The 2009 Sydney Film Festival finished yesterday. I love going to the SFF. I'm not a particularly knowledgeable film buff, and I have a very bad memory for the detail of the films I've seen - sometimes even for the most basic information about a film I've seen. What I love most about the SFF is the way it allows me to 'get my eye in' for the kinds of films that are currently being made; and, of course, it's the ultimate escape from the worries and concerns of everyday life.
In the past I had a subscription ticket, as Jody has had for this year's SFF. One of the great pleasures of a subscription ticket is seeing whatever film you are scheduled to see by the Festival's organisers. Frequently, these are films you would never choose if left to your own devices. Some of them are truly dreadful, but many are wonderful and surprising. But work and family commitments and changes to the SFF scheduling made the subscription impossible, and the last couple of years a friend and I have bought a bunch of flexible tickets and shared them. This year I saw only 15 films.
I did see 'Bronson', the film that received the jury prize for the best film of the festival. While it would not have been my choice, I can understand why it was chosen. It is vibrant, innovative, and has an outstanding performance from Tom Hardy (previously unknown to me) as the central character - a long-term hardened crim whose claim to fame is being the most violent man in the British prison system. Hardy plays the role with vaudeville references, frequently through monologues to camera (and us) in clown make-up. I think the film suggests that Bronson's life is given meaning only because he chooses a role and performs it brilliantly - significantly, he chooses to be called Charles Bronson to echo the toughness and resilience of the action hero. The film is extremely violent, and some of the scenes - particularly those in a psychiatric ward - are harrowing. It will be interesting to see what happens to it with commercial release. I think there's a slight chance it will become a cult classic, like 'Chopper' with which it will inevitably be compared in Australia, but a much greater chance it will just be too weird for the general public.
Of the films I saw, I would have awarded the prize to 'Disgrace', an Australian-made adaptation of the JM Coetzee novel of the same name set in modern South Africa. It's strong stuff. I watched most of it with a lump in my throat; on the brink of tears. John Malkovich gives a brilliant performance as the totally unsympathetic aging academic who is suspended for an inappropriate and exploitative sexual relationship with a student. Most of the film details his painfully unsuccessful attempts to come to terms with rapid change in modern-day South Africa, played out mainly on his daughter's isolated farm through the negotiation and violent imposition of sexual power and access to land. The film is visually stunning, perfectly acted, resolutely unsentimental and (in my view) bleak and despairing.
The other films I'd recommend highly were documentaries - neither of which won a prize. I particularly liked 'Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired', ostensibly a documentary about the Polish / American / French Academy Award winning film director who is still wanted by the legal system in the US, after more than 20 years, for having admitted, but consensual, sexual intercourse with a 13 year old girl. Polanski has had a most eventful, convention-flouting and often tragic life and is a remarkable subject for a film; but what I found wonderful was that the central focus of the documentary became the US judicial system - at both its most honorable and admirable, and its most venal and corrupt. Fascinating.
I also saw 'The Beaches of Agnes', an autobiographical film made by octogenarian Agnes Varda. Friend over decades of many French film-makers, painters and writers, she has made a typically (for her), meandering, free-associating film about her life and her own work as a film director. I had been captivated by her documentary 'The Gleaners' several years ago, and this autobiography has some of the same tough whimsy. Also scheduled in the SFF was one of her films from the early 1960s, 'Cleo from 5 to 7', which I think showed its age much less gracefully that Agnes herself shows her age.
So that's it for another year. I have some regret at no longer having such a good excuse for escaping the day to day-ness of my life. But there is always knitting to do...