Now we're more than mid-way through Sydney Film Festival, it's clear the behaviour of a small minority of anti-social audience members can be a real distraction. I've had to ask two people to stop scrolling through their brightly lit iPhone screens while the film is playing. I also overheard the following classic exchange in the Laos-set The Rocket as the main characters approach the base of what is obvious a very large dam. Older woman in loud voice: “What's that?” Silence. “What's that?” Older male voice: “A dam.” I am not lying.
Two hot-ticket new films from major directors drew mostly younger sell-out crowds mid-week. The slender tale of Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, about well-off LA teens breaking into celebrity's homes to steal their clothes, felt rolling-pinned to fill out the running time – perhaps not surprising given it's based on a magazine article. There really isn't much more to the narrative beyond the kids' repeated breaking into houses and frolicking in blingy clothes and shoes, followed by their flagged-from-the-start arrests. But if the dialogue is – oh my God! - clichéd and the characters sunnily vacuous, that is exactly the point. There's little here that's surprising, but as a tartly satirical statement on the emptiness of today's narcissistic celebrity culture, it entertainingly hits the mark.
For all its self-indulgence and flagrant lack of discipline, I enjoyed immensely the first two thirds of Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo for its gumbo stew of extraordinarily wild invention and delightful sight gags, but then I wanted it to stop. It didn't. Gondry packs three films' worth of visual pranks and wittily conceived gadgets into his La bohème-style tale of ultimately tragic love, with Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou as the appealing lovers. I loved the oven-baked cookies served up on a tray in miniature ovens, one of seemingly 100s of blink-and-you-missed it comic moments – but Gondry needs to install an edit button or at least work with a producer happy to periodically kick his backside rather than indulge his every whim.
I liked Germany's Oh Boy, India's Ship of Theseus and US burlesque documentary Exposed. Shot in glorious monochrome, the Berlin-set Oh Boy is James Joyce, Knut Hamsun or Dostoevsky reimagined as a 21st Century deadpan tragicomedy about an abject youth with the world's worst luck. The film creates a fresh and interesting space for itself in German cinema, which tends to be split between the manifestly serious and the flagrantly commercial.
Ship of Theseus writer-director, Anand Gandhi, said in his Q&A he believed his film was part of an Indian new wave now starting to emerge, which sounds like exciting news. His admirably mature debut is a triptych revolving around ethical and philosophical dilemmas triggered by physical afflictions and their medical treatment, with the first tale riffing on the blind-photographer idea originally explored in Jocelyn Moorhouse's Australian early 1990s classic, Proof. Oddly enough, that film's star, Hugo Weaving, was in the audience, and he seemed to like it. While the film is longer than it needs to be, as Gandhi admitted after the screening, it shows a promising freshness and intelligence.
Exposed, a celebratory documentary on New York burlesque artistes, was packed with the colourful personalities, spirited vulgarity and lively ideas about bodies and performance sadly lacking from Crazy Horse, the Frederick Wiseman doco about a Paris burlesque revue that screened in SFF 2012.
Sadly I missed It's All So Quiet, the latest from the Netherlands' Anouk Leopold (subject of an SFF rising-talent spotlight a few years ago), since it was cancelled at the last minute due to the usual digital projection issue afflicting film festivals everywhere, i.e. the file wouldn't open. This happened despite SFF having brought in a Red Adair-type digital projection troubleshooter from overseas this year. The replacement film, David Gordon Green's obscurely named Prince Avalanche, was a male bonding tale about two workers (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) painting a yellow line down the middle of a remote road. Yes, really. It was okay once it got going, but slight. What happened to the excitingly alert new talent of 2003's All the Real Girls?
This year I'm wondering why I'm seeing no Chinese, Thai, Hong Kong or Korean cinema. I partly admired Japanese drama The Land of Hope, about a family divided by a fictional nuclear meltdown similar to the one at Fukushima, or at least most of it, since the film went on and on and I cut out before the end. A failure to judge when their narrative has outstayed its welcome seems to be a widespread tendency among many directors, judging from the number of times it's been occurring this year.
Audience choices this year are surprisingly limited, given the program is the SFF's biggest to date. The culprit is the number of session overlaps. Attend one film in a particular time slot, and the number of films you can get to either before or afterwards is often frustratingly small.
That's how I ended up at Lasting, about a Polish young couple falling in love while on working holidays in Spain who go home to deal with two major events. The young man has accidentally killed a local man at an isolated swimming hole (a terrific scene) and kept it secret, while his girlfriend has discovered she's pregnant. After this promising set-up, the film's energy gradually drains away, turning from his dilemma at finding himself a killer, to her crisis as a mother-to-be who can't handle what the child's father has done yet finds it unable to talk about her problem.
Director Jacek Borcuch has a great visual sense. The scene where the man tells his lover he has killed someone is superbly handled – their café conversation is filmed in a single shot from outside the window, where we see but don't hear their increasingly heated conversation. But while that scene works, overall the film needs more dialogue to fill in the dramatic and psychological holes. Too often I felt locked outside of the characters.
And perhaps it's time directors stopped requiring viewers to stare at the shoulders and upper back of characters as we follow them everywhere they walk. A technique that seemed fresh in the Dardennes' Rosetta and slightly less fresh in Darren Aronofksy's The Wrestler is looking increasingly tired and mannered.
Lynden Barber is a former Sydney Film Festival artistic director. Click here for our full coverage of the festival.