The final weekend of Sydney Film Festival took us to feudal Japan, the highest places on the planet and the farthest reaches of space. We were exhilarated, challenged and (in some cases) just a little bit annoyed, but all up it’s been a smashing year. Well done festival director Nashen Moodley and roll on SFF 2018.
If you think ‘Fantasia meets the Point Break remake’ sounds like a solid elevator pitch, then Mountain, the new film by Sherpa director Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa), is for you. The richness of the soundscape, matched with glorious images of high places that defy gravity, sanity and death – is an intoxicating combination. Mountain is worth it for the music and vision alone, which is a good thing because the poetic narration written by Robert Macfarlane, author of Mountains of the Mind, and voiced by Willem Dafoe, never reaches the level of philosophic profundity or emotional realness achieved by the Point Break remake.
The sum total of the film’s narrative content is as follows: Mountains are ancient and indifferent to the labours of humanity, and yet for humankind they can be the ultimate test, of nerve, faith and stamina – a test many do not pass. This sentiment is rephrased over and over with unwavering, gravelly masculinity. The first concrete fact of the film comes a full hour in when we learn Everest has been turned into a sort of extreme sport Disneyland, where the sherpas assume the bulk of the risk.
A script so devoid of content is frustrating from Macfarlane and Peedom, given Sherpa and Mountains of the Mind show both are more than capable of researching robustly and communicating their findings. It's not until the credits that we learn the locations where the film was shot. The score, both original compositions and the works of Vivaldi, Chopin and Beethoven, are perfectly matched to the awe-inspiring imagery and if Mountain had gone full Fantasia and dispensed with commentary entirely it would have been a better film. Alyx Gorman
Time Out cried at least three times in The Farthest, a documentary about the Voyager missions – the two vehicles launched to study the solar system and continue on into outer space. The film is an inspiring insight into what was cutting-edge tech in the 1970s – with technology roughly equivalent to a set of today’s car keys, scientists created vehicles to last for four billion years. Long after humanity vanishes, the Voyagers will be carrying the evidence that we ever existed to the far reaches of the galaxy.
There are fascinating details about the curation of the ‘Golden Record’ intended for extra-terrestrials (Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’ is included as the ‘modern’ song because the Beatles’ record company EMI declined to let them use ‘Here Comes the Sun’). Then there’s the imagery the ships have sent back – the rings of Jupiter seen for the first time, the first up-close images of Uranus and the famous image of the earth like a speck of dust in a sunbeam that Carl Sagan called the ‘Pale Blue Dot’. Scientists interviewed for the film are frequently overcome with emotion given the profundity of the work they achieved. We can totally relate. Emily Lloyd-Tait
David Stratton's Akira Kurosawa retrospective came to a close on Sunday with two of the Japanese master’s 1980s epics portraying 16th century wars in Japan, Kagemusha and Ran (the latter of which gets an encore screening on Tuesday). Kagemusha (1980), the story of a warlord’s lookalike double obliged to become a full-time figurehead when the warlord is assassinated, emerged as an undervalued masterpiece in a career with no shortage of masterpieces. Stratton described it as a film about "maintaining the appearance of the status quo".
A riveting experience despite the three-hour running time, it’s a film of haunting images, emotional power and existential despair, played out with the courtly restraint of a piece of Noh theatre. The most expensive film ever made in Japan – 20th Century Fox picked up the tab at the urging of Kurosawa fans Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas – it was money well spent on a work of art that hasn’t dated in 37 years. Nick Dent
Blade of the Immortal
Also in feudal Japan is the 100th film by Takeshi Miike, Blade of the Immortal, one of several films added to the SFF program at the last minute direct from Cannes. Miike is never one to hold back on the tomato sauce but this samurai extravaganza based on a manga series takes the notion of bloodbath to a whole other level. Delivering in spades on action choreography and gore, the film nevertheless outstays its welcome – and the character of the "helpless girl" was so utterly useless with her sword it made us die a bit inside. Coral Chum
On the other hand, the latest satirical film from Force Majeure director Ruben Östlund is surreal and hilarious. Also a last-minute add-on, it holds up a frightening mirror to western hypocrisy. A work of contemporary art has been commissioned by a museum that is designed to provoke questions of humanity and generosity. However, when the curator’s wallet and phone are stolen through an elaborate theft, Christian (Claes Bang) goes on a mission to retrieve his possessions, fumbling through a series of absurd events and decision making that is not very generous or humanitarian. Standout scenes include Christian riffling through his garbage in the rain while dressed in a tuxedo, a heart-pounding sequence in which a man portraying an ape causes chaos at a museum dinner, and an argument over a condom that’s side-splittingly ridiculous. The Square is an emotional rollercoaster, and the terrifying part is that we can see a little bit of ourselves in it. Emma Joyce