SFF 2010: Final Wrap-up

My first Sydney film festival happened to strangely coincide with the 51st year of the festival. Coincidence? I think not. Meaningless? Most likely. As you would expect there is a big culture of cinephiles in Sydney and they came out in droves for the festival this year. I don't think I have ever seen as many sold out red stickers on a schedule as I saw late in this years festival. Attendance was apparently up 20% on last year which is an amazing growth spurt in anyone's books and I can say I was very surprised at the amount of well attended mid week day time sessions, always an indication of true cinephilic activity (I'm pretty sure cinephilic is a word and it's a kick-ass one at that).
Sadly I somehow dropped under my planned 26 films and only made 21 but that is still a decent effort considering I was only in Sydney for 7 days. While no one person can ever comprehensively cover a film festival I will endeavour to give you guys feedback on some of the key films I missed that played later in the festival but first lets get subjective shall we!

Here are the top five films I saw over the course of the festival (in no particular order of course):
Other highlights included several more documentaries (which all could've very easily made the top 5 but I figured I should put at least 2 narrative features in my list. Also I do consider 1 of those 3 documentaries listed pretty close to a narrative feature anyway), Just Like Us, Gas Land and The Oath were all sensational, highly recommended viewing.
Many of the narrative features this year were rather disappointing, including a couple I was greatly looking forward to. Todd Solondz' Life During Wartime was a stunningly undercooked misfire and that is coming from a huge Solondz fan. Matsumoto's Symbol was also a major disappointment. Wonderfully surreal but frustratingly repetitive, I really wanted to love this film but only ended up appreciating its oddness. It was too wilfully strange to be completely enjoyable. Other disappointments were K-horror film, Possessed and Serbian war film Ordinary People (mistake this for the 1980 Robert Redford soap at your peril!). Ordinary People found quite a bit of love amongst some critics up in Sydney but I will argue to the death my dislike of it. It's the type of alienating vacuous art-wank of a film that does no good for international cinema in my opinion. Thin, obvious but mainly a well-shot wasted opportunity. Other weak films on the doco side were Space Tourists, Colony and Waste Land (yes I'll keep saying it too... you have a problem with that?)

Only caught two Australian films personally but they were both very solid pieces of work. Red Hill and The Loved Ones will definitely get recommendations from me when they hit our cinemas later this year. On the NZ tip, Boy was a charmer that offered respite from the numerous dour documentaries and will no doubt do huge business when it hits our shores. See it early to avoid the predictable reactionary jaded backlash (being an incredibly petty and reactionary person myself I will no doubt spearhead much of this backlash once it becomes too popular so let the record note that at this point in time I very much enjoyed Boy).
Strangely enough I only saw 1 out of the 12 films in official competition. While it may be said my taste is completely out of sync with credible international filmmaking I would rather argue that international film is in a troubled and middling place at the moment. Underwhelming reports from Cannes last month would support my position. I can give you some 'word on the street' generalities about some of these films I missed (the 'street' being in actuality 'twitter'). Chris Morris' debut feature Four Lions, a slapstick jihad comedy got mixed reports. I love Morris' work (Jam is still the greatest comedy series ever made, best described as what would happen if David Lynch directed a sketch show) so I'm resolutely excited about seeing this one! Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me seemed to be too brutal, one-dimensional and misanthropic for most of the audience. The amount of intense hate generated by this film only makes me more excited to see it. That's just how I am. The Tree received mixed reports as did Polanski's new one, The Ghost Writer. I still have high hopes over the Polanski film. He is often a misunderstood director and I will always give someone of his skill the time of day. Twenty-one year old Xavier Dolan won official competition with his film Heartbeats. This didn't disappoint anyone who saw it but Dolan for me is still only known as the guy who gets shot early in Martyrs.

On a more day to day level, I had a lot of fun with this festival. All the venues offered top quality environments to watch films. I particularly enjoyed any session at the State theatre. There were a few teething problems with projections but they are par for the course. Some problems could've been fixed more hastily (The Oath and Basquiat both had issues that were let run for a little too long. Just stop rolling when a problem is identified) but again I am just nit picking as all film festivals I have been to have had little glitches. My only major frustration was the distance between the Dendy as a venue and the rest of the theatres. I missed the start of two sessions due to commuting to the city from the Dendy. It really was a nightmare at times and added an extra 20 bucks of taxi fares onto every day's screenings. I don't know Sydney too well so call me naive but I am surprised a city of this size doesn't have an extra venue somewhere within the central radius of the other two theatres.

Overall it was a good festival. Clare Stewart and her team did a solid programming job, surfing that fine line between pleasing film junkies and making the program populist enough that sessions actually sell. I won't hold it against her that she loved Life During Wartime (I promise I won't, even though I will again state how profoundly disappointed I was with it). We will see how Melbourne stacks up against it next month. I'm excited to experience both festivals back to back and I will do my utmost to objectively judge MIFF despite my previously stated bias for it.
For a great round-up of critical opinions on a bunch more films that I missed definitely check out Mathieu Ravier's critics poll here. By far the most complete critical overview of the festival you can find with links to several other SFF bloggers who covered the action. For the record I disagree with much of the general consensus in the critics poll which means I may be a trouble-making, contrary smart ass or simply just completely wrong in what films I think are good. I'm going with smart ass.


i believe it's "cinephallic"

I know what type of films you watch!!!

I don't know about general consensus but I am a sucker for a good spreadsheet. I also think the most personally valuable film writing for me are pieces on films I don't like. There is nothing like a well-written argument for a film you personally don't like.
You coming down to Melbourne for MIFF next month matt? Let me know if you do. Would love to catch up for some mid-festival drinks.

Ha! There is no right or wrong when it comes to film criticism (despite Pierre Rissient's famous saying, that "it's not enough to like a film, you have to like it for the right reasons")... and I don't know if the critics' poll offers much in the way of consensus. For that to happen, we'd need more critics taking part, watching more films at the Festival. For that reason, I hope you'll join us next year. Smart arsery always welcome!