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Sydney Film Festival 2023 program: Highlights chosen by our film critics

May 10, 2023

Sydney Film Festival opens on Wednesday, with a 12-day program of cinema from Australia and abroad; from shorts to streaming series to endurance cinema; from documentary to cinema mash-up and horror.

Big names on this year's line-up include Wes Anderson, Jane Campion (presenting a retrospective of her work), Wim Wenders and documentarian Frederick Wiseman; and cineaste favourites Kore-eda Hirokazu, Jafar Panahi, Aki Kaurismäki and Christian Petzold.

Among the local filmmaking talent, Warwick Thornton (Sweet Country; Samson and Delilah) and first-time feature directors Allan Clarke and Alice Englert are all presenting films as part of the Official Competition, in contention for $60,000 Sydney Film Prize; and Rachel Ward (Palm Beach; Beautiful Kate), Matthew Bate (Sam Klemke's Time Machine; Shut Up Little Man) and first-time feature maker Brenda Matthews are among the filmmakers in contention for the Documentary Australia Award.

Elsewhere on the line-up, there are bona fide blockbusters (the new Indiana Jones! The new Pixar film!); award-winners from Cannes, Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival (including Palme d'Or winner Anatomy of a Fall); restored classics; and sneak-peeks at films due for cinema release later in the year.

To help you navigate the festival flux and stave off the FOMO, we asked our regular film critics for recommendations. The resulting list includes films they've seen and loved, and films they're dying to see.


Sydney Film Festival runs from June 7-18.

This hugely anticipated new feature from First Nations writer-director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton (2009's Samson and Delilah; 2017's Sweet Country) lands at Sydney Film Festival (in the opening night slot, and two subsequent screenings) fresh from its acclaimed debut at the Cannes Film Festival.

Inspired by Thornton's childhood experiences – an inner clash between Indigenous and Christian spirituality – the World War II-era passion play places a mysteriously powerful unnamed nine-year-old (astonishing newcomer Aswan Reid) in the care of "renegade nun" Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett, all-in, and continuing to hit career-best form).

Eighteen years in the making, Thornton's film is an enigmatic, angry, deeply personal magical fable that captures some of the irresolvable tensions and devastations of our fraught colonial history. It is majestically shot, and propelled by stellar support turns from Deborah Mailman and Wayne Blair, as well as Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's commanding score. ABB

The New Boy is in cinemas nationally from July 6.

If the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All At Once was a cacophonous ode to the jumble of past decisions haunting our present, then Past Lives is its quieter cousin.

Both films deal in what-ifs: What if we had never left the old country? What if we had picked one life over another? What if things were just … different?

In Past Lives, the directorial debut of US-based Korean Canadian playwright and screenwriter Celine Song, a love triangle slowly unfolds, then – as is the way with matters of the heart – grows unruly. A young woman (Greta Lee, Russian Doll) is happily partnered and living in New York when an old flame (Teo Yoo, Decision To Leave) from her childhood in Seoul re-enters her life.

Suddenly, history comes cascading to the fore.

Spanning multiple decades and continents, Past Lives is an epic in its own way. And considering the rapturous reviews from its Sundance premiere, it might end up an awards heavy-hitter too. MS

Past Lives is in cinemas nationally from August 31.

You could think of this as a companion piece to the recent Michael J. Fox documentary, STILL. Where that film's account of living with Parkinson's was laced with the optimism (and resources) of a celebrity determined to fight for life, this unforgettable portrait of a 65-year-old American man ravaged by the disease chronicles its subject's considered – and no less heroic – decision to opt for an assisted death.

Gifted Australian filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson was invited to the home of Bob Rosenzweig, an almost quintessential rock 'n' roll Boomer with a storied, fame-adjacent history to prove it (at one point he designed bathrooms for Janet Jackson and Elton John), and was asked to film the man's final days as he farewells – and reckons with – family and friends.

It's a tender, often irreverent reflection on a fascinating and contradictory life, as Courtin-Wilson – as he did in The Silent Eye, his sublime portrait of jazz musician Cecil Taylor – allows his intimate, unflinching images to unravel toward glimpses of the unknown. This is a bracing, sometimes tough film to watch, but one that will leave you permanently altered (or at least minus a dry eye). You may never hear House of the Rising Sun the same way again. LG

The festival's Jane Campion retrospective arrives in the wake of the Sydney-sider's 2022 Oscar glory, with The Power of the Dog. Her work has not always been met with such acclaim, however.

To be sure, a New York City-set erotic thriller was not the kind of project to which 2003 audiences expected to see Campion attached, much less chirpy rom-com doyenne Meg Ryan. Perhaps that's why In the Cut was more or less rejected by movie-goers, while critics bemoaned its impressionistic plotting as garbled, verging on ridiculous.

Happily, the film has in recent years garnered a cadre of admirers. Amongst the heady charms they cite are Dion Beebe's woozy, shallow focus cinematography, which evokes a grimy Lower East Side now all but gone, and the way in which Campion (working from Susanna Moore's 1995 novel) inverts the tropes of noir.

Ryan plays a mousy-chic English teacher who finds herself unable to resist a detective she has reason to believe is a murderer – Mark Ruffalo's performance as this could-be homme fatale being another of the film's edgy pleasures. KY

The Screen Show brings you reviews and in-depth conversations with leading film and TV directors, actors and screenwriters.

Filipino director Lav Diaz's epic drama is about a pair of cops on a collision course. Primo (Ronnie Lazaro) is a disgraced former narcotics detective just out of jail; Hermes (John Lloyd Cruz) is the whistleblower who put him there. The film opens as Primo gets out, claiming to be a born-again Christian but heading straight back to the seedy red-light districts of his old beat. Hermes knows his old colleague will eventually come looking for revenge, but he's also dealing with a crumbling marriage and a mysterious skin rash, so he decamps to the coastal village of his childhood to regroup.

Shot in soulful black and white with a duration of just over three hours, this is a slow burn thriller about men destined to destroy each other, but Diaz keeps you hanging for their showdown like the final kiss in a rom-com. A nostalgic, mournful tale of power and madness. JDR

Swedish author and activist Andreas Malm's electrifying climate manifesto incited wrath from all the usual suspects when it was released in 2021. The book denounced peaceful protest – a futile solution, Malm argued – in favour of directly sabotaging the powers that be by destroying their tools; by blowing up the whole sordid system.

Daniel Goldhaber's film adaptation smartly fictionalises Malm's theory-heavy text, though it's no less incendiary: part eco-thriller, part DIY guide to staging an environmental coup.

An ensemble cast – including Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Lukas Gage (The White Lotus) – plays a motley crew of activists who build homemade explosives and organise to detonate them along a Texan oil pipeline, all captured in the meticulous detail of an instruction manual.

With the rattling adrenaline of a heist flick and all the anxiety of the climate crisis, this is sure to be vital, nerve-wracking cinema. Don't try this at home – unless you dare. MS

The latest from Ira Sachs, a specialist in keenly observed portraits of contemporary queer relationships, pits a trio of excellent performers against one another in a volatile love triangle. Propelling the drama is Franz Rogowski's narcissist director, who tests his relationship with his husband, played by Ben Whishaw (see him smoulder in 2009's Bright Star, also playing as part of the festival's Jane Campion retrospective), by dallying with a younger teacher, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos (who broke out in 2013's Blue is the Warmest Colour).

Rogowski's work in the films of German-language heavy-hitters such as Michael Haneke, Angela Schanelec and especially Christian Petzold (whose bruising 2018 film Transit brought the actor to international attention) has earned him the status of arthouse darling.

Wiry and pale, with striking features that slide easily between impish and haunted, thuggish and beatific, Rogowski has an intensity evocative of the young Vincent Gallo – though he seems made of much kinder stuff than the errant American. Passages tantalises with its promise of showcasing the actor's crueller side, even while cladding him in a mesh crop top. KY

At last, the wait is over: The team behind Shin Godzilla, the 2016 reboot that stands as one of the very best entries in the storied Toho series, returns to take on another icon of Japanese pop culture with Shin Ultraman, a wonderfully weird 21st-century reimagining of the intergalactic superhero who first appeared in the 1966 tokusatsu series. This time, the cosmic giant crash-lands on Earth to do battle with Zarab, a sinister extraterrestrial who plans to wipe out humanity.

As they did in their previous collaboration, director Shinji Higuchi and writer Hideaki Anno (creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion) craft an off-kilter world of bureaucratic parody in which exaggerated framing renders the human characters as monstrous as the kaiju threatening the cities, while their high tech digital duels retain the funky design and playfulness of the man-in-a-rubber-suit era (something the American adaptations never grasp). Plus, there's existential drama as our gleaming hero wrestles with his alien-human hybridity (we've all been there), and the kind of psychedelic climax of which Marvel can only dream. LG

If you recognise some elements of the Oedipus myth in this new film by German filmmaker Angela Schanelec, congratulations — but the truth is, it doesn't matter. The director's fragmented and tangential quasi-adaptation, awarded best screenplay at Berlin Film Festival in February, is interesting for its playfulness. Time is non-linear, the camera is placed in some surprising positions, and performances are delicately stylised.

What's it about? A murder in the Greek countryside, and a man who discovers music while in prison, then becomes a gifted performer — but loses his sight, in some kind of cruel cosmic trade-off. Schanelec explores family relationships amidst the trials of migration and grief.

There's some beautiful music — flourishes of Baroque as well as mesmerising ensemble pieces composed by Canadian Doug Tielli. Let it flow through you. JDR

Tops Arts & Culture headlines.

Wes Anderson Jane Campion Wim Wenders Frederick Wiseman Kore-eda Hirokazu Jafar Panahi Aki Kaurismäki Christian Petzold Warwick Thornton Allan Clarke Alice Englert Official Competition Rachel Ward Matthew Bate Brenda Matthews Documentary Australia Award Indiana Jones Pixar Cannes Sundance Berlin Film Festival Palme d'Or winner Anatomy of a Fall Warwick Thornton Aswan Reid Cate Blanchett Deborah Mailman Wayne Blair Nick Cave Warren Ellis Everything Everywhere All At Once Past Lives Celine Song Greta Lee Teo Yoo Amiel Courtin-Wilson Bob Rosenzweig Jane Campion Meg Ryan Dion Beebe Susanna Moore Mark Ruffalo Lav Diaz Ronnie Lazaro John Lloyd Cruz Andreas Malm Daniel Goldhaber Sasha Lane Lukas Gage Ira Sachs Franz Rogowski Ben Whishaw Adèle Exarchopoulos Shinji Higuchi Hideaki Anno Angela Schanelec Berlin Film Festival Doug Tielli