As the end of each Australian winter approaches, so too does one of the local industry’s most ardent and adored endurance tests. The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) not only pushes its patrons to the limits with its extended run of almost three weeks and the extensive number of features on offer, but with its lengthy queues, often inhospitable weather, aggressively uncomfortable seating at the Greater Union, and the interminable workout that is the Forum stairs. Yet, cinephiles from the city, as well as their interstate brethren, flock to the Victorian capital to revel in the experience. In the festival’s 61st year, MIFF proved as enjoyable as ever – and as taxing on the durability of its audience.
In a program that included over 300 films, I was lucky enough to watch 80 in total – 44 during the event and 36 prior. Of the features sampled before the festival, many provided MIFF with its best and brightest offerings, including the Michael Haneke’s beautiful, brave and brutal Palme d’Or winner Amour and debut director Behn Zeitlin’s spellbinding and striking Sundance hit Beasts of the Southern Wild. Wes Anderson’s eagerly awaited, intricately adorable Moonrise Kingdom and William Friedkin’s twisted Texas tale Killer Joe ranked among the other highlights, as did engaging and ingenious time travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, sensitive schoolroom drama Monsieur Lazhar and the intelligent and immersive Your Sister’s Sister. Each had played other festivals around the country, but earned their inclusion at MIFF for their various strengths, as did the opaque and evocative Alps and the crazily kaleidoscopic Holy Motors, as well as stunning documentaries The Imposter and Undefeated.
However, amongst a line-up that also included the excellent First Position, Just the Wind, Miss Bala and Wuthering Heights, the enjoyable Liberal Arts, Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai and The Sapphires, the enigmatic Tabu, the informative Side by Side, and the utterly mixed fare of Barbara, Bully, Caesar Must Die, Dead Europe, Mental, Neighbouring Sounds, On the Road, Rampart and The Loneliest Planet, a wealth of aces existed amongst MIFF’s premiere content. One such film struck such a chord with viewers that it took out the festival’s audience award, with The Intouchables exuberant and empathetic within its heartfelt, humorous buddy comedy mould. Documentary winner Searching for Sugar Man may have previously screened in Sydney, but it proved the undeniable highlight of the Melbourne event. A film best discovered with as little advance knowledge as possible, the fascinating gem is soulful, spirited, sorrowful and surprising, as well as unexpectedly inspiring.
MIFF delivered many other memorable movies, from the giallo scares of Berberian Sound Studio to the bleak, black comedy of certain English hit Sightseers. The former indulges a love of the medium amidst a beguiling showcase for leading man Toby Jones; the latter remains true to director Ben Wheatley’s deliciously dark sensibilities whilst inspiring plenty of amusement. The sweetly spooky Paranorman may just be the best animated feature in recent years, Teddy Bear mimics the tenderness of its name despite appearances to the contrary, and The Sessions mixes stellar performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt with a stirring true story. Advertising drama No amazes with not only its imaginative execution but its historical authenticity, fragile familial effort Sister is delicate, devastating and elegantly disarming, War Witch weaves astute portrayals into its ambitious African storyline, and the typically disorienting Like Someone in Love marks a return to form for Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami. In addition, the excellent selection of documentaries continued with the moving and mesmerising Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, damaging drug war dissection The House I Live In and enthralling cultural portrait This Ain’t California.
Of course, not all films met expectations, including the keenly anticipated V/H/S. In perhaps the most misogynistic festival offering of the year, it plumbed the depths of the found footage genre with its repetitive inanity. Screening it straight after the similarly trying The Legend of Kaspar Hauser afforded unlucky audiences with a night of forgettable cinema. A week later, patrons were treated to more disappointment when standard yet suspenseful French action thriller Sleepless Night was stopped due to sound problems mere minutes before the film’s climax
In between, the MIFF program traversed features both notable and not so, with more of the former than the latter. Among such a diverse array of offerings, effervescent rom-com Ruby Sparks, genuinely lovely animated effort Ernest and Celestine, wondrous childhood fable I Wish and Ken Loach’s drink-inducing – but not in a bad way – The Angels’ Share soared above the mottled output of Takashi Miike’s hyperkinetic Ace Attorney, Todd Solondz’s tonally inconsistent Dark Horse, Billy Bob Thornton’s overblown southern melodrama Jayne Mansfield’s Car, and uneven local horror comedy 100 Bloody Acres. Similarly, the meticulous Beyond the Hills, capricious Damsels in Distress, charming Robot and Frank and compelling Sound of My Voice earned attention over predictable genre piece Headshot and erratic remake Maniac. Such variance is not only expected but almost welcomed in such a setting, for taking the good with the bad and the sublime with the abysmal is part and parcel of any worthwhile festival – and MIFF – experience.