I didn’t set out to make a list of obscure films only screened at film festivals in 2016, but in general that’s where my favourite screen experiences of the year happened. Maybe that says something about the special film festival atmosphere of being surrounded by appreciative, responsive cinephiles
- Don’t Be Bad
Italy’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar this year was a universe away from the opulence of the country’s 2013 winner The Great Beauty. This depiction of a couple of lowlifes in Ostia, hustling their way towards a downward spiral, is truly mesmerising, in no small part due to a break out turn from Luca Marinelli. Sadly writer/director Claudio Caligari passed away just days after editing was finished on this film, a death as untimely as that of the filmmaker he so closely resembles, Pier Paolo Pasolini.
- One Week and A Day
The unexpected highlight of this year’s Jewish Film Festival, Asaph Polonsky’s confident debut could be summarised as Ordinary People meets Pineapple Express. Part meditation on grief, part stoner comedy, this freewheeling film shifts in tone comfortably and effectively from comedy to drama, often going into surprising directions. A real blindsider comes near the end and is one of the most affecting scenes of the year. Completely disarming, this film too features a stellar break out turn, from Tomer Kapon.
Director Todd Haynes set the bar high at the start of the year with this lush, swoon-inducing melodrama based on Patricia Highsmith’s ground-breaking 1952 queer novel The Price of Salt. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara give outstanding performances at the centre of this tale of forbidden love. Edward Lachman’s 16mm cinematography, Carter Burwell’s score and Sandy Powell’s costume design all contribute to an exquisite work of art.
- 45 Years
A completely different but equally compelling romance featuring extraordinary performances, this time from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, The title refers to the length of the central relationship which is under threat from the revelation of a long-buried secret. Beautifully nuanced and perfectly judged, this is a film of quiet but devastating moments, right up to it’s killer, unforgettable final shot of Rampling.
- La La Land
A giddy, affectionate ode to old style European musicals, the golden years of Hollywood and A Flock of Seagulls. Beginning with an impressive one-take, large scale song and dance number on the L.A. Freeway, and finishing with a number that tracks back through previous scenes, offering alternate outcomes, had one single action been exchanged for another, is absolute alchemy. After such a brutal 2016 in so many ways, this is just the kind of elegantly charming celebration of love, cinema and music that we need.
- Perfect Strangers
A hit at the Italian Film Festival and heading for a theatrical release, this has Hollywood remake written all of it. At a dinner party of close friends, a trust game is proposed in which all phones are placed on the table and any incoming calls placed on speaker and text messages read allowed. Of course, it backfires spectacularly to great comic effect. Impeccable performances, rapid-fire razor-sharp dialogue and plenty of home truths, this is the smartest comedy of the year.
- Paris 05.59
Who would’ve thought that a film that opens with an explicit 18-minute group sex scene in a gay club would have such an emotional impact? Conceived in real time, starting at 4.27am and ending at the time of the title, this story of two men who meet and experience the full gamut of feelings in the space of 90 minutes was one of the most surprising highlights of the year. Proof that you don’t need a big budget to make something that looks beautiful and keeps you on the edge of your seat.
- My Life as a Courgette
There’s nothing like a story set in an orphanage to get the tear ducts flowing and My Life as a Courgette hits all the right notes, slipping under your defenses and reducing you to a pile of mush without you even knowing it’s happening. Coming in at a slim 66 minutes, this stop animation Swiss/French treat beguiles from start to finish. There’s a charming simplicity to Ludovic Chemarin’s production design, Claude Barras’ direction and the delicate songs of Sophie Hunger. This picked up the audience award at MIFF and has been shortlisted for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.
This is like crack cocaine for cinephiles. A documentation of the legendary week long interview between two of the greatest film directors in history. The year was 1962. Hitchcock’s fame was at its peak and the 30-year old Truffaut was the It Boy of world cinema. The resulting book became the holy grail for film directors. Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson and David Fincher wax lyrical about the book that made it cool to be a film director. Writer/director Kent Jones has meticulously crafted this project, and clearly had access to an abundance of material from the two directing icons.
A deserving Best Picture Oscar winner, featuring an incredible ensemble cast. A thrilling paean to investigative journalism at its finest. Both a sucker-punch and a subtle knife. With the mainstream media the target of a great deal of (often deserved) criticism of late, Tom McCarthy’s film is a salient reminder of the fourth estate’s valuable role in exposing heinous corruption when properly funded and directed.In this case The Boston Globe exposure of child sexual abuse within the Catholic archdiocese. An enormously powerful drama.
- Chasing Asylum
A harrowing documentary on Australia’s inhumane asylum seeker policy makes for uncomfortable but essential viewing. Hidden cameras reveal the unspeakable horrors that the Federal Government have prevented the media from having access to. Starting from the Tampa incident, the doco details the 15-year race to the bottom between both major parties over who can treat those who seek shelter on our shore with the most inhumane brutality. Sadly, the people who need to see this the most, probably didn’t.
- The Clan
A brutal and daring piece of filmmaking reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson in full flight. Based on the notorious Puccio family, who in 1980s Argentina kidnapped and held to ransom the sons of affluent families before murdering their victims, the film is a rigorous exercise that deliberately disorientates and shocks its audience, most notably in the final scene, which is one of the year’s most indelible. Director PabloTrapero’s handling of the material is so assured, little wonder he nabbed the Silver Lion for Best Director at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
- Girls Lost
This for me was the stand out at this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival. The premise of three teenage girls who turn into boys for a few hours every time they drink the sap of a strange plant, may be fantasy, but the emotional weight feels very real. This Swedish entry into gender identity plays like Let The Right One In for adolescents. Perfectly cast, this may have been tonally too dark for it’s intended demographic. Still, it’s a crying shame it didn’t get a theatrical release.
- Their Finest
The poster child of the British Film Festival, and due for release in the new year, this is a celebration of cinema, and particularly the art of storytelling. Cleverly wrapping its irresistible ingredients inside a film within a film, it gives you a nudge and a wink with every perfectly pitched manipulation. Director Lone Scherfig strongly evokes a sense of time and place, as she did with the equally excellent An Education, skilfully balancing the film’s elements to give us a something that satisfies equally as an intimate romance, a large scale war drama and a sharp comedy. Prepare to leave the theatre in a glorious glow.
- Son of Saul
In his extraordinary directorial debut, László Nemes re-imagines and invigorates the sub-genre of the Holocaust drama. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War 2. His face enters the centre of the frame in the opening scene and stays there for almost the entire film. By the time the final, poetic and strangely affecting scene is played out, his beautiful, brutal, soulful face is burnt into your mind, and will likely stay there for days. Matyas Erdely’s camera work and Tamas Zanyi’s sound design, add to a significant technical achievement that yields enormous dramatic impact. This incredibly claustrophobic film is a bit of a polariser. It caused arguments at last year’s Jewish Film Festival, but went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Honourable mentions: 10 Cloverfield Lane, Absolution, American Honey, Anomalisa, Arrival, Being 17, The Big Short, Captain Fantastic, Dede Alla, Elle, Eva Nova, Eye In The Sky, The Girl on the Train, Goodbye Berlin, The Handmaiden, Heart of a Dog, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I Daniel Blake, Julieta, Land of Mine, Life Animated, Like Crazy, Little Men, Mahana, Men & Chicken, Microbe & Gasoline, Monster with 1,000 Heads, Nerve, The Nice Guys, Nocturnal Animals, The People Vs Fritz Bauer, A Perfect Man, Personal Shopper, The Salesman, Sand Storm, Snowden, Sunset Song, Tickled, Victoria, The Wait, A War, World’s Apart, Zootopia
Richard Leathem @dickiegee