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Ten Exceptional Movies to See on the Big Screen at the 2021 Sydney Film Festival

Dazzling animated documentaries, star-studded gambling dramas, Tilda Swinton trying to hunt down a mysterious sound — this year's Sydney Film Festival has them all.
By Sarah Ward
November 03, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
November 03, 2021
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For 353 days each year — 354 days in leap years — Sydney's State Theatre doesn't operate as a cinema. The CBD isn't short on movie-going options, but you can't head to the glorious Market Street spot to get your film fix whenever you like. Understandably, that makes trips to the nearly 100-year-old venue for the Sydney Film Festival all the more special. Sinking into the cavernous auditorium, being surrounded by its gorgeous gothic and art deco architecture, watching movies that may never grace its big screen again — it's the cinephile version of a religious experience. 

Prepare to worship, Sydney movie lovers. From Wednesday, November 3 till Sunday, November 14, the Sydney Film Festival is back — in person. It's been a difficult couple of years for the prestigious event, after being forced to move online in 2020, and then shift its 2021 dates not once but twice; however, the time for losing yourself in the State Theatre — and other darkened rooms in picture palaces all around Sydney — is finally here.

As it does every year, SFF has the lineup for the occasion. What starts with an anthology drama that tells eight tales by Western Sydney writers, then ends with Wes Anderson's latest? That'd be the fest's 2021 program. They're just the bookends, with Festival Director Nashen Moodley's full selection of flicks overflowing with other highlights. The entire bill spans 233 titles, in fact, so we started our festival viewing early — and here's ten exceptional SFF highlights that we've seen, reviewed and eagerly recommend.

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FLEE

When Flee won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, it added its first accolade to its name. The wrenchingly moving animated documentary has nabbed others since, and has plenty more coming its way — and it's already been selected as Denmark's Oscar submission in next year's Best International Feature category as well. Mere minutes into the film, it's easy to see why it keeps garnering awards and attention. Pairing animation with factual storytelling is still rare enough that it stands out, and writer/director Jonas Poher Rasmussen (What He Did) has created one of the best instances of this combination yet. As his subject, Afghani refugee Amin, shares his story, Rasmussen brings every detail to life not just with eye-catching imagery, but with visuals that ripple with empathy at every moment.

Flee doesn't tell an easy tale, or a unique one — sadly — but it finds its an immense wealth of power in its vivid, expressive and humanistic approach. Its protagonist, who uses a pseudonym here, is a friend of Rasmussen's; however, no one, including the filmmaker, has ever heard him step through the events that took him from war-torn Kabul to seeking asylum in Copenhagen as a teenager, or to househunting with his boyfriend now. That journey, via Russia, is one of struggle and acceptance. So is an interlude in Sweden which gives the movie its most stunning sequence, as soundtracked to Daft Punk's 'Veridis Quo'. Flee uses its music cues bewitchingly well, actually, but that description also applies to every second of this poignant and shattering film.

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THE CARD COUNTER

Another Paul Schrader film, another lonely man thrust into the spotlight as he wrestles with the world, his place in it and his sense of morality. The acclaimed filmmaker has a resume filled with such characters, and such tales — from his screenplays for Martin Scorsese's brilliant Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead, through to his own directorial efforts such as Light Sleeper and First Reformed. You can't accuse Schrader of always making the same movie, however. Instead, his films feel more like cards from the same deck. Each time he deals one out, it's always part of its own hand, as gambling drama The Card Counter demonstrates with potency, smarts and a gripping search for salvation.

The film's title refers to William Tell (Oscar Isaac, Scenes From a Marriage), who didn't ever plan to spend his days in casinos and his nights in motels. But during an eight-year military prison stint, he taught himself a new skill that he's been capitalising upon modestly now that he's back out in the world. Anchored not only by Schrader's reliably blistering probing, but also by Isaac's phenomenal performance — a portrayal that's quiet, slippery and weighty all at once — The Card Counter unpacks the storm brewing behind Tell's calm facade. His status quo is punctured by fellow gambler La Linda (Like a Boss' Tiffany Haddish, in a career-best performance), and also by the college-aged Cirk (Tye Sheridan, Voyagers) and his quest for revenge; however, as the movie delves into Tell's murky history, it also lays bare America's rot and emptiness.

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COW

As its name so clearly explains, Cow devotes its frames to one farmyard animal — and it's one of the most haunting films of the year. It's the third feature to take its title from a four-legged critter this year, after the vastly dissimilar Pig and Lamb. It's also the second observational documentary of late to peer at the daily existence of creatures that form part of humanity's food chain, following the also-exceptional Gunda. And, it also joins 2013's The Moo Man in honing its focus specifically upon dairy farming, and in Britain at that. But the key to Cow is Andrea Arnold, the filmmaker behind Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights, American Honey and the second season of Big Little Lies. She sees Luma, her bovine protagonist, with as much affection and understanding as she's ever seen any of the women who've led her projects.

Starting with the birth of Luma's latest calf — and, in the beginning, taking detours to see how it's faring as well — Cow unfurls with the rhythm of its agricultural setting. It's the rhythm of Luma's life, too, as she's milked and fed, moos for the offspring that's taken away too quickly, and is soon impregnated again. There's no doubt where the documentary is headed, either. There's simply no shying away from the fact that Luma and cattle like her only exist for milk or meat. Without offering any narration or on-screen explanation, Arnold stares at these facts directly, while also peering deeply into its bovine subject's eyes as often as possible. The result is hypnotic, inescapably affecting, and also features the best use of Garbage's 'Milk' ever in a movie.

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MEMORIA

It's a match made in cinephile heaven: Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the director behind the Cannes Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and the just-as-lyrical Cemetery of Splendour, and the on-screen force of nature that is Tilda Swinton. With Memoria, the former directs — and makes his English-language debut, as well as his first feature outside of Thailand — while the latter stars. Yes, they prove a beautiful pairing. Weerasethakul makes contemplative, meditative, visually poetic movies, after all, and Swinton's face screams with all of those traits every single time it graces a film. They're both devastatingly precise in what they do, and also delightfully expressive. They both force you to pay attention to their every choice, too.

Swinton (The Personal History of David Copperfield) plays Jessica Holland, a British expat in Colombia who starts hearing a very specific noise. She can describe it in exquisite detail to sound engineer Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego, My Father), who tries to recreate it for her, but only she can hear it. At the same time, her sister Karen (debutant Agnes Brekke) is a Bogota hospital with a strange ailment. Also, there's word of a curse that's linked to a tunnel being built over a burial ground. No plot description can ever do Weerasethakul's films justice, but Memoria doesn't even dream of linking its various threads in an obvious or straightforward way — and unlocking its puzzles by soaking in every exquisite, patient shot and exacting sound is a mesmerising cinematic experience.

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GREAT FREEDOM

Great Freedom begins with 60s-style video footage captured in public bathrooms, showing Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogowski, Undine) with other men, and with court proceedings that condemn him to prison purely for being gay. That was the reality in West Germany at the time due to Paragraph 175, which criminalised homosexuality — and, when he's incarcerated at the start of this equally tender and brutal Austrian film, Hans isn't surprised. He's been there before, as writer/director Sebastian Meise (Still Life) conveys almost like he's chronicling time travel. It's a canny touch, as relayed in the movie's cinematography, editing and overall mood. The minutes, days, hours, weeks and more surely move differently when you've been locked up for being who you are, and when being in jail is the better alternative to being in a concentration camp.

Meise jumps between Hans' different stretches, exploring the imprint all that time behind bars leaves, the yearning for love and freedom that never dissipates, and his friendship with initially repulsed fellow inmate Viktor (Georg Friedrich, Freud). In the process, Great Freedom resounds with intimate moments and revealing performances, as anchored by another stellar turn by Rogowski. The German talent has had an outstanding few years thanks to Victoria, Happy End, Transit, In the Aisles and Undine. He's as absorbing as he's ever been here, too, in a movie that stares his way so intently — and with such a striking sense of light and shade — that it could be painting his portrait. Friedrich is just as impressive, too, in an outwardly thorny part.

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RIVER

Some actors possess voices that could narrate almost anything, and Willem Dafoe is one of them. He's tasked with uttering quite the elegiac prose in River, but he gives all that musing about waterways — the planet's arteries, he calls them at one point — a particularly resonant and enthralling tone. Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa) knew he would, of course. She enlisted his vocal talents on her last documentary, Mountain, as well. Both films pick one of the earth's crucial natural features, captures them in all their glory at multiple spots around the globe, and waxes lyrical about their importance, and both make for quite the beguiling viewing experience.

Thanks to writer Robert Macfarlane, Dafoe has been given much to opine in River, covering the history of these snaking streams from the planet's creation up until today. He hones in on their importance to human civilisation — in making much in our evolution possible, in fact, and also the devastation we've wrought in response since we learned to harness all that water for our own purposes. That said, River could've simply paired its dazzling sights with its Australian Chamber Orchestra score and it still would've proven majestic and moving. The footage is that remarkable as it soars high and wide across 39 countries, and peers down with the utmost appreciation. Here, a picture truly is worth a thousand of those Dafoe-uttered words, but the combination of both — plus a score that includes everything from Bach to Radiohead — is something particularly special.

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BLUE BAYOU

Blue Bayou isn't Justin Chon's first film as an actor, writer, director or producer, but it's a fantastic showcase for his many talents nonetheless. It's also a deeply moving feature about a topical subject: America's complicated and often punitive immigration laws. Worlds away from his time in all five Twilight movies, Chon plays Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean American who has lived in the US since being adopted as child. That doesn't stop the casual or the overt racism often directed his way, however, or the deportation proceedings that spring after he's accosted in a supermarket by New Orleans police officers Denny (Emory Cohen, Flashback) and Ace (Mark O'Brien, Marriage Story). The latter happens to be his pregnant wife Kathy's (Alicia Vikander, The Green Knight) ex and father to her daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske, Doom Patrol), and that run-in has heartbreaking repercussions.

There's a sense of inevitability to Blue Bayou, but by design; the path that Antonio's life is forced down isn't filled with surprises, but it overflows with feeling. Indeed, Chon has helmed a stirring and empathetic yet precise and intricate film, especially when it comes to the emotional toll weathered not only by Antonio, but also by Kathy and Jessie. At every moment, Blue Bayou plunges viewers into their whirlwind. That's true in every shimmering sight, including the movie's fondness for water and water lilies. It's evident in the urgent, bustling pacing, too, and in its key performances. Chon is terrific on-screen and off, while Vikander and scene-stealer Kowalske make just as much of an impact in a feature that hits its points hard, but isn't easily forgotten.

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WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY

One of two films by Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi that are doing the festival rounds this year — the other, Drive My Car, also screens at SFF — Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy gives three tales about romance, desire and fate a spin. These three stories all muse on chance, choice, identity and echoes as well, and focus on complex women reacting to the vagaries of life and everyday relationships. Coincidence plays a role in each of the trio, too, and commonalities ebb and flow between each dialogue-heavy narrative. In other words, this is a smart, astute and savvily layered triptych from the director behind Happy Hour and Asako I and II, as brought to the screen with excellent performances, a canny knack for domestic drama and piercing long shots in each and ever chapter.

In the first part, model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa, 21st Century Girl) discovers that her best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri, Wife of a Spy) has just started seeing her ex-boyfriend Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima, Saturday Fiction), and grapples with her complicated feelings while pondering what could eventuate. Next, college student Nao (Katsuki Mori, Sea Opening) is enlisted to seduce Professor Sagawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Tezuka's Barbara) as part of a revenge plan by her lover Sasaki (Shouma Kai, Signal 100). Finally, in a world where the internet has been eradicated due to a virus, Natsuko (Fusako Urabe, Voices in the Wind) and Nana (Aoba Kawai, Marriage with a Large Age Gap) cross paths — thinking that they went to school together decades ago.

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LIMBO

What happens when a group of refugees are sent to await the results of their asylum applications on a Scottish island? That's the question that Limbo ponders. There's no doubting why this second feature from writer/director Ben Sharrock (Pikadero) has been given its moniker; for Syrian musician Omar (Amir El-Masry, Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker) and his fellow new arrivals to Scotland, there's not much to do in this void between the past and the future but wait, sit at the bus stop, check out the children's playground and loiter near the pay phone. That, and navigate the wide range of reactions from the locals — veering from offensive to thoughtful — and, in Omar's case, feel the weight of his prized possession. He's brought his grandfather's oud with him, which he rarely let go of, but his own musical dreams are in limbo as well.

A film can be heartbreaking, tender, insightful and amusing all at once, and Limbo is indeed all of those things. It's both dreamlike and lived-in, too, a blend that suits its title and story — and also the mental and emotional state shared by Omar and his fellow asylum seekers as they bide their time on an island that feels like another world. A movie can be both heavy and light simultaneously as well, which is another of Limbo's strengths. Sharrock sees both seriousness and levity in his narrative, his characters and their plights, and recognises the nightmarish and the beautiful in tandem. The latter especially applies to the feature's haunting cinematography, which lenses a landscape that keeps Omar pals physically in limbo with a probing eye.

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HONEY CIGAR

Forget the awkwardness that typically loiters in coming-of-age movies (the familiar approach: like character, like film). Honey Cigar charts the same kind of narrative, focusing on a 17-year-old French Algerian woman in the 90s, and yet does so with a mood and sense of assurance that couldn't be more candid and confident. This is a feature that feels at home in its own skin at every turn. It flows across the screen with determination and poise, too. It should; in her feature filmmaking debut, writer/director Kamir Aïnouz draws upon what she knows, telling a semi-autobiographical tale — one that isn't just about crossing the chasm from childhood to maturity, but also weaves in Algeria's political landscape during its chosen period.

When Honey Cigar begins, Selma (Zoé Adjani, niece of French acting great and recent The World Is Yours delight Isabelle Adjani) is about to dive headfirst into business school. In doing so, she's abiding by her lawyer father (Lyes Salem, Abou Leila) and gynaecologist mother's (Amira Casar, Call Me By Your Name) wishes, with education paramount in their household. But Selma is also a teenager who's just getting in touch with her own desires — something that sits at stark odds with her parents' growing interest in her marriage prospects, especially when she starts seeing classmate Julien (Louis Peres, Mental). A film about agency and control on multiple levels, Honey Cigar also explores multiple generations of women battling traditions and expectations, and finds as much room for adolescent awakenings as hard-earned understanding.

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Looking for more SFF recommendations? We've already taken a look at a few other films screening at the festival. So, you can also check out our reviews of Petite Maman, The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson, Drive My Car, The Worst Person in the World, Zola, Bergman Island, Undine, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn and Blind Ambitionand I'm Wanita, Strong Female Lead and A Fire Inside, too.

The 2021 Sydney Film Festival takes place in Sydney cinemas between Wednesday, November 3–Sunday, November 14. For further information, head to the festival website.

Published on November 03, 2021 by Sarah Ward
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