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


Review by © Jane Freebury

What do we know about the lives that others leave behind when they arrive in their adopted country? Migrant cultures like ours or Canada or the US will be brimming with such stories, simmering below the surface, waiting to be told.

The story of Incendies is the work of Lebanese-Canadian Waji Mouawad, adapted from his stage play with the title Scorched, which roughly approximates with the name of this Denis Villeneuve film. As it travels to the frontline of implacable sectarian violence in the Middle East, there is no hint of theatrical origins in this film of few words, except in the revelation at the very end. Incendies is at the same time an odyssey of the soul.

Events get rolling in multicultural Montreal where a brother and sister listen to a reading of their mother’s will, an experience that brings out the son’s rejection and resentment of his strange and distant mother. His twin sister responds differently to the request it contains and sets off to the unspecified, war-torn country – Lebanon apparently – that her mother left behind.

Daughter Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin), who is a mathematician and logician, is determined to find the answer to the puzzle, while her brother Simon (Maxim Gaudette) only wants to close the door on it.

When Jeanne’s poignant journey reaches the family’s village she is turned away once her identity is revealed. In time Simon joins her, but has to undertake the dangerous last leg of the quest alone. He must venture into the labyrinthine alleys of a refugee camp and allow himself to be blindfolded to meet a warlord face-to-face. His personal rite of passage.

The life of their mother Narwal, played with dignified restraint by Lubna Azabal, is revealed chapter by grim chapter until the awful secret that precipitates her decline and death is revealed. Some may not accept its coincidence, and the actors’ apparent ages don’t seem to corroborate it that well. Yet I have no problem with accepting the fact that when war decimates families it scrambles kinship bonds and annihilates identity.

In the south of Narwal’s homeland there is a feud to the death between Christian and Moslem militia. The cities and towns are hollowed-out ruins and the countryside is dotted with burnt-out ruins that were witness to unspeakable horror. Reprisal follows reprisal with the pitiless logic of an equation.

Incendies was a contender for best foreign language film at the Oscars. The twists and turns of its labyrinthine plot could teach the aspiring detective story writer a thing or two, as it plays out, always a nimble step ahead of its audience. A very moving, painfully engrossing saga that speaks for a region, from which one hopes a different kind of story will eventually emerge.

In a capsule: At their dead mother’s request, a brother and sister travel to the Middle East to find the rest of their family, only to discover terrible experiences from which they were shielded, but now need to know. Very moving, painfully and utterly engrossing.

4 stars