Melbourne International Film Festival 2019: Top Picks

With August drawing near, the Melbourne International Film Festival is fast approaching, bringing with it the insurmountable task of sorting through its catalogue – this year, a mammoth 375 films, with 30 world premieres, and 44 pulled straight from Cannes. With Al Cossar taking the seat as the new artistic director, ACMI and The Comedy Theatre in absentia, and the introduction of the strange, vaguely liturgical MIFF Circle – your marathonic 18-day consumption of cinema (be it via big screen, Virtual Reality, or a five course dinner) might be in need of some guidance. Is it worth staying up for the criminally late Night Shift flicks? Should you wake up early for the 10:45am Frederick Wiseman? And why is everyone harping on about that Eugene O’Neill play? All those questions and more answered, as the Rough Cut team presents their top picks for MIFF 2019…

Claire White

My wishlist is Cannes-heavy this year, which I think cements that I am definitely going to go to Cannes next year (lol). Some of these might get local releases, but I just can’t resist the allure of And Then We Danced, which my friends who were at Cannes raved about. Directed by Swedish-Georgian director Levan Akin, this film is about a young traditional Georgian dancer who discovers his attraction to a rival (male) dancer. I hear this film is achingly and subtly passionate and tender in the vein of Moonlight (2016), God’s Own Country (2017), and Call Me By Your Name (2017). A big fan of quiet, slow, and tender cinema, this is on top of my list. Along a similar vein is The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, a portrait of the inexplicable bond between two sisters, which looks lush and heart-wrenching. I cannot wait to witness it.

And where would we be if I didn’t have a coming-of-age story in my top picks? To be honest, there are a lot of coming-of-age stories at MIFF this year, including House of Hummingbird, a South Korean film about a fourteen year old girl. However, I am very excited and intrigued by Japanese film We Are Little Zombies. Directed by Makoto Nagahisa, this film is about a young group of 13-year old orphans who, instead of being sad, form a “kick-ass band”. This film looks absolutely wild with bright and neon colours, youthful energy, creativity, rebellion, and unconventional filmmaking. The MIFF program describes Nagahisa as pouring his “lurid, ultra-paced and video-game-inspired aesthetic into a wild ride of loss that questions how people are expected to experience life-changing emotion” and if that doesn’t have you on board, I don’t know what will. 

Finally, I am very intrigued by Jawline, a documentary about online influencer culture, centered around sixteen-year-old Austyn Tester, who tries to break into the industry by spreading positivity, one live-stream at a time. This film reminds me of Eighth Grade (2018), and the lead character Kayla’s (failed) YouTube channel full of advice and optimism. Kids just wanna be liked, but they also want to spread positivity, which I think is neat. On the other side of this documentary is Austyn’s manager pulling the strings, which makes this doco not just an idealised Gen Z American Dream, but a critique of ‘influencer culture’ itself. Gucci! 

Valerie Ng

Top on my list is Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, which I was lucky enough to catch overseas in January. Most renowned for its uninterrupted 59-minute 3D long take, which slips in the film’s near-halfway mark and runs straight to its last frame, Long Day’s Journey is nothing if not cinematic – in a deeply indulgent, dream-like, manifestly visual fashion. Time loops and pulls back and snaps; logic dissolves into a mass of loosely linked non sequiturs; all as Bi Gan swoops his camera in and out of hands and drones, prising narrative from metaphors. Though long-takes and 3D are techniques that typically invite a sort of movie escapism, here they, with a bit of smug self-reflexivity, seem instead to turn the film on itself, pulling back the audience to see the movie simply as what it is – a movie, a roll of stunning celluloid that happens to share the same texture as a dream. The first half of the film though, a sleepy, opaque, forgettable 80min prologue, is perhaps overshadowed by its successor. But I’m thinking that this half of Long Day’s Journey might better serve as its third – chronology, after all, doesn’t seem to be Gan’s priority.

My other (potentially safer) choices come from bigger names, including gig-economy takedown Sorry We Missed You courtesy of Ken Loach, who promises raw, stinging social realism; fly-on-the-wall, sprawling small town collage Monrovia, Indiana courtesy of Frederick Wiseman; and Hotel by the River courtesy of Hong Sang-soo, circling on an aging poet and his two sons – contemplations of death, familial tensions, an isolated hotel, fields of snow, and all in blinding, wintery greyscale? Sounds like a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Samuel Harris

Echoing Valerie’s sentiment with my anticipation for Long Day’s Journey Into Night if only for the 21st-century 3D revivalism. Hour-long takes? Drones? Get in. Elsewhere, I’m interested in just about everything on the genre-inflected Night Shift program strand, which last year delivered the best film of the festival (if not 2018), Joseph Kahn’s Bodied, and may just offer this year’s best too – Peter Strickland’s killer dress movie, In Fabric? Quentin Dupieux’s auteurist critique via spenny deerskin jacket and handheld video camera, Deerskin? Takashi Miike’s excessive, hyper-violent yakuza/triad love story, First Love? All contenders!

MIFF seems to have picked up a lot of what SFF was putting down last month, so actually having a chance to catch some things I ruminated over in my SFF list – Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die and the Indigenous horror anthology Dark Place – is very exciting. I’m pretty much looking for anything to shake up the monotony of languid, indulgent European interpersonal dramas. In saying that, I’ve already booked tickets to all three parts of the 14-hour experimental behemoth, La Flor, which will undoubtably feel like murder, but it’s an excuse I’m using to not see Sátántangó, because who has the time? (There’s also little worse than being trapped at The Astor Theatre for such a prolonged period, as the crushing sleep deprivation and furious resentment for the original Amityville Horror (1979) stemming from my one Great Astor Spooktacular marathon continues to attest to.)

Jumping into the non-fictional side of things, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, which hits rewind on the story of a woman who, for 30 years, recorded “every single minute of every channel in America, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” which will probably speak to the cultural necessity and value of media archives, if not the obsessions of our current digital consumption cycles. Mark my anticipation on the record.

Debbie Zhou

While also feeling tempted to build on Valerie’s elegant Long Day’s Journey raves (yes, it’s still my favourite film of the year, and yes, be prepared to not breathe for the entirety of the wondrous, dreamy 3D long take), it’s actually unfair that MIFF also has my most anticipated film of the year – Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, playing as part of MIFF’s Closing Gala (Wang also appears as a festival guest!). It shot up as one of Sundance’s biggest hits this year, being quickly snatched up by A24 and hyped up as one of those funny, heart-wrenching films that will probably make you sob all the way home. It might also hit particularly close to home with all the generational and cultural differences (it’s in both Mandarin and English) that looks to emerge from a story centered around a Chinese-American who returns to China to visit her grandma, who’s oblivious to the fact that she only has weeks to live. Plus, at the helm is the always hilarious, big-personality Awkwafina in her first dramatic acting role – so though the film looks to be a rollercoaster of heart-stabbing emotions, there’ll surely be some comedy gold to lighten up those more solemn moments.

Highlights from the Sydney Film Festival that I’m excited for you all to get your eyes on, is the bold albeit gloriously messy Bacurau – which left me quite honestly, stunned at its fun, daring ambitiousness, and on the edge of my seat by its wild, unruly unpredictability. If that sounds vague, good. Go in knowing nothing, you’ll be better for it. Another gem I feel like hasn’t received the attention it so lovingly deserves is 2019’s Un Certain Regard winner, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, one of the most stirring films I’ve seen this year – a saturated melodrama of rich feeling that’s both expressively shot and poignant to the bone.

Generally though, this year’s MIFF program is top-notch, diverse, and exciting that it makes watching on the festival from afar an even more wistful affair, but I can’t wait to read every single one of your takes. Watch a movie for me.

Eliza Janssen

Let me say right upfront that I watched like 200 short films this year as part of the MIFF panellists board, and two of them got into the program. Two shorts. That’s one percent. But both Corina Schwingruber Ilić’s All Inclusive and Trevor Anderson’s Docking are seriously worth it! I’m keen as a bean to check out what other shorts got into the Documentary Shorts and WTF Shorts selections respectively ― what a great way to get a tapas-esque sampling of international cinemas in one very digestible sitting.

I can’t wait to tick off some of the movies that really incensed audiences at Cannes and Sydney, like Jennifer Kent’s controversial The Nightingale and the lauded The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão. But there’s also some stuff I’ve bought tickets to based purely on premise alone ― anti-colonial genre film Bacurau has Udo Kier and aliens, and there’s a few brilliant-sounding anthology picks in the form of Dark Place and Vai. I also pride myself on my high tolerance for second-hand embarrassment so the Spinal Tap-esque cringe doco Bros: After The Screaming Stops is surprisingly high on my list.

It would also be ace to finally try out MIFF’s burgeoning VR programming, but in all honesty, if I have any money towards the end of MIFF, I’ll probably take the opportunity to see some old faves on a big screen, surrounded by enthusiastic Melburnians ― stories about fierce and dynamic characters I already love, like The Queen’s Crystal La Beija, or the ass-kicking protagonists of the Shaw Brothers’ double feature.

André Shannon 

I heard that Q.T and Harmony are bringing their latest/outdated films… Basically, if you peaked in the 90s and experimented through the 00s all you’re expected to do is cast some borderline ‘niche’ male actor (I want to say anyone post-Philip Seymour Hoffman?), cast a few locals for authenticity, and set your film in the 60’s when film was real. FFS! Nobody is buying it! Next year it’ll be Gus Van Sant’s new film American Holes about a charismatic photographer in the 70s called Lady Grape Bennett played by Ewan Mcgregor, set in Portland, and Kenneth Anger makes a cameo in a bookshop buying a Jonathan Van Ness biography ‘as a joke’. I’d go see Jodie Mack’s short, The Nightingale, aKasha, and Port Authority. Also, apparently The Dead Don’t Die won’t die either, nobody is buying it!    

Ivana Brehas

Long Day’s Journey Into Night, baby! Also The Beach Bum, in which (according to Sean Baker) “Harmony is trying very cool things with dialogue coverage” which I hope just means the same stuff he did in Spring Breakers except more! Bacurau looks cool, and Give Me Liberty is getting Czech New Wave comparisons which I hope it lives up to. Genuinely horrified at how late the Tito screenings are, but I do want to see it — looks like it gets up to a lot of queer weirdness (and has a woman playing the lead male role [which shouldn’t be such an exciting thing because people have been doing that in theatre for centuries but hey]). Vai sounds and looks gorgeous — eight actresses playing the same woman in different stages of her life from age seven to 80, and lots and lots of beautiful water which is My Favourite Thing. The Queen is also very exciting, and I’m curious to see how it compares to Paris is Burning (1990) (not screening at MIFF). I also want to see the 14-hour-28-minute Argentinian film La Flor (wish me luck) as well as Your Face, the new Tsai Ming-liang film which, kind of on the flip side of La Flor’s audacious excessiveness, is quiet and simple — it’s just a bunch of shots of people’s faces.

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The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 1 – 18.

For the full program, visit http://miff.com.au/.

Rough Cut