The theme of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival was to “explore new worlds”, which saw matters of social justice, empathy and connection examined in many films. Between us, we saw 34 films this year. These are our highlights.
Sacred deer and sacred music
It seems peculiar to name The Killing of a Sacred Deer as my favourite film of the festival as I spent most of the screening oscillating between anxiously gripping the edge of my seat and nervously laughing. But it is always an illuminating experience to step into the mind of director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster) and this fascinating study of a family under threat is his best yet. Ruben Östlund’s beautifully constructed, darkly funny, and perfectly timed satire The Square was a very close second favourite.
However, in the wake of the Charlottesville Nazi riot, the film that remains firmly imprinted in my mind is Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. The documentary explores the civil rights movement of the 1960s through the work of queer writer and civil rights activist, James Baldwin. Using found footage from the time and anchored by an unfinished manuscript by Baldwin, the film draws uncomfortable parallels with the present day. It is a stirring and pertinent documentary that is as much an ode to the key figures of the movement as it is a call to arms.
The tragic death of Dr. G Yunupingu a week before the festival brought into question whether Paul William’s documentary on the most commercially successful Aboriginal musician would be screened at all. However with the support of Gumatj elder David Djunga Djunga Yunupingu and his community, the film was presented at the Closing Night Gala to a standing ovation. It is a powerful and insightful film into the life of a very private and principled man. While it is unclear when the documentary will be released in keeping with the traditions of Dr. G Yunupingu’s community, I would strongly recommend the film as a beautiful exploration of Australia’s “top end” and the strong familial bonds that keep this community going strong.
Also in the realm of music, audiences flocked to Hamer Hall for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s haunting live score of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and composer/filmmaker Michel Chion’s lecture and concert were sold out almost immediately. Hear My Eyes - events that marry a film with live interpretation of its score - once again delivered with René Laloux’s psychedelic romp Fantastic Planet soundtracked from the balcony of the Comedy Theatre by Melbourne’s own Krakatau.
While Denis Côté’s A Skin So Soft didn’t garner much interest from punters, it was definitely one of the standouts for me: an intimate portrayal of strength and muscle building practices.
Audiences also laughed and squirmed in equal measure for Michael Haneke’s Happy End and were charmed by Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces, Places and Olivier Babinet’s excellent doco about French teens, Swagger.
Storks, swan songs and sexual tension
Co-curated by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and presented in association with the National Film and Sound Archive, the festival’s Pioneering Women retrospective offered a triumphant selection of important films directed by women in the 1980s and 1990s, including Ann Turner’s Celia and Laurie McInnes’ Broken Highway.
I was very pleased to see João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist, which sees a young ornithologist researching black storks get lost in an enchanted forest in northern Portugal. I have been following his career since To Die Like a Man and he is one of the more interesting queer filmmakers working today.
Michael Haneke’s Happy End offered a self-aware critique of familial alienation that, while intellectually interesting, was a quite an unenjoyable experience. Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, was sadly the low point of the festival for me. The exploration of “cinema’s bare essentials: image and time” presented 24 tableaux, which grew increasingly more tiresome. Kiarostami was known for preferring films that put audiences to sleep. In this regard, he would have been very pleased with my response to 24 Frames.
In Agnes Varda’s unlikely collaboration with artist JR, Places, Faces (Visages Villages) takes us on a joyous wander through rural France. Many are saying that this is to be Varda’s last film and, if so, this will be the most perfect of swan songs. It’s wonderful and has the right amount of whimsy. The two drive their mobile photo booth from village to village, where they take portraits of people they meet on their way, pasting their results on buildings the subjects either call home or work. The chemistry between the two is real and a pleasure to watch. There is never any condescension with the subjects they meet, whether it is the the dock workers’ wives or Pony, the toothless poet. They are trying to capture the “human through art” in their collaboration with these subjects.
In Luca Guadagnino’s Call me by your name, Timothée Chalamet plays Elio, a young Italian-American who is enamoured by Oliver, a student, played by the enchanting Armie Hammer. Oliver comes to study and live with his family in northern Italy during summer. The film follows the mounting sexual tension between the two and their erotic romance, which is imbued with the effervescence of a European summer. Chalemet’s quiet performance is a joyous exploration of the anguish and euphoria of first love. Elio’s conversation with his father in the last act, followed by an utterly raw credit sequence, is a powerful refusal to disavow one’s emotions. If the #MIFF2017 tag is anything to go by, Call my by your name was the clear audience favourite this year. Oh, and, for better or for worse, you will never look at peaches the same way.
120 Beats Per Minute (120 Battements par minute) highlights the unbreakable bonds at the heart of the queer community, which was especially affective for me given the already toxic nature of the marriage equality postal survey. With the AIDS crisis already having claimed countless lives by the early 1990s, the film follows several members of ACT UP Paris, who fight corporate greed and general indifference. New to the group, Nathan is enamoured by Sean, a more militant member of the group who is throwing every last ounce of energy he has into the struggle.
Director Robin Campillo has a talent for presenting a group discussion, where many participants are individualised and seen as valued characters in the narrative. These increasingly tense meetings never feel tiresome or unwelcome. The film also depicts serodiscordant sex (in which one partner is HIV positive) in a highly erotic way.
The group’s protest actions, such as the invasion of the offices of a pharmaceutical giant, are energetic and thrilling. The highlights of the film, however, are the poetic dances sequences that cut to blood cells. Bronski Beat’s gay anthem Smalltown Boy features in the film, as it does in many films depicting this era. Here though it is used in a powerful protest sequence, recalling the tune’s cultural resonance from the ACT UP era.
I second Felicity’s enthusiasm on The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Square and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s brilliant performance of Jonny Greenwood’s score from Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The closing night celebration of Dr. G Yunupingu’s was an immensely affective experience. The audience gave a standing ovation for the entirety of the credits and it was a privilege to be able to attend the screening. I Am Not Negro is a timely film that cuts together the past and present giving a searing indictment on racial inequality today.
Now it’s time to slowly recover from the dreaded MIFF flu, a fortnight of dark theatres, and a diet of popcorn, shiraz, and, above all else, exciting cinema.