Best Australian Films of 2020

2020, as has been heavily documented, was a difficult year for cinema as a whole. Australian cinema in particular was hampered by shuttered cinemas and confusing release schedules, with many iconic films moving to streaming services to find their audience. Hopefully, with end of year lists like this one, I can guide you towards some of the great Australian films that might have skipped your attention or notice. Throughout 2020, I watched over sixty Australian films, both feature length and short, and while many impressed and lingered in my mind, these are the thirty Australian films from 2020 that I consider the best of the year.  

Shannon Murphy’s global critical darling debut feature swept the 2020 AACTA Awards in a clean sweep, leaving everyone else in the dust. Murphy’s assured direction guided four of the finest modern performances in an Australian film, where young talent Elisa Scanlen and Toby Wallace were buoyed by the helpful ballast that was seasoned veterans Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn. While this cancer drama does tread a familiar path, it manages to do so in a manner that secures a powerful gutpunch of an ending that is hard to shake. Mendo in a moustache on a beach has never been a more moving sight.  

Read the Babyteeth review here.

It wouldn’t be a year of Aussie cinema without a Kriv Stenders release. This bloke never sleeps. Continually bouncing between documentaries, television, and feature films, Kriv has continually set the benchmark with a sustained output of great work. Kriv’s continued interest in Australian music legends carries on with the Joy McKean and Slim Dusty doco, Slim & I. As a wonderfully vibrant glimpse into the extensive history of the Australian Country music legend, the true joy of this doco comes from hearing the equally iconic Joy McKean talk about her role in Slim’s path to stardom. Additionally, the awe and respect from fellow Aussie artists is purely tangible, making this more than just a fan-friendly flick.   

Read the Slim & I review here.

Newcomer director Maziar Lahooti transforms his acidic short film Abraxas into a pitch-black comedy about Australia’s treatment of refugees. With a gloriously unhinged performance from the ever-excellent Ryan Corr, Below slaps you in the face continually with its defiantly bitter stance on modern Australia and its actively cruel treatment of asylum seekers. As Corr’s greedy, yet resourceful, Dougie attempts to dig himself out of his self-inflicted debt burden, he manages to opportunistically inflict further trauma on the refugee population he’s employed to guard and monitor by subjecting them to horrifying bare-fisted cage fights in the desert. As bleak as it sounds, Below unveils each scene with a knowing wink, highlighting the absurdly evil undercurrent of Australia’s ‘border protection’ policy, in turn asking, who exactly is being protected?

Read the Below review here.

Alana Hicks bright and funny short film Chicken explodes with the lived-in experience of everyday prejudice that occurs incidentally for two PNG immigrants, Barbara (Mariah Alone), and her mother Rita (Wendy P. Mocke). Barbara just wants to watch The Simpsons, but when she hears that her mother has been short changed at the supermarket, it’s up to her to stand down the White check out people, Dion (Mia Evans Rorris) and Shelley (Greta Lee Jackson), and get back the money her mum lost. Hicks accentuates a familiar, everyday occurrence with a highlighted act of miscommunication, spotlighting the cultural barriers that White Australians inadvertently put up through deeply ingrained prejudices. With spirit-filled performances from the entire cast, and a witty script to boot, Chicken acts as the proud announcement of Alana Hicks on the Australian cultural landscape. Welcome. 

Every moment that director Robert Woods spends building up towards the gory finale of writer Tyler Jacob Jones genre-informed script for the indie-film An Ideal Host, is another moment that highlights the cinematic prowess that these two young filmmakers have. Here, a celebratory dinner party is rudely interrupted by an unexpected guest that turns the whole night on its head and disrupts a local town completely. Woods and Jones pick up from where the microbudget masters like Peter Jackson, the Spierig brothers, and the Roache-Turner brothers left off, with a not-at-all-questionable fascination with practical gore and effects paired up with a giddy-like level of comedy, making An Ideal Host the kind of film that’ll be discovered in years to come and be rightly celebrated as a horror-comedy delight. Go into this one blind if you can and you’ll be greatly rewarded with a genuine indie treat.

Read the An Ideal Host review here.

This brilliant short has double-threat writer/actor Tina Fielding’s Courtney, a thirty-something Down syndrome woman, escaping the country and legging it to Perth where she’s going to make something of her life. On the way, she encounters Diamond (Gary Cooper), an ageing drag queen who encourages Courtney to celebrate her life as her glitter-adorned karaoke singer: Sparkles. Tina Fielding’s memorable performance in this colourful WA made short film should be enough to secure her a feature film in the future. Heck, I’d be lining up day one to see director Jacqueline Pelczar guide another one of Fielding’s script to the big screen if it meant seeing the wonderful Fielding act again. This bite of delight is another reason why Aussie short films deserve to be held on the same pedestal as the great features and docos we produce. More please.  

Aussie animation regularly shows its best side in the short film format, and director duo Sara Hirner and Rosemary Vasquez-Brown’s brazen and proudly vulgar short GNT stands head and shoulders above the rest this year. The proof is in the pudding with the directors being rewarded with the prestigious Yoram Gross Award at the 2020 Sydney Film Festival. GNT is four minutes of feminine modernity wrapped up in a body conscious vibe that is emphatically unique, especially in its masterfully mockery and celebration of pop culture, social media, friendships and the dramas that flourish within them, feminine hygiene, and more. GNT acts as an amuse-bouche for whatever Hirner and Vasquez-Brown do next. Realistically, if Stan. or Netflix were looking for the next big animated hit, then they should look no further than these two directors who clearly have a lot they want to say, and dammit, they deserve the biggest platform to do so.   

Watch the GNT trailer.

Roderick MacKay’s Goldfields Western, The Furnace, is in a film that gradually unveils itself to be a quiet and considered trek across the sundrenched outback, where cameleers keep trade routes alive and corpses of fallen foes linger in the dirt, awaiting the hungry mouths of dingoes in the night. Muck stricken Mal (David Wenham) exudes the desperate aura of a grounded grifter, stringing along cameleer Hanif (Ahmad Malek) as they both make way to a hidden furnace where they can smelt £3000’s worth of stolen Queens gold. As the law breaths down their neck, and the land threatens to claim their souls, Mal and Hanif witness an Australia that denies anyone that isn’t White a place to call home. The Furnace contemplates a country founded on oppression, and at its conclusion, the viewer is left assured that Roderick MacKay’s feature debut is a welcome, confident arrival.

Read The Furnace review here.

Ailís Logan writes and stars in Wine Lake, a tender and empathetic short film about a homeless alcoholic, Peg (Logan), and their encounter with an artistic backpacker, Conor (Aaron Tsindos), at a laundromat. Meeting as strangers, and connecting over a shared Irish heritage, the two soon discover that they have more in common than a unique accent and an appreciation of art. Over the span of nine minutes, the enormity of a lifetime lost is made apparent, with the reality of adoption processes in Ireland being made devoutly clear. Direction from Platon Theodoris is assured and confident, allowing the humanity between Peg and Conor to become the focal point, encouraging a naturalistic approach to the storytelling that will leave you moved by the end. On paper, a film like Wine Lake may seem slight, but it’s with stories like this that the power and strength of humanity is reinforced.  

Watch the Wine Lake trailer here.

Director Ben Lawrence deftly follows in his fathers footsteps with his first fiction film, Hearts and Bones. Having already made a name for himself with the haunting documentary, Ghosthunter, Lawrence turns his gaze to a morally complex narrative of refugee, Sebastian (Andrew Luri), and war photographer, Dan (Hugo Weaving), who has captured a secret that may upturn Sebastian’s life. Almost exclusively making Australian films now, Weaving continues to remind audiences why he is one of our finest actors, with his role in Hearts and Bones being an arguable career-defining achievement. Lawrence hits for the fences with this powerful drama, and while not all of them are sixes, he does manage to leave the viewer with one of the most audacious and jaw-dropping conclusions in an Australian film ever that criticises Australia’s record with asylum seekers in a masterful manner. If this is the note that Ben Lawrence wants to hit for his career going forward, then we’ve got some fascinating work to look forward to.   

Read the interview with Hugo Weaving here.

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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