SCREEN-SPACE got the jump on some of the Sydney Film Festival’s big drawcards at Cannes, so no Julietta, Aquarius or Personal Shopper amongst this lot, however deserving. The vastness of the 2016 programme nonetheless ensures there were many special cinematic moments worth celebrating. Oh, and one that had us cringing. With the Festival winding down to Sunday's Closing Night screening of Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, we line up (in no order) the frames of film that lingered longest in the memory (SPOILER WARNING)…
‘The Not-So-Nice Guys’ in WAR ON EVERYONE
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh aced it with The Guard and Calvary, thoroughly earning this shot at the all-American ‘buddy cop’ genre pic. He winningly transplants his brand of rhythmic Brit banter and whip-smart in-jokes to the dusty New Mexican setting; Michael Pena and an unhinged Alexander Skarsgård (pictured, above) are the riotous, R-rated double act that we all hoped Crowe and Gosling were going to be in that other buddy pic. So many memorable moments; we’ll go with the African-American snitch that decides that Iceland, the whitest country on Earth, is a good place to hide.
‘Janis’ School Reunion’ in JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUES
Janis Joplin had fled her smalltown life, the victim of callous bullying by her school peers. When she guests on the Dick Cavett show, she flippantly tells an enormous television audience she is heading home for her high school reunion. A media frenzy, 70’s style, ensues, capturing both her defiance and discomfort with vivid acuity. Amy Berg’s best film ever is full of extraordinary moments culled from the songstress’ life, none more insightful than her return to the high school hellhole that drove her away.
‘Weiner Does it Again’ in WEINER
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s fly-on-the-wall account of the New York politician’s professional self-immolation moves at cracking pace from the first frame, capturing the momentum of a career public servant fast-tracking himself to the upper echelons of New York society. Then, with one dick-pic scandal behind him, another breaks and the house-of-cards resurrection he and his team had accomplished comes crashing down. It is train-wreck documentary gold, and plays out as such in this teeth-gnawingly entertaining film.
‘That Song’ in TONI ERDMANN
Maren Ade’s 162-minute black comedy masterpiece (that we missed in Cannes, despite it being the festival’s best reviewed film) skates by on an emotional razor’s edge of anxiety and embarrassment. How to release crucial audience pressure as the narrative veers towards excruciating humiliation? Have your incognito anti-hero, ‘Toni Erdmann’ (the wonderful Peter Simonischek) accompany his put-upon daughter (a near-perfect Sandra Huller) in an impromptu rendition of a classic 80’s power ballad. The sequence is as hilarious and empowering as any on-screen moment this year.
‘That Line’ in GREETINGS FROM FUKUSHIMA
The great German auteur Doris Dorrie took her two leads – stunning countrywoman Rosalie Thomass and enigmatic Japanese actress Kaori Momoi – deep into the devastated Fukushima landscape for this moving story of grief, friendship and forgiveness. The impact of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown is beyond horrific, as was captured in the line, “The ghosts still can’t believe they’re dead.” The words, spoken nonchalantly by Momoi’s grieving Satomi when she learns of the spirits that materialise while she sleeps, echoed silently in the cavernous State Theatre; they convey both the terrifying suddenness and immense scale of one of the worst tragedies in human history.
‘Mermaid Vagina’ in THE LURE
Frankly, there are about 50 remarkable moments we could have selected from Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska’s insane vampire-mermaid-musical, a sort of Rocky Horror Show-meets-Showgirls-meets-Splash concoction that is unlike anything Australian audiences have seen….well, ever. When sultry siren Silver (Marta Mazurek) wants to seduce bass player Mietek (Jakub Giierszal), she reveals to him exactly where on her huge tail he needs to concentrate. Yeah, that’s right…
‘Ragin’ Mel’ in BLOOD FATHER
Young moviegoers view Mel Gibson as an old Hollywood ‘boogeyman’, his real life anger issues far more defining than the two decades he spent as one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Those of us who prefer to recall his edge-of-insanity onscreen moments in Mad Max, Lethal Weapon, Hamlet, Ransom, Braveheart and Payback were thrilled to see ‘Meltdown Mel’ back in full-force in Jean-François Richet’s dad-and-daughter road movie. As he unloads a verbal tirade on a double-crossing Michael Parks, Gibson taps into the true nature of madness and desperation; stare into the actor’s eyes at these moments, I dare you.
‘The Old Man at the Bedroom Door’ in UNDER THE SHADOW
Iran’s first foray in the horror genre is a claustrophobic haunted-apartment yarn that works ancient Djinn demonology into the modern life of a young Tehran family. With her medico husband is called into active duty, young mum Shideh (Narges Rashidi) must care for her increasingly anxious daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who has formed an unhealthy, perhaps unholy alliance with a presence in their apartment. The extent of their troubles is revealed in one particularly bone-chilling moment, when the deceased old man from upstairs appears in their bedroom doorway at night. In a display of precise unity, the audience at the sold-out ‘Freak Me Out’ session lifted off their seats as one.
‘The Old Man at the Film Archives’ in A FLICKERING TRUTH
New Zealand documentarian Pietra Brettkelly embedded herself in Kabul to capture the film archival efforts of Ibrahim Arify and his team, who endeavour to save the remaining spools of Afghanistan film history. In addition to a powerful story of determination in the face of a regime’s destructive cultural redefinition, Brettkelly discovered Isaaq Yousif, the self-appointed keeper of the Archives who had lived in the building for 30 years. Ageing and frail, Yousif lead a shut-in’s life through the worst years of the Taliban’s rule, determined to preserve what he could of the region’s cinematic heritage. The old man’s narrative may be the greatest heroic arc of any at this year’s festival.
‘A Little Girl’s Tears’ in UNDER THE SUN
Russian director Vitaly Mansky gained unprecedented access into the life of a seemingly normal Pyongyang family. What is revealed is how meticulously staged all the ‘normal’ moments really were. At the centre of the film is 8 year-old Zin-mi, whose transformation from spirited, smiling sweetie into a confused, indoctrinated cog in the DPRK ideology is heart-breaking. Mansky’s devastating final frames capture a little girl consumed by the pressures of adhering to Kim Jong-un’s dictatorial rule. Zin-mi weeps despite herself; when an off-screen voice demands she finds happy thoughts to quell her tears, she can find none. Instead, she summons politicised rhetoric, like the good citizen into which she has been moulded.
HONOURABLE MENTION: Two incredible shorts that left indelible impressions – Axel Danielsen and Maximilien van Aertryck’s high-dive tummy-tightener, Ten Meter Tower; and, the nightmarish Id-on-the-rampage vision, Manoman, from Simon Cartwright.
And the worst moment of 63rd Sydney Film Festival…
‘Dead Deer Ukulele Eulogy’ from COCONUT HERO
The Sydney Film Festival programmers love the ‘Sundance Film,’ the feel-good, sentimental yarn wrapped in an indie aesthetic made popular at the Redford’s Utah love-in. At best, they look like Little Miss Sunshine (SFF, 2006), but in recent years they have found a just-ok middle ground (The Way Way Back, SFF 2013; Liberal Arts, SFF 2012). In 2016, the ‘Sundance Film’ parodied itself with Florian Cossen’s insufferable millennial navel-gazer Coconut Hero, in which outsider dullard Mike (Alex Ozerov) mumbles through a worthless existential non-crisis. A road trip with man-saviour caricature Miranda (Bea Santos) turns bad when they hit a deer; things get worse (for the deer and the audience) when the pair take out a ukulele and giggle their way through an improvised musical farewell – over the dying animal. Hipster disconnect from real-world emotion in favour of indulging one’s own unique (read: self-centred) perspective has never been so clearly articulated, though one doubts that was the filmmaker’s intention.