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The Best, Weirdest and Most Unexpected Films of Sydney Film Festival 2017

Our critics needed a good night's sleep and a home-cooked meal after sifting through 250-plus movies.
By Sarah Ward
June 23, 2017
By Sarah Ward
June 23, 2017

When you spend 12 days hopping between Sydney's cinemas trying to watch as many movies as possible, you learn a few things. You learn that some films demand a second viewing, that Twilight stars keep making ace post-vampire-romance choices, and that there's a whole heap of people that are really rather fond of chickens. You also learn that simply watching tourists walk around can be both heartbreaking and revealing, that some Netflix flicks demand the big screen treatment, and that the Australian film industry should have a new multicultural hit on its hand. And, you realise that Sydney Film Festival is the best time of year for the city's movie lovers — but, you already knew that, didn't you?

Our film critics Sarah Ward and Tom Clift discovered all of the above at this year's SFF, and, now they've emerged from their massive movie marathon, they've shared the results. Whittling down their huge viewing lists to these 12 standouts, here's what they loved, were surprised by and utterly embraced the strangeness of — that is, the best, weirdest and most unexpected films of the 2017 Sydney Film Festival.



If there's any justice, the delightful Ali's Wedding will be one of the breakout hits of 2017. Inspired by the disastrous arranged marriage of screenwriter and lead actor Osamah Sami, the film, which has been billed as Australia's first Muslim rom-com, follows a young man who must navigate the expectations of his religious community after falling in love with a woman other than his betrothed. Shot in and around Melbourne, the movie is at once a vital portrait of life in multicultural Australia, a deeply moving love story, and one of the funniest local productions of the past few years. It's in cinemas in August. Tell your friends. — Tom Clift


Folks, thank the film gods for Twilight. Do it. Without it, we wouldn't have two of today's most talented actors making such interesting — and excellent — projects. SFF 2016 might've been all about Kristen Stewart, but SFF 2014 guest Robert Pattinson jumps back into the festival's spotlight with Good Time. The fast-paced flick mightn't offer a good time for his character, a low-level crim running around New York trying to rustle up some cash to get his brother out of jail after a bank robbery, but it's a mighty good time for audiences. Directing duo Josh and Ben Safdie (the latter of which also stars as Pattinson's brother) ramp up the energy and tension, shoot with gritty vividness, and bring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Captain Phillips Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi along for the ride. And then there's the pulsating score — trust us, Oneohtrix Point Never won the soundtrack award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for a damn good reason. — Sarah Ward


With The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola won a directing gong at Cannes, making her the first woman in more than 50 years to do so. After viewing the film at this year's Sydney Film Festival, it's easy to understand why. An immaculately shot Southern gothic thriller, the movie takes place in an all-girls boarding school during the dying days of the American Civil War, where life is suddenly thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a wounded Yankee soldier. Seething with sexual tension, and surprisingly funny, The Beguiled also benefits from an absolutely stellar cast, with Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell all operating at the top of their game.  — TC


A Ghost Story is always going to be known as that film where Casey Affleck stands around underneath a sheet. And, that description is apt. Reuniting this year's Manchester by the Sea best actor Oscar winner with his Ain't Them Bodies Saints co-star Rooney Mara and writer/director David Lowery (also of Pete's Dragon), he does just that after his character is killed — but, if you didn't think it'd make for one of the best movies of the year so far, think again. Moody and minimalistic (as a costume anyone could make gives away), the film breathes new (after)life into the idea of haunted houses in a thoughtful and emotion-filled manner. As Affleck's ghost lurks, the movie offers up an astute understanding of how mourning and memories linger over time, and remain forever intertwined with certain places. — SW


A Fantastic Woman? Yes, this sensitive drama places one front and centre. A fantastic film? You bet. After using a compassionate gaze to explore the world of an older lady trying to find happiness in Gloria, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio turns his attention to Marina (Daniela Vega), a waitress and singer whose life is thrown into disarray when tragedy strikes. The family of her much older lover is horrified, judging her transgender status rather than daring to let her into their lives — or let her mourn. The movie doesn't make the same mistake, in an effort that proves empathetic and engaging from start to finish, complete with an exceptional lead performance and one perfect song cue. — SW


We were mighty excited about Call Me By Your Name when it screened at Sundance, we loved it at the Berlinale, and we still love it now. Oh boy, does Luca Guadagnino's (A Bigger Splash) latest and best feature to date more than deliver. Let us put it this way: when you're watching a 17-year-old become infatuated with his father's handsome research assistant, played by Armie Hammer, you're feeling every single emotion he's feeling. And, you're falling head over heels for everything about this masterpiece as well. Call Me By Your Name is the kind of effort that couldn't be more seductive, from the sumptuous sights of its scenic Italian setting to the summertime heat — and sizzling sentiments to match — that radiate from the screen. Keep an eye on Timothée Chalamet, too, who plays the teenager in question. If this movie is any guide, he should become one of cinema's next big things. — SW



Very few filmmakers would even conceive of a movie as unusual as Okja. And perhaps only South Korea's Bong Joon-ho, who previously helmed Snowpiercer, would be able to pull it off. A Netflix production about a precocious little girl who must save her hippopotamus-sized 'super pig' from a nefarious multinational, the film is a scathing corporate satire wrapped up in a rollicking adventure — and despite outward appearances, it is definitely not suitable for children. Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal lead an impressive English-speaking cast, but the real star is South Korean newcomer Ahn Seo-hyeon, as well as the flawless special effects that bring her enormous friend to life. As strangely wonderful as it is wonderfully strange, Okja is well worth your attention when it hits Netflix at the end of June. — TC


Sometimes, films prove odd purely due to the way they approach their topic. Sometimes, it's the little things — having Elisabeth Moss' character share her apartment with a chimpanzee — for example. This year's Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner, The Square does both, as well as litter its frames with performance art that's both intentionally staged and organically shows how the boundaries between life and theatricality can all-too-easily blur. At face value, it's a satire of the creative world, but everything about the society surrounding contemporary art galleries comes under the microscope in what proves a dense and disarming effort. Director Ruben Östlund last made audiences squirm with relationship drama Force Majeure, and he's up to his brilliant tricks again here, as aided by a standout lead performance by Danish actor Claes Bang. — SW


Who would have guessed that one of the year's most emotional movies would be set in the high stakes world of competitive chicken rearing? Directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes, Chicken People chronicles a year in the life of three diehard chicken breeders as they prepare their best birds for the prestigious Ohio National Poultry Show. Like the best documentaries about obsessive individuals, the film is funny without ever making fun of its subjects. By the time the end credits roll, you'll be a chicken person too. — TC



On paper, Austerlitz sounds oh-so-simple. Filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa places his camera at certain spots throughout two former German concentration camps, lets it roll, and records tourists as they walk through the sites. He doesn't offer move his frame to follow or zoom in on anyone, provide explanatory voiceover or intertitles, or direct the audience's attention in any way. That means you're forced to peer and probe, and to see and scrutinise, as these visitors wander through places known for such horrific atrocities while wearing "Cool Story Bro" shirts and staring at their mobile phones. Prepare to draw plenty of conclusions about and insights into human nature from their ordinary exploits, including many that you won't expect. — SW


Picket fences, a blonde babysitter and a psychotic killer: on paper Better Watch Out sounds like the most stereotypical slasher movie imaginable. And for most of its first act, it is. But just when you think you've seen it all before, the film pivots wildly and suddenly all bets are off. Mixing genuine scares with knowing black humour — not to mention some pretty spot on commentary about how young men and boys are conditioned to think about women — this US-Australia co-production from writer-director Chris Peckover is one of the best meta horror films we've seen in quite some time. — TC


There's a reason that Brigsby Bear made SFF's top five audience favourites this year — and it's not just because, having voted Ali's Wedding and Call Me By Your Name into the top two spots, festival attendees clearly have great taste. Rarely has a movie been so endearingly earnest without ever overplaying its hand, or devolving into triteness or schmaltz, particularly one that toys around with such a been-there, seen-that, still-living-it topic as pop culture obsession. Following a grown man still attached to his favourite TV show for reasons best discovered by watching, the film from Saturday Night Live writer/director Dave McCary and performer Kyle Mooney will make you want to give it the biggest hug possible. Mark Hamill, Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear and Andy Samberg also pop up, but Mooney and his furry best friend well and truly steal the show. — SW

By Sarah Ward and Tom Clift.

Published on June 23, 2017 by Sarah Ward
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