Known Treasures, Hidden Gems: A Guide to Sydney Film Festival 2019

Your comprehensive guide to the Sydney Film Festival 2019, from international blockbusters to cult favourites.

Star-studded zombie films, honey-making documentaries with runaway success, journeys to the moon and darkly comedic feminist puppet shows. This year’s Sydney Film Festival program is a wild ride through the depths of cinema, from the heights of Hollywood fame
to the quirkier and murkier undercurrents of cult production.

Without a guide, reading through the program—which this year features a mind-bending 307 films crammed into less than two weeks—can be a bit like sifting for sapphires without a pan. Sure, you’ll probably still leave with some treasured mementos, but you’ll just as likely be plagued by a feeling that you’ve left some gems uncovered. Our guide to the 2019 festival will help you avoid that fate, as we walk you through stand-out hits both big and small.

INTERNATIONAL BLOCKBUSTERS

The Dead Don’t Die
Director Jim Jarmusch (“Paterson”, “Only Lovers Left Alive”, “Mystery Train”) is known for his star-pulling power. For his new zombie flick “The Dead Don’t Die”, a seemingly never-ending list of A-grade celebrities has lined up to play the dead. Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, Adam Driver, Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez and Tom Waits are among those who form “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled”, under Jarmusch’s guidance providing a new and unfailingly hilarious take on a well-trodden genre.

Amazing Grace
Speaking of star power, the most moving voice of several generations gets a well-deserved homage at this year’s festival. “Amazing Grace” is a monument to—and by—Aretha Franklin; a spine-tingling 88 minutes of unreleased film from her legendary 1972 concert, which was performed over two days at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. Captured by filmmaker Sydney Pollack, the recording from this concert went on to form Franklin’s most successful album, “Amazing Grace”, but for a number of reasons, the footage was never released. This is the first time the public has had access to this earth-shattering moment in music history.

Apollo 11
Another documentary of momentous proportion, “Apollo 11” is the story of the moon landing and its historic consequences. Released to coincide with the 50-year anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, “Apollo 11” draws on never-before-seen footage from that day in 1969, plucked out from roughly 11,000 hours of uncatalogued archival material. From the launch pad to Armstrong’s famous words to the tense moments of the rocket’s re-entry, the most crucial events of the time are all relived here in large-format.

HIDDEN GEMS

Divine Love
Sexy protest movie is not an oxymoron. This is what we learn from “Divine Love”, a film from Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro, known for his fluorescent, erotic and visually seductive sci-fi films. Taking place in the Brazil of the near future (2027), “Divine Love” is a dystopian love story that is particularly affecting not because of its dramatically transformed vision of the world, but because it has been altered only slightly (for instance, with new technologies such as pregnancy-detecting doors). Within this landscape, we are led to the story of a young and devout evangelical couple longing to fulfil their divine duty of procreation. The subsequent journey is an unnerving, compelling and beautiful reflection on faith and sexuality.

Honeyland
Filmed over three years, “Honeyland” follows the story of a 50-something apiarist, Hatidze, living in the remote Macedonian countryside with her frail elderly mother. Less a political documentary on the demise of bees than a funny, intimate and charming character study, “Honeyland” takes place after a large family and their herd of cattle move into the previously empty mountainside beside Hatidze’s cottage. Nascent trust is betrayed, Hatidze’s bees become jeopardised, and the audience is drawn into a tender and empathetic relationship with this ageing beekeeper.

Dirty God
In “Dirty God”, Vicky Knight plays a young mother from East London who was brutally scarred in an acid attack by her ex-boyfriend. Eschewing the easy theme of victimhood, the film is instead one of resilience and self-acceptance, following the self-determined choices of the character—good and bad—as she navigates her changed life, and her evolving relationship to her daughter and her own self. The cinematography itself is worth the 105 minutes, beautifully capturing the glitz, grime and style of East London.

LOCAL CINEMA

Palm Beach
The opening night film this year is “Palm Beach”, a funny, uplifting and very Australian family comedy set on the namesake shore. The story is a relatively simple one: a group of lifelong friends reunite for a three-day holiday by the beach, only to have tensions emerge and old secrets come to the fore. This timeworn theme is made engaging once more through witty dialogue, spectacular scenery and a cast that is difficult not to love, featuring Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Richard E. Grant, Heather Mitchell, Jacqueline McKenzie and Greta Scacchi.

Animals
Australian director Sophie Hyde (“52 Tuesdays”) delivers Sundance favourite “Animals”, a story of two best friends—played by Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”) and Holliday Grainger (“The Borgias”)—who are entering their 30s yet determined to maintain a hedonistic lifestyle of parties, drugs and one-night stands. When a conservative love interest threatens this way of life, the pair are forced to contend with new strains on their relationship—a charismatic bond that is at the heart of why this film is so ceaselessly engaging.

Judy & Punch
In the tiny town of Seaside, nowhere near the sea, poverty and boredom are driving citizens to mob rule, violence and god-fearing hysteria. Amidst this chaos, puppeteers Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (Damon Herriman) attempt to revive their marionette show, the success of which is pulled in opposite directions by separate forces of talent and alcoholism. When an inevitable tragedy occurs, the story of “Judy & Punch” transforms into a brutal, darkly-comic and female-led revenge tale as Judy wreaks vengeance on all those who have wronged her—and perhaps a few others.

Sydney Film Festival runs from June 5—6, 2019. Various venues throughout Sydney.

Kirsty Sier
About the author

Editor of Where Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast)