Debate rages about the worthiness of the winner but the Sydney Film Festival's official competition is growing up. 
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17 Jun 2013 - 2:12 PM  UPDATED 18 Jun 2013 - 4:33 PM

Leave aside the contentious winner of the official competition, Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives, of which I missed all but 30 minutes. Judging by the nine out of 12 competing films I saw, 2013 was a highly stimulating competition featuring titles of an overall impressive standard, though we could spend hours arguing over how many strictly lived up to the official criteria of being "courageous, audacious and cutting-edge".

One of the most important breakthroughs this year was the inclusion for the first time of two documentaries, Sarah Polley's exceptionally well-crafted family secrets film, Stories We Tell, and Joshua Oppenheimer's film about Indonesia's 1965 homicidal pogroms, Act of Killing, something for which I strongly argued last year on the grounds that non-fiction and “hybrid” films (ie. blending documentary and fictional elements) are currently one of the most creatively fertile areas in world filmmaking; a place where you are most likely to witness formal invention, where ground rules are still up for revision.

Last year SFF director Nashen Moodley dipped his toe into this area with his competition selection of the Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die, with its rehearsals and performances of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that on closer examination turned out to be staged for the cameras, though with some genuine documentary footage at the finale. Oppenheimer's film pushes the notion of hybridity much further, both in form and but perhaps it didn't matter so much that despite this extraordinary boldness it failed to win the Sydney Film Prize. It has a long string of international awards to its name already, having added two more this weekend alone, and its impact at SFF (it will also have screenings at Melbourne's film festival) will serve as an effective launching pad, helping to ensure an otherwise obscure, difficult-sounding title reaches the audience it deserves.

Festivalgoers complain every year about the number of films destined for commercial distribution (I even overheard a patron say she doesn't go to these “more Hollywood-type” films at the festival while waiting for Park Chan-wook's Hollywood-esque Stoker to begin). Those complaints will likely grow, as the number of films with local distribution deals seemed larger than ever before this year. But I don't think any major shift in selection policy is to blame, rather the blossoming of an independent distribution sector fixated on building up its catalogues in anticipation of the likely explosion of VOD (video on demand) services come the NBN (or the Coalition government equivalent). That said, a festival programmer's responsibility is to continue to seek out those films ignored by distributors, to uncover new waves or underground movements wherever they are breaking.

Outside of the competition, Noah Baumbach's fabulous Frances Ha was nothing like his earlier work (imagine Annie Hall with Annie as the lead character and directed by Francois Truffaut), its star Greta Gerwig a delight. Asghar Farhadi's The Past, set in France, magnificently lived up to its Oscar and Sydney Film prize-winning predecessor, A Separation, cementing Farhadi as a 21st century master of drama. Why were these knockouts not in competition? Confirmed for the festival too late? Or did their distributors, for some obscure reason, not want them there? (There again, with only 12 slots….)

Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks was partly stimulating but awkwardly structured (too much on Bradley Manning, indeed too much info we've heard many times before). Shane Caruth's Upstream Color [sic], an ambient music video posing as a cryptic mystery-thriller, and Greetings from Tim Buckley (both of which I've reviewed in detail elsewhere on this site) also left mixed feelings. More satisfying was poetic Cambodian documentary on changing rural lifestyles, A River Changes Course, gorgeously shot in HD and probably seen by too few.

Unspooling on the final day was Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov's Betrayal, a surrealistically off-kilter drama of passion and, you guessed, betrayal, its improbably beautiful female lead holding the metaphorically apt position of heart surgeon. The scenario – a man and woman whose partners are having an affair themselves become romantically involved – is familiar from Wong Kar-wei's In the Mood for Love. Yet Serebrennikov's what-the? plotting and boldly anti-naturalistic dialogue combined with his inspired casting and visual mastery to create a hypnotic film that was more audacious than most of the competition entrants, which while often strong, were not easy to describe as “cutting edge” (cue debate about whether that now-cliched phrase even means anything now).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, it was worrying to find a film in SFF as drippingly sentimental as Touch of the Light, a Taiwanese product of Wong's production company (what was he thinking?) about a young blind pianist and an aspiring female dancer. Yeuch.

There's nothing especially radical about Steven Soderbergh's lavishly made Liberace pic, Behind the Candelabra, unless you find its kitsch-on-steroids design kind of daring. (It has to be noted its flagrantly queer content was considered challenging enough for the depressingly conservative Hollywood studios to turn it down – hence its status as an HBO telemovie.) Hell is it fun, though. Michael Douglas's triumph as the flamboyant piano star is to find the campiness without pushing it over the top, and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorsen, is equally fine. Seeing the film in a cinema full of gay men hooting uproariously at every appearance of Rob Lowe's cosmetic surgeon was one of those faaaabulous (darling) festival experiences you just can't reproduce at home. (Applies umpteenth eye drop, collapses).