Best Australian Films of 2020

Top Gear mastermind Owen Trevor made his feature debut with the West Aussie family friendly flick, Go! Written by Steve Worland, who improves upon the already impressive work he did with the Robert Connolly’s top tier kids film, Paper PlanesGo! kicks off one of the repeating aspects of 2020 Aussie films: stellar kid performances. Knocking it out of the park is the trio of performances from William Lodder, Anastasia Bampos, and Darius Amarfio Jefferson, who together play a plucky group of kids who construct a go kart and intend to triumph over the local karting giant. Following the sport film formula intimately, Go! makes its mark on the genre with zippy racing sequences, charming dialogue, and a vitality rich spirit that makes this family friendly film a must see. It’s one I’ve certainly found myself revisiting throughout the year to joy filled delight, especially thanks to Richard Roxburgh’s gruff supporting turn. 

Read the Go! review here.

Ili Baré’s timely documentary immerses the viewer in a world that proposes empowerment, equality, and a positive future for women in science focused areas with entrepreneur Fabian Dattner leading 76 women scientists on ‘the trip of a lifetime’. What instead eventuates on this intimate journey to Antarctica with a vessel full of optimistic women is the cruelly natural realisation of the inevitability of inequality. With the hope of change and the power to instigate a difference at their fingertips, this diverse group of women grow to realise that under Fabian’s tutor, the concept of women empowered leadership is a fallacy, and as such, any opposing voices or consideration for the mental health struggles are equally discarded and neglected. The Leadership paints an equally optimistic view of the fight for equality, alongside a damning condemnation of what it means to be a leader. Does leadership mean following a prescriptive template for success? Or does empowered leadership only come with the support and guidance of your peers? Where Bare takes the audience is unexpected, and that’s where the brilliance of The Leadership lies: in how it creates varied discussion points on a hotbed current topic: equality.  

I look forward to mentioning the next entries in the 100% Wolf series in future Best of Australian film lists, because gosh, if the first film is any proof, we’re in for an absolute treat. Before I get ahead of myself, first time round we’ve got youngster Freddy Lupin as a werewolf pack leader in waiting. On the night of his first howling, instead of turning into a raging wolf, he turns into a poodle. Following on from the hallowed footsteps of animation titan Yoram Gross, 100% Wolf is positively charming and full of rampant PG-level frights and comedy. This is a world class flick that should help remind audiences that while infrequent, Australia does make some truly great animated films. 

Read the 100% Wolf review here.

Way back before the pandemic locked down Perth, the WA Made Film Festival kicked off a three day celebration of West Aussie films. Over that weekend I got to see the thriving imagination of WA filmmakers writ large, with great features, and even better short films. Ringing loudly in my mind since then is Aisling Rose McGrogan’s one person short, Loveless. Made completely by herself, this short has Aisling play a housewife and her partner, shown as a moustachioed Hawaiian shirt wearing dude (again, played by Aisling). Set at a dinner table, the two talk about their relationship with each other in a dialogue driven scene that left me laughing harder than I did in any other film in 2020.  

As Aisling plays opposite herself in her own kitchen, she applies a YouTube taught DIY mindset to the tricky splitscreen technique that often seen in films or shows like Adaptation or Living With Yourself. The creative ingenuity and fascination with cinema that Aisling exhibits is utterly brilliant, with a distinct desire to make the screen her own. Part of the reason why Loveless has stuck with me for so long is this film comes from someone so keenly intrigued, interested, excited and impassioned with the artform of cinema that their excitement with the format is purely tangible. Loveless came for me at a time when I was feeling despondent with the realm of cinema, and worried about the increasing lack of creative spirit with films across the board – both locally and internationally – and yet, here is a one person made short that is so filled joy and so in awe of the machinations of storytelling and cinema that I can’t help but hold it up high as a hopeful sign of things to come.  

I’m not saying that Aisling is going to save cinema, but rather, I want to circle out how downright nice it is to see someone who so clearly enjoys making cinema that you, as the viewer, can’t help but be enraptured by their resulting output. 

Read about the WA Made Film Festival here.

Paul Ireland arrived on the Aussie film scene in 2015 with Pawno, a microbudget feature made with proud confidence alongside mate Damian Hill. Their follow up, Measure for Measure is a Melbourne set Shakespeare adaptation, scripted by Hill and featuring a jam-packed cast of Aussie titans. Dame’s script swings for the fences and brings the strine to ol’ Shakey with great confidence, in turn giving Hugo Weaving a villainous lead to sink his teeth into to excellently counteract against the sympathetic Dan in Heart and Bones. Where Pawno highlighted two stars on the rise, Measure for Measure cements Megan Smart as a force to be reckoned with. Her performance as Jaiwara imbues the film with the emotional undercurrent it requires, with Smart showing accents of strength and vulnerability, often in the same scene. Supporting turns from Mark Leonard Winter, Daniel Henshall and Fayssal Bazzi all help make each act of violence carry its intended weight. Given this is Shakespeare, Ireland plays to the tragedy of the piece masterfully, honouring the late Dame Hill in the process in the finest way possible. Measure for Measure triumphs in a grand manner, it reaches for the skies and has the spirit to get there. 

Laura Gordon’s performance in Undertow as a wife of a football icon is one of the modern great Australian performances. This is a full bodied, lived-in role that gives a voice to the voiceless and honours the countless women of the world who live with the trauma of miscarriages. While Gordon’s Claire is a character steeped in tragedy, she is a defiantly non-tragic figure, walking through her narrative of doubt and investigation into her husband who may or may not be having an affair with Olivia DeJonge’s youthful Angie. An unexpected duality of motherhood and toxic tenderness arises when Claire and Angie start to engage with one another, threatening Angie and Claire’s mental states. Writer/director Miranda Nation organically weaves this narrative thread into one about the increasing misogyny in Australian sports in an intimate manner that informs the deeply investigated script, making Undertow a timely film that addresses inequality and violence in Australian sports. 

Read the Undertow review here.

Camp Cope’s fury driven song The Opener wraps up with a line that echoes throughout the minds all listeners: yeah, just get a female opener, that’ll fill the quota. That tokenistic rhetoric is a genuine reality for many women musicians around the globe, giving the week-long music camp Girls Rock! Melbourne a suitable challenge to tackle head on. And gosh do they manage to knock that quota-mindset off its feet. No Time for Quiet follows the first year’s camp throughout their journey and beyond, highlighting the camps consideration towards gender equality, mental health, community building and empowerment. As we follow a few main subjects, we get to see how the music community at the camp helps them process mental health struggles, or overcome social battles. Yet, we also witness what happens when the support network established over the week disappears, once again highlighting the need for continued community. No Time for Quiet is at times a raucous and loud film, and at others, it’s counterbalanced by a gentle and touching level of care and understanding. At its conclusion, you’re left hoping that every city gets their own Girls Rock! camp. The tangible enthusiasm of the young kids attending the camp makes No Time for Quiet a thrilling and exciting watch that reminds how bloody exciting making and listening to music can be.  

Samuel Van Grinsven’s queer drama, Sequin in a Blue Room, suffered a similar fate as other Aussie queer dramas, where, like Teenage Kicks or Downriver, it had a slow, staggered release. As such, this stunning film may have appeared on ‘Best of 2019’ lists, but for me, the first time I got to see Conor Leach’s stunning feature film debut was in 2020, and gosh am I glad I did. Deceptively slight on plot, Sequin in a Blue Room follows Sequin (Leach), a sixteen-year-old boy navigating the blossoming world of queer sex and romance. Samuel Van Grinsven frames Sequin’s narrative in chapters titled after each apartment that he visits every time he encounters a new lover, and doing so, he drenches the film in a visually stylistic manner that helps set it apart from other queer dramas. As queer narratives are so often focused around the romance angle of a relationship, it’s refreshing to see a youthful figure leaning into his craving for the carnal side of romance, and Leach’s central performance makes this journey a positively entrancing and mesmerising one. The promise of artistic quality from Van Grinsven and Leach here suggests that Australia now has a new important voice in queer cinema to celebrate.   

Read the Sequin in a Blue Room review here.

It feels fortuitous that Sequin in a Blue Room would sit comfortably next to the sex-positive documentary Morgana on this list. Both celebrate the human form and both uncritically portray the sexual desires of their central subjects. Here, directors Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard document the life of Morgana Muses, a housewife who reinvents herself in her 50s as a pornographer who uses the genre of film to address the trauma of a loveless marriage and the mental health struggles that come with it. There’s a deep relatability to Morgana’s journey, with a comfortable universality to the place of difficulty that Morgana finds herself in. I look at Morgana in the same manner as another documentary from 2020, Keyboard Fantasies, where the younger generation of pornographers look up to their older counterparts as champions and figures that need support, and I see how Hess and Peppard equally support their subject throughout the filming of the documentary, recognising the pressure that Morgana lives with across the five years of filming, making Morgana an act of nurturing and care. Through the support of crowdfunding, a documentary like Morgana can exist in the world, where it will hopefully find folks who were in similar situations to Morgana, who might see a glimmer of hope in the darkness of their lives and take the turn towards a more positive existence.  

The celebrity of Captain Cook is deftly dismantled by the cheekiness of Steven Oliver in the refreshing documentary, Looky Looky, Here Comes Cooky. Blending White history with Indigenous history meticulously, Oliver educates and entertains by presenting the arrival of the Cook legacy from a First Nations perspective. As he does so, he proposes an idea: create a new songline for 21st century Australia. With the help of Trials, Mo’Ju, Alice Skye, Mau Power, Fred Leone, Birdz, and the icon that is Kev Carmody, Oliver weaves a modern songline that addresses Cook’s impact on Australia and clarifies his history in an amusing, yet grounded perspective. Paired with stunning visuals of the scenic Eastern coast of Australia, Oliver bounces off the screen in a manner that is positively entrancing. Oliver has commented about the film, saying: ‘If you take parts of several truths and add them together, usually the truth is in there somewhere. It’s making people agree on it that’s the hard part.’ After watching Looky Looky, Here Comes Cooky, you’ll be reassessing Cook’s legacy and be left wanting Oliver to narrate every documentary about Australian history going forward. 

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