‘Alps’ wins big in Sydney, but ‘Lore’ is the one making waves

“Alps,” the follow-up feature from “Dogtooth” helmer Yorgos Lanthimos, didn’t get quite the push it deserved out of last autumn’s festival season. Well-received by critics upon its debut at Venice, where the Best Screenplay prize it eventually took was the very least it deserved, Lanthimos’s glassily menacing comedy of extreme appropriated identity went on to provoke and perplex festival audiences at Toronto and London. Somehow, however, it acquired a reputation as more of a niche proposition than the already gruelling, yet astonishingly Oscar-nominated, “Dogtooth” — a shame, really, since it’s no less accomplished, and arguably more ambitious, an achievement. 

New York cinephiles have only until mid-July to wait for the film, which you may or may not remember cracked the top five of my Best of 2011 list. (It’s not the last title on that list awaiting US release, either.) Thanks to its tough-sell status, the rest of us may have to be very patient indeed — here in the UK, a release date has yet to be confirmed.

However, a neat publicity boost for “Alps” arrived this weekend when it took the top prize at the Sydney Film Festival, scooping a $60,000 cash prize in addition to the poster-friendly laurels. The Sydney fest has been growing in stature in recent years, while their juried competition award has gone to some canny choices since its introduction five years ago: “A Separation” won last year, while previous winners include “Hunger,” “Bronson” and Xavier Dolan’s “Heartbeats.” For a film that’s still making some distributors nervous, a comparatively mainstream award like this represents a major vote of confidence.

The win is all the more impressive considering the strength of the competition; the jury, headed by Australian actress-filmmaker Rachel Ward (remember her stint as a Hollywood leading lady in the 1980s?), had a number of safer, more audience-friendly options.

They could, for example, have added to the growing trophy collection of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” or followed up on the Oscar nomination for Canada’s “Monsieur Lazhar.” “Caesar Must Die,” winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, was among the dozen films in the running; so was that festival’s highlight, and my own favorite of 2012 so far, “Tabu.” Brazilian suburban tapestry “Neighbouring Sounds” wowed me at Lisbon last month — I must write a more detailed appraisal at some point — and would have made a credible winner, or they could have gone starry-eyed with “On the Road.” “Alps” can’t have nabbed this prize easily, which makes its victory all the more gratifying.

Another Competition contender, and certainly the film about which I heard the most chatter from Sydney, was “Lore” — the long-long-awaited sophomore feature from Australian director Cate Shortland, whose slinkily brilliant 2004 debut, “Somersault,” put both Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington on the international map. Reviews for her very different-sounding follow-up — a World War II survival story about five children, separated from their Nazi parents in the last days of the Third Reich, forced to undergo a 500-mile trek to safety — have been uniformly impressed.

The film was widely expected to show up in Cannes last month; the glowing reception for its Sydney debut sheds little light on why it didn’t, particularly given the much-derided shortage of female directors on the Croisette this year. Regardless, it seems we’ll be hearing plenty more about “Lore,” which I can only assume is Toronto-bound.

Australian blogger (and loyal In Contention reader) Glenn Dunks sent us his own tip about the film last week, suggesting it could be one to watch in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race. It’d be unusual for Australia to submit a German-set, German-language production to represent their national cinema, but (following the Academy’s 2006 rule revision) completely legitimate.

Due to the scarcity of non-English-language films from the country, Australia has only entered the Oscar race five times before; “Samson and Delilah” made the January shortlist two years ago, but a nomination has thus far eluded them. Given the Academy’s widely noted fondness for both child-oriented narratives and WWII dramas in this category, submitting “Lore” could be a smart way to break that duck. Keep an eye on it.