Top Films at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival

Every year the Melbourne International Film Festival wows audiences with an eclectic program of new cinema, remastered classics and programmed strands focussing on specific aspects of film. I managed to see over 25 films in 17 days whilst also working 17 days straight along with 8 double shifts. Yes, I am shattered! It was all worth it, however. Here is a run-down of what I thought stood out from what I managed to see:

Starred Up – David MacKenzie, UK, 2013

Ben Mendelsohn and Jack O'Connell in David MacKenzie's hard=hitting prison-drama Starred Up
Ben Mendelsohn and Jack O’Connell in David MacKenzie’s hard-hitting prison drama Starred Up

A staggeringly accomplished step-up-in-class from Scottish filmmaker David MacKenzie, Starred Up was the true highlight of my festival. Visually uncompromising and at times downright brutal, this ecological study into the long-standing failures of the UK prison system is both poignant and gripping. O’Connell is outstanding as Eric, and there is an equally effective performance from Rupert Friend as Oliver. But the star of the show is undoubtedly Mendelsohn, whose turn as Eric’s institutionalised, sociopathic father is terrifically engaging. Never shirking from reality, MacKenzie expertly navigates through former prison therapist Jonathan Asser’s piercing script to provide us with a glaring piece of evidence that demands answers from the UK prison service.

 

Sorcerer  William Friedkin, USA, 1977

Big bad truck in William Friedkin's Sorcerer
One big, bad truck in William Friedkin’s 1977 epic Sorcerer

Ten minutes into William Friedkin’s 1977 film, which was the long-awaited follow up to The Exorcist (1973), I suddenly thought I had died and gone to man-cave film heaven! A nail-biting reinterpretation of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s brilliant The Wages of Fear, the film was savagely panned as an expensive flop after premiering in the shadow of Star Wars. However, its genius has long-since been admired by ardent film lovers for it’s highly stylised cinematography and carefully weighted drama and suspense. Starring the undervalued Roy Scheider as one of four rough-around-the-edges men with dark pasts who agree to transport volatile dynamite across a hostile Central-American landscape for a ticket out of the hell hole they have found themselves in, the film has an iconic sequence in which their explosives-laden truck crosses a rickety rope bridge during a viscous tropical storm. I could watch it over and over again with pleasure.

 

Listen Up Philip – Alex Ross Perry, USA, 2014

Elisabth Moss and Jason Schwartzman in Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip
Elisabeth Moss and Jason Schwartzman in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip

Oozing in authenticity from the sublime texture of the 16mm camera, Alex Ross Perry’s delightful poke at the American arty-elite is both a joy and a wonder. Heavily focussed on a ruinous, narcististic writer (a hysterical Jason Schwartzman) Listen Up Philip is a clever, playful black comedy that improves upon the oodles of American independent comedies that have saturated the modern market. Impressive supporting roles for Elisabeth Moss and Krysten Ritter are somewhat overshadowed by a flawless performance from Jonathan Pryce as Philip’s literary idol who both applauds and bemoans Philip’s talent and youth.

 

The Salt of the Earth – Juliano Ribeiro Salgado & Wim Wenders, France & Italy, 2014

Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado
Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado in The Salt of the Earth

A visually stunning documentary that explores the fascinating life and photography of Brazilian auteur Sebastião Salgado. A man who became so emotionally scarred by the human hardships and harrowing realities of life in war-torn landscapes spent much of his later life travelling around the world to habitats and environments that embody the apotheosis of natural beauty. With intimate insights from Salgado’s son and legendary filmmaker Wim Wenders, The Salt of the Earth is a remarkable contemplation on the effect of the artistic process on its artist.

 

When Animals Dream – Jonas Alexander Arnby, Denmark, 2014

Sonia Suhl in Danish horror sensation When Animals Dream
Sonia Suhl in Jonas Alexander Arnby’s Danish horror sensation When Animals Dream

Sonia Suhl plays young Marie, who lives in a remote, dreary Danish fishing village on the beautiful stormy coast of Jutland. When Marie’s body begins to transform in a superhuman way, her drug-induced, crippling mother reveals a horrifying long-kept family secret. To quote the MIFF program guide which sums it up perfectly, “When Animals Dream is a stunning coming-of-age story, full of a restrained horror tonally reminiscent of Let The Right One In. With impressive cinematography and a beautiful score, it’s an intriguing supernatural drama that uses lycanthropy to examine the role of women in remote, repressed communities.” Do not miss it!

 

My passion for the festival continues to grow and next year I wrestle with the idea of being solely a patron rather than working also. With Sydney too becoming a major player in the festival circuit, I may find myself in film heaven next year.

 

Ben Haller, 2014.

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