Twelve Movies to Put on Your Must-See List at the 2024 Sydney Film Festival

Whether you're keen on a dose of weirdness with your SFF sessions, to embrace a Sydney icon or to see award-winning flicks, there's something for you among these titles.
Sarah Ward
Published on June 04, 2024

For much of the past six months, audiences worldwide have spent their movie dates watching Sydney on-screen. When two big Hollywood productions transform the Harbour City into their production playground and setting, as both Anyone But You and The Fall Guy did, cinema's spotlight shines bright and wide. Now, for 12 winter days between Wednesday, June 5–Sunday, June 16, Sydney Film Festival patrons can turn the tables, watching the world via almost 200 flicks gracing local silver screens and fluttering before their eyes.

Again curated by Festival Director Nashen Moodley as every fest since 2012 has been — which gives him that honour on 13 of the event's 71 festivals across its entire run so far, too — SFF's 2024 lineup also guides its gaze towards Sydney. Opening with a tribute to the power and the passion of Midnight Oil, with the band formed in the New South Wales capital more than half a century ago, is only one example. So, to be more accurate, this year's Sydney Film Festival continues a trend that started on Boxing Day 2023 as well as its usual annual tradition: surveying everywhere from Sydney itself to the edges of the earth, space and time.

Maybe you're keen to keep a homegrown flavour to your SFF schedule this year. Perhaps you're eager to roam anywhere that you can from your cinema seat. Whether a dose of weirdness is your ideal film fest flavour, or you're buzzing to catch the latest titles that've been getting the international festival scene talking, they're all on the program. And, you'll also find all of the above among our 12 suggestions below to help you narrow down your choices.


Kinds of Kindness

Since winning the 2012 Sydney Film Festival prize with Alps, Yorgos Lanthimos has technically bid the Greek Weird Wave goodbye by making his movies in English. That's one clear trend among his five features after nabbing SFF's prestigious award in Moodley's first year at the helm. Another pattern applies to his last three flicks, and it's a killer move: teaming up with Emma Stone, a collaboration that scored her her second Best Actress Oscar earlier in 2024 for the Frankenstein-esque delight that is Poor Things.

Kinds of Kindness isn't a Poor Things repeat, just as that wasn't a do-over of The Favourite. This time, Lanthimos and Stone have teamed up on a triptych fable that tells the tales of a man without choice, a policeman with a wife who returns after going missing and a woman on the hunt for a spiritual leader. In a feature that also stars Poor Things' Willem Dafoe (Asteroid City) and Margaret Qualley (Drive-Away Dolls), plus Hong Chau (The Menu), Joe Alwyn (Stars at Noon), Mamoudou Athie (The Burial) and Hunter Schafer (The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes), the picture's three-time creative partners are still making accolade-garnering magic, however, with Jesse Plemons (Killers of the Flower Moon) picking up 2024's Cannes Best Actor award.


The Seed of the Sacred Fig

The Seed of the Sacred Fig isn't merely another must-see SFF 2024 title, but also another new work by a Sydney Film Festival prizewinner. Mohammad Rasoulof's There Is No Evil took home the Berlinale's Golden Bear in 2020 before winning the Harbour City's ultimate movie gong in 2021 — and, as it told four stories connected to the use of the death penalty in Iran, it haunted and broke the hearts of everyone who saw it. Watching the Iranian writer/director's work has always been essential (including 2011's Goodbye, 2013's Manuscripts Don't Burn and 2017's A Man of Integrity), but more so since then.

Even before playing to audiences in Sydney, The Seed of the Sacred Fig is impossible to forget due to the situation surrounding the picture off-screen. When the movie was selected by Cannes this year — where it won the Jury Special Award — Rasoulof was sentenced to a flogging and eight years in prison, sparking him to flee. On-screen, the film doesn't shy away from Iran's legal system or political unrest, following a Revolutionary Court investigator and his family amid protests sweeping the nation, and as fighting back against oppression isn't only on display on the country's streets.


The Pool

It's far too cold in Sydney in June for dive-in movies, but playing The Pool in its namesake location would've been a dream pairing of a film and its setting if the season had been right. SFF cinemagoers will instead get cosy indoors rather than splash around in their bathing costumes at Bondi Icebergs, but stepping through the swimming spot's history, allure and place in the Harbour City is on the itinerary regardless. Here's one guarantee: given how photogenic that the famous venue is anyway even just in everyday snaps, as everyone in Australian can instantly recognise, this documentary about it isn't going to be hard on the eyes.

Filmmaker Ian Darling has a thing for chronicling Sydney icons in his two recent docos to wash across Sydney Film Festival's screens. The other: The Final Quarter, about Sydney Swans legend Adam Goodes and his treatment by the press and fans towards the end of his career, which earned a standing ovation at its State Theatre SFF world premiere in 2019. With The Pool, Darling switches from unfurling details through media clips to enlisting Icebergs regulars to share their recollections — and likely another warm hometown response beckons.


Copa '71

SFF 2024 kicks off just two days after the Matildas took to the turf in Sydney to play their 14th soldout game in a row in Australia, notching up a 2–0 win over China in a friendly. It runs at the same time as Vivid is welcoming Mackenzie Arnold and Tony Gustavsson as speakers. And, it arrives almost a year after the Harbour City was one of the host spots for the 2023 Women's World Cup. So, the timing couldn't be better for Copa '71 to sit in the festival's program. This documentary jumps five decades back and heads to Mexico, to the 1971 Women's World Cup. If you think that you should know more about this event than you currently do, that's one of the movie's points as well.

Filmmakers Rachel Ramsay (a producer earning her first directing credit) and James Erskine (Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard) share the competition's story. They unpack how 100,000 fans can fill a stadium to support women's football but the tournament can fade into history, too. Also, the vast disparity between how men's soccer is managed, marketed, treated and regarded compared to women's is also on the doco's agenda.


The Substance

It was true of 2017's Revenge, her exceptional debut feature, and the word out of Cannes is that it's also true of her seven-years-later sophomore effort: French talent Coralie Fargeat is a helluva filmmaker. Matching style with substance and a feminist statement worked strikingly in her blood-soaked vengeance movie. Now, she's in sci-fi body-horror territory as a celebrity attempts to address the warring forces of time's inevitable passing and Hollywood's obsession with youth by opting for an experimental medical treatment. (Fargeat also just received the Cannes Best Screenplay award for her efforts.)

Whether or not you've ever thought that Margaret Qualley, an actor with multiple appearances on SFF 2024's lineup, resembles not only her mother Andie MacDowell (her Maid co-star) but also Demi Moore (Feud), Fargeat draws the latter connection. Qualley is Sue, Moore is Elisabeth Sparkle, with one the younger version of the other. In a film that also enlists Dennis Quaid (Lawman: Bass Reeves) as a television executive — with the actor stepping in after Ray Liotta (Cocaine Bear), who was originally cast, passed away — messing with the natural order of things via a temporary clone has consequences.


The Moogai

Indigenous horror film The Moogai is making its Australian premiere at 2024's Sydney Film Festival, but the pair are no strangers to each other. Before writer/director Jon Bell, a creator of Cleverman and a scribe on the Mystery Road TV series, helmed his first feature with this name, he made a 2020 short of the same moniker that played SFF (and SXSW, and was nominated for an AACTA Award). It too starred Shari Sebbens (Her Dark Reflection) and Meyne Wyatt (Strife).

Expanding that short film to full length, Bell's second take on The Moogai did the rounds of both Sundance and SXSW — the Austin version — earlier this year before heading home. In the two flicks, a malevolent spirit awaits and the trauma of the Stolen Generations fuels an eerie flick. Sebbens plays Sarah, a young mother who has just had her second child with Watt's Fergus when the movie's titular figure makes its presence known. The Moogai is also a contender for Sydney Film Festival's brand-new First Nations Award, which is offering a prize of $35,000 for the winning First Nations filmmaker, with ten flicks competing for that honour.


The Outrun

Since the 2020s arrived and her third decade as a actor began, Saoirse Ronan has played a young wife who falls in love with fossil collector Mary Anning in Ammonite, a showgirl in The French Dispatch, a police constable in See How They Run and a woman trying to find a path through a dystopian future in Foe. Variety has always been the spice of the Irish actor's on-screen life. In The Outrun, the four-time Oscar-nominee (for Atonement, Brooklyn, Lady Bird and Little Women) is Rona, who is trying to move past a history of addiction.

Ronan's involvement in any film is enough to put it high on the must-watch list, but she isn't the only drawcard here. The Outrun adapts Amy Liptrot's 2017 memoir of the same name, about the Scottish author and journalist's experiences returning to the Orkney Islands. Liptrot also co-wrote the screenplay. Hitting the keyboard with her is director Nora Fingscheidt — who might've first followed up her excellent 2019 feature System Crasher with the mixed Sandra Bullock (Bullet Train) vehicle The Unforgivable, but is a helmer to watch nonetheless.


The Contestant

Films about people trapped in a sole space aren't rare. But no matter what Cube or Buried or Devil conjured up, or everything from Oldboy to Bodies Bodies Bodies as well, the scenario at the heart of The Contestant stands out because it actually happened. In 1998, Tomoaki Hamatsu aka Nasubi became a TV star by doing nothing more than existing in a single room alone and sans clothing on reality series Susunu! Denpa Shōnen. To survive, he had to win competitions to obtain the necessary supplies. Also, he had no idea that audiences were watching.

Of course a documentary was eventually going to to chronicle this months-long ordeal, how it happened and the repercussions, with Clair Titley (One Born Every Minute) examining the reality of a situation that could've come straight from a horror movie in The Contestant. Nasubi became immensely famous in Japan for his role in the show — footage from which is included in the doco — but as a result of a Faustian bargain with a television producer that he didn't really know that he was making. If you're not already a fan of the format at its far less extreme, this film definitely won't change that.


I Saw the TV Glow

In Jane Schoenbrun's We're All Going to the World's Fair, a screen became a portal to another world when its teenage protagonist embraced an online trend by playing a virtual horror game. I Saw the TV Glow, the filmmaker's next feature, also gets young eyes trained at a small screen and plunging into what they find awaiting. If you've ever loved a television show so much that you felt like it completed you, saw you and understood you far more than anything flesh and blood around you ever could — and you also couldn't stomach that series coming to an end — then you'll understand Owen (Justice Smith, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine, Atypical) in one of the most-talked-about flicks out of 2024's Sundance and Berlinale film festivals.

That pop culture, including the screen dreams that we eagerly insert ourselves into in our minds while watching, is an escape isn't a new revelation. But after exploring the digital allure in We're All Going to the World's Fair, Schoenbrun now brings their perspective to a tale of connection through the broadcast stories we take into our heads and hearts. The writer/director makes deeply layered films about the loneliness and isolation of growing up, and working out who you want to be, the relationships with screens that we all have, and gender dysphoria — and their latest has Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst (Y2K) among the cast, plus Emma Stone (The Curse) and her husband Dave McCary (Brigsby Bear) as producers.



2024's Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear-winner shares a name with a West African kingdom that existed for three centuries, on land now situated within the Republic of Benin — a place that earned the great Werner Herzog's attention in 1987's Cobra Verde and also provided the setting for 2022's The Woman King. The focus of Dahomey for Both Sides of the Blade actor and Atlantics filmmaker Mati Diop in her latest directorial effort: 26 royal treasures taken from the country in the 1800s by French colonial troops, plus their journey home now.

How do these statues and objects feel about their their path? One of Diop's creative touches is to give the artifacts a voice and turn them into characters, rather than keep them as mere items discussed by everyone else. It's a telling choice in a documentary that traces the treasures' repatriation and unpacks the bigger picture not just surrounding the contents of museums around the world, but the impact of colonialism, especially in North Africa — all within 67 minutes.


All We Imagine as Light

Love and hope flow within All We Imagine as Light, and also in nurse Prabha (Kani Kusruti, Poacher) and her roommate Anu (Divya Prabha, Family), who are each grappling with affairs of the heart in their own ways. So unfurls this sensual film that bases its characters in Mumbai, then takes them on the road to an otherworldly beach town. The romantic drama has earned love itself off-screen and proven a beacon of hope IRL as well, as writer/director Payal Kapadia makes her first fiction feature.

Kapadia's full-length debut came via 2021 documentary A Night of Knowing Nothing, which premiered at that year's Cannes Film Festival in the Directors' Fortnight and picked up the Golden Eye for Best Documentary. Before that, her short Afternoon Clouds also played the fest. Kapadia's ties to the French event continue with All We Imagine as Light, which made history just by being selected in competition — a feat an Indian film hasn't achieved in three decades prior. And while it didn't take out the Palme d'Or, it came as close as anything could, earning the Grand Prix, the festival's next gong, which Oscar-winner The Zone of Interest received in 2023.



It's currently a great time to be a Julio Torres fan. That's been true for almost a decade thanks to his work as a writer on Saturday Night Live — 2017's famous 'Papyrus' sketch with Ryan Gosling, which earned a sequel also starring the Barbie and The Fall Guy talent in 2024, was penned by him — and then due to two seasons of glorious HBO comedy Los Espookys in 2019 and 2022. 2024 brings two treats, however, and both at the same time if you're heading to Sydney Film Festival. On the big screen, Problemista sees Torres write, direct and star, making his feature debut as a helmer and acting opposite none other than Tilda Swinton (The Killer). On the small screen, his comedy series Fantasmas will debut on Binge on Saturday, June 8.

Accordingly, after you watch Problemista you can start Fantasmas, or vice versa. With Torres' new movie, he plays a man who wants to design toys in New York, then loses his job and looks set to be deported, with a job working for Swinton's demanding art collector Elizabeth his possible lifeline. Wu-Tang Clan's RZA (Minions: Rise of Gru) also pops up. So does Past Lives star Greta Lee. And narrating the whole thing? The iconic Isabella Rossellini, who also appeared in Los Espookys, and hasn't been far from screens of late courtesy of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Cat Person, Julia, La Chimera and now this.


Sydney Film Festival 2024 takes place from Wednesday, June 5–Sunday, June 16 at various cinemas and venues around Sydney. For more information — and for tickets — head to the festival's website.

Published on June 04, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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