MIFF 2012 Wrap-Up: Twelve Film Highlights

The Melbourne International Film Festival is over and the film-withdrawal is setting in. After being incredibly slack during the festival and leaving the blog unattended, I decided that I should at least offer some thoughts on my picks of the festival. Where possible, I have included their expected Australian release date so you can keep an eye out for these films in the coming months.

I have raved about Your Sister’s Sister and First Position previously on the blog, but I figured that it can’t hurt to plug these wonderful films a little more. You can read my reviews of these films here.

Your Sister’s Sister will be released by Madman on September 6, and First Position will be released by Hopscotch on September 27.

Searching for Sugar Man

A riveting documentary that is part bio-pic and part detective film, as Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul explores the career and the legacy of reclusive American singer Rodriguez. The singer made two albums in the early 1970s, neither of which sold well despite their remarkable sound, and after a short period of awkward live performances, he reportedly committed suicide on-stage via self-immolation.

The jumping off point for this documentary is the discovery that, in a bizarre turn of events, Rodriguez’s music became hugely popular in South Africa, a development that was unknown to Rodriguez himself. A collection of passionate South African fans relate how his anti-establishment music became something of a symbol during the civil rights movement, and how there were few households in the country that did not own copies of his records.

The documentary follows the efforts of a couple of hardcore fans to uncover information about Rodriguez, since there was little written about him at the time of his career. The story takes some unexpected turns – which I will not reveal here – and builds to a  satisfying, moving conclusion. This is an excellently-crafted documentary that takes the viewer on a truly surprising journey.

Searching for Sugar Man will be released by Madman on October 4.

I Wish

The latest film from Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda cements his status as one of the most talented working filmmakers. His focus remains intimate, and as usual, the emotional impact is enormous. As with his 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, this film centres on a family, in this case two brothers whose parents are separated and living in different cities. Each brother lives with a different parent, and they communicate regularly via phone.

The boys hear about an apparently sure-fire method to make your wishes come true – to go to the spot where the bullet trains between Osaka and Tokyo cross paths and make the wish at the exact moment when the trains meet – and set out with their respective groups of friends to meet at this point. I Wish recalls Stand By Me (one of my all-time favourites) in the way it treats the concerns of the children with the utmost sincerity. Similarly, the young protagonists are beautifully drawn, and the performances are superbly naturalistic.

As with Koreeda’s previous films, the power of this film sneaks up and hits you when you don’t expect it to. By the end, I had shed more than a few tears. This is an excellent film with numerous moments that stay with you long after the credits roll.

I Wish will be released by Rialto on October 4.

Safety Not Guaranteed

With a plot that sounds like a recipe for unbearable indie cuteness, Safety Not Guaranteed defies such expectations by keeping its characters grounded and treating its quirky characters with affection rather than condescension. The plot was inspired by an actual classified ad found in a newspaper:

“Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.”

Writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow have crafted a funny, touching and genuinely moving story from this set-up, as journalist Darius (Aubrey Plaza) investigates reclusive aspiring time-traveller Kevin Calloway (Mark Duplass, in a role inspired by the writer of the actual ad) and finds herself drawn into his increasingly bizarre world. Crucially, the filmmakers tread a careful line between acknowledging the oddness of Calloway without ever mocking his rather unusual perspective. Duplass is simply wonderful, while Plaza provides great support, along with cohorts Jake Johnson and Karan Soni.

Safety Not Guaranteed will be released by Rialto on October 18.

Amour

Michael Haneke’s latest offering is as absorbing as you would expect, but what took me by surprise is how emotionally accessible it is, especially when compared to his traditionally clinical approach to storytelling. Amour tells the story of George and Anne, an elderly couple whose routine is disrupted when Anne suffers a stroke, leaving one side of her body paralysed. While the opening scenes suggest that this will follow a similar pattern to Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, Haneke’s film takes a different – but equally upsetting – turn, with each scene adding a new degree of desperation. This is a remarkably moving story, boasting stunning lead performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant (And God Created Woman) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour), and an unforgettable ending.

Amour will be released by Paramount on February 28 2013.

Berberian Sound Studio

I have not seen writer/director Peter Strickland’s debut film Katalin Varga, but I ordered the DVD almost immediately after seeing his sophomore effort. Berberian Sound Studio is set in the 1970s and concerns British sound engineer Gilderoy (played by perennial scene-stealer Toby Jones, finally the lead) who travels to Italy to work on a Giallo (Italian splatter) horror film. The film in question is about an equestrian academy that is apparently home to a coven of witches – a clear nod to the witch-infested ballet school of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. What starts as a fish-out-of-water film, with Gilderoy at odds with his Italian colleagues, quickly turns into something darker and stranger.

Berberian Sound Studio is incredibly clever in its representation of the function of sound in cinema. In one of the best scenes, we see a woman enter a recording booth and make bizarre, inhuman sounds, to be used as effects for one of the witches. She contorts herself to get into character (see above), and ends up looking and sounding rather ridiculous. Then, the filmmakers have her repeat the process, but this time they play back their prepared sound mix, which is full of ominous rumblings and inhuman effects. Her noises remain unaltered, and are suddenly deeply unsettling, enough to raise goosebumps on this viewer. It is a fantastic example of how we can underestimate the role of sound in film.

One of the many brilliant touches here is the fact that we never see the film that has been shot. We see the sound engineers smashing and stabbing fruit and vegetable (representing human flesh) and see actresses emitting various types of screams, but we never see the footage itself. And yet… by the end of the film, I felt like I had seen this Giallo film, and could perfectly visualise numerous scenes from it. Strickland demonstrates how integral audio can be in communicating a film’s tone, to the point where he paints this picture for us without ever showing us footage.

One could argue that the film’s final act suffers from a sense of uncertainty as to how to end the story. While the story does become increasingly odd, I was so riveted that I went along with it for every step. I loved the film’s slow-building sense of menace, reminiscent of such classic horror films as Rosemary’s Baby or Don’t Look Now. I also loved the logic-bending narrative, which recalls David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Berberian Sound Studio won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it kept me enthralled and left me on a giddy cinematic high.

Berberian Sound Studio will be released by Madman. Look out for a release date.

The Hunt

There is something oddly appealing about films that deal with injustice, especially when combined with mass hysteria. It is easy to become invested in the story, and there are usually clear lines between right and wrong. Thomas Vinterberg’s latest concerns a teacher, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), who is falsely accused of sexually abusing a young girl. The film wisely maintains some grey area when it comes to the people who turn on Lucas; while some are undeniably irrational, Vinterberg allows the viewer to place him/herself in their shoes, leaving you to ponder what you would do if you heard about such an allegation and had no facts on which to rely.

The story is wrenching, leaving my stomach in knots for much of the running-time. I will admit to feeling a sense of weariness as it progressed – it hits most of the beats that you expect it to, and if you’ve seen the documentary Capturing the Friedmans or the recent French film Guilty, then there will be few surprises here. It is also a curiously sadistic experience, given that we are essentially watching an innocent man suffering. Nevertheless, this is a well-written, absorbing film, anchored by a superb performance from Mikkelsen.

The Hunt will be released by Madman. Look out for a release date.

The Imposter

This documentary tells the remarkable story of a family whose son went missing in 1994 at the age of 13. Three years later, a boy in Spain claims that he is their son, although the documentary tells us upfront that the boy was in fact an imposter – a French citizen who had been arrested in Spain and was looking for a ticket out of the country. The Barclay family take him in, apparently convinced that the boy is their son.

For the first section of the documentary, serial impersonator Frédéric Bourdin is positioned front-and-centre, telling his story with glee and clearly drinking in the attention. Although he is undeniably entertaining – a born showman – I felt slightly uncomfortable watching him, since he is clearly some kind of sociopath, one who was happy to prey on the grief of a family. He is certainly reminiscent of Norma Khouri, the subject (and star) of the superb documentary Forbidden Lie$, except that I was happier to indulge Khouri’s presence in that film. Here, I wondered whether we should be encouraging him by granting him his own film. However, the film then takes a turn, switching its focus to the Barclay family, questioning just why they were so easily convinced by Bourdin. It is here that the film rises above its initial set-up and becomes truly gripping.

While it may not hit the heights of recent mystery-doco Catfish, this is a fantastic film that gives you plenty of information upfront and yet still manages to surprise as the story develops.

The Imposter will be released by Madman. Look out for a release date.

*

The following films do not currently have Australian distribution, but will hopefully be released eventually in some form.

The House I Live In

The House I Live In tackles an immense topic – America’s war on drugs – and does an absolutely stellar job of presenting the issue clearly and with complexity. The film frequently digs deeper than you expect it to, posing questions that explore various aspects of the issue. The film is the passion project of Eugene Jarecki (director of Why We Fight, brother of doco-maestro Andrew Jarecki), and he manages to inject a personal spin on the proceedings without ever intruding on the narrative. Featuring interviews with people from all sides of the issue, and an especially eloquent David Simon (creator of The Wire), this builds in scope and intensity until it reaches a shocking, deeply unnerving conclusion. A truly remarkable piece of journalistic filmmaking.

Laurence Anyways

The third feature from Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats) traces a passionate, turbulent ten-year relationship between Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement), which is complicated when Laurence confesses to Fred that he wants to become a woman. Though its 170 minute running time should definitely have been shortened, this is nevertheless an engrossing, deeply affecting film, boasting amazing performances and some truly arresting images courtesy of Dolan’s brilliant visual style.

Call Me Kuchu

Not exactly light viewing, this superb documentary examines the persecution of homosexuals in Uganda, and chronicles the efforts of some truly remarkable individuals to repeal the prejudiced, often vicious laws regarding homosexuals that are currently in place in the country. This is an emotionally draining experience and it left me literally unable to speak for about five minutes afterwards. I know that labelling a film ‘important’ is more likely to repel than appeal, but in this case, the term is unavoidable. This is a must-see film if you ever get the chance.

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  1. The Top Films of 2012 « Cashier de Cinema - December 16, 2012

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