Ten Standout Movies to Watch During the 2020 Brisbane International Film Festival
Including a documentary set in a Las Vegas dive bar, an eerie and unsettling thriller about a young British nurse, and a queer Aussie rom-com.
October 02, 2020
Over the years, the Brisbane International Film Festival has weathered plenty of challenges. One year, early in the past decade, massive storms even threatened to knock out an entire weekend of the fest — so it has actually weathered them in a literal sense. After its 2013 event, BIFF was scrapped in favour of a different film festival, only to be resurrected a few years later. The fest has moved dates several times, and venues too, and just who puts it all together behind the scenes has changed on multiple occasions as well. But despite everything that 2020 has thrown at the world, and everything the event has endured in its on-again, off-again three-decade history, this year's BIFF is 100-percent going ahead in-person.
Between Thursday, October 1–Sunday, October 11, Brisbane cinephiles can head into a darkened theatre — while maintaining social distancing, naturally — and watch their way through a 70-plus film lineup. At the Gallery of Modern Art's Australian Cinémathèque, Dendy Coorparoo, the Elizabeth Picture Theatre, New Farm Cinemas, Reading in Newmarket and the State Library of Queensland, the silver screen will light up with top-notch flicks, spanning everything from powerful westerns that interrogate Australia's past to century-old wonders. Of course, that leaves movie buffs with the obvious dilemma that is choosing what to watch. To help, we've rounded up ten standouts that are well worth your time over the next week and a half.
BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
Amidst its glittering lights and blocks upon blocks of glitzy casinos, Las Vegas is home to many a bar. Until recently, The Roaring 20s was one of them; however, the dive bar sat far beyond the kind of joints everyone usually thinks of when they imagine the city. That's the setup of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, at least. Filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross capture its last day and night of trade, as a ragtag group of devoted regulars said goodbye to their beloved spot by doing exactly what they need to — that is, sitting around, talking about anything and everything, drinking, hanging out and escaping from their normal lives. Taking an observational approach that blends fact and fiction, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets simply watches as last drinks inches closer and closer, and spends times with the folks who make watering holes like these what they are both in front of and behind the bar. A slice-of-life experimental documentary that'll make you want to visit your own favourite neighbourhood joint, it's also a film with a local connection, courtesy of a boozy Australian wearing a Newstead Brewing Co t-shirt.
Bumps, jumps, shocks and scares come in all different shapes and sizes and, in Saint Maud, they're a matter of faith, too. This striking, instantly unsettling feature debut by British writer/director Rose Glass follows in-home nurse Maud (Dracula and His Dark Materials' Morfydd Clark), who is devoted to three things: her religion, helping those in her care physically and trying to save them spiritually. But her latest patient, cancer-stricken ex-dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), isn't too fond of Maud's obsession with her salvation. Amanda isn't fussed about Maud's strict judgements about her lifestyle either. And, despite her intensely devout fervour — and the stern but feverish way in which she pushes it upon others — Maud's own past isn't easily shaken. In a film as masterful as it is memorable, Glass evokes Hereditary and Midsommar-esque levels of dread and unease as her anti-heroine is slowly forced to reckon with her beliefs emotionally and physically. Saint Maud's powerful final shot isn't easily forgotten, but then again neither is anything in this part-religious thriller, part-body horror flick, including Clark's stunning performance.
THE WOMAN WHO RAN
Alcohol. Conversation. A scene-stealing cat. Combine all three, and South Korean great Hong Sang-soo is firmly in his element. The booze flows freely as Gamhee (Hong regular Kim Min-hee, a 2017 Berlinale Best Actress winner for On the Beach at Night Alone) enjoys her first time away from her husband in five years, visiting friends around Seoul while he's off on a business trip. In the prolific director's typical fashion, much of The Woman Who Ran unfurls as his characters simply chat — about lives, hopes, dreams, problems and, with a pesky neighbour in the movie's funniest moment, about feeding stray felines. Hong's penchant for long, patient takes, playful repetition and echoes, and expertly timed crash-zooms are all used to winning effect, in a film that slots perfectly into his busy oeuvre (he's made 23 movies since 1996) and yet always feels distinctively insightful. Also, and we can't stress it enough, look out for one helluva kitty.
BIG TIME ADOLESCENCE
Before Pete Davidson played a twenty-something with a raging case of arrested development in Judd Apatow's The King of Staten Island, he stepped into very similar shoes in Big Time Adolescence. And both roles suit the Saturday Night Live comedian, who has an uncanny way of letting audiences laugh at the stereotype while revealing the pain and melancholy underneath. Here, he's 23-year-old, Zeke, who still pals around with his ex-girlfriend's 16-year-old younger brother. Said high schooler, Mo (Griffin Gluck), hangs on Zeke's every bong-toking, shit-talking word, even when the teen's gut tells him that perhaps that's not the best idea. Mo is the film's protagonist, with Big Time Adolescence charting his gradual, hard-fought and eventful coming-of-age in the shadow of an adult who never has — but this heartfelt, insightful and immensely funny movie wouldn't be the same without Davidson and his big slacker energy.
Nina Hoss, the German actor and national treasure known for everything from Barbara and Phoenix to Homeland and Criminal, takes on the troubles of motherhood in this slow-burning, tonally seesawing but disarmingly effective thriller. Pelican Blood sometimes feels like multiple films in one, but the feature's various parts are all bound together by Hoss' simmering performance as horse trainer and single mother Wiebke. In northern Germany, she runs a ranch where the police force prepare their horses for duty. She's also a mum to an adopted nine-year-old and, after a trip to Bulgaria, welcomes a five-year-old called Raya (Katerina Lipovska) to their home as well. Alas, what initially seems like stock-standard childhood tantrums swiftly turns more sinister, with Wiebke uncertain of how to handle Raya's screaming, cruel behaviour and escalating violence. It might seem like a typical creepy 'evil kid' movie at first, but writer/director Katrin Gebbe is deeply concerned with empathy here. This is a film both disquieting and moving, and uses its premise in a way few other filmmakers would.
THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS
Northern Italy's woods are a truffle-lover's delight but, of course, someone has to find the edible fungus. The Truffle Hunters introduces viewers to multiple elderly men and their adorable dogs who do just that, with their lives revolving around roving the forest and searching out the prized food — while trying to avoid poison baits, fighting with others encroaching on their turf, typing missives about how the world has changed and, in the case of one octogenarian, sneaking out at night because his wife wants him to stop his hobby. A leisurely film that's happy to chronicle its subjects' easy-going lives, lean into their eccentricities and survey their lush surroundings, this is also an unhurried delight of a documentary. Obviously, thanks to shots of truffles being grated over food, it'll make you hungry, too. Executive produced by Call Me By Your Name filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, The Truffle Hunters also serves up a perceptive portrait of tradition versus change — because this is a feature with both great scenery and considerable substance.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, one of the best films of 2019, Noémie Merlant played an 18th-century artist who fell in love with the betrothed woman she's commissioned to paint. In the neon-hued, loosely based-on-a-true-story Jumbo, she's once again falling head over heels — this time for an amusement park ride. Her character, fairground worker Jeanne, is shy to the point of being teased by everyone around her. While her mother (Emmanuelle Bercot) doesn't fall into that category, she does repeatedly try to push her out of her comfort zone, including setting her up with the park's new boss (Bastien Bouillon). But in Belgium-born, France-based writer/director Zoé Wittock's debut feature, nothing makes Jeanne feel the way that Jumbo, the theme park's new ride, does. It's a quirky, even whimsical concept, but both Merlant and Wittock treat Jeanne's love affair with sensitivity and enthusiasm — two traits the character isn't accustomed to receiving elsewhere.
ELLIE & ABBIE (& ELLIE'S DEAD AUNT)
As a teen rom-com about two high schoolers working through their feelings for each other as they're also trying to work out what to do with their lives, there's a purposeful and familiar sense of awkwardness about Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie's Dead Aunt). The studious Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw) likes the far cooler, calmer and more collected Abbie (Zoe Terakes), but is struggling to stump up the courage to ask her to the school formal — even going as far as willingly getting detention to spend more time with her crush to try to muster the motivation. So far, so sweet. What lifts this Aussie film, however, is the weightiness it brings to the subject of queer romance. As the title gives away, Ellie's dead aunt Tara (Julia Billington) hovers around, giving her niece advice about following her feelings. In this thoughtful feature debut from writer/director Monica Zanetti, Tara's presence also opens the door to a deeper contemplation of Australia's historical treatment of its LGBTQIA+ community.
LAST AND FIRST MEN
At present, every movie filled with everyday folks amassing in public, or even just hugging or shaking hands, feels more than a little like science fiction. We've said it before, and we're sure we'll say it again. And yet, while Last and First Men is an eerie and intelligent dystopian sci-fi film through and through, it doesn't feature a single person on-screen. Instead, the one and only movie directed by Oscar-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario, The Theory of Everything) before his 2018 death trains the camera at towering sculptures that prove instantly mesmerising to look at — and look, this movie does — and even a tad unsettling. The concept, as inspired by the 1930 novel of the same name, explained in lyrical waves of poetic prose spoken by Tilda Swinton, presented as a message from one of the earth's very last residents, and accompanied by a haunting score: several billion years into the future, after several leaps in evolution and drastic changes to life as we currently know it, humanity faces its extinction.
THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF
Some stories are so wild that they can only be true, and the tale told in The Painter and the Thief is one of them. The documentary's moniker gives away the overall thrust, but this is one of those films that has to be seen to be believed. When two of Barbora Kysilkova's paintings were stolen from Oslo's Gallery Nobel in 2015, the Czech artist wanted answers. And even though Karl-Bertil Nordland was arrested and charged for the crime, Kysilkova still wanted to delve deeper. If you've ever wanted to know what might happen if a painter befriended the man who pilfered her work — and what kind of obviously complicated relationship would spring — then that's what you'll find out in this deserving Sundance Film Festival prize-winner. Expect twists, turns, surprises and one strange connection, plus an intimate and unflinching insight into kindness and compassion in even the most unlikeliest of circumstances.
The 2020 Brisbane International Film Festival runs from Thursday, October 1–Sunday, October 11 at a variety of Brisbane venues. For further information, and to book tickets, head to the festival website.
Concrete Playground Trips
Book unique getaways and adventures dreamed up by our editors