This year, the Possible Worlds Film Festival enters its 8th edition with a major difference. No longer bearing the niche distinction of being ‘Sydney’s Canadian Film Festival’, Possible Worlds has branched out to encompass North America in general, providing a snapshot of the best independent fiction and non-fiction films from Canada and the US, as curated by redoubtable local cinephile Mathieu Ravier.
Although two of the program’s films – Frances Ha and Stories We Tell – have already played at last month’s Sydney Film Festival, it’s not hard to see Possible Worlds as occupying the former festival’s blind spot. Due to SFF’s international scope, only a limited amount of American films get festival play, many of which end up receiving local theatrical distribution down the line. That leaves an increasing amount of strong American independent films failing to reach the Australian audience they deserve.
Case in point is Zach Clark’s caustic, pitch-black Christmas comedy White Reindeer. Beginning as a cynical study of the bereavement faced by 32-year-old Suzanne (a superb Anna Margaret Hollyman) during the holiday season, the Todd Solondz-like misanthropy and grotesquerie eventually give way to a sincere and unlikely but utterly convincing celebration of resilience and Christmas cheer. A ‘festival film’ this isn’t; it deserves a future as a year-round Xmas counter-programmer a la Bad Santa.
Even if you harbour no nostalgia toward the heyday of VHS, it’s hard not to be swept along by the infectious reminiscences and comprehensive detail of the documentary Rewind This!, which chronicles the rise and fall of the format, both in the marketplace and in the hearts and minds of film nerd children of the ’80s. Most fascinating is the thread that examines the way pornography was shaped by the rise of video, and how that industry went a long way toward sustaining the format for as long as it did. For a film that’s partly about the formation of one’s aesthetic preferences, I sort of wish that director Josh Johnson had been more imaginative with the film’s look – it’s mostly a crisply-shot talking-heads affair – but the film’s a missed opportunity in that regard only.
Criticisms regarding a lack of formal ambition can’t be levelled at Peter Mettler’s The End of Time; a documentary whose reach exceeds its grasp, but in a manner befitting its subject. Like Mettler’s previous feature – 2002’s sprawling, globe-trotting Gambling, Gods & LSD, which dealt with the broad subject of man’s quest for transcendence – Mettler here aims for nothing less than examining the inchoate idea of time itself, finding a digressive structure to match his theme, reminiscent of Chris Marker’s landmark 1982 essay-film Sans Soleil. Inevitably, his voiceover narration becomes a little dorm-room-stoner-ish in parts, but his images (of everything from lava flows in Hawaii to urban decay of contemporary Detroit) are never less than eerily beautiful and deeply conducive to a state of zoned-out contemplation. Sometimes it’s best that words fail.
Other highlights: contrasting tales of New York teenagers feature in the dreamy and troubling examination of a 14-year-old girl’s attraction to a much older man in It Felt Like Love, while Gimme the Loot offers a richly-rendered Bronx milieu and nonstop crowd-pleasing charm in its tale of two cash-strapped graffiti artist friends. Meanwhile, Zachary Weintraub’s You Make Me Feel So Young, like the best work of French auteur Philippe Garrel, is a stark and elliptical portrait of an ailing relationship between a young couple, that succeeds in turning microscopic shifts in behaviour into something of great cumulative power. Some may find it too navel-gazey, but the same can’t be said of the wide-ranging festival it plays within.
BY IAN BARR