Whilst on the surface, Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the titular Brazilian Formula One champion might not appeal to those unenamoured with the sport, Senna provides a powerful example of the deceptive nature of first impressions. Chronicling the high-octane career of Ayrton Senna, the fast-paced fourth feature from The Warrior, The Return and Far North director appeals to a broad audience and ranks among the best factual efforts of the year, a feat made all the more impressive considering the fact that the film does not include a second of new footage. Instead, piecing together archival sequences of the man regarded as one of the greatest drivers of all time with audio interviews of controversial star’s family, friends, colleagues and competitors, it presents a compelling portrait of his life on and off the track. Exploring his rise to fame from carting to his highly publicised rivalry with fellow racer Alain Prost, his three world championships to his infamous move from McLaren-Honda to Williams-Renault, his outspoken nature to the impact of the internal politics of the sport, the film is riveting and resonant, as well as fascinating and thrilling. Indeed, rarely has the documentary format engaged and enthralled in such a manner, let alone one essaying the exploits of a sporting figure. For fans of film, lovers of action and aficionados of insightful entertainment, the touching and tragic Senna is a must see for everyone, even those unimpressed by watching seemingly repetitive motor racing.
Since her debut feature River Grass, Kelly Reichardt has been lauded as a filmmaker to watch. With her observational style favouring the minimalist movie movement, her four films to date have garnered a slew of acclaim, including the SIGNIS prize at the 2010 Venice Film Festival for the revisionist western Meek’s Cutoff. After two road movies focused on friendship (Old Joy and Wendy And Lucy), her most recent work again follows an unlikely journey, this time taken by a small band of settlers attempting to cross the desert. In a collaboration with frequent screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (the scribe behind her preceeding pair of features), the feature charts the progress of three couples – played by Blue Valentine’s Michelle Williams and The Fourth Kind’s Will Patton, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’s Shirley Henderson and Motherhood’s Neal Huff, and Me And Orson Welles’ Zoe Kazan and Knight And Day’s Paul Dano – and their collective children as they follow the path set by their uncertain titular guide (Barney’s Version’s Bruce Greenwood). Delving into the spiritual as much as the physical voyage as positioned against – and dictated by – the remarkable landscape, Meek’s Cutoff is a contemplative cinematic offering. A sparse yet stunning story of the struggle for survival, complete with specially framed imagery (utilising the 4:3 aspect ratio), the film explores the western genre at its most subtle and striking.
Over a career spanning close to two decades, Scottish thespian Ewan McGregor has dabbled in most forms of the filmed medium. From low-budget black comedies (Shallow Grave) to box office blockbusters (the Star Wars prequels), lavish musicals (Moulin Rouge!) to political satires (The Men Who Stare At Goats), he has amassed an eclectic yet impressive resume that also includes the likes of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, Tim Burton’s Big Fish and Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream. Beginners proves no exception to his varied array of cinematic efforts, as expected given its status as the sophomore feature from designer turned director Mike Mills. Based on the tale of the Thumbsucker helmer’s own father’s experiences with embracing his sexuality at the age of 75, the feature charts the exploits of the introverted Oliver (McGregor, last seen in The Ghost Writer) as he courts enigmatic French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent, The Round Up), whilst coming to terms with the outing and illness of his paternal influence (Christopher Plummer, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus). Imaginative and affectionate, as well as heartfelt and humourous, the melancholy yet measured movie fashions a Blue Valentine-style romance (without the blistering heartbreak) alongside a story of fathers and sons comparable in approach to the works of Pedro Almodóvar (without the beautiful melodrama). A finessed film about growing up, getting together and not giving up, Beginners is wondrous and whimsical, brimming in content and execution with imperfections and possibilities.
The Sydney Film Festival ran from June 8 to June 19, 2011.