Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) director Michelle Carey took on the mantle of Australia’s oldest and biggest cinematic showcase five years ago on its 60th anniversary, but feels this milestone is even more auspicious. “65 sounds so much bigger even though that doesn’t seem so long ago,” she says over a coffee in one of the city’s thriving laneways. “It’s interesting to think where cinema is and where it’s going.”
The mining of true stories, both in documentary and in fiction, has been the main recurring theme, Carey says. “We live in really brutal times and are bombarded by images of inexplicable human cruelty, but I’m seeing a lot of compassion come through, even in quite awful stories.”
Love & Friendship heartthrob Xavier Samuel stars in opening night movie The Death and Life of Otto Bloom, the Benjamin Button-like backwards time debut feature from Australian writer/director Cris Jones, with new films from Pedro Almodóvar (Julieta), Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden) and Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman).
Fans of their post-Twilight work will relish three new movies starring Kristen Stewart (Oliver Assayas’ haunting Personal Shopper and Kelly Reichardt’s heart-breaking Certain Women) and Robert Pattinson (Brady Corbet’s startlingly dystopian debut feature The Childhood of a Leader).
Fresh from causing a stir at Cannes, comes Starship Troopers and Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert, and Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn’s polarising vampiric take on the LA fashion scene The Neon Demon, featuring Melburnians Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote alongside Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves and Elle Fanning.
“Refn is someone I think people love to hate a little bit, but they still go to see him, right? At MIFF we want to try and break down those divisions between what is ‘legitimate’ and what’s not.”
Michelle Carey’s top ten must-sees:
Adapted from French-Armenian author Philippe Djian’s startling novel “Oh…”, Verhoeven’s French-language thriller sees Huppert as the forthright CEO of a violent computer game company who embarks on a revenge quest after she is sexually assaulted.
“It’s almost a [Michael] Haneke film, then it just suddenly goes into Verhoeven trash territory, but with sophisticated Huppert,” Carey says. “There’s always this level of mystery about her; she can be incredibly haughty but also incredibly funny and self-knowing. People are calling it ‘the rape comedy’ in this reductive way, but it’s amazing.”
Huppert also appears in writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come.
Jim Jarmusch moves from rock star and foppish aesthete vampires in 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive to Girls star Adam Driver’s low-key, bus-driving hipster poet in Paterson, a hypnotically calm and quiet film that plays on its kooky charms.
“Adam Driver in this film is just adorable,” Carey says. “When he started in Girls he had that unhinged arsehole thing about him, but then he turned into one of the more mature and likeable characters. He’s one of those actors a bit like Huppert that I feel is always himself. You could argue, ‘is he even really acting?’ but there’s something very subtle and sublime going on in Paterson.”
3. Toni Erdmann
A father’s frustrated love for his estranged daughter leads him to adopt a disguise in German writer/director Maren Ade’s Cannes FIPRESCI Prize-winning comedy Toni Erdmann. Carey’s such a fan of the director, who also produced last year’s MIFF hit Arabian Nights, that she’s programmed it alongside Ade’s previous movies Everyone Else and The Forest for the Trees.
“She’s not necessarily a household name here as an auteur, but I think she should be.” Carey insists. “I love her sensibility, which is not like Refn, someone’s who’s yelling at you ‘notice me, notice me’. She just has a wonderful eye for human foibles and I call her films a comedy of awkwardness.”
4. Joe Cinque’s Consolation
Anu Singh was a promising law student at Canberra’s Australian National University when she injected her boyfriend with a lethal dose of heroin at a dinner party, having previously alerted several friends of her intentions. Found guilty of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, she spent only four years in jail. Sotiris Dounoukos’ debut feature dramatises Helen Garner’s non-fiction book “Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law”.
“I was shaking when I saw this film, went out the next day and bought the book and can’t stop thinking about it,” Carey says. “It’s very complex, dealing with culpability, collective responsibility and mental health. It’s not a black-and-white, finger-pointing sort of film at all and I think it will have a lot of people talking.”
5. Kate Plays Christine
Mining similarly confronting material, writer/director Robert Greene’s genre-bending documentary Kate Plays Christine details the preparation of actress Kate Lyn Sheil who is tasked with playing Christine Chubbuck, the news reporter who shockingly committed suicide live on television in 1974.
“I just found it so thought-provoking,” says Carey. “It follows Kate as she tries to inhabit this character and she has real difficulty trying to get under her skin. She starts questioning the whole nature of performance and journalism, sensationalism. It’s very kooky and engaging and he’ll be a guest of the festival.”
New Yorker Anthony Weiner was a very successful congressman until his proclivity for sexting brought his career to an ignominious end, with Huma Abedin, trusted adviser to Hillary Clinton, standing by her husband. Former aide Josh Kriegman and co-director Elyse Steinberg were filming his comeback tilt as New York mayor in 2013 when history catastrophically repeated itself.
“It’s fascinating the psychology of this type of person, this Teflon-like ability to not let it get him down,” Carey says. “You also sort of think, why is Huma sticking with him, and if you’re so smart why are you in the background all the time? There’s something more going on there.”
7. In Jackson Heights
Sticking with New York, Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour epic doco In Jackson Heights lets us into the lives of the Queens residents living in the world’s most multicultural neighbourhood, where 167 languages are spoken.
“I’m not sure exactly how Wiseman works, and I actually don’t want to know, but he has this amazing ability to capture people in their everyday environment and they don’t look like they’re acting for the camera,” Carey says.
8. Losing Ground
Amongst MIFF’s retrospectives this year, which includes the Ade showcase as well as the films of Setsuko Hara and Jerry Lewis, the Gaining Ground thread looks at female directors who broke the mould in the 70s and 80s.
Alongside Susan Seidelman (Smithereens) and Sara Driver (Sleepwalk), Carey champions 1982’s Losing Ground, the sophomore offering from Kathleen Collins, the first African-American director to release a movie, which stars Billie Allen as a philosophy professor seeking personal ecstasy.
“It’s just this really wonderful Eric Rohmer-like depiction of her life as a teacher, but also wanting to break out of the academic prison and explore her sensuality and her relationship with her husband as well.”
9. Happy Hour
Director and co-writer Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's intimate portrait of four 30-something Japanese women and the effect of a single revelation on their lives is impressive at 317 minutes, but it’s not even the longest in the fest. That title goes to Lav Diaz’s 8-hour Berlinale Silver Bear prize winner, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery.
“It comes back to films like Paterson and Losing Ground, about the sublimeness of everyday life. It’s not like reality TV, because that’s more fictive than most fiction, but you really come to inhabit their worlds and then the five hours is up and you want more. I read it described as Jacques Rivette directing an episode of Sex in the City.”
As a choreographer, Celia Rowlson-Hall has worked with the likes of Lena Dunham and Gaspar Noé as well as consulting on Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits. She also stars in her debut feature as writer/director, Ma, a dialogue-free retelling of the Virgin Mary’s pilgrimage relocated to California.
It heads up a dance focus also featuring Douglas Watkins’ Ella, following Ella Havelka, the first indigenous dancer accepted into the Australian Ballet, and the queer-themed Kiki, dropping in on New York’s current crop of voguing ballroom dancers.
“Celia tells the entire thing through movement. I just haven’t seen anything like it. I mean, it’s beautifully shot and it just sort of rethinks what cinema can be,” Carey says.
The Melbourne International Film Festival runs 28 July to 14 August 2016.