Another year of the Melbourne International Film Festival has come and gone. With 267 films screening across 18 days, cinephiles in Australia’s cultural capital escaped the brisk, chilly winter Melbourne air for the warming glow of the cinema screen, indulging in not just the plentiful array of cinema from all over the world but a glorious celebration of this city’s wonderful film community. But the festival is now over, so popcorn and wine is no longer an acceptable dinner, you can finally get a full eight hours sleep and we can finally say goodbye to the infamous dead pixel on the screen of the Comedy Theatre.
While this year’s festival featured slimmer program than previous years, the quality of the films outweighed the need for quantity. I’ve been attending MIFF since 2017 and this year was by far my biggest and best year personally, breaking my previous best of 46 by attending 51 sessions over the course of the festival. To speak of the program’s quality (or potentially my expertise/luck with my selections), there were only a handful of films of the 51 I watched that I didn’t like. Here’s 10 of the best films I saw at the 2023 Melbourne International Film Festival, ordered alphabetically as apposed to a numerical ranking.
Anatomy of a Fall
Justine Triet’s Palme D’or winning courtroom drama was the big ticket item of MIFF this year and it well and truly lived up to the enormous hype. The incredible Sandra Hüller stakes her early claim for awards season attention as she plays a novelist on trial for the murder of her husband after he is found dead outside their chalet in the French Alps. It’s a wholly immersive and enthralling procedural where the verdict is ultimately secondary to it’s captivating dissection of a failing relationships and tense family dynamics that’ll have you on the edge of your seat for all 150 minutes.
Anatomy of a Fall will be released theatrically across Australia via Madman Films from January 25th 2024.
The first of two Wim Wenders films you will be seeing on this list (the man is having a good year). Continuing to experiment with both documentary form and the capabilities of 3D cinema technology after his 2011 film Pina, Wenders turns his attention to another German luminary of the arts as the subject for his latest 3D documentary, Anselm Kiefer. Anselm is a stunning and evocative celebration of an artist in a way that they want to be celebrated; through their art. Wenders substitutes hagiographic talking head interviews with his floating camera as it glides through the Kiefer’s vast expansive studio filled with his monumental maximalist marvels, with the 3D breathing life into the works and giving them an almost tangible level of depth.
By far and away the most gripping, heart-pounding documentary to screen at MIFF this year was Madeline Gavin’s Beyond Utopia. Shot almost completely with hidden cameras and featuring zero re-enactments, the film follows a South Korean Pastor and his underground network of brokers as they help a family of five defect from North Korea and make the long, perilous journey to freedom. It’s a truly unforgettable and shocking documentary not only for showcasing the extreme lengths this family must go to, but a genuinely jaw-dropping exposè on life under an oppressive regime and the ridiculous and frightening things they are essentially brainwashed into believing. Fearless, brave work of filmmaking that will soon be essential viewing.
Hot on the heels of the critical and financial success of both at home and abroad of the Phillipou brothers’ Talk To Me, MIFF has been a haven for exciting new Aussie genre films. Late Night with the Devil and Godless: The Eastfield Exorcism brought the dark demonic thrills, but the scariest and most intense of the bunch was Birdeater. The debut feature of Jack Clark and Jim Weir (collectively known as ‘Fax Machine’) sees a bride-to-be invited to her own fiance’s buck’s weekend where all hell breaks loose once details about their relationship are exposed. It’s a dark, brooding and nightmarish film that is a Wake In Fright-esque exploration into Australian masculinity and the insecurities and toxicity that is deeply ingrained into it. A staggeringly good debut.
Erotic/Revenge thrillers are making a comeback, and this lurid, thorny morality tale takes the genre in directions you won’t expect. Femme follows Jules (the magnetic Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a drag performer who is assaulted by a gang of drug dealers outside a London nightclub. Having retired his act due to the trauma of the incident, Jules’ confidence and motivation is shattered. Until he crosses paths with one of his assailants (the ever-versatile George Mackay) in a gay sauna and he sees an opportunity to exact some twisted revenge upon his abuser. For what easily could have veered into crass exploitation, Writer/Directors Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman tackle the material with deft hands, perfectly skating the tenuous lines between right and wrong. A thriller that’s intense, intriguing, erotic and unpredictable all in equal measure and was my biggest surprise of the festival.
The great thing about film festivals, especially if you see as many films as me, is that sometimes you will see a film you know nothing about either completely on a whim or to fill some time in-between sessions of films you’re highly anticipating. And sometimes, those films can surprise you ways you weren’t expecting and can be one of the best films you see throughout the entire festival. Babak Jalali’s Fremont is one of those films as I was struck by its monochrome majesty and quiet, tender humanity. Presented in a wry, Jarmusch-esque slice of life fashion, the film follows Donya, an Afghan refugee as she adapts to life in America. Working at a fortune cookie factory and coming to grips with her own past as a translator for the US Army, Donya is struggling with isolation and a longing for connection and belonging in her new home of the titular Fremont, California. Anaita Wali Zada is terrific in her debut performance as Donya and is surrounded by a terrific cast of other non-professional actors, as well as memorable supporting roles from both The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White and Mister Movies himself, Gregg Turkington. Splendid little gem of a film.
If you took a 90s Gus Van Sant film and infused it with the ethereal, transcendental slow cinema stylings of Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, you’d get something like this poignant and deeply melancholic Canadian coming of age film. Graham Foy’s directorial debut chronicles the lives of three teenagers in suburban Calgary whose fates become cosmically intertwined after a tragedy strikes their community. Favouring atmosphere over narrative, The Maiden‘s timeless 16mm cinematography and raw naturalistic performances from a cast of non-professional actors all create this liminal, dream-like experience that perfectly creates a languid, yet profoundly moving rumination on grief, youth and finding meaning in the chaos of life. One of the very best feature debuts in a very long time and has announced Foy as an exciting new voice in world cinema.
After two films overseas, the legendary humanist filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu returns to his native Japan and also returns to his brilliant best. If Alice Rohrwacher resurrected the spirit of Fellini with her work on La Chimera, Kore-eda also invokes his own country’s most celebrated filmmaker by bringing Akira Kurosawa back from the dead with Monster (to the point where this film should seriously be called Rashomon-ster). Go into it knowing as little as possible except that this a beautiful and compassionate film about childhood, self-acceptance and truth that features remarkable performances (especially Sakura Ando, following her exceptional work in Shoplifters) and the emotionally powerful final score of the late Ryuichi Sakamoto. One of the very best films of MIFF and the year thus far.
Told you Wim Wenders would be making another appearance on this list. If Anselm was a documentary that was structured and presented like a narrative film, then Perfect Days is a wonderful inversion of that idea; a narrative film that feels like a documentary. Koji Yakusho in this Cannes Best Actor winning performance portrays Hirayama, a man of few words who works as a Toilet cleaner in Tokyo. Like Fremont, Perfect Days is another a beautiful slice-of-life tale that is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson in its focus on routine and finding joy and meaning in life’s simple pleasures. It’s one big, wholesome warm hug of a film where the brilliance lies in its charming simplicity. Wenders’ versatility as a filmmaker, even in his late 70s never ceases to amaze.
This Is Gonna Be Big
To round out my Top 10, it couldn’t be anything else other than the MIFF Premiere funded doco that was 1000 cc’s of Serotonin being injected directly into the soul. Winning the MIFF Audience Award, this wonderful Australian documentary gives us a glimpse into the lives of a group of neurodivergent students at the Sunbury and Macedon Ranges Specialist School as they prepare for their incredible new school play; a John Farnham-themed, time travelling musical. Many documentaries on this kind fail so spectacularly at showcasing honest, candid depictions of disability and neurodiversity and fall into the trap of becoming shallow inspiration porn for “normal people’ to feel good about themselves, but Director Thomas Charles Hyland follows the same ethos of the play he is capturing and applies that sensibility to his film; giving these neurodivergent teens a voice of their own and the film is all the better for it. As a proud autistic man, This Is Going To Be Big made my heart so full in its celebration of neurodiversity and disability and its soulful expression of pure unbridled joy. I loved every single second of it.
This Is Going To Be Big will air on ABC TV in early 2024 and then subsequently on Netflix later in the year.
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