Winter on Market Street, and it’s time to switch off one’s phone and retreat to the cinema cave for the 12 days of hibernation known as the Sydney Film Festival.
From the 50 or so films I caught this year, my top five (in no particular order) are below.
Afire is the latest from writer-director Christian Petzold.
Serial grump Leon (Thomas Schubert) and friend Felix (Langston Uibel) stay at a house near the Baltic Sea to spend time on their work removed from the distractions of city life (as though holidays don’t proffer more distractions!).
When they arrive at the house, they find out they will be sharing it with Nadja (Paula Beer). The scene is set for various dalliances and miscues – sexual and otherwise – as Leon tries to eke out a space to complete his second novel (it’s not going well).
Meanwhile, raging bushfires creep closer and closer, and the petty nature of the absurd mishaps in Leon’s life – and his blindness to the world – come into stark relief when the fires kill two of the group.
Much of the film is very funny, centred on the discomfort of pompous and awkward Leon. He’s the kind of person who wears a full suit of clothes to the beach, the kind of person for whom everything seems difficult – even the wind seems to be out to get him. The grace and ease of everyone around him only amplify his social and physical ineptitude.
At the same time, we empathise with Leon’s interior, muted longing, as he gazes at the happier denizens of the planet breezing by him.
Afire is a wicked comedy about everything going wrong and the capacity of “the quake of love” to transcend this, to pull us out of ourselves into a genuine engagement with the world.
A Storm Foretold
Trump’s former mover and confidant Roger Stone may be an easy target for this documentary from Danish filmmaker Christoffer Guldbrandsen.
But the genius of Guldbrandsen’s film lies in its refusal to morally condemn Stone, and in its documenting of the fraught but (apparently) tender relationship that develops between Guldbrandsen and Stone over the course of the project.
Stone’s charisma is evident throughout – he is eminently watchable, as much as we may dislike him – as he plans and prepares for the “Stop the Steal” movement that leads to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
With Richard Nixon as his idol, he comes across as something of a lunatic, a poser, insecure and arrogant, childish, petulant – but also a man with a good sense of humour. At the same time, Stone’s capacity to organise is impressive. More than anything else, he appears as a canny political operator, cynical but effective.
When Guldbrandsen has a heart attack midway through the making of the film, Stone reaches out to him in a gesture of friendship that helps Guldbrandsen complete the film. But we also follow Stone as he becomes increasingly militant, surrounded by his thuggish cult of defenders, routinely appearing on Alex Jones’ Infowars to drum up paranoiac support. Once it becomes clear the “Stop the Steal” movement has failed, Stone bolts from DC. When his expected pardon from Trump doesn’t come, he unleashes in a burst of fury.
Guldbrandsen’s footage from camera and phone is intercut with archival material, some involving nasty explosions of street violence. The whole thing develops with the dreadful anticipation of an apocalyptic thriller or disaster film.
Guldbrandsen’s documentary is an intimate and effective image of a political operator, remarkable for what Stone allows him to capture on camera.
Rheingold is an irreverent, riotous, rags-to-riches, macho gangster yarn from German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin.
Based on the true story of German drug dealer, bandit and rapper Xatar (real name Giwar Hajabi), we follow Hajabi from his birth to Kurdish parents in Iran to his youth in a Kurdish ghetto in Bonn to his move to Amsterdam to become a serious drug dealer.
Music remains the consistent thing underpinning his criminal life. While in prison for an outlandish gold heist, he writes and records commercially successful songs.
A brilliant performance by Emilio Sakraya, who plays Xatar for most of the movie, anchors the character with humour and humanity. At times Sakraya plays Xatar like a ragamuffin street urchin comically out of his depth, at other times like a sensitive chap responding as best he can to the cards he has been dealt, strutting through life with a cheeky grin and twinkle in his eye.
Despite the absolute brutality of much of the violence, Hajabi never appears like a bloodthirsty maniac. This will rub many viewers the wrong way, though realism is far from the point of this film.
While other biopics often painfully try to recreate the sense of reality of the subject, Rheingold joyfully dispenses with any sense of reality from the beginning, delighting in its own absurdity and exploiting the fabulous nature of its premise for all its cinematic worth.
At the same time, the film does draw attention to the other continuity, along with music, throughout Hajabi’s life – imprisonment – and it is within this context of the life of the global refugee that all of the glee of the film should be read.
Rheingold is an amoral, violent and kinetic cinematic romp. It’s Akin’s most wilfully pleasurable film to date.
Sisu, from Finnish writer-director Jalmari Helander, is set in 1944. The war is winding down. The Nazis are retreating across Europe, leaving scorched earth in their wake.
Meanwhile, wizened, stoical goldminer Aatami (Jorma Tommila) strikes it rich and begins travelling with his gold and his dog back to the city. Alas, miner and Nazis cross paths.
The Nazis, led by equally stoical psychopath Bruno (Aksel Hennie), seize the opportunity and attempt to rob Aatami of his gold.
Their increasingly extreme attempts to kill Aatami continue to fail, while his vengeance exponentially ramps up. Bruno and company learn Aatami is a kind of living legend, a mythical ex-soldier who doesn’t seem to be able to die, no matter how many times he’s blown up, stabbed or shot.
The premise of Sisu is patently absurd, but it works so well because it is played seriously for all its worth.
Every aspect of Sisu is well done. The score and soundscape add intensity to the action sequences without seeming overbearing. The violence is grim, bloody and brutal without feeling like a senseless gorefest.
The tone is just right – mythical and epic, like the best westerns, but also effortlessly kinetic, as action cinema should be. An immensely satisfying film.
May December, from Todd Haynes, follows actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she shadows middle-aged “American mom” Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her much younger husband Joe (Charles Melton) as they live the dream in Savannah, Georgia.
Twenty or so years earlier Gracie and Joe were all over the tabloid headlines. Gracie, in her mid-30s, had a sexual relationship with 13-year-old Joe in the pet shop where they worked. She was convicted and sentenced to prison, where her daughter was born.
Berry is playing Gracie in a new Hollywood movie and wants to understand her character. Her arrival sheds light on cracks in the façade of Gracie and Joe’s “happy marriage”.
Gracie appears as a tyrannical and desperate matriarch. Joe appears stunted, naïve and terribly unhappy. This unfolds before Berry’s cold eye as she ingratiates herself into their world.
Like much of Haynes’ work, May December takes ostensibly “ordinary” scenarios – a family dinner or a high school graduation – and endows them with a strangely disturbing, off-putting intensity.
The whole thing has echoes of Gothic melodrama, but Haynes masterfully represses the expected contours of character and story, leaving us with a far stranger experience, with this containment of dramatic action generating much of the film’s pulsing energy.
May December is about the way people represent themselves and the way they are represented, confirming the value of art that exploits the banal and weird stories of everyday people for a higher purpose. Berry’s commitment to the recreation of events, feelings, desires – her remarkably focused manufacturing of desire with Joe in order to better embody and understand Gracie – amplifies both the feeling of exploitation and the excuse for it.
As we watch the final sequences – the melodramatic Hollywood treatment of the story of Gracie and Joe – we feel both amused and mildly disgusted at the shabbiness of it all.
Other great ones
The problem with top five lists is that great films are invariably omitted. This year this seems to be more the case than usual, with at least ten other films that could make the list.
Silver Haze, from writer-director Sacha Polak, is a tender working-class British drama, slow and atmospheric, following a burn victim as she falls in love with a younger woman and together they plot her revenge.
A Thousand and One, starring Teyana Taylor as a mother who kidnaps her son from foster care and then raises him, stunningly recreates the feel of 1990s and early 2000s NYC culture, demanding our attention at every turn.
Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves – a delightfully goofy romance exquisitely shot on 35mm film – and Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days – a sleepy and cerebral, lyrical film following the day to day of a fastidious toilet cleaner in Tokyo who philosophically enjoys the simpler pleasures of his life – could easily be in the top five.
The Indian films Joram and Kennedy – big-budget, cinematic thrillers interweaving political critique with traditional genre tropes – are both exceptional, as is the Serbian film, The Happiest Man in the World, based on a bizarre true story in which a woman at a Sarajevo speed-dating event meets the sniper who shot her.
The Mother of All Lies – this year’s winner of the Sydney Film Prize – is a thoroughly immersive documentary from Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir as she elicits her family’s memories of the 1981 Bread Riots.
The Mexican film Heroic also deserves mention. Set in an officer training academy built around an Aztec structure, it follows a young officer in training from recruitment to graduation as he is subjected to bullying and hazing. The whole thing is interspersed with surreal, eerie nightmare set pieces. It is an exceptional film and will probably be one of the best of 2023.
All equally impressive are the extremely well-made thriller Reality, starring Sydney Sweeney, with all dialogue taken from FBI transcripts of the interrogation of whistleblower Reality Winner; Australian horror film Late Night with the Devil; Canadian coming-of-age film Riceboy Sleeps; and the intellectually charged experimental film Connection of the Sticks from Australian artist Kuba Dorabialski.
Only two terrible films
There were only two films I regretted seeing.
The Cape is an Australian true crime story made for Stan. While the original case involving the disappearance/murder of a father and son in a fishing community on the Cape York Peninsula is certainly interesting, the film has nothing new to offer in terms of interpretation of the events or any kind of new evidence.
It is difficult to imagine why a project that unambitiously retreads a murder from 20 years earlier with no new information would have been greenlit. This kind of lurid true crime stuff is strictly bottom of the barrel. It may work on TV for true crime diehards, but it was a complete waste of time seeing this in a cinema.
How to Blow up a Pipeline is a more earnest, less cynical affair than The Cape, and it has the makings of an exciting eco-thriller, moving through the planning, execution and aftermath of an activist attack in Texas. But the dialogue is so laughably expositional, and the acting so amateurish, that the neat design (and good music) are completely undermined.
Because the acting is so bad and the dialogue even worse, the whole thing becomes very irritating to watch. I almost wished climate change had already done its worst, so I didn’t have to sit through this movie.
Alas, 50 films, around a third brilliant and only two duds? We would never find this outside of an international film festival, which is why, when winter rolls around next year, the hibernation will begin again.