June 17, 2015
The 62nd Sydney Film Festival closed on Sunday night with the confidence of an event that finally appears, well, confident of its ongoing survival. That confidence is typified by the reappointment of festival director Nashen Moodley for another four-year term. Furthermore, the festival recorded attendance growth for an eighth consecutive (specific numbers were not available).
The renewal of the contract for the smiling South African is appropriate reward for a director who has built on the solid artistic footing established by his predecessor Clare Stewart and some consistency in management. He was the fourth artistic director in eight years when appointed in 2012, and one had lost count of the number of general managers rolled over in that period.
The festival is no longer blighted, at least publicly, by unseemly budget issues. The introduction of the Sydney Film Prize and its official competition has established a curatorial focus amid more than 250 films screened this year.
This year’s competition was one of the best in its eight years, with no real turkeys among the selected films. It included three Australian features, bookended by two more local films selected as the opening and closing-night films (out of competition).
With the addition of Last Cab to Darwin, which screened in the festival, the 12-day program provided an unofficial survey of local narrative feature filmmaking.
It was a varied batch but unlike in previous years, all the films were palatable.
This writer continued his uncanny knack of seeing all but a couple of the films in the official selection — and one of those missed films was the eventual winner of the $62,000 prize.
Miguel Gomes’s trilogy Arabian Nights is, on the face of it, perfect festival fare, particularly after the success of his previous film, Tabu, last year. Making a commitment to the three two-hour films in midafternoon screenings across the final weekend was a hefty ask, however, and the scheduling would have benefited from a rethink. The jury headed by Animal Kingdom producer Liz Watts voted unanimously for the winner, so few will argue, particularly after the split decisions on previous winners such as the mad Only God Forgives in 2013.
Other selections were disparate yet on the whole successful. Chief among them was Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s crowd-pleaser, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It is the best American independent movie for some time and is likely to pick up an Academy Award nomination or two for Jesse Andrews’s crisp adaptation of his coming-of-age novel. Its emotional balance forgives some of its very amusing film-school-type smarts. Even this hard heart cried.
Another comedy, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence was as whimsical as anticipated.
A couple of risky technical accomplishments balanced the selection. The single-take bank heist film Victoria overcame the strictures of that trick and the US comedy drama Tangerine — shot entirely on an iPhone5 — was a tiny triumph. They stood on their own in the competition, not as “trick” films.
The two Iranian films, Jafar Panahi’s Tehran Taxi and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Tales were solid offerings, even if stylistically Iranian cinema remains — admittedly by necessity — staid.
The same might be said of the French cinema we see here. The surprising superhero film, Vincent was a welcome and quiet contrast. The three Australian films were notable, the best being Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa, a big-scale documentary that benefited from “being there” as the conflict between commercial operators and Nepalese sherpas exacerbated on Mt Everest. It will have a long life internationally. Kim Farrant’s Strangerland is a cool whodunit and character study featuring charismatic performances from Nicole Kidman and Hugo Weaving. Joseph Fiennes’s turn as the absent husband is a handbrake on a moody film, though.
Theatre wonder boy Simon Stone stepped comfortably into film directing with a formal and gripping drama, The Daughter, adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck via his own successful stage production. His fine debut featured great performances from Ewen Leslie and Sam Neill particularly, countered by one miscasting.
Another adaptation from the stage, of Reg Cribb’s Last Cab to Darwin, is best placed in this batch to work at the box office. Jeremy Sims’s euthanasia tale and a fine lead performance by Michael Caton are likely to charm the potent over-50 market, although, like many Australian road movies, it could do with a 20-minute cut before trying to take on the world.
The challenge for the local screen sector is to ensure Farrant, Sims and Stone don’t wait nine years between films, as Neil Armfield did between Candy and his closing-night film Holding the Man. Admittedly, Armfield has a full dance card across the performing arts but he brings wit and sentimentality to his adaptation of Tommy Murphy’s hit stage play, itself adapted from Timothy Conigrave’s memoir.
The opening-night film, Brendan Cowell’s Ruben Guthrie, was a throwback in some respects: another Australian film that was made because it had the finance, not necessarily because it was in match condition. Like Cowell’s theatre work, this tale of a young alcoholic adman (played by the omnipresent Patrick Brammall) had moments of great humour but petered out, and his female characters (including a surprisingly good Abbey Lee) were thinly depicted to the point of frustration. You could see it wanted to be a great Sydney showcase but overexposure of its financiers, especially Destinations NSW and Lexus, was a lead weight.
As a sextet, these Australian features showcased great talent with wavering results. But we couldn’t have asked for more from the sum of the parts.
Elsewhere, the festival offered a few showcases and entertaining guests. David Stratton’s curation of an Ingmar Bergman retrospective was welcome and documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney was a topical, terrific guest with three films on Scientology, James Brown and Steve Jobs.
The Sydney Film Festival remains a whirlwind, as full and diverse as a 12-day festival should be.
The lack of a central festival heart remains an issue but that, in the UNESCO City of Film, is another story.