I Watched Some 40 Films At This Year's Sydney Film Festival. Here Are My Top Five Picks And One Hilarious Flop

Author: Ari Mattes

(MENAFN- The Conversation) This year's Sydney film Festival's rich offerings of films more than compensated for the minor technical issues that led to some screenings being interrupted.

Out of the 40-odd films I saw, here are my top five, along with some notable mentions and three disappointments (including a genuine dud).

1. The Girl with the Needle

Cowritten and directed by Swedish filmmaker Magnus von Horn, The Girl with the Needle is loosely based on the story of notorious early-20th century serial killer Dagmar Overbye.

But this is no procedural true crime film, painstakingly attempting to recreate crimes with historical accuracy. It's a stylish Danish nightmare dazzling with cinematic acrobatics right from the opening sequence, in which black and white faces hideously morph, looking at the viewer like deranged figures from a hellish circus. It is, indeed, one of the most terrifying films I've seen.

The narrative follows the struggles of new mother Karoline (Vic Carmen Sonne) as she gives her baby to Dagmar's informal adoption agency and begins working with her as a wet nurse, unaware of what's really going on.

Sonne is as self-assured as ever – and none of the actors put a foot wrong here. Seasoned Danish film star Trine Dyrholm is exceptional in bringing nuance to what could have become a caricaturishly evil role as Dagmar. And Besir Zeciri endows Peter, a war-wounded veteran who can only find employment in a circus freakshow, with an unexpected warmth and tenderness.

The Girl with the Needle features some of the most distressing sequences one could find in a commercial film. Its meticulously rendered shades of German expressionism never distract from its smorgasbord of horrors, offering an almost unbearably bleak vision of the world in the aftermath of the Great War. If only all films were this good!

2. Dying

I'd normally suppress a yawn if you told me I had to sit through a three-hour social realist drama about the everyday difficulties of a bourgeois German conductor and his family. Yet writer-director Matthias Glasner's Dying is a near perfect film (no surprise it won four prizes at the German Film Awards).

The film is complex and engrossing – deeply sad in places and hysterical in others – formally controlled, but underpinned by an anarchic sensibility. It is life-affirming without any skerrick of sentimentality.

Lars Eidinger is astonishingly good as maestro Tom, who is trying to keep his career on track as his family life crumbles around him. He is matched by Lilith Stangenberg, mesmerising as his unhinged sister Ellen. Robert Gwisdek is equally exceptional as the highly strung composer and friend Bernard, while Corinna Harfouch anchors the film's first section as Tom's far from maternal mother, Lissy.

At one point, Ingmar Bergman's 1982 period film Fanny and Alexander is playing on the TV (Tom watches it every Christmas). Even though Dying feels like a contemporary film committed to interrogating the difficulties of being in the modern world, there's something of late Bergman here as it unfolds across its epic length.

It is a three-hour film about middle-class life, but like a great 19th-century novel, it never feels long. The fact that nothing particularly extraordinary happens is testament to how well-made the film is.

3. Kill

Director Nikhil Nagesh Bhat's Indian action film Kill is cheesy, sentimental and at first seems remarkably silly.

Commando Amrit, played by beefy TV star Lakshya, is travelling to New Delhi by train with his buddy, fellow commando Viresh (Abhishek Chauhan). His true love Tulika (Tanya Maniktala) is also on board and has recently become engaged to another man through an arrangement by her wealthy father, Baldev Singh Thakur (Harsh Chhaya), who happens to own the train company. When a group of 30-plus bandits led by the charming but ice-cold Fani (Raghav Juyal) move to rob the train, Amrit must defend Tulika, her family and the rest of the passengers.

When the title card appears 40 minutes into the film, suddenly emblazoned on the screen, it seems like a distracting quirk at first. But it begins to make sense as the train rolls on. All of the violence and bone-crushing action of the first section is mere preamble, leading to a point of transition from an extremely violent but fun action film, to a much darker – and bloodier – revenge film.

Kill is an exceptionally well-wrought genre film. The kinetic and balletic action recalls the golden era of Hong Kong action cinema, but with hammers, daggers and sickles instead of guns and the frenetic staging of hand-to-hand combat instead of poetic slow-motion footage. It is also a great example of a film being more than the sum of its parts. No element is perfect, yet they come together to transcend these limitations, its flow reaching sublime levels by the end.

There's also an undercurrent of sadness throughout. We see an India of haves and have-nots, of families of bandits struggling to survive and of the supreme violence sustaining the social and political order. As Fani says to Amrit near the end:“Who kills like this? I killed four of your people. You finished off 40 of my family. You're not a protector. You're a monster. A fucking monster.” The title says it all.

4. Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story

Biographical films about celebrities inevitably feel gossipy. Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui's Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story is no exception. But it is so well made (and well-resourced, one would imagine, as it's produced by DC) that it moves beyond its tabloid-like qualities.

Interviews with Reeve's friends and colleagues, including Susan Sarandon, Glenn Close and Jeff Daniels, are interspersed with home footage shot by Reeve and his family throughout his career and during his recovery from the near-fatal riding accident that left him paralysed and breathing through a respirator for the rest of his life.

Reeve's close friendship with“brother” Robin Williams assumes central importance, with the film implying the two men were so emotionally dependent on each other that Williams would probably still be alive if Reeve hadn't died in 2004.

But the most interesting parts of the film involve carefully assembled archival footage looking at how Reeve's decision to play Superman negatively impacted his career and personal life. He never starred in another profitable film, and his father and colleagues such as William Hurt loathed his decision to play a comic book character.

This is counterpointed with his post-accident career as a director and disability advocate. Interviews with Reeve's children add a genuinely tragic sense of pathos to this slick, well-made and emotionally exhausting“true Hollywood” story. It's everything one could want from such a documentary.

5. Kneecap

Cowriter-director Rich Peppiatt's Kneecap is a riotous, irreverent biopic following the career of Belfast drug-dealers Móglaí Bap and Mo Chara as they team up with high school music teacher DJ Próvai to become the first Irish-language rap group, Kneecap.

The real Kneecappers cowrote the film and play themselves and, given none of them are actors, do so remarkably well. They're joined by Irish heavyweights Josie Walker, playing the detective who has it in for them, and Michael Fassbender, playing Móglaí's father, an old-school Irish radical who has been on the run for the past few decades.

The film depicts their hedonistic drug use and anarchic disregard for the law in the context of their radical political motivation to speak Irish against the colonial English. And while it may be a bit cartoonish in its presentation of Belfast's history and the struggle to keep Gaelic alive, it is a music biopic after all.

Kneecap is violent, coarse and laced with infectiously good humour – a genuinely fun film, buoyed by its charismatic stars and lively style. Only the most stringent moralist wouldn't enjoy this one!

Notable mentions

It's extremely difficult to pick a top five when 15 or so of the films I saw were standouts. And this is testament to the quality of the festival's selection.

It was a pleasure watching heavyweight Sean Penn go head-to-head with Dakota Johnson in writer-director Christy Hall's Daddio , even if the story takes an uninteresting turn in the final third. Despite the banality of the premise – a New York cabbie chats with a passenger – and the inanity of some of the dialogue, this romantic ode to urban life in all its alienated, fluoro-lit techno glory is so well crafted that we happily go along for the ride.

Equally affective is the melancholic and beautifully performed Puan , a restrained comedy set in a University faculty in Buenos Aires. Puan could easily make my top five, as could André Téchiné's My New Friends ), an offbeat French melodrama starring Isabelle Huppert as a disillusioned police officer who becomes friends with an anti-cop activist in the suburbs.

Poor performers

Of the lot, I only found three films disappointing.

The first, Among the Wolves, is a Belgian-French documentary in which a photographer and illustrator lie waiting in a tiny, makeshift building to encounter wild wolves. While some of the footage is striking, the film is let down by its scientific inaccuracy, such as references to the“alpha male” wolf – a term and concept that has long been discredited . Such innacuracy is a cardinal sin for a documentary, which is supposed to inform the viewer.

Though critically acclaimed, Hollywood horror film The Substance – a story of an ageing entertainer who turns to a mysterious substance to stay young (with unsurprisingly horrific ramifications) – feels neither new nor particularly interesting. And while it's great to see Demi Moore and Dennis Quaid back on the big screen, their caricaturish characters make the whole thing seem like a boring joke: an inflated short film that is both irritatingly silly and painfully didactic.

But rarely does a film so resolutely reaffirm a sense of the absurd hubris of humans as Francis Ford Coppola's self-financed mega-flop, Megalopolis. This cartoonish, incoherent mess set in a dystopian version of the United States,“New Rome”, is howlingly bad in places.

Imagine the worst parts of The Hunger Games and Fellini Satyricon (1969) crossed with Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and you begin to get a sense of the kind of self-indulgent, heavy-handed nonsense that is Megalopolis.

Side-splittingly funny moments come courtesy of bad dialogue (“Utopias become dystopias,” actor Giancarlo Esposito says at one point with a straight face). And stilted acting by Adam Driver and Aubrey Plaza had the (remaining) audience in stitches. Megalopolis is like one of the great fiascos from days gone by – the 21st century's Heaven's Gate – and there is definitely something delightful about the existence of this US$120 million (roughly A$180 million) flop.

But as a dud, Megalopolis is the outlier. And in a year following Barbie, Oppenheimer, Napoleon and Poor Things (talk about heavy-handed cinema), much of the menu of this year's Sydney Film Festival once again proves there are still good filmmakers out there making good films.

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