The first weekend had a fair number of titles about to be released in cinemas, one of the best of which was Ireland’s Calvary (in cinemas 5 July; read our review here), directed not by the McDonagh brother who made In Bruges, but the one who made The Guard. (I had to go to Google to work out this out.) This is a film that somehow distracts the viewer from its status as religious allegory, despite its whoppingly obvious New Testament title and an allegorical hill perpetually hovering above a picturesque coastal township, by dint of its being very funny, though it finally becomes sobering. It stars the ubiquitous Brendan Gleeson and co-stars just about every other name Irish actor alive and all you need know about its plot is that a priest is threatened with death this coming Sunday by one of his parishioners from inside the safety of the confession box.
Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (in cinemas 10 July) features a middle-aged widower and an equally lonely, housebound young wife swapping increasingly confessional, anonymous notes after a mix-up involving lunchboxes. It will doubtless be a modest hit in independent cinemas and deserves this because it takes a scenario that smells of outlandish sentimentality and instead goes for a restrained warmth of feeling and, in its finale, a touching ambiguity and bittersweetness. The script was developed with the help of a Sundance lab, which probably explains why it doesn’t fall into the usual Indian film categories of musical-melodrama versus earnest art film.
There’s no release date announced yet for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which played in the official competition, where it would make a popular and credible winner, and is indeed as splendid as its critical reputation overseas has suggested. This is not just because of its unconventional production method, which like Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series or Michael Apted’s documentary near-equivalent, the Seven Up series, was filmed periodically over several years and invites us to watch the main characters as they grow and change. Gaining depth from its free will vs. determinism theme, this deceptively unassuming film is filled with dialogue that never draws attention to how well-written it is. Not for the first time did it strike me that Linklater is the closest thing the US has to France’s late Eric Rohmer.
Two arts documentaries gave the festival a blast of energy on the first Sunday. Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune is about the Chilean-French surrealist’s failed attempt to make a visionary adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction bestseller in the 1970s (a few years ahead of Star Wars). The film would have featured an all-blast cast including Salvador Dali and Orson Welles and model Amanda Lear and designed by among others, H.R. Giger, who eventually reconfigured his sketches and paintings for Alien. This is documentary filmmaking about filmmaking at its finest, a riveting and frequently mind-blowing story from start to finish.
Finding Fela! is the latest from the world’s most prolific documentary maker, Alex Gibney, who did a grand job exploring the life, music and anti-authoritarian politics of Nigeria’s great Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti, a man who deserved to be as global a superstar as Bob Marley and James Brown but whose international reputation has only really taken off since his 1997 death from AIDS. The film’s one mistake was its framing around the Broadway hit musical Fela!, which took up way too much of the screen time. (Did its producers fund this film? I have no idea, but it certainly looked that way.) I feared Gibney would duck the challenge of examining Kuti’s notoriously sexist views on women but admirably he tackled this head on. (Read our review of the film here.)
One important thing I have learned from SFF 2014 is that it is entirely possible to store a dead creature in the boot of a car for many days and no-one in the close vicinity or even inside the vehicle will smell a thing. No less than two titles screening featured this plot device, and since both elicited this information as climactic revelations, I will desist from naming the culprits for fear of being decried as a cheapjack spoiler merchant. But really.
The film with the best opening – not only in the festival but anything I’ve seen all year – was the Brazilian-German Praia do Futuro in which Suicide’s manic electronic rock’n’roll classic 'Ghost Rider' blasts out at ‘wow!’ volume while a pair of young men ride dune buggies across sand dunes beneath giant wind turbines before diving into the sea. One of them drowns, after which this gay-themed international love story, about the struggle to keep relationships alive in a globalised world, never quite recovers. Director Karim Aïnouz is clearly influenced by Antonioni and captures some arresting images while keeping the dialogue to a minimum. Sadly, though, Antonioni was a genius while few of those inspired by his legacy are.
The weekend’s second the-best-thing-is-the-opening moment came in David Michôd’s post-apocalyptic The Rover (in cinemas 12 June; read our review here), his follow up to the excellent Animal Kingdom. This one starts out like a “man walks into a bar” joke. Guy Pearce’s brooding loner wanders into an outback watering hole, orders a drink then turns his back to the window – where we see an overturned carful of hoons skidding past on its roof, unnoticed. When the hoodlums steal Pearce’s vehicle, he gives chase. So far, so good. But after this the film leaks energy fast, meandering down narrative dog-legs and periodically substituting a spot of the old ultra-violence as if trying to wake an audience it has done its darnedest to put to sleep with endlessly mumbled, western-inspired camp-fire scenes and similarly dull interludes. (Note to filmmakers: there is no such thing as a western with a great campfire scene.) Little wonder that at the eyebrow-raising denouement I heard the woman behind me mutter, “You have GOT to be kidding.”
It’s not as if violence is the film’s problem per se. Norwegian filmmaker Hans Petter Moland’s highly enjoyable if blatantly Tarantino-esque thriller, In Order of Disappearance, whose screening directly preceded The Rover’s and starred Stellen Starsgard as a vengeful snow plough driver serially decimating the local mob, was just as blood-soaked. But it benefited from (a) strong narrative drive, from which it never relented, (b) a vengeful hero clearly motivated by moral righteousness, and victims who in the film's clearly set out moral universe, clearly deserved to die, and (c) wonderfully deadpan black comedy throughout. You could set the film in the Australian outback in the near future and it would still work. You could reset The Rover in the Norwegian snowfields and it would still struggle.
Lynden Barber is a former Artistic Director of the Sydney Film Festival.