Sydney Film Festival 2013
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This year, it seemed to me that the Festival had many high
quality films, but no one stand-out favourite. The themes
were these: murder, mayhem, madness and mothers. All of them were
evident in the film that won the Sydney Film Prize, awarded by the
jury, Only God Forgives.
Scroll down or search the title to see how violently I disgree with
I saw 46 films this year. My top films of the Festival were, in no
Stories We Tell
A Few Hours of Spring
The Act of Killing
This Ain't No Mouse Music
And from the superb Retrospecive: British "Film Noir":
Yield to the Night (with Diana
Dors on death row - absolutely shattering!)
Never Let Go
Time without Pity and
The Siege of Pinchgut
were all stunning discoveries. I didn't have time to see several of the
films I already have on DVD, such as Odd
Man Out, Hell Drivers,
They Made Me a Fugitive, and Brighton Rock, but they are all
briliant films too.
I was very disappointed by:
Greetings from Tim Buckley,
The Spirit of '45
For Those in Peril and
Only God Forgives
I was pleasantly surprised by:
Shopping (from NZ, with a start debut performance by Kevin
I was underwhelmed by:
The Look of Love
I think I understood:
And I was really sorry I had to miss
Michael H. Profession: Director
The Broken Circle Breakdown
We Steal Secrets: The Story of
Twenty Feet from Stardom
Before the Festival I had seen 5 SFF films in preview, and they
order of greatness:
Frances Ha (USA, Dir: Noah
Baumback) Rated 4.5/5
A simple but brilliantly moving story of a kind of hopeless character,
played beautifully by Greta Gerwig, who contributed to the screenplay.
Frances just can't seem to get her act together. Will she? A
lovely lovely film with a great finish.
Child's Pose (Romania,
Dir: Calin Peter Netzer) Rated 4.5/5
It'll be hard to top this one in competition. A really slow burn, saved
from langeur by the extarordinary detail of upper class life in
Bucharest. The stately pace of the film picks up in the second half,
leading inexorably to a climax that is slight but also huge,
photographed at a distance through rear vision mirrors and the back
window of a car. Masterly filmmaking!
What Maisie Knew (USA,
Dir: Scott McGehee, David Siegel)
... is about a custody battle for a 6 year old girl (who
is the cutest little thing, and a great little actor). It's an update
of an 1897 novel by Henry James, and features great performances by
Julianne Morore as a faded rock star, Steve Coogan as her husband, a
selfish art dealer whose business is failing, Alexander Skarsgaard
(sgh) as Juilanne's new toy boy, and Onata Aprile as Maisie, the little
girl, whose performance is astonishingly natural and compelling.
(USA, Dir: Shane Carruth) Rated
A pastiche of all the sci-fi/ thriller films you've ever seen,
from Edge of Darkness through
Rosemary's Baby even to The Matrix. Filmed with pretentious
confusion and tedium, but with a small leavening of charm in the love
story. Stars the director himself, who's a cult favourite, and cute in
an elvish sort of way. Apparently you need to see it more than once to
appreciate it. I won't be.
Stories We Tell (Canada,
Dir: Sarah Polley Rated 4/5
A clever and thoughtful essay on family and memeory with one helluva
reveal part-way through. Very interesting visual recreation of the
Wednesday 5 June
Because of my interest in films about music, I chose to miss the
opening night film, Ivan Sen's Mystery
Road, which I'll see in July,
and instead go to see:
Muscle Shoals (USA,
Dir: Greg "Freddy" Camalier) Rated
This fascinating and well-photographed doco tells the story of the
Muscle Shoals music studio(s) (who kne there were two?) and the
facinating (white!) men behind them. Although I knew about the huge
series of hits that came out of the small town of Musce Shoals,
Alabama, I had no idea about the charismatic showman behind Fame
Studios, Rick Hall, a dirt-poor kid from the backwoods, with an
incredibly tragic life, who nevertheless rose to be a great
impressario. A beutiful digital copy ensured that we heard and saw the
film at its best.
Unfortunately, the director chose to have a few talking heads who
didn't add much. What Bono had to say was just hyperbole, and
yes, it was fun to see Mick and Keef from the Stones (because they had
been there and recorded songs like Brown Sugar at Muscle Shoals Sounds,
the 2nd studio) , but it was much more interesting to see Percy Sledge,
Aretha Franklin, the late - and feisty - Etta James, and Clarence
("Patches") Carter interviewed about the old days. I don't know why
Alicia Keyes was interviewed, except for the fact that she sings the
closing somg. She's no Etta James. They should have closed with Etta.
Also there is an intriguing question left unanswered: it involves the
fight between the Fame Studios trumpeter and Aretha's husband, Ted
White, which lead to the estrangement of Rick Hall and his business
colleague the famous record exec Jerry Wexler. Surely there was more to
it. We hear the story from Rick Hall's pov, but it would have
been fascinating to hear from Wexler. Was Hall trying to steal Aretha
away from Hall? Wexler died in 2008, so he doesn't appear except
in archive clips and he doesn't say anything about the split. So that's
an unfinished thread.
One lovely aspect of the film is its acknowledgement of the spiritual
source of the soul that came from the studios. The story of the Native
Indian settlement of the area and the mythology surrounding the river
is both sensitive and sensible, supported by lovely cinematogaphy and
Thursday 6 June
Hijacking (Denmark, Dir: Tobias Lindholm) Rated 4/5
This is a really taut thriller, in the style of "Scandi-noir", which we
all love. It is a real directorial tour de force, not only for the way
that the tension is ratcheted up, not only for the pitch perfect
performances the director extracts from the cast (with one exception),
but most of all for the way that the director stages the scenes on the
ship, making a really believable hostage situation out of very little.
The contrast between the hot sweaty claustrophobic quarters on the
ship, and the cool cleanliness of the head office where the
negotiators crunch the numbers, is very effective, if
predictable. It's wonderful how the scene is set to showcase the
CEO's negotiating skills, so that his confidence and ruthlessness
become ripe for hubris. Will he be able to bring it off?
The one weak actor is the consultant hostage negotiator. I was
wondering why he seemed so clunky, until I read that he actually is a
consutant hostage negotiator in real
life! Message to directors: cast actors to act and get
consultants to advise! But this doesn't spoil what's a really
tough thriller, with 2 charismatic leads.
Scale (Denmark, Dir: Andreas Møl Dalsgaard) Rated 3.5/5
Fascinating and timely documetary about how to make cities
liveable. Lots of juicy facts and amazing statistics. But
inspiring and entertaining as well. It's particualry intriguing
when it comes to the rebuilding of Christchurch, but Times Square is
Dir: Michael Winterbottom)
It is really hard to make a film about the tedium of everyday life,
with out becoming tedious - even if the tedium is the harsh life of a
man in prison, and the difficult life of his wife and 4 children trying
to survive without him. And even if you have one of my favourite
British actors, John Sim, as your star (I could watch him sleeping and
still be fascinated), and even if you have the talented Shirley
Henderson as the wife, and the talented and prolific Michael
Winterbottom as director. And even if you film a real life group of 4
siblings over 5 years, as Winterbottom has done. And even if you have
important social points to make. It still dioesn't make for an
And 2 small points that made me suspend my suspension of disbelief: (1)
where were the wife's girfriends and family? All she has was her
husband's incompetent mother babysitting once, and a babysitter, and
then her putative lover. (2) Where did she get her money? She only had
a couple of part-time jobs. If you're making a film about small
details, repeated endlessly, how about some of the staples of life:
money and friends?
This Ain't No Mouse
Music (USA, Dir: Chris Simon, Maureen Gosling) Rated 4.5/5
A fabulous and unexpectedly delightful doco about an obscure little
company (and its visionary founder) collecting American "roots" music.
Great sounds, great central character - and much better edited than Muscle Shoals (see above), with
better rhythm. And no irrelevant talking heads. Joyful!
Friday 7 June
(Belgium, France, Germany,
Dir: Marion Hansel)
A slow burn that didn't ignite. But with a fabulous cameo from Sergi
Lopez as the fisherman who hitches a lift from Lisa (Marilyne
Canto, who is also very good). He lights up the screen but is gone too
soon. All the actors are good, but the film is slight. At the
end, there was an audible intake of breath from the SFF audience, who
were astonished that actually nothing had happened. Still, it's a
plea for us all to be kind too each other, and that's an important
message, after all.
The Act of
Killing (Denmark, Norway, UK,
Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer)
This is a flawed masterpiece, but everyone should see it as you
couldn't have made this up. Just a couple of dubious aspects made me
reluctant to give this 5/5. And I definitely believe that this is the
film that should have received the Sydney Film Prize, for "courageous,
audacious and cutting-edge
filmmaking." You have never seen a film like this before.
The director, Josh Oppenheimer, says he's trying to make a new kind of
documentary: a documentary of the imagination. That would explain why
it begins so incredibly - with the filming of a very strange musical
number, outside amidst gorgeous scenery, with dancing girls and a
grotesque character in drag - Divine style. This musical number is not
really explained specifically, but we imagine that it is part of the
film that the "protagonists" of this film are making.
Introducing the film, Oppenheimer talked about the question of how and
why we commit evil and what the effect of evil is on us - what it means
to be a human being and how we use stories to escape from our most
Oppenheimer had tried for 3 years to make a film about the atrocities
that took place in Indonesia in 1965-66 during which the military
regime encouraged local gangsters to participate in the killing of many
thousands of alleged Communists, Chinese, and intellectuals. But it was
hard to get the survivors to speak on the record. Then he discovered
that some of these gangsters were openly boastful about their crimes,
even now. And he found that they had begun as ticket scalpers at local
movie theaters, and that they were big movie fans. They agreed to make
a film about what they did back then - because they wanted to be movie
stars - and they wanted to justify themselves in that film.
There's a lot of important detail in this film, and revealing
psychological revelations, too. It is like a train wreck that you can't
look away from, even though you are simultaneously appalled and what
you are seeing, and at yourself for being "entertained".
And that's the difficulty. The director is giving these dreadful men a
platform. Admittedly they use that platform to build a scaffold to hang
themselves, but they still get to star in a movie, which they control
to an extent. A case in point: when Herman Koto is gathering
"volunteers" to re-enact an event where a village was burned and many
were killed - including women and children - he can't resist bullying
them. What they are subjected to - as actors - horrifies the women and
children so much that some become hysterical or at least inconsolable -
including Herman's own daughter! The ethics of aiding and abetting this
are open to question.
The other criticism I have is that the version of the film we saw was
too long. There is a limit to how much horror one wants to
consume, and the points were laboured on occasion. On other occasions
the more the scenes ran the more fascinating the insight into the
characters' psychology. But the film could be tightened and would be
none the worse for that.
But even with these criticisms, this is the most "courageous,
audacious and cutting-edge
filmmaking" I've seen for a while.
Wadjda (Saudi Arabia, Germany,
Dir: Haifaa Al Mansour)
A little gem of a film made under incredibly difficult circumstances.
It's a small film, and a small story, but it achieves, with some grace,
and a lot of fun, what it sets out to do, and for that I give it high
marks. It's not without its flaws. It tries to have it both ways some
of the time, and it is, I think, overly optinmistic. In fact, it has
the most satisfying and hopeful ending I've seen in a
while - and I want to believe it can come true.
It also has a wonderful young star, Waad Mohammed, who gives an
and charismatic performance, always with a twinkle in her eye. The
director only found her 1 week before the shoot began. She was one of
the children who sing and dance at festivals. She doesn't speak English
and her parents are very traditional, but they allowed her to make this
wonderful little film, and so make history.
I love the last words of the film. Wadjda says to Abdullah: "Catch me
if you can!"
This is the first film ever shot in Saudi Arabia, and its director is a
woman. For that reason, on location shoots Haifaaa Al Mansour had to
shoot from a van, communicating with her crew (all men) by walkie
talkie. What a courageous woman, and how wonderful that she was
educated at Sydney University!
Greetings From Tim
Dir: Daniel Algrant)
Hated this film: widescreen shakey-cam made us nauseaous. No insight
into either character. No actual singing by either actual Buckley. A
performance that was OK, if annoying, by Penn Badgley as Jeff.
But Ben Rosenfield as Tim Buckley just wasn't good enough. Putting on a
curly wig and a grin
doesn't cut it for
me. The love story was clearly a fantasy. Imogen Poots (The Look of Love, SFF 2013) plays
the most negligent events person ever. She slopes off to hang out with
Jeff, neglecting her work. But even that wasn't interesting,
because it doesn't seem real. All in all this was mostly it was
just a yawn.
Saturday 8 June
The Siege of Pinchgut (UK,
Australia, Dir: Harry Watt) Rated
A delightful surprise, not only because of the interest
of seeing Sydney (and in fact a lot of the places that I have lived
over the years) as it was in 1956/7. It's also quite an intelligent
piece of social history - a rare insight to the seamier side of 50s
Sydney, both as it relates to the ex-con trying to go straight (Aldo
Ray, playing a Yank emigré), and as it relates to the rather
unprofessional, and perhaps even negligent, police service. Quite a
tense little thriller, interestingly shot on location all over Sydney's
north shore and foreshore, and well-staged on Pinchgut itself (Fort
The Spirit of '45 (UK,
Dir: Ken Loach)
What a disappointment this was! In the
context of the retrospective series Brit Noir, I was looking forward to
this Ken Loach doco. And it was quite good for a while, if
predictable, politically. But it was also annoying in 2 particular
ways. First, the archival clips and talking head interviews are not
always adequately captioned or referenced. I'm afraid I couldn't
always remember who an interviewee was, even if we'd been told
earlier. And secondly, there was the hiatus. From 1951 to
1979, apparently nothing happened in Britain ...
Gloria (Chile, Spain,
Dir: Sebastian Lelio) Rated
As much as The Spirit
of '45 was disappointing, this was a delightful surprise. On
paper, it looked a great risk of being a stereotypical film about a
middle-aged women. But there was barely a stereotype to be seen here.
Paulina Garcia, as Gloria, is just mesmerising , so deeply does she
inhabit the role. She won Best Actress at the Berlin Festival.
This is a movie to constanty surprise and delight you, with a great
disco soundtrack and showing us a wonderful slice of life in Santiago
and surrounds. And dig that crazy constant dance party scene for the
over 50s. How fabulous! I'm there!
The Rocket (Australia,
Dir: Kim Mordaunt)
I fear that this film has been over-hyped. Many at the Festival
were saying it was their favourite. In fact it wond the audience
awatrd. I didn't like it quite that much. I don't think it ever made
its mind up what it wanted to be. Is it mythology? Is it a fable? Is it
a landscape study? An environmentalist film? Is it a social commentary?
Is it a caper film? Is it a serious Festival film? Is it a
comedy? It's a brave film that tries to be all of these, and it
would be a very accomplished filmmaker that pulled it off. Here there
are all those elements, and they are all well-done, but they don't
quite come together as a finished product. It was really more
than one film. But it's still a commendable effort (it's the
drector's first feature film) with some lovely performances, esoecially
by former street kid Sitthiphon Disamoe as Ahlo, in the lead. And I
just adored Uncle Purple, the James Brown impersonator.
Sunday 9 June
To be continued...
It Always Rains on Sunday
Brit Noir Talk
Monday 10 June
Tuesday 11 June
A River Changes Course
Those in Peril
A Few Hours of Spring
Thursday 13 June
The Search for Emak Baku
The Look of Love
Friday 14 June
Saturday 15 June
Never Let Go -
British "Film Noir" - Dir: John Guillermin Rated 4/5
Robbery - British "Film Noir" - Dir: Peter
Yates Rated 4.5/5
Time Without Pity - British "Film Noir" - Dir:
Joseph Losey Rated 4/5
Forgives (France, Denmark,
Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn)
Rated 2/5 (Caution: spoilers follow)
Maybe only God forgives, but I certainly don't forgive
the Sydney Film Festival Jury on this occasion. They gave this dreadful
film the Sydney Film Prize for "courageous, audacious and cutting-edge
filmmaking." Cutting edge? The only things cutting edge
about this film were the sword and the knives that carved up every bit
of available flesh.
Looking over my notes taken during the film,
I found this impassioned plea: "Don't give the prize to this wet
dream!" But they did. Granted, Winding Refn knows where to place a
camera. And I did love his earlier film, Bronson (SFF 2009). I slated it to
win the Sydney Film Prize that year, which it did. But it seems to me
he's regressed since that film.
I gave Only
God Forgives only 2/5, and the 2 points were for the stunning
production design. I was reminded of the cinematic style of The Shining a lot of the time -
long slow tracking shots in corridors, for example - and indeed,
Director of Photography Larry Smith did work with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut. Nevertheless,
it all gave me a headache, and I
that night because the images were still burned into my brain. No
wonder Ryan Gosling spent most of the film in a trance with his eyes
closed. The wallpaper and lighting were murder on the eyesight!
Keith Ulich of Time Out New York
nailed the style of the film in two words: macho camp. To me, it
represents the victory of style over emptiness. This is a film about
revenge, and yet it teaches us nothing on that subject. Although it
points to the negative consequences of revenge for Julian and his
mother Crystal, it glorifies the revenge strategies of the erstwhile
avenging angel cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). His is a fine
performance, and he creates a character that I fear could recur somehow
in another film. But in Winding Refn's universe, it seems it is
OK to kill and maim people if you are kind to children, and a good
father. That's something I didn't need to know.
We are even cheated of the traditional catharsis in the fight scene
between Chang and Julian. It turns out Julian can't fight after all. We
only get to see his handsome face reduced to mincemeat. Sigh.
Crystal must be the worst monster-mother of
all time. Poor Kristin Scott
Thomas (who looks like Ellen Barkin after a shocking night) has said
that some of the dialogue was inordinately difficult
for her to say, such was its replusiveness. Sometimes it's so appalling
ads to be hilarious: For example, when Julian says, "Billy [his
brother] raped and killed a 16-year-old girl", Crystal replies, "I'm
sure he had his reasons". Crystal
meets a grizzly-enough fate, but then Winding
Refn raises the ante by having Julian reach into her womb. Is this to
ensure that, even though dead, she has no potential brothers or sisters
hiding in there? Hideous!
May I mention at this point my theory about the reason that Ryan's
character Julian can't touch his "girlfriend" and has to watch her
masturbate with his hands tied to a chair: his hands are "unclean"
because (as his mother tells us) he has killed his father with his bare
hands. That explains why he was willing to part with them... Ugh -
there goes another night's sleep.
The film ends with the most pretentious of dedications: to Alejandro
Jodorowsky, the veteran Chilean director/ writer/ producer of cult
classics like El Topo (1970)
and The Holy Mountain
(1973). Winding Refn also thanks
Gaspar Noé, director of such difficult-to-watch films as Irreversible (2002) and I Stand Alone (1998), both of which
films I admire. Maybe they helped to produce this awful film.
Maybe they inspired it. I wonder what they think of it.
Past (France, Dir: Asghar Farhadi) Rated 4/5
This is a strong follow-up by Asghar
Farhadi to his film A Separation,
which won the Sydney Film Prize in 2011. But it is not as good a film,
in my view. More to follow.
Yield to the Night
- British "Film Noir" - Dir: J Lee Thompson Rated 5/5
Hell is a City - British
"Film Noir" - Dir: Val Guest Rated
Mistaken For Strangers - Dir: Tom Berninger - Rated 1/5
I feel ripped off! This film is not what it
pretends to be. More later.