Five films that make the cut: Update from the Melbourne International Film Festival

hopperTime for another report from the Melbourne International Film Festival! It’s quickly becoming apparent that my viewing schedule is ridiculously ambitious, as was my intention to keep the blog entirely up to date throughout. Nevertheless, I’ll keep plugging away and try to keep things as close to real-time as possible.

This year, I’ve had the good fortune to not yet see a film without merit. The below five films are all outstanding examples, and even where the filmmakers and I don’t see eye-to-eye, there’s not a single film here that isn’t demonstrative of exceptional talent. Enjoy.

Shirley – Visions of Reality

Gustav Deutsch directs this Austrian experiment, in which thirteen paintings by acclaimed artist Edward Hopper are turned into living, breathing, moving images loosely strung together as scenes from the life an American actress from the 1930s through to the 1960s.

The cinematography is a triumph, and nobody could deny that Deutsch’s work is near perfect in its imitation of Hopper’s painting. However, as might be expected, the film itself is a rather stagnant and stilted affair, depending on the viewer’s patience and adulation of Edward Hopper. Presumably, Deutch’s primary purpose is to meditate on the inner life of Hopper’s paintings – but isn’t that the job of the person standing in front of the painting?

For Edward Hopper aficionados only.


This airtight Danish crime drama, from director Michael Noer, continues the tradition of outstanding Scandinavian cinema driven by gritty realism and cliché-free narrative. Focusing on Casper, a naïve young thief struggling to support his poor mother and siblings, Noer takes us into the seedy and glamour-free world of pimping, peddling and prostitution as chance sees the protagonist climb the ranks of the criminal underworld. When a gang war breaks out, Casper and the people he loves are placed in the line of fire.

Outstanding performances from all involved (including many non-actors), well executed hand-held camera work and a script that will not bow to genre tradition make this a must-see.

Death for Sale

Faouzi Bensaidi directs this impressive Moroccan crime thriller about a young man who finds his loyalties torn between lifelong friends, family and a beautiful young woman. Traversing a world of twisted family loyalties; betrayals; Islamic extremism; police corruption; love; and misogyny, Bensaidi opens a window into the best and worst of Morocco.

Beautifully shot with several moments of near aesthetic perfection, Bensaidi does sometimes get lost in this visual universe at the cost of narrative development. Occasional elements of narrative incongruence and inauthentic character development also prevent Death for Sale from reaching the peaks it might otherwise have achieved.

Narco Cultura

Shaul Schwarz, world renowned wartime photo-journalist, directs this horrifying documentary glimpse at the Mexican world of drug lords and narcocorridors – modern day mariachis who write songs glorifying the murderous violence of the cartels. Shot in the devastated Ciudad Juarez, a once peaceful city that drug cartels have recently converted into the murder capital of the world, Schwarz follows a crime scene investigator and naïve Los Angelino singer, revealing both the real horror of the drug wars and the bizarrely disconnected myth of the music that celebrates them.

Gorgeously shot, and horrifically violent, Schwarz does not shy away from revealing the most graphic consequences of Mexico’s predicament. This is a traumatic experience by any measure, and it comes as a brutal shock when some interviewees face the repercussions of resistance mid-production.


Wang Bing directs this fly-on-the-wall documentary on the lives of an impoverished family living in a small village in Yunnan Province. For the sheer raw experience of sitting within this world and observing, the film is worth watching – a reminder that China’s journey towards prosperity is far from complete. However, most will probably find Bing’s cinema of realism to be trying at times – and in ways this feels more like raw footage than final film. This is not a criticism so much as a warning that this is cinema at its least produced and most authentic.

Watch this space for FAR more to come.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

4 thoughts on “Five films that make the cut: Update from the Melbourne International Film Festival

  1. Another try at commenting…
    I love Hopper, and the film looks like an interesting idea to show what might be behind his paintings. Scandinavian crime thriller, talent from Morocco, and potentially great documentaries from China and Mexico. You are a lucky man to see all this James, and thanks for sharing it with us. Regards from England, Pete.

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