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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Ten Standout Movies from Melbourne International Film Festival 2019 That You Should Look Out This Year

Including Matthew McConaughey being Matthew McConaughey, a Chinese drama with a 55-minute 3D shot, and two movies starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots.
By Sarah Ward
September 15, 2019
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Ten Standout Movies from Melbourne International Film Festival 2019 That You Should Look Out This Year

Including Matthew McConaughey being Matthew McConaughey, a Chinese drama with a 55-minute 3D shot, and two movies starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots.
By Sarah Ward
September 15, 2019
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On most days of the year, a film festival is in full swing somewhere in Australia. In plenty of places at plenty of times, more than one is competing for cinephiles' eyeballs and spoiling movie buffs for choice. But there's nothing quite like the Melbourne International Film Festival. In terms of duration, it's the country's longest, treating film fans to 18 cinema-filled days of big-screen gems. Naturally, it boasts the biggest program as a result — a lineup that, in 2019, spanned everything from powerful documentaries about racism in Australia, to Oscar-winners fighting zombies, to huge Sundance hits.

It's the kind of festival that couldn't be more immersive — whether you're camping out in one theatre, enjoying the comfortable chairs and giant screen, for as long as you can; or rushing around the inner-city between multiple venues day-in, day-out. And, it's the type of fest that's full of surprises too, with many of its highlights lurking beyond its best-known names.

As always, we went, we watched and we survived. Now, we're here to report back. After many, many hours spent feasting on films, here are our picks of the bunch. If they weren't on your viewing list before MIFF, add 'em to your pile to chase down whenever and wherever they next pop up.

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BEST

THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE

The streets aren't safe for accountant Casey Evans (Jesse Eisenberg) and, in Riley Stearns' caustically funny satire The Art of Self-Defence, toxic masculinity isn't safe either. Leaning into machismo in order to tear it apart in a devastatingly dark, effective and hilarious fashion, this offbeat gem charts the aftermath of an eventful stroll to the corner store, with its mild-mannered protagonist — who already feels out of place amongst his constantly posturing male colleagues — brutally attacked while walking home one night. So, he does what plenty of folks might, enrolling in a karate class overseen by a charismatic sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and formidable second-in-charge (Imogen Poots). Taking to his subject with zero mercy, Stearns' blows prove as sharp as they are savage, with a knowing Eisenberg oh-so-instrumental in making it all work. And, work it does.

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LES MISERABLES

Lady Ly's crime-thriller takes its name from a very obvious source, and its Montfermeil setting and exploration of class clashes as well. In the process, it openly invites comparisons to Victor Hugo's famous, much-adapted work, all while twisting its various components into its own compelling and confronting piece of cinema. Taking to the banlieues of Paris, Les Misérables spends its time flitting between cops, kids and gangs, as tensions between all three reach boiling point — over the usual prejudices, long-held beefs, stolen lions, a wrongful shooting and some highly sought-after drone footage. Unrelentingly terse, deftly choreographed and unafraid to filter real-world unrest through every frame, it's not always subtle; however, given the complicated terrain that it traverses, Ly's film needn't be. What it occasionally lacks in nuance, it feverishly makes up for both emotional and visceral power.

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LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

One of cinema's most polarising inventions, 3D movies have always proven a mixed bag. When they work, they're astonishing. When they don't, they can instantly turn you off the entire gimmick. When Chinese director Bi Gan deploys the technique in Long Day's Journey Into Night, however, it's a sight not only to behold, but to luxuriate in. The poet-turned-filmmaker ends his contemplative drama with a 3D scene that's also a 55-minute single take, and it couldn't be more glorious. The rest of the movie, which traces a man's return to China's Guizhou province to search for the woman he loves, is just as entrancing in its patient narrative and striking images. Both otherworldly and dreamlike, it demonstrates that Gan's debut Kaili Blues was hardly a one-off — but watching the feature's protagonist roam around his hometown, and following the camera along with him, is truly a 3D cinema experience that isn't easily forgotten.

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A BROTHER'S LOVE

Amusing, delightful, awkward and relatable all at once, A Brother's Love doesn't just understand the state of existential turmoil that bears down on most of us — it happily, savvily dwells in it. Sophia (Anne-Élisabeth Bossé) has hit her mid-30s, has just received a PhD that won't get her a job, and has no choice but to move in with her older brother Karim (Patrick Hivon), whose life is as orderly as hers is chaotic. When he starts dating her gynaecologist, Sophia goes into freefall. Well, she plummets further. The pair have always been close, but this new development completely unsettles her sense of self. Writing as well as directing, French-Canadian actor-turned-filmmaker Monia Chokri clearly learned a thing or two from featuring in Xavier Dolan's breakout hit Heartbeats. In her first stint behind the lens, she blends spot-on insights with an energetic style (not to mention an outstanding performance by Bossé), resulting in a film that always feels both unique and universal.

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BEANPOLE

Picking up two prizes in the Un Certain Regard section at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Beanpole delves into the minds and lives of two women trying to find their place in post-World War II Russia. Nothing is easy in Leningrad in 1945, but for nurse Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and returning soldier Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), everything is fraught with danger and complexity. That proves true whether the noticeably tall Iya is trying to cope with the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder, or endeavouring to raise an orphaned baby — and when they're both attempting to negotiate a city and a society that's been blown apart as well. Possessing talent, wisdom and a meticulous approach to the art of filmmaking that ranges beyond his age, 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov crafts a drama that's equally heart-wrenching and exquisite, descriptions that also apply to the movie's exacting visuals and stunning performances.

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THEM THAT FOLLOW

Matters of faith sit at the heart of Them That Follow, a superbly acted exploration of expectations and opportunities in a mountainside religious community. Overseeing his Appalachian flock, pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins) devoutly adheres to his Pentecostal beliefs, which focus on worshipping and handling snakes. But, caught between the man she loves (Thomas Mann) and the one she's supposed to marry (Lewis Pullman), preacher's daughter Mara (Alice Englert) begins to question their way of life and its strict requirements, especially when it comes to her own agency, as well as matters of living and dying. In their feature debut, writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage balance slow-burning thrills with an exceptional handling of mood and an intimate devotion to their characters — with assistance not only from the stellar Goggins and Englert, but from Oscar-winner Olivia Colman and Booksmart star Kaitlyn Dever, too.

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WEIRDEST

VIOLENCE VOYAGER

The result of one Japanese filmmaker's determined and distinctive vision, Violence Voyager is a movie like few others. Writer/director/cinematographer/editor Ujicha spins a story about two school kids who wander into a seemingly abandoned theme park, only to discover human-like robots wandering around doing nefarious deeds, as well an evil scientist plotting, scheming and experimenting behind the scenes. That might sound fairly familiar; however this mixture of sci-fi and body horror comes to life via seemingly innocent, innocuous-looking paper puppetry — aka intricate 2D animation — with more than a few spurts of real liquids and fumes added for good measure. It's inventive, entertaining and best watched late, in a darkened room, with an audience in the exact right mood for its weird and wonderful delights.

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VIVARIUM

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots join forces again. In fact, they get stuck together. Playing a young couple trying to navigate the housing market and buy their first home, the pair are strong-armed into checking out a new suburban development by an immensely odd salesman (Jonathan Aris). Once they tour the place — and rightfully find its template-like design creepy, as well as its exact resemblance to every other house in the estate they then realise that they can't leave. Where writer/director Lorcan Finnegan takes his characters from there is best discovered by watching, but it's an imaginative, madcap ride that has plenty to say about the kinds of supposedly perfect lives society pushes us towards. If you think settling down in a bland street, devoting your life to the next generation and getting caught in a repetitive routine is the stuff of nightmares, Vivarium knows the feeling. Never overplaying its hand, this impressive, economical genre piece also benefits from excellent performances from its two stars.

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MOST SURPRISING

THE GRAND BIZARRE

A vibrant collage of stop-motion imagery that's wholly focused on textiles, The Grand Bizarre trades in immersion. Each of its 16mm frames bursts with colour and texture, as first-time feature director Jodie Mack follows swathes of fabric around the world — and, while time is spent in factories where said materials are fashioned by machines but designed to look handmade, this isn't a standard documentary. Rather, the film twists its visuals into a sensory piece of art, and does the same with its assemblage of beat-fuelled tracks and everyday sounds as well. This is cinema at its most experimental and hypnotising, while also asking viewers to confront the ins and outs of the global fabric trade, and reassess and recontextualise items so instrumental in our lives but often given so little thought or attention.

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THE BEACH BUM

Matthew McConaughey plays a perennially stoned poet. Harmony Korine makes his first film since Spring Breakers. Yes, it's quite the match. Charting the Florida-set misadventures of bedraggled slacker Moondog, The Beach Bum works to the strengths of both its star and its director, following its roguish protagonist as he tries to get by — and rendering his rebellious, anarchic exploits in the vivid hues and expressive visuals that Korine used so well in his last movie. The filmmaker gets ample help from his returning director of photography, Benoît Debie, with the pair at their most indulgent here. So is McConaughey, in a role that he was clearly born to inhabit. And yet, even as The Beach Bum ebbs and flows, weaving through a narrative that's purposefully unfocused, it remains perceptive and effective in probing and satirising the hedonism and materialism it gleefully steeps itself in.

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If your favourite film isn't on our list, that could be because we've raved about it before. Before the fest, we saw and loved Monos, Memory — The Origins of Alien, I Was At Home, But, Extra Ordinary and Los Reyes — and Share made our streaming recommendations for last month as well. From our rundown of Australian titles to check out this yearThe Nightingale and Emu Runner both screened at MIFF. And, from our Berlinale highlights, so did The SouvenirAmazing GraceGhost Town AnthologySkin and Buoyancy as well. Back at the Sydney Film Festival, we couldn't recommend In My Blood It RunsIn FabricScheme Birds and Happy New Year, Colin Burstead highly enough. Once that fest was over, we also added Pain and GloryPortrait of a Lady on FireJudy and PunchRay & LizBacurauCome to DaddyDirty God and The Dead Don't Die to our picks.

Published on September 15, 2019 by Sarah Ward

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