Jiang Wu in a scene from the movie A Touch of Sin
Every time I read the word ''seventeenth'' on the cover of the Canberra International Film Festival program, I make unconscious pulls at the skin around my eyebrows and jawline. Surely it can't be 17 years since I sat in the audience of the first Canberra International Film Festival at the gone-but-not-forgotten Electric Shadows Cinema in 1996, delighting in the sexy camp spectacular of its opening night film The Horseman on the Roof.
While those 17 years may not have been overly kind to my mug, they've been wonderful to the film festival which has grown slowly but steadily to deliver an attendance of 17,000 in 2012, the final festival for former artistic director (and Canberra Times film critic) Simon Weaving.
The 2013 festival opens this Wednesday night with the gripping All Is Lost ( 6.30pm, Dendy). J.C. Chandor's film has only three lines of dialogue (one of them simply the f-bomb) but you, like I was, will be immobilised with empathised terror by this simple story of a lone sailor (Robert Redford) whose yacht is struck by a wayward shipping container and slowly, inevitably sinks.
Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive.
Hopefully, stiff drinks will be served afterwards by the festival team, for they will be needed.
I think this might be the best choice for an opening night film in the festival history, and it sets the tone for an ambitious and interesting program being delivered by new festival director Lex Lindsay. Appointed in May, just in time to be whisked off to Cannes, Lindsay comes to the Canberra festival from successive roles curating Queer Screen and Sydney's Mardi Gras Film Festival, and film festivals for Cockatoo Island, Dubbo and Dungog, all of which enjoyed both high profile and patronage under his watch.
"A sense of story," is Lindsay's answer when I ask him what he brings to the role. "As a curator you're beholden to what art other people are making. We don't make the films, you can't control the story on the screen, but through the program you bring the elements in that build a story so it is more than just a collection of films but a journey, a document."
There are big ticket items - Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as star-crossed vampire lovers in Only Lovers Left Alive (Nov 7, 6.15pm, Dendy), the Australian premiere of Irvine Welsh's Filth (November 2, 8.30pm and November 6, 8.45pm, Dendy) and the remake of Aussie horror film Patrick (November 1, 10pm, Arc Cinema).
Canberra audiences will like the documentary content this year, especially the emotional experience of Blackfish (November 2, 4.30pm and November 3, 2.30pm Dendy), Gabriella Cowperthwaite's investigation into the sad and troubled lives of the killer whales that are unnaturally performing for audiences in ocean theme parks around
Infinitely more uplifting is Leviathan (November 6, 7pm, Arc Cinema), an immersive look at life on board a commercial fishing vessel.
For me, the pick of the festival is Paradise, a triptych of films from German filmmaker Ulrich Seidl exploring the clash of European and other cultures.
"When I'm in Canberra what I notice everywhere, at restaurants, on the bus, in the mall, is the national conversation is very much being discussed openly and frequently, and you don't feel that in other Australian cities,'' Lindsay says.
"What I hope we've curated is a program as smart as the town is.''
The greatest coup of this year's festival and one of the final jewels in the 2013 centenary program, is drawing Hollywood heavy-hitter Harvey Weinstein to town (along with his pals Sam Neill, Rachel Griffiths, Guy Pearce and Geoffrey Rush) for the Body of Work program (bodyofwork.org.au for details) looking back over the career of the Oscar-winning producer and mogul.
Weinstein announced this week he is bringing with him a print of his just-finished biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, directed by The Other Boleyn Girl's Justin Chadwick and starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela, for its Australian premiere (November 24, 4.45pm Palace Cinema).
Tickets for Body of Work sessions available at bodyofwork.org.au. Tickets are available for both Dendy and Arc Cinema sessions on the Dendy website at dendy.com.au but having tried to buy multiple tickets online myself on the weekend, I recommend visiting Dendy in person where a festival multipass can be infinitely more quickly exchanged for tickets.