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2019 Melbourne International Film Festival Guide

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It’s a brave new world at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, the first for new artistic director Al Cossar after the departure of Michelle Carey. Long-time screening venue the Australian Centre for the Moving Image is out of action due to renovations, and the festival’s footprint has expanded to some 20 venues, including Carlton’s Cinema Nova and the Plenary at the Melbourne Convention Centre.

As for the program, it’s as overwhelming as ever. For 18 days, cinema takes over the centre of Melbourne. Here’s what you need to know:

International features

MIFF’s Headliners program is where they put all the buzzy films, many of which have gained attention on the international festival circuit before winding up here. It’s a packed program, including Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Pain and Glory, which stars Antonio Banderas as an ageing filmmaker and co-stars Penelope Cruz; and Ken Loach’s timely, impassioned Sorry We Missed You, his follow-up to I, Daniel Blake, which won the 2016 Palme d’Or at Cannes and was my film of that year.

Pain and Glory

Penelope Cruz co-stars in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. Pic: supplied

Kleber Mendonça Filo directed one of my favourite films of recent years, Aquarius, and teams up with Juliano Dornelles for Bacurau, a sci-fi western. The Dead Don’t Die is the latest from hipster auteur Jim Jarmusch, featuring Tilda Swinton as a character called Zelda Winston. And Chris Morris, the cult comedian of Brass Eye and Four Lions fame, returns with The Day Shall Come, a satirical look at counterterrorism, starring Anna Kendrick.

Elsewhere, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night has scored critical acclaim for the way in which, halfway through its running time, it transitions into 3D for an extended, hour-long tracking shot. Joanna Hogg returns with The Souvenir, a memory meditation starring Tilda Swinton and her daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne.

Oscar-winning Son of Saul director László Nemes returns with Sunset; fans of slow-cinema figurehead Lav Diaz will be pleased to know The Halt runs to 278 minutes; while the perennial South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo pops up with Hotel by the River. Harmony Korine, of Kids and Spring Breakers fame, returns with The Beach Bum, starring Mathew McConaughey in the title role, and the podcaster and comedian Marc Maron appears in Sword of Trust, directed by Lynn Shelton.

The Farewell

The Farewell is this year’s closing night film. Pic: supplied

This year’s closing night film is Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Based on a true story recounted by director Lulu Wang in an episode of podcast This American Life, it follows a family who don’t tell their grandmother that she has been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Awkwafina stars.

Australian films

There’s a strong Australian selection this year, anchored by the opening and centrepiece galas. The Australian Dream charts the story of AFL player and Indigenous rights champion Adam Goodes, while Lupita Nyong’o looks set to steal Abe Forsythe’s zombie comedy Little Monsters.

All eyes will be on The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook. A brutal, violent portrait of colonial Tasmania, the film has provoked considerable controversy at various screenings, since it debuted at last year’s Adelaide Film Festival.

Elsewhere, Punch and Judy gets an update thanks to director Mirrah Foulkes and Mia Wasikowska, who stars in Judy & Punch, while Partho Sen-Gupta follows the lyrical Sunrise with Australian/French production Slam. Debut queer feature Sequin in a Blue Room follows a teenager exploring his sexuality through casual sex and a rather striking-looking blue room.

The Nightingale

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Pic: supplied

Morgana is a documentary about a housewife in regional Australia who reinvents herself a feminist porn star, and Tiriel Mora stars in Smoke Between Trees, which looks to be a compassionate portrait of a man reunited with his grandson.


Matt Wolf’s Recorder: the Marion Stokes Project delves into the archives of a woman who obsessively recorded American television 24-hours a day for more than 30 years. When she died she left behind over 70,000 VHS tapes. Watergate is a four-and-a-half hour look at the Richard Nixon scandal from the Oscar-winning director of Inside Job, while James Jones and Olivier Sarbil’s On the President’s Orders takes a street-level look at Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war, recently labelled a “large-scale murdering enterprise” by Amnesty International.

As in previous years, there are a couple of documentary sub-strands. The Environmental Docs stream does what it says on the tin, while The World Online features six films looking at the social changes brought about by technology. Of these, I’m most curious to see Present.Perfect., which is composed entirely of footage taken from Chinese live-streamers. If found footage is your jam, there’s more of it in Sergei Loznitsa’s The Trial, which creates a fictional Soviet show trial entirely out of real courtroom footage.

Finally, every year sees a break-out documentary that captures broader attention. This year I’m tipping it to be Bros: After the Screaming Stops, which follows the 80s boy band and brothers as they reunite for a 30th anniversary show. It looks to be a portrait of faded fame that juggles the absurd with the tragic.

Special events and retrospectives

Last year’s Nicolas Cage marathon was a zeitgeist-capturing winner for MIFF, with a packed audience spending the night watching his oeuvre down at the Astor theatre. The festival’s hoping to repeat the trick this year with a Jeff Goldblum marathon, the highlight of which is David Cronenberg’s body horror classic The Fly.

The planetarium is back hosting films specially made to be projected onto the roof in Fulldome Showcase 1 & 2, while Virtual Reality gets its own small program. Jan Kounen’s Ayahuasca embraces the trippy possibilities of VR to create a fake hallucinogenic journey for the viewer.

The Astor theatre hosts a special screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood, on 35mm film and before the rest of the country gets it two weeks later. Former Sonic Youth front man Thurston Moore will make an appearance in-conversation and will also perform live original scores for a collection of films from pioneering avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren. Finally, The Film Music of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis sees the two musicians join the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to play a selection of their film scores live in concert.

American filmmaker and Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris gets a retrospective, as does Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. Films screening include the Oscar-nominated In Darkness and Angry Harvest and all three instalments in her 2013 HBO mini-series Burning Bush, about a history student who protests Soviet occupation through self-immolation.

Need more recommendations? Here are 9 stand-outs to see at the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 1-18.

Feature pic: Leonardo DiCaprio stars in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. Pic: supplied.

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