The craziest 12 days of the year commenced last Wednesday evening with the Opening Night screening of the 2014 Sydney Film Festival with 20,000 Days on Earth. Writing this, I am on the morning of Day 6 and pretty tired, but everything has been worth it. I have seen some excellent films so far, and I am sure many more to come. The SFF Hub is where you want to be in-between films. It has it all going on. Mingle for a drink and a chat at the Graffiti With Punctuation hosted Film Club, enjoy a live Podcast recording, interact with live presentations or see how the AFCA critics hold up to scrutiny in a Q&A Death-match. With our visiting out-of-town friends we have, on two occasions, been reluctantly ushered out of the Hub at ten to midnight.
While the diversity of films is obviously the drawcard of the Sydney Film Festival I find that it is the people you meet that are the most rewarding. I checked off a few of my out-of-town Twitter friends this time around, and caught up with those I had hadn’t seen in some time. I had someone recognise me and tap me on the shoulder, and we had a lengthy conversation (and several more since) about the films we have seen. Sam and I met a lady in the line for Boyhood who turned out to be volunteering at the festival. The next day, there she was, controlling the lines. No festival is without a mad dash between sessions. Yesterday we had ten minutes to make it between Event Cinemas George Street and the State Threatre. Pretty wild.
But, what have I seen so far? I wish I could have written more about these films, but I hope these brief opinions will prove interesting and even inspire you to catch the second session of a film if there is still one to screen.
Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan)
Tom at the Farm is a film I may never fully comprehend; Tom and Francis are characters I don't understand and find impossible to relate to. But, there is tension present in every frame of this formally playful film from the Quebecois prodigy.
Xavier Dolan’s 'Farm Games'. Haneke’s nightmarish masterpiece is the perhaps its closest relative. A tense, prickly cornfield of suppressed emotions, desires and secrets, a turbulent concoction of destructive guilt, oppressive masculinity and Stockholm syndrome. Twists emerge with wild abandon. You'll be hooked by the opening scene and intrigued by the plot revelations. Then it goes places you likely won't expect. Too far for some, no doubt, but it may be Dolan's most impressive work yet.
Miss Violence (Alexandros Avranas)
What is it with Greek films and messed up families? Can one repulsive scene completely obliterate any prior appreciation I had for the film? In this case, yes. An intriguing build-up/family dynamic, and a unique aesthetic approach ensured I wouldn't give up, despite never really being on board. Then, it exploits its premise, taking a shocking, sickening and irredeemable turn that still doesn't sit well with me. Seems like every Greek director wants to replicate Dogtooth. Not having a good run with their Weird Wave output, though.
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Brendon Gleeson sure is at his best when he works with John Michael McDonagh (well, both McDonagh brothers). He's outstanding as a 'good' but flawed priest, carrying the burden of a town imploding and the sins of the priesthood. He's a towering presence in the frame, the heart and soul of this tremendously moving story, and a part of the lives of the entire townsfolk, whether they visit his church and appreciate his company, or not. The host of characters we meet (and, for me, some of the mostly-excellent supporting cast over-act, reducing theirs to just-above caricature) all end up confessing to the Priest in some way or another, layering this film with a dense understanding of Catholicism - and the hand it plays in humanity understanding themselves (and others), the reprieve of guilt and the ability to forgive. With a breathtaking setting this is a bleak, tense film with humorous scenes streamed throughout, but your experience will depend on the headspace you establish for yourself. The film's stunning opening sequence set the tone for me - suspense-driven, and set on a tragic path. The film's wow of an ending was never really in doubt, but it remains gut-wrenchingly powerful. The post film Q&A with McDonagh was insightful – seems like a great guy too - but I'll be seeing this again.
The Possibilities Are Endless (Edward Lovelace, James Hall)
I can't quite put into words how I would describe this unforgettable experience, but I highly recommend watching it if it comes to a festival near you. An unconventional sensory-charged, and deeply moving documentary insight into former Scottish Britpop king Edwyn Collins’ recovery from a stroke, and first-person account of how it feels to live through the terrifying ordeal. There is something quite profound about the way this film delves into Collins' nightmarish quest to return to the surface of consciousness and psychological function. It reveals just how essential memory is to quality of life, and the power that memory has in reuniting a human being with a passion.
[rating=4] and a half
Night Moves (Kelly Reichhardt)
Kelly Reichhardt, the director of excellent Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, makes it four for four. It is perhaps her most accessible film to date, but still thought provoking and thematically interesting. Night Moves is an absorbing, atmospheric slow-burn thriller that cleverly elevates its consistent tension with a grounded sense of realism, a keen eye for stylish composition and a neat score. It focuses less on the political motivations of the radical environmentalist trio - rather their preparations, the sabotage statement itself and how they individually react when burdened with the weight of their actions (the unexpected consequences and whether it actually registers enough to make a difference or is simply dismissed as irresponsible 'theatre'). Eisenberg, Fanning and Sarsgaard in top form.
[rating=3] and a half
Joe (David Gordon Green)
David Gordon Green’s Joe is propelled by quality performances by Nic Cage and Tye Sheridan, who share a dynamic chemistry, and an effectively grimy Southern U.S 'nowhere-ville' setting. I admired the unflinching look at lower class hardships, Joe's personal struggles with suppressing his violent temperament and controlling his various addictions, and his professional work detail. But after a suitably moody build-up and the introduction of some interesting characters this got increasingly sillier, seriously plagued by dramatic contrivance, unnecessary subplots, excessive nastiness and weird tonal shifts. A disappointing follow-up to the wonderful Prince Avalanche.
Love is Strange (Ira Sachs)
A very pleasant but slight and unfocused study of an aging newly-married gay couple (Alfed Molina and John Lithgow) who, despite their pride, have to rely on their families and friends as they navigate personal and professional troubles. After a promising start it never quite delivers on all its themes. Dwells on inconsequential subplots - Lithgow's character stays with his nephew's family where things take a weird tangent, but when the lead pair gets together it excels. Competently made, the performances are quite strong (Molina, Lithgow and Tomei especially), but the touching messages entwined within the story wither away shortly after viewing.
Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg)
Writer-turned-mum (a Kiwi-accented Melanie Lynskey) and scatterbrained alcoholic sis-in-law (Anna Kendrick in a role as villainous as she'll play) bond unexpectedly in Joe Swanberg's improv-driven festive comedy. It's funny (charmingly and awkwardly so) and plain-old-enjoyable. The film is super low-budget and I bet the house where most of it is set is actually Swanberg's place. He's such a prolific filmmaker, smashing a film out every year. It is also a family affair with Swanberg's son (or maybe nephew) appearing as the cutest baby ever. It may in-fact be cinema's greatest baby performance. It rests pretty heavily on these baby-related gags, but that's okay. The scenes between Swanberg and Kendrick, who play brother and sister so naturally, were my favourites, but this is ultimately about the two women. They are both going through transitions - one adapting to being a mum who still has aspirations to write, the other is a 27-year-old drifter who still abuses herself with alcohol and drugs to disconnect herself from her problems. There is a sweet, warming young woman in there, but she's mostly toxic. They manage to bring the best out of each other, and the relationships are, as always for Swanberg, completely realistic.
[rating=3] and a half
Human Capital (Paolo Virzi)
A slickly crafted, engrossing Italian drama/thriller focuses on two families of different social class whose already complicated connection becomes even more so after a late night accident. The mysterious events of the evening are gradually revealed over four different chapters, as we follow a different character each time. This familiar idea is rejuvenated by intelligent direction, and a generous screenplay that understands how the actions of others, no matter how far removed from one's own story, can have undesired but direct influence. We almost never see the repeated sequence shot the same way and there is no time wasted revisiting what we have seen before. These events are subtly skewed to favour the character in focus. Praise is due for the performances from the all-star cast, a chilling score and a script that really cares about its characters building the layers of drama through their relationships. I feel like there is something missing just prior to the ending, which I am not sure I care for, but this is a strong film. Expect it to be a major draw card at this year's Italian Film Festival.
National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman)
Wiseman again takes us on a comprehensive tour of an institution in the midst of change. On the gallery floor we are privileged to hundreds of stunning paintings, and eavesdrop on historians as they lecture to groups of visitors about the fascinating works. We are also taken into the restoration studios, and the curator boardrooms as difficult decisions are deliberated about the preservation of the artwork and the continued improvement of the iconic landmark with financial burdens and potentially reductive contemporary collaborations influencing. An intellectual cinematic essay, and never once are the presence of the cameras recognised. We feel like ghosts of the gallery observing all of these proceedings with great interest.
[rating=3] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22