A lot can happen in 18 days. Relationships can crumble, local football teams can try to break the mould and huge celebratory balls can be held. If you're an avid cinephile, you've probably spotted the connection — they're what this year's Melbourne International Film Festival opening, centrepiece and closing flicks were all about.
With the city's annual celebration of cinema taking over the town between August 2 and 19, film buffs also witnessed everything from zombie invasions and giant rock-climbing feats to unlikely heists and high-stakes rap battles. And Italian crime waves, pioneering female rockers and tense murder cases, too. Plus, they did so from the comfort of their cinema seats (although seasoned MIFF-goers will tell you that some chairs are more comfortable than others).
From all of that and more, Concrete Playground film critics Sarah Ward and Tom Clift went, watched and came up with a wealth of highlights — movies that, if you didn't see them yourself, you should definitely pop on your must-see list. Many are downright wonderful. Others are weird in a heap of ways. Some couldn't be more surprising. And a few particularly ace flicks hit all three categories.
Ethan Hawke featured in four films in the 2018 MIFF program, and directed one of them. That's an impressive haul; however, only one of the above movies ranks among the highlights not only of his year, but his career. In First Reformed, the actor is at his devastating best as a lonely pastor grappling with the complexities of faith as one of his parishioners (Amanda Seyfried) asks for his help — and as his health woes and his general malaise escalate. With the intensity that's made him such a compelling screen presence for decades now, Hawke wears his character's growing uncertainty and unhappiness like a weathered second skin, one that hasn't felt a warm embrace for some time. He also hits every nuanced, delicate note in Paul Schrader's screenplay, which might just mark the writer/director's weightiest, most sombre and still most daring effort on a resume that includes scripting Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. — Sarah Ward
At last year's MIFF, BPM (Beats Per Minute) broke hearts and burrowed into souls with its depiction of 1990s Paris — a time when queer men loved passionately and fought proudly for their place in the world, but always found their existence lingering under a cloud. Consider Christophe Honoré's Sorry Angel not quite its successor, but its dance partner, with the two films sashaying through similar space while unleashing their own moves. Here, writer Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets student Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), and as a bond grows between them, the former's illness and the latter's idealism shape their relationship. Sublimely blue in its bittersweet mood and its exacting colour scheme, the end result is a layered, almost novel-like, always tender and touching study of life and love. — SW
TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
An enchanting and empathetic debut from writer/director Issa López, Tigers Are Not Afraid tackles a familiar topic in an imaginative manner, seeing the Mexican drug war through the eyes of the children it leaves orphaned. Ten-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara) is one of them, proving at a loss when her mother disappears at the hands of the local cartel, and banding up with a group of similarly abandoned boys in an effort to survive. More than that, however, she's driven to track down the men responsible for their misery — driven by ghostly whisperings from her mum. Spanish-language cinema is thrillingly filled with dark fairytales that unpack the ills of childhood, as Guillermo del Toro has demonstrated more than once, but López's effort is a worthy, moving and mesmerising addition to the fold; one that's as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking. — SW
BIRDS OF PASSAGE
Drug warfare films sometimes feel like a dime a dozen, but this multigenerational crime saga couldn't be more distinctive. The latest feature from Embrace of the Serpent's Ciro Guerra — directing with producer, editor and first-time filmmaker Cristina Gallego — chronicles the choices and consequences when one of Colombia's indigenous Wayúu families wades into the illegal trafficking trade. And, it does so with the same ethnographic approach that shaped the helmers' previous effort; think strikingly vivid images that highlight traditional locations and costumes, plus a genuine desire to immerse viewers in a specific way of life that's rarely seen on screen. Following a cyclical battle for power and wealth that descends into death and bloodshed, it's a gorgeous gut-punch of a movie, almost like Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude tinted with bleakness and set in a unique gangster world. — SW
On paper, it hardly sounds riveting: a young journalist profiles an acclaimed but controversial Australian artist. When Erik Jensen met Adam Cullen, it gave rise to a Sydney Morning Herald article, and then an offer to write a book — and now this astonishing, extraordinarily accomplished filmmaking debut from Thomas M. Wright. Even if you're familiar with both figures (the former is now the editor of The Saturday Paper; the latter won the Archibald prize and courted much attention before his death in 2012), nothing about Acute Misfortune sticks to the expected path. As excellent an Australian film as the country can claim in recent years, this is a fearless dissection of two men, their unconventional relationship, and the stories they both spun and starred in. It also features a powerhouse performance from Daniel Henshall as Cullen, who is as unnervingly, menacingly exceptional here as he was in Snowtown. — SW
In this intimate British drama, the titular term looms large over its three protagonists — a devoutly religious mother and the now-grown daughters she has brought up as Jehovah's Witnesses. There seems little chance that Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) would ever abandon her faith, although two incidents test her devotion, and her family's: 18-year-old Alex's (Molly Wright) need for a blood transfusion, a procedure that's forbidden by their beliefs; and 21-year-old Luisa's (Sacha Parkinson) embrace of the secular world. Debut writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo was brought up in the church himself, and treads through this fraught territory with both authenticity and a no-holds-barred understanding of the complexities of the situation. Shot with clear-eyed naturalism befitting its premise, the film is also a showcase for its trio of actors, who each seethe with internalised conflict. — SW
Hirokazu Kore-eda has long been fascinated by questions of family. From Our Little Sister to Like Father, Like Son, the Japanese writer-director has probed and prodded at the indelible connection between siblings, spouses, parents and grandparents, crafting exquisite, often heart-wrenching dramas in the process. His latest film, Shoplifters, concerns an unconventional Tokyo family who must resort of petty theft in order to survive. We won't reveal where the story goes from there, but suffice it to say there's a good reason this funny, moving, quietly provocative film won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. — Tom Clift
Two words: cheddar goblin. That'll make more sense once you've seen Mandy, and if it doesn't make you want to watch this out-there genre effort, then the movie mightn't be for you. Starring Nicolas Cage at his most Nicolas Cage-like, the film sees the inimitable star play a lumberjack happily in love with his titular partner (Andrea Riseborough) until a cult and their demonic demon bikers decide to snatch her up. Needless to say, things get strange, bloody and unhinged, with director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) making an 80s-set mind-bender that would've even seemed excessive if it came out three decades ago. We mean that in the best possible manner, with everything from the feature's colour-saturated visuals, to its ferocious score, to Cage's glorious performance all hitting the mark — and, perhaps surprisingly, the movie's melancholy tone as well. — SW
KNIFE + HEART
It's 1979. Someone is savagely murdering gay porn stars, all of whom work for successful, ruthless producer Anne (Vanessa Paradis). And, as she tries to keep making movies while her actors keep dropping like flies, she's coping with the end of her relationship with her editor. Kudos to writer/director Yann Gonzalez for Knife + Heart's exceptional premise, which also features films within films, creepy legends, spooky woods and rather inventive weapons. Still, it's his lurid execution that makes this a weird and wonderful delight. In his hands, nothing is too much — and we mean nothing. The end result is an assault on the senses that's as brutal as its slasher set-up and as theatrical as its campy tone. — SW
How do you follow a divisive relationship drama full of gratuitous 3D sex scenes? If you're writer-director Gaspar Noe, with a mesmerising cocktail of carnage, music and sangria. A late addition to this year's Sydney Film Festival line-up, Climax takes place at a dance rehearsal after-party, where petty squabbles and personal baggage spin violently out of control when somebody spikes the punch. Those who are familiar with Noe's previous films such as Irreversible, Enter the Void and Lovewill recognise all of his trademarks: a pulsating soundtrack, floating camerawork and sequences of exhilarating beauty that make subsequent moments that much more disturbing. Love it or hate it, you certainly won't forget it in a hurry. — TC
Forget everything you think you know about virtual reality. With The Deserted, the medium reaches its most immersive, all thanks to Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang. If you've seen the director's previous features, such as Journey to the West and Stray Dogs, then you'll know that he's known for his slow cinematic approach and penchant for patient long takes — touches that couldn't be better suited for his first VR effort. Across 55 minutes, you'll inhabit the same space as a lonely man and the spirits of his mother and neighbour. You'll peer around crumbling buildings and earthy gardens, and you'll even sit in the bathtub with the film's protagonist, too. Thanks to all of the above, you'll float along with this ethereal, intricate treatise on isolation, and you'll devour every stunning sight and sound. More than that, you won't want it to end. — SW
THE WORLD IS YOURS
There are heist films, and there are heist films. The World Is Yours has earned comparisons to Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino's work; however it's no mere derivative take on a well-worn genre. Instead, it's a splashy, stylish, skilfully executed and supremely entertaining effort in its own right, anda mighty fun time at the cinema. Perhaps best known for making music videos for M.I.A., Simian Mobile Disco, Kanye West and Jay-Z, and Jamie xx, French filmmaker Romain Gavras turns this account of small-time gangsters dreaming big into a cool, comic and confidently engaging caper that drips with energy and charm from start to finish. Veterans Isabelle Adjani and Vincent Cassel take to their roles with glee, but it's A Prophet's Karim Leklou who stands out among the movie's stars — playing the son of a seasoned grifter who just wants to pull one last job so he can sell icy poles in North Africa. — SW
A final note: if you're wondering why some of this year's other excellent MIFF efforts aren't on our list, that's because we've already showered them with love. We were keen on The Green Fog, Profile, An Elephant Sitting Still, Transit, Museum and Aga at Berlinale, plus Leave No Trace, The Rider, Burning, Searching, Cold War, The Guilty and Tyrel at Sydney Film Festival. Then, we fell head-over-heels for Let the Corpses Tan, You Were Never Really Here, Caniba and Zama at Queensland Film Festival, and adored Angels Wear White, Skate Kitchen, Lean on Pete and Strange Coloursbefore MIFF even started.