Monday, June 27, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Day 12: Closing Night, Awards, and Final Thoughts

We've finally made it to the final day of the Sydney Film Festival - more than a week since the festival actually closed. I apologize for the lateness of these final recaps: since the festival closed, I've started my internship with the festival's Traveling Film Festival (a roadshow-style presentation of select films from the main festival in different parts of Australia), explored the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, and discovered exciting things here in Sydney. But now I can finally put a button on things with the final three screenings, plus awards.

Before we get into those things, however, I want to say a few things about my experience here. The Sydney Film Festival was my first festival, and I could not have asked for a better one. The venues were fantastic, especially the historic State Theatre; I also saw films in the Event Cinemas on George Street, the Dendy Opera Quays in Circular Quay, and the Dendy Newtown. The films, regardless of quality, were worth seeing for one reason or another, and I only wish that I could have seen even more. Seeing 22 films in a 12 day period is exhausting, but I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to marathon my way through films from all over the world, several of which may not ever get a Stateside release. I hope that one day I'll be able to come back and do it again.

And now we can get to the final day. Short films are hugely important in the Australian film industry. There is limited government support for film production; therefore, a strong short film greatly increases a filmmaker's chances of getting the funding for a feature project. As a result, the Sydney Film Festival sponsors an official competition slate for Australian short films, complete with cash prizes for the winners and a shot of acclaim.

More after the jump.

The 10 finalists for this year's competition were screened in the Dendy Short Film Awards Showcase (grade: N/A), and the films ranged from an animated tale of Marxist historical theory to a romantic comedy complicated by a Soviet meteor. The following films made up the showcase:

"The Spa" (directed by Will Goodfellow): a retiree decides he no longer wants the spa he ordered, and the delivery man senses something else is going on and tries to help.

"Slapper" (directed by Luci Schroder): a poor teenager tries to scrounge up the money for a morning-after pill while babysitting a little girl.

"The Albatross" (directed by Alexander Jeremy, Joel Best, Alex Karonis): a struggling writer faces his alcoholism at sea.

"Eaglehawk" (directed by Shannon Murphy): an aspiring actress pretends to be a mythical creature for the entertainment of tourists.

"Nathan Loves Ricky Martin" (directed by Steven Arriagada): the lonely caretaker of a teenager with cerebral palsy tries to make a connection with her neighbor

"The Meek" (directed by Joe Brumm): tiny creatures make a big discovery, leading to the rise and collapse of a civilization

"You Deserve Everything" (directed by Goran Stolevski): a doctor falls for an Arabic translator, then discovers an unfortunate secret about him

"The Crossing" (directed by Mariska Welsh): a sea captain grapples with regret as a storm approaches

"Welcome Home Allen" (directed by Andrew Kavanagh): four warriors return from battle to a world that is very different than the one they left

"My Best Friend is Stuck on the Ceiling" (directed by Matthew Vesley): a man decides to finally tell his best friend he has feelings for her, only his gift for her has unintended consequences

Of the 10 films, "Nathan Loves Ricky Martin" is the only true clunker, bordering on offensive humor for a joke that's not terribly funny to begin with. "The Crossing" is aesthetically beautiful - animated entirely with sand and salt - but it's more interesting for its style than its substance. "Slapper," too, places more emphasis on "misery porn" aesthetics and situations, and the result is that nothing feels accurate to the characters.

In the middle tier, "The Spa" is pleasant but ultimately inconsequential; the same can be said for "The Meek" as well, which is amusing but it's pleasures evaporate almost as soon as the credits roll. "The Albatross" shows its hand fairly early, and while it works well as an alcoholism allegory, it plays a bit too on-the-nose. "Welcome Home Allen" is essentially a single long, surprisingly dark joke, and it works in the end, but it still feels like a half-baked idea supported by gorgeous long takes.

"Eaglehawk," on the other hand, has some questionable moments, but it works at its best as a quiet character study and is buoyed by a terrific performance by Tilda Cobham-Hervey. "My Best Friend is Stuck on the Ceiling" makes the most of its comic premise, crafting an effectively silly but charming romantic comedy. Best of all, for me, was "You Deserve Everything." The two leads, Sachin Joab and Jean Bachoura, deliver phenomenal performances with indelible chemistry. The film recalls a version of Andrew Haigh's Weekend with a significantly more bitter ending. Hopefully director Stolevski will have a fruitful career ahead of him.

Speaking of fruitful careers: in the 30 years that Jim Jarmusch has made films, he's only twice directed a documentary. The first was 1997's Year of the Horse, chronicling Neil Young and Crazy Horse on their 1996 tour. The second, Gimme Danger (grade: B+), lets the remaining members of the hugely influential punk band the Stooges tell their story in their own words, from lead singer Iggy Pop's childhood in a Detroit trailer park to touring with MC5 to their breakup and ultimate reunion.

Jarmusch and the Stooges are an ideal pairing for this project. Jarmusch matches the band's irreverent take on traditional forms, infusing the documentary with archival material, ironic film clips, animated interludes, and interviews with the band's surviving members (Dave Alexander died in 1975; Ron Asheton in 2009; Scott Asheton in 2014). And the Stooges are excellent subjects, a band that flourished at a time when punk was still embryonic and trying to figure out exactly what it was (though the band would resist giving itself any kind of label). The film is a live-wire of anecdotes and anti-establishment aesthetic, and it plays as a fitting tribute to the band.

If there's one glaring flaw to Jarmusch's doc, it's that it jumps almost immediately from the band's 1974 breakup to its 2003 reunion with little context for what happened in between. There's barely a mention, for example, of Iggy Pop's successful solo career (aided in part by his connections with David Bowie) or guitarist Ron Asheton's stint in the New Order (not the British band). A little more context could have enriched the film's presentation of the Stooges legacy, but as such the film does right by the band's irreverent influence.

"Irreverent" is not the right way to describe Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship (grade: A-), selected as the Closing Night film of the festival. An adaptation of Jane Austen's unfinished novel Lady Susan, the film follows the acerbic titular character (Kate Beckinsale) as she conspires with her American friend Alicia (Chloe Sevigny) to marry off her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to goofy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). All the while, Lady Susan has romantic designs on Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), her daughter's original intended.

I say that "irreverent" is a poor word choice (though one I have seen used in numerous reviews) because, unlike many Jane Austen adaptations, the film is remarkably faithful to her acerbic sense of humor. This shouldn't necessarily be a surprise coming from Stillman, America's preeminent storyteller of bored, sharp-witted upper-class malaise. But preserving Austen's sense of humor is significant, as the film's romantic subplots are not nearly as interesting as Lady Susan's withering take-downs of everyone in her presence. This is a comedy-of-manners about a woman who uses her manners to hide her viciousness, and Stillman wisely chooses to make that the focus.

Not that the film works solely on his credit. Beckinsale has genuinely never been better than she is as Lady Susan, twisting every smile and syllable into a dagger. It's a revelatory performance. Clark, too, does wonders as the young woman ensnared in her mother's devious schemes without any hope for herself. And Bennett absolutely steals every scene he's in as the bumbling Sir James; his "Churchill" bit is comedic heaven. With a cast firing on all cylinders and a terrifically-crafted script, the film soars among the best Austen adaptations.

So now on to the awards. Before Love & Friendship was screened, the juries presented their awards to the winners, most of whom were in attendance. The winners were:

Best Short Film Screenplay: "Spice Sisters," written by Sheila Jayadev (two Indian women in Australia audition for a cooking show)

Yoram Gross Animation Award (Short Films): "The Crossing," directed by Mariska Welsh

Dendy Live-Action Short Film Award: "Slapper," directed by Luci Schroder

Rouben Mamoulian Award for Best Director (Short Films): "You Deserve Everything," directed by Goran Stolevski

Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Best Documentary: In the Shadow of the Hill, directed by Dan Jackson (a film about Rio de Janeiro's preparations for the 2016 Summer Olympics)

Sydney UNESCO City of Film Award: Lynette Wallworth (a local interactive video artist)

Sydney Film Prize (Official Competition): Aquarius, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho

FOXTEL Movies Audience Award (Feature): Mustang, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven

FOXTEL Movies Audience Award (Documentary): Zach's Ceremony, directed by Aaron Petersen

For my personal prizes, I'm going to play by Cannes rules: no single film can win more than one prize, with 1st/2nd/3rd, actor, actress, director, and screenplay as the prizes; I'll also hand out a prize for my favorite short film. And in accordance with those rules, I'm also making up a special prize, because that's a thing juries can do. Everything I've watched that was NOT a restoration is eligible.

1st Place: Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt

2nd Place: Down Under, directed by Abe Forsythe

3rd Place: Paterson, directed by Jim Jarmusch

Best Actor: Aaron Pedersen, Goldstone

Best Actress: Sonia Braga, Aquarius

Best Director: Zhang Hanyi, Life After Life

Best Screenplay: Love & Friendship, screenplay by Whit Stillman

Best Short Film: "Thunder Road," directed by Jim Cummings (shot entirely in one take, a man hilariously attempts to eulogize his mother through the titular Bruce Springsteen song)

Special Prize: Laurent Perez Del Mar, for his beautiful score for The Red Turtle

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