Best Australian Films of 2019

Aussie horror had a fairly solid year this year, but rising above all others was the gore driven comedy affair Two Heads Creek. When I read that it was Welcome to Woop Woop by way of The Cars that Ate Paris with a decent helping of gore, well, I simply had to rush to see this film, and I was not disappointed. This is the kind of film that’s best watched knowing nothing at all, letting the uproarious comedy beats hit every mark and having you double over with laughter. The central cast is exceptional, with co-leads Kathryn Wilder and Jordan Waller making a brilliant sibling duo, but it’s Helen Dallimore’s Home & Away-esque villain that really cements this as a modern Aussie horror comedy classic. If you dug Tucker and Dale VS Evil or The Loved Ones, then you’re going to need to watch Two Heads Creek. Get onto it quick smart so you can be ahead of the trend and start the conversation about people having missed this exceptional film. I cannot wait to see what mania and mayhem director Jesse O’Brien creates next.

The great year for Aussie comedies roles on with one of the most diverse films to be filmed in Australian. Featuring an exceptional comedic performance from Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte, and a powerhouse debut performance from Philippa Northeaste, Standing Up for Sunny is a crude, rude, heartwarming and tender romantic comedy that absolutely works a treat at every moment. There’s so much to admire with this film, with Steve Vidler’s exceptional script giving every actor the chance to shine. But, just like many other comedies on this list, it’s been hobbled by an unfair theatrical run (which is no slam on the filmmakers, just the state of the industry). If this were an American film, it’d be getting a wide release with bus stop banners and extensive marketing, but because it’s Australian it’s shuffled off to nowhere. Which is the greatest shame because gosh, Australia needs more Standing Up for Sunny’s out there. A genuine comedy classic.

There’s a deceptive simplicity to The Final Quarter. Director Ian Darling simply presents media footage from the time, allowing it to speak for itself, and in turn, giving the media icons like Sam Newman and Eddie Maguire more than enough rope to hang themselves with. The Australian media is rarely put under this kind of spotlight, with its mere existence laid bare in such a frank and basic manner that causes every crack, every slander, every injustice thrown upon Adam Goodes to be recognised in with complete clarity. As above, The Final Quarter is essential viewing with The Australian Dream, working as an entry point to that deep dive film. Both films left me shaking, furious at how the media and how Australia has treated Adam Goodes, one of the greatest footballers around. The Final Quarter and The Australian Dream work in tandem as a reckoning for everyone involved in this horrific saga, laying the foundation for this to never happen again. But, the worst thing is that this is Australia, and racism is a torturous inevitability. Shame on us all.

I called Happy Sad Man the most important film that you could see this year in my review, and I stand by that claim. I’ve watched it three times, and each time I’ve felt a weight lifting further off me, like I’m able to discuss my mental illness. Then, each time I hop onto the ever caring Happy Sad Man Instagram page, and I see director Genevieve Bailey sharing the thoughts of audience members who have responded to the film, I’m touched. I’m touched that there is someone as generous and caring and empathetic as Genevieve Bailey out there. Someone who saw an issue occurring within the men of Australia and put herself to work to tend to that issue. I’m grateful for Happy Sad Man, but I’m ultra-grateful that Genevieve Bailey exists. She is a genuine blessing. See this film, talk about mental health, embrace each other.

True to my word, Hot Mess is one of the best films of 2019. This millennial comedy about one woman trying to get a hold on life, find romance, further her career as a writer, and to just not fall apart, is one of the finest indie film achievements this country has ever seen. The one-two punch of writer-director Lucy Coleman and actress Sarah Gaul is overwhelming. These two are immense talents who I cannot wait to see what they do next. The fact that Hot Mess was made for all of about $3000 is amazing, and the fact that Lucy Coleman was one of twelve filmmakers who went to LA through the Talent USA initiative from Screen Australia makes me hope that she goes far in America. For everyone else in Australia, if you missed the festival runs of Hot Mess in 2019, then fear not, Filmink Presents will be screening this five star comedy in 2020.

Possibly the least Australian film on this list, but no less a great one. David Michôd’s The King is a timely film about the insidious and toxic nature of power and government, with Timothee Chalamet’s Hal being dragged down a path of leadership and being forced to reckon with the hands of manipulation. I had little experience with the Shakespeare work that this is based on, and maybe that lack of knowledge coloured my opinion, but regardless, I was left stunned by what Michôd had created here. It’s a genuine masterwork, showing a filmmaker excelling at his craft, and executing some risky creative choices (everything about Robert Pattinson for example) that elevate the film even more. If this is what happens when Australian filmmakers are given a budget and free reign, then I say, let’s get more Aussie filmmakers working with Netflix, and let them tell Aussie stories.

While we often talk about those with mental health needing to rely on phone services for support, we rarely consider the people who are there to provide the support. Directors Josiah Allen and Indianna Bell, part of Adelaide’s Stakeout Films, have created a short film that addresses that exact subject. Caithlin Ologhlen joins Audio Guide’s Emma Wright as an actress in a short film who also delivers some of the finest work of the year. Shot in one take, with a gradually imposing camera amplifying the tension and anxiety that Caithlin’s operator has as she answers her first phone call unprepared. Brendan Rock’s caller, who we only hear, is brilliant, presenting the weariness of someone who has used a mental health call center for help with great frequency. Stakeout Films are a production company that everyone interested in short films and Australian cinema need to keep an eye on, because if Call Connect. is evidence enough, then they are going to be creating some of the finest cinema we will see. This is a powerful short film, one that left me broken, feeling the weight of the struggles that many with mental health live with, and the difficulties that those on the other end of the line face when trying to help them. For the longest time, this was my favourite Australian film of the year, and if I could, I’d give this and the next three films equal top billing.

One of the constants on this list is the presence of first time women filmmakers, with Lucy Coleman, Mirrah Foulkes, and Imogen McCluskey all proving that in Australia, these directors have stories they want to tell, and they’re darn well going to make sure they land with an impact. Topping the list of exciting and invigorating filmmakers is Selina Miles, whose documentary on photographer Martha Cooper is one of the most exciting, entertaining, informative, and reflective films of the year. I couldn’t stop grinning like an absolute idiot at the end of Martha: A Picture Story, it’s that good. This is not just a film about an icon, but it’s also (just like my number one film) about the need to respect, cultivate, and maintain a historical catalogue of art in all its permeations. Martha’s work rose out of the graffiti movement in New York, an artform that many considered a blight on the city. It was Martha’s photography that partly helped pave the way for that artform to be respected around the world. You can’t help but feel energised by Martha, and in turn, Selina Miles directs and guides the editing process in such a way that reflects her energy. This is top shelf material, genuinely one of the great modern documentaries. I challenge you to not be entertained.  

When I walked out of Koko: A Red Dog Story, I thought my immediate love for it was confirmation bias. I love dogs, I loved Top Knot Detective, and I love the myth of Red Dog, so naturally, combining all three together made the ‘joy’ part of my brain sing. But then the other five star reviews for this dogumentary came rolling out, and I knew right there and then that this was a genuine treat of a film that deserved every single ounce of love it got. There is so much affection for dogs in Koko: A Red Dog Story that you can’t help but weep with joy throughout the whole film, and then weep with sadness as it wraps up. I already knew that Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce were going to be great filmmakers after Top Knot Detective, but I honestly didn’t expect them to be this great. That first film was just a tease of what was to come, and this right here is the main feast. It’s clear that McCann and Pearce are filmmakers who simply want to do everything they can to entertain, and honestly, they’ve mastered that with the best Australian family friendly film since Paper Planes. Australian audiences have loved the Red Dog films so far, and they should definitely fall in love with the best in the series.

Finally, there’s It All Started With a Stale Sandwich. This is one of those films that came and went, with a handful of screenings here and there, and that’s a real shame, because this kind of celebration for public art needs to be embraced more. Look, I should have stated at the beginning of this list that these are all my personal choices, and with that note, I recognise that It All Started With a Stale Sandwich might not be for everyone. That’s fine. But, for me, this exploration of the history of Kaldor arts project was the most thrilling, interesting, informative, entertaining, and heart warming film of the year. The way that Hungarian-born Australian John Kaldor works with the various artists that he engages with over the fifty year history of Kaldor arts is one fuelled by a passion for art in all its forms, so much so that when he’s presented with an augmented reality art project, he’s blown away. It’s here that it’s clear that art can be anything, and can be made by anyone. We’re not limited by paint brushes, film cameras, or pens, in fact, art can be created – quite literally – in thin air.

I’ve revisited this film multiple times throughout the year, with the shortened version having played on ABC, and I find myself overwhelmed with emotions at the end each time. There’s that confirmation bias again maybe, one that shows how much art means to me and my life. I wrote about that in my extensive review for the film, talking about my experience with a public art project in Times Square and how it has struggled to find a way of escaping my mind. The way that director Samantha Lang shows the residual effects of art on the mind through interviews with people who were in the projects, visited the projects, or knew of the projects, is what keeps this work of art, this documentary, alive in my mind now.

A number one position on a ‘best of’ list is a curious thing. Usually there’d be someone out there who had a similar ‘favourite film’ of the year, but I can say with certainty that that won’t be the case here. Which is perfectly fine, because if It All Started With a Stale Sandwich has reinforced one thing for me, it’s that art is a hugely personal entity, with each person reacting in their own way. I have struggled in my bid to recommend this film to people, mostly because the subject sounds so educational that it’s hard to make it sound exciting, but that’s more on me than the film, because Lang’s direction is exciting. You can easily tell how much she cares about John Kaldor, his artists, and the art they create. You can tell that she loves and lives for art as whole. This is not only one of the finest films of 2019, but it’s also one of the best of the decade.

And that’s it! My Best Australian Films of 2019 list. Hopefully there were more than a few titles on here that have surprised you and that you’ll want to seek out. I’ve already seen a fair few great films for 2020 that I simply cannot wait to get behind and support, so onwards to the future, and keep watching Australian films!

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