The Best, Weirdest and Most Surprising Films of The 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival
Starting with the film with the most horrifying, taboo-shattering, laugh-or-you'll-vomit finale.
So, you've survived the 18-day movie marathon that is the Melbourne International Film Festival for another year. Well done. If you're anything like us, overdosing on films hasn't dampened your enthusiasm for all things cinema. In fact, you're probably itching to catch up on all the great flicks you just couldn't fit into your MIFF schedule.
That's the thing about features screening at film fests: unlike Pokemon, you just can't catch them all. We've tried. If you're wondering what you should seek out between now and next year's event, our critics Sarah Ward and Tom Clift are here to help. They've honed down their huge viewing lists to these ten must-see picks — the best, weirdest and most surprising films of this year's MIFF.
THE NEON DEMON
Nicholas Winding Refn loves to push people's buttons. He did it with the flashes of gut-churning violence in Drive. He did it with the oedipal eroticism in Only God Forgives. And oh boy, does he do it in The Neon Demon, too. A slick, stylish, blood-spattered psychological thriller about a young LA fashion model on the rise, the latest film from the provocative Dane has divided audiences around the world, and understandably so. Aided by a pulsing synth score from regular collaborator Cliff Martinez, the nightmarish glow of Natasha Braier's cinematography, and four perfectly calibrated performances from Elle Fanning, Bella Heathcote, Abby Lee and Jena Malone (with special guest appearance from the one and only Keanu Reeves), Refn carves up society's soulless obsession with beauty, before pulling out all the stops for a horrifying, taboo-shattering, laugh-or-you'll-vomit finale. Make no mistakes: there will be walkouts. -TC
A 161-minute German comedy might sound like an unlikely prospect, but bear with us. Though the first half of Maren Ade's third film might make you yearn for a bit less time in the titular character's awkward company, that's by design; in contrast, the second half will make you hope that the movie doesn't end. That's also the path Bucharest-based consultant Ines (Sandra Hüller) traverses as she first attempts to avoid her goofy dad Winfried (Peter Simonischek), and then eventually warms to his wig and false teeth-wearing alter ago, as well as his attempts to brighten up her all-too-serious life with a little levity and fun. You'll laugh, you'll cry and you'll break into applause — and you'll marvel not only at Ade's astute direction, but at Hüller and Simonischek's pitch-perfect performances. - SW
UNDER THE SHADOW
The debut film from Iranian-born, London-based writer-director Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow takes familiar horror tropes — the creepy kid, the mother at her wit's end, the shadowy figure lurking just outside the frame — and transports them to a wholly unusual setting. It's 1988, the tail end of the Iran-Iraq War, and Tehran is being bombed by Iraqi forces. But air raids soon prove the least of Shideh's troubles, after she and her young daughter Dorsa find themselves being stalked by a supernatural evil. A rare spooker that manages to be genuinely frightening while offering insight into life in post-revolution Iran, Under the Shadow should appeal to fans of horror films and foreign-language fare alike. We had a chat to Anvari over here.
Girlfriends is the best American indie film you haven't seen — and the one you should go out of your way to watch as soon as you can. One of the six films in MIFF's Gaining Ground: Take Notice retrospective focusing on trailblazing female directors working in New York in the '70s and '80s, Claudia Weill's debut narrative feature brings honesty, authenticity and humour to the tale of roommates Susan (Melanie Mayron) and Anne (Anita Skinner). When the latter decides to move out and get married, the former is forced to navigate her twenty-something life of finding work as a photographer and looking for love on her own. With supporting turns from Bob Balaban and Christopher Guest, the end result is one of the most perceptive and poignant of the ups and downs of female friendship committed to the screen. It's not by accident that Weill's most recent job involved directing an episode of Girls. - SW
When is a cat video more than just a cat video? When it's a documentary about the feline population of Istanbul. Ceyda Torun's film scampers around the Turkish city following a selection of its furry, four-legged residents as they go about their daily lives, however, this isn't the kind of footage you've watched over and over again on YouTube. Don't get us wrong — Kedi (which means cat, of course) is as cute as you'd expect, and it's also wise, warm and insightful as well. Not only does the doco explore the personalities of its central creatures and the people whose lives they've changed just with their presence, but it examines the seaside locale at street level, investigates the importance of kitties in its history and unearths the developments threatening to transform entire communities. - SW
An antidote to all those crumby found-footage horror movies out there (thanks Paranormal Activity), the sophomore film from Canadian director Matt Johnson (The Dirties) is the most inventive, entertaining fake documentary we've seen in quite some time. Set in the late '60s, with a grainy 16mm look that suits the era, the film follows a group of low level CIA agents who accidentally discover that NASA can't land on the moon. Their solution? Fake it. What follows is an ingenious comedy that slowly shifts into a white-knuckle thriller – one that's fueled by a love of movies and weird conspiracy theories at every turn. -TC
MEN & CHICKEN
A who's who of Scandinavian film and television stars band together for a family drama that's not quite like any other, even if it initially seems to follow a familiar path. Two brothers (Mads Mikkelsen in a rare comedic turn, and We Are The Best!'s David Dencik) try to reconnect with their long-lost relatives in writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen's darkly hilarious effort; however given that the duo have a few peculiar traits — one can't stop masturbating, and the other has quite the gag reflex — they're in for quite the strange reunion. A search for their father leads them to their three siblings (The Killing's Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Søren Malling and Nicolas Bro), who live in an abandoned asylum on an isolated island with more than their fair share of animals. In a sci-fi-esque premise Kafka would be proud of, it only gets weirder from there — and more silly, slapstick, empathetic and amusing. - SW
Hong Kong director Johnnie To is best known for making gangster flicks. So needless to say, when we heard he'd shot a musical, we were more than a little intrigued. Filmed entirely on a sound stage, at the centre of which stands the elaborate skeleton of a gigantic office building, Office follows the various employees of trading company Jones & Sunn, as they climb the corporate ladder, plan outlandish embezzlement schemes, fall head-over-heels in love with one another and occasionally burst out into song. Mixing tongue-in-cheek social commentary with soap-style melodrama and elaborately choreographed song-and-dance numbers, the film was probably one of the strangest looking films of the festival. And it was definitely one of the strangest sounding. -TC
TRAIN TO BUSAN
Is there anywhere that zombies haven't tried to invade? Or any form of transport that hasn't been overrun with unwanted creatures? Yes, Train to Busan lets the undead loose in a locomotive hurtling across Korea, and yet, in the process, it becomes an action-packed, zombie-focused dissection of class clashes and today's me-first mindset that its formulaic concept won't quite prepare you for. Finding both fun and thoughtfulness in all the expected elements, writer/director Yeon Sang-ho does let his movie journey on a little longer than it perhaps needs to, but the film still elicits thrills, tension, emotion and entertainment for the bulk of its running time. Plus, it's also a rare live-action sequel to an animated effort (the much more bleak Seoul Station, which also screened at MIFF); however you don't have to have seen that to thoroughly enjoy this. - SW
THE LOVE WITCH
Writer-director Anna Biller both recreates and subverts the look, feel and maddening gender politics of '60s exploitation horror flicks. The Love Witch follows the adventures of a seductive sorceress named Elaine, who'll stop at nothing, be it murder or satanic invocation, to find herself a man. From the lighting to the production design to lead actor Samantha Robinson's (wonderfully) stilted performance, Biller absolutely nails the aesthetic that she's going for, while at the same time turning misogynist genre conventions on their head. Admittedly, the novelty wears off after a while — at two hours, the movie feels way too long, although we suppose you could argue that that's part of the homage. Regardless, when it works, this is a jaw-dropping piece of retro-inspired feminist filmmaking. -TC
By Sarah Ward and Tom Clift.
Published on August 19, 2016 by Concrete Playground