Sydney Film Festival 2019: Top Picks

It’s soon going to be that special, exciting festival time again. In a few weeks, we’ll be forced to endure (but end up secretly loving) that accordion tune that plays before every movie; hang at the Hub until they flood the lights always so timely at midnight; wildly dash from Circular Quay to the State Theatre through Vivid crowds (or better yet, don’t do it); and best of all, sit in the toasty warm expanse of the glorious State Theatre as the winter rains pour outside.

There have been so many memories made, and so many more to come. And with the unveiling of this year’s Sydney Film Festival program, which boasts its biggest program yet (including some amazing snags from Cannes, Sundance, and Berlinale), the Rough Cut team have compiled their top picks for the festival to help you sift through the stacks.

Ivana Brehas

My top picks are The Final Quarter and Stupid Young Heart (and I would say Anthropocene: The Human Epoch but I think it would actually genuinely give me too much anxiety and I’m probably not going to be able to watch it any time in the foreseeable future).

I don’t know anything about football, but that doesn’t matter — The Final Quarter isn’t about footy, it’s about our horrible, violently racist culture. I believe it’s made up entirely of archival footage, with no interviews, which I love — I’m intrigued by this on the level of style as well as subject matter.

I also know nothing about Stupid Young Heart beyond its trailer and that’s all I need! Big colourful titles in a cool font thank you! Silly kids and serious emotions! Nice cinematography! That one shot with the colour combination of blonde + blue dip-dyed hair and her Thrasher hoodie in that gorgeous bathroom lighting! That kid playing with a knife! The shot right after that with the blonde person and the pink-haired person touching heads and it looks like something out of Spring Breakers (2012)! I’ve never seen a Finnish film in my life, and I think this trailer has me ready to remedy that.  

Claire White

There is a lot to be excited about at Sydney Film Festival this year, but I’m condensing it down to the two I was crossing my fingers and toes for: Animals and Blinded By the Light.

Animals was an early announcement for the SFF program. I heard about the film when it came out of Sundance, and was instantly intrigued. Directed by Australia’s own Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays), the film stars Holliday Grainger (My Cousin Rachel, Tulip Fever) and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development, Search Party) as two best friends who’s decade of partying and living it up in Dublin together are coming to a crux after one of them gets engaged. I am a sucker for films about female friendship in your 20s. This film feels like the  love child of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012) and the literature of Sally Rooney (Conversations with Friends, Normal People), which is potentially the most 2019/Arts degree toting white girl culture combination to ever happen.

My excitement for Blinded By the Light is tremendous. Directed by the great Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging — yeah, that Gurinder Chadha), after her most recent film (the period drama Viceroy’s House) I am incredibly excited to see Chadha return to teen film in a way that is really ticking all my boxes: A coming-of-age story set in 1980s England! Bruce Springsteen! An inordinate amount of dependence and worshiping of musicians and lyrics to get you through your stifling hometown life! I’m flying up to Sydney for one night just to see this film (in the middle of my exam period). What can I say? Baby, we were born to run.

Valerie Ng

Two gargantuan retrospectives are showing at SFF this year — the first being the seven-hour endurance film Satantango (1994), by slow-cinema virtuoso/ sadist Béla Tarr, who here photographs wind in a way that I’ve never seen before or after. Yes, I did return this particular DVD after one backbreaking hour, but its simmering brutality has stayed in my mind long past that — and makes me want to go back and finish the other six.

The second (and more important) retrospective is the equal parts elegiac and celebratory ‘Viva Varda’ program, a curation of fourteen films by the late, great French New Wave, documentary, and autobiography maestro, Agnès Varda — showing alongside her final film and another Festival selection, Varda by Agnès. Starting off as a photographer before everything else, Agnès Varda, in her first fictional pictures – La Pointe Courte (1955) and Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) – positions, glides, swoons, buckles the camera to startling visual effect, with the intuitive calculation of angles, perspectives, and vantages. As Michel Legrand (another terrible casualty of 2019) plonks out La menteuse on the piano in Cleo, the camera sways to the tune of the beat. Can anything trump that, really? Fiction hardens into documentary over the length of Varda’s oeuvre with the political fervour of Black Panthers (1968); the collaborative defiance of Réponse de Femmes (1975); the practical delight of The Gleaners and I (2000). Within the spontaneity of Varda’s docs are so many precious moments. In Gleaners, Varda, relishing in the lightweight practicality of the digital camera, photographs one of her hands with the other, and it feels somehow one of the most moving things I have seen on film. In Vagabond (1985), there is a shot where a man sits, brings a red scarf to his nose, and looks directly into the camera, and I swear, you can smell the scarf through the screen. And I’ve never felt more viscerally gut-punched by another person’s grief on film as I have when Varda sheds all her flowers for Jacques Demy in The Beaches of Agnès (2008). I’ll stop listing, but you get the point — this retrospective is a biggie (though with some disappointing omissions — of Le Bonheur (1965) which felt, to me, so startlingly innovative in form; Faces Places (2017) which overflowed so pleasantly with goodwill; A Hundred and One Nights (1995) which was absolutely bonkers). Melbournians have also lucked out — a similar Varda program will be showing as a season at ACMI, opening 21 June.

Debbie Zhou

Two award-winning films at this year’s festival take a look at China’s one-child policy — Sundance Grand Jury Prize documentary winner, One Child Nation and Wang Xiaoshuai’s narrative feature So Long, My Father. Both offer different approaches to the Chinese Communist Party’s controversial national policy that spanned over 36 years, which had and continues to have traumatising, long-lasting effects on its women, its families, its population — till this day. The documentary, co-directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang (the latter coming to SFF as a festival guest), plants a personal lens of Wang’s new motherhood to the investigative enquiry of what millions of parents and children suffered through; its questions begin small but soon spiral into deeper cutting provocations behind the government’s ‘economic’ agenda. Sixth Generation Chinese director Xiaoshuai’s drama, on the other hand, unfolds non-chronologically, covering three decades of the policy within its three hour runtime with a focus on a small group of friends. But don’t let the length deter you — if the dual Berlinale acting awards clue us in on anything, it’s set to be an absolutely heart-wrenching, epic watch.

While it’s a shame that Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into the Night (2018) didn’t make the cut given that it’s yet to make an Australian appearance at all (both Valerie and I were lucky enough to have experienced the entire 3D package in China/Hong Kong, and can we say that we are now changed for the better? [Valerie: “yes.”]) — other notable picks from Asia include China’s Up The Mountain — a gorgeously meditative documentary set in a remote village in Yunnan, and Chinese-Mongolian Öndög which played at Berlinale, and looks to be a gentle, offbeat tale displaying impressive landscapes alongside an intimate character study. Korean director, Bong Joon-Ho also returns to the Festival after Okja in 2016 with his follow-up feature Parasite an exciting snag straight from Cannes that looks to once again blend his satirical, eccentric humour with social critique. Sydney will be blessed by Joon-Ho’s presence again, this time delivering a “Meet the Filmmaker” talk, which is bound to be one of the hottest film events of the festival (what better opportunity to pick the brains of this internationally-renowned, genius director?). See you there, in the front row stalls of the State, the Hub etc etc.

Eliza Janssen

I’ve had time for Alex Ross Perry since being shocked by his bratty mumblecore cringe comedy The Color Wheel (2011) — he’s got acerbic style for days, and knows how to get a terrifically frenzied performance out of Elisabeth Moss, as evidenced by Queen Of Earth (2015). I’m super excited to see how their second collaboration, the uncomfortably-titled punk portrait Her Smell comes out — it sounds like a less ambitious, more bottled-up cover version of Vox Lux (2018), which is definitely good enough for me.

Also fascinating is Judy and Punch, which promises to be one of the year’s best films adapted from an Elizabethan puppet show about domestic abuse (competition’s tight but I’m calling it). Mirrah Foulkes is a first-time director, but the Aussie period drama has so much going for it on a surface level that the project radiates confidence. Starring Mia Wasikowska, who typically has great taste in the roles she selects, Judy and Punch has chosen the most unlikely source material for a subversive feminist retelling, but audiences seem to be onboard so far, judging by the amount of already-sold out SFF sessions.

Lastly, I’d kill to see 1920’s The Golem: How He Came Into The World on a big screen, having only seen its expressionist horror via shoddy YouTube upload — it’s just as atmospheric and seminal as similar American efforts by Tod Browning or James Whale. A proto-Frankenstein story of ancient Jewish origins, it’d make a great palate cleanser amongst all the Sundance indies — something rich and weird to remind you of the medium’s fundamentals.

That, or I’d be curious to check out the feature-length adaptation of awful Oscar-winning short Skin, starring Jamie Bell. I don’t know if I’d put money towards it though lol.

Samuel Harris

I’ve got five words for y’all: Adam Driver with a machete. Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is my frontrunner from this year’s program, but this is coming from a Jarmusch diehard so I’d go see it even without the dorky, machete-brandishing, tiny car-driving Adam Driver. (But I’d also go see anything with Adam Driver it in.) Nonetheless, the cast looks god-tier: Tom Waits, RZA, Selena Gomez! Jarmusch’s done vampires (Only Lovers Left Alive) and now zombies — where’s my super-laconic (or should I say… lycan-ic) werewolf flick at, Jim?

Speaking of great fantastical creatures… Larry Fessenden is bringing Depraved, a 21st century Frankenstein story, to SFF’s ‘Freak Me Out’ program strand for all my fellow genre babies out there — from its first-glance 35-second teaser, it looks like an absolute digital horror feast. Blood and guts and gore and queasiness and just a dash of a doctor struggling with PTSD after failing to save a soldier in war — it looks like it’s all there! Finally, this side of the hemisphere, I’m looking forward to Dark Place, Australia’s first Indigenous horror anthology: a quintet of fantasy and zombies and postcolonial reckoning with a genre that has historically been reserved for white man revenge stories.

André Shannon

If no one’s going to say it, I will; at first glance SFF’s lineup is littered with shocking choices. I’m venting because the opening night film hates millennials, I’m sour because Jim Jarmusch puts infamous celebs on the map; and inviting Kevin Hart as a VIP guest to premiere a sequel to a Louis C.K. vehicle? Need I say more?

If I had to pick a top few to shake off the creepy-legacy-crowd-pandering this year encourages I’ll start with Saturday Afternoon: the banned Bangladeshi film tackling how terrorists shot up the Holy Artisan bakery in Dhaka. It reeks of Kathryn Bigelow cine-moralising which I’m obsessed with. I’ll see anything Bridget Ikin programmes in the Flux: Art+Film section because she’s a queen curator — Present.Perfect. and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short, Blue, are a rare-must for anyone outside the bougie festival circuit. The Cheaters (1929) looks fascinating for its footage of the half built Harbour Bridge and its sisterly filmmaking, as well as Tracey Moffatt’s Bedevil (1993) which promises to be deeply felt — so run don’t walk. Like anyone outside Adelaide and Venice (is there even a difference between the two?), I can’t wait to see Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale — the controversy may prove true but I’m excited to see it for myself. The First Nations section is so overwhelming I’ll just go see all of them blindly, and I’d encourage you to do the same. Call me on +61 435611298 if you’re worried that I hate Jim Jarmusch.

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Sydney Film Festival runs from June 5 – 16.
For the full program, visit https://www.sff.org.au

Rough Cut