River

John Lake (Rossif Sutherland), a doctor working for an NGO in Laos, makes a careless error during a surgery, killing the patient. Punished with two weeks leave by his boss (Sara Botsford), he takes a leisurely trip down south. After drunkenly coming across the rape of a local girl on the way back from a bar, John gets into a fight with the Australian tourist responsible, accidentally killing him and implicating himself in the rape. Panicked, he decides to run, sparking a chase from the authorities across Laos.

From the explicit surgeries that kick off the film, to the endless series of panicked decisions and ethical concessions that John makes, River is brutally matter-of-fact. The Fugitive, this is not; there's no rooftop chases, gunplay or fight sequences here. The unusual tensions of River are very real, and based upon authentically frantic decision making, full of nervous jittering and half-thought plans.

There's a moral complexity here that is equally rare. Though we want him to succeed, John is not presented as the typical hero, and consequently the Laotians as villains. He makes the mistakes and moral compromises that most of us would in his situation, but the actions of the locals against him are equally understandable.

Sutherland (the son of Donald Sutherland, he shares his father's ordinary leading man quality), absolutely convinces with inner-turmoil and ungainly physicality, but there's little dialogue or backstory to convey a full character.

Andre Marsden's naturally-lit, energetic cinematography is clearly influenced by the controlled realistic chaos of Paul Greengrass, unlike most pretenders, though, he approaches the real deal. Berlin duo Troum provide complementary music, delicate ambience that breaks into overwhelming and agitating drones and harsh beats when the chase begins.

For his first feature, Jamie M Dagg displays an uncommon confidence for most of River, but loses his nerve right at the end. What could have been a bitter comment on unintended consequences, Western arrogance, and unequal justice, is dropped in favour of something more crowd-pleasing and sentimental.

Uncompromising grittiness is often served up as realism, but rarely is a film composed of such believable, relatable moments while still intensely thrilling an audience. River may be small, simple and unassuming, but it grips with all the might of an epic blockbuster.

History's Future

Beginning with an end card on a cinema screen, and rewinding backwards, History's Future puts the viewer in the temporally-displaced mind of a brain-damaged victim of assault. Directed by visual artist Fiona Tan, and co-written with film critic Jonathan Romney, this feature debut is an astounding blend of documentary, drama and experimental gallery film, that simultaneously communicates a moving personal story and grander essay on modern life.

After a beating on the streets of Berlin, our protagonist (Mark O'Halloran) known only as MP, for missing person, wakes up unable to remember his life. A long physical and mental recovery lies ahead, as well as the difficulty of adjusting to home life with a wife he doesn't know. One morning, when ostensibly out for a newspaper, he doesn't return, beginning a trip across Europe in which reality, memory and time are muddled.

Tan intersperses documentary footage of riots, protest, destruction, half-built homes, evicted families and the makeshift camps of the homeless into MP's story. In doing so, he becomes a metaphor for modern crisis, particularly economic collapse and those that are stripped of their identities and left behind by the worst failures of capitalism. This may sound distancing and aloof, but in practice crystallises an ineffable defining feeling of our time.

The photography by Vladas Naudzius is full of spectacular, cinematic compositions, yet remains remarkably consistent with the spliced footage. History's Future often assumes the look of a gallery piece or constructs its representation of memory as installations. This can be beautifully composed and expressive, such as fragmented memory and disconnected lives realised as worlds within self-storage units, but also occasionally on-the-nose, with images of the capsizing Costa Concordia and collapsing houses. The only diversion which does not gel is to-camera interviews with unknown people answering questions on their fears and hopes for the future. It's interesting, but somewhat jarring and dilutive, with the poetic, visual journey at the centre conveying so much more.

In order to begin with an alien experience and then fly in so many different directions, the film needed a believable, human core. This is more than amply provided with impressive conviction and physicality by O"Halloran. Whether performing a poetic monologue, dancing like a man possessed, or simply forcing out words during recovery, he is absolutely captivating and completely credible.

Enigmatic but never obtuse, History's Future has a bold identity and a refreshing confidence in the audience. While more successful at evoking an extreme mental state than its larger thesis, Tan has signalled herself as a unique filmmaker.