For six years the British Film Festival has delivered a balance of essential, classic movies you should have already seen, and the Oscar contenders you need to see now. “The response to the films has been quite incredible,” says Palace Cinemas’ program director Kim Petalas. “The British Film Festival is one of our fastest-growing festivals.”

The curation of canon films and fresher experiments, familiar faces and new ones, has been the secret to the festival’s success. In this year’s festival alone you have the Sidney Poitier classic To Sir, With Love alongside Idris Elba’s directorial debut, Yardie; tales about Virginia Wolf and Vita Sackville-West’s relationship (Vita and Virginia); zombie musicals (Anna and the Apocalypse); and Pin Cushion, a rumination on teenage angst.

There are 25 films screening over two weeks. Ahead of the festival’s opening in this week, we sat down with Petalas to find out his favourites.

Opening Night: Colette

This take on the life and work of the famous turn-of-the-century French novelist Colette is a sharply relevant and evocative look back at Paris’s golden age. It’s also about a battle for identity, equality and self-determination. As the young wife of writer Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), Colette’s (Keira Knightley) series of loosely autobiographical novels take France by storm. But when her husband takes all the credit she must make a new – and solo – life for herself.

“It’s a really beautiful period piece,” says Petalas. “It’s just one of those films that’s got a great attention to detail and some very strong performances.”

Watch the trailer.

Also check out: Ophelia is a retelling of Hamlet from the point of view of one of Shakespeare’s most compelling characters. With Daisy Ridley (Star Wars) in the lead and George MacKay as Hamlet, it will appeal to fans of the original and newcomers to the story alike.

The Children Act

When a British high court judge is faced with making a life-or-death decision about a young man, she puts aside her crumbling personal life to investigate his case to the fullest. As the son of Jehovah’s Witnesses, does he have the right to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion? And does she have the right to insert herself into his personal life?

Adapted by Booker Prize-winning author Ian McEwan (who also wrote Atonement) from his own novel, it’s a showcase for Emma Thompson, who shines with a powerfully restrained performance as a woman under constant observation. “Thompson’s such a wonderful actress and really, her performance in The Children Act is one of her best in many years,” says Petalas. “Judges have become so important on our news every night, and I think she really nails the position they’re in incredibly well.”

Watch the trailer.

Also check out: Peterloo is seven-time Oscar nominee Mike Leigh’s look at the infamous 1819 massacre where a peaceful pro-democracy rally of more than 60,000 protesters were set upon by police and government forces.

King of Thieves

Michael Caine teams up with James Marsh (director of The Theory of Everything) and a rogues’ gallery of Britain’s finest movie hard men in this retelling of one of the biggest crime capers in recent history: the 2015 Hatton Garden jewellery heist. Originally assumed to be the work of hardened professionals, the police – and Britain as a whole – were shocked to discover the heist was the work of a bunch of pension-age criminals working from how-to books.

“It’s an incredible cast,” says Petalas. “You’ve got Michael Caine, Ray Winstone, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, all working true to form. It’s a wonderful companion piece to some of Caine’s early gritty roles like Get Carter.”

Watch the trailer.

Also check out: Yardie is acclaimed actor Idris Elba’s directorial debut, adapting the cult novel by Victor Headley to create a compelling coming-of-age story set in the crime-filled world of ’70s Jamaica and ’80s London.

My Generation

As part of this year’s British Film Festival’s tribute to him, the documentary My Generation – hosted by Michael Caine – looks at London’s central role in the cultural shift of the swinging ’60s. Built around a combination of personal accounts, interviews and more than 1600 hours of archival footage, it’s an insider’s view of a society in flux, as the young and working class shrugged off the old ways and embraced the new.

The mix of classic ’60s music, Caine’s guided tour of London and his interviews with iconic faces from the time makes this a personal favourite of Petalas. “This was the film that prompted me to put together the retrospective “Swinging ’60s” – it was the perfect lead-in to that era. It was a real changing mood in society and 1960s Britain really defined a lot of the progressive cinema that we saw in the late ’60s and early ’70s.”

Watch the trailer.

Also check out: The entire Swinging ’60s retrospective program is worth a look, but no film sums up the changing times more than Alfie, the 1966 hit that made Michael Caine a cockney sex symbol around the world.

Closing night: Stan & Ollie

A look at the famous comedy duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the twilight of their careers, this film – starring Steve Coogan and John C Reilly – is a warts-and-all look at one of comedy’s most celebrated double acts, and one of show business’s most enduring friendships

“This film took me by complete surprise,” says Petalas. “Both Steve Coogan and John C Reilly look incredibly like Laurel and Hardy, and from the opening scenes you completely believe in them. It’s a very moving film that’s ultimately about a really strong friendship, and it just happens to be between two of the most iconic comedians in 1930s Hollywood. I think the performances could draw Academy attention.”

Watch the trailer.

Also check out: The Happy Prince sees Rupert Everett directing and starring in a look at the final days of Oscar Wilde. It has already collected a swag of awards and nominations.

Book tickets for Palace Cinemas’British Film Festival now.

The MINI British Film Festival will run from October 23 to November 14 (Sydney), October 24 to November 14 (Adelaide and Brisbane) and October 25 to November 14 (Melbourne and Perth).

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