For me, the most enticing aspect of a film festival program is the scheduling of fresh visions by genre filmmakers.
Over the first few days of the SFF, I have entered with trepidation but emerged joyously enriched by a) a studio-backed romantic comedy that gets a mighty laugh by referencing Ingmar Bergman's Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957); b) an American ghost story that has provided me with the first pure jolt of cinematic terror in a long time; c) a teen's sexual coming-of-age tale set against the plight of the indigenous Guarani tribespeople and its shamanistic customs, and d) an adrenalized zombie horror epic about re-animated Nazis that has become Norway's biggest hit in years.
The Romantic Comedy
Marc Webb's 500 Days Of Summer is about a guy who longs for a girl, gets her, loves her, loses her. That's no spoiler, don't worry. This film is on the verge of becoming this decade's The Graduate/Annie Hall/Say Anything.../Jerry Maguire because Webb achieves with warm characterisations and a fluid style, all the elements that have made those past hits so immediate and timeless. His film is an insightful, honest approach to love, from a script respectful of its leads' individuality, with a cheeky honesty informing in every scene. Webb has also captured star-making performances from a young man we have all wanted to see become a star for a long time (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and, channelling Diane Keaton's 'Annie', a young actress we have adored in films far below her talent for too long (Zooey Deschanel). Beautifully shot, designed with a lush European richness that captures Los Angeles like never before, and with a soundtrack destined for every 20-something's CD collection, 500 Days Of Summer is the smartest feel-good romantic flick in many years.
The Ghost Story
About 40 minutes into Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity, I began to giggle uncontrollably – which, I know, is not the traditional way to start a positive review of a supernatural thriller. But I wasn't giggling out of derision or disrespect; quite the opposite. At about the 40 minute mark, I was shit-scared. This faux-doco that purports to capture the breakdown of a relationship due to spirits that inhabit a young couple's house is a precisely-contrived, manipulative piece of low-budget film-making that, despite all my finely-tuned instincts as an aged film reviewer, had succeeded in pushing me back into my chair and having to watch from over the top of my knees. I was giggling because it had been 20-odd years since a film had frightened me like Paranormal Activity, and I was loving every minute of it. As much as I told myself the film was fake, I couldn't calm the very real feelings of dread I was experiencing. (Note: This is the second year in a row the SFF has freaked me out with a docu-chiller. Australian director Joel Anderson's Lake Mungo, which finally gets a national release on July 30, is just as accomplished and frightening. Check it out...)
The Teen Drama
Osvaldo (Abrísio da Silva Pedro) is a teenage boy with a drunken father, distracted mother, troubled best friend and a longing for the girl from the rich part of town. It's a teen-drama stereotype as old as the moving image – you may be scanning the credits right now for 'Written and Directed by John Hughes'. But Osvaldo is Guarani, native to rainforests of South America, and an apprentice shaman, blessed with the ability to see the evil spirits of the forests and being trained to chant to protect his tribe. They have been driven from their land and take refuge by the property of a Brazilian landowner, whose daughter seduces Osvaldo as he wards the spirits of the land by a riverbank. The young people of his tribe are disillusioned and suicide rates are high. Pretty In Pink, this ain't. Marco Brechis' La terra degli uomini rossi (Birdwatchers) is a mystical, majestic story of tribal traditions, social integration and teenage angst. Most importantly, it is never one above the other, each element of its layered themes intertwined succinctly. I didn't understand his language, landscape or customs, but Osvaldo's plight was instantly recognisable and heartbreakingly familiar.
The Zombie Film
Time magazine recently ran an Arts feature entitled “Zombies Are The New Vampires”. Author Lev Grossman concluded the most recent incarnation of society's fears (zombies can really only be dated as far back as George Romero's 1968 shocker Night Of The Living Dead) was finally coming of age. The most prominent image in the article was from Tommy Wirkola's Dod Sno (Dead Snow), the story of a rampaging horde of resurrected Nazi soldiers feasting on the warm innards of Nordic med students in Norway's most remote mountain regions. It was the first time a Norwegian zombie film had appeared in the pages of Time magazine.
Wirkola is a fan of the genre – his dizzying camerawork is an homage to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films; a chubby, horror-film know-it-all character wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the key-art from Peter Jackson's Braindead. It's a visceral, pungent, hilarious film – as nerve-rattling as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and funnier than Edgar Wright's Shaun Of The Dead.
There are those that still look at film festivals as high-brow, elitist endeavours – endless days filled with the works of the worlds pessimists, bleating about the pain of their respective nations, dressed as dour cinematic social realism. The 2009 Sydney Film Festival could never be accused of such a myopic agenda. Sure, there is some top-end-of-town artistry in the '09 Program, but dig deep and you'll find a festival committed to the very best of popular film-making from all corners of the globe.