The top 10 films to catch at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival

Top 10 SFF

By Simon Miraudo
June 3, 2014

The Sydney Film Festival is upon us again, and you can trust us to cover all the hits, misses, and, well, whatever word we end up using to describe that single-shot Iranian slasher flick (more on that later). Scheduling and prioritising movies can be a stressful endeavour, so here are my top 10 picks for the fest, selected not simply on the basis of their promise… but also because of their risks. For those Sydneysiders planning on binge-watching more than most humans can healthily endure, there’s an extra twenty honourable mentions for you to program. Check back here over the next fortnight for reviews of the following, or keep up with me (@simonmiraudo) on Twitter as I venture down the rabbit hole.

Honourable mentions: 20,000 Days on Earth, At Berkeley, Begin Again, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her, God Help the Girl, Ilo Ilo, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, Jodorowsky’s DuneJoeKumiko – The Treasure Hunter, Locke, Love Is Strange, Miss Violence, Night Moves, Palo Alto, RuinSnowpiercer.

10. The Skeleton Twins


Saturday Night Live graduates Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as twins who coincidentally attempt suicide on the same day; events that bring the estranged siblings back together. It picked up the Screenwriting Award at Sundance, but what we’re really interested in seeing here are the performers. How will Wiig and Hader – best known for their goofy, comedic turns thus far – fare in what seems to be a fairly dark drama (or dramedy at best)? We’re looking forward to finding out.

9. Willow Creek


Bobcat Goldthwait, once the bane of any ear-haver’s existence, has built quite the career for himself as a director. Though his screed God Bless America only worked in fits and starts, we have high hopes for Willow Creek, a horror mockumentary about hipsters on the hunt for Bigfoot. It’ll at least do until he reteams with Savage Steve Holland for something.

8. Fish & Cat


You should always go into at least one festival flick knowing as little as possible about the feature itself. Though we’re technically hindering your ability to do that with Shahram Mokri‘s Fish & Cat, we’ll keep our description as vague as possible. Here are the key elements that attracted us: 1) It’s from Iran, one of the most promising, burgeoning film scenes in the world. 2) Cinematographer Mahmud Kalari (A Separation) reportedly shot the picture in a single take. 3) It’s a slasher movie. 4) The targets are hipsters (yes, for the second time on this list). We know what you’re thinking: “When you’ve made the sale, stop selling.” Take a chance on Fish & Cat.

7. The Unknown Known


“Why is this man smiling?” ponders the poster for Errol Morris‘ new doco, and no, the answer isn’t, “Because there’s a new Errol Morris doco out,” though that would be understandable. The man in question is Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defence who served during the September 11 attacks and oversaw invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq in the early aughts. We don’t know if Morris will recontextualise Rumsfeld’s reign as he did Robert McNamara’s in Oscar-winner The Fog of War, or merely turn him into (more) of a public punchline, a’la Joyce McKinney in Tabloid (who, I should note, still occasionally calls me, four years after an aborted interview). Either way, we’re at least happy Rumsfeld was submitted to Morris’ intimidating Interrotron, a camera-rig that peers right into the subject’s freakin‘ soul. It’s not worse than anything in Guantanamo Bay… but it’s a start.

6. Two Days, One Night


The most celebrated fraternal filmmakers not called Coen, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne had a hit at Cannes with Two Days, One Night. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman returning to work after a breakdown, only to discover her colleagues have each accepted a pay increase to simply absorb her duties. She has one weekend to convince them to surrender their bonuses so that she may keep her job. The two-time Palme d’Or winners have one hell of a catalogue to compare against, but if Two Days, One Night is half as humane, compassionate, and heartbreakingly beautiful as their last effort, The Kid with a Bike, it can’t fail.

5. Calvary


John Michael McDonagh might not be as big a name as his Academy Award-winning brother Martin (a hugely respected playwright, responsible for In Bruges too), but his 2011 black comedy The Guard introduced him as a force to similarly be reckoned with. He reunites with Brendan Gleeson for Calvary, all about a priest puzzled by the dark forces consuming his small country town, and a death threat delivered during confession. It got great notices out of Sundance. Even if it hadn’t, we’d still be tickled by the prospect of Gleeson and any McDonagh working together once more.

4. Frank


The talent assembled for Frank is bananas. First of all, you’ve got journalist Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare At Goats) scripting a fictionalised version of his time as keyboardist for the papier-mâché-headed cult music legend Frank Sidebottom. Then, there’s director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did) at the helm. Finally, stirred into the mix is Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, and, donning the giant dome and playing the sweet, musically-adventurous, emotionally-troubled title character, Michael Fassbender. Hiding Fassy’s head for an entire movie? Sacrilegious to some, surely. See for yourself if it was worth the trouble.

3. Life Itself


Bring the tissues, or perhaps a basin to cry straight into, because Steve James‘ long-gestating Roger Ebert doco Life Itself is sure to jerk those tears. Chicago legend James (Hoop Dreams) documents Ebert’s career as critic for the Chicago Sun Times (and eventually TV series At the Movies), which earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and inspired multiple generations of film writers and film lovers. Ebert passed away in 2013 following an 11-year battle with cancer that saw him lose his lower jaw as well as the ability to speak. In that time, he wrote prolifically, publishing the very biography upon which the movie is based. A celebration of cinema and one of its great fans screening for a festival audience? Yep, it’s going to get dusty in there.

2. The Rover


David Michôd made about as big a splash as any debut feature filmmaker can make with Animal Kingdom, a locally-produced hit that went on to take the top prize at Sundance, swept the AFI awards, and even earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Jacki Weaver. So… expectations are high for his follow-up, a dystopian drama starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson. Reports out of Cannes suggest expectations, miraculously, will be met (certainly for those who were hoping to see Pattinson sing along to Keri Hilson’s ‘Pretty Girl Rock’ in a barren, hopeless wasteland).

1. Boyhood


Richard Linklater had the film of SFF in 2013: Before Midnight, the gorgeous third entry in an eighteen-year-long trilogy. His latest, Boyhood, has almost as much history, but this time, Linklater’s sharing the whole lot in one go. Filmed over twelve years, it follows the growth of a boy (Ellar Coltrane) into a man as he deals with the divorce of his parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) and his own hormonal overhaul. Reviews out of Sundance, where it made its debut, were rapturous, and Linklater earned the Silver Bear for Best Director in Berlin. An ambitious gambit, we’re hoping that the feature at its core (and the performance of Coltrane, riskily hired and entrusted with the main role at just six years old) makes us forget all about the gimmick and allow us to admire and appreciate the tale being told, just as each subsequent sequel to Before Sunrise managed. We feel confident trusting Linklater on that front.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.

Keep up with Simon’s Sydney Film Festival reviews.

The 2014 Sydney Film Festival runs from June 4 to 15, 2014.

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