Melbourne international film festival 2021: our 10 highlights | Melbourne international film festival

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What an odd time it is to be programming a film festival – or almost any public event, for that matter. In Australia, where the Covid-19 vaccination rate is very low, organisers are well aware that they’re one lockdown away from having their best laid plans scuppered.

Last year both the Melbourne international film festival and the Sydney film festival were cancelled due to the pandemic and replaced with virtual editions, which, through no fault of their own, had none of the magic of their real-world counterparts – the vibe, the energy, the thrill of watching things together.

With new daily cases of coronavirus currently cracking triple digits in New South Wales, things are looking pretty hairy for Sydney’s August festival – but Melbourne’s, which opens on 5 August, is looking OK for now.

The Melbourne film festival program, unveiled on Tuesday, features 283 films, with 40 world premieres and 154 Australian premieres. Here’s 10 of our highlights.

1. Language Lessons

Directed by: Natalie Morales

Starring: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass

Orson Welles famously proclaimed that “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations” – a line that’s recently been put to the proof in film-making, with lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing measures meaning cast and crew were sometimes not able to physically congregate on a set.

Thus the rise of the “Zoom film”, to which Natalie Morales’s new drama belongs. Shot entirely through screens and online interactions, it tells of a platonic friendship between a Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher (Morales) and her new California pupil (Mark Duplass, who co-wrote it with her), who has signed on for 100 online lessons. When he is forced to deal with terrible trauma, the relationship between them deepens.

2. Annette

Directed by: Leos Carax

Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard

Adam Driver delivers an acclaimed performance in a characteristically odd new film from French director Leos Carax, who Peter Bradshaw described as “the sly anarchist of French cinema whose sorties are sadly few and far between”. Carax, whose oeuvre includes the audaciously great surrealist comedy Holy Motors, directs this stream-of-consciousness musical collaboration with the Sparks brothers, about a misanthropic stand-up comedian (Driver) and an opera diva (Marion Cotillard).

3. The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson

Directed by: Leah Purcell

Starring: Leah Purcell

First published in 1892, Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife gets a contemporary reworking c/o actor, author and playwright Leah Purcell, who stars in and directs this year’s Opening Night film. The multi-hyphenate artist could hardly be more across this material, given the film arrives in the wake of a novel she wrote and a play she penned and starred in, which she described as being influenced by Deadwood and Django Unchained.

Exploring prickly questions about gender, race and class, Purcell plays the titular character, who in the trailer welcomes a visitor to her land by snarling, “I’ll shoot you where you stand and I’ll bury you where you fall” – presumably right before inviting him inside for a cuppa and a biccie. The film joins a growing list of recent, historically revisionist meat pie westerns including Sweet Country, The Nightingale, High Ground, and True History of the Kelly Gang.

4. Petite Maman

Directed by: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz

Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman. Photograph: © Lilies Films

French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s lesbian period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the best films from recent years: visually rich, deeply romantic and a compelling insight into artistic creation. Her follow-up is therefore a must-see. In Petite Maman an eight-year-old girl (Joséphine Sanz), while wandering in the woods, meets another young girl (Gabrielle Sanz) who looks just like her and shares the same name as her mother. Expect a Twilight Zone-esque premise that’s beautifully shot (by Portrait of a Lady cinematographer Claire Mathon) and emotionally poignant.

5. Nitram

Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Essie Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Judy Davis

Controversial art is almost as old as art itself. The best kind unpacks provocative subjects for their potential to enrich our understanding of human experience, taking us to dark places with the intention of emerging from the discussion as a better and more informed society.

We’ll have to wait and see what Justin Kurzel’s inevitably controversial film about the lead-up to the Port Arthur massacre is like (“Nitram” is the gunman’s first name spelled backwards), though the director has certainly proven himself to be greatly talented: one of our best film-makers, in my opinion, who directed the first great modern film about Ned Kelly, the best video game adaptation to date and, in Snowtown, an elegantly brilliant film about a serial killer. Premiering at Cannes this week, Nitram is the first Australian film to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or in a decade.

6. A Hero

Directed by: Asghar Farhadi

Starring: Amir Jadidi and Mohsen Tanabandeh

A still from Hero (Ghahreman) by Asghar Farhadi.
A still from Hero (Ghahreman) by Asghar Farhadi. Photograph: Amirhossein Shojaei

Any new production from Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi — known for tightly constructed dramas with complex social and personal dimensions, including 2011’s Oscar-winning A Separation — is one to look out for. Reportedly directed in the tone of suspenseful drama, A Hero — according to the synopsis provided on IMDB — is about a man imprisoned for failing to pay a debt, whose attempts to appeal to his creditor “don’t go as planned”. Details on this one are hard to come by – but expect a morally complex, hard-hitting film.

7. Two Hands x The Murlocs

Two Hands screening soundtracked by the Murlocs

Gregor Jordan’s beloved 1999 Australian crime film – remembered in part for irresistible performances from Heath Ledger and Rose Byrne – is far from the first title that comes to mind when one thinks about movies that would benefit from new scores performed live in cinemas. But … why not?

The score will be performed by Melbourne garage rock band The Murlocs – the fourth iteration of the festival’s Hear My Eyes series melding live music and film.

8. Howard the Duck, in a rare 70mm print

Directed by: Willard Huyck

Director Willard Huyck and producer George Lucas’s 1986 superhero movie — which was, in fact, the first Marvel movie ever made — is legendarily bad. But at least it’s colourfully and zanily bad, rather than bad in the bland, studio-managed, milk-and-water way of much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The titular hero (of sorts) is zapped to Earth from a planet populated by anthropomorphic ducks and battles a “Dark Overlord” intent on conquering the world. Melbourne’s famous Astor theatre will screen a rare 70mm print of the film.

9. Pig

Directed by: Michael Sarnoski

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff

In these dark and uncertain times, at least we can still worship at the church of Nicolas Cage. The prolific actor has starred in well over 100 feature films and shows no signs of slowing down.

He looks more bushy-bearded and hobo-like than usual in his latest project, playing a truffle hunter alone in the wilderness who returns to the city to track down the swine, so to speak, who stole his truffle pig. In terms of oinktastic cinema Cage and the pig face stiff competition in another film released this year about an even-toed ungulate, which was sow good: the amazing Gunda.

10. Ablaze (world premiere)

Directed by: Tiriki Onus

Opera singer and scholar-cum-film-maker Tiriki Onus narrates and co-directs this Australian documentary, summarised by the following intriguing line from the festival program: “Tiriki Onus thought he knew his grandfather Bill, until an unearthed film reel suggests he might have been the first ever Aboriginal film-maker.”

Investigating a story that’s personal and familial but also politically and historically interesting, the film joins other recent productions contemplating aspects of Australian history through the lens of Aboriginal artists — such as Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra, My Name is Gulpilil, The Skin of Others, Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky and the You Are Here series.

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