• James Kunovski

2021 Sydney Festival Run Reviewed + Ranked

Between 2021's Sydney Film Festival and the British Film Festival, I saw fifteen films under my festival marathon/rollercoaster ride. I had a blast experiencing this lot. Some were good, some were bad, (sadly American films were lacking) yet all are worth talking about. Here they are, ranked and reviewed.



#15 THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE


Satire is spread thinly in THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE which sugarcoats fraudulent deeds and corporate religion behind chirpy accents, bucketloads of makeup and questionable charm. What exactly is Tammy Faye’s point, and how does a gross topic turn into an alarming romp where both Jim and Tammy are egregiously let off the hook? Chastain’s performance will most notably be on the hook, because oh boy, is it Oscar bait. Frustrating when she never reaches into Tammy with understanding and can’t escape from the self-awareness of her acting. Her performance feels like it functions on two different modes, at two different speeds. She gets lost behind the overdone appearance — who the real Tammy Faye pulled off much better — while most emotional peaks feel showy and unearned. I can’t say with certainty that this exists to win Chastain an Oscar, though I wouldn’t doubt that once the possibility clicked, Chastain pulled all the tricks out of her hat. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is barely enjoyable to look at, uncomfortable to sit through, and almost impossible to digest. At the end of the day, the pair who reaped in their follower’s earnings, are completely lost within this misfire. No one wants to see another biopic from almost birth to almost death. Dive into their downfall, their greed and Tammy’s uncertainty in the heightened conservatism of Reagan’s America, with the most absolute and potent intent. How could Michael Showalter not see that in plain sight?

#14 BENEDICTION


In BENEDICTION, the words of British poet Siegfried Sassoon double as weapons in what he perceives to be a jingoism-fuelled Great War, yet amongst a sea of dull expressions by director Terence Davies, the end result ends up feeling a little too blunt. Benediction’s first act was refined — clearly scrutinised over in the scriptwriting phase — and a fascinating sequence that brought justice to Sassoon’s “cause” and staged an electric bond between himself and fellow poet Wilfred Owen. Once Sassoon’s circle is introduced following the World War I-related death of Owen, Benediction evolves into a clunky and tepid mess with no clear focus. By lending all its energy to the snark of Ivor Novello and shallow mutuals, Sassoon starts to lose the spotlight in his own biopic(!) We barely learn anything more to Sassoon — who is still played deftly by Jack Lowden — past a Wikipedia peruse, and the frustration becomes palpable as Benediction ticks on into another long hour. Davies’ film has all the traits of a Merchant/Ivory production, the decade-spanning range, the longing, regret, and handsome period design, yet neither the class or the wistfulness to pull it off. With another draft, or two, it could have easily got there.

#13 KING RICHARD


KING RICHARD is for everyone. That doesn’t always work in its favour. A film with the widest of mainstream appeal ultimately fizzles in order to avoid offending its living subjects, or its audience. Will Smith, as Richard Williams, is his usual charismatic self, and while it’s easy to get behind an Oscar nomination, a win would be one of the weakest in an already dwindling category. However, supporting player Aunjanue Ellis as Brandi Williams, should be singled out, even if her dynamite performance fits cozily into the archetype that her category adores. Listen, sports biopics are not my cup of tea. What King Richard loses by going too light on its story, it makes up for its occasional sweetness. Perhaps the titular man isn’t critiqued enough? There are scenes that point to something grittier and troubling, and even though they’re settled quickly, they unintentionally stand out amongst the endless sap. King Richard will undoubtedly bathe in HBO Max glory — there’s enough energy that even living room viewing will win most over — though the kick is only temporary, as King Richard quickly loses its arena-chanting pulse.

#12 PLEASURE


PLEASURE is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. My crowd practically bolted for the exits before the lights came up, tripping over each other, one assumes. And no film, save, After Yang, has so dramatically dropped off festival’s radars. A shame, given the way it delves completely into breaking conversation barriers, and expects you’ll follow suit. The way Pleasure explores the porn industry felt ugly, sterile, raw, and misguided. It wants to create a narrative around consent, and women in the soul-crushing industry, and it mostly succeeds, though the unconvincing acting (yes I know), and prosaic arcs hold it back. Sofia Kappel perfectly embodies the SoCal image, and does well given the tough material. To its credit, Pleasure doesn’t hide behind satire or aesthetics — The Neon Demon and Zola come to mind — and goes straight to its point. The film feels like an A24 release on steroids. Still, how will this find an audience? In the end, Pleasure falls into a cardinal sin, of portraying a superficial industry and becoming shallow itself.

#11 A HERO


Compared to the masterpieces (not in the throwaway sense) that A Separation and The Salesman are, it was inevitable that A HERO, would find itself compared to Asghar Farhadi’s superlative canon. It mostly sinks against that work, and as the conflict drudges on and pillows from a simple misunderstanding, I couldn’t scratch the idea that even without the relation to a fantastic filmmaker, the story didn’t have enough bite. The film is stringently held together by commentary on saving face, and though it brings even more ideas to the plate, some in the last twenty minutes, A Hero is never soul-shaking. Farhadi’s trademarks and favourite topics are omnipresent in A Hero, though they exist without any shocking first-rate twists. Unfair to say Farhadi has hit a wall in his filmmaking — though I certainly did around the hour, and then two hour mark — yet with tighter ideas, and a refined run-time, A Hero could have easily rounded out an Oscar hat-trick for the Iranian master.

#10 BELFAST


Hearing BELFAST described as a crowd-pleaser just one more time is enough to send a shiver down the spine, but it is… at least for a very specific crowd, of which there are plenty in Australia. Having Kenneth Branagh’s latest propped up into the Best Picture spotlight almost from the word “go” has worn the charm of this minutely personal story. While not an overtly bad film, (even if the young protagonist throwing a fit, “I don’t want to leave <title>” strayed close), Belfast has some heartwarming moments though mostly wows in mediocrity. Even if I didn’t quite connect with the emotional tissue, I still had a good time, even if I only chuckled at the humour that sent the older crowd into barrels. Most people will appreciate its simplicity and light-heartedness, though that very quality is enough to send Oscar purists (snobs) like myself into a spin. Despite the tumultuous times in which it is set, Belfast feels too neat. Everything is perfectly prim, as if a ribbon has been cast down from the sky to cast the neatest of bows on character conventions. I wasn’t shocked, or challenged, or particularly moved. Others will be. An awards season sweep will be mildly frustrating, save for Caitriona Balfe, a firecracker who commanders her character with dignity and true instinct, and ultimately, elevates Branagh’s matinee movie.

#9 TITANE


I truly believe that your enjoyment of Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning TITANE rests solely on how well you can stomach the gratuitous first act. Given a hot flush that ran through me during one of the more, uh, nauseating moments, I was ready to call quits on the film that felt like an exploitative dare which gave barely anything of substance in return. Titane’s shallowness often arises as a problem. The film feels so deliberately drawn into three vague modes, between murdering, bonding scenes with no dialogue (great for character building), and notes on compassion, and empathy. It falls into the mistake of giving its psychopathic character a redeemable arc, especially when her temperament is answered only measly. Agathe Rousselle, as Adrien, does her best given the underwritten yet sensationalised character. Even more so when the film struggles to find footing after its first act, which felt like Ducournau’s bizarro passion project. I will admit though… there is a rhyme and rhythm to each sequence. They strike with either foreboding pressure or a detached sensitivity. The effect is numbing. Few are also beautifully crafted — it’s wild that the dance to Future Island’s “Light House” exists in the same film that gave us… not even going to go there… though any claims that this is the sweetest movie *ever made* need to be vetoed. Similar to Gasper Noe’s Climax, I’ll revisit the opening dance (the best sequence in the film), with ignorance to everything that comes after. Plenty of people will seek out Titane with the expectation that they’ll be shocked, thrilled or disgusted. This is an abundant work that doesn’t connect with enough fluidity, and a visceral experience that caught me by surprise, though one that needed to be rightly balanced to create a feeling somewhere north of the pit of my stomach. So much so, I haven’t even touched on that car…

#8 DUNE


No one wants another review complaining about DUNE (Part One’s) incompleteness. Here’s what worked, and what didn’t. Denis Villeneuve is great at world-building and he flexes that skill the entire run-time. Though credit should also go to the production and costume designers, Villeneuve frames each set piece with a haunting coolness, not allowing his motley of characters to get too suffocated by an epic realm. Every performance is spoken in “contrived sci-fi talk” if you will, though some actors, Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Rampling, push the prose into something more emotional and resolute. Timothée Chalamet does well as Paul, even if his bizarre coming-of-duty felt a little elementary, and Zendaya makes the most of a tiny role. Oscar Isaac was/is fine. The sum of Dune’s parts don’t work as cohesively as some smaller elements. Those elements shine with an exhilarating and entertaining force. I appreciated the diplomatic exposition — name a “part one” that isn’t so overt — though there’s something missing that I can’t put my thumb on. Maybe Villeneuve’s film isn’t grounded or fleshed out enough aside obvious introductions, or perhaps there should have been more conclusiveness to smaller subplots. Either way, this was an engaging, and sometimes thrilling entry into a promising installation, and one of the best auditorium experiences I have ever had. Thumbs up for shaking the room.



#7 PARALLEL MOTHERS


PARALLEL MOTHERS revels in all the traits of a prestigious soap opera, pastel candy land, and a fascinating, career-highlight performance by Penelope Cruz. Still, like most Almodóvar, the man bites off more than he can chew, and his wild schemes don’t snap with as much electricity after the eleventh pearl-clutching twist. Almodóvar’s recent work has been decent, Pain & Glory was personal if uneven, and The Human Voice was essentially a nicely coloured passion project. Parallel Mothers is best when it probes the generational trauma of Spanish conflict, and the complexity of motherhood, especially when that definition becomes increasingly blurred. Do those ideas work well with Almodóvar’s penchant for hammy melodrama? Not exactly… Though you should still seek Parallel Mothers for the company you’ll keep. Mainstay Rossy De Palma’s entrance, bursting through a doorframe with veteran panache, as if she were entering from stage left elicited applause from my audience. And Cruz is a joy to watch, to try to gnaw into her motives, her enigma.

#6 COMPARTMENT NO.6


COMPARTMENT NO. 6 is a perfect experience for a festival, and a pretty good film to boot. Even when its held back by “screenwriter basics” — boy meets girl, they fight, they come around — it still satisfied my niche for stories about connection in foreign lands. Before Sunrise this is not, though it still gets a little way there. Illuminated by its close-quartered intimacy, train track rhythms, foggy compartment windows, plus pragmatic performances by its leads, Compartment drives another narrative. There’s an obsession with the past informing the present, even if that duty belongs to the people around us, and how we reform the broken pieces of a stilted relationship. Maybe the whole “it’s about the journey not the destination” goal is a bit heavy handed; even so, the absurdity of their meeting, something that will be lost to that train line, struck with a warm glow.

#5 FLEE


FLEE beautifully shares an intimate story with the grandest of emotions. While it didn’t give me the impact that I was expecting, I was nevertheless moved by the touching and wholly unique story, even if its choppy animation style held me back from complete immersion. Flee would work wonders in a triple billing alongside Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis, both because it captures a relentless situation in the only digestible way, and because it burns the screen with stunning abstraction. Flee quietly shouts with crucial perspective on queer refugees, and the nature of our authority, and broadly, our authorities. Its three-fold form, of being an international film, a documentary and an animated film elevates it not only to a healthy awards base, but to a broader crowd of enthusiasts across the three platforms. What better film to reach the masses than this tender Danish affair?

#4 PETITE MAMAN


What would it be like to have our parents as friends? Critics have fallen head over heels for Céline Sciamma’s PETITE MAMAN. I’m going to echo those who say it packs a punch for a 72-minute film, although perhaps I wanted more, or to move beyond the feeling that it was simply sweet and beautiful. Forget the extraneous analysis, of people trying to mould this into a sci-fi story where time-travel is legitimate because it cuts away from the crux. These are children who are projecting what they’ve heard their mothers and grandmothers say, continuing the lineage of generational motherhood. On first impression, I jokingly called Petite Maman, Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata but nicer. Like *a lot* nicer, though there’s an intriguing air to some lines, “you didn’t invent my sadness” among them, that have a striking thoughtfulness. An autumnal bubble of a film, aided by Claire Mathon’s lofty cinematography, Sciamma crafts a magical film with whimsy and warmth. Her two stars, real-life twins, Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz are screen naturals. I’ll probably be revisiting for more depth. In that sense alone, Sciamma is four-for-four.

#3 MEMORIA


Every noise creak, whisper, and the mystifying bang that plagues our lead Jessica, (a perfectly cast Tilda Swinton in stoic form), resonates with almighty power and hyperawareness in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s MEMORIA. Thai director Weerasethakul once again cements his gaze into all-encompassing nature, glacial pacing and elusive anecdotes. Most people will be alienated — a small laugh of defeat filled the theatre at the black-out — however for some, (points to myself), it is hypnotising cinema that draws you in, and keeps you engaged at a disquieting wavelength. Patience, restfulness and an open-mind is the best way to prepare for Colombia’s Oscar submission — it should be packaged right to your door before screenings. Let yourself be immersed in its jagged stillness. The landscape, whether it be rolling hills or the modest inside of a fish-scaler’s home feels wonderfully three-dimensional; plucked straight from the most prestigious of art installations. Memoria is an art-house film almost parodying itself, until it reveals its richness; the allure and spirit of the natural world, conclusions that feel quietly unresolved, the purge of colonialism and the repressed, non-linear state of memory. Just don’t get too distracted by that deafening bang.

#2 DRIVE MY CAR


Ambiguity has rarely been more intriguing, and a three-hour runtime so graceful, than in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s DRIVE MY CAR. Endlessly rich in texture and undercurrents, Drive My Car seems like the type of opus that crawls into a director’s filmography after a lengthy hiatus, and then you realise it’s not even Hamaguchi’s sole 2021 release. Extracting from the literary psychology of Haruki Murakami, Drive My Car levitates with a dreamlike mystery, where it’s best to just sit and absorb, and let its overarching drive click on revisits, or during a shower epiphany. It was odd to crave a rewatch in the middle of the three-hour film; still the way its plentiful elements slowly fall into place, especially with an earned and patient flair, was fascinating and transporting. I haven’t even begun to digest most of Drive My Car’s offering — of its meditation on grief in the strangest of transitions, on concession to our present, of its mirroring of our art forms — though I think I’m on my way.

#1 THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD


THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD is far and away one of the strongest films out of this year. Most recent releases were shot during the height of the pandemic, yet here, the film’s boldly stripped back and heightened connection feels everlasting. Renate Reinsve, (when is she going to twin with Dakota Johnson) is truly a star. One of the most fascinating protagonists in some time because she navigates all twelve chapters, plus the prologue and epilogue with authentic insight that’s equally messy and steadfast. As she grapples with indecisiveness in her career, her life operates on emotions and bare logic — an ineffable quality to grasp, but one that’s pulled off to perfection. I’m on an endless quest for more existential tragicoms. Worst Person felt like a reliable companion piece to films like Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis and an extension of female-lead 1970s films where the fashionable lead roams Manhattan with tact. Director Joachim Trier crafts some stunning shots — a jog through a frozen Oslo, a cigarette smoke exchange and a shrooms trip to end all trips — while drawing the raw chemistry between his actors. Here is a snapshot of a life crisis in all its truth and the type of film that would grow more relatable with age and rewatches. Some people, myself included, will treasure it. However, for now, it has left me with a trio of emotions, a buzz of elation, sadness and catharsis. Let it guide you, though don’t get too carried away with the title, or the instability of her choices. Maybe save that for a melancholic park bench chat at 40. We have a cemented player in this year’s international feature race, and a sure winner if Neon deals them the right hand.