Since 2008, the Official Competition of the Sydney Film Festival has selected entrants that demonstrate, “emotional power and resonance; are audacious, cutting-edge and courageous; and go beyond the usual treatment of the subject matter”. This year, 12 movies are contesting the Sydney Film Prize, which bestows both acclaim and $60,000 on the winner. Here's a look at how the works might fare, based on conjecture, circumstance, history and Ryan Gosling looking surly.
The Act of Killing
This stylistically bold documentary, where members of mid-1960s Indonesian death squads act out their crimes in the style of various film genres, so impressed both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris that they signed on as executive producers. Other positives include glowing reviews, an audience award at the Berlin International Film Festival and Indonesia's strategic proximity to Australia.
Arriving straight from debuting at Cannes to generally positive reviews, Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam's decidedly offbeat feature crosses genres and styles, a notable quality in this year's field. Do not underestimate the strength of weirdness, and Borgman has it in spades, as the title character ingratiates himself into a suburban home where lives are soon creepily lost.
The Broken Circle Breakdown
A definite festival circuit favourite: awards received at Berlin and Tribeca, although too many awards can signal a lack of freshness; festival juries sometimes often like to boldly go with the new. The gravely ill child genre is reworked by Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen, with the parents' membership of a bluegrass band and genre's music essential to the story. (Pictured top)
Boasting the festival clout of a Golden Bear win (best film) at Berlin, Calin Peter Netzer's dissection of Romanian society through a privileged mother's efforts to save her disdainful son could be seen as heralding the next wave of Romanian filmmaking after the earlier achievements of Cristian Mungiu. Eastern Europe has also not previously provided a Sydney Film Prize winner.
For Those in Peril
Reviews out of Cannes were good (with reservations) to extremely strong for this tale of a young fisherman exiled in his Scottish village because he alone survived a storm that took the lives of others. It's the debut of director Paul Wright (a SFF guest), which could allow for a bold prediction of future importance, but it lacks theartistic prominence of some other entrants.
Another arrival from Cannes, Mahamat-Saleh Haround's film sounds like a combination of Baz Luhrmann and Ousmane Sembene, as a young man from Chad who dreams of turning his talent for dancing into a living has to join an illegal petrol-smuggling gang. An African film, one reportedly touched with both realism and uplifting triumph, could definitely interest the judges.
Already shorthanded as 'the Indian Run Lola Run', Amit Kumar's moral enquiry in the form of an action film whose three possible narratives stem from a young Mumbai police officer's decision over whether to arrest, wound or kill a suspect drew mixed reviews in a midnight slot at Cannes. The producer's credentials help (Gangs of Wasseypur), but this is a definite outsider.
A German slacker comedy about a listless young Berliner trying to find his way in life, albeit shot in black and white, is going to struggle in a competition where imposing dramas such as Hunger (2008) and A Separation (2011) have previously been victorious; scooping the German Film Awards may be too mainstream an honour to actually help Jan Ole Gerster's movie.
Only God Forgives
Nicolas Winding Refn is a previous Sydney Film Prize winner with Bronson (2009), which probably limits his chances with a film that divided Cannes audience as Ryan Gosling plays an American expatriate in the Bangkok underworld compelled to avenge his brother's death. The film's ultraviolent narrative – no 'Hey girl' Gosling GIFs to be found here – could also scare away some jurors.
An Australian has never won the (admittedly young) Sydney Film Prize, which could boost the chances of Kim Mordaunt, whose coming of age feature about a young Laotian boy trying to change the perception that he is bad luck, has already clinched Best Debut Film in Berlin and Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca; Mordaunt's dedication to repeatedly working in Laos also helps.
Stories We Tell
Acclaimed in Canada (and that's not a sly jibe), Sarah Polley's revelatory documentary about her parents and the actress-turned-filmmaker's place in their marriage has drawn praise-laden reviews, but it may have been out on the festival circuit too long – Venice and Telluride were on the 2012 calendar. Film festival competitions favour fresh blood.
Wadjda boast many impressive firsts: Haifaa Al Mansour is Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker, and this is the first feature shot entirely in a country where cinemas are banned. Al Mansour also studied at the University of Sydney, while her feature is the story of a determined 10-year-old girl who wants nothing more than that symbol of cinematic history, a bicycle. In an open field, this is a definite possibility.
The Sydney Film Festival runs from 5-16 June. Visit the official website for more information.