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The Ten Best Films to See at the 2016 Sydney Film Festival

Leave room for these ten flicks on your flexipass.
By Sarah Ward
May 17, 2016
By Sarah Ward
May 17, 2016

You have to hand it to the Sydney Film Festival. Putting together a program of 244 films from 60 countries isn't easy, but that's exactly what festival director Nashen Moodley and his team has done — and, they've caused many a film fan to agonise over just what to watch, too.

That's understandable, given that the fest's 2016 lineup boasts big names, potential future cult classics, international award winners, Aussie premieres and everything in between. It also features films we've been hanging out to see since their Sundance and SXSW premieres, including the likes of Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Certain Women, The Lure, Under the Shadow and Everybody Wants Some!!. They're all on our must-see list, of course; however that's not all SFF has in store. We recommending leaving room for these ten flicks on your flexipass, and maybe contemplating a few other suggestions as well.

SFF 2016 - Aquarius


Back in 2012, a particular film got everyone talking, and it wasn't one that most expected. Roaming around a Brazilian community, Neighbouring Sounds pondered race, class and fear in a feature that was as epic as it was ambitious. Now, filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho returns with his sophomore effort, this time following a music critic resident of the seaside Aquarius building who won't sell her apartment to looming developers. It sounds like the director's second intriguing offering in a row — and it's his second entry into SFF's official competition, as well.

Alternatively: If you like cinema that's audacious, cutting-edge and courageous, look no further than the rest of the competition program — they're all part of the criteria, after all. Viva stands out from the crowd, offering up an Irish-made, Cuba-set family drama about a troubled drag queen. It's already impressed film festival audiences around the globe, so a surefire bet.


The usual male posturing, ego-driven arguing and appendage measuring — both literal and metaphorical — takes to the sea in the latest feature to spring from Greece's new, weird wave of filmmaking, Chevalier. Athina Rachel Tsangari's follow-up to Attenberg promises yet another deadpan, offbeat delight, with its yacht-bound setting certain to heighten the absurdity on show. And even with that in mind, we still think it's safe to say that the movie is bound to veer into unexpected territory.

Alternatively: Speaking of surprises, Neon Bull offers up plenty. It might appear to present a visually striking but narratively standard look at the ups and downs of rodeo life, but just like the lead character's dream of working in fashion industry, there's much more going on.


Two words: David Byrne. The legendary Talking Heads frontman takes to the stage to celebrate the colour guard: synchronised dance routines that burst with brightness, energy and movement, plus flags, sequins and glitter cannons too. He's joined by ten of America's best teams in the field, as well as Nelly Furtado, How to Dress Well, Devonté Hynes, Money Mark + Ad-Rock, and St. Vincent, too. Of course, if you've ever seen classic '80s concert film Stop Making Sense, you don't need any more reasons to watch, because Byrne's involvement in this kind of flick isn't to be missed.

Alternatively: Another creative legend, and another essential documentary, this time in the form of Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog. The artist and musician's feature isn't your usual factual effort, though. Reflecting upon her late mother, her beloved pet pooch and her partner Lou Reed, it's as intimate and expressive as on-screen essays come.


The term 'dream-like' gets thrown around a lot when it comes to films that try to evoke a certain mood; however with Evolution, it's a description that definitely fits. Cult French filmmaker Lucile Hadžihalilovic creates a mysterious on-screen world solely populated by women and young boys, then charts the bristling dynamic that springs when a mother doesn't believe her son's latest tale. Favouring visual storytelling over dialogue, and emphasising a distinctive soundtrack, really is just the beginning.

Alternatively: The Eyes of My Mother also ponders maternal bonds, but with a monochrome, nightmarish bent. Violence and sensuality intertwine in a film that seems the very definition of arthouse horror.


Heartbreaking tales of refugees seeking new lives aren't confined to Australia. Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi examines the situation on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which Syrian migrants approach filled with hope, only to find more horror in store. As tense as it is tragic, Fire at Sea is the end result — and the winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, too. Forget big-budget disaster films; this is real life.

Alternatively: In Jackson Heights employs Frederick Wiseman's usual fly-on-the-wall approach to documenting one of New York's busiest and most bustling neighbourhoods, and tallies up one of SFF's longest running times for 2016 — a whopping 190 minutes — in the process.


Even if Goldstone hadn't scored prime position as SFF's opening night feature, it'd be one to watch. Not only does local filmmaker Ivan Sen write, direct, edit and shoot the film, but he offers up the second instalment in the story of indigenous outback detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen). Mystery Road fans won't want to miss this thrilling follow up to one of the nation's most smart and stylish takes on the western genre, with Jacki Weaver, David Wenham and David Gulpilil also along for the ride this time around.

Alternatively: SFF has plenty of local options; however catching cinema gems from the nation's past is just as important as checking out brand new features. If you haven't seen the true-crime drama that is The Boys on a big screen, then you haven't really seen it. And if you've actually never watched the David Wenham and Toni Collette–starring effort before, this is your chance to fix that — and check out an important Aussie film in all its restored glory.


If there was ever an actor audiences would willingly follow into a crumbling building, it's Tom Hiddleston. In High-Rise, though, the titular setting's collapse is as much moral, intellectual and ideological as it is physical. That's to be expected given that the satirical film adapts J.G. Ballard's luxury building-set dystopian novel of the same name. And with Sightseers' director Ben Wheatley at the helm, and Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller among the cast, expect a movie that's dark, decadent, devilish and delicious all at the same time.

Alternatively: Speaking of talent no one can get enough of, Elvis & Nixon delivers the dream most of us didn't even realise we had: Michael Shannon playing none other than the King, in a dramatised version of the music superstar's real life offer to become a federal agent to protect America. Yes, really.

SFF 2016 - It's Only the End of the World 2


At the age of 27, many aspiring filmmakers are still dreaming about shooting their first movie. Xavier Dolan has now made six, and the prolific and prodigious talent shows no sign of slowing down. Corralling a star-studded French cast that includes Léa Seydoux, Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard, he once again does what he does best — i.e. delves into family drama — however no two Dolan films are ever the same. And, after winning SFF's official competition with his 2010 effort Heartbeats, it should come as little surprise that the writer/director is vying for the fest's top prize once again.

Alternatively: After the comic misstep that was the lacklustre I'm So Excited, Julieta marks Pedro Almodóvar's return to the moving melodramas he does best, as well as the Spanish filmmaker's 20th feature.


In No Home Movie, Chantal Akerman prepares to say goodbye to her ailing mother. As she explores the memories of the woman who brought her into the world — a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz — the iconic Belgian director achieves just that, but she also prompts another kind of farewell. Sadly, this intimate documentary is the filmmaker's last, with Akerman passing away in October 2015. Factual cinema rarely gets this personal, probing or loaded with both insight and sadness.

Alternatively: Because one slice of Akerman's considerable cinema catalogue isn't enough, SFF is also serving up a screening of the auteur's acclaimed 1975 feature, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which was made when the filmmaker was only 25 years old.


Christmas and horror have always gone hand-in-hand — and while plenty of frightening festive flicks spring to mind, Australia hasn't had much to add to the fold. Enter Double the Fist director Craig Anderson with his big screen debut Red Christmas. Fighting families and flying axes feature prominently, as does the kind of take on Yuletide terror that only an Aussie could make, all focused around iconic The Howling and E.T. actress Dee Wallace.

Alternatively: A Chinese murder mystery that has been compared to Twin Peaks? That's What's In the Darkness. It's also a stripped back procedural that contemplates crime, adolescence and the contemporary state of its country of origin.

The 2016 Sydney Film Festival runs from June 8 to 19. To check out the complete program and book tickets, visit the festival website.

Published on May 17, 2016 by Sarah Ward
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