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53rd Melbourne International Film Festival, July-Aug 2004

Twentynine Palms

A plenitude of offerings as usual, but with the abiding impression that we were simply receiving "variations on a theme", as the festival overflowed with new (but lesser) works from known directors. I attended 50-odd sessions, pretty much avoiding anything with an upcoming release, and had a good time overall. Before divulging my top ten films, it’s only fair that I at least list all the others I saw.

The awful: Somnambulance, The Adventure of Iron Pussy, Josh Jarman, How to Tell When a Relationship is Over, Sextasy, and a slough of Australian shorts (the Shortlands, It Takes Two to Tango, And One Step Back, Everything Goes, Heartworm).

The disappointing: Triple Agent, The Holy Girl, Letters in the Wind, The Cat Returns, The Story of Marie and Julien, Work Hard, Play Hard, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Woman is the Future of Man.

The okay: The Saddest Music in the World, Roads to Koktebel, At Five in the Afternoon, The Riverside, 15, Cinema Dali, Film as Subversive Art, Creature Comforts, Anthem, Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, Bright Leaves, Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons, We Have Decided Not to Die, Like Twenty Impossibles, Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty, The Ladies’, Maryam’s Son, My Neighbors the Yamadas.

The good: Pure Shit, 10 on Ten, Persons of Interest, Five, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, Black Man and his Bride, Hot Centre of the World, Petersen, Nobody Knows, Only Yesterday, Stir, Orange Love Story, The Widower, The Five Obstructions, Mona Lisa.

The jury is out: The Ister (because I could only see the first half).

And so, the ten highlights of the festival, for me:

  1. Hamlet X (James Clayden, 2003)

The most radical of the wonderful Australian experimental works programmed in this year’s festival (The Ister, Orange Love Story, The Widower). Fragmented and pacy, making it baffling and unnerving, it is also undeniably fascinating and seductive.

  1. Joy of Madness (Hana Makhmalbaf, 2003)

With her sister and father losing themselves in lyrical abstractions lately, 15-year-old Hana pulls out this barbed, unflinching document (on sister Samira’s questionable directing methods, no less). Reminiscent of the lively Iranian cinema of the ‘90s.

  1. Bemani (Dariush Mehrjui, 2002)

Not as accomplished as Mehrjui’s last couple of films (The Pear Tree, Leila), this is nevertheless a highly enjoyable mosaic of the struggles of several young women in patriarchal Iran. Mehrjui punctuates the drama with a number of quite impure expressionistic flourishes, giving the film an exciting feel.

  1. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)

A failure, but a mightily ambitious one. The film’s pay-offs are beautiful, but few and far between. The film connects everyday tenderness with primal mysticism, but Weerasethakul isn’t able to fully integrate them. Almost a great film.

  1. Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard, 2004)

Coming right after the sublime Éloge de l'amour, this film confirms Godard’s current trajectory – his last works will be clear-headed, inventive and surprisingly light (given his conclusions) ruminations on life, the universe and everything.

  1. Samaritan Girl (Kim Ki-duk, 2004)

Not as beautiful as The Isle or as exciting as Bad Guy, this film is nevertheless a wonderful concoction from its talented director. Its treatise on innocence, sacrifice and repulsion is fascinating, and the way it resolves these elements in the narrative is highly moving.

  1. End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (Jim Fields, Michael Gramaglia, 2004)

A music documentary literally bursting at the seams. The live footage of the band features scorching performances, and the story that emerges from the interviews with band members is quite incredible.

  1. Whisper of the Heart (Kondo Yoshifumi, 1995)

The best of the Studio Ghibli animations on offer (from the upcoming seasons at the Nova and Astor): sprightly, funny and joyous. A hobby horse of mine is to look for a certain kind of light, tender, life-affirming vision in cinema. I rarely find it, but Ghibli films give it to me occasionally.

  1. Aurévélateur (La Révélateur, Philippe Garrel, 1968 & live score by Philip Brophy, 2004)

A magical combination of sound and image. From its Joy Division-inspired opening, through to its appropriation of David Bowie’s "Heroes", the score is charged with emotion and filled with mythic and poetic grandeur. Which suits Philippe Garrel’s original film – with its strange, beautiful, "performance art" images – down to a tee.

  1. Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2003)

An existential horror film, essaying the brutality of the fragility of masculinity. Its vision of man as primal entity (superbly embodied in the act of the screaming orgasm) applies not only to the crazy American rednecks at the end, but to its "cool", Euro-savvy film director (anti)hero all throughout. A brilliant film, with acting and direction that make every other film at this year’s festival look fake.

© Bill Mousoulis August 2004