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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Best, Worst and Weirdest Movies of the Sydney Film Festival 2015

Here's what left our mouths agape, for one reason or another.
By Tom Clift
June 22, 2015
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By Tom Clift
June 22, 2015
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The 62nd Sydney Film Festival closed on Sunday, June 14, having unleashed a number of great and good films upon the city. But 'great' isn't all we go to the festival for — we come looking for the stuff that challenges us, for the weirdest concoctions that will never get a cinema release, for the wild artistic risks that might not even work as a motion picture and, yes, for the failures that went down swinging. So with that appetite guiding our cinematic feast, here are our critics' highlights of the festival.

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THE BEST

THE CLUB

If there's one club no one wants to be a member of, it's the one at the centre of Pablo Larrain's latest film. The director of 2012's No keeps his voice political and his eyes focused on his Chilean homeland, with the injustices committed by the Catholic Church his new point of focus. That his chilling and complex tale takes place within a coastal retirement home for disgraced priests should give an indication of the dark psychological territory he traverses, though Larrain spares his judgment for the system rather than his subjects. There, he's scathing about the culture of covering up scandals, as demonstrated by a final act that just might render viewers speechless. He's also likely to cause another club to form: those of avid fans of the atmospheric feature, and of his continued contemplation of corruption. -Sarah Ward

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TEHRAN TAXI

Road movies often take characters on a literal and emotional journey from point A to B. You know the ones. Jafar Panahi interprets driving, talking, growing and learning a bit differently; the director turns on-screen cabbie in Tehran in an effort that merges art and life on several levels. Panahi is currently banned from filmmaking, yet once again uses his limitations as inspiration — including in setting and staging his latest feature in a taxi, and in combining fact and fiction. In this year's Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear winner, he makes a statement about his own predicament while drawing attention to the restrictions prevalent in modern-day Iran. Forget heading off on holiday; his road trip takes audiences through his and his nation's everyday existence. -SW

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THE HUNTING GROUND

It was a fantastic festival for documentary filmmaking, with titles like Going Clear and Sherpa taking on pressing real world issues with empathy and determination. But of all the docos in the program, Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground stands out as perhaps the most important. Over 103 devastating minutes, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker exposes the endemic rates of rape on American college campuses — crimes that administrators at many of the country’s leading universities have a shameful history of trying to sweep under the rug. It’s a grim and confronting story, but one that needs all the attention that it can get. -Tom Clift

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VICTORIA

If you thought the long takes in Gravity and Birdman were impressive, then have we got a recommendation for you. Filmed in a single real-time take, Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria follows a young Spanish expat living in Berlin, who after a big night out finds herself the unlikely participant in an early morning bank heist. Schipper’s audacious shooting style adds a sense of immediacy to the tale, taking viewers through the city’s famous club scene and into its seedy criminal underworld on the same emotional rollercoaster as Victoria herself. Gripping and empathetic, this is experiential cinema at its finest. -TC

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THE WORST

SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY

Screwball comedies can be a love 'em or hate 'em affair. Sometimes their fast-talking banter charms. Sometimes their reliance upon too many conveniences grates. Sometimes, like in She's Funny That Way, the latter outweighs the former. In his first film in more than a decade, writer/director Peter Bogdanovich brings together a likeable cast of Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte and Kathryn Hahn, yet pushes them past the point of farce and into tiring territory. There are a few giggles to be had, alongside obvious love for genre, but it's the late-stage cameo that most will remember this movie for, and that's never a good thing. -SW

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AMONG THE BELIEVERS

Among the Believers isn’t so much a bad film as it is a disappointing one. Documentarians Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi were allowed unprecedented access to Abdul Aziz Ghazi, the leader of the notorious Red Mosque network which is widely viewed as a breeding ground of religious extremism in Pakistan. Yet we can’t help feel that they squandered the opportunity, with the resulting documentary offering little real insight into the minds of the would-be terrorists or the social and political factors that create them. With so much media attention given to the threat of Islamic terrorism, Among the Believers needed to bring a lot more to the table to rise above the noise. -TC

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THE BOLDEST EXPERIMENTS

ARABIAN NIGHTS

Making a three-volume, 383-minute feature is a bold choice, but the length of Miguel Gomes' Sydney Film Festival competition-winning effort is actually one of the least bold things about it. Yes, he's made his movie an endurance test; however, it's his choice of content and the way he splices it together that's audacious. Often involving trials and other forms of judgment, frequently featuring animals (bees, a talking cockerel, the canine winner of Cannes' coveted Palm Dog Award, and too many chaffinches), and flitting between surreal segments and documentary-style observation, the thematically connected chapters try to achieve a feat the director himself acknowledges as impossible. That'd be seducing in narrative while acknowledging the misery of Portugal's harsh economic reality — and if it sounds like courageous, challenging work, that's because it is. -SW

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TANGERINE

Loud, gaudy and unapologetically crass, Sean Baker’s Tangerine is a far cry from a stereotypical festival film, and honestly, that’s a big part of why we loved it. Shot on the streets of Los Angeles using tricked-out iPhone 5s, the film follows a transgender prostitute named Sin-Dee as she blazes through the city with her best friend Alexandra in tow, on the hunt for her pimp boyfriend who she’s learnt has been unfaithful. The hyper-raw cinematography suits the plot and characters to perfection: tacky and stylish and outrageously funny all at once. And beneath all the humour lies surprising emotional depth. -TC

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THE MOST WTF

THE FORBIDDEN ROOM

Guy Maddin's latest effort, as co-directed with Evan Johnson, is the kind of movies cinephiles dream of. No, it's not your usual, stereotypical serious movie fare — this really is something that feels it has been ripped out of someone's head mid-slumber, or perhaps mid-hallucination. Think tripping through cinema history, complete with mind-altering substances, and you're still nowhere close to the ride this takes through layers of stories, colours, genres, tropes and film stocks. The Forbidden Room is a movie that teaches you how to take a bath, has a wolf hunter as its hero, and relays the thoughts of a volcano and a moustache. We're not kidding. Yes, it really is that offbeat and glorious. -SW

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A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE

The title of this film is probably the least strange thing about it, hence its place in our coveted WTF section. The third part of a thematic trilogy by Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson 15 years in the making, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence consists of a series of deadpan tragicomic vignettes ostensibly ‘about being a human being’. Sexually aggressive dance instructors, a pair of morose travelling salesman and the long dead King Charles XII are just a few of the bizarre characters who inhabit this esoteric comedy, one that had us scratching our head in bafflement as often as it had us laughing. -TC

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Published on June 22, 2015 by Tom Clift

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