For the first time since 1952, the annual Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) won’t be happening in the city’s cinemas. Instead, from August 6 to 23, the entire program of 113 films – including 12 world premieres, 83 Australian premieres and 44 shorts – will stream online.

Australia’s longest-running film festival was shelved in April due the pandemic. But rather than cancel it entirely, organisers opted to move it online.

“It’s not the kind of thing you can pick up and pivot very swiftly and simply into an online space,” says MIFF’s artistic director Al Cossar. “You basically have to start from dot again in terms of building things back up.

“A number of film festivals and arts festivals have gone to this space, and it’s a space that festivals, as well as artists [and] audiences, are discovering and activating in new ways together.”

The majority of MIFF 68½, as this year’s festival has been dubbed, will be accessible on-demand, but some of the headliners will only be available during scheduled screening times.

That includes this year’s opening-night film First Cow, by auteur Kelly Reichardt, which will make its Australian debut. The revisionist American frontier film follows an unlikely business partnership between a skilled cook turned fur trapper and a Chinese immigrant. It hinges on the whims of a prized milk cow.

“This is a really extraordinary and beautiful film,” says Cossar. “It’s a story of friendship and proto-capitalism and some pretty dangerous baking. It’s gorgeous and sensitive, and as lyrical and delicate and precise as you’d expect [Reichardt’s] films to be.”

The festival centrepiece, Wendy, is the long-awaited follow-up to Benh Zeitlin’s critically acclaimed 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s a radical reimagining of the Peter Pan story, told from the perspective of Wendy and set in the American south.

The closing-night film is by Oscar-nominated Chilean director Pablo Larraín. The dance-drama, Ema, is about a couple in freefall after their son is removed by social services, set in Valparaíso’s vibrant reggaeton-fuelled dance scene.

Cossar’s other picks include Boys State, a documentary that won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance 2020, about teenage boys playing politics at a leadership convention in Austin, Texas. “It’s very funny and also slightly terrifying in what it has to say about the current state of politics,” he says.

Coded Bias, another pertinent documentary, is about the unseen algorithms that govern our lives online, and how these algorithms are shaped by systemic racism and other troubling biases.

In the “stressful, claustrophobic, blackly comic thriller” Black Bear, Cossar says Aubrey Plaza delivers the best performance of her career thus far. For something more lighthearted there’s Australian rom-com Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) – “a joyful, joyous, charming” film about coming of age and coming out.

The films on this year’s program come from 56 countries, and 49 per cent have at least one female director attached. But if you really want to dig deeper (and take advantage of the festival’s new binge-friendly format) there’s Women Make Film – a five part, 14-hour-long series that re-evaluates 130 years of cinema through the stories of 183 female filmmakers.

“What we’re trying to do is be responsive and innovative and meet people where they are,” says Cossar.

Find the full MIFF 68½ program here. Tickets go on sale July 17 at 9am.