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Ten Movies You Really Need to See at the 2022 Sydney Film Festival — or Track Down Afterwards

This year's Sydney Film Festival highlights span everything from nude comedies and Elvis biopics to animated rock operas and savage horror flicks.
By Sarah Ward
June 14, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
June 14, 2022
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Tell us that it's June in Sydney without telling us that it's June in Sydney: it's cold, puffer jackets line George Street as far as the eye can see and almost everyone wearing them is rushing between cinemas. Also, the lights are shining at the glorious State Theatre, lines keep snaking down Market Street and chatting about which flick you saw last night is the only mode of conversation. 

This hasn't been a winter reality since 2019, though. Thankfully, for the first time in three years, Sydney Film Festival is now back in-person and in its tradition midyear slot. Yes, this is what movie-going heaven feels like. Yes, that includes an utter lack of vitamin D, carefully clutched warm drinks keeping your hands toasty and getting settled into your favourite cinema seat (we all have one) for the long haul.

SFF 2022 is well and truly underway until Sunday, June 19, and that means you now have two types of movies to add to your list — to two types of lists, too. Some of the standouts so far still have big-screen dates coming up at the festival, and are worth booking tickets to ASAP. Others you might need to seek out afterwards, including from home. Either way, here's ten must-sees.

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SISSY

Thanks to everything from The Saddle Club and I Hate My Teenage Daughter to Sweet/Vicious and The Bold Type, Gold Coast-born Australian actor Aisha Dee knows what it's like to live life through screens. She's been acting since she was a teenager, and she's charted the highs of her chosen profession — all in front of a lens. In Sissy, she hops in front of a camera again, naturally, and not only once but twice. In this delightfully savvy and funny Aussie horror film, Dee turns in a wonderfully layered performance as the titular Instagram influencer, whose soaring follower count, non-stop flow of likes and adoring comments, and online fame all stems from her carefully poised and curated wellness videos. Also known as @SincerelyCecilia, the character's sense of self springs from that virtual attention too; however, when she reconnects with her childhood best friend Emma (co-director/co-writer Hannah Barlow), gets invited to her bachelorette weekend and finds old schoolyard dynamics bubbling up, that facade starts to shatter.

If Mean Girls was a slasher film set in a remote cabin in rural Australia, it might look something like Sissy — and that's a compliment multiple times over. Every horror movie wants to be smart and savage on multiple levels, but Barlow and fellow co-helmer/co-scribe Kane Senes (reteaming after 2017's For Now) weaponise everything from influencer culture and pastel, rainbow and glitter colour palettes to toxic friendships, all while spinning a clever, cutting and comedic take on the impact of bullying. They also fill their feature with as gloriously diverse a cast as Australian cinema has boasted, and with one helluva lead performance. If Carrie was set in today's always-online world, amid cancel culture and plentiful praise at the press of a button, it'd look like this, too, but this instant Aussie horror classic takes its own bold stab at plenty of genres.

Sissy screens at Sydney Film Festival until Wednesday, June 15, and also releases in Australian cinemas on October 27.

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NUDE TUESDAY

Relationships are all about communication. So much about life is, too. And, so is storytelling. With absurdist comedy Nude Tuesday, expressing emotions, connections and narrative details all boils down to two things, though: gibberish and bodies. This extremely amusing New Zealand film from writer/director Armagan Ballantyne (The Strength of Water) and writer/star Jackie van Beek (The Breaker Upperers) does indeed strip its performers bare, as its name makes plain — but it saddles them with conveying almost everything about their characters via body language long before that. The reason: every piece of dialogue spoken in the movie is uttered in gibberish, with completely made-up and wholly improvised words that take a few cues from The Muppets' Swedish Chef in cadence. While they're subtitled in English by British comedian and writer Julia Davis (Camping), that text was penned after shooting, in one of the film's other gleefully silly twists.

The result is patently ridiculous, and marvellously so — and hilariously, too. It's such a clever touch, making a movie about marital disharmony and the communication breakdown baked within that's so reliant upon reading tone and posture, as couples on the prowl for the tiniest of micro-aggressions hone in on. Van Beek and Australian The Tourist actor Damon Herriman play that pair, Laura and Bruno. Living on the fictional pacific island of Zǿbftąņ, they're as stuck in a rut as any married, middle-class duo can be, and they're gifted a getaway to ẄØnÐĘULÄ to help. But this mountainside commune, run by the charismatic and lustful sex guru Bjorg Rassmussen (Jemaine Clement, I Used to Go Here), wants them to bare all in multiple ways. The film doesn't live up to its moniker until its last third, but its perceptive and side-splittingly funny from the get-go.

Nude Tuesday screens at Sydney Film Festival until Sunday, June 19, and also releases in Australian cinemas on June 23 — and will stream via Stan from July 7.

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INU-OH

Frequently, watching a Japanese animated film involves getting a song stuck in your head afterwards, whether it's a J-pop-style ditty (see: Weathering with You and Ride Your Wave) or an enchanting score (see: Studio Ghibli's entire catalogue). Inu-Oh is no different, except that the movie is also a magnificent rock opera, and a glam-rock one at that. Getting its main musical refrain, which plays through the entire middle section of the feature and tells much of its story, out of your brain afterwards is impossible. You won't want to — it's that catchy, and also that pitch-perfect in the context of the tale its telling. And, the fact that that narrative takes its cues from a real-life Noh performer from 600 years ago, then spins his success in the uniquely Japanese form of dance-drama theatre into a fantastical allegory, only adds to this wondrous and entrancing film's appeal.

Director Masaaki Yuasa doesn't make stock-standard animated movies, after all, not that many Japanese directors do; he has the aforementioned Ride Your Wave, as well as the also-great Lu Over the Wall and Night is Short, Walk on Girl on his resume to prove it, too. With Inu-oh, he adapts Hideo Furukawa's novel The Tale of the Heike: Chapter of Inu-Oh, and hums around its titular figure and his friend and collaborator Tomona. Inu-Oh's route to fame isn't assured, with people everywhere shying away from his physical appearance, and an ancient curse troubling his path. As for his pal, the blind musician is also a biwa priest. But when the pair team up for huge rock concerts that draw crowds in from far and wide, Inu-Oh's dancing becomes a phenomenon — one that, in a movie that's also about artistic freedom and is always as visually creative as animation gets, causes backlash from the country's powerbrokers.

Inu-Oh doesn't yet have an Australian release date post-Sydney Film Festival — we'll update you if and when it does.

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PIGGY

Hell is other people in Spanish horror film Piggy, an observation that's been made countless times on-screen. Hell is also today's always-online world, another familiar statement (and one that Sissy, see above, also serves up). Still, a movie doesn't need to trade in completely new observations to stand out — which this bullying-revenge film definitely does in a plethora of ways. Sadly, its title stems from the taunt slung in its protagonist's direction much too often. A resident of a small, sleepy Spanish village close to the Portuguese border, Sara (Laura Galán, Unknown Origins) is called other names, too, none of them kind. She's also almost drowned by her tormentors during a trip to the local pool, where they're as cruel as anyone can be about her body. That experience comes with consequences, however, when a kidnapper strikes. Sara is a witness, the three mean girls that've made her life miserable go missing, and the right next step isn't straightforward.

Galán is astonishing in Piggy, reteaming with writer/director Carlota Pereda after also starring in her 2018 Goya Award-winning short of the same. This full-length expansion is a vicious marvel, too — and it isn't afraid to get brutal either thematically or physically, or to plaster gory sights across its imagery. Indeed here, seeing a murdered corpse weighted down at the bottom of a public pool isn't a pretty vision, unsurprisingly. That said, it also pales in comparison to the nastiness continually thrust Sara's way, and to everything the film sinks a knife into about being a woman today in the process. Piggy is also astonishingly stylish, using its Academy-ratio frames to ramp up the sense of claustrophobia to an immersive degree. Pereda has enjoyed stints behind the lens since 2008, spanning television, shorts and features, but this immediate must-see deserves to put her on the path to a great genre career.

Piggy screens at Sydney Film Festival until Friday, June 17. It doesn't yet have an Australian release date post-SFF — we'll update you if and when it does.

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HUDA'S SALON

Via opening spurts of text on-screen, Huda's Salon relays some of the facts and figures attached to daily existence in Palestine. Included within them is an observation that life for women has only gotten more difficult, including in the movie's setting of Bethlehem. That's where Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi, The Angel) lives, unhappily but dutifully married to the controlling and jealous Yousef (Jalal Masarwa, Sand Storm), and busies herself doting on their baby. It's also where she usually earns a respite from her routine existence at Huda's salon, unburdening her woes while her friend Huda (Manal Awad, Gaza Mon Amour) washes, dries, cuts and styles her locks. On the visit that opens Hany Abu-Assad's gripping film, however — joining the writer/director's resume alongside Oscar-nominated features Paradise Now and Omar, plus The Idol and The Mountain Between Us — she walks out with her tresses a mess, and as a new informant for Israel's internal security service thanks to a stark blackmail plot.

From there, Huda's Salon is a riveting thriller — as it is from the outset — as Reem fears for what will happen if her new duplicity is discovered. She hasn't done a single thing to be seen as a spy or a traitor, but Huda stages shocking evidence, and the Palestinian resistance is soon sniffing around. Much of the movie jumps between Reem's efforts to remain alive, and to hide her new secret, and Huda's interrogation by the calm but firm Hasan (Ali Suliman, Jack Ryan). Abu-Assad handles both aspects like the life-and-death situations they are, sending a potent, harrowing and heartwrenching message about what women in occupied Palestine face. He also draws upon real-life events, making his latest intense and excellent film an even sharper gut-punch — and the three key performances, from Elhadi, Awad and Suliman, are all immensely compelling at every single moment.

Huda's Salon screens at Sydney Film Festival until Saturday, June 18. It doesn't yet have an Australian release date post-SFF — we'll update you if and when it does.

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ELVIS

Making a biopic about the king of rock 'n' roll, trust Baz Luhrmann to take his subject's words to heart: a little less conversation, a little more action. The Australian filmmaker's Elvis isn't short on chatter — it's even narrated by Tom Hanks (Finch) as Colonel Tom Parker, who famously was never a colonel, a Tom or a Parker — but this chronology of an icon's life is at its best when it's showing rather than telling. To be even more specific, it's downright electrifying in its treasure trove of recreated live concert scenes, where Austin Butler (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) slides into Presley's blue suede shoes and lifetime's supply of jumpsuits like he's the man himself. He genuinely is that hypnotic. Thanks to his blistering on-stage performance, shaken hips and all, as well as dazzling cinematography, editing and just all-round visual choreography, these moments in the movie — of which there's understandably many — feel like Elvis hasn't ever left the building.

Around such glorious centrepieces, Luhrmann constructs exactly the kind of Elvis extravaganza he was always bound to; balancing the writer/director's own style with the legend he's surveying can't have been easy, and it doesn't always play out as slickly as Presley's slicked-back pompadour, but it's always engrossing. The requisite details are covered, from the singer's birth in Tupelo, Mississippi, through to his late-career Las Vegas residency, with plenty in the middle. His discovery, the impact upon his parents (Rake co-stars Helen Thomson and Richard Roxburgh), his relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge, The Staircase), America's puritanical reaction to his gyrating pelvis, the issues of race inescapably baked into the response to him as an artist: they're all featured, as retold with Luhrmann's circling images, love of split-screens, frenzy of colour and visible lavishness. Using Parker as a narrator and framing device doesn't work as convincingly, but those spectacular live performances are one for the money.

Elvis screens at Sydney Film Festival until Friday, June 17, and also releases in Australian cinemas on June 23.

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INTO THE ICE

From its first shot of a frosty river snaking and glistening between dark-hued rocks — a snapshot of Greenland's inland ice that's lensed from above, arrestingly so — Danish documentary's Into the Ice is nothing short of stunning. Spectacular water-and-landscape imagery was a feature of the unrelated River, too, and this film initially looks like it could be an easy companion piece, just chillier. Where that doco took a poetic approach to ruminating upon humanity's impact upon the earth, all while staring at the physical results, Into the Ice is far more pointed in its message. Making his first theatrical feature, filmmaker Lars Henrik Ostenfeld peers down at the planet's wonders, frozen and flowing alike, and uses his immersive imagery to make inarguably clear that the ice caps are melting, the bulk of the population doesn't seem to care and very little is being done about it.

Into the Ice also makes time for people who do care: glaciologists Jason Box, Alun Hubbard and Dorthe Dahl-Jensen. All three explore Greenland, collecting ice, taking data and literally diving deep — and, charting their efforts all in the name of science, the film is an all-encompassing experience even just by viewing it from a cinema seat. Sometimes, the documentary showcases jaw-dropping, record-breaking, nerve-rattling daredevil acts. Sometimes, it's merely in awe of its surroundings, understandably. Sometimes, it's devoted to conveying just how difficult it is to gather information in this realm, and how committed scientists need to be given that the very fate of the planet is at stake. Whichever the documentary happens to be doing, including all three at once at times, this environmentally conscious film is on a mission. It's one thing to know that Greenland's ice is melting, and to read about it — and it's another entirely to witness what that really means. As the film's opening tells us in its overlaid narration, "you can see our future in it."

Into the Ice screens at Sydney Film Festival until Saturday, June 18. It doesn't yet have an Australian release date post-SFF — we'll update you if and when it does.

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MILLIE LIES LOW

A scene-stealer in 2018's The Breaker Upperers, Ana Scotney now leads the show in Millie Lies Low. She's just as magnetic. The New Zealand actor plays the film's eponymous Wellington university student, who has a panic attack aboard a plane bound for New York — where a prestigious architecture internship awaits — and has to disembark before her flight leaves. A new ticket costs $2000, which she doesn't have. And, trying to rustle up cash from her best friend and classmate (Jillian Nguyen, Hungry Ghosts), mother (Rachel House, Cousins) and even a quick-loan business (run by Cohen Holloway, The Power of the Dog) still leaves her empty-handed. Millie's solution: faking it till she makes it, searching for ways to stump up the funds while hiding out in her hometown, telling everyone she's actually already in the Big Apple and posting faux Instagram snaps MacGyvered out of whatever she can find (big sacks of flour standing in for snow, for instance) to sell the ruse.

There's a caper vibe to Millie's efforts skulking around Wellington while endeavouring to finance her ticket to her dreams — and to the picture of her supposedly perfect existence that she's trying to push upon herself as much as her loved ones. Making her feature debut, director and co-writer Michelle Savill has imposter syndrome and the shame spiral it sparks firmly in her sights, and finds much to mine in both an insightful and darkly comedic manner. As she follows her protagonist between episodic efforts to print the legend — or post it one Insta picture at a time — her keenly observed film also treads in Frances Ha's footsteps. Both movies examine the self-destructive life choices of a twentysomething with a clear idea of what she wants everyone to think of her, but far less of a grasp on who she really is and what she genuinely needs. While some framing and music choices make that connection obvious, the astute delight that is Millie Lies Low is never a Wellington-set copy.

Millie Lies Low screens at Sydney Film Festival until Thursday, June 16. It doesn't yet have an Australian release date post-SFF — we'll update you if and when it does.

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FIRE ISLAND

Pride and Prejudice, but set on New York's Fire Island. That's it, that's the queer rom-com that shares its setting's name. Fire Island, the movie, even comes with its own Mr Darcy — here called Will and played by How to Get Away with Murder's Conrad Ricamora, who should enjoy the same career bump that Colin Firth did in the 90s when he stepped into the part in a far-more-faithful TV adaptation. Updating Jane Austen isn't new, of course. Bridget Jones' Diary, also famously starring Firth, did the same with Pride and Prejudice. Stone-cold classic Clueless, which gets a shoutout here in a perfectly co-opted line of dialogue, did it with Emma, too. One of Fire Island's best traits is how new yet comfortable it feels, though, like thumbing through a favourite but seeing it afresh — with hot tubs full of praise deserved by director Andrew Ahn (Spa Night, Driveways) and screenwriter/star Joel Kim Booster (Search Party, Sunnyside).

Booster also boasts a writing credit on The Other Two, one of the best new TV comedies of the past few years — and that bitingly smart, laugh-a-minute tone shines through in Fire Island, too. He takes Austen's tale about love and class and steeps it within the queer community, its subdivisions and subcultures, and issues of race and socio-economic status that ripple through, as they do in America and the world more broadly. That's what Booster's self-confident Noah finds himself navigating on a week-long annual getaway with his best friends, and after he decides to put his pal Howie's (Bowen Yang, Saturday Night Live) romantic prospects above his own. If you know the OG story, you know what happens next, including Noah's path towards the initially stern, quiet and standoffish Will. The end product here is witty, funny, heartwarming and sincere, as well as supremely well cast, energetic from start to finish, and bursting with queer pride.

Post-Sydney Film Festival, Fire Island hits streaming via Disney+ on Friday, June 17.

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CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH

With Freshman Year, Cooper Raiff cemented himself as a talent to watch, both on- and off-screen. The writer, director, actor, editor and producer wore many hats on the likeable romance-meets-coming-of-age film, and he wore them all impressively and effortlessly. With Cha Cha Real Smooth, he hands over splicing duties, but he's just as ace in every other guise yet again. Winner of the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, in the prestigious event's US Dramatic competition, this comedy also focuses on the fact that no one really knows how to handle life — this time centring its tale around the just-out-of-college Andrew (Raiff, Madeline & Cooper). The character returns home after graduating with the sole aim of making enough cash to follow his girlfriend to Spain, but falls into a gig hosting Bar Mitzvahs for his younger brother David's (Evan Assante, Dinosaur World) friends.

Andrew falls in another way, too: in love with Domino (an exceptional Dakota Johnson, playing a mum again after The Lost Daughter), mother to Evan's classmate Lola (debutant Vanessa Burghardt). Lola has autism, is bullied by the other kids and usually finds herself ignored at parties, somewhat happily so; however, Andrew makes her feel comfortable and accepted, which doesn't go unnoticed. His growing fondness for Domino is complicated, though. So is the object of his affection herself — and, while more than half a century ago The Graduate splashed in a similar pool, Johnson brings her own shades and depths to a woman who is yearning for stability yet rallying against it. Everything also remains complex about Cha Cha Real Smooth's portrait of being a fresh college graduate with everything ahead of you and zero ideas of how what to truly do — and proves always-earnest as well, a description that applies to Raiff's work as Andrew and this low-key, insightful and charming movie alike.

Post-Sydney Film Festival, Cha Cha Real Smooth hits streaming via Apple TV+ on Friday, June 17.

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The 2022 Sydney Film Festival runs between Wednesday, June 8–Sunday, June 19 at the State Theatre, Event Cinemas George Street, Dendy Newtown, Palace Central, Palace Norton Street, Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace Cremorne, Ritz Cinemas Randwick, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre and Art Gallery of NSW. To check out the event's full program, or to buy tickets, head to the festival's website

Published on June 14, 2022 by Sarah Ward
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