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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Ten Best Things to See at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2014

Because choosing between a four-hour Filipino crime drama and a documentary about Big Bird is never easy.

By Tom Clift
July 14, 2014
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The Ten Best Things to See at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2014

Because choosing between a four-hour Filipino crime drama and a documentary about Big Bird is never easy.

By Tom Clift
July 14, 2014
  shares

Marked in red on every Melbourne movie lover's calendar, the Melbourne International Film Festival is approaching at rapid speed. And from the looks of things, the 63rd annual edition is shaping up to be a good one. The program is a winner and, with the death of the Greater Union multiplex on Russell Street (RIP uncomfortable seats), festival goers can expect some brand-spanking new venues as well. The thought of having to jog between Melbourne Central and the Treasury Theatre off Spring Street isn't exactly appealing, but seeing a MIFF film in IMAX seems pretty damn cool.

First things first though. With the program announced and tickets now on sale, the time has come to narrow 341 films down to a number that (a) you can actually afford and (b) won't make your eyes bleed. Choosing between a four-hour Filipino crime drama and a documentary about Big Bird is never easy, but these are the kinds of decisions that simply have to be made. To make your ticket selection just that little bit easier, check out our picks from this year's MIFF lineup.

ONE PRESTIGE PIC THAT WAS ALL THE RAGE AT CANNES

No one's going to mistake the Yarra for the French Riviera, but the highlights of the word's most prestigious film festival are well represented at this year's MIFF. The joint winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, Mommy is the most recent work from prodigious Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan (Heartbeats, Laurence Anyway). A heightened, visually stylish melodrama, the film tells the story of a fiery single mother and her relationship with her troubled teenage son. What's particularly remarkable about the film is that Dolan shot it entirely in 1:1 aspect ratio, transforming the screen into a perfect square. It may sound like a bit of a gimmick, but the result is nothing short of astounding.

Also: Dolan's Jury Prize co-winner was none other than French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard, still going strong at age 83 with his first feature shot entirely in 3D, entitled Goodbye to Language. There's also Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's superbly pared-back social drama Two Days, One Night and James Gray's fourth consecutive Palme d'Or contender, The Immigrant.

ONE EXAMPLE OF CONTEMPORARY ASIAN CINEMA AT ITS FINEST

The life story of the legendary Chinese martial artist Ip Man has been made into movies before, but The Grandmaster puts all previous versions to shame. Renowned Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046) brings his signature visual opulence to every frame, from the elaborate set and costume design to the gorgeous golden hues of the cinematography. Likewise, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) outdoes himself, crafting action scenes that are as elegant as they are thrilling.

Also: Visually striking Chinese thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and was one of our top picks from the Sydney Film Festival last month. Acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang has two films on the program, in the form of narrative feature Stray Dogs and the more contemplative Journey to the West. A special documentary sidebar, India in Flux: Living Resistance, offers portraits of life in modern day India.

ONE AMERICAN INDIE WITH A CAST OF FAMOUS FACES

The latest film from writer-director Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy) features Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as a trio of radical environmentalists plotting to blow up a dam. Well received out of the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals last year, Night Moves looks to be a tad more mainstream than the rest of Reichardt's oeuvre, with the film's tense, paranoid plotting earning it comparisons to the works of Alfred Hitchcock.

Also: Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig get serious in Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins, Nicolas Cage tries to salvage some of his acting cred in David Gordon Green's Joe, and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke age 12 years in Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

ONE DOCUMENTARY TO CHALLENGE YOUR ASSUMPTIONS

In 2008, China became the first country to officially recognise 'internet addiction' as a psychological disorder. The prescribed treatment:  jail-like boot camps run by khaki-clad soldiers, where parents send their web-obsessed kids to cure them of their affliction. Web Junkies pulls back the curtain at one such facility, following three teenage boys as they try to kick their online habit. In doing so, the film explores the perils of obsessive behaviour, as well the enormous expectations placed on children in contemporary China.

Also: Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris goes head to head with former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, while the philosophy of Noam Chomsky gets animated in Michel Gondry's Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? There's also a wealth of movies about movies, including a behind-the-scenes look at the history of Studio Ghibli in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness and an ode to Alejandro Jodorowsky's unmade masterpiece in Jodorowsky's Dune.

ONE LOCAL PRODUCTION TO RESTORE YOUR FAITH IN THE AUSTRALIAN FILM INDUSTRY

Shot in Melbourne by Australian directing duo the Spierig brothers, this year's opening night film, Predestination, stars Ethan Hawke as a time-travelling secret agent. While that sounds all kinds of awesome, we're actually more excited for the other Australian time travel movie on the program. Shot on the cheap by first-time director Hugh Sullivan, the quirky sci-fi rom-com The Infinite Man had a rapturous reception at SXSW, with Indiewire and Time Magazine naming it one of the best films at the American festival.

Also: The already mentioned Predestination, assuming you're willing to splurge for an opening night ticket. The same goes for the gala presentation screening of Tony Ayres' '70s crime pic Cut Snake, as well as the gritty Melbourne-set cop drama Felony on closing night. At regular prices, Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin Wilson's Ruin was among the most memorable Australian entries at the Sydney Film Festival, while Robert Connolly's children's film, Paper Planes, sounds delightful.

ONE LATE NIGHT GENRE FLICK TO REALLY PUSH YOUR LIMITS

Like him or hate him, no one makes movies like Sion Sono. After bursting onto the global scene in 2008 with his four-hour up-skirt photography epic, Love Exposure, the Japanese poet-turned-filmmaker has made a name for himself pushing the boundaries of violence, sexuality and good taste. Why Don't You Play in Hell? follows a group of amateur filmmakers thrown headfirst into a bloody Yakuza crime war. Although not for the faint of heart, you can just about guarantee that you won't see anything else like it at the festival.

Also: Local director Jon Hewitt remakes the impossibly nasty Ozploitation film Turkey Shoot, a movie that in some ways feels like a spiritual prequel to The Hunger Games. On a lighter if still rather gruesome note, Aubrey Plaza and Dane DeHaan star in the Warm Bodies style zom-rom-com Life After Beth.

ONE FILM FROM THE BACKBEAT SECTION TO GET YOU MOVING TO THE MUSIC

Some of the most popular films at MIFF are programmed in the musically themed Backbeat section. The one we're most excited about this year is the Glascow-set indie musical God Help the Girl, written and directed by Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. Australian actress Emily Browning stars as an emotionally troubled teenager who turns to song-writing as a means of escape, eventually forming a band with the help of Skins stars Hannah Murray and Olly Alexander.

Also: 20,000 Days on Earth presents a semi-fictionalised day in the life of Nick Cave, while Florian Habicht's new documentary Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets takes viewers through the career of '90s rock act Pulp.

ONE CINEMATIC EPIC TO TEST YOUR ENDURANCE (AND YOUR BLADDER)

It wouldn't be MIFF without having your butt fall asleep at the Forum Theatre at least once. Of the many epic length films at the festival this year, the immediate standout is Lav Diaz's four-hour crime drama Norte, the End of History. An exploration of family and class set in the rural Philippines and based loosely on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the film has been lauded by critics from Cannes to Toronto to New York and described by the New York Times as "a tour de force of slow cinema". Just make sure you bring a snack, because you may have to skip lunch.

Also: Shot in vivid black and white, Aleksei German's adaptation of the seminal Russian sci-fi novel Hard to Be a God runs for three hours and took 13 years to complete. On the non-fiction side of things, Frederick Wiseman's 244-minute observational doco At Berkeley has been critically acclaimed, as has Wang Bing's 228-minute portrait of a Chinese mental institution, 'Til Madness Do Us Part.

ONE HILARIOUS COMEDY TO FILL THE GAPS BETWEEN THE ARTSY STUFF

Not every movie that shows at a festival is horribly worthy and depressing. That said, our pick of the best comedy at MIFF this year does have a bit of a body count. Directed by and starring Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Concords) and Taika Waititi (Boy), What We Do in the Shadows follows the attempts of four vampires to live inconspicuously in a downtown Wellington flat. Shot as a faux documentary a la The Office, the film is a hilarious combination of silly and bloody that earmarks it not just as the funniest film of the festival but the funniest film of the year.

Also: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey and Lena Dunham show off their improv skills in Happy Christmas, the latest low-key comedy from mumblecore maestro Joe Swanberg. Patrons in need of a laugh can also check out the new film from The French Kissers director Riad Sattouf, a Pythonesque gender farce entitled Jacky in the Kingdom of Women.

ONE RARE CHANCE TO SEE A CLASSIC ON THE BIG SCREEN

One of MIFF's big strengths in recent years has been its focused retrospectives. This year the programmers will shine a light on the work of iconic French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, a sidebar that includes a screening of Francois Truffaut's definitive New Wave masterpiece The 400 Blows. The chance to see the film — one of the most influential works in the history of cinema — in a theatre is a chance cinephiles simply can't afford to miss.

Also: Other films in the Léaud retrospective include Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep and a two-part screening of Jacques Rivette's 12-hour Out 1, Noli me Tangere. William Friedkin's 1977 thriller Sorcerer will hit the big screen on the back of a critical resurgence, while further sidebars catering to Hong Kong genre flicks and Italian comedies ensures there'll be a film for every taste.

MIFF 2014 runs from July 31 until August 17. For more information and to book tickets, visit the MIFF website.

Published on July 14, 2014 by Tom Clift

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