Australian Stories Are Back in Force with the 2021 AACTA Award Nominations

A decade after relaunching the AFI (Australian Film Institute) awards under a new banner, the AACTA (Australia Academy Cinema Television Arts) awards have managed to deliver a slate of Best Film nominees that feel truly Australian. In recent years, we’ve seen Timothée Chalamet’s Henry V retelling, The King, secure a nom for the top prize, only to be followed up a year later with the ‘Murican horror, The Invisible Man. For a while there, it felt like the identity of what constituted the ‘Best Australian Film’ was being diluted by distinctly non-Australian tales. 

Due to a rapidly changing globally fluid film industry, and that little thing called ‘the spicy cough’, the 2021 AACTA Award Best Film nominees are decidedly ocker in tone, style, cast, and narrative. Gone are the co-pros from Hollywood (although, video game biffo flick Mortal Kombat was eligible), and instead we’re offered six distinctly Australian narratives that embrace what this country has to offer as a whole. 

From Robert Connolly’s masterwork, The Dry, that tore apart rural Australia in a gruelling murder-mystery thriller that equalled as a slathering takedown of the Morrison government, to Justin Kurzel’s overwhelming expose of one of Australia’s darkest days in the gut-tightening thriller, Nitram. It wouldn’t be an Aussie film award ceremony if the creature flicks didn’t get a look in, and here we’ve got two in the guise of Jeremy Sims dramatic ‘comedy’ (with a heavy emphasis on the drama) Rams, a powerful, and timely film that shows that even during bushfires, rampant viruses, and drought, two brothers will make the time to carry on a decades long argy-bargy, and then Glendyn Ivin’s family focused drama, Penguin Bloom, aka, a ‘how to’ guide on the best ways of harming Australian wildlife. And then there’s the meat-pie Western duo of Roderick MacKay’s subdued and taut gold-rush era flick, The Furnace, and Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s stunning and furious Frontier Wars epic, High Ground, which displays a stunning slice of Australia that we rarely seen on screen.   

All of the Best Film nominees reflect a magnificent array of what Australian film is capable of conjuring out of this island country we call home. Aside from Nitram, each film has triumphed at the box office, with The Dry, High Ground, and Penguin Bloom, helping create a rare confluence of events where three Australian films stood atop the Australian box office. The rapturous response to both The Dry and Rams shows that there is a clear appetite for Australian films when they both cater to what an audience wants, and are marketed properly.

(Missing from the race this year, and previously announced as eligible, only to be swiftly removed before the voting period started, were Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (a film she is hotly tipped to secure a Best Director Oscar for), and Tyler Atkins Bosch & Rockit, which has been shifted to a 2022 release.) 

When voting opened up for the AACTA awards, there were murmurs throughout the voting groups about how few of the eligible films they had either seen, or even knew existed. I’ll always champion the AACTAs, and strongly recommend everyone pick up a membership so you can have access to the wide array of Aussie films, documentaries, shorts, and TV shows that are on offer. But, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the AACTA nominations roll about for most of these films to pop up on people’s radars. The Australian film industry and the audience that craves these films desperately needs to chuck their back behind getting a boost in marketing budgets for all films, independent or otherwise. There’s only so much heavy lifting that the media (The Curb, Cinema Australia, ScreenHub,, and more) can do. If the industry itself doesn’t know about some of the best Aussie films of the year, like Disclosure, My First Summer, I Met a Girl, Streamline, and Friends and Strangers, then how will the public ever get to know about them either?

With that said, I’m disappointed that Streamline and I Met a Girl didn’t make a stronger showing here, and perplexed why one of the greatest films of 2020, A Sunburnt Christmas, was shifted into the Best Miniseries of Telefeature category (I would imagine it’s to give the film a better awards chance, but still…). I’m equally disappointed, but not surprised, that Friends and Strangers didn’t slip into the Best Indie Film category – it is a distancing film, and distinctly European in style, an aspect that folks turning up for an Australian film will not expect. As it is, I’m pleased to see Disclosure, My First Summer, and Under My Skin nominated, while I’m yet to get to Ellie and Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), Lone Wolf, and Moon Rock for Monday

Over in the Best Director category, it’s a distinctly white-bloke affair this year. The AACTA’s have done a great job in celebrating women directors, and a moderate to low job of supporting and celebrating directors of colour throughout the years. The lack of women and people of colour in this category is apparent, but it’s also a product of an industry that simply fails to give both women and people of colour high level positions in the industry. The industry needs to change, it needs to support underrepresented artists better. When that happens, this category will change even more. 

Unlike last year where the clear winner was obvious from the get-go, it’s hard to see who will triumph out of the nominees. Chucking two names into the ring, I’d say it’d come down to Rob Connolly (0 wins, 3 noms) and Justin Kurzel (1 win, 3 noms). They’re all deserving nominations, even if I’d swap out Glendyn Ivin for Jeremy Sims’ powerful Rams or Michael Bentham’s anxiety-inducing Disclosure direction, and would happily slip in Katie Found for My First Summer too.

The Best Actor category is as tight as they come, with a perfect array of performances across the board. I wouldn’t change a name here, although I’d love to shout out the career defining turn from Levi Miller in Streamline, Mark Leonard Winter’s full-bodied, deeply personal performance in Disclosure, non-binary actor Zoe Terakes was also shut out for their performance in Ellie and Abbie, and one of Sam Neill’s most grounded performances in Rams. (A quirk in the 2020/2021 AACTA nominations has meant that Rams is nominated in both year. A lack of industry screenings in Sydney and Melbourne [due to lockdowns] prior to voting in 2020 meant that Rams was effectively shut out across the board, with only Sam Neill receiving a nomination. Vocal frustration from the production company and industry meant that it was given eligibility in 2021’s awards.)

While the Best Actor race had too many names to include, as is always the case, the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories felt decidedly deficient in roles for women to be considered. Yet, in a head-scratching event, Rose Byrne’s lead performance in Peter Rabbit 2 received a nomination over the magnificent double-header of Geraldine Hakewill and Matilda Ridgway in Disclosure. While Peter Rabbit 2 may gain high rotation in front of families and kids, it’s Disclosure with Geraldine and Matilda’s performances that’ll be used for years as guidance for emerging actors. These are career defining turns here, and yet, unrecognised by the AACTAs. Bizarre. Equally confusing is the absence of the My First Summer co-leads, Markella Kavenagh and Maiah Stewardson, in either the Best Actress, or Best Supporting Actress categories. 

As it is, the Best Supporting Actress category has a curious inclusion with the perplexing Jacki Weaver nomination for her bitter mother role in Penguin Bloom, when the MVP of the film, Rachel House, was right there. Miranda Richardson’s supportive turn in Rams was overlooked, as was Laura Gordon in Streamline, who once again delivered a performance that reminded us all that she is one of the most impressive actresses working in Australia today, someone make her a household name dammit. With that said, Essie Davis (Nitram), Esmerelda Marimowa (High Ground), and Miranda Tapsell’s (The Dry) nominations are beyond worthwhile and deserving.   

For some bizarre, unexplained, and downright absurd reason, the voting eligibility for the Best Supporting Actor category did not allow voters to submit a tick for one of the finest performances of the year, Keir O’Donnell’s shaken turn in The Dry. His rural police officer, the first at the scene of a horrific crime, is the epitome of a ‘supporting’ turn, and yet, it’s in this category that The Dry receives no acclaim. 

In his place are deeply informed and effective turns from Michael Caton (Rams), giving his most grizzled and dour performance yet, Baykali Ganambarr (The Furnace) who provides yet another deeply empathetic performance, Anthony LaPaglia (Nitram) whose role as a lost father shows how impossible the task of reigning in evil is, and Sean Mununggurr and Jack Thompson, both portraying the role of leaders to brutal and horrifying effect in High Ground. As with many other categories, picking a winner out of this bunch is nigh-on-impossible.

Finally, with the technical nominations to come, we turn to the Screenplay categories. Yes, that’s right, categories. It wasn’t long ago that I was raging about the banal omission of the Best Adapted Screenplay category over the past two years, so it’s a welcome sight to see the Adapted category return. Curiously, the voters didn’t find enough merit in the ockerisms slathered onto video game sci-fi adaptation Mortal Kombat to feel it was worthy of such an accolade, but that’s up to you to decide whether that was a snub or not. I mean, they did choose to celebrate Peter Rabbit 2, once again, so…

If there’s a clear indication of quality this year, it’s in the Original category, with both Disclosure and My First Summer yet again missing out on worthy nominations. If there’s a surplus of possible nominees, then it’s clear that scripts are being written with a higher quality. Australian films do still need more care and attention given to scripts, but if the texts of The Furnace, Nitram, The Dry, Rams, and High Ground, are any proof, we’re on an upswing.

But, the key aspect is that, besides Peter Rabbit 2, all of these scripts are distinctly Australian. Thomas Kenneally has more succinctly, powerfully, and passionately distilled the thoughts of the Australian film and television industry better than most in his piece on The Sydney Morning Herald, but for brevity and clarity sake, the core message is: we need a government that recognises the power and importance of the Australian arts scene. We need them to recognise that The Dry, Nitram, High Ground, Rams, New Gold Mountain, Ozzy Man Reviews, The Newsreader, The Furnace, Disclosure, and so many more films, shows, and short form entertainment do not occur in a vacuum. They exist as products of an industry made up of tens of thousands of people who work to strengthen, embolden, and create Australian culture. An Australian culture that is absorbed, watched, shared, and celebrated by millions of viewers within our borders, and globally. 

I’m not saying that Australian films can’t or shouldn’t tell Shakespeare stories, or horror films set in America, far from it. They can, and should, be globally focused when necessary. But, the need to reflect the Australian identity is more pressing than ever before. The 2021 AACTA awards shows the value and strength of that focus. I’d be hard pressed to imagine Scott Morrison, Paul Fletcher, Barnaby Joyce, or Josh Frydenberg ever willingly sitting down to watch an Australian film or TV show. We need our politicians to give a shit about the Australian arts again. 

Soapbox moment over, while I predominantly focus on the film side of the AACTA awards, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few worthy nominations on the TV, Short Form, and Documentary front. I’m stoked to see New Gold Mountain receive a Best Miniseries or Telefeature nomination alongside A Sunburnt Christmas, even if both were shut out of other categories (seriously, you’re going to just skip over Corrie Chen’s masterful direction, Yoson An’s powerful lead, and the comedic timing of Lena Nankivell? Yeah, ok.)

I’m continually impressed and pleased that 100% Wolf continues on as a bang on brilliant animated series for kids. Yeah, Bluey is great too, but folks, don’t miss getting your kids eyes in front of this delight of a show. 

Elsewhere, the wealth of nominations for Aunty Donna’s Big Ol House of Fun is comforting, adding yet another entry into the burgeoning ‘Aussie sketch show comedy’ catalogue. Additionally, Aaron McCann and Sam Lingham from Hug the Sun getting nominations is downright well-deserved and exciting. Perth represent. 

On the shorts front, in a field of almost 100 entries (seriously, if you want another reason to become an AACTA member, it’s in the shorts field where some of the best Australian film is presented every year), it’s great to see You and Me, Before and After and The Tailings receive nominations. Knowing how hard it can be to get a nomination here, it’s great to see these two top-tier shorts cut through. Elsewhere in the short form entertainment, it’s also pleasing to see pando-saviours Nat’s What I Reckon and Ozzy Man Reviews get nominations, given the supreme wealth of entertainment, joy, and emotional heft they’ve given us all locally (and those stuck abroad) to be proud of. Seriously, watch the below video and tell me you didn’t shed a tear. 

Right, there we have it, the 2021 AACTA nominees in a nutshell. I know this pando year has been tough on everyone, especially the Australian film and television industry, but hopefully there’s a nomination or three here that’s made you excited. 

The AACTA Awards will be played live, 7:30pm Wednesday December 8 on Channel 10, and are replayed over the following days on FOX Arena, Binge, and AACTA TV.

Check out the full list on the next page…

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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