SFF 2017: Ghosts, Surfers, and Divas – 11 films to see at Sydney Film Festival

It must almost be winter, because the Sydney Film Festival has announced its full 2017 programe. However, when it comes time to choosing from the list, it’s not an easy task, even for the most hardened cinema goers. You can’t see them all. We will try though.

The list below is a collection of 11 films we recommend, based partly on our own choices for the 12 days in June, and partly on the early press release we got that helped us decide. Let us know your favourites in the comments below.

A full program can be found at sff.org.au. Tickets are on sale now. You can follow our full coverage on the site. We’ll see you at the cinema.


David Lowery’s minimalist A GHOST STORY is already making best-of lists before its has been screened, and its no wonder with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck headlining the cast. Influenced by the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), and using sparse dialogue and minimal narrative, it follows a ghost who watches a grieving widow in a house.

Watch it because… you’re going to be hearing a lot about it this year, and you’ll get bragging rights for seeing it first.


With a thematic arc looking at racial tension and national identity in Australia, this is sure to be one of the most talked-about flicks of the Festival. Taking place over 12 hours, the Brisbane-shot film focuses on the lives of Australians from diverse cultural backgrounds, including: a farmer, a Chinese illegal immigrant, a Persian family and an Indigenous girl. Starring a who’s who of Australian acting, the cast includes Bryan Brown, Shari Sebbens, Matt Le Nevez, Sean Keenan, Daniel Webber, Jenny Wu, Elias Anton, Miah Madden, Phoenix Raei, Ernie Dingo. Director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) is a guest of the Festival as well.

Watch it because… of the phenomenally talented cast and a highly topical narrative.

Australia Day - Jenny Wu is Lan


This was always going to be a lock for SFF this year, and it’s part of the Official Competition to boot. Sofia Coppola adapts Thomas Cullinan’s novel of the same name. It unfolds in a girls’ school in the state of Virginia in 1864. As the Civil War rages, The Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies has been sheltered from the outside world – until the day a wounded Union soldier is discovered nearby and taken in. The film stars Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Emma Howard, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, and Addison Riecke, and looks to be a textbook example of Southern Gothic.

Watch it because… the Internet has probably already made this into a meme.


Shot in the Illawarra region of New South Wales and featuring Disney star Debby Ryan, this Australian film from Rhiannon Bannenberg (Ambrosia) is playing as part of the Family Program at SFF this year. Newly-18 American fashion model Cora moves to a small coastal town with her aunt following a ‘fashion faux pas’ back home.

Watch it because… you want to support the local industry, or you have kids that dig the Disney Channel. Or you do. Not judgment here.

Rip Tide


Debuting in Telluride in September last year, Australian born theatre director Benedict Andrews makes his theatrical debut with an adaptation of David Harrower’s Tony-winning play Blackbird. A sexual abuse drama surrounding a young woman’s (Mara) journey to reclaim her past, when 15 years earlier she ran away with an older man (Mendelsohn), a crime for which he was arrested and imprisoned. It’s also playing in the Official Competition.

Watch it because… between Bloodline and Rogue One, Ben Mendelsohn can do no wrong at the moment.


Described as “Single White Female for the Facebook generation,” director Matt Spicer’s debut film follows Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) who moves to California to be near her Instagram idol Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), only to discover how shallow she is. That’s when she starts getting a little dangerous. Screening at Sundance earlier this year, the Sydney Film Festival screening even beats the US theatrical release date by a few months

Watch it because… of the incomparable Aubrey Plaza (Legion). Plus, you can Snapchat about it.


Also playing in Official Competition this year, the bittersweet comedy-drama has the timely story of Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) who arrives in Helsinki by accident. After initially exchanging blows travelling shirt salesman Wikstrom (Kaurismaki regular Sakari Kuosmanen), he forms an unlikely friendship. If ever we needed a message of hope and embracing refugees, it is now.

Watch it because… six-time Cannes award-winning director Aki Kaurismäki returns to film after six years.


Every year at SFF, there is an essential music documentary that needs to be seen. This is the one for 2017. UK documentarian Nick Broomfield (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer) and music video director Rudi Dolezal join forces to examine the brilliant and ultimately tragic career of the one of the great divas of the last few decades. Combining never-before-seen backstage footage from the height of Houston’s career, intimate interviews, and music clips, you’ll be so emotional and wanna dance with somebody (who loves you). 

Watch it because… you found the greatest love of all, and it’s inside you.


It’s rare to hear “award-winning sci-fi” in the oh-so-serious circles of film criticism, but this Mexican film won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival last year. Now playing in the Sydney Film Festival, it follows a troubled couple who encounter a strange creature after discovering a meteorite.

Watch it because… the IMDB keywords include “punched in the face” and “human alien sex.”


Geremy Jasper’s film premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival follows a young woman in New Jersey who slowly learns to come out as an amazing rapper. Sure to be a crowd-pleaser, the director calls it his love letter to rap music and “tough, soulful New Jersey women.” 

Watch it because… you yearn to get out of your one horse town.


While this might already be available on US iTunes, and thus making it readily available outside the Festival, it’s been topping lists for the last 6 months for good reason. Another entry in the Official Competition, this lyrical interpretation of James Baldwin’s unfinished book is narrated in hypnotic fashion by Samuel L. Jackson.

Watch it because… the Civil Rights Movement is a long way from being over.