SWIFF Staff Picks – Artistic Director Kate Howat’s unmissible films


After months and months of watching films, travelling to festivals here and overseas, viewing screeners in dark rooms, drinking several thermoses of coffee, my head spins in trying to pick just a few standouts.

But, here goes…

Minding The Gap

One of my favourite films of 2018. More than just a celebration of skate boarding, this audacious debut draws on a lifetime of documentary footage from young cinematographer-turned-director, Bing Liu. The result is a captivating and intimate look at young American lives that, for me, is an absolute must see of the festival.

While the film boasts some incredible skateboarding footage from the tight-knit crew, it really weaves a complex story of generational forgiveness and that precarious gap between childhood and adulthood.

An exciting new voice in American cinema, Minding the Gap snagged the Audience Award at Hot Docs as well as over 45 film festival awards and has been shortlisted for this year’s Oscars. Not bad for a 23-year old!


If you’re after a film that delivers a kinetic surge of colour, energy and killer dance moves (with a dash of hallucinogens), then Gasper Noe’s (Irreversible, Enter The Void) latest tour de force is for you.

With one of the most arresting dance sequences you’re likely to witness on screen, complete with voguing, krumping and flex dancing – with limbs, elbows and torsos entwined and contorted to produce something astonishing but unhuman all the same. An audacious and incredible spectacle ‘it sinks in that you’re watching “Fame” directed by the Marquis de Sade with a Steadicam’.

Noe challenges his audience to witness an energy of the new world…unconventional, untamed, glorious, but ultimately messed up. Share this avant-garde experience with a friend (and a couple of vinos). 

You Were Never Really Here

Dave and I were lucky enough to see this in New York with director Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix in attendance. One of the takeaways for me was hearing Ramsay talk about the rare opportunity for a long rehearsal period, witnessing Phoenix’ physical and psychological transformation unfold in real time- and the result is astonishing – so too thought the Cannes jury who awarded him the Best Actor award. Ramsay brings an otherworldliness and intimacy to her films which speaks volumes when exploring the darker side of humanity. And while this is a very dark film, there is a great amount of humour and pathos to it that might have been lost on a less sensitive and intuitive director. I’m so excited to see this again on the big screen with a full house.

A Vigilante

A gem I picked up at the SXSW festival, this taut, emotional debut from Australian director, Sarah Daggar-Nickson packs a subversive punch. Olivia Wilde gives a career-best performance as a survivor of domestic violence who tries to do to abusers in a single visit what they do to their wives and children over a lifetime.

The film shares a similar tone and structure to Lynne Ramsay’s ‘You Were Never Really Here’, and its strength is avoiding the inclination to tell a straight forward piece of escapism. Refreshingly the film is almost completely disinterested in depicting violence on screen, instead preferring to explore its impact. A film for today, A Vigilante is a brutally fresh spin on a tired (and often masculine) genre.

Warning: while this film is a tribute to survivors of domestic abuse and does not glorify violence, some viewers may find it disturbing.

Strange Colours

There’s a renaissance happening in Australian cinema and director Alena Lodkina is at the forefront of that movement. Offering a refreshing change of pace to the more archetypal Aussie blokes portrayed in many Australian films, and where the outback is seen as a harmful place for travellers, with dangerous inhabitants and roo-shooting cowboys. Here, the weathered men have found themselves in this opal mining town because life is simply less complicated there. Lodkina offers a fresh take on rural Australia as one of contemplation, beauty and peace. An exciting new voice and a natural filmmaker who reveals a hidden side of small town life that is both moving and profound.


I fell in love with the two leads in this film. Both bring such warmth and compassion to their roles and their performances have this raw, authenticity which is hypnotic to watch. Still banned in Kenya due to its ‘homosexual themes’ – although the ban was momentarily lifted for the film to compete for the Oscars – and in a nation where no constitutional protections exist for LGBTIQ people, it is a huge feat to first time director, Wanuri Kahiu, that the film was even made. A sweet, confident romance that deserves to be seen and appreciated by as wider audience as possible.


My pick for taking out Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, Capharnaum will blow you away. The performances from the cast of non-professional actors is indescribable. How director Nadine Labaki could illicit such emotional depth from the young leads is something to be seen. It is a heart-wrenching and palpable story told with humour and grace. I’m so thrilled and honoured to screen this film for our festival audience.

Leave No Trace

Debra Granik is a masterful filmmaker. She has this uncanny ability to allow the audience to drift along with the story as it ebbs and flows at a natural pace. Her account of a broken America is thoughtful and without judgement, just like her well-rounded characters. Granik’s 2010 film, Winters’ Bone, brought a young Jennifer Lawrence to the world’s stage and here it is New Zealand’s rising star, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who steals the deserved spotlight. A powerful and tender tale about family, survival and living one’s own way, Leave No Trace is a stand out film of the festival.

Discover the full program for yourself at swiff.com.au.

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