The 61st Melbourne International Film Festival is upon us, bringing a program of about 250 feature films, as well as associated shorts, lectures and appearances, to cinemas for the next few weeks. In terms of both size and ambition, MIFF remains the pre-eminent Australian film festival and the movies assembled by artistic director Michelle Carey and her team remain a cornerstone of Melbourne screen culture.
For a handful of prominent MIFF titles, commercial release will soon follow their screenings: the opening night's Australian musical, The Sapphires, opens widely on August 9, with Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (August 30) and Walter Salles' On the Road (September 27) to follow. But MIFF has never just been about the titles fast-tracked from Cannes. It's an event of breadth and depth, where dedicated cineastes, documentary obsessives and exploitation flick fans can find themselves queueing alongside each other. In that spirit, here's a sample of films we'd recommend.
ACE ATTORNEY (Friday, and Thursday, August 9)
The prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has only three pictures screening at MIFF this year and in a typically eclectic trio, the legal adventure Ace Attorney represents his whimsical side. Like Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the movie makes use of computer gaming's structures and iconography to create a frenetic court system of the future, where prosecutors and defence lawyers battle each other. Come for the crazy hairdos, but stay for the deft mix of witty melodrama and unusual objections.
ALMAYER'S FOLLY (Sunday, August 5 and Thursday, August 9)
Filled with long, implacable takes that establish a sense of dread in the rich, tropical locations, veteran Belgian auteur Chantal Akerman's loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's debut novel begins with a murder and slowly moves towards the cause. Elliptical in design, the movie turns on Europe's tortured colonial past, with French Indochina the setting for the story of a young woman, Nina (Aurora Marion), who feels distant from her European father, and the young nationalist who pursues her.
FLICKER (Saturday, and Sunday, August 5)
There's a strong focus on new Swedish filmmaking at MIFF this year, and this wonderfully idiosyncratic comedy, which grafts together early Lars von Trier and contemporary American workplace sitcoms, is a highlight. Patrik Eklund's debut presents a deliberately beige world where a power company and its staff are set upon by oddball tragedy and a group of anti-electricity guerillas. ''Less Bergman, more Crazy Frog,'' is a marketing brief delivered at one point, but this satire of contemporary unease manages to be much more.
MISS BALA (Tuesday, August 7 and Saturday, August 11)
In Gerardo Naranjo's remarkable drama, the violent reality of Mexico's narcotics wars is realised as a taut thriller in which no part of everyday life remains uncontaminated. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) hopes to enter a beauty pageant, but when she witnesses an attack on police by cartel soldiers she becomes caught up in the conflict. Through tense set-pieces, the movie retains a nightmarish incomprehensibility - neither Laura nor the audience know who she's working for, or how close she is to being just another casualty.
NAMELESS GANGSTER: RULES OF THE TIME (Thursday, August 9 and Saturday, August 18)
Riffing on events from a war on crime in 1980s South Korea, Yong Joon-bin's gangster movie has the sudden flights of bloody violence and moral weight that have come to characterise South Korean cinema, but the conflict is rooted in bureaucratic corruption and family connections. The protagonists are not sleek criminals, but rather wily salarymen whose motivations and actions feel tragically grounded.
RAMPART (Monday, August 6, Monday, August 13 and Thursday, August 16)
The Los Angeles beat cop is a figure of obsession for American artists from James Ellroy to David Ayer, and in Oren Moverman's drama Woody Harrelson plays an LAPD foot soldier increasingly shunned by the system that nurtured him. Eschewing exposition for example, this fascinating movie defines Harrelson's Dave Brown by his interaction with women, from his ex-wives (played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), to a union rep (Sigourney Weaver) and the nightflies in bars.
SOMETHING FROM NOTHING: THE ART OF RAP (Friday, August 10 and Saturday, August 18)
In the always popular Backbeat section, this documentary - presented and co-directed by pioneering Californian rapper Ice-T (with Andy Baybutt) - proves to be a surprisingly focused examination of the form, meaning and inspiration behind hip-hop's verbal language. There's no shortage of mutual admiration, but Ice-T attracts rappers such as Eminem, Kanye West and Afrika Bambaataa, and they talk clearly about how they work, often demonstrating the talent that has made them such contentious voices.
■ The Age is a festival sponsor.