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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Best, Weirdest and Most Unexpected Films of Sydney Film Festival 2018

From empathetic dramas about life on the margins to lurid dance party horrors and silent nature documentaries, our film critics saw it all. Here are the films they suggest you track down this year.
By Sarah Ward and Tom Clift
June 25, 2018
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The Best, Weirdest and Most Unexpected Films of Sydney Film Festival 2018

From empathetic dramas about life on the margins to lurid dance party horrors and silent nature documentaries, our film critics saw it all. Here are the films they suggest you track down this year.
By Sarah Ward and Tom Clift
June 25, 2018
  shares

For the past 65 years, Sydney Film Festival has delivered two things: a heap of films for cinephiles to devour while sat in darkened rooms in the middle of winter, and plenty of conversation fodder afterwards. Attendees sit, watch, think, talk, drink, debate, rush between venues, try to avoid the chaos on George Street and start to wonder what a decent meal tastes like — and they ponder it all for the 12 months afterwards.

In its usual fashion, this year's SFF delivered all of the above, including a feast of flicks that everyone will be chatting about for some time to come — and, if they're not, they should be. From empathetic dramas about life on the margins and single-setting thrillers to lurid dance party horrors and silent nature documentaries, our film critics Sarah Ward and Tom Clift saw it all. Emerging from their 12-day movie marathon, here's their picks for the best, weirdest and most unexpected movies of the fest.

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BEST

LEAVE NO TRACE

The Heiresses might've won SFF's competition this year, but Leave No Trace won plenty of hearts with its tale of a father and daughter trying to live life on their own terms. Military veteran Will (Ben Foster) and teenager Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) are comfortable in their cosy hidden camp in a public nature reserve — free of mod cons, expectations, boundaries and attitudes — but when they're forced to move, and to adjust to society's idea of normality, it upends their existence in more ways than one. That the movie that tells their tale is so thoughtful, quiet, assured and compelling shouldn't come as a surprise given that it's the long-awaited next effort from Winter's Bone writer-director Debra Granik, and nor should the striking observational cinematography that makes the film a visual treat as well. Indeed, eight years after the feature that catapulted Jennifer Lawrence to fame, Granik's latest is no less exceptional, and nor is its young female lead: New Zealand actress McKenzie, a certain talent to watch. — Sarah Ward

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THE RIDER

All Brady Blackburn wants to do is hop back onto a horse. As a rodeo cowboy and gifted trainer, it's what he's compelled to do. Watching him struggle with life without his only passion makes for one of the year's most empathetic, soulful and heart-wrenching efforts, as Brady wades through the aftermath of an in-ring incident that almost killed him. Shot with lyrical images that find tenderness in Brady's story, suffering and situation, The Rider is also a case of art imitating life, with actor Brady Jandreau going through the same scenario himself after meeting writer-director Chloé Zhao back in 2015. Also starring members of Jandreau's family, the result is a contemporary western with a heart as big as America's sweeping plains — told with devastating intimacy, and making certain stars out of both the quietly-spoken, captivating Jandreau and second-time feature filmmaker Zhao. — SW

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BLACKKKLANSMAN

The latest joint from Spike Lee may be set in the 1970s, but it could hardly be more relevant today. And boy does the writer-director make damn sure that you know it. The story of an African–American police detective who spearheaded an operation to infiltrate the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, BlacKkKlansman is a fierce, funny, stylish film featuring standout performances from John David Washington, Adam Driver and Topher Grace, the latter of whom is positively repulsive as organisation head David Duke. Some viewers will take issue with Lee's less-than-subtle allusions to contemporary US politics — at times, you can practically feel his contempt radiating from the screen. But, honestly, can you blame him? — Tom Clift

BlacKkKlansman will be released in Australian cinemas on August 16. 

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BURNING

Burning couldn't have come to SFF with bigger expectations. Acclaimed South Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong (Secret SunshinePoetry) makes his first film since 2010, a Haruki Murakami short story inspired the script and it was the critical hit of Cannes — even more so that Palme d'Or winner Shoplifters. And while this 148-minute film isn't going to be for everyone, if you're on its wavelength then it's a ruminative mystery, a fine-tuned character study and an intricately observed examination of human relationships. The narrative revolves around delivery man Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), the former neighbour Haemi (Jong-seo Jun) he reconnects with and her wealthy new guy (The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun) on the scene. Lee doesn't hold back in exploring class, gender, community and modern Korean society, but he does so in such a meticulous and gradual way that this slow-burn film eventually catches fire (metaphorically, although expect a few literal flames on screen). — SW

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SHOPLIFTERS

Hirokazu Kore-eda has long been fascinated by questions of family. From Our Little Sister to Like Father, Like Son, the Japanese writer-director has probed and prodded at the indelible connection between siblings, spouses, parents and grandparents, crafting exquisite, often heart-wrenching dramas in the process. His latest film, Shoplifters, concerns an unconventional Tokyo family who must resort of petty theft in order to survive. We won't reveal where the story goes from there, but suffice it to say there's a good reason this funny, moving, quietly provocative film won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. — TC

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SEARCHING

It's a great year for films unravelling solely on computer screens, with Searching joining Profile among 2018's most interesting — and rousing, immersive and thought-provoking — features. They share a common element, along with Unfriended from 2014 (and forthcoming sequel Unfriended: Dark Web): Russian-Kazakh filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov. In producing mode here, with first-timer Aneesh Chaganty in the writing and directing chairs, Bekmambetov's latest screen-based flick first charts the Kim's family's usual ups and downs, then plunges into tragedy when now-teenager Margot (Michelle La) doesn't come home one evening. That leaves dad David (a never-better John Cho) to try to track down his daughter not only with the police's help, but using every online tool at his disposal. Chaganty throws in both foreseeable and unexpected twists and turns, but in accurately reflecting and smartly dissecting the impact of humanity's constantly online status within the confines of a missing person thriller, it's an absolute winner. — SW

Searching will be released in Australian cinemas on September 13. 

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THE GUILTY

You heard it here first: if The Guilty gets an English-language remake, which this tense Danish thriller likely will, then it should cast Tom Hardy. We've already seen — or rather heard — Hardy nail the single-setting, talk-based scenario in Locke, and The Guilty is a great companion piece, this time set in a police call centre. When Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) answers his next emergency call, he's ill prepared for the events that follow. Talking to a distressed woman who says she's been kidnapped, is worried about her young kids left at home and seems in danger of imminent violence, his cop instincts kick in, with the demoted officer doing whatever it takes to help his caller. An intense debut from writer-director Gustav Möller, this gripping effort commits to its concept from start to finish, particularly in its claustrophobic visuals and uneasy mood — as well as Cedergren's stellar performance. — SW

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COLD WAR

When Cold War won the Best Director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, it really didn't come as a surprise, even to those who hadn't seen it. Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski's last movie was the meticulously shot, Oscar-winning Ida, so expecting another piece of sumptuous black-and-white mastery was a fairly safe bet. And the writer/director hasn't just delivered on those expectations — he has blown them out of the water. Set over 15 years and taking inspiration from his own parents' relationship, this sweeping European romance proves an utterly devastating exploration of love, loyalty, politics and survival set against the backdrop of its titular period. While the feature looks astonishing in every perfectly-lit frame, it also boasts exceptional performances from stars Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, with the latter radiant even in moments of deep sorrow. — SW

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WEIRDEST

CLIMAX

How do you follow a divisive relationship drama full of gratuitous 3D sex scenes? If you're writer-director Gaspar Noe, with a mesmerising cocktail of carnage, music and sangria. A late addition to this year's Sydney Film Festival line-up, Climax takes place at a dance rehearsal after-party, where petty squabbles and personal baggage spin violently out of control when somebody spikes the punch. Those who are familiar with Noe's previous films such as Irreversible, Enter the Void and Love will recognise all of his trademarks: a pulsating soundtrack, floating camerawork and sequences of exhilarating beauty that make subsequent moments that much more disturbing. Love it or hate it, you certainly won't forget it in a hurry. — TC

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THE ANCIENT WOODS

Whether you're a nature documentary fan with all of Sir David Attenborough's series bookmarked in your streaming queue, or someone who prefers to stare at the real thing rather than seeing it captured on screen, The Ancient Woods is a unique, atypical and utterly essential big-screen viewing experience. Biologist turned filmmaker Mindaugas Survila points his camera at various spots of old growth throughout a Lithuanian forest and simply records nature doing what it does — sans music, commentary or any human interference. Capturing everything from thickets of trees swaying to wolves stalking to owls flying as the seasons pass, Survila took nearly ten years to make the film, which might sound weirdly committed. But as this patient, contemplative and meditative effort washes over you, it's the effect that The Ancient Woods has on its audience that's truly something unusual and different. You could hear a pin drop in the cinema, such is the peaceful, attentive vibe. Cinematic bliss doesn't get any better than this. — SW

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MOST UNEXPECTED

TYREL

Seven features into his career, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva has established one thing: he doesn't want audiences to be comfortable while watching his films. Polarising is the term usually applied to his work, which often takes on topical subjects while pushing boundaries — think Magic Magic's before-its-time depiction of a woman's unravelling and Nasty Baby's queer adoption drama. In Tyrel, race and masculinity are pushed to the fore in a incisive and unsettling fashion when a group of buddies head to a cabin for a boys' weekend. Tyler (an excellent Jason Mitchell) is the lone newcomer, and he's the only African-American among the crew. Silva takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to watching the group's behaviour and Tyler's increasing discomfort, in a film that's all-too-relatable in its exploration of being an outsider at a party, all-too-believable in its dissection of today's climate of toxic white masculinity, and will ensure you never hear REM's music the same way again. — SW

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FILMWORKER

Whether you're a film tragic or just a casual festival goer, everyone has heard of Stanley Kubrick, the visionary behind such masterpieces as 2001: A Space OdysseyFull Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. His righthand man for 30 years, Leon Vitali, doesn't enjoy the same recognition — a fate Filmworker aims to redress. The documentary's title gives an indication of the many roles its subject played in Kubrick's life, with Vitali inspired to work with the filmmaker after seeing A Clockwork Orange, then scoring a pivotal acting part in Barry Lyndon, and finally taking on any task he could to assist his mentor over the rest of Kubrick's career. The many behind-the-scenes clips on the likes of The Shining are a joy to behold, but it's Vitali's frank recollections of his time spent helping someone else's genius — and the corresponding ode to all the folks that toil away behind the scenes — that makes this movie such an astonishing film about filmmaking. — SW

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For more Sydney Film Festival highlights, check out our mid-festival round-up.

Published on June 25, 2018 by Sarah Ward

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