Twelve Films and TV Shows to Put on Your Must-See List at the First-Ever SXSW Sydney Screen Festival

From new instant cult-favourite comedies to spectacular concert films, here's what you need to watch during SXSW's inaugural trip Down Under.
Sarah Ward
Published on October 16, 2023

2024 will mark three decades since a certain music and ideas festival added film to its lineup. It'll celebrate the same period since every movie lover added an annual visit to Austin, Texas to their wishlist, too. A year shy of that milestone anniversary, South by Southwest is notching up a new occasion worth celebrating: the inaugural SXSW outside of its hometown and the US, taking place in Sydney from Sunday, October 15–Sunday, October 22 — and, as a result, the debut SXSW Sydney Screen Festival from Sunday, October 15–Saturday, October 21.

There's no film in this event's title, because that's not the only screen medium worth celebrating. Movies, TV shows, music videos, XR: they all have a place at this fest. So do glitzy premieres, free outdoor screenings, homegrown highlights and gems from SXSWs gone by in Austin, plus talks featuring everyone from Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker to Australia's own Nicole Kidman.

How does such a landmark screen fest kick off? With the local premiere of Kitty Green's next collaboration with Julia Garner (Ozark) after The Assistant. Taking its cues from Aussie documentary Hotel Coolgardie as it follows two US backpackers working in an outback pub, The Royal Hotel gives the Australian writer/director another tense and powerful stunner about existing while female — and started SXSW Sydney in exceptional style. From there, the rest of the lineup isn't short on fellow highlights. Here's 12 must-sees for a film- and TV-packed week.



Three years after Shiva Baby premiered at 2020's SXSW Austin and wowed audiences, writer/director Emma Seligman and actor Rachel Sennott (Bodies Bodies Bodies) have reteamed for Bottoms. Their latest comedy also premiered at SXSW in the US, of course, with the pair collaborating on the script this time around — and bringing in The Bear's Ayo Edebiri, a friend from their student days, to co-star.  

The setup: Sennott and Edebiri play PJ and Josie, who return to Rockbridge Falls High School after summer break desperate to finally turn their crushes on the popular Isabel (Havana Rose Liu, No Exit) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber, Babylon) into sex and romance. When the semester starts with the best friends still stuck as outcasts, they jump onto the idea of starting a fight club in the name of female solidarity, but mostly to get laid. Cue a queer and gleefully OTT take on high school-set chaos that's both deadpan and surreal, and a stellar addition to a canon that includes Heathers and But I'm a Cheerleader.



Nostalgia alert: The Wiggles aren't missing this lineup. As announced in 2022, the famous Australian entertainers, skivvy fans, Hottest 100 winners, Big Red Car drivers, and Mardi Gras and Falls Festival performers have scored the documentary treatment with Hot Potato: The Story of The Wiggles — and the behind-the-scenes look at the globally famous group is world-premiering at the SXSW Sydney Screen Festival.

Sure, Dorothy the Dinosaur mightn't need an origin story, but OG Wiggles Anthony Field, Murray Cook, Greg Page and Jeff Fatt are getting one, with Sally Aitken (Valerie Taylor: Playing with Sharks, David Stratton: A Cinematic Life) directing. How did four friends become one of the biggest names in Aussie music and TV? This is the tale that this doco promises via lively to-camera chats and plenty of backstage footage, charting The Wiggles' career from their beginnings through to the new levels of fame and popularity that 2022 sent their way. 



A festival about technology, ideas, music, games and screens, SXSW has long been known for loving the space where its areas of focus combine. Of course movies about music are big on its lineup, then — but nothing is likely more moving than Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus, a concert film featuring the iconic Japanese composer in his last performances before his death in March 2023, as directed by his son Neo Sora.

Sora was also the cinematographer on 2017's Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, which was framed around Sakamoto's cancer diagnosis. Here, however, the man behind the scores for The RevenantThe Last EmperorMerry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and more lets his work at the piano do the talking. Twenty carefully selected pieces feature, including from when he was with Yellow Magic Orchestra right through to his last solo album 12, which released in January.



The best concert movie ever made will dance across screens in 2023 — and no, it isn't Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour. Instead, it's Talking Heads' Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs)-directed Stop Making Sense, which first released before SXSW ever existed and now returns in a completely restored 4K version. Just imagine how crisp David Byrne's big suit looks.

Making its Aussie premiere at SXSW Sydney after debuting in general at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, this is an iconic film made even better. So, no it isn't the same as it ever was. Stop Making Sense famously starts with Byrne walking out onto a Hollywood stage with a tape deck, pressing play and, while standing there solo, beginning to sing 'Psycho Killer'. From that point, he puts on one helluva show with Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison — with a lineup of hits, a playful approach and, while watching the movie, the feeling that you're virtually in the room.



Move over movies and music — with Knit's Island, SXSW Sydney blends games, tech and the screen. This French documentary from writer/directors Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse and Quentin L'helgoualc'h (all collaborators on the short Marlowe Drive) has been shot entirely in the DayZ zombie-horror video game, and from 963 hours spent in it among players attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic realm.

The filmmakers adopt their own DayZ avatars, too, to spend time in this online space — and contemplate how commonplace that willingly losing yourself to the virtual unknown is becoming, and could keep doing so from here. Also on their list: exploring who's playing, why, what people hope to find while they're hopping into cyberspace to slaughter the undead, what they're revealing about their offline existences and the community that's formed within the game's frames.



Before Jason Yu made his first feature Sleep, he worked with two Korea's filmmaking greats. For Bong Joon-ho, he was an assistant director on Okja. For Lee Chang-dong, he had a gig writing the English subtitles for Burning. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that his full-length debut bowed at Critics' Week at this year's Cannes Film Festival — or that it stars Parasite's Lee Sun-kyun.

Domestic unrest also sits at the heart of Sleep, but of the somnambulant type. Lee plays one half of a just-married couple (with Train to Busan's Jung Yu-mi), who starts uttering "someone's inside" while he's slumbering. Also unsurprisingly, that's an eerie occurrence, especially for Jung's pregnant Soo-jin. Things that go bump in the night are no stranger to cinema, and neither are night terrors, but Yu gives the well-used concept his own distinctive spin.



Barbie's time on-screen isn't over for 2023. As well as featuring in Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie's massive pink-hued flickthe biggest box office hit of 2023 so far, in fact, and the 11th biggest in history (which might even be higher by the time the year is out) — the Mattel doll is in the spotlight in documentary Black Barbie. The focus: the 1980 release of the first Black Barbie doll, with the toy arriving more than two decades years after its white counterpart.

Premiering at SXSW Austin, this step back into the doll's history is not only timely, but personal for filmmaker Lagueria Davis (The Exchange). Her aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell worked at Mattel for 45 years and, now in her 80s, shares a wealth of insights. In addition, Black Barbie dives into the impact of the toy upon girls who were finally able to play with a Barbie that looked like them.



After making one of the absolute best films to reach Australian cinema screens in 2021, Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell is back with Saltburn, her new Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin)- and Jacob Elordi (Euphoria)-starring thriller. Swapping the US dating scene for Britain's upper class, it features the former as a new Oxford student who's invited to the eponymous estate for the summer by a wealthy classmate played by the latter.

Fennell won a rightly deserved Oscar for her Promising Young Woman script, and reteams with Carey Mulligan (She Said) again here. Also demonstrating the actor (The Crown)-turned-filmmaker's knack for casting: 2023 Academy Award-nominee Keoghan, aka one of the screen's most interesting rising stars, plus Elordi, Rosamund Pike (The Wheel of Time), Richard E Grant (Persuasion) and Lolly Adefope (Miracle Workers).



Kung fu, metal and Orthodox monks combine in Estonia's The Invisible Fight. What a combination. Also joining forces: 70s-set antics, the music of Black Sabbath, dreams of becoming a warrior, the USSR-China border and filmmaker Rainer Sarnet (November), all for a film about a guard on a mission. No, the above mix of words hasn't ever been written together about another movie.

Of course this is on the SXSW Sydney Screen Festival's Midnighters lineup. For fans of the type of weird, wild and wonderful discoveries that film fests are all about, the event's genre program has been delivering in Austin. In 2023, Michael and Danny Philippou's Talk to Me was on the bill, for instance. In 2022, Ti West's X and Aussie effort Sissy made the cut. Now Midnighters makes its way Down Under with quite the inimitable martial arts comedy.



The Taika Waititi school of acting gave Julian Dennison one of his first-ever roles in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and James Rolleston his debut in Boy. Seven years after the former and 13 since the latter, the two play brothers in another coming-of-age effort: Uproar. That cheerworthy casting is joined by Our Flag Means Death co-stars Rhys Darby and Minnie Driver in a film that's not only warmhearted, but always feels as if it's practising one of the messages that it's preaching. 

Set amid 1981's infamous Springbok tour of New Zealand — with South Africa's rugby union team playing games across the nation, and inspiring protests against both apartheid and Aotearoa's treatment of its Māori population as it went — this is a movie by Hamish Bennett (Bellbird) and Paul Middleditch (Rapture-Palooza) about a cultural awakening, and about finding and embracing community.

Read our full review.



As a director, the ever-prolific Steven Soderbergh has already given viewers big-screen release Magic Mike's Last Dance, TV miniseries Full Circle and web series Command Z in 2023. As a producer, Divinity also sits on his list for the year. Joining filmmaker Eddie Alcazar's resume after 2018's Perfect, it takes its name from a serum that might cure mortality. And no, the writer/helmer's own moniker isn't one of Soderbergh's many pseudonyms.

A mainstay on the film festival circuit this year with screenings at Sundance, Fantastic Fest, Sitges and Fantasia before SXSW Sydney, this black-and-white mind-bender features Quantum Leap's Scott Bakula as the scientist chasing eternal life and True Detective's Stephen Dorff as his son. Saying that Divinity is trippy is an understatement. It boasts music to match, courtesy of Cypress Hill member DJ Muggs and Twin Peaks season three's music supervisor Dean Hurley.



We know how you start an event like SXSW Sydney Screen Festival. Again, The Royal Hotel was an exceptional choice. How do you end it? With Baz Luhrmann revisiting the one movie that doesn't live up to Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby and Elvis on his resume: 2008's Australia, which he's reworked into a TV show by drawing upon two-million-plus feet of film from the original shoot.

That's Faraway Downs, which still stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. If you need a refresher on Australia's plot — and therefore the new six-part version's plot, too — it follows English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman, The Northman) after she comes into possession of an Aussie cattle ranch. To save it from cattle barons, she enlists the help of a drover (Jackman, The Son). That's just the overall gist, however, given that the sprawling movie also spans World War II and its impact, as well as the country's historical treatment of Indigenous Australians.


SXSW Sydney runs from Sunday, October 15–Sunday, October 22, and SXSW Sydney Screen Festival from Sunday, October 15–Saturday, October 21. Head to the SXSW Sydney website for further details.

If you're keen to make the most of Australia's first SXSW, take advantage of our special reader offer. Purchase your SXSW Sydney 2023 Official Badge via Concrete Playground Trips and you'll score a $150 credit to use on your choice of Sydney accommodation. Book now via the website.

Published on October 16, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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