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What I’m looking forward to at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival

The Sydney Film Festival schedule came out today, and I’m pretty excited! It was last year’s Sydney Film Festival that really got me into the film festival circuit, starting with a memorable screening of Banky’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, and since that time, I was lucky enough to be in Melbourne for MIFF, and then had the time of my life at SXSW Film this year.

So, scheduling conflicts aside, and me actually being in Sydney, and able to attend, these are the films [in no particular order] that caught my eye initially…

Le quattro volte

Since premiering last year at Cannes, where it won Best European Film in Directors Fortnight, Michelangelo Frammartino’s magical film has won the hearts and minds of moviegoers and critics across the world.

Set in a rustic Calabrian village seemingly unchanged since medieval times, Le Quattro Volte (the literal translation being ‘four times’) is inspired by philosopher Pythagoras’ belief in four-fold transmigration – from human to animal to vegetable to mineral. The main characters are an old goat herder and his dog, some snails, a brick, a kid, a tree and a charcoal kiln.

This explanation fails, however, to impart the beauty, humour and originality of Frammartino’s film: neither fiction nor documentary and almost wordless. Reminiscent of György Pálfi’s Hukkle (SFF 2003) and Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic Au Hasard Balthasar in its style and cinematic power, Le quattro volte is a mesmerising and not-to-be-missed cinematic experience.

Life in a Day

For this ground-breaking user-generated project, Academy Award®-winning director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void) teams up with YouTube and executive producers Ridley Scott and Tony Scott to create a feature-length documentary shot in a single day – 24 July 2010 – from thousands of hours of footage submitted by people all over the world.

13 Assassins

Prolific Japanese movie maverick Miike Takashi shifts gears from his usual hyper-violent style with this classy remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film, set in the twilight of Japan’s feudal era.

The sadistic brother of the Shogun, Lord Naritsugu, satisfies his bloodlust by brutally terrorising the people and gets away with it because of his political connections. Master samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho of Tokyo Sonata, SFF 2008) is summoned to assassinate him and is pitted against his old friend and sparring partner Hanbei who now leads the evil Nartisugu’s personal army and must rigidly observe the samurai code regardless of his own principles. Shinzaemon bands together a motley crew of 12 men and begins to plan a complicated ambush.

The meticulously designed slow-burn set up ultimately leads to a breathtaking 45-minute battle sequence that combines the mastery of Akira Kurosawa with the in-your-face excesses of Quentin Tarantino – and yes, the blood does flow!

Sleeping Beauty

Julia Leigh – the award-winning Australian author of The Hunter and Disquiet – was mentored by Jane Campion on her filmmaking debut, an unsettling erotic fairytale selected for Official Competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

Emily Browning is alabaster perfection as Lucy, a university student working numerous self-effacing jobs. She is socially isolated from her housemates and fellow students and spends her limited free time ministering to the peculiar desires of her morbidly depressed best friend Birdmann (Ewen Leslie). Her strong-willed drift towards oblivion is anchored only by a need for money and she signs up with an exclusive lingerie club run by the elegant Clara (Rachael Blake), whose controlling demeanor is both intoxicating and comforting.

Like a heroine from a film by Marguerite Duras or Luis Buñuel (directors with whom Leigh shares an austere intellectualism and visual mannerism respectively), Lucy is a sexual and thinking being, neither innocent nor totally complicit. Mysterious and bewitching, her disruptive impulses derive from a mix of boredom and discontentedness and ultimately lead her into a dangerous, heady slumber from which, like the titular princess, she will be awakened.

Toomelah

The tiny community of Toomelah is made up of Gamilaroi and Bigambal people living in an old Aboriginal mission north of Mooree. This is the country where director Ivan Sen’s (Beneath Clouds, Dreamland) mother grew up and his deep personal connection to the place is palpable throughout this confronting, brutally honest dramatic feature that draws its acting talent from within the community.

Ten-year-old Daniel (Daniel Connors) is a good little boxer like his dad Buster (Michael Connors) used to be. Impatient with the other kids at school – except for his sweetheart Tanitia (Danieka Connors) – he starts hanging out with Linden (Christopher Edwards), the local dealer, who trains him up to be a gangster. When a thug named Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones) returns to town after a stint in jail, he threatens Linden’s territory and Daniel is suddenly propelled towards violence.

Raw, intimate, and laced with mob humour, Toomelah seamlessly intertwines issues like the Stolen Generation, substance abuse and cultural erasure with an everyday story about one boy caught in the downward spiral of a neglected community. Selected for Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, Sen’s provocative film “tastes like dust in the mouth [and] strikes like iron in the mind.” (from The Back of Beyond)

The Tree of Life

The elliptical narrative of Terrence Malick’s rapturously beautiful, emotionally arresting film audaciously segues between the particular (the repressed desires and shimmering aspirations of the O’Briens, a middle-American family in the 1950s) and the universal (the continuous cycle of existence, from the age of the dinosaurs to the new world).

“There are two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace,” says the voice of Jack’s mother in the opening moments, and while young Jack (Hunter McCracken) must choose a path – between father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), competition and allegiance, success and happiness – old Jack (Sean Penn) has lost his way and is searching for permanence in a gleaming, chaotic modern city. Dreams and memory collide in Jack’s spiritual, emotional and intellectual journey as he seeks to reconcile with the past, to reclaim his relationship with his father and to properly mourn the loss of his brother.

More densely labyrinthine than any of Malick’s previous films (The New World, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, Badlands), the slippery editing is in absolute collusion with Alexandre Desplat’s soaring music and Emmanuel Lubezki’s glorious cinematography. The result is a commanding cinematic paean to life – its intimacy, messiness and grandeur.

Armadillo

Armadillo is a tour de force from director Janus Metz who, with cameraman Lars Skree, spent six months with a group of Danish soldiers on an army base in the inhospitable and volatile Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.

The young men head out on domination patrols aimed at denying the Taliban the upper hand – always aware when attacks are imminent, as the farmers and villagers flee their fields and homes. In between patrols they play computer games, call home and clean their weapons. Their attempts to work with the locals fall on stony ground; “If I talk, [the Taliban] will cut my throat,” says one villager.

Brilliantly edited, Metz’s documentary, which has many of the hallmarks of classic war movies such as Come and See and has been compared with The Hurt Locker, captures the tedium, fear and machismo prevalent in army life – as well as a callousness and brutality that caused considerable controversy back in Denmark.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Having already received a directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Sean Durkin’s stunning debut feature is one of few films in history to be subsequently included in the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival.

Elizabeth Olsen (the captivating younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) plays Martha, a young woman who reunites with older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) after she mysteriously escapes from a bucolic commune. Lucy’s materialistic husband (Hugh Dancy) and their nouveau riche estate prove suffocating and oppressive but Martha (whose identity slips between each of the titular names) stays, terrified that the enigmatic leader of the collective (John Hawkes) will track her down.

Rippling with a permanent sense of threat (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games provides more than tonal reference) Durkin’s filmmaking and Jody Lee Lipes’ exquisite cinematography are perfectly attuned to both beauty within the frame and the power of what to leave outside it.

Happy, Happy

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize-winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Happy, Happy is a sexy comedy that takes delight in indiscretion and snowy romps.

Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) is endlessly chipper (think Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky), although sex is in short supply. Her somewhat dour husband, Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen, Elling) and young son fail to share her enthusiasm when a new couple and their adopted son move in next door. Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens, Frederikke, SFF 2008) and Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) are sophisticated, beautiful and they can sing – in short, they’re everything Kaja would like to be or do. Dinner party conversations soon reveal the cracks in the façade and before you know it neighbours are bonking neighbours.

A Greek chorus singing traditional American spirituals and hymns lightens the darker moments of Anne Sewitsky’s effervescent debut.

Black Venus

Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s (The Secret of the Grain) harrowing film is both an involving historical account of the last five years in the life of Saartjie Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’, and a formal exposition on race and representation.

‘Sara’ (an extraordinary performance from newcomer Yahima Torrès) is the main attraction in an early-nineteenth-century freakshow act. The ‘untamed savage’ bares her ample portions at the command of Hendrick Caezar, an Afrikaan with whom she travelled to London in ambiguous circumstances. After an unexpected intervention, she is sold to the decidedly sleazy Reaux, who updates her act to suit the sexual proclivities of elite Parisians.

Opening with a scene in which Baartman’s body is dissected as a biological specimen to prove then prevalent racial theories, the film posits questions about complicity and exploitation while challenging us to acknowledge our own position as voyeurs.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cinema’s great raconteur, Werner Herzog, may well have adopted the last lines of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – “The idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort” – as his filmmaking credo for this extraordinary 3-D documentation of some of the earliest-known representations by humankind:  the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave art.

Created more than thirty thousand years ago (making them roughly twice the age of the Lascaux cave art) and discovered in 1994, access to the paintings has been strictly limited to a handful of researchers for fear that even human breath will cause them to deteriorate.

Herzog, in his inimitable way, secured himself an entrée, took along a 3-D camera, and, using lights that emit no heat, recorded these awe-inspiring images for posterity. “What constitutes humanness?” he asks the archaeologists and paleontologists along the way – his line of inquisition reinforcing the spiritual power of the timeless art he documents.

Senna

Buckle up for an adrenalin-fuelled ride in this documentary about three-time Formula One World Champion and Brazilian hero Ayrton Senna.

Working exclusively with archival material, director Asif Kapadia delivers a thrilling account of Senna’s racing career, from his go-cart start in Brazil, through his intense professional rivalry with onetime teammate Alain Prost and his halcyon days with Williams Renault, to his tragic, untimely demise.

This is a doco that goes way beyond armchair appreciation of racing. Senna’s complex character – his faith, paranoias and prophesies, along with his clash with then-President of Formula One Jean-Marie Balestre, makes compelling drama.

Superb in its handling of material that reveals Senna’s ego and insinuates corruption within Forumula One, the editing by Chris King and Gregers Sall is also a perfect visceral match for on-board camera footage that will leave you breathless – and gripping the sides of your seats!

Any glaring omissions?

I’ve seen Hobo With a Shotgun and The Beaver, and I’m trying to avoid ones that will get a general release [e.g. Hanna], but The Tree of Life has way too much hype surrounding it to pass up.

Hopefully I get to see most of these, as they all sound bloody brilliant!

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