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The five must-see films of the Sydney Film Festival

Suntan, starring Makis Papadimitriou, is one of the better films in this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Supplied

The five must-see films of the Sydney Film Festival

The Sydney Film Festival always presents an exciting panoply of films – though these are limited, mostly, to the non-experimental and the commercial – and this year was no exception.

From the 40 films I attended, the following five (listed in no particular order) have been selected from 20 or so equally excellent ones, on the basis of diversity of origin and interest as much as aesthetic merit.

Suntan

Makis Papadimitriou in Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s Suntan (2016). Supplied

The plot of Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ Suntan (2016) is, like many great films, exceedingly simple. A melancholy middle-aged physician, Kostis (Efthymis Papadimitriou), is employed as the GP on a delightfully hedonistic Greek island.

One day he treats a carefree, beautiful young tourist, Anna (Elli Tringou) and begins tagging along with her and her group of hip friends. He gradually becomes part of the group, buying them beers, partying with them, swimming with them daily – all at the expense of his practise, and the medical care of other locals and tourists.

However, what begins as a cute depiction of an autumn-spring romance, and a sweet study of one man’s fairly conventional mid-life crisis, rapidly descends in the second half into an emotionally devastating analysis of obsession and the tragedy of ageing.

Makis Papadimitriou in Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s Suntan (2016). Supplied

The scenery, stunningly photographed by Christos Karamanis, is worth the cost of a ticket alone. Every frame bursts with dazzling colours, counterpointed with the savage subject matter.

The film is horribly funny, and is unmatched as a perverse assault on the viewer, presenting us with a thoroughly likable character at the beginning and then cruelly torturing him – and us – throughout the rest of the film.

Tickled

David Farrier in Tickled (2016). Supplied

Tickled (2016) presents itself as an offbeat documentary on a whacky, unheard of subject – competitive endurance tickling – and I bought a ticket on this basis alone.

Made by New Zealand pop culture journalist David Farrier and his friend Dylan Reeve, I expected Tickled to offer some light relief from the existential and metaphysical angst that often seems to characterise the films selected for festivals. Within about the first three minutes, however, I realised that this was not at all the case.

The documentary develops into a bizarrely sinister story of identity fraud, and the sadistic online shaming and intimidation practices of a particularly wealthy American individual. The affable directors – who appear, at first, as a kind of more intellectual Jay and Silent Bob – quickly find themselves out of their depth as they are swept up tracking down this elusive, intensely litigious, character.

David Farrier and David Starr in Tickled (2016). Supplied

We see first-hand, as Farrier pointed out during a Sydney Film Festival Q&A session, the difficulty of making a documentary about a hostile subject. This film is worth seeing for its unexpected story if nothing else, but its insight on the limitations of documentary film making is exemplary.

Anyone interested in the relationship between “truth” and “art” should find a great deal of merit in this film. But be warned: Tickled is anything but a humorous study of a zany sport and its zany athletes.

The Commune

Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune explores desire versus solidarity in a 1970s Dutch commune. Supplied

Directed by Dogme 95er Thomas Vinterberg – his first Danish film after the masterpiece of 2012, The Hunt – I expected The Commune (2016) to be brilliant. Unsurprisingly, it was.

Vinterberg, like his frequent collaborator Lars Von Trier, exhibits a certain excellence at punishing good and virtuous characters. Vinterberg presents us with an absolutely charming heroine Anna (Trine Dyrholm), who seems to represent everything appealing (and vital) about the 1970s counterculture that led to the commune as a viable mode of living, and then proceeds to punish her to the point of devastation and madness.

The plot follows a family, made up of Anna, Eric (Ulrich Thomsen) and their daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen), who inherit a grand mansion. Instead of selling it they decide to set it up as a commune, inviting their friends to move in and own a stake in it. Eric, however, soon begins an affair with one of his architecture students, Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), and Anna, trying to embrace a spirit of free love, suggests that Emma move into the house with them. Things, predictably, unravel from here.

The film is harrowing as it navigates the tension between individual desire and the co-operation, love and solidarity required of communal existence, and hardly offers the upbeat fun one might expect of a retro 70s commune-romp. There are very funny moments, of course, and Vinterberg has (as usual) assembled a cast of the best Danish actors across a range of genres.

Far from condemning the communal structure, Vinterberg simply presents and works through the stress that frequently characterises communal living.

Wild

Lilith Stangenberg in Wild (2016). Supplied

Wild (2016) is a thoughtful, beautifully rendered film by German filmmaker Nicolette Krebitz (better known in Germany as an actress). The film follows young woman Ania (Lilith Stangenberg), working in a crumby job as an administrative assistant in a nondescript German city, as she gradually sheds the banalities of civilised life for a more primal existence.

The catalyst for her transformation is a random encounter one night, outside her apartment block, with a solitary wolf. She becomes fascinated with the existence of this animal so close to the advanced domestic civilisation of which she is a reluctant participant, and devises a way to lure and catch the wolf.

She takes it to her apartment and, though hostile at first, the wolf slowly lets her become his intimate. She develops a profound friendship with the animal, becoming progressively “wilder” herself – randomly showing up for work in tattered clothes or partly nude, engaging in inappropriate sexual acts, defecating on her boss’ desk.

Lilith Stangenberg in Wild (2016). Supplied

Some will read this, like Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), as a film about a female’s descent into madness. Ania is alone in her apartment for a lot of the film, and the boundaries between her thoughts and dreams and the exterior world are at times blurred.

This is to do an injustice to the film. It’s far more interesting to see it not as about increasing deviation (which, by default, a reading of madness suggests), but as a liberation and becoming of self. The film is explicitly metaphysical, and, in the best German Protestant tradition, is intensely insular and inward-looking.

Ania gradually taps into some kind of primal essence deep in her soul and, through a beautiful relationship with an animal, is elevated to grandeur. Wild is a stunning Nietzschean depiction of the potential of vital spirit in a technocratic world.

Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen and Nicholas Hamilton in Captain Fantastic (2016). Supplied

Captain Fantastic (2016) has several things to recommend it – not the least of which is a typically magnetic star performance by Viggo Mortensen in the lead. It’s a sweet, good-natured film about the succour of family in a mind-numbingly materialistic world.

It is very much, as advertised, a kind of minor “indie” comedy, but without the self-importance or heavy-handedness one often comes across in American “indie” cinema (Maggie’s Plan (2015), also in this year’s festival, is a case in point).

A family of six kids, who range from kindergarten to college age, live with their leftist father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Their self-sufficient lives – in some of America’s best scenery – is interrupted by a roadtrip to the dreary, McMansion-filled suburbs of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in order to attend their mother’s funeral.

En route, they partake in several comical adventures, before Ben finally clashes with his ultra-conservative father in law, unsympathetically played by Frank Langella, over the disposal of his wife’s body.

Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic (2016). Supplied

Captain Fantastic is perhaps most notable as a rare Hollywood portrayal of the left as neither sacrificial, saint-like martyrs or idealistic romantics. Ben is a clever, shrewd man – no leftist buffoonery here – who deeply loves the world and his children, and wants what is best for it and them.

There is nothing extraodinary about Captain Fantastic. It is, however, the best of this festival’s US indie comedies. A healthy dose of full-frontal Mortensen nudity will probably further recommend it to some.

Honourable mentions

Other films from this year’s festival worth mentioning include Werner Herzog’s masterpiece of absurd documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016), in which Herzog typically manages to show sympathy for his “eccentric” participants whilst simultaneously allowing his audience the pleasure of laughing at them.

Zero Days (2016), a documentary about the Stuxnet virus by Alex Gibney, would make a good pairing with Herzog’s new film.

Free In Deed (2015) is a brooding, slow-burn drama about inequality in the US, that follows the dreary life – and hope – of a faith healer in the poorest communities of Tennessee. Goat (2016) dissects US fraternity culture in an unwaveringly grim fashion, showing its currencies of humiliation and cruelty with relentless clarity.

Suburra (2015) is an epic Italian gangster-melodrama, a political thriller fully embracing the tradition in all of its indolent trashiness, by turns breathtakingly violent and erotic, as stylish as an Italian fashion ad.

Other comedies to look out for include My Revolution, a sweet teen romance about a Tunisian boy in Paris who embraces the Arab Spring to woo his crush, and Demolition (2016), a fierce black comedy about a yuppie stockbroker, nicely played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who sets about anarchically destroying his life after his wife is killed in a car accident.

Patchwork (2015) and Under the Shadow (2016), a modern day Canadian variation on Frankenstein and an Iranian ghost story respectively, are two of the better horror films that were featured at this year’s festival.

Of the 40 films I saw, there is only one I wish I hadn’t seen. War on Everyone (2016) was for me the major disappointment of the festival. Directed by John Michael McDonagh, it completely lacks the intelligence, emotional potency, and aesthetic splendour of his first two films, The Guard (2011) and Calvary (2014). It tries very hard to be funny, but it seems to think that anything politically incorrect is in and of itself humorous – regardless of context. If you think the mere concept of two women in burqas playing tennis is hilarious, then you’ll probably love this film.

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