After another start-stop year, Sydney Film Festival director Nashen Moodley says “audiences and filmmakers yearn to return to the cinema” – and once lockdown lifts, the 68th Sydney Film Festival will become the first major festival to be held in the central business district since June.

“The festival selection brings together some of the best films of the last two years – from major award-winners to some of the most anticipated films of the year,” he says.

Officially launched today, the Sydney Film Festival includes 233 films from 69 countries – with new releases from leading directors such as Jane Campion, Pedro Almodóvar, Wes Anderson, Rachel Perkins, Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Céline Sciamma.

Plus, to make the program as accessible as possible, the festival will present a bespoke online program, says Nashen. SFF On Demand will include 56 feature-length films and 13 shorts that viewers can stream from anywhere in the country between November 12 and 21.

For those who can’t wait to get back into State Theatre for the Official Competition selection, there’ll be 12 films in the running for this year’s $60,000 prize – including Leah Purcell’s feature-length directorial debut, The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson.

Opening night film Here Out West is the result of a powerhouse collaboration between five directors – Leah Purcell, Fadia Abboud, Lucy Gaffy, Julie Kalceff and Ana Kokkinos – and eight Western Sydney writers from eight different cultural backgrounds. Its cast is equally diverse, touching on stories of racism, assimilation and aspiration.

Wes Anderson’s tribute to The New Yorker magazine, The French Dispatch, starring Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson and Timothée Chalamet (and many others), closes out the festival. Plus, we’ll get to see Chalamet’s leading performance in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, alongside Zendaya.

“In the dark and on the big screen, as they should be seen,” Sydney Film Festival chair Deanne Weir said at today’s launch.

“This year’s program has one of the most diverse and exciting line-ups in SFF history,” adds Moodley – partly because there are so many films from the recent Cannes, Venice and Sundance film festivals.

Cannes 2021 Palme d’Or nominee Drive My Car, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, and the Tilda Swinton-starring Memoria by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul are both on the bill.

Then there’s Venice Best Director Jane Campion with The Power of the Dog, and 2021 Cannes Palme d’Or winner Titane. Plus, Venice Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner The Hand of God from Paolo Sorrentino, and Berlinale Golden Bear winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn by Radu Jude.

With the return of State Theatre screenings come special presentation films, such as Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers starring Penélope Cruz; Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, starring Tim Roth and Mia Wasikowska; and Zola, the absurdist buddy movie chronicling A’Ziah “Zola” King’s infamous 2015 tweet thread.

In addition to the features, there’s a program of compelling documentaries – Incarceration Nation and Strong Female Lead are two Aussie docos that expose our broken systems in justice and politics. Plus, A Fire Inside takes a look at Australia’s 2019–20 bushfires.

International documentaries include Andrea Arnold’s debut Cow; The Rescue, about the 2018 mission to rescue a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave; and When a City Rises, exploring the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

There’s also a new award this year: the Sustainable Future Award is a $10,000 cash prize presented to a narrative or documentary film of any length that deepens our knowledge and awareness of the impact of the global climate emergency. Eight docos from around the world are shortlisted for the prize, which will be presented on Monday October 11.

In another first, filmmaker Darlene Johnson is the recipient of a new $20,000 grant to support First Nations filmmakers, supported by Deutsche Bank. We’ll have to wait for future festivals to see Johson’s filmmaking, but until then there are hundreds of films to catch up on.

Sydney Film Festival returns from November 3–21. SFF On Demand runs from November 12–21.

Screening locations include The State Theatre, Event Cinemas George Street, Dendy Cinemas Newtown, Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace Cremorne, Ritz Cinema Randwick, Casula Powerhouse, Palace Central Broadway, Palace Chauvel Cinema Paddington and Palace Norton Street Leichhardt. Tickets are on sale now.