On February 15th at The Backlot Theatre in
Melbourne, the 2019
Australian Film Critic Association awards were handed out. Heading into the
ceremony, Sweet Country lead the pack
with nine nominations, and at the end of the night, Sweet Country walked away with six wins in total, including wins
for Best Film, Best Director (Warwick Thornton), Best Actor (Hamilton Morris),
Best Supporting Actor (Sam Neill), and Best Cinematography.
On hand to accept the many awards were the producers of Sweet Country, as well as co-writer
David Tranter. Rounding out the winners were nods for Nicole Kidman’s
supporting performance in Boy Erased,
and Angourie Rice in Ladies in Black.
In the international categories, You Were Never Really Here won the Best English Language Film, and Roma took the Best Foreign Language Film
award. Paul Damien Williams was on hand to receive the award for Best
Documentary for his film, Gurrumul.
The Australian Film Critics Association doesn’t just reward
the best films of the year, it also rewards some of the best writing that come
from Australian film critics. For the 2019 awards, there were three winners:
First of all, I want to say thank you to the Australian Film
Critic Association for the honour of being recognised for my writing. I’ll get
introspective in a minute, but it means a lot to be recognised for a review
about an Australian film, and in turn, one as great as West of Sunshine. It goes without saying that Damian Hill delivered
one heck of a performance in the film, and I hope that my writing honours his
legacy in some way.
I interviewed Damian a few weeks before his passing, just as
West of Sunshine was rolling out
around Australia, and he mentioned how grateful he was for my review of Pawno,
and what it meant to read a review about his film. His appreciation over
someone having sat down to watch his film, and in turn, to actually spend the
time to write a review for it, was immediate. The Australian film industry is a
small one, with the competition to simply be recognised in the field of mammoth
Hollywood blockbusters being a tough, exhausting one. With that in mind, it’s
clear that any review of an Australian film (no matter how big or small the
website) can be enough to help bring attention to the film itself.
While film criticism around the world cops a battering from filmmakers
and viewers alike, Australian film criticism is in a bit of a tough spot. There
are few paid, full time film critics, and those who are keen to jump into the
world of film reviewing do so with little promise of a meal ticket at the end
of it all. For a lot of us out there, this is a pure passion project, and one
that’s driven by a love of film and cinema as a whole.
Which makes the ‘war against film critics’ a bit of a
strenuous thing to watch unfurl as genre fans blame the failure of a film on
the critics, and then when it succeeds, decry that film criticism is
irrelevant. I’m not going to follow that path to its logical conclusion (read:
put your pitchforks away angry teens and go to bed), but rather, remind that
most critics get into discussing film because it’s the art form they’re
I went to university (in what seems like an age ago) to
study film and to ideally become a teacher. That failed quickly, and dreams of
being a teacher fell by the wayside alongside the abandoned degree. So, I have
no formal qualifications to pin to my name that state that I’m a ‘film critic’,
and in turn, I have no ‘tangible’ proof that I know what the heck I’m talking
about other than me saying ‘I’ve seen a lot of movies’. But that didn’t stop me
from writing about them.
I had no idea where to start, so of course I turned to one
of the writers who I grew up reading, Stephen King. His book, On Writing, carried the most sage advice
I’d read anywhere about writing in general – read a lot, write often. The note
about reading wherever you can has stuck in my mind (maybe it’s because the
imagery King painted was so vivid, where he suggested that everyone should have
a ‘toilet book’ to read – I’m paraphrasing, but it’s what stuck with me), and
so whenever I can, I’m reading film reviews and criticism from all around the
globe. In turn, after discovering a group of reviewers that I respected and
enjoyed, I followed the path of attempting to write on their level.
Now, my early reviews are atrocious. They were regular
exercises in hyperbole, with sweeping statements about films like Inception being the
second best film of all time (it’s not). I wrote that review about a year after
the film came out, and it became a benchmark of what I didn’t want to write. My
early reviews were often written with the mentality that I was competing with
the reviewers in Empire magazine or FilmInk, even though that was clearly not
the case. It took a long while for me to realise the audience I should be
writing for: myself.
To completely disregard ‘an audience’ seems like a fool’s
errand – after all, isn’t the purpose of a review to advise people of whether a
film is worthwhile watching or not? But, if I had no ‘audience’ to speak of,
then why would I be writing into the void to begin with? Well, in a purely
self-serving way, I enjoy writing about films, so naturally, that writing needs
to go somewhere. On top of this, I
enjoy Australian cinema a lot, and love writing about Australian cinema.
As a proud Australian, I’ve long found the disconnect
between supporting the ‘Aussie battler’ and the Australian community supporting
the Aussie film industry to be a perplexing one. Surely these things are not
mutually exclusive, given Australian cinema often struggles for purchase in the
box office. Where are the proud Aussies heading out to support Australian films
week in, week out, simply because they’re Australian? If we have rallying
campaigns for Australian farmers where people cause traffic jams to buy punnets
of strawberries, then why aren’t there campaigns to support the Australian film
industry in the same way? Yes, there is a difference between a farmer and
filmmaker, but it’s not as wide as one may think.
So, as I soldiered on with writing film reviews for myself, I
decided to focus on Australian cinema. There have always been reviewers writing
about Australian films, but I figured, strength in numbers was the best way
forward and that my voice might be worthwhile dropping into the bucket too.
Getting feedback from people like Damian Hill or Jonathan Messer about the
coverage of their films, and hearing that a review made a little bit of a difference,
means a lot. For a film reviewer, it’s nice to know that your review is being
read by someone, and in turn, it’s nice to know that it matters to someone.
(Granted, this does work in the opposite direction as well,
as that one time I gave a bad review to a documentary and the director tracked
me down and gave me a bit of an earful about my negative opinion of his film.)
Film criticism can feel like an awfully singular vocation
sometimes. We watch a film in the dark by ourselves. We go home and write a
review by ourselves. We then publish said review, and it sits on the internet
in solitude with little feedback as to whether what you’re saying has made an
impact or not. For small sites or singular reviewers, sometimes that solitude
can feel quite defeating – why am I doing this if I’m getting no response at
all? When there is no feedback loop, it can often feel like you’re SETI
transmitting ambient noise into space, patiently waiting for some kind of
And if that’s you, then the smallest amount of advice I can give
is, do not worry about the metrics of how many clicks a review has, or how many
shares, or how many likes or comments. The moment you start obsessing about how
many people have clicked on the review is the moment you start losing focus on
why you are writing in the first place. Write for yourself first of all, and
your readers second. Hold onto that joy of writing and keep that in your heart.
(Now, of course, if you are being paid for your writing,
then that’s a whole different kettle of fish, and a focus on metrics is
necessary so you know that you have money coming through the door.)
To be fair, there are days where I simply do not have the
energy to write. There are films that I look at and think, I have no idea how I
am going to review this. But, I’ve learned to push the notion of trying to
cultivate clicks out of my mind and focus on why I started doing this hobby in
the first place – namely, I love films, and I love trying to push films onto
other film lovers. (By the way, have you seen Sweet
This is all a long about way of saying that I sure as heck
didn’t expect to win an award for my writing, or to have recognition from my peers
that it was any good. I certainly didn’t ever feel that I was even in the same
field as many of the people who make up the Australian Film Critics
Association. I wasn’t getting paid for writing. I had no qualifications. I was
just a guy with a keyboard and a brain and that’s it. But, I soldiered on and
pushed myself to try and get my writing as close as I thought I could to the
level of the critics that I admired.
And I’ve gotten there.
I’m proud of my writing. I’m proud of my dedication to
Australian film and my desire to try and push it as wide and as far as
possible. That hunger for discussing film is still there, and it doesn’t feel
like it’s going to be satiated any time soon.
I look at director Heath Davis,
and how he is using a group made up of Australian filmmakers to help support
and foster each others work in a bid to help make Australian films more widely
known and to take away the competitive nature of the film industry, and I think
of how that same mentality applies to AFCA. The Australian Film Critics
Association is a great avenue for Australian critics to be heard, and there is
a lot of great stuff coming with the site soon.
I hope that there are people out there who are still excited
about discussing film in a way that doesn’t require that feedback loop. I hope
there are people who aren’t discouraged by the initial dud reviews they write,
and push themselves to be better writers. Sure, the field of paid reviewing roles
is dry and absent of life, but that doesn’t mean that film criticism should die
I’d love to be paid for what I do, mostly so I could pay the
writers that write for The Curb for
what they do. With that in mind, if you are a writer who is itching for a place
to house your writing, get in
touch with me and I can try help you out. I’m always looking for new voices
to hear shout out about the world of cinema.
This stream of consciousness has gone on for longer than I
expected. I hadn’t really explored my own film writing story before, and this
award has made me reflect on where I’ve come from with my writing, and where I
aim to go with it in the future. I’m excited about the future of Australian
cinema, and the future of Australian film criticism. And, most importantly, I’m
excited about what I can do as a writer.
Thank you to those who have read my work along the way.
Thank you to those who have contributed to the website. Thank you to the
filmmakers out there for making films. Thank you Damian Hill.
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