An Australian turns up in Kabul with minimal luggage and wads of cash strapped to his torso. He wants to go south into Taliban country, further than any guide will take him, and he’ll risk his life to get there. Jirga is a war film, but not in the way you might expect.

Filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour trains his eye on the aftermath of war; the messy detritus we’ve left behind in Middle Eastern countries these past two decades. The main character, played by Sam Smith and unnamed in the film, is a former soldier trying to make reparations for past mistakes. Returning to the scene of the crime is tantamount to insult, but what else can he do?

Shot under pressure on location in Afghanistan, this is a visually extraordinary film; no Hollywood budget can fake these painterly landscapes. It’s made with documentary precision and a stoic calm, and the slow beauty of it and the compassionate, flawed sorrow behind it, is enrapturing.

Jirga is playing at Cinema Nova.
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Ladies in Black
Christmas 1959: Sydney is a beautiful sun-kissed paradise populated by affable racists and a growing migrant population. Sixteen-year-old Lesley (Angourie Rice), who prefers to be called Lisa now, starts a job at a department store working with a host of lovely people (Rachael Taylor, Alison McGirr, Noni Hazlehurst) and finds some excitement in a friendship with Magda (Julia Ormond), a mother figure who introduces her and the others to fashion, food, and life beyond Australia. And that’s about it for this low-stakes, warm-hearted comedy-drama.

Veteran Australian director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Breaker Morant, Puberty Blues) has been thinking of adapting Madeleine St John’s novel since it was published in 1993. The result is a little stiff, a little posed in its drama-school attempts to portray working-class Australia – “Crikey, we’re busier than a one-armed bricklayer,” says a very well-spoken Rachael Taylor. Assorted subplots shuffle in and out but rarely carry much tension from one scene to the next. It’s mostly a charming, refreshingly upbeat period piece in which cultures don’t so much clash as rub gently against one another.

Ladies in Black is playing at Cinema Nova, Palace Cinemas and Village Cinemas.
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American Animals
In 2004 a couple of bored students hatched a wild plot to steal millions of dollars worth of rare books from their university, including an early edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and John James Audubon's extremely rare The Birds of America. They study for the heist by watching Reservoir Dogs and Oceans 11. It doesn’t go great.

Director Bart Layton’s first film, The Imposter (currently on Netflix), was a thrilling bit of true crime brought to life with excellent re-enactments. His second, American Animals, ups the ante with even more of the film given over to the re-enactments starring Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan, to the point that it’s more gripping drama than a documentary.

Between the interviews with the real-life book thieves, whose memories contradict each other, the fact-or-fiction divide is where the film really sparks, as these kids’ daydreams of being master criminals clash with reality.

American Animals is playing at Cinema Nova, Classic, Lido, Kino, Sun and Palace Cinemas.
What the trailer.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
How’s this for inspiration: John Callahan is a helpless alcoholic when a car accident renders him a paraplegic. He kicks the booze, regains his will to live and the use of his hands, and becomes a respected cartoonist, speaking up for people with disabilities and channeling his story into his offbeat humour, all while completing the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program.

In Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Elephant, Milk*) confidently avoids the biopic cliches Callahan’s story offers. Joaquin Phoenix plays Callahan endearingly as a man constantly fighting against addiction, disability and people without a sense of humour. He’s lifted by a supporting cast of comedy players (Jack Black, Jonah Hill) and musicians (Kim Gordon, Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein), all turning in wonderfully eclectic performances.

At times, the tone is idiosyncratic to the point of being baffling – Rooney Mara as Annu, Callahan’s too-good-to-be-true girlfriend, is so quirky I wondered if she was a figment of his imagination – though the sensitive handling of Callahan’s approach to life, and his warm relationship with his eccentric AA sponsor (played as a millionaire bohemian by Jonah Hill) make up for the rough edges.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is playing at Cinema Nova and Palace Cinemas.
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The Cleaners
Three billion people use social media, and daily posts are in the millions. Someone has to keep an eye on it all, right? When you report an image or post, it’s assessed by one of thousands of people employed in content moderation centres like this one in the Philippines, with staff making up to 25,000 snap judgments a day.

The Cleaners is a documentary shot like a thriller, exposing the ethical quandaries that have sprung up as a result of the rise of Twitter, Facebook and Google, and the sheer social power these companies hold. It taps into the human cost at the pointy end of society’s worst traits, where moderators are confronted with images of violence, abuse and murder on a daily basis. “I’m different than I was before,” says one woman who has done the job for some years, “It’s like a virus in my brain.” A chilling but compelling documentary.

The Cleaners is screening at ACMI from October 19 to November 6.
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In this quirky documentary, we follow Sydney security guard Jason King, whose side hustle is ghost hunting, visiting supposedly haunted buildings and talking the spirits into moving on. For filmmaker Ben Lawrence, it’s an irresistible subject, but while following King on a few exorcism gigs Lawrence encourages him to delve into his own past and track down his estranged father. Then things get real.

I went in looking to see some serious ghostbusting, and I left with a portrait of trauma, abuse and repression. Jason is a fascinating but unnerving man, and the director is drawn deep into the plot himself as it thickens and stirs. There’s a lingering sense that he’s in too deep – it’s hard to deal properly with serious mental health and criminal matters – and avoid exploiting them for entertainment –while pointing a camera at them. It feels like perhaps the audience shouldn’t be watching some of it at all, but King willingly lays everything out for the world to see.

Where the film succeeds most is in its discussion about where obsessions with the supernatural really come from, and how trauma damages everything it touches.

Ghosthunter is showing at Classic and Lido Cinemas.
Watch the trailer.