sea of story and running. So much running. Ultimately there is just too much story packed into a small space, a package that doesn’t allow for depth or discussion, which is a shame given how important the issues explored are. Full Review >>

THE LITTLE HOURS: ACT I. Hey look: nuns! And they’re swearing! ACT II. Hey look: nuns! And they’re horny! ACT III: Hey look: it’s a turtle with a candle on it! Given the excellent cast of incredibly talented people, this squanders much of that potential on a Midspring Sex Comedy that doesn’t have the stamina to keep it up for the duration of the deed. 

THE PARTY: A who’s who of British actors stars in a mercifully brief film that feels far too stagey, and featuring characters who never get beyond their affectations. The ending is telegraphed from a mile off. Or several kilometers for those of us on the metric system. Gunther (played by Bruno Ganz) is a classic though, and should probably appear in every film from this point forward. 

PHANTOM BOY: An odd inclusion, especially given that it has been on the festival circuit for almost two years, and was released theatrically in France back in October 2015. The main issue this animated film faces it that it sits somewhere between a simple kids morality tale and a mean-spirited pulp crime tribute. A well-intentioned but unfortunately unrewarding adventure.

Forest of Lost Souls

★★ – Rental or Streaming For Sure

THE FOREST OF THE LOST SOULS: Some early flashes of moody style, and a legitimately good initial twist, are all squandered as this film loses all sense of atmosphere during a lengthy second act that doesn’t seem to have much of a third. At 70 minutes, it doesn’t work as an experimental short or have enough flesh for a feature narrative. Shots are completely robbed of suspense by the awkwardly lingering camera. It just feels sloppy, and the ending an afterthought.

MADAME: An odd film that goes for a broad comedy appeal, but misses the mark on a regular basis. If you need a gauge on the tone of this film, Toni Collette and Harvey Keitel are a well-connected married couple living in Paris. Pedro Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma is at the centre of a comedy of errors/manners, but outside of a genuinely funny dinner party sequences, she fails to bring the laughs.