After a couple of hairy years for the Sydney film festival – delayed in 2021 after an online-only instalment in 2020 – things look to be more or less back to normal, with the event running from 8 to 19 June, and offering its first full program since 2019.
As per usual the programmers have left no cinematic stone unturned, scouring the globe for filmic delights. Here are 10 films to check out at this year’s festival.
Director: Various / Country: Australia/New Zealand
For the second year in a row, the opening night feature is an anthology production divided into eight chapters. Last year’s was the Sydney-set drama Here Out West; this year it’s a co-production between Australian First Nations and Māori directors, reflecting on colonisation of Indigenous people. Timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival, the chapters vary in tone and genre, from an animation set in ancient times to a dystopian story based in underground tunnels in Auckland.
Director: Teemu Nikki / Country: Finland
Firstly, I love that title! Secondly, the premise: an action-thriller shot from a blind person’s perspective. This highly ambitious concept was reportedly executed through extensive use of closeups, to the extent that there are no establishing shots, and a soundtrack full of narrative details. The story involves the wheelchair-using Jaakko (Petri Poikolainen) who sets out to meet his long-distance love interest (Marjaana Maijala), who he has never met in person.
Director: Alexandre O Philippe / Country: US
The Wizard of Oz is an extraordinarily imaginative blockbuster with a cultural impact impossible to measure. Gauging its influence on one particular director, however, is a bit more manageable, so Alexandre O Philippe (whose previous cine-investigations include Memory: The Origins of Alien) sets out to track how the film has informed the work of David Lynch. The great auteur is a fan, going as far as to say: “There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think of The Wizard of Oz.”
Director: Dylan River / Country: Australia
With his Akubra hat, cowboy boots and no BS demeanour, Jay Swan – played by Aaron Pedersen in two Mystery Road movies and two spin-off TV shows – belongs to the pantheon of Australia’s greatest screen detectives. A new six-part series extends the character’s legend by focusing on his early years, as a young constable (now played by Mark Coles Smith) working in a town called Jardine. Mystery Road: Origin was directed by Dylan River, the son of renowned film-maker Warwick Thornton.
Director: Kevin Kopacka / Country: Germany
Who wouldn’t want, in the words of this year’s festival program, an “orgiastic time-tripping psychedelic dream”? German director Kevin Kopacka’s freaky-deaky horror movie – known as Hinter den Augen die Dämmerung in his native language – follows a couple who inherit a dilapidated old castle where, of course, all sorts of weird supernatural stuff happens.
One of the characters notes that “renovating this place will cost us a fortune”, which made me think: why don’t shows like The Block take inspiration from this film and others like it, placing contestants inside haunted houses which they must redecorate while fending off evil spirits from hell?
Director: Alejandro Loayza Grisi / Country: Bolivia/France/Uruguay
What semi-respectable film festival program wouldn’t be complete without a drama about an elderly pair of llama farmers living through drought in the Bolivian highlands? Utama, which won a major prize at this year’s Sundance, has collected rave reviews – ScreenDaily, for instance, describing it as a “strikingly beautiful work which employs stunning widescreen cinematography” and the Hollywood Reporter as “a powerful and cautionary tale of survival in a dying world”.
Director: Ari Folman / Country: France/Belgium/Luxembourg/Netherlands/Israel
The latest from Ari Folman, who made the semi-autobiographical animation Waltz With Bashir, reworks the story of Anne Frank from a contemporary perspective. The narrative summons to life an imaginary friend of Frank’s, Kitty, who emerges from the pages of her diary and goes searching for her creator, believing she is still alive. In a four-star review, Peter Bradshaw described the film as “a kind of reinvention or fantasy reboot, reading the story again through a contemporary lens and giving it a kind of YA identity”.
Director: David Easteal / Country: Australia
Any film set in the back of a car should evoke memories of David Cronenberg’s magnificently peculiar GFC commentary Cosmopolis, an adaptation of a Don DeLillo book starring R-Patz as a young billionaire who uses a limousine as a travelling office. David Easteal’s Australian film takes place mostly in the backseat of a car transporting a real-life Melbourne lawyer, whose story is fleshed out during his daily commute.
Director: Joe Hunting / Country: UK
VRChat is well-known among virtual reality enthusiasts as a social platform where avatar-wearing users congregate to make friends and visit various worlds, stylised with strikingly different aesthetics. Joe Hunting’s documentary focuses on people falling in love on VRChat during the pandemic. The core novelty is that the entire doco was film/recorded from inside VR – making it a very curious example of form reflecting content.
Director: Del Kathryn Barton / Country: Australia
After a 12-year-old girl (Julia Savage) witnesses a sexual assault while walking home from school, help in dealing with her subsequent trauma comes from an unlikely place: a dragon! Presumably this dragon is of the imaginary friend variety rather than the mighty beast kind depicted in Game of Thrones. Blaze is the feature directorial debut of Del Kathryn Barton, a two-time Archibald prize-winning artist known for her stunningly surreal and evocative works. Barton will also participate in a talk at Sydney film festival hub on 18 June.