This past Sunday, the 61st annual edition of the Sydney Film Festival came to a close. Of the more than 180 films that screened at the festival, a dozen fought it out in the Official Competition, with the $61,000 prize eventually going to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardene’s Two Days, One Night. Although a considerably less controversial winner than lasts years’ Only God Forgives, given the quality of the film it’s hard to dispute the juries’ choice.
A bigger surprise was the winner of the Audience Award. While normally bestowed on something relatively light and accessible such as The Rocket in 2013 or Monsieur Lazhar the year before, this years’ punters proved a more highfalutin lot, opting for Nuri Bilge Ceylan three hour fifteen minute Palm d’Or winner Winter’s Sleep. Given my less than positive reaction to Ceylan’s last unwieldy epic Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, I decided to steer well clear.
Winners aside, there were plenty of other highlights on the program, from charming US indie flicks to icy Chinese thrillers. Without further adieu, here are four standouts from this year’s Sydney line-up.
Black Coal, Thin Ice
A masterpiece of framing and composition, Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice is a rare kind of film in which no shot feels unconsidered or out of place. Set in a frozen industrial city in northern China, the winner of the Berlin Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Bear strips the archetypal film noir to its bare and cynical essentials. A gruesome murder. A mysterious dame. An alcoholic ex-cop still haunted by the case he couldn’t solve. The minimalistic plot creeps along like midnight frost, its cold, dispassionate spindles edging slowly but surely through the night. Yinan refuses to indulge in exposition, instead forcing viewers to join the bloody dots themselves.
Yet the true mastery of the movie lies not in its minimalistic plotting, but in the breathtaking precision of Jinsong Dong’s cinematography. The stark, frozen setting provides no shortage of memorable images, the ghostly white snow lit up by neon lights. A five-year time jump is conveyed in a single unbroken shot, while other visual cues are drawn from The Third Man, Vertigo and beyond. Frequently, viewers are forced to reconsider what they’re seeing the longer the camera holds its gaze.
25-year-old wunderkind Xavier Dolan has been a favourite at the Sydney Film Festival since his sophomore feature, Heartbeats, won the top prize in 2010. His fifth feature is Mommy, an unbridled domestic melodrama about a mother and her troubled teenage son. But what really makes Dolan’s latest stand out is the director’s bold decision to restrict the edges of his frame. Shot in 1:1 aspect ratio, this movie takes place inside a perfect square.
Anne Dorval is phenomenally good as the brassy widow Dianne, as is Antoine Olivier Pilon as her bombastic and unpredictable Simon; together, mother and son are truly a force to be reckoned with. Dolan paints in big, audacious brush stroke, filling his film with plenty of humour and sweeping emotional stakes. The heights of the drama make the framing choice that much more baffling. That is, until a moment of truly transcendental cinema, when the reason for the decision becomes clear. A stunningly affecting piece of filmmaking.
Two Days, One Night
The latest film from the two time Palm d’Or winning Dardenne Brothers, and the recipient of this year’s Sydney Film Prize, the dramatic strength of Two Days, One Night comes from its extraordinarily simple premise. Marion Cotillard stars as Sandra, a depressed wife and mother faced with sudden unemployment after management tells her co-workers that her job comes at the cost of their annual bonuses. An initial vote on a Friday sees her ousted 14-2, but she manages to convince her boss to agree to a second ballot on Monday. From there she was the weekend to sway seven of her co-workers to her cause.
Each conversation plays like a seperate, gripping short film. Some of her co-workers are defiant; others are embarrassed; others break down and beg forgiveness. Luc and Jean-Pierre shoot in the long, unwavering takes, refusing to embellish the drama or pass judgement on their characters. Yet despite its ultra-realist approach, the film frequently feels like a thriller, the clock ticking downwards towards an ending that’s impossible to predict. Just when you think our heroine’s cause is doomed, she’ll find a supporter; then, when things seem promising, she’ll suffer another blow. The performances are excellent without exception, the normally luminous Cotillard vanishing completely into her weary, working-class role.
Director Joe Swanberg is in comfortable territory with the breezy, improv-heavy dramedy Happy Christmas. An amusing portrait of family dysfunction shot on grainy 16mm stock, the film marks his second outing with actress Anna Kendrick after his previous feature, Drinking Buddies. Here she plays Jenny, a reckless, binge-dinking young woman crashing with her brother’s family for the holidays.
As with the best films from Swanberg and his mumblecore brethren, the joy of Happy Christmas comes from the authenticity of its characters. Jenny is an unmitigated train-wreck, but the bubbly, klutzy Kendrick makes it easy to forgive her flaws. Lynskey is likewise wonderfully likable as Jenny’s timid sister-in-law Kelly, a woman terrified that life has already passed her by. Lena Dunham, Mark Webber and the writer-director himself reliably round out the cast, although the true star of proceedings is Swanberg’s 2-year-old-son Jude. Between the toddler and a particularly scruffy pet dog, audience goodwill is all but guaranteed.