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  1. An audience wearing facemasks is gathered to watch a film in the darkened State Theatre
    Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Film Festival
  2. Nashen Moodley - Sydney Film Festival
    Photograph: Supplied/SFF | Nashen Moodley

The most unmissable movies at Sydney Film Festival (according to the festival director)

From the cutting edge to the classic, the 70th Sydney Film Festival offers cinematic sensations for all

Travis Johnson
Written by
Travis Johnson

Has it really been only 70 years? It seems like only yesterday that the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) began as a small event at the University of Sydney, but look at it now – a world class event, boasting hundreds of screenings, dozens of high-profile guests, events and Q&A sessions, all crammed into the scant 12 days between June 7 and June 18.

On such an anniversary, a sense of the weight of history is perhaps unavoidable, as we contemplate not only the fresh films on the slate, but the lifespan of the festival itself – from its humble beginnings to its current status as one of the premiere events on the international film circuit. 

It’s certainly on the mind of festival director Nashen Moodley, now in his twelfth year at the helm. Still, he assures us that some things never change.

We have so many films from Cannes. Which is always a great boost to the line-up.

“The approach is always the same,” he tells us. “It's looking for the best possible films from around the world. We start pretty early, with a search beginning around August of the previous year. And I think that yeah, that's very much the way we've gone about it, just looking at as much as we can. And of course, it was really important to have a great opening night film this year, and that we managed to do at a very late moment – an uncomfortably late moment – we have The New Boy.”

The latest work from director Warwick Thornton is a more than worthy candidate for the opening slot, pairing the Sweet Country director with Australian screen icon Cate Blanchett for the first time – a team up that certainly has Sydney cineastes excited. But Moodley’s comment speaks to the frantic nature of festival curation – poring over entries, hunting down coveted films, scrambling to deliver the best program possible. SFF’s position on the calendar, so shortly after the Cannes and Berlin festivals, is a fortuitous one, with many high-profile critical darlings jumping directly from Europe to Australia – which requires a lot of last-minute negotiation at times. 

“We have so many films from Cannes,” Moodley says. “Which is always a great boost to the line-up. Having the newest, best films here in Sydney provides, in many cases, the first opportunity for a member of the public anywhere in the world to buy a ticket and watch those films.”

Indeed, so many films have been watched by so many people over the course of the festival’s history that in 2013 the Sydney Film Festival Archive was inaugurated, an online storehouse of historical information about the festival, with contributions from patrons, filmmakers, critics, academics, and more. And as of this year, it’s had a much-needed refresh.

“What the team has come up with is quite amazing,” Moodley explains. “Because there are tens of thousands of records that are catalogued. And it's also quite interactive, so people can log their own memories and pieces of festival paraphernalia from the years. We want it to be something that people can really engage with on quite a personal level, and at the same time it's a very useful resource for academics interested in the history of cinema in Sydney, or just anyone looking for that film that they saw ten years ago but can't remember the title of.”

But enough about old movies – let’s look at the new. Even seasoned patrons can struggle to navigate the sheer wealth of films SFF offers each year. But here are ten that should pique your interest.

The top 10 films to see at SFF

This year’s opening night film sees acclaimed filmmaker and Kaytetye man Warwick Thornton (Sweet Country) team up with legendary actor Cate Blanchett (Tár) for the first time. Set in the 1940s, The New Boy stars Aswan Reid as a troubled Indigenous youth who is packed off to a mission run by Blanchett’s Sister Eileen. He soon makes a space for himself, but his exhibition of apparently supernatural powers puts him at odds with the Sister’s increasingly fervent religious convictions. Deborah Mailman and Wayne Blair co-star in the latest offering from one of our finest directors. 

Wes Anderson brings us another painterly, pastel-tinged social comedy packed with an all-star cast that includes Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Steve Carrell, Maya Hawke, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Margot Robbie and more. Set at a student science convention in the titular tiny desert town in 1955, Asteroid City follows a disparate group of characters brought together under unusual circumstances in typically droll style. 


The new film from Kore-eda Hirokazu (Shoplifters, Broker). When her young son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) starts acting out in bizarre ways, Saori (Sakura Andō) blames his teacher, the eccentric Mr Hori (Nagayama Eita). But as the story unfolds in a non-linear style, the truth that emerges is not nearly so simple as a case of classroom bullying. Closely observed and deeply humanist, this is another must-see from one of Japan’s most exciting screen artists.

Allan Clarke’s documentary looks at writer and activist Bruce Pascoe, whose landmark book, Dark Emu, demanded a reframing of modern understanding of pre-colonial Indigenous cultures and stirred up plenty of push-back from conservative commentators, who questioned not only Pascoe’s conclusions but his very identity as an Indigenous man. Produced by Blackfella Films (First Australians, Redfern Now), The Dark Emu Story tells the full tale, centring the Indigenous voices at the heart of the furore.


One for the action fans and gore hounds, this Finnish WWII thriller sees a prospector (Jorma Tomilla) in remote Lapland run afoul of retreating German troops. Sadly for the Nazis, but luckily for us, our hero is a former commando who summarily slaughters them all before haring off into the wilderness with the full might of the Wehrmacht in hot pursuit. What follows is 90 minutes of sheer bloody mayhem that would do Tarantino proud.

South Korean genre specialist director Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil) pivots to comedy with his new film, a change in direction that should yield at least a few surprises. Set in the ‘70s, Cobweb stars Parasite's Song Kang-ho as a director battling to finish his masterpiece, warring with truculent actors, gunshy executives, and whatever else the world can throw at him while he follows his demanding muse. Im Soo-jung, Oh Jung-se, Jeon Yeo-been, and Krystal Jung co-star.


This brand-new documentary looks at Rock‘n’Roll legend Little Richard not just as a musical icon, but as a queer man who struggled to reconcile his sexuality with his conservative religious upbringing. Exhaustively taking us through its subject’s long and storied career, Little Richard: I Am Everything features interviews with Billy Porter, John Waters, Mick Jagger, and many more.

The latest film/installation/cheeky-slap-in-the-face from video art collective Soda Jerk (Terror Nullius) is a merciless trawl through recent American political history. Sampling clips from countless instantly familiar sources (Wayne’s World, The ‘Burbs, American Beauty, et al) to follow a “typical” American suburb through the dark years of 2016-2021 – that’s right, from the Trump election to the pandemic. Savagely satirical, formally daring, and blackly hilarious, this is a must see.


The Iranian government banned writer/director Jafar Panahi from making movies back in 2010, but that hasn’t stopped him. Panahi has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep working, and his latest demonstrates that, being a semi-autobiographical account of an exiled filmmaker (Panahi himself) attempting to make a documentary about two Iranians trying to flee to France to escape persecution. Fact and fiction blend seamlessly in this story of film as an act of political defiance. 

Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney stars as whistle blower Reality Winner, who in 2018 was imprisoned for leaking a classified report about Russian interference in US elections to news site The Intercept. Utilising dialogue entirely drawn from FBI transcripts of Winner’s interrogation, debut feature writer and director Tina Satter strips away the unnecessary details to offer a spare, tense examination of the fraught interplay between truth, duty, and authority. 

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