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Australian Films in the Spotlight at the Melbourne International Film Festival

This past Sunday, the Southern hemisphere's oldest and largest film festival came to a close for another year. A staple of Australia's cultural calendar for more than six decades, the Melbourne International Film Festival has been the country's premiere cinematic event, showcasing some of the most noteworthy titles from the global festival circuit, as well as providing a nationally recognized platform for both emerging and established local talent.

Of the more than 300 films on the 18-day program, many of the most significant international highlights came with a heaping of pre-MIFF buzz. Favorites from Sundance included the Nick Cave pseudo-doc "20,000 Days on Earth" and Eskil Vogt's playfully meta debut drama "Blind." After causing outrage in Sydney, the sexually confrontational Greek film "Miss Violence" had its fair share of walkouts and sparked many a heated argument on social media. It's never fun being the guy cheerleading for the rape and incest movie, but for the record I thought it was one of the strongest films at the fest.

Another personal favorite was Diao Yinan's stunningly photographed murder mystery "Black Coal, Thin Ice," which won the Golden Bear at Berlin back in February. The Cannes contingent, meanwhile, included Jean Luc Godard's headache-inducing experimental piece "Goodbye to Language," Ruben Östlund's brilliantly uncomfortable marital drama "Force Majeure" and Xavier Dolan's emotionally bombastic melodrama "Mommy," the final title being far and away the best movie of the year so far. "Winter Sleep", "Leviathan" and "Wild Tales" all stood out as disappointing omissions from the Riviera, although the former two apparently have local distribution deals in place.

But perhaps more intriguing, from an Australian perspective at least, are the films made right here in our own backyard. The Australian film industry is an interesting beast, one frequently at the mercy of a fickle local audience that seems unwilling to give the home-grown product a chance. 2013 was widely reported as being a dismal year for Australian films at the box-office, despite the release of several legitimately excellent titles including Ivan Sen's contemporary outback western "Mystery Road" and Mark Hartley's reimagining of the classic Ozploitation movie "Patrick".

2014 has already seen several great Australian productions come and go without nearly the attention they deserve. Sophie Hyde's "52 Tuesdays," a raw and compelling look at a year in the life of a teenage girl while her mother undergoes a gender transition, was acclaimed by critics but made less than AU$150,000. Likewise, Jennifer Kent's nerve-jangling horror film "The Babadook," which earned more money in France in just five days than it did in a three month theatrical window back at home. Cannes selected genre films "These Final Hours" and "The Rover" whiffed with Aussie audiences as well, in spite of prominent publicity campaigns by distributor Village Roadshow.

At MIFF, however, local product has more success. Despite the lack of enthusiasm shown by the public eleven-and-a-half months out of the year, programmer Al Cossar explains that Australian films are amongst the most popular with MIFF attendees. "Australian Showcase is always one of the most well attended and energized strands within the festival," says Cossar. "We certainly see the festival as a lively and engaged place for Australian films to launch and to first connect with audiences."

Certainly, it was enormously gratifying to see all three of this year's MIFF marquee slots filled by Australian films. Opening night saw the world premire of Michael and Peter Spierig's "Predestination," a Melbourne-shot time travel thriller starring Ethan Hawke. Tony Ayres' crime thriller "Cut Snake" featured in the glitzy Centrepiece Gala, while cop drama "Felony" brought the festival to a close.

Unfortunately, for all I've just written about the strength of Australian filmmaking, none of the gala pictures managed to live up to expectations. "Predestination" looks incredibly stylish, and benefits from an amazing performance by Hawke's co-star, Adelaide-born actress Sarah Snook. The problem lies with the script, which is full of "plot twists" that anyone with even a passing familiarity with the time-travel genre will be able to predict half-an-hour before they happen. 

"Cut Snake," which will have its North American premiere in Toronto in September, is plagued by similar problems. A seventies-set crime thriller about an ex-con whose new life with his fiancée is threatened when a former cellmate arrives on their doorstep, the film is handsomely shot and features a terrifically menacing performance from "300: Rise of an Empire" star Sullivan Stapleton. Again though, the screenplay suffers from clunky dialogue and a mid-film revelation that will surprise absolutely no one.

Despite their flaws, both "Predestination" and "Cut Snake" have enough good qualities to still make them worth checking out. "Felony," on the other hand, is flat out impossible to recommend. Directed by Matthew Saville from a script by actor Joel Edgerton, the stodgy plot–about a good cop who accidentally hits a kid with his car and then lies about it–is populated with stock characters and riddled with procedural clichés. Edgerton gives a decent performance, as does Jai Courtney as a straight-laced detective who suspects his fellow officer is bending the truth. But the script never takes advantage of its morally intriguing premise, instead heading down the most obvious narrative pathways time and time again.

So where were the success stories, if not in the special presentations? Ironically, despite "Predestination" getting the spotlight on opening night, the best Australian film on the program was the other time travel movie. Singled out by Cossar as one of the most exciting films at the festival, Hugh Sullivan's "The Infinite Man" recounts the increasingly disastrous attempts of an amateur scientist to use a time machine to give his girlfriend the perfect anniversary weekend. Shot in a single location with just three cast members, this smart, funny, touching micro-budget production was a critical darling at SXSW early in the year, racking up well deserved comparisons to the likes of "Groundhog Day," "Primer" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind".

MIFF also saw the Melbourne premieres of two intriguing local arthouse films, both of which played in competition at the Sydney Film Festival back in June. From Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Michael Cody, "Badlands"-inspired road movie "Ruin" takes viewers on a grim but visually spellbinding journey through poverty stricken Cambodia. Similarly beautiful is Kasimir Burgess' debut feature "Fell," which despite some freshman affectations appears to herald the arrival of a promising new Australian talent.

Other locally produced highlights included two separate documentaries about figures in exploitation cinema. The end of an unofficial trilogy that began with "Not Quite Hollywood" and continued with "Machete Maidens Unleashed", Mark Hartley's hugely entertaining "Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films" delves into the outrageous past of the titular production house, responsible for launching the film career of Chuck Norris and producing such cult gems as "The Apple", "American Ninja" and "Over the Top". Meanwhile, Andrew Leavold's "The Search for Weng Weng" details the tragic life story of 2'9'' Filipino actor Ernesto de la Cruz, aka Weng Weng, listed by the Guinness Book of World of Records as the shortest leading man in movie history.

MIFF also continued its support of Australian film through its headline industry initiative. The Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund once again saw the festival come on board as co-financier on a number of local productions, several of which had their world premiere at the festival in 2014. As well as "Cut Snake" and Hartley's "Electric Boogaloo," Premiere Fund films on the program included Robert Connolly's children's movie "Paper Planes," Stephen Lance's S&M themed romance "My Mistress" and Ian Pringle's crime drama "The Legend Maker."

Several Premiere Fund titles have also made it on to the radar at recent and upcoming festivals around the world, as Cossar is quick to point out. "One of the most ambitious projects supported by the Fund in recent years would have to be 'Tim Winton's The Turning'...which went on to play at the Berlinale," says the MIFF programmer. "Another of our 2013 Premiere Fund titles, Zak Hilditch's 'These Final Hours', also found recent success this year with its subsequent inclusion in Directors Fortnight in Cannes... likewise Mark Hartley's 'Electric Boogaloo', in presentation at Toronto's Midnight Madness [2014]."

Given the apathy with which Australians tend to treat their national industry, it's comforting to know that festivals still provide a place to shine. Several Australian titles will be making the rounds on the international circuit this year, starting with Toronto next month. In addition to "Cut Snake" and "Electric Boogaloo", "Paper Planes", "The Little Death", "Charlie's Country" and "Kill Me Three Times" will all head to TIFF for their North American premieres. Here's hoping they find more of an audience there than they do at home.


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