Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) closed on Sunday evening but as usual the official closing night ceremonies took place the night before on the not unreasonable grounds that it's hard to get people to shell out for a screening and party on a Sunday night. Here festival chair Claire Dobbin told the audience waiting to see J.C. Chandor's nautical adventure All Is Lost she was “confident" this year would be a box office record breaker, even though official figures won't be in for a few days.
Around nine years ago, after a decade of spectacular audience growth, I made the mistake of declaring that MIFF had probably reached its natural peak. Yet artistic director Michelle Carey tells me the festival has managed to increase its box office by at least a little every year. Judging from the packed screenings I witnessed in just three days it's hard not to believe this.
It's not surprising that much-anticipated titles like All Is Lost, Sydney Film festival hit The Act of Killing or Robert Connolly's local production Tim Winton's The Turning attract big audiences, but even a hardcore Kazakhstan drama about schoolboy bullying (Harmony Lessons) and Kurdish Iranian exile Bahman Ghobadi's Rhino Season, about a poet jailed for 30 years by Iran's clerical regime, attracted solid audiences at the sessions I attended.
[ Read interview: Rhino Season director Bahman Ghobadi and actress Monica Bellucci ]
After two weeks you might expect audience exhaustion to have well set in (the festival lasts an epic 17 days with up to 9 sessions on simultaneously at peak times) but the event has percolated so thoroughly into the cultural life of the city that it seems to have no trouble finding viewers right up to the last moment.
It's telling that at breakfast on consecutive days I found myself by chance seated next to MIFF patrons. One started chatting to me when she saw me reading the official program. The following day, overhearing a young group of friends commenting on how packed the session had been the previous night for banned Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof's Manuscripts Don't Burn, it was my turn to make an introduction. They were newcomers to Melbourne yet had already picked up a sense that this was an event in which most people in the city participated, even if for only one or a small number of films. Part of the reason, they felt, was the sheer variety in the program.
I'd add another plus: the scheduling is way better than it used to be, with longer gaps between films, and sessions, where possible, synchronised around five daily starting times: 11am, 1.30pm, 4pm, 6.30pm, and 9pm. This means chances are relatively high that filmgoers can get to the titles they want to, rather than finding choices severely restricted by multiple session overlaps, as proved especially frustrating at Sydney Film Festival this year.
Another example of superior organisation is the MIFF scheme whereby paid-up festival members are allowed to enter venues to pick their preferred seats before the general audience is given entry. In Sydney, festival subscribers have their rights to particular seats reserved in advance, with the result that many seats are left unclaimed (since subscribers often miss quite a few sessions and the public is nonetheless not allowed to sit in their reserved seats). The MIFF method keeps old timers and regulars happy while reducing the number of empty seats in popular sessions.
Also reducing the empty-seat syndrome is the introduction over the last couple of years of 'stand-by' queues, a policy imported from overseas fests like Toronto where patrons can queue to get the chance of squeezing into a sold-out session on the working principle that not everyone who buys festival tickets in advance actually turns up – so their seats might as well be taken by people who do.
So much for the organisation, but what of the films? I'd seen about 22 titles in the program already and written about most of them in June during Sydney Film Festival (including some outstanding titles such as The Act of Killing, Muscle Shoals, Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer, Child's Pose and Frances Ha). To this total I saw nine more over the final weekend, all of which were worth seeing, although naturally I admired some more than others. All up, that's tiny slice of the overall program, so my overview is necessarily partial and highly personal.
The chance to see the newly restored print of Agnes Varda's little-seen first feature, La Pointe Courte, from as early as 1954, was almost worth the airfare from Sydney alone, an astonishingly mature piece set in a poor Mediterranean fishing community that was both harbinger of the coming nouvelle vague and imbued with the spirit of the poetic realism of an earlier French era. Where has this film been hiding all these years? It was an absolute revelation.
Visual poetry is also alive in Ghobadi's Rhino Season, very much a film of a political exile and visually indebted to Tarkovsky, especially the bleached camerawork of Nostalghia, made when the Russian master was himself in exile. The CGI rhino charge may have been
a surrealistic moment too far, though.
Capturing Dad is an understated Japanese charmer about two teenage sisters setting out to visit their estranged father when they hear about his terminal illness. It appears not have local distribution, which is odd when you look at the number of on-the-face-of-it less accessible films that do. (So many films on the program are owned by Melbourne-based Madman Films that you could be forgiven for assuming MIFF stood for the Madman International Film Festival. The same was also true this year in Sydney.)
The Summit, a documentary/docudrama about a mountaineering disaster in the Touching the Void tradition, is highly watchable but – perhaps unavoidably – confusing at times. Unlike its masterpiece of a forebear, which had a relatively clear narrative to work from, this story of 11 climbers who died on the world's second highest peak, K2, in 2008 is hellishly complicated. Different climbers died at different times and for different reasons and even the survivors couldn't agree with some of what had exactly happened up there, with oxygen deprivation creating extreme befuddlement.
Good Vibrations (pictured) proved to be a lively and good-humored Irish stab at the 24 Hour Party People template, i.e. an energetic rock biopic built around an enthusiastic but flawed manager/impresario. It's driven by the defining irony that Belfast's "godfather of punk", record store owner Terri Hooley, was clearly no snotty-nosed yoof but an older guy with the clothing and haircut sense of a dag and the business expertise of an amateur music enthusiast (i.e. none). The film has an endearing sense of irony about its subject while being sincere about his achievements: helping to shape a brief cultural moment in a brutal urban war where Protestant and Catholic youth could unite in common cause. It made a good companion piece with US documentary Artifact, a case study of US rockers 30 Seconds to Mars locked in a vicious battle with their aggressively hostile record company, EMI – a telling parable of a collapsing industry.
I missed the first hour of Tim Winton's The Turning, Robert Connolly's three hour compendium of loosely linked Winton short stories (each with a different director), set in and around a Western Australian coastal community, though warmed to most of the remaining two hours. In essence, it's an Australian Short Cuts, a series of Raymond Carver-esque snapshots of ordinary lives caught at particularly resonant moments. The cliché goes that a surfeit of grubby realist dramas almost killed the Australian film industry, but here the level of ambition and star power (viz. Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Richard Roxburgh) might be enough to create the aura of a special event and become this year's Lantana. Or perhaps not.
[ Read: review of The Turning ]
Rivaling it for event status was Cannes hit All Is Lost, in which a septuagenarian lone yachtsman (an extraordinarily vigorous Robert Redford) battles the elements alone after his hull is speared by a shipping container mid-Pacific. With only one word of dialogue after the brief introduction, this is pure cinema: conceptually bold, impressively mounted and thoroughly gripping. If Wall Street drama Margin Call hadn't already marked its writer-director as a major figure to watch, this thoroughly unexpected follow up should put that beyond any doubt.
[ Watch interview: All Is Lost director J.C Chandor and actor Robert Redford ]