As one of the world’s longest running film festivals and in a location famous for its landmarks and party atmosphere, the Sydney Film Festival closes with a bang tonight, with fireworks over Sydney Harbour and winners announced in categories from feature to documentary, shorts to audience awards.

Steered by festival director Nashen Moodley, the judging panel handed their top award of the Sydney Film Prize of $60,000 to Belgian filmmaker brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne for their gentle and emotional film about a female worker pleading her case with her co-workers to keep her job. The brothers’ previous films include Rosetta and Kid with a Bike but their maturing talent in Two Days and One Night met the jury’s stated criteria in ‘demonstrating emotional power and resonance…and going beyond the usual treatment of the subject.’

The Australian Documentary Award went to another film featuring a female protagonist in Janine Hosking’s 35 Letters, negotiating her final months of life. Shorts awards went to former choreographer Gideon Obarzenek for I Want to Dance Better at Parties and student Eddie Bell’s magical story Grey Bull about a refugee who rescues a bull, believing it to be his totem.

Sponsored by a host of local businesses, government bodies and media outlets, the Festival showed its commitment to Australian cinema as well as showcasing movies in every genre and from around the world.

Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, said, ‘This year’s program reflects the preoccupations and debates of out times: the right to gay marriage, women’s rights and cultural oppression, the parlous state of our environment, the devastation of war and our colonial legacies. It tells s story of love and loss, families and fear.’

All these themes are presented through the vehicle of powerful character driven stories. Love is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina looks at gay marriage, Night Moves is a disturbing tale about environmentalism, directed by the talented Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff), and The Rover is a dystopia drama set in an Australian outback not too far in the future, directed by David Michod (Animal Kingdom), starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in a well crafted role very far from Twilight.

Documentaries ranged from an exploration of the rarified world of high fashion in Frederich Tcheng’s stunning behind the scenes offering in Dior and I, to The Case Against 8, concerning California’s laws on same sex marriage, and a range of other subjects in The Battered Bastards of Baseball, National Gallery, Miners Shot Down and an incisive look at human rights in Watchers of the Sky, Edet Betzber’s study of Raphael Lemkin.

All good film festivals offer the punter a range of side dishes to the main screening events and Sydney was no exception. Talks included conversations ranging from ‘Can docos change the world?’ To ‘Altman on Altman’ and ‘Women in film’, a ‘Freak me Out’ disco, a film trivia event and special film / restaurant lineups for a complete dining and movie night out. Special film showcases included a salute to the Japanese animation studio Ghibli, contemporary Chinese film and, to demonstrate the Festival’s embracing of the most avant-garde to the most commercial, an event screening of How to Train Your Dragon 2.

The opening night film was UK production 20,000 Days on Earth, the art film biopic of Australian musician Nick Cave. The festival closed with a New Zealand/ US co-production What we Do in the Shadows, described as a ‘hilarious vampire mockumentary.’

The closing night gala, hosted at the iconic Sydney Town Hall, rocks on till late, while the filmmakers, winners and runners up alike, look forward to the next year of creative enterprise.