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The ten best films to see at MIFF this year

A look into this year's program with MIFF artistic director Al Cossar

Written by
Stephen A Russell
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After the tumult of the last couple of years, you’d forgive the team behind this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) if they kept things intimate. But given it’s the 70th anniversary of Australia’s largest and longest-running film festival, that was never going to happen.

“Somehow MIFF is actually bigger than ever this year,” chuckles artistic director Al Cossar, as if he doesn’t quite believe it himself. “It’s really exciting, exhausting and exhilarating.” He wanted to embrace the new normal of meeting audiences where they are after two years of streaming online-only. So MIFF will once again take over cinemas across the city from August 4-21, including bringing Carlton’s giant-sized IMAX back into the fold.

It will also spread out to the suburbs, catering for cinemagoers who prefer to stay local, with Yarraville’s Sun Theatre, Coburg’s Pentridge Cinema and Hawthorn’s Lido Cinema joining the illustrious Astor Theatre in St Kilda. Then there will be nine regional hubs, including the Peninsula Cinemas in Sorrento, Star Cinema in Bendigo, The Pivotonian in Geelong, and Paramount Cinemas in Echuca. You can also choose to MIFF and chill at home, sticking to your sofa and streaming 18 days of festival highlights from August 11-28.

The in-cinema offering is evolving too, with special relaxed screenings, and sessions that welcome folks with babies. “A festival is more than the sum of its films,” Cossar says. “It’s the sum of its moments.”

MIFF will screen Of An Age as the opening night gala. A soon-to-be Australian classic, it’s a '90s Melbourne-set queer whirlwind romance from fast-rising filmmaker Goran Stolevski. His remarkable folkloric horror debut You Won’t Be Alone is also in the program. The cinema run will close out with Lachlan McLeod’s Clean, a documentary tribute to the remarkable life of ‘trauma cleaner’ Sandra Pankhurst.

It's a year of breaking records. MIFF presents its biggest-ever haul from the Cannes Film Festival (61), and 11 films backed by MIFF’s premiere fund, supporting new Australian titles. But above all else, Cossar wants to celebrate the festival’s connection to the city. To mark the anniversary, there’s also a program strand celebrating Melbourne on screen.

Ushering in a new era, this year introduces the MIFF Bright Horizons Competition. Backed by VicScreen, the astounding $140,000 prize will be awarded to one of 11 competing first and second features from up-and-coming Australian and international directors. Alena Lodkina and Thomas M Wright – who made a splash with their MIFF debuts Strange Colours and Acute Misfortune – are both in the mix with their follow-ups Petrol and The Stranger.

“With anniversaries, you get into this thing of looking backwards, but this is an initiative that’s all about looking forwards,” Cossar says. “We wanted to create a space for the breakthrough, the new, the next and the unexpected. Some of the most exciting films that we see are those that come from nowhere and seem to take over the world.”

Read on below for Cossar’s top ten films to see at this year’s MIFF.

RECOMMENDED: Here's where to get cheap movie tickets in Melbourne.

Al Cossar's top ten MIFF picks

If you love being grossed out, book a ticket to see Crimes of the Future, the latest from the undisputed king of body horror, The Fly director David Cronenberg. Starring The Lord of the Rings alumni Viggo Mortensen as a performance artist pushing the human body beyond its natural limits, it provoked walkouts at the Cannes Film Festival. The film also features Kristen Stewart and Léa Seydoux.

“It’s a film that’s born to be talked about, and will be one of the hottest and possibly most divisive tickets to the festival,” Cossar says.

Read Time Out's review here.

Cruise ship catastrophes may be a bit on the nose these days, but if you can stomach the seasickness, then try two-time Cannes-winner Ruben Östlund’s latest black comedy, Triangle of Sadness.

It sets sail with a boatful of Insta influencers, obscenely rich toffs, arms dealers, Russian oligarchs and an alcoholic captain played by Woody Harrelson. What could possibly go wrong? “It’s a very sharp, acerbic satire on the one per cent, and the dynamics of inequality,” Cossar says.

Read Time Out's review here.

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If you’re after something whimsical, the inimitable force of brilliant oddness that is Tilda Swinton teams up with hunky Idris Elba in Three Thousand Years of Longing, a fantastical tale about a scholar who falls for an ancient Djinn.

It’s a bit of a change of pace from Mad Max creator George Miller. “It feels like those really big imaginative movies from the ‘80s, and hinges on that incredible dynamic between Swinton and Elba,” Cossar says. “They’re extraordinary.”

Read Time Out's review here.

Ground control to major Bowie fans. Moonage Daydream is a stellar documentary from Cobain: Montage of Heck director, Brett Morgen, and it takes a cosmic deep dive into the Space Oddity singer’s unrivalled creative drive.

It plays on the grand canvas at IMAX, with Morgen a guest of the fest. “He’s one of those filmmakers who’s just up for the challenge of taking iconic personas and finding something really powerful and fascinating to say about them,” Cossar says. “It’s epic.”

Read Time Out's review here.

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Scandi film is mostly renowned for particularly chilly crime noir, but that dark vein can also be mined for outrageous comedy.

In Sick of Myself, Norwegian writer/director Kristoffer Borgli spins an absurd tale of a relationship so twisted that Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) abuses pharmaceuticals to fake being sick so she can wrestle back some of the attention enjoyed by her artist boyfriend (Eirik Sæther). “It’s populated by terrible people doing terrible things,” Cossar says. “It’s a good time in the cinema.”

Read Time Out's review here.

If weirdly comic stuff that pushes buttons is your jam, Cossar also champions The Pawnshop. This oddball doco revels in the off-the-wall characters who work at, or drop into, Poland’s largest and most ragtag pawnshop.

“It’s such a wondrous kind of non-fiction black comedy that has a very kind of Grey Gardens-esque feel to it,” he says. “It’s ridiculous, and there’s a humanist beating heart to it.”

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If you need something a little gentler, Cossar recommends War Pony. This tender tale is about two young Oglala Lakota men growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

It marks the directorial debut of actor Riley Keogh (alongside Gina Gammell), who met co-stars Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob while she was filming American Honey. “It’s an absolutely beautiful coming of age story,” Cossar says.

Read Time Out's review here.

Blended family is where it’s at in Because We Have Each Other, the latest doco from Australian filmmaker Sari Braithwaite. It drops in on everyday life for a working class clan that embraces neurodivergence.

“It’s one of those films that’s very aware of the little moments and those incremental things that tie people together as families,” Cossar says. “It’s very lyrical and quite lovely.”

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If you’re passionate about the environment, you’re going to want to check out Kasimir Burgess’ spectacular film Franklin. The flick traces the battle to protect Tassie’s staggeringly beautiful natural Franklin River during the ‘80s.

It’s seen through the eyes of the son of one of the key protestors, is narrated by Hugo Weaving and also features former Greens leader Bob Brown. “It’s a real feat of archival storytelling,” Cossar says. “It’s also the most beautiful cinematic journey.”

If you’re perversely attracted to watching gory stuff, De Humani Corporis Fabrica is a doco touring Parisian hospitals – and it is not for the faint of heart.

Co-directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor “out-Cronenberg Cronenberg,” introducing us to the doctors and nurses who go above and beyond to save lives, then also plunging deep inside the bodies of their patients for cinema’s most intense close up. Cossar says, “It treats the human body almost like the final frontier.”

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