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Top picks of the Sydney Film Festival

3 June 2016

With the 2016 Sydney Film Festival rapidly approaching, movie experts Dr Bruce Isaacs and Dr David Kelly offer their top picks to help you make your way through the diverse program.

Dr Bruce Isaacs (left) and Dr David Kelly (right) guide you through the festival line-up.

Dr Bruce Isaacs (left) and Dr David Kelly (right) guide you through the festival line-up.

With such a range of movies on offer at this year's Sydney Film Festival, some might be feeling a bit overwhelmed by choice. What is your pick of the festival and why?

Dr Bruce Isaacs, Senior Lecturer, Department of Art History (BI): For me there are two clear standout programs: documentary and the Scorsese retrospective. In the documentary category, my picks are In Jackson Heights (directed by Frederick Wiseman) and Weiner (directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg). The trailer to Weiner has to be seen to be believed, and if you like the genre of films about political campaigns such as The War Room, Weiner is a must. The Scorsese retrospective this year is such a treat for film lovers. David Stratton has selected the major films of Scorsese’s career, tying in with a fantastic exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. I’d recommend all the Scorsese screenings, but if you’ve never seen these films on the big screen, you can’t miss Taxi Driver and Goodfellas.

Dr David Kelly, Director of the Film Studies program (DK): There is so much to like but I've narrowed my choices to four. First, Goldstone by Australia’s Ivan Sen – a sequel to his magnificent Mystery Road, with Aaron Pedersen reprising his role as Indigenous detective Jay Swan. Next, I love the look and sound of Ivo Ferreira’s Letters From War. Cinematic imagery can often be exorbitant and rapturous, but it's much rarer for films to take risks with poetic screenplays in this way, and juxtaposing this with black and white cinematography creates a wonderful filmic texture. Third, Brady Corbet’s feature debut, The Childhood of a Leader, looks stunning and seems to be a highly imaginative take on a fascinating moment in early 20th century history. Finally, as a big Terence Davies fan, I am looking forward to Sunset Song, which looks to be as lyrical and emotionally challenging as his earlier works.

What movies would you recommend for documentary fans?

DK: Documentary seems to be very well served at this year's festival and two documentaries in particular look to be epic works of filmmaking, each with a devastating story to tell about the environmental challenges our world faces. These are the Chinese film The Road, and Atlantic, a troubling look at the oil and fishing industries in our oceans. But there is one other epic that is altogether more joyous and one that I would regard as unmissable: American Epic tells the story of the recording of American roots music through the middle of the 20th century in three parts.

BI: As I mentioned, my top picks are Weiner and In Jackson Heights. The other one I’m leaning toward is Cinema, mon Amour. There is a long history of films about the love of film. This one, set in Romania and examining the life of a cinema and its eccentric owner, looks like a great entry in this genre. Fire at Sea won the Golden Bear at Berlin this year – no small feat – so this will attract a lot of attention.

Documentary seems to be very well served at this year's festival and two documentaries in particular look to be epic works of filmmaking, each with a devastating story to tell about the environmental challenges our world faces.
Dr David Kelly

Do you have any suggestions of off-beat movies for people who want something a little bit different?

BI: I love genre, and especially the hard genres such as horror. I’d look at the ‘Freak Me Out’ program – Richard Kuipers does a great job with this each year. In this program, I’d look to Red Christmas as a major new Australian horror film, with nods to the slasher film and the Italian Giallo genre (think of directors Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, etc, if you’re into that kind of thing). In the competition category, Aquarius looks magnificent, as does Psycho Ramanboth films offering something far beyond the norm.

DK: For something adventurous, a number of films caught my eye. There is The Lure – a Polish romance-horror-mermaid-musical (unmissable, right?). Lucile Hadžihalilovic's Evolution looks to be a truly imaginative and surreal work exploring the mysteries of the psyche in dreamscapes that cinema can fashion with such compelling effect. I also like the look of Zhang Hanyi’s Life after Life because I can’t resist a good Chinese ghost story; and Wang Yichun’s What’s in the Darkness looks to be a very personal and thoughtful take on the noir genre.

The Sydney Film Festival is about more than just seeing movies, but also hosting public discussions about cinema. Are there any events and talks around town that you're particularly excited about seeing? 

DK: As far as events go, a documentary I didn’t mention but perhaps should have is Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s Sonita, a film about a young Afghan refugee, her love of rap music and the journey this takes her on. The director will be speaking with Human Rights Watch researcher Ahmad Shuja about her film in a session that promises to be compelling. I would also put in a word for the Scorsese retrospective featuring a range of his work across a long and brilliant career, and the restored version of Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story.

BI: I love what the festival has done with the hub over the last few years. There looks to be a great series of events and exhibitions. I saw the iCinema facility at the University of New South Wales a while ago and was blown away. If you’re interested in ‘future cinema’, I’d strongly recommend getting out there. My other suggestion in terms of talks is the Tony Rayns discussion of Korean cinema. Korean cinema has exploded over the last couple of decades, and Rayns is a major critic in this area.

Do you want to go on record about which film you think will win the official competition?

BI: I think Aquarius will win. But Kelly Reichardt is also a much-loved director with the Sydney Film Festival, and Certain Women looks fantastic.

DK: And my pick for the gong would be Ivan Sen’s Goldstone. Sen is a great filmmaker working at the top of his game, forging new perceptions of Australia and its people in his absorbing and distinctive films, so I would be delighted to see his efforts rewarded, and awarded, here.

The Sydney Film Festival will run from 8 to 16 June. For the full program, visit the festival website.