Sydney Film Festival 2013

* If you arrived here after a search, either scroll down to the film you were looking for, or search the text for the name of the film.

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 that decision.

I saw 46 films this year. My top films of the Festival were, in no order:
Frances Ha
Child's Pose
Stories We Tell
A Few Hours of Spring
A Hijacking
The Act of Killing
This Ain't No Mouse Music
Muscle Shoals
The Summit
The Past

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
Upstream Colour
For Those in Peril
Only God Forgives

I was pleasantly surprised by:
(from NZ, with a start debut performance by Kevin Paulo)
Prince Avalanche

Monsoon Shootout
Becoming Traviata
Television and
Oh Boy

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 Wikileaks and
Twenty Feet from Stardom

Before the Festival I had seen 5 SFF films in preview, and they were, in 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)  Rated 4/5
... 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.

Upstream Colour  (USA, Dir: Shane Carruth)   Rated 2/5
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 past, too.

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 3.5/5

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 subtle re-enactment.

Thursday 6 June

A 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.

The Human 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 also amazing.

Everyday  (UK, Dir: Michael Winterbottom) Rated   2/5

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 interesting film.

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

Tenderness  (Belgium, France, Germany, Dir: Marion Hansel) Rated   3/5

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) Rated   4.5/5

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 bitter truths.

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.

(Saudi Arabia, Germany, Dir: Haifaa Al Mansour) Rated   4.5/5

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 energetic 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 Buckley  (USA, Dir: Daniel Algrant) Rated   1/5

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   3.5/5
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 Denison).

The Spirit of '45
(UK, Dir: Ken Loach) Rated   2.5/5
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   4/5
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)  Rated   3.5/5

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

The Summit

Tuesday 11 June

A River Changes Course

Wednesday 12 June

For Those in Peril
A Few Hours of Spring
Monsoon Shootout

Thursday 13 June

Becoming Traviata
The Search for Emak Baku
Oh Boy
Prince Avalanche
The Look of Love

Friday 14 June

Eat Sleep Die

Saturday 15 June

Never Let Go - British "Film Noir" - Dir: John Guillermin  Rated 4/5

- British "Film Noir" - Dir: Peter Yates  Rated 4.5/5

Time Without Pity
- British "Film Noir" - Dir: Joseph Losey   Rated 4/5

Only God 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 cinematography and 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 couldn't sleep 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.

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.

The 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.

Sunday 14 June

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 4/5

Mistaken For Strangers
- Dir: Tom Berninger - Rated 1/5

I feel ripped off!  This film is not what it pretends to be. More later.