* * *
Every year the Melbourne International Film Festival stages a cultural takeover of inner Melbourne. For two and a half weeks hundreds of movies flood city screens. This year the festival has more than 350 works on offer, including shorts, Virtual Reality works, an IMAX film, and, of course, features.
Plainly movies are not dead yet, despite years of exaggerated reports to the contrary. But the industry is transforming and evolving in ways that defy scripting. The expansive nature of this year’s program reflects the continuing success of film festivals as exhibition platforms for movies outside of the Hollywood system. Film distribution researcher Lauren Carroll Harris has found that while the number of Australian arthouse cinemas is declining, the number of festivals is dramatically increasing.
Festivals aren’t immune to the digital revolution sweeping change the rest of the media industry. A few years ago, a film like Bong Joon-ho’s Okja would debut at Cannes, travel through the festival circuit, come to MIFF, receive a limited cinema release and then head to DVD.
Then along came Netflix. The company invested $50 million in the production of Okja, gave it a couple of screenings (including at the Sydney Film Festival) and then released it worldwide simultaneously on its streaming platform. The film has bypassed most cinemas and festivals altogether, revealing a new model that may entice an increasing number of filmmakers away from the more traditional circuit.
What does this mean for a festival like MIFF, which has been running since 1952? In the maelstrom of digital disruption, tightening wallets and increasing competition for our eyeballs, it’s impossible to tell.
Thankfully, while we wait around for answers, we still have the movies. Here’s my guide to some of this year’s program strands, and the ten films I’m most looking forward to seeing.
► Opening Night, Centrepiece, Closing Night Gala
You can safely skip MIFF’s opening, centrepiece and closing night galas unless you have the money (tickets range from $39 to $150). Thankfully MIFF has programmed opening night film Jungle, starring Daniel Radcliffe and directed by Wolf Creek’s Greg McLean, in another couple of regular sessions. McLean also appears in the program directing The Belko Experiment, a horror film about a bunch of office workers who are forced to kill each other. The screenplay was written by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn.
► Overnight Sci-Fi Marathon
This is what a festival is all about: hunkering down overnight with a bunch of strangers to watch cult cinema from 9pm to 9am. Running at the Astor theatre through the night of Saturday August 13th, featured movies include David Cronenberg’s body horror classic eXistenZand Nothing Lasts Forever, a 1984 sci-fi parody featuring Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd. It was never officially released and has only screened sporadically since filming wrapped 33 years ago.
► Planetarium Fulldome Showcase
There’s a fascinating subculture of moving image artists who create works to be screened in planetariums. The works don’t necessarily have anything to do with space, instead making use of the distinctive curved roof of the planetarium for all sorts of experimental purposes. Head out of the CBD and to the Melbourne planetarium at Spotswood for an immersive, experimental and occasionally trippy experience.
For two years running MIFF has programmed its blockbuster movies, the ones that get all the attention at Cannes or are particularly anticipated, in a ‘Headliners’ section. Festival favourites like Todd Haynes, Claire Denis, Ruben Östlund and Terrence Malick all feature in this section. MIFF favourites the Safdie brothers also appear with Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson.
► Australian Films The MIFF premiere fund, which financially supports films that premiere at the festival, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Six films supported through the fund are debuting this year, plus three older films are being screened, including Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s portrait of Jack Charles Barstardry and 2009’s Balibo. There are many other Australian works programmed for the festival, including the entire second season of Jane Campion’s TV series Top of the Lake. Campion herself will make a few live appearances at events.
► Pioneering Women
Speaking of Australian films, MIFF’s pioneering women strand focuses on female Australian filmmakers of the 1980s and ‘90s. Highlights include Tracey Moffatt’s BeDevil, the first feature directed by an Indigenous Australian woman, and Ann Turner’s suburban horror film Celia. Nadia Tass’ The Big Steal, featuring a very young Ben Mendelsohn and Claudia Karvan, also features.
This is where the bulk of MIFF’s program can be found. Over 68 languages are represented in more than ninety films. It’s worth noting that South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has three films represented in the one year, including Claire’s Camera, featuring Isabelle Huppert. The American selection has been further classified into a dedicated ‘New York Stories’ sidebar.
► Sally Potter retrospective
British filmmaker Sally Potter, probably best known for 1992’s Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton, gets her own retrospective at MIFF this year. There are eight screenings in total, including a collection of her early short films, as well as her latest film The Party.
People really, really like documentaries. So much so that by my count MIFF has programmed a hundred of them. There are so many that the documentaries section has a couple of subsections including animal documentaries and a focus on true crime.
► Everything else
There are so many other sections, including Night Shift, which screens weird and cult cinema often in late sessions, a sci-fi retrospective, the short films showcase and plenty of live talks and seminars.
10 Picks of the Program
1. Let the Sunshine In
French director Claire Denis is one of the greatest filmmakers working today. Her poetic dream of a film Beau Travail is well worth tracking down: it is one of the outstanding films of recent times. She turns to comedy with Let the Sunshine In, inspired by French theorist Roland Barthes’ ‘A Lover’s Discourse’. The film stars two stalwarts of the Euro arthouse circuit: Juliette Binoche and Gerard Depardieu.
2. Call Me By Your Name
Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash was one of my favourite films of last year, a sharp and sumptuous portrait of the European jet set. With Call Me By Your Name, he turns his attention to adapting André Aciman’s canonical 2007 queer romance novel. Armie Hammer, currently undergoing an intriguing career progression from Hollywood to the festival circuit, stars as an American grad student who appears one day in the life of 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet). The two begin a summer romance, and by all accounts this is the perfect fusion of filmmaker, actors and subject matter.
3. On the Beach at Night Alone
South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo has three films playing at MIFF this year. On the Beach at Night Alone is interesting for its metatextual layers. The film stars Kim Min-hee, who featured in last year’s MIFF hit The Handmaiden, as an actress who has an affair with a married director. In real life, both Hong Sang-soo and Kim Min-hee started a relationship while filming 2015’s Right Now Wrong Then. He went public with the news at a press conference earlier this year.
4. Inside Manus
Commissioned by SBS’ Virtual Reality unit, Inside Manus is a VR documentary promising to take viewers “behind the razor-wire to meet the people who are being denied their freedom, their rights, and even their identity.” Not much else is known about the project, but its mixture of subject matter and technology is intriguing. VR is currently being heralded as the future of journalism, and it remains to be seen to what extent that will play out. But it’s exciting to see local players getting involved with new ways of storytelling.
The ‘Pioneering Women’ sidebar gives us a unique opportunity to see Ann Turner’s 1989 coming of age horror Celia on the big screen. Set in 1957 Melbourne, Celia follows a young girl who seems caught between her parents and the outside world. I’m always up for some creepy suburbia onscreen, even more so when it’s Melbourne’s.
6. 24 Frames
Celebrated Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s final work gets two sessions at MIFF. 24 Frames is, as the name suggests, made up of twenty-four frames. Each focuses on some aspect of nature, and captures what the filmmaker imagines “might have taken place before or after each image”.
7. Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog
“You’re quite an asshole for a communist filmmaker.” So says one of the characters in the trailer for this German comedy about highly educated Communists, which wins the award for best movie title at this year’s festival. Runners up: Axolotl Overkill and The Idea of a Lake.
8. Blade of the Immortal
The extremely prolific director Takashi Miike returns to MIFF with his hundredth film. Adapted from a well-known Japanese manga, Blade of the Immortal’s main character is a samurai who cannot die. It won’t be for everybody, but Blade of the Immortal looks like it will satisfy fans of Miike’s boundaryless creativity (and sometimes extreme violence).
9. Loving Vincent
The stand-out of MIFF’s animation section for me is Loving Vincent and its neat gimmick. Inspired by the work of Vincent Van Gogh, every single frame (of which there are some 62,000) is an individually crafted oil painting.
One of the best things about MIFF is its retrospectives. Cinema was the great art of the twentieth century, and retrospectives present a unique chance to engage with both history and art from the medium’s rich history. I’m particularly keen to see Karel Zeman’s very cool looking Invention of Destruction, a Czechoslovakian film from 1958 referred to as the world’s first steampunk movie.