Entertainment Movies Who should see what at the Sydney Film Festival
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Who should see what at the Sydney Film Festival

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Sydney Film Festival 2014
4 – 15 June 2014

The 61st Sydney Film Festival (SFF) kicks off this week with 20,000 Days on Earth, the pseudo-documentary about cult musician Nick Cave that debuted at Sundance. Wrapped up as fiction, reality is thinly veiled in director Iain Forsyth’s movie he co-wrote with regular collaborator Jane Pollard and with the man in question himself.

Music-lovers should lap up this irreverent piece of experimental cinema that messes playfully with expectations, and don’t miss Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets about the ‘Britpop’ dark horses either. But what if music isn’t your bag? What should you see? We’ve divvied up this year’s riches and split them into categories dependent on what type of moviegoer you are.

The Thrill Seeker

Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst star in the thriller The Two Faces of January. Photo: Supplied
Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst star in the thriller The Two Faces of January. Photo: Supplied

If you like your movies with a healthy dose of high-octane action, or edge of your seat, clawing off the upholstery with your nails thrills, there’s plenty to get the heart pumping in overdrive at this year’s SFF.

Drive scribe Hossein Amini makes his directorial debut with The Two Faces of January, which he also scripted. Starring Kirsten Dunst, The Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen and Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac, it’s based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, who also penned The Talented Mr Ripley. Mortensen and Dunst play a high flying American couple, Chester and Colette MacFarland, who are tangled up in a murder mystery thanks to the hustling of Issac’s Rydal.

Tom Hardy stars in Locke, an exciting cinematic experiment that’s almost a one-hander as the foreman drives his car home from a building site late one night, desperate to get to home to his wife as a variety of crises unfolds over the speakerphone. Writer/director Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things) is on fine form with this taut number.

Touch, the debut feature from Australian writer/director Christopher Houghton, looks like a cracker. Wentworth’s Leanna Walsman stars as Dawn, a woman on the edge who attacks a man at work then goes on the run in her car (cars feature big time in thrillers) with her young daughter in tow. Soon her daughter is all but forgotten as she’s drawn into an intensely sexual relationship with a policeman.

The Thinker

Marlene Cummins was an Indigenous woman
Marlene Cummins was a member of the Brisbane outpost of the Black Panthers as a teenager. Black Panther Woman tells her story. Photo: Supplied

If wham bam action mam isn’t really your thing and you prefer to walk out of a cinema feeling like you’ve learned something new, then there’s a bunch of great docos on offer at this year’s SFF too.

Black Panther Woman, from director Rachel Perkins elucidates the story of Marlene Cummins, a former member of the Brisbane chapter of the Black Panther revolutionary movement that swept the globe, demanding equal rights for all black people. As an aboriginal teenager, she was at the forefront of the short-lived group, but leader Dennis Walker’s push for equality didn’t extend across the gender divide.

Eddie Martin’s intense documentary All This Mayhem charts the rise and fall of Australian skateboarding brothers Tas and Ben Pappas. At once a cautionary tale about the influence of success, it’s also a testament to the strength of their brotherly bond.

Boffins will love Particle Fever, an insider’s look at the switching on of the God Particle machine, aka the Large Hadron Collider, designed to poke around the teeny tiny bits that formed the universe in the aftermath of the Big Bang. Shot by physicist-turned-director Mark Levinson, it reveals that the scientists who made it all happen are surprisingly humorous company on this beginner’s guide to life, the universe and everything.

Documentary director Frederick Wiseman (Crazy Horse) has delivered the granddaddy of his 40-year career poking around America’s biggest institutions. At Berkeley is a four-hour beast that explores the halls of the University of California’s grand bastion of research and learning. As always, Wiseman is neither seen nor heard, and nor are any of his interviewees identified, but they story they tell together is oddly compelling nonetheless.

The Case Against 8 tracks two couples, Kris and Sandy and Paul and Jeff, as they become the spokespeople for the battle against California’s Proposition 8, the law that specifically forbade marriage equality. Documentary makers Ben Cotner and Ryan White followed their trials, both in court and at home, over the course of five at-times gruelling years, deftly handling the legal facts and the human heart of the story.

The Romantic

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Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen are lovers in Words and Pictures. Photo: Supplied

Lovers and dreamers will be longing for SFF’s line up of romantic flicks, including the return of Aussie auteur Fred Schepisi (The Eye of the Storm, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) with his latest offering, Words and Pictures. Starring the wonder coupling of Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, it’s an adept exploration of the fine line between love and war.

Love is Strange, from writer/director Ira Sachs (Keep The Lights On) stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a long-term gay couple of almost 40 years living in New York who decide to get married when the law finally allows them. Alas, the course of true love never runs smooth and soon afterwards a redundancy means they lose the home they cherish and are taken in by friends and family, but separately.

The Little Death is the directorial feature debut of comedic actor Josh Lawson. Embracing the old saying, “what happens behind closed doors,” it exposes the secret sex lives of the inhabitants of one suburban street. With plenty of laughs, it features a great Aussie cast including Lawson himself, older brother Ben, Lachy Hulme, Bojana Novakovic, Lisa McCune and Kate Mulvaney.

There’s a gorgeous flick from Indian writer/director Ritesh Batra called The Lunchbox starring Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire) as an almost retiree whose life is suddenly transformed when he receives an accidental lunch delivery that draws him inexorably towards young housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur). It’s as much a love letter to food as it is about those two lost souls reaching out.

With heartache going hand in hand with romance, those fond of a weepy may want to check out the fascinating feature debut from US writer/director Ned Benson. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is actually not one but two films, subtitled Her and Him, with each part telling the same story from the different perspectives of gorgeous leads Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. Can their love conquer tragedy?

The Joker

Girls' creator Lena Dunham and Anna Kendrick star in Happy Christmas. Photo: Supplied
Girls’ creator Lena Dunham and Anna Kendrick star in Happy Christmas. Photo: Supplied

There’s plenty to laugh about in this year’s line-up if your usual refrain is, “why so serious?” If you also love Michael Fassbender – and who doesn’t? – he can be spotted, sort of, in hilarious comedy Frank. Playing a mysterious avant-garde pop maestro, he spends the vast majority of the film with a big papier maché mask on his head. Domhnall Gleeson, as Jon, wants to make the band more commercially popular, but he has a fight on his hands from Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara.

If you liked Anna Kendrick in Joe Swanberg’s boozy hipster flick Drinking Buddies, she’s back in his latest impro comedy, Happy Christmas, which also stars Girls’ Lena Dunham, Swanberg himself and Kiwi Melanie Lynskey as they all bunker down for the holiday season.

Appropriate Behaviour, the debut feature by Desiree Akhavan, has been tagged as a queer Persian-American Annie Hall or Girls, which has us hooked in already. Akhavan also stars as Shirin, a Brooklyn resident hiding her bisexuality from her family. Cue raucously irreverent misadventure.

Not everyone was cool with Zach Braff using Kickstarter to fund Wish I Was Here, but fans of Garden State will no doubt be glad he finally got his sophomore big screen comedy off the ground. Braff stars as Aidan, an unsuccessful actor supported financially by his wife Sarah, played by Kate Hudson. Deciding to home school the kids when Aidan’s father gets ill, there’s also a sweet subplot about bringing his estranged brother (Josh Gadd) back into the fold, with just the right balance of warm fuzzies and laugh out louds.

The Geek

Flanked by actors Chris Evans (left) and Octavia Spencer (right), Tilda Swinton is almost unrecognisable in the sci-fi flick Snowpiercer. Photo: Supplied
Flanked by actors Chris Evans (left) and Octavia Spencer (right), Tilda Swinton is unrecognisable in the sci-fi flick Snowpiercer. Photo: Supplied

If you prefer your films with an element of the fantastical, whether it’s space ships in hyper drive, flying dragons or knife-wielding maniacs, there’s plenty to feed the geek in the SFF line-up this year.

Snowpiercer is the much-anticipated latest offering from Korean genre king Bong Joon-ho (The Host). With an all-star cast including Captain America’s Chris Evans, Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Nymphomaniac) and the luminous chameleon Tilda Swinton, it’s set in a dystopian future where a new Ice Age has buried the planet. The Snowpiercer of the title is a bullet train that cuts through the glaciers, and those at the back are plotting a rebellion against those up front…

Soccer dorks overjoyed it’s a World Cup year will dribble over French horror flick Goal of the Dead. Directors Thierry Poiraud and Benjamin Rocher’s gorefest posits small-town team Capalongue going head-to-head with big league Olympique de Paris when a spot of doping leads, inevitably, to zombie apocalypse. Obviously. Darkly comic fun.

What’s better than zombie footballers? Zombie Nazis v zombie Russians. That’s the nuts premise for Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s sequel to Dead Snow, the imaginatively titled Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead. As funny as it is gory, Martin (Vegar Hoel), the only survivor from the first flick, might just wish he hadn’t.

While we’re on the topic of severed limbs, SFF is marking the 40th anniversary of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a lovingly restored copy of the seminal horror flick from Tobe Hooper. Ironically enough, one of the reasons it stands the test of time is, unlike the torture porn of contemporary hits like Saw, the brutality here is largely left to the imagination, creating a palpable sense of dread.

And SFF wraps up this year with closing night film What We Do In The Shadows, a Kiwi mockumentary take on the vampire mythology that sees a group of bloodsuckers sharing a house together in suburban Wellington. Sprung from the fertile minds of Flight Of The Conchords team-up Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, it’s bound to be a riot.

The Sydney Film Festival runs until June 15. Purchase all your tickets here.

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