SFF 2011: The Big Overview

What a great festival! Out of a meagre 26 films seen, I can say that only about 3 were out and out bad while at least 13 were pretty close to great with the remainder being merely very good. That is one of the best hit to shit ratios of any film festival I have attended in recent memory. This bodes very well for the rest of 2011 as we are still yet to see the bulk of the Cannes films (which was reported to be one of the best in years and MIFF picked up a chunky 25 titles) and also the late year Hollywood prestige releases.
The festival itself showed another growth spurt from last years record breaking event with even more sold out sessions. In her final year programming the event, Clare Stewart did a great job balancing art-house, genre and populist titles. The festival really does feel like an event now, with a tangible buzz amongst Sydney cinephiles for the 12 days it runs.
The loss of the State theatre for weekday sessions (due to nearby construction) threatened to turn SFF into a multiplex festival as the Event cinemas on George St were utilised more than ever. Refreshingly this wasn't an issue as these really are lovely cinemas unlike the central multiplex that MIFF is forced into using (ahhhh Greater Union, it's a love / hate thing). Again the central issue of the Dendy venue being so far away reared its ugly head. I did miss one session due to poor planning on my part but ultimately I ended up dreading anything on my schedule that screened there as the travel time was a nightmare.
There was also the usual contingent of projection difficulties, most memorably during 13 ASSASSINS when one of the final reels appeared out of alignment. What was most infuriating about this incident was that it could've been fixed in moments if only the projectionist was paying attention which he evidently wasn't. One member of our sold out session had to get up, walk to the back of the cinema and loudly bang on the window to the projection room to get someone to pay attention. This was unforgivable but as always, in hindsight, part of the fun.
Enough faffing around though, you are probably reading this to hear about the movies so lets get down to brass tacks shall we. I still have maybe half a dozen individual reviews to write up so any film I speak of that isn't currently hyperlinked to a review will be very soon. So the best films I saw then?
(because a top 5 was too difficult)
These 6 were all magnificent cinematic experiences for me. KILL LIST was one of those out-of-the-blue genre smashers that is a joy to watch. Perfectly tuned to my own sensibilities I cannot wait until this gets a more general release. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE crept up on me with its thoroughly devastating examination of a young girl's truly scarring experience in a cult. I cannot speak highly enough of this one from its pitch perfect yet polarising ending to the revelation that something great has come out of the Olsen family with newcomer (and younger sister to the twins) Elizabeth showing great chops in the lead role. And Terence Malick rendered quite a few verbose critics (including me) speechless with his transcendent TREE OF LIFE.
PROJECT NIM showed James Marsh to be more than up to the challenge of rivalling Errol Morris as one of the best documentarians working today while Australian Matthew Bate brought us SHUT UP LITTLE MAN, a truly fascinating look at what essentially was an early meme in the audio recordings of Peter and Ray, a hilarious true life odd couple if there ever was one.
Personal favourite Miike closed the festival wonderfully for me with 13 ASSASSINS, an object lesson in action filmmaking for any aspiring filmmakers out there. The entire film is so perfectly, structurally sound that it was a true joy to have this unfold before my eyes and yes, that final 45 minute battle is “fucking awesome” (the critical part of my brain abandoned me at times and just yelled that frequently during this film).
Several other very, very good films just missed out on making my tops but in any lesser festival would've been huge highlights. These included the devastating SLEEPING BEAUTY; the fascinating TAKE SHELTER; Errol Morris' most entertaining work in years TABLOID; Miranda July's charming for some / obnoxious for others THE FUTURE; an oddball, uncategorizable work of genius entitled SEPTIEN; and lest I forget the two extravagantly entertaining genre films HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN and TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL.
Almost all of my own misses seemed to be reasonably subjective too. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS was interminable for me but not for others. END OF ANIMAL was another that lost me through its avalanche of repetition and missed opportunities but again, for others it was magnetically tense. TARGET was one of the only significant disappointments that the general consensus seemed to agree upon. A shame as it was highly anticipated.
Really though, only those three were ultimate disappointments, with the remainder all being valid or valuable in some way. STAKE LAND was a fun genre workout as was CORRIDOR despite both bringing nothing especially fresh to the table. ELITE SQUAD 2 was big blockbusting entertainment while TERRI offered small pleasures without truly surprising. Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle brought great chemistry to THE GUARD, which left the state theatre roaring with laughter despite my own general silence. Entertaining, most definitely.
The other documentaries I saw were very decent. COOL IT brought an interesting perspective to the table regarding the global warming debate despite an uncomfortably gushing, messianic approach to its central character. CORMAN'S WORLD was exactly what one would want from a film looking at the B-movie king's oeuvre. The new Morgan Spurlock effort, THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD was grandly entertaining if ultimately hamstrung by its central premise.
For a more comprehensive (yet still obviously limited) critical overview of the festival I urge you all to check out Matt Riviera's Critics' Poll. It was an absolute pleasure to briefly meet the man and take part in the poll this year.
All in all this was a brilliant festival and I cannot wait for MIFF next month. I think 2011 promises to be a great year for cinema, my friends. The best since 2007 at the very least I feel. A final huge thanks to my cinematic partner in crime and trailer fanatic, Woodsman. Without his magnificent help I could not have made it up to Sydney for so long. You are a king amongst men sir. Now excuse me while I return to a dark room for a few more hours. This daylight thing is proving to be quite the discomforting experience.
See you kids at MIFF in a few weeks!