Listen, we get you: Sydney Film Festival might be one of the most exciting cultural events of the year, but sometimes choosing which films to see out of the jam-packed program is about as fun as having teeth pulled.

Each year, the organisers of the fest spoil us more and more, and each year it becomes increasingly difficult to know which buzzed-up flicks to see. That’s why we’re here to help you out.

Here, for our money, are the ‘don’t-you-dare-miss-’em’ picks of the fest; the soon-to-be contemporary classics that you’ll kick yourself if you don’t catch.

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay doesn’t make films very often – over her 18-year career, she’s directed only four full-length features – so when she drops a new project, one would do well to sit up and take notice.

Best known for her dark, Robert Bresson-inflected, kitchen sink dramas (2002’s masterful Morvern Callar is a particularly grimy, particularly sparse watch), her new film You Were Never Really Herea Sydney Film Festival highlight – is rather a departure in style for the auteur.

Led by a bearded, haggard Joaquin Phoenix (most recently seen in Mary Magdalene), it’s ostensibly a revenge story, a tale of a PTSD-riddled former FBI agent who finds himself embroiled in a child kidnapping ring.

But this is no Death Wish style caper; rather, it’s an overloaded, brutal sensory experience, as affecting and effective as anything Ramsay has ever made.

Watch the You Were Never Really Here trailer:


Speaking of auteurs, who can argue with the cinematic back catalogue of one Mr. Spike Lee? The Godard-inspired, fourth wall busting, Michael Jackson documenting, politically charged postmodernist is perhaps American cinema’s most inspiring cultural voice, and the man responsible for Do The Right Thing, one of the very greatest films ever shot, chopped, and spread over cinema screens.

BlacKkKlansman is a must see; Sydney Film Festival audiences are gonna love it.

His newest joint, BlackKkKlansman, sounds like Lee at his purest – based on an unbelievable true story, it follows an African-American police officer who manages to infiltrate the KKK. Early word is that it’s a “buddy comedy” (no, seriously), albeit one that pushes all the buttons you’d expect the director who once made a film about blackface to push.

Oh, and did we mention it was produced by Get Out director Jordan Peele? This one’s a must see; Sydney Film Festival audiences are gonna love it.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

Looking to get even more Joaquin Phoenix in your life? Then make sure to head along to Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, a new biopic from lauded American filmmaker Gus Van Sant.

Sure, Van Sant has had some misfires recently, but Don’t Worry sees him back on familiar ground, telling the story of cartoonist John Callahan and the brutal accident that paralysed him at the tender age of 21.

It’s also a story about alcoholism – it was a drink driving incident that led to Callahan being confined to a wheelchair – and is, by all accounts, a tender, warm-hearted look at recovery. Plus, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, and Jack Black fill out the supporting cast – what more could Sydney Film Festival audiences want?

Watch the Don’t Worry, He Won’t  Get Far On Foot trailer:

The Seen And Unseen

This one’s a must for all you cinephiles heading to the Sydney Film Festival with youngish kids. Family friendly fare of the most intelligent and acutely realised order, The Seen And Unseen is a dreamlike Balinese fable that’s light on plot and heavy on visuals and tone, making it a kind of hallucinogenic Brothers Grimm story for the new age.

Not, mind you, that the film is not without considerable weight: it explores, in sometimes agonised detail, the loss of a family member, as a young twin must come to terms with the sudden death of their sibling.

But despite its occasional heaviness, it bursts with unrivalled imagination; with colour, and with light, and with life. Rush to it.

Watch The Seen And Unseen trailer:

The Guilty

There aren’t enough real-time thrillers out there. High Noon perfected the form some 50 years ago, but since then, only a few filmmakers have accepted the challenge and committed to the real-time format – which only makes something like The Guilty, a nerve-shredding Danish thriller set to explode at the Sydney Film Festival, all the more tantalising.

Moreover, the film, directed by award-winning filmmaker Gustav Möller, isn’t just set in real time; it’s also restricted to a single location. Kicked off by a phone call from a kidnapped woman, the film sees a beleaguered emergency services operator try to guide the victim to safety – connected to each other only by voice, the pair must try their hardest to outwit the woman’s captor.

Think something like The Taking Of Pelham 123 stripped down to its most basic parts and you’ll get close to The Guilty’s sheer adrenaline rush – close, but not quite there, given that this taut little crowdpleaser has an energy all of its own.

When it premiered at the Sundance film festival early this year, it scooped up major awards, and a lot of buzz – you best believe this one will be big. Sydney Film Festival audiences should flock to it.

Watch the director of The Guilty talk over his Sydney Film Festival highlight:

Lean On Pete

Filmed with the neorealist sparsity that has won him acclaim throughout his still nascent career as a director, Andrew Haigh’s Lean On Pete is a quiet, devastating watch. A new addition to the burgeoning “confused and heartbroken young person connects with a troubled yet ultimately accepting animal” genre, the film focuses on the friendship between a teenager and his horse, the titular Pete.

Those who got a kick out of last year’s equally devastating The Levelling, a Sydney Film Festival highlight, should hunt Lean On Pete down.

It’s been picked up for U.S. distribution by A24, one of the most exciting and important entertainment companies in operation (they’re the folks responsible for The Witch), so consider that a mark of its considerable quality. Oh, also, by all accounts it’s absolutely heartbreaking, so those who got a kick out of last year’s equally devastating The Levelling, a Sydney Film Festival highlight, should hunt this one down.

Sydney Film Festival runs from Wednesday June 6 to Sunday June 17. For more information, head to the Sydney Film Festival website here, and check out the epic trailer below.

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