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Ten Must-See Films at the 2019 Brisbane International Film Festival

See a moving 19th century Vietnamese drama, get your claws into a doco on New York's stray cats and revisit Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo + Juliet'.
By Sarah Ward
October 04, 2019
By Sarah Ward
October 04, 2019

It's Australia's only major film festival organised by an art gallery — and it's back for another round of cinematic fun. Hosted by the Gallery of Modern Art for the second consecutive year, the Brisbane International Film Festival leans into its unique setting. Where else can you watch a world premiere documentary about a great Australian artist, then wander through an exhibition showcasing the same figure? Or see a whole strand of movies that owe more than a little something to the stage, then get immersed in a mixed-media showcase that explores the same topic?

As always, BIFF boasts plenty of other highlights — screening between Thursday, October 3 and Sunday, October 13 at GOMA and a number of other Brisbane cinemas, the full lineup spans more than 100 titles. From proven favourites to new discoveries to retro delights, here's our must-see picks from the 2019 program.



Some topics just keep luring us all in, and the Church of Scientology is one of them. It's the cinematic equivalent of quicksand — no matter how unsettling every film on the subject proves (and, let's face it, they're all disturbing), they're near-impossible to escape. Filled with incredulous first-hand accounts that range beyond Louis Theroux's My Scientology Movie and Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (and Paul Thomas Anderson's fictional drama The Master, too), Over the Rainbow spends time with folks who've fallen under the organisation's powerful thrall, whether in the past or still today. They share their tales to documentarian Jeffrey Peixoto, who lets their words tell the story — and lets his visuals plunge viewers into their mindset. The result is a moving, immersive exploration of an ominous and infuriating realm, complete with an entrancing score by Aussie band HTRK. At BIFF, the band will also be in attendance, performing the whole thing live as the fascinating film plays.



Adorable and heartbreaking in equal measure, The Cat Rescuers charts the efforts to care for New York's growing stray cat population. While the Big Apple is known for its human-sized hustle and bustle, it's very much a haven for felines as well. In fact, there are as many cute kitties roaming the streets as there are living with two-legged owners. Flitting between four particularly dedicated cat-loving NYC residents over the course of several years, filmmakers Rob Fruchtman and Steve Lawrence scratch their way through the associated ups and downs — the mousers saved and sent to happy homes, the ones scrounging for food and struggling in the snow, and the toll it all takes emotionally. Like Istanbul-set cat documentary Kedi and Santiago-set canine film Los Reyes, this heartwrenching movie not paints a portrait of the animals within its frames, but of the city they call home, and of the way that society treats its vulnerable four-legged inhabitants.



Antonio Banderas has a rich, multi-decade filmography across both Spanish and Hollywood cinema to his name, including his previous work with auteur Pedro Almodovar. And yet, he's never been better than in Pain and Glory, which won him this year's Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award. Almodovar hasn't been in as fine a form in years either — not since he took Banderas into completely different territory with The Skin I Live In. With Penelope Cruz also featuring, re-teaming with his original stars and lightly drawing from his own past is clearly working for the celebrated director. There's such a quiet, thorny and tender core to this account of an ageing filmmaker (Banderas) rueing love lost and choices made, all while trying to manage his failing body, reconnecting with an old acquaintance, and falling back into memories of his mother (Cruz). There's such a glorious command of colour and movement in the film's evocative imagery, too. This is a film to get lost in, and in its sumptuously, sweepingly handled titular emotions as well.



With The Third Wife, writer/director Ash Mayfair draws upon her own family history, making an exceptional filmmaking debut in the process. Gorgeously shot and movingly performed, this 19th century-set Vietnamese drama follows the arrival of 14-year-old May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) into a rich family. She's marrying in and, as the title makes plain, becoming the third wife to a wealthy landowner. With little choice or agency, she's forced to fall into place in a strictly patriarchal society — navigating the existing familial order, finding a place among her new husband's other spouses, and bearing the weight of expectation that, because of her youthful age, she'll finally extend the bloodline by bearing a son. As May's story ebbs and flows, Mayfair spins a touching tale of desire and oppression that both looks to the past and simmers with modern-day relevance.



Just when you think you've seen absolutely every zombie film there is to see, and then you've gnawed your way through a few more, too, Little Monsters offers its take on the genre. And, if a dose of Aussie humour wasn't enough, it enlists Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o — who was last seen spreading unease in Us — as an undead-fighting school teacher. Taking her five-year-old students on an excursion to a farm, Miss Caroline soon finds more than animals nipping at their heels, with the ravenous masses coming a-chomping. Josh Gad plays a bowtie-wearing children's TV presenter, Alexander England pops up as a slacker musician, and the whole thing comes from the mind of actor-turned filmmaker Abe Forsythe, aka the writer/director who managed to both satirise the Cronulla riots and make a strong anti-racism statement in 2016's Down Under.



True crime, political scandal, conspiracy theories — if you're keen on any of the above, this year's Sundance World Cinema — Documentary winner is like catnip. As he tends to do, Danish TV host and documentarian Mads Brügger (The Ambassador) hones in a tale that's both completely outlandish and firmly steeped in reality. His subject in in Cold Case Hammarskjöld: the 1961 death, in a plane crash in Zambia, of Swedish economist and UN Secretary-General Dag Hammersjköld. That the titular figure was killed was attempting to assuage the ongoing conflict in the Congo has raised suspicions across Africa for decades, so Brügger amasses and unpacks all of the evidence that he can find. Lengthy, detailed and engrossing, the result is a story that needs to be seen to be believed — although, if you can't quite place your faith in all of its claims, that comes with the filmmaker's purposefully provocative approach.



Every obvious fiery term applies to Céline Sciamma's lush romantic drama. It simmers carefully, burns slowly and, after waiting for its embers to spark, sets the screen alight. Stepping back to 18th-century Brittany, the assured French filmmaker spins a yearning tale of passion and desire — of knowing that your greatest needs can only be satisfied fleetingly, grappling with that fact and relishing what brief happiness you can. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is a betrothed woman who refuses to sit for a traditional wedding portrait, much to her mother's (Valeria Golino) dismay. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is the painter called in not just to commit the bride-to-be's likeness to canvas, but to do so surreptitiously while acting as her companion. As friendship and more blooms between the two, Sciamma's exquisite feel for unspoken emotion and inner awakenings blazes brightly, as it did in Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood. Also evident is the writer/director's masterful way with her actors, and with stirring visual compositions.



In the past two decades, Belgium's Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have directed eight films. Many, like L'Enfant and Two Days, One Night, are masterpieces — and a whopping seven of them have scored awards or special mentions at the Cannes Film Festival. Those prize-winning ranks also spans their latest, Young Ahmed, which nabbed the brothers this year's Best Director gong. Applying their trademark understated, humanist and observational approach to a radicalised Belgian teen, they grapple with an increasingly common topic: the extremist path that can sometimes beckon to socially isolated young men. In Ahmed's (Idir Ben Addi) case, the otherwise average Muslim high schooler's life changes when a forceful imam (Othmane Moumen) introduces him to incendiary ideas.



The relentlessness of modern life, the ongoing unrest in Colombia, and the ceaseless trials and tribulations that plague all teens facing adulthood — they all sit at the centre of stunning South America-set thriller Monos. Set in a camp of teen guerrillas, Alejandro Landes' third film follows gun-toting rebels that have barely said goodbye to childhood, but are still tasked with guarding an American hostage (Julianne Nicholson). Unsurprisingly, even with nothing around but fields, jungle, a cow to milk and occasional enemy fire, little goes according to plan. Engagingly lingering between a dark fairytale and a psychological treatise on war, combat and humanity's dog-eat-dog nature, the result is one of the year's definite standouts. From the eye-popping landscape cinematography, to the needling tension of Mica Levi's score, to the commanding performance from the young cast, there's a reason that Monos keeps proving a festival hit around the globe, including winning Sundance's Special Jury Award.



When BIFF announced its first 2019 titles a couple of months back, it promised a spectacular (spectacular) lineup in one specific way. With Baz Luhrmann and his frequent collaborator Catherine Martin acting as the festival's patrons this year, a feast of their flicks was always going to happen — and if you only find time to revisit one on the big screen, then Romeo + Juliet demands your attention. Long before he was Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio played half of the world's most famous infatuated couple, with Claire Danes joining him as the similarly ill-fated Juliet to his Romeo. As everyone has known for centuries, William Shakespeare's tragedy is a tale of heartbreaking potency; in Luhrmann's hands, it's brought to life with unparalleled movement, colour, style and immediacy (and, as plenty of parties keep reminding us, with a killer soundtrack as well).


Still have room for a few more movies? Don't worry, we have a few more suggestions. From our rundown of Australian titles to check out this yearEmu Runner is screening at BIFF. And, from our Berlinale highlights, so is The SouvenirVarda by Agnes and Ghost Town Anthology as well. Back at the Sydney Film Festival, we couldn't recommend In My Blood It Runs, In Fabric highly enough. Once the fest was over, we also added Judy & Punch and The Dead Don't Die to our picks. At MIFF, we buzzed about Memory: The Origins of Alien, Matthias & Maxime, The Day Shall Come and The Wild Goose Lake before the fest — and Beanpole and The Grand Bizarre afterwards. Yep, there's plenty to watch.

The 2019 Brisbane International Film Festival runs from Thursday, October 3 to Sunday, October 13 at a variety of Brisbane venues. For further information, and to book tickets, head to the festival website

Published on October 04, 2019 by Sarah Ward
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