Sampling movies on SBS OnDemand

By © Jane Freebury

There is a trove of quality films to watch free-to-air on SBS OnDemand, 650 titles to revisit or catch up with.

An astounding range of quality films that SBS has curated in a variety of ways for niche appeal. Feature docos, movies about feisty females, movies for gay audiences, cinema classics, animation, and as yet little known ‘hidden gems’.

With so much bewildering choice, here are 15 titles I can recommend.

The category ‘the Oscar goes to’ guarantees a film that’s good on one level at least, having achieved an Oscar nomination, not necessarily for best film.

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010), an Oscar foreign language film nominee, is a powerful, atmospheric drama about Canadian siblings who travel to the Middle East to solve a family mystery. Villeneuve has since directed outstanding films like Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, and his take on Dune is due to release this year.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004) takes you along on a meandering road trip through South America with a young Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) as the Marxist revolutionary. It won an Oscar for its music, and could easily have won for cinematography.

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004) is an account of the final days of Adolph Hitler and inner circle in his underground bunker. A provocative, thoughtful perspective on an arch-criminal guilty of heinous crime.

Talk to Her (2002), from the wonderful Spanish writer-director, Pedro Almodovar, whose unique vision creates a sensual, extravagant world of its own.

From the young Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), stars Mia Farrow as a pregnant wife fearful that a coven of witches plans to steal her child. Its menacing atmosphere and disturbing psychology are unforgettable.

Alain Becourt with Jacques Tati in Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle (1958), a classic of French cinema created by Jacques Tati that won the best foreign language Oscar. It’s a witty, gentle send-up of bourgeois pretention that is a classic of comedy in any language.

In the ‘World Movies’ section there’s Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, 2011) with Rhys Ifans demonstrating surprising depth. This is a clever concoction for those who enjoy an enduring mystery. Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Of course, he did but it’s still good fun exploring who else might have done it.

Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, 2012). This story about a young queen of Denmark (Alicia Vikander) who falls for the court physician (Mads Mikkelsen), is a thoughtful, delicate romance that deserved more recognition on its release.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983), is a strange, striking film that features a mercurial performance from David Bowie as a British major in a Japanese prison of war camp in World War II.

A Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson, 2019) offers a light, whimsical touch on weighty subjects as a woman archer steps up to take on corporate vandals destroying the Icelandic environment.

Ali’s Wedding (Jeffrey Walker, 2017) is a terrific Australian comedy, a tricky genre to get right these days. At its heart is a smart, funny performances from co-writer and lead actor Osamah Sami as the dutiful young Muslim struggling with life choices.

Capharnaum/aka Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, 2018) is the powerful, haunting story of a 12 year old living in a Beirut slum who sues his parents for neglect. It’s said to have become the highest grossing Arabic films ever.

Filmed in the palace of Versailles itself, Farewell My Queen (Benoit Jacquot, 2013) it is told from the perspective of a court reader (Lea Seydoux). A sumptuous period drama on the last hours of Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution.

The niche category ‘Essential 70s’, revisits the decade when some of cinema’s top directors did their outstanding early work. The seventies are not well represented by the films in this SBS category, but it does offer two of the best.

The Conversation (1974) a highly esteemed thriller written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It lost the best film Oscar to The Godfather Part II, that Coppola also directed.

Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973) is based on the true story of a New York cop who exposed corruption among the force. Al Pacino is ferocious and righteous in the lead role, in what is still one of his best performances.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 March 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image: Zain Al Rafeea and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in Capernaum

A Royal Affair

Review by © Jane Freebury

This royal affair unfolds in the court of the king of Denmark in the late 18th century when revolutionary ideas were taking root across Europe. The beauty of this drama in costume is that it pays as much attention to the period details as it does to the forces of freedom, equality and liberty that defined the times in which it is set. It says a lot for the quality of the screenplay.

A marriage takes place, one of those arrangements of royal convenience. The groom is the young and incompetent King Christian VII (Mikkel Bøe Folsgaard), a real handful. Clearly intelligent, but erratic, he takes refuge in lunacy when head-of-state duty calls or he wants to escape the company he is forced to keep. His bride Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), a sibling of the king of England, is lovely and accomplished but Christian is far more comfortable showing affection to his pet hound and enjoying the favours of prostitutes.

A German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), is appointed his minder. An unlikely post for a small town doctor who tends to the poor and writes revolutionary pamphlets in secret, but he has a way about him that the king responds to. They start out sparring with quotes from Shakespeare and end up visiting the whores together.

There’s more to Struensee though. Did he have a hidden agenda? Possibly. The queen, who is his patient too, takes an interest in his vast collection of books and borrows his copy of Rousseau. The physician encourages her to get out more and enjoy the fresh air with him on horseback—and things go from there. I wonder how the current Danish royals feel about this period of their history.

A Royal Affair has brought a fascinating and, for me, obscure piece of European history to life. Director Nicolaj Arcel and his screenwriter, who collaborated on the screenplay for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, handle the large sprawling canvas well.

The three central characters are models of complexity and humanity. The actors Folsgaard and Mikkelsen and Vikander are each wonderful in their own way. Expect to see a lot more of Folsgaard. As mad monarchs go, his Christian is a brilliant, nuanced portrait of a man desperate to escape his fate. Mikkelsen we already know from some pretty strong stuff for Danish director Susanne Bier and his mainstream work, and he is always worth watching.

Speaking of mad monarchs, this king was in command of his senses. He understood the need for social reform. When the radical contagion saw the mob taking to the streets and heads of state quaking on their thrones everywhere, he kept his head.

In a capsule: A scandalous affair in the Danish royal court set against the broad canvas of the ideas of enlightenment as they radicalised Europe in 18th century. So well written and delivered with marvellous central performances, it really delivers.

4 stars