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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Best, Weirdest and Most Unexpected Films of Melbourne International Film Festival 2017

A documentary about rats, an Australian film on faking it till you make it and a Parisian terrorist thriller all make it onto our must-watch list from MIFF.
By Sarah Ward
August 28, 2017
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By Sarah Ward
August 28, 2017
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It's Australia's longest and biggest international film festival, spanning 18 days and 358 titles, and it's quite the cinephile endurance test. Yes, we're talking about the annual Melbourne International Film Festival — the place where scampering rodents, a deadly game of picking family favourites, making fun of Jared Leto and giant faces pasted across historic French buildings all came together. David Lynch waxing lyrical about a tortoise, teenage terrorists roaming around a department store and not your usual type of superhero flick all made an appearance too.

They're just some of the standout moments from this year's  program, the ones that stuck with our film critics Sarah Ward and Tom Clift after they stepped out of the festival's cinemas (and, most likely, just before they stepped into another one). Thanks to bleak Russian dramas, mind-bending time loop trickery and harrowing real-life retellings, there's more where they came from — including our rundown of the best, strangest and most surprising movies of MIFF 2017.

(And if you're wondering why Call Me By Your Name, Good Time, Ali's Wedding, A Fantastic Woman, Brigsby Bear and The Square didn't make our MIFF picks, that's because we saw and loved them at the Sydney Film Festival. These are ten newbies.)

BEST

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

Greek weird wave pioneer Yorgos Lanthimos follows up his first English-language feature The Lobster with this equally bizarre offering — an uneasy, unpredictable, darkly funny moral thriller that will make viewers laugh and then feel awful for doing so. Colin Farrell stars as a cardiologist with skeletons in his closet, who is forced to make an impossible decision after his family finds itself plagued by a mysterious affliction. Make no mistake: the stilted line delivery, not just from Farrell but also Nicole Kidman as his wife, is very much by design. Lanthimos' films are designed to make you feel unsettled, and none have done it better than this one. — Tom Clift

NOCTURAMA

If consumerism and nihilism often sit side by side, then so do anarchy and apathy — in Nocturama's view of the world, at least. Indeed, if writer/director Bertrand Bonello achieves one thing with his mesmerising and provocative film, it's forcing the viewer to question, well, everything. With a simply stunning command of his visceral visuals and unnerving mood, he charts the actions of seemingly ordinary Parisian students who care about everything and nothing, who want to improve the world around them and see it all burn, and who are driven to act in a devastating way and then happily frolic through their department store hideaway. Here, painstaking tracking shots through the streets, the most unexpected use of 'Whip My Hair' you're ever likely to come across and a calculated kick of a final act all come together to make for a movie that won't be forgotten easily. — Sarah Ward

LUCKY

As well as being the best thing to reach screens this year, Twin Peaks has gifted viewers with the joys of plenty of Harry Dean Stanton and David Lynch. Don't worry, there's more where that came from, and it's just as wonderful. The veterans — one a 91-year-old actor with 199 credits on his resume, the other the inimitable filmmaker who has directed him five times — join forces again in Lucky, which thrusts the former to the fore as a small-town loner forced to face his mortality. The landscape of Stanton's face pairs perfectly with the arid dessert surroundings, while his specific brand of cantankerous charm finds its match in Lynch (who acts, rather than directs) as his monologue-spouting, tortoise-loving pal. — SW

LOVELESS

Dissecting a society infected by oppressive politics, Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev captures modern life in his homeland in bleak slices, whether exploring brothers reunited with their absent father in The Return, a woman forced to do whatever it takes for family in Elena, or a family taking on a corrupt mayor in Leviathan. Stark and stunning from start to finish, Loveless is no different. Here, a squabbling couple on the brink of divorce discover that their largely neglected 12-year-old son has gone missing — and there's no one like Zvyagintsev at taking an already tense and heartbreaking situation into formally composed, emotionally brutal, absolutely astonishing territory. — SW

LET THE SUNSHINE IN

Love and loneliness are two sides of the same coin in Claire Denis' light but insightful Let the Sunshine In, which finds empathetic comedy in the romantic escapades of Juliette Binoche's newly divorced 50-something artist. A sophisticated and seductive look at the ups and downs of dating and desire it may be, but as the film flits through a series of affairs, it's never afraid to reveal both the disarming delights and devastating lows of putting yourself out there. Laughs follow, and so does a smart, spirited and soulful exploration of affection and intimacy — as driven by Binoche's enigmatic candour — that cuts deep. — SW

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL

You wouldn't have thought that a film set in the shadow of the global recession would make you root for a bank. And yet, that's exactly what viewers will find themselves doing during Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The latest film from Hoop Dreams director Steve James, this compelling documentary follows the legal struggles of the only financial institution to be charged by the US Government in the wake of the GFC. But it wasn't a giant multinational. Rather, New York prosecutors went after, a small, family-owned bank with deep connections to the Chinese immigrant community. Abacus interrogates questions of responsibility, scapegoating and prejudice, while doubling as a thrilling courtroom drama. — TC

FACES PLACES

If everyone in the world looked at strangers in the same manner as Belgian-born filmmaker and French New Wave icon Agnes Varda, we'd be living in a much, much happier and kinder society. The almost 90-year-old's empathy, enthusiasm and understanding drives Faces Places in two ways: in the photographs that she takes with street artist JR, and in the film that chronicles their snapping — which is then followed by printing out giant versions of their pics, and plastering them on the walls of rustic, historic buildings. In fact, her attitude towers over the film in the same way her artworks loom over villagers below, and the impact is just as enchanting. Accordingly, love, life, creativity, connection, accepting others and acknowledging that nothing is permanent are all a part of this charming documentary. Oh, and goats as well. — SW

THAT'S NOT ME

Some of the best comedies find their laughs from relatable drama. And, while we all haven't watched our twin sister live out our wildest dreams of becoming a successful actor (and date Jared Leto), we have seen hopes and wishes fall by the wayside, taken leaps of faith that haven't paid out, and had to redefine our idea of a happy ending. That's the tale of low-budget Aussie comedy That's Not Me, the first feature from writer/director Gregory Erdstein and writer/star Alice Foulcher, and an earnest, astute, insightful and thoroughly amusing exploration of making it, faking it and the fact that life usually exists somewhere in between. — SW

THE WEIRDEST

RAT FILM

There are few movies out there like Rat Film. Plenty of other animals have clucked, purred, barked, splashed and scurried their way through cute critter-focused documentaries, but not in this fashion. Trust us. Taking on the creatures humanity usually kills rather than celebrates, director Theo Anthony wanders from filming a rat trapped in his own rubbish bin, to exploring society's ways of dealing with rodents, to stepping from their prevalence on Baltimore's streets to a whole host of class, racial and economic divisions — and throwing more than a few existential musings in as well. It sometimes comes across as disjointed, but it's never less than fascinating and illuminating, complete with Werner Herzog-like observations as narration. — SW

THE ENDLESS

On paper, The Endless might sound like the sum of its intriguing but far from unusual parts, with creepy cults, temporal trickery and sibling struggles all fairly common film fodder. On the screen, however, the latest film from director/actor duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead proves anything but standard. In fact, it's the kind of sci-fi/horror flick that will floor you with its ingenuity, make you want to watch it again immediately afterwards, and inspire you to check out the filmmaker's first effort, Resolution. Imaginative, enthralling, astute with its aesthetics and atmosphere, and insightful in contemplating both human and supernatural drama, this account of two brothers returning to the close-knit camp they used to call home is the whole weird and wonderful package. — SW

THE MOST UNEXPECTED

DEATH IN THE TERMINAL

On October 18, 2015, a gun-toting terrorist stepped inside a bus terminal in the Southern Israeli city of Beersheba. 18 minutes later, three people were dead as the authorities reacted, people on the ground turned into an angry mob and blood soon smeared white surfaces. Watching these events unfold through security video and mobile phone footage is as unsettling as it sounds, with to-camera chats from people who were there helping to fill in the gaps. Directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry immerse viewers in a situation that's both horrifying and harrowing — not to mention confrontingly revealing about human nature in times of extreme crisis, as well as in the current international political climate. — SW

JUPITER'S MOON

Religious allegory meets arthouse flick meets action movie meets cry for compassion in Jupiter's Moon, a strange, vaguely satirical, occasionally stunning film about a Syrian refugee who is shot by a twitchy border cop only to discover he can fly. Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó has crafted an incredible-looking piece of work, full of breathtaking long takes that recall Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (as does some of the subject matter). Not everything about the movie is a success — it's fairly heavy-handed, and runs more than a smidge too long. But went it works, it soars. — TC

By Sarah Ward and Tom Clift.

Published on August 28, 2017 by Sarah Ward

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