Film

Our Top 14 Picks From The Sydney Film Festival Program

We whittled down the 200 films on offer to a list of 14 recommendations.

Amy Winehouse

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The full Sydney Film Festival program was announced this morning, so if you’re in town make plans now to hibernate in a warm, dark cinema from June 3-14.

There are more than 200 films screening, so you’ll have to make some decisions. If it helps, here are my personal favourites.

Results, dir. Andrew Bujalski

Starring: Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan

American indie auteur Andrew Bujalski follows 2013’s beguilingly weird Computer Chess with this romcom, which promises to skewer neurotic fitness culture the way Drinking Buddies did for the craft beer scene.

A miserable, schlubby millionaire (indie cinema ‘that guy’ Kevin Corrigan) seeks help from an Austin self-improvement guru (Guy Pearce, using his Aussie accent), and both men find themselves jogging towards an adorably uptight personal trainer (Cobie Smulders).

The Duke of Burgundy, dir. Peter Strickland

Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna

If you adored the sumptuous world of Peter Strickland’s giallo homage Berberian Sound Studio, get ready to have your jimmies rustled by his surreal, precise homage to ’70s Euro-porn.

Cynthia and Evelyn (Sidse Babett Knudsen from Borgen, and Chiara D’Anna) are lovers in a BDSM relationship. They’re also entomologists; pinned butterflies and caterpillars echo the mingled cruelty, admiration and possessiveness of their affair. This film promises to be visually gorgeous, politically sophisticated, and fifty shades sexier than that other erotic movie.

Amy, dir. Asif Kapadia 

If you saw Asif Kapadia’s extraordinary film Senna, you’ll know what elevates his documentary work above the usual parade of talking heads. Here, his subject is Amy Winehouse, who was popularly held to be doomed before she even died.

Kapadia assembles collages of archival footage and new voiceover interviews with Amy’s parents, friends and ex-husband. The result is immersive, and much more moving than the media narrative: a tribute to a human being with a beautiful, frustratingly extinguished gift.

The documentary also comes with controversy. Following the film’s Sundance premiere, the Winehouse family released a statement through their spokesman saying they “would like to disassociate themselves from the forthcoming film about their much missed and beloved Amy”, calling the film “misleading” and claiming it “contains some basic truths”. The film-makers have defended it, saying the documentary is “a reflection of our findings from these interviews”.

The Invitation, dir. Karyn Kusama

Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman

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Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Æon Flux, Jennifer’s Body) makes a welcome return to the big screen with a psychological horror film drenched in dread and paranoia. Will (Logan Marshall-Green, from Prometheus) is invited to dine with his ex Eden (Tammy Blanchard) at the Hollywood Hills house they once shared.

But Eden now has a new husband, David (Michiel Huisman) — and there’s something increasingly NQR about Eden, David, their guests, and the parlour games they begin to play.

Women He’s Undressed, dir. Gillian Armstrong

As a screen costume nerd, I’m seriously excited about Gillian Armstrong’s documentary celebrating an Australian cinema legend. Born in Kiama, Orry-Kelly designed costumes for more than 280 films ­– including Casablanca, An American in Paris and Some Like It Hot – between 1932 and his early death in 1964. He won three Oscars, and was unapologetically gay when many of his peers were closeted.

Talking heads include Jane Fonda, acclaimed costume designer Catherine Martin, and former ‘pimp to the stars’ Scotty Bower. Oddly, it’s premiering aboard the Sun Princess cruise ship on Wednesday June 10. Dress code: resort wear.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, dir. Marielle Heller

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård

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Debut director Marielle Heller adapts Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 cult graphic novel as a mixture of animation and live action. Doe-eyed Bel Powley is the title character Minnie, a sexually voracious 15-year-old in 1970s San Francisco who sleeps with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) hot boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). As you would!

But what happens when Mom finds out? If it does justice to its source material, Heller’s film won’t shrink from its protagonist’s mix of horniness, vulnerability and creative inspiration.

Vincent, dir. Thomas Salvador

Starring: Thomas Salvador

This unassuming French fantasy-dramedy follows an otherwise ordinary man who develops super-strength, agility and quick reflexes when immersed in water. Is Vincent a mutant superhero, or maybe a merman? Either way, his life’s about to change when people — especially the girl he loves — find out what he can do.

Director Thomas Salvador stars as Vincent, and does most of his own stunts, without any special effects.

The Wolfpack, dir. Crystal Moselle

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I’m so fascinated by this documentary. Director Crystal Moselle noticed six boys running through a crowded Manhattan street and decided to follow them. She befriended the Angulo brothers, who’d been homeschooled by their controlling father, rarely leaving their tiny apartment.

Bonded as a tribe, they spent their childhoods re-enacting their favourite movies – especially those by Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. But Moselle’s chance meeting, and the four and a half years of filming that followed, would change the boys’ lives forever.

54: The Director’s Cut, dir. Mark Christopher

Starring: Ryan Philippe, Mike Myers, Salma Hayak, Neve Campbell

Mark Christopher’s reputation took a massive hit when Miramax heavily cut and reshot his gritty queer disco drama 54 to appeal to multiplex audiences, and the film then bombed.

Now, 17 years later, Christopher has restored nearly 40 minutes to his tale of Shane (Ryan Philippe), a gorgeous opportunist from New Jersey who flirts and fucks his way into the inner circle at New York nightclub Studio 54. It’s more sexually and morally ambivalent, and Mike Myers is much funnier as lecherous club owner Steve Rubell. See this extremely ’90s movie the way its director intended.

Strangerland, dir. Kim Farrant

Sarring: Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Joseph Fiennes

This outback psychological thriller is director Kim Farrant’s debut feature, and it promises to occupy the same gothic territory as Wake in Fright, Beautiful Kate and Mystery Road.

Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes are newcomers in a remote desert town, who spiral into rage and madness after their teenage daughter and son both vanish in a massive dust storm. Hugo Weaving plays the local cop who uncovers dark, disturbing clues to their fate.

Dope, dir. Rick Famuyiwa

Starring: Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons, Tony Revolori, Zoe Kravitz, A$AP Rocky

This adorable coming-of-age comedy caper from Nigerian-American director Rick Famuyiwa could be a future classic. A trio of teenage nerds from Inglewood blag their way into a local gangsta’s (A$AP Rocky) house party and accidentally end up with a backpack full of drugs. Their efforts to return the narcotics, and then to sell them, form a string of hilarious setpieces that nimbly navigate a fraught terrain of race, class and cool.

Imagine an updated twist on House Party and Friday, with songs by Pharrell.

Slow West, dir. John Maclean

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius

2015 is shaping up to be a bumper year for Westerns. We’ve already seen The Homesman and Euro-Western The Salvation; coming up later this year are Jane Got A Gun, Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight and In A Valley of Violence. And then there’s Slow West.

Gorgeously shot in New Zealand (though it’s set in 19th century America), it follows a 16-year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s guided by a mysterious traveller (Michael Fassbender) on a quest to reunite with his sweetheart (Caren Pistorius). By turns it’s tense, violent and darkly funny. But far more importantly, it co-stars Ben Mendelsohn in a truly magnificent fur coat.

In The Basement, dir. Ulrich Seidle

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Let’s face it: people like Wolfgang Priklopil and Josef Fritzl have not given Austria a good reputation when it comes to basements.

This documentary by Ulrich Seidl (of the Paradise trilogy) explores the basement as a space Austrians reserve for their most private – and weirdest – hobbies. By turns uncomfortable and amusing, it observes subterranean sex dungeons, Nazi tuba recital halls, and workshops for creating spookily lifelike ‘reborn’ dolls.

Holding The Man, dir. Neil Armfield

Starring: Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Guy Pearce, Sarah Snook and Anthony LaPaglia

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SFF’s closing night film is based on Timothy Conigrave’s beloved memoir and its hugely successful stage adaptation. Directed by Neil Armfield (his first film since 2006’s Candy), it was shot at Xavier College in Melbourne, where in 1976 Conigrave met the love of his life, school football captain John Caleo.

Ryan Corr, who’s best known from Packed to the Rafters, plays Tim opposite Craig Stott as John. The cast also includes Guy Pearce, Sarah Snook and Anthony LaPaglia.

The Sydney Film Festival runs from June 3-14. To browse through the rest of the program, head to their website. To book a festival Flexipass or individual tickets, head here.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk