In the 25 or so years I've been attending the Sydney Film Festival, this has been one of the strongest opening weekends I can recall. Whether by accident or design, the scheduling team has front-loaded the 2013 festival's opening few days with a few knockout punches, so far making for a memorable 60th anniversary. Not to mention that on the organisational level everything seems to have gone swimmingly. Every session I've attended has started bang on time, and queues have been efficiently wrangled and short-lived. Can this last? One can hope.
After Thursday night's extraordinary The Act of Killing, which I reported on a few days ago, the competition continued in impressive vein with two strong debut films about rebellious children: the Saudi Arabian drama Wadjda, and Laos-set The Rocket (more on the latter in a moment). Also screening were powerful documentaries about music and public affairs. Muscle Shoals, about the legendary Alabama soul studio (or two rival studios, as it turned out) was full of gutsy music and fascinating stories and will be worth buying on DVD, even if it did open with Bono going on about the Alabama mud as if he was born there and spend too much time at the end on Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer, which one blogger has perceptively discussed in relation to Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, was inspiring in the way three powerless young women have refused to be cowed by the might of the interlocking Russian political, legal and religious system, but also scary in its implications.
Another deserved festival hit has been The Broken Circle Breakdown, a non-linear Belgian blend of, wait for it, romance, melodrama and bluegrass musical that ultimately was all about the power of music as a spiritual force. There were tears. Kim Mordaunt's The Rocket (pictured) meanwhile was an extraordinarily accomplished fiction debut (following his similarly Laotian-themed documentary Bomb Harvest) and when I say the audience reception to its Saturday night screening was one of the most enthusiastic I've witnessed at the 2000-seat State Theatre, I am not exaggerating.
The wave of wild approval erupted the moment the screen turned black in preparation for the final credit roll, and intensified when the filmmakers brought its charming boy and girl actors to the stage. Following them were other cast members, including the Thai actor who had embodied the kids' fictional 'Uncle James Brown' on-screen with dance moves to match his name. Likely to be a sizeable hit when it is released, this international prize-winner somewhat outclassed the often impressive but narratively flawed opening night film, Mystery Road.
This, for me at least, has been a very music-and-dance-oriented festival, with the partially – crippled protagonist of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Chad drama, Grigris (also screening in the official competition) another eye-popping dance floor mover, his bendy-legged routines so dazzling I wondered briefly whether CGI was involved. The film was way more interesting than I'd feared from its mostly so-so Cannes reviews, especially visually, its occasional deep-focus compositions something to behold.
I didn't care much for Park Chan-wook's first English language pic, Stoker, which is not about Bram Stoker but is about, well, nothing more momentous than the gloriousness of Nicole Kidman's wavy orange hair and the way spattered blood glistens on white flowers and Tim Burton-ish spiders crawling up Mia Wasikowska's legs (and not even particularly scary arachnids at that). Everyone else has compared the Gothic plot to Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt while somehow ignoring its obvious – or so I thought – debt to Hamlet (gloomy youngster, here played by Wasikiowska, faced with dilemma created by wicked uncle who may well be her father's killer, who has become alarmingly close, alarmingly quickly, with dear mama). I felt kind of empty watching it, but I wasn't bored, I'll say that.
Another let-down from a big name director was the Ken Loach documentary, The Spirit of '45, on the founding of the British welfare state and nationalisation of the mines and railways, for reasons I'll explore elsewhere on this site. I did like Australian documentary The Unlikely Pilgrims, though, about the struggles of four recovering addicts as they hit the Camino de Santiago, the traditional pilgrim trail across northern Spain. The film was rewarding on the human level, even though frustratingly it looked for the most part as if shot on a 20 buck mobile phone. Why go to all that effort only to limit the film's potential audience with such low-grade images? Still, a great Q&A, with the filmmakers joined by the film's real-life human subjects.
I'd already seen several of the highlights scheduled for the long-weekend Monday, which is probably how I ended up at a couple of titles that did little for me. Scottish low-budget competition entry, For Those in Peril, about the human aftermath of a trawler boat tragedy, was well-meaning and liked by some but needed subtitles – I grew up in the UK and even I couldn't understand half of the lead character's dialogue. But it was mainly sunk by its one-note miserablism.
Belgian road comedy Tenderness (what is it with this festival and Belgium?) was well acted and quite enjoyable but a bit frustratingly underpowered, repeatedly setting up promising dramatic situations then steering away as if afraid. You can have too much subtlety, you know.
The Monday highlights I'd already seen were the two powerful Romanian dramas, Beyond The Hills and Child's Pose, which I've reviewed already on this site, and the documentaries Death Metal Angola (again about the power of music, this time as a way of dealing with traumatic memories of a bloody civil war) and the delightfully playful, Man Ray-themed The Search For Emak Bakia – another one worth owning on DVD. Not to mention, screening in the British Noir retro strand, Roy Boulting's fine original film version of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, starring a young Dickie Attenborough as gangster Pinkie. Would love to have seen this again, but such is life.
Lynden Barber is a former Sydney Film Festival artistic director. Click here for our full coverage of the festival.