Breaking down a film festival program – especially one that stretches to 370 films, as does this year’s Melbourne Internal Film Festival – is a daunting task. And, frankly, kind of futile. Unless you’re a Melbourne-based cinephile with no day-to-day commitments, the films you choose to see are going to determined more by scheduling than anything else.
So let’s play a game. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you’re an interstate film geek pondering a trip to Victoria for MIFF. Let’s limit the options to weekends only, since getting leave to go watch movies is not always an easy task. MIFF isn’t quite as suited to interstate visitors as Sydney Film Festival – it lacks the convenience of the Queen’s birthday long weekend while spreading out its goodies over three weeks, rather than two – but there’s still more than enough to justify a plane flight. So, before you dip into your savings account, which weekend should you choose?
The First Weekend (31st July to 2nd August)
MIFF starts strong; after its opening night gala on Thursday night – Aussie flick Force of Destiny – the first weekend has plenty to like. If you can catch an early enough flight for the 6:30pm block, you can catch the world premiere of Molly Reynolds’ Another Country, a non-fiction follow-up to last year’s impressive Charlie’s Country that reflects upon modern Indigenous Australian identity. There’s also Mustang from Deniz Gamze Ergüven, a “promise new female voice in the Turkish cinema scene” and if you’re after something lighter, docos like Do I Sound Gay? and Finders Keepers (about the legal battle for a severed leg!) each look to be interesting yet lighthearted films with which to kick off the festival. Skip Actress, though; it’s good, but it’s streaming on Netflix at the moment and doesn’t really require the big screen.
The late slot is where it gets really juicy, though. I haven’t seen Victoria, but I heard nothing but good things about its one-shot artistry – Sydney critic Andrew Buckle ranked it as his favourite from the Sydney Film Festival. I can’t really recommend Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, despite it winning the Audience Award in Sydney; it’s filled with cute film reference but it’s intensely self-obsessed to the point of being borderline offensive and, besides, it’s a getting a theatrical release in a couple months. I’d also skip Mr Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown – it’s streaming on SBS On Demand right now! – but my pick is The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos’ peculiar-sounding black comedy making its first Australian appearance after premiering at Cannes. Who wouldn’t want to see sad Colin Farrell become a crustacean? I’ve heard good things about Aferim!, too.
There’re also options for those with more grindhouse sensibilities; why not follow-up Takashi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse with Kiwi splatter-comedy Turbo Kid – in which a teenager takes on Michael Ironside armed only with a Nintendo Power Glove – or Gaspar Noé’s Love 3D, which infamously includes perhaps the world’s first 3D money shot (certainly the first to have been screened at Cannes, anyway). Admittedly, I haven’t heard many positive reports regarding the film, but it sure sounds like an experience.
Those looking to follow-up a midnight(ish) screening with an early movie have some quality options – Seymour: An Introduction, Angels of Revolution and Song of Lahore all look like solid picks – while courageous cinephiles with strong bladders have Lav Diaz’s almost-six hour From What Is Before to appreciate slash endure. (Personally I’d prefer to catch it at home where you have a pause button for bathroom breaks and the like, but I respect the masochistic streak in my fellow film geeks.) There are strong afternoon film choices, too, but it’s hard to go past the Festival Lounge, who are featuring an hour-long conversation between Margaret Pomeranz and David Gulpilil, one of our nation’s finest actors (Gulpilil, not Margaret. She’s a middling actor at best). There’s an overabundance of riches in the evening slot, too, and I really have no idea what the best pick is. Sydneysiders might have already seen The Daughter or Tehran Taxi; if not, you can be confident the former will get a wider release later in the year, so perhaps the third in Jafar Panahi’s series of ‘not-films’ is the pick? Although it’ll probably make it to the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, so if you’re in my neck of the woods maybe you can postpone it? And let’s not forget about The End of the Tour; sure, the David Foster Wallace sorta-biopic will, in all likelihood, get a domestic release thanks to the low-wattage star power of Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segal. But combine the subject material with the guys behind The Spectacular Now and I’m going to have trouble waiting that long, personally. The only thing I’m sure of? Skip The Wolfpack. The consensus is that it’s got a great premise (a group of kids ‘raised’ on the movies, sorta), but the execution is sadly sorely lacking.
Those wanting to keep their Saturday nights packed with films have plenty of nine o’clock options, including a substantial suite of Sydney holdovers: Ramin Bahrani’s excellent 99 Homes, acclaimed Indian neo-noir Sunrise, the surprisingly nuanced creature-feature-meets-Linklater indie Spring and Cartel Land, a documentary that features great footage without quite achieving greatness in of itself. But I reckon the real decision is between a repertory screening of Head – the Monkees’ classic experiment in psychadelia – or American indie Heaven Knows What, about which I’ve only heard good things. And if you’re keen on the psychedelic option, you can allows follow it with another item from the retrospective in the form of a tab of Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. If nothing else, you’ll have some interesting dreams.
I’d recommend sleeping in on Sunday morning, but there’s always Nicholas Roeg’s proto-Australian New Wave film Walkabout on 35 mm or apparently-really-good horse doco Palio for early birds. After the treasure trove of riches found on Saturday’s afternoon and evening, you would think that Sunday would be a quieter day, but there’s still a lot to be excited about. I didn’t manage to catch any of Best of Enemies, Welcome to Leith, The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing) or – most disappointingly – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour at Sydney, but I heard nothing but praise from those who did, and they’re all playing at 1:30pm. My pick is definitely Joe’s latest, but he’s certainly an acquired taste; really, the only bad choice here is to skip the slot altogether.
Assuming you don’t have to dash to the airport, the first Sunday afternoon and evening has plenty to offer, especially for documentary fans in the 4 o’clock slot. Want a cheery portrait of legendary soul singer Mavis Staples? Jessica Edwards has you covered in Mavis! How about a trek up the slopes of Everest that transforms into a careful examination into a heated, nascent revolution – and one of the best films of the year so far? Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa will do the trick. And if you’re after an impassioned, controversial look at sexual abuse on campus, there’s always The Hunting Ground.
As the sun sets, why not turn your eyes to the stars? At six thirty, you get to decide between Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders running a gym in Andrew Bujaski’s quirky comedy Results, or Tim Robbins and Benicio Del Toro dealing with a bloated corpse in an entirely darker comedy titled A Perfect Day. I’d recommend chasing Results by checking out Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Pasolini; alternatively, if you go the grimmer route to start with, you could always watch Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis Sleeping With Other People as a chaser. Overall, it seems like it’s hard to go too wrong with the first weekend; while there are inevitably some major omissions – as you’ll see – pretty much every time slot has a couple good options, especially if you missed the Sydney Film Festival. It’s going to be a hard weekend to beat.
The Second Weekend (7th August to 9th August)
The first thing the second weekend has to offer is quantity; if you want to see literally dozens of films in one weekend, this is the one to pick. How? The extensive shorts program screening over that weekend. You will, sadly, have to miss the Experimental Shorts – they’re on Thursday night – but there’s still the Animation Shorts, the “WTF” Shorts, the International Shorts 2, the Documentary Shorts 1 and 2, “Accelerator” 1 and 2 and a set of Australian Shorts, for a grand total of sixty-three films without booking another session. Now, I’m more of a feature man myself, but if you like your films succinct, it’s certainly a lot of bang for your buck.
Not into short films? Well Friday night has a sturdy chunk of documentaries to pique your interest; in addition to the aforementioned Sherpa and Welcome to Leith, you’ve got Louie Psihoyos’ follow-up to The Cove, Racing Extinction or, if you prefer, Sacha Jenkins’ look at hip-hop fashion, Fresh Dressed. Not into documentaries? Well, there’s Results again, or you can watch Jason Schwartzman playing to type as an asshole in Bob Byinton’s 7 Chinese Brothers. Alternatively, there’s Romanian Rear Window riff One Floor Below or Japanese tearjerker AN (which doesn’t sound all that promising, I’ll admit). The 9pm slot doesn’t excite me all that much, especially as Dope is out in cinemas a fortnight later, so my pick would be the world premiere of Downriver. Its synopsis suggests it could go either way, quality-wise, but how often do you get to attend a world premiere, honestly? (There’s A Perfect Day, too, which looks like a more reliable bet.)
I hadn’t even heard of Tokyo Olympiad until it appeared in the MIFF schedule … and now that I’m aware of it, I’m very tempted by the second weekend to see it alone. Kon Ichikawa’s record of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics has a sterling critical reputation; financed by the Japanese government, he produced a 170 minute epic more interested in the artistry in athleticism than the historical record (it was promptly cut down to an hour-and-a-half, of course). It’s apparently very difficult to get your hands on nowadays – let alone see a 4K restoration. Sounds absolutely unmissable.
Aside from another screening of Head, nothing in the early afternoon slot especially appeals to me – after a three hour sports doco, I’d recommend an extended lunch break (watching all those athletes strain themselves is hard work, after all). There’s no obvious stand outs from the 4 o’clock screenings; I’ve only seen Nasty Baby – screening along with Sebastiàn Silva’s other films – which I liked, not loved. Peace Officer, a documentary about a career police officer investigating the increasing militarisation of American police, sure sounds compelling. Otherwise, there’s a pair of strong retro screenings in the form of Fehérlófia and Grey Gardens. Afterwards, I’d avoid the Holding the Man centrepiece gala –purely because the film will get a wide release later in the month – in favour of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin. I say this despite the film falling short of expectations in Sydney because – whatever you think of its notoriously opaque plot – it’s so gorgeously composed and shot that you have to see it on a big screen and make up your own mind.
From Saturday night, I can wholeheartedly recommend Sean Baker’s Tangerine – I could point you to my review, but really you should be reading Andreas Stoehr’s feature for The Dissolve. If that doesn’t interest you, there’s The Forbidden Room – which sounds fascinating, and I regret skipping at Sydney because now I have to skip the QFF screening too! – or 808, an American documentary about, yes, the Roland 808 ‘Rhythm Composer.’ If you’re staying up late, both Deathgasm (another Kiwi horror!) and The Nightmare sound like they might be good enough to distract you from simply heading out for a beer (though I’ve heard a few people say that the latter falls short of its potential).
Sunday morning gives you the opportunity to see Oscar-nominated animation Song of the Sea on the big screen … but as someone who slept through his Song of the Sea screening in Sydney, I’d understand if you prioritised sleep. It’s apparently very, very good, though! The early afternoon features more screenings of both The Look of Silence and 7 Chinese Brothers, but how can you go past Raiders!? Well, probably very easily, but the story of teenage filmmakers almost remaking Raiders of the Lost Ark, then returning decades later to finish the job, sure sounds like a good watch (minus the interviews with Harry Knowles).
Looking over Sunday’s schedule, I’ve got to admit: I’m underwhelmed. It’s not that there aren’t strong options on Sunday night – from all reports, you can’t go too wrong with The Daughter, Aferim!, The Duke of Burgundy or Haemoo – but there’s very little to get excited about. Being Evel sounds like an interesting portrayal of (surprise) Evel Knievel; The Coffin in the Mountain sounds like a fascinating debut from Xin Yukun, twisting a murder mystery into a black comedy. But good enough to justify a plane ticket? I’m not convinced. If a cavalcade of shorts plus Tokyo Olympiad appeals to you, I’d make the trip, but otherwise I’m leaning towards the first weekend. But there’s another horse in the race…
The Third Weekend (14th August to 16th August)
Second weekend? Shorts and, to a lesser extent, documentaries.
Vertical cinema is pretty much what it sounds like, flipping the standard aspect cinema ratio from a wide screen to a tall, skinny one – like when you gather around at a party to look at a friend’s phone video, except on a much bigger scale. While there are obvious disadvantages to the format – our eyes are side-by-side, not above one another after all – it sounds like an interesting and unique experiment. Screening at Deakin Edge in Federation Square twice on Friday night, it’s the kind of thing that could be enough to justify an interstate trip by itself.
That’s not all Friday night has on offer. There’s also Joaquim Trier’s Louder than Bombs, fresh from Cannes; more screenings of 808, Love and Tangerine; and, if you’ve managed to resist the urge to download it from the States – where it’s been available on VOD for well over a year now – there’s The Guest, Adam Wingard’s creepy, neon-tinged horror featuring an unforgettable lead performance from Dan Stevens. Stay up late and you can check out either Spring or the “WTF” Shorts. (After publishing this, I was also made aware of the existence of The Witch, about which I’ve heard very promising reports.) There are worse ways to start a festival!
Saturday morning isn’t bad either – there’s Song of the Sea again, but I’m especially drawn to Corneliu Poromboiu’s The Treasure, which by all accounts is utterly delightful (disclaimer: I have not, in fact, read all accounts). Playing at 1:30pm, Hungry Hearts – an Italian psychological drama that stars Adam Driver and has attracted comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby – sounds like exactly my sort of movie, but let’s not forget that Cemetery of Splendour is playing at the same time. By mid-afternoon, it’s hard to go past Queen of Earth even if, like me, you were comparatively underwhelmed by Alex Ross Perry’s widely-acclaimed Listen Up Philip. Elizabeth Moss, “darkly comic psychological drama”, whaddya need, a road map? But the real jewel in Saturday’s crown is undeniably the Closing Night Gala. Sure, Baumbach’s Mistress America will get a release here eventually, but it just sounds so great – who can wait?
Sunday presents another unique opportunity – the chance to watch all three parts of Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights in one day. I caught these three films – over two days – at Sydney, and while I wasn’t on board with every chapter of Gomes’ sprawling reflection on Portugese austerity, it’s hard to quibble with the power and creativity of the overall package. Not to be missed, and – as an added bonus – there’s a whole bunch of secret screenings lined up for Sunday night to let you catch up on whatever you might have missed earlier in the festival. Honestly, the only thing keeping me from locking in third weekend in my calendar is that I’ve already seen Arabian Nights; if you’re a self-respecting cinephile, I don’t think it’s much of a decision.
Alright. What’d I miss?