MIFF 2020 is almost upon us; although this year, thanks to Covid-19 it’s going to be very different. One of the things I’ve always loved about MIFF is experiencing a film in a large, crowded theatre. It’s terrific being with up to a thousand other people enjoying a story. That’s not going to happen this year. We will all be watching films on-line at home. They are trying to replicate a common experience with a few films by making them available only on the one night. We shall see how it all works out. In the meantime here are my five star films from last year. For various reasons I didn’t get to complete this blog straight after the festival.
Wild Goose Lake
People are surprised that I likes this film so much. It is extremely violent, but for some reason that didn’t impede my enjoyment; as it normally would. Maybe because the violence was so over the top it was scarcely believable, maybe because it was not accompanied by a build up of tension and dread – it just exploded on the screen. We’re in a big city in China, two gangs compete to steal motorbikes, an argument about who gets the best turf spills over into violence, two gang members killed, then, disastrously a police officer, our hero is on the run, being aided – or will he be betrayed – by a mysterious woman. The two leads were very attractive and there were some stunning scenes along the way. I liked it because it’s really an existential film – in a beautiful scene on the lake she asks him why don’t you flee down south? to which he replies: what’s the point? The tension lies not so much in wondering whether he will get caught, but whether he can arrange an ending that suits him. All very atmospheric. Beautifully done. I loved it and saw this twice, taking Joe and Patrick to see it when it was commercially released. Here’s the trailer.
Cold Case (D)
This was a great Danish documentary about the suspicious death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammersjköld in a plane accident (or was it?) in 1961. I remember the controversy about this which must have been current when I was at secondary school and / or university. I regarded Dag Hammersjköld as one of the absolute good guys on the international stage. So I was interested in this film. At the start I thought it was going to be terrible, with the documentary maker, Mads Brügger, seeming to make it all about him. In the end though his very quirky style worked to make a very complex story clear. There are lots of different strands involving secret services from lots of different places; mad right wing conspiracy theorists and some innocent bystanders who get caught up in the whole thing. Some shocking revelations about the deliberate spread of AIDS amongst black communities in South Africa show the lengths to which some went to continue the apartheid system. All of these things are inter-connected and the conclusion is quite shocking; but also quite believable. I really recommend you see this if you can. Here’s the trailer.
This was part of the the Agnieszka Holland retrospective at the festival. I had seen and loved her film, Spoor, at a previous MIFF (you can see that now on SBS OnDemand) and was keen to see her other work. This is her first film and is amazingly assured and quite complex. It’s set amongst a regional theatre troupe, focussing on a husband and wife but including lots of strands that together illustrate how difficult it is to maintain your personal integrity, and relationships, living under a totalitarian regime. It is all lightly done, but devastating all the same. Great performances and really interesting cinematography. Here’s an excerpt.
The Unknown Saint
I originally described this as cute; which undersells it completely. It’s funny but also explores ideas about loyalty, community, progress and faith. Filmed in Morocco it looked fantastic. A thief on the run from police, buries his ill-gotten loot, fashioning the hole to look like a grave – and is then captured and sent to prison for a period. Back to recover his money, he finds the locals, having discovered his fake grave, have erected a small temple to the unknown saint above it. Moreover, they’ve moved from their old village and erected a new one nearby; believing that the presence of the saint will bring prosperity. A few families, loyal to their old village, stay put; praying for rain. At around the time our thief returns, a new doctor comes to the village full of the latest in medical practices. Attempts to get break into the temple are fraught, and a comrade from jail is enlisted to help. All of this, and the new doctor’s attempts to put his principles into practice are funny but the heart of the film is very moving. Here’s the trailer.
This was a great documentary by Werner Herzog, to whose distinctive voice I could listen to forever. His documentaries are also always interesting. This one, is relatively straightforward; basically an interview with an older, wiser Gorbachev interspersed with some very interesting archival footage. At times it’s very funny; he looks at footage of Gorbachev’s predecessors showing the subterfuges used to portray them as healthy. And footage from their funerals which is also funny. Herzog makes no secret of the fact that he is a great admirer of his subject. And Gorbachev comes across as thoughtful and wise. We see him, newly appointed as leader, mixing with people to hear directly from them about problems in the system. He talks about what he was attempting to achieve and where it was subverted. He seems a thoroughly decent man; there’s heart rending footage of his distress at his wife’s funeral; at which Vladimir Putin makes an appearance which is chilling given what we know now. Here’s the trailer.
Another film by Agnieszka Holland. About the Welsh journalist, Mr Jones, who attempted to alert the West to the Ukraine famine caused by Stalin. Unsuccessfully. I liked everything about it, including the scenes set in the Ukraine which I was worried would be too grim. It was all beautifully done. A shocking story – and true largely although there is a walk on part by George Orwell that whilst not accurate in real life, is truthful in spirit. A terrific performance from the lead actor. Here’s the trailer.
This was an exquisite film. From New Zealand, whose films I always check out at the festival because so many of them are so good. The acting was so good that at the start I thought I was watching a documentary. It’s set on a dairy farm in a lush, green valley. Beautiful scenery. Dad is so inarticulate you want to shake him. The son is a bit of a duffer but you warm to him. Mum talks for all of them; but tragedy strikes early in the film and she’s no longer there to facilitate communication between the pair. The father is getting old and wants his son to learn the trade; but junior doesn’t like the mucky business of being a dairy farmer. Unlike the little kid next door, who’s a natural. There’s lots of humour but essentially this is about the ties that bind – family, friends, community. Very moving – I cried. It’s recently been commercially released in Australia and I don’t know what’s happened to it in Melbourne as we experience our second lockdown. Worth tracking down. Here’s the trailer.
The Day Shall Come
I couldn’t initially remember this film; it’s been over a year since I saw it. But the trailer reminds me its a spoof about US intelligence agencies and given recent revelations it’s a bit close to the bone. Very funny but with a very serious message. I chose to see it because Anna Kendrick is in it and she’s terrific but it is the performance of the lead, who plays a deluded, messianic African American who makes this film. It’s his first time acting and he throws everything into the role – which was a hard one. Racism, sexism, white supremacism and spooks are all skewered. The film has been criticised as being patronising of the community it portrays but I didn’t think that. The humour gradually gives way to righteous anger; especially over the end credits where you see pictures of incarcerated African Americans and their prison terms; horrific. Here’s the trailer.
This is another from Agnieszka Holland; this time a three part television series, which we saw all in one piece. She’s a wonderful film-maker. It’s about what followed after the death of the Czech student, Jan Palach, who set himself alight in Prague in 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. I remember when that was in the news. This was made in 2013 and is terrific. Great performances from everyone and a frightening portrayal of what it’s like to live under an oppressive occupying regime. Moral choices have to be made at every turn and I spent the whole time wondering how I would have responded. The lawyer who takes a case for Palach’s mother, at great personal cost to her and her family, is very attractive (as she was in real life – we looked her up) and how this affects her and those around her is beautifully portrayed. She was Dagmar Burêsová and she became the first Minister of Justice in a free Czechoslovakia which was a nice turn of events. Here’s the trailer.
Dwelling In The Fuchun Mountains
This was a panoramic view of a Chinese family. Starting with the matriarch’s birthday celebration in a restaurant owned by her son. Over time relationships between family members are teased out; siblings, husbands and wives, parents and children. Everyone has secrets, everyone is facing a different challenge. Interesting to consider in the current wave of hostility towards all things Chinese that’s happening in the West. It’s a struggle to survive in what is a fairly hostile environment. We see the changing expectations of different generations. And all around, we see the massive changes that are happening in Chinese society. Insightful and moving. Here’s the trailer.
Pain And Glory
Antonio Banderas has rightly been praised for his performance in this film. He plays a film maker, readily identified as Almodovar himself, looking back at his life. I loved the vibrant colours throughout – his clothes, his apartment (which was Almodovar’s real one) and everywhere else. It’s elegiac in tone. Lovely flashbacks to his childhood interspersed with his current situation. He’s suffering a director’s equivalence of writers block. And at the same time he is feeling his age as he deals with various ailments; recovery from back surgery, difficulty swallowing. He’s on loads of pills but eventually starts to self-medicate after catching up with a person from his past. It gives an interesting perspective on creativity. It’s already been seen commercially and should be easily obtainable. Worth doing. Here’s the trailer.
I go to film festivals to see films like this. A truck driver, named Jinpa, is driving through a desolate landscape. He’s in Tibet, in the middle of nowhere. This review tells me he’s on the Kekexili Plateau, the highest plain in the world. We’re with him in the truck for a long while observing the stark landscape for a while. He listens to opera in his truck, so the music is fabulous. Then, to his horror, he runs into, and kills, a lone sheep that appears on the road out of no-where. That unsettles him, but then, out of nowhere appears a lone hitchhiker. Who, our driver later discovers is also called Jinpa. Furthermore, this second Jinpa is on his way to kill a man. Truck driver sets his passenger down at a cross-roads and goes on his way. First he has to deal sensitively with the body of the sheep – we’re in Tibet. He takes it to a temple before finishing his journey in the usual way and visiting his girlfriend. Coming back he turns at the place he left the stranger and investigates whether he has in fact carried out the killing he foreshadowed. It’s all beautifully shot. Incredible landscapes and incredible faces and costumes. I like this description, from the above review, of Jinpa the truck driver: like the rock star Johnny Depp would have been had he been born in Tibet. There are mystic overtones throughout; are we seeing a reincarnation of our hero? Here’s the trailer.
I hadn’t chosen this film initially but it received so much praise during the festival we went to it and I’m so pleased I did. It sounds clumsy; eight different films from eight different film-makers – all women – showing the life of a woman, from girl to grandmother. Each life episode taking place at a different Pacific Island. It didn’t sound as though it would work but it did; gloriously. Some were better than others but all were thought provoking and some were incredibly moving. I loved it. Here’s the trailer.
Another terrific Australian film. The story of a young Aboriginal woman, and of her father and brother; how they cope after the death of the mother which happens early. The girl can run! She’s also taken with the emus she watches a little way out of town. The brother takes up with the wrong crowd – entitled white kids. Social services get involved but it doesn’t go where you expect. Terrific performances from everyone. Here’s the trailer.
Angel of Mine
For the first half, or more of this, I was a bit frustrated thinking it was just another portrait of a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. But a twist in the tale turns everything that you’ve thought about it on its head. Fantastic performances from everyone, especially the lead. A very brief scene was filmed near us – a car drives up Alfred Crescent; blink and you miss it. There are some truly harrowing scenes especially towards the end. Great story-telling. Here’s the trailer.
God Exists, Her Name Is Petruyna
I’d heard good things about this film before it was included in the festival, so was pleased it was on the programme. It wasn’t what I expected but was great all the same. Petruyna is a wonderful character; a bit of a hopeless case at the start, she gets drawn in, accidentally, to the centre of a local community storm. In the wrong place at the wrong time – or the right place at the right time. It is she who ends up with the sacred cross that’s been tossed into the river. Pursued by the mob of muscular types who’d been vying for it she ends up in the local police station. Then through dogged persistence she shows up the forces that should be upholding law and order and, especially, the truth. Sexism is skewered and along with it notions of religion and tradition. A spotlight is put on the role of the media in a crisis as well as the sexism in that industry. And the anxieties of young women trying to make their way in a world of that offers few options is gently explored. Here’s the trailer.
Another slice of Turkish life, familiar to us from the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan; especially as the main character is played by Haluk Bilginer who we saw in Winter Sleep. This is by a first time director, Cent Ertürk. Bilginer plays a father who asks his son to take him back to his home village where he expects to die. Trouble is, his favoured site for burial, beneath a tree he says he planted, has been taken over as a holy site with it claimed Noah planted the tree. Around this scenario we look at the roles of men and women, the church, communities and relationships between fathers and sons. Great cinematography. Here’s the trailer.