Best Australian Films of 2020

In a year where grand spectacle cinema was missing from our lives, it became a small surprise that a Perth made short film managed to fill the gap that was left. Enter Antony Webb’s visionary film, Carmentis. Ben Mortley plays Mac, a miner stranded on a remote planet, relying on the assistance of his AI guided suit and the memories of home to get him to safety. Mortley’s performance is positively entrancing, with the tangible reality of needing to overcome physical and mental obstacles on his journey to help. Yet, what elevates Carmentis above being a routine emotional journey is Webb’s keen appreciation and understanding of the sci-fi genre, and his awareness for the need to employ an accent of awe into the mix. Visually, Carmentis is intoxicating and breathtaking, with images that linger in your mind for months to come. As with all the other short films on this list, Carmentis excels by understanding the restrictions of a short film and playing to the strengths of the format rather than pushing to squeeze a feature into a shorter runtime. As such, I’m still left moved by the narrative Webb and his team have weaved, so much so that I simply cannot wait to hear the news of a feature film from Webb.  

Read the Carmentis review here.

With concert halls left empty in 2020, director Tim Cole stood up and delivered a documentary that filled our homes with music. Small Island, Big Song showcases 16 Island nations from the Pacific and Indian Oceans, from Madagascar to the Torres Strait, who together sing songs about their combined history along the ocean highway they call home, as well as the impact of climate change on their lands. Full of picture postcard visuals and smiling faces, Small Island, Big Song is the holiday journey you couldn’t go on in 2020. The music is itself a warm embrace that soaks you in the beauty of the world and opens your eyes to a commonly perceived hidden part of the world. Tim Cole’s masterful direction helps pull these different song threads together, with music carrying from one nation to another, where a singer on the shore fills the air with their harmony, all the while a guitarist strums in a distant land, making a new songline that unites these islands together. Like many of the documentaries on this list, Small Island, Big Song was a hidden gem from the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, but its relative obscurity should make the journey to find it all the more satisfying. A genuine delight of a film.  

Listen to the interview with director Tim Cole here.

Leaving Allen Street is currently scheduled to air on ABC TV Plus on Wednesday, 10 February at 8:45pm (and on ABC Australia/International on Sunday, 31 January at 5pm for anyone overseas).

Another MDFF entry is the proudly empathetic documentary Leaving Allen Street. Director Katrina Channells and the team at OC Connections have managed to craft a deeply valuable documentary about the importance of encouraging and supporting the integration of intellectually disabled people into society, all the while enabling an autonomy in their lives that they have long been denied. As Nadine wrote in her review, this is a film that ‘shows just how joyous … coming together is’, and sure enough, Leaving Allen Street shows how important and valuable community is. Channells and co. ensure to highlight the history of The Oakleigh Centre, an institution where many intellectually disabled people were placed, and which was, for a long time, considered ‘best practice’, as they depict the movement of its occupants into new, custom built facilities that will allow them to live lives for themselves and each other. This is far from being ‘inspiration porn’, but is instead a celebration of humanity and the people who society has long deemed necessary to lock away. Like plenty of the films on this list, I’m unsure what the availability of Leaving Allen Street will be going forward, but I do hope that it becomes available for many soon so that people can absorb this utterly heart-warming tale. It’s the life-affirming film we need right now. 

Read the Leaving Allen Street review here.

From the uplifting to the horrifying, Leigh Whannell continues to redefine the genre of horror with his masterful fearfest, The Invisible Man. Elisabeth Moss grounds this tale of gaslighting and domestic violence, and in the process, confirms that this is one of the modern great horror films. New South Wales steps in for Somewhere, America, creating an otherworldy experience which feels American, but not quiet. Everything seems just a little askew and unnatural, a point that amplifies the mental anguish that Moss’s Cecilia lives with. Powerful visual effects and heart-stopping jump scares also accentuate the realisation that while, on paper, Cecilia’s ex is apparently dead, his presence is still felt everywhere Cecilia goes. Naturally, he is still there in her life, disrupting it violently and traumatically, and giving her every reason to fear his existence. Whannell writes and directs The Invisible Man in a considerate manner, never exploiting the real world horror of domestic violence for cheap thrills, instead allowing the amplified terror to reinforce why we need to listen to women and instigate safe changes for women around the globe.

Read The Invisible Man review here.

As I mentioned in my review for director Christiaan Van Vuuren’s genuinely surprising comedy, A Sunburnt Christmas is an instant Aussie Christmas classic. This is in no short part to the great lead performance from the always-reliable Daniel Henshall, who is comfortably supported by one of the greatest performances of the year: Lena Nankivell’s Daisy. Daisy, and her siblings Tom (Eadan McGuinness) and Hazel (Tatiana Goode), help keep their home Hattersley Homestead alive, while their mother (Ling Cooper Tang) mourns the loss of her partner. While all of the performances are truly brilliant, it’s Lena Nankivell who positively steals the film, embracing the joy that comes with Christmastime and embodying the loving spirit that the season is known for. In a year that’s defined by great child performances, it’s Lena’s supporting turn here that takes the cake as the best of the bunch.  

Read the A Sunburnt Christmas review here.

While Maya Newell’s name sits as the ‘director’ on IMDb for In My Blood it Runs, it’s worthwhile noting that in the credits of the film Newell highlights the collaborative nature of the film itself, with Carol Turner, Megan Hoosan, James Mawson, Margaret Anderson, and subject Dujuan Hoosan being collaborative directors. This is purely logical given the narrative of this stunning documentaries subject, Dujuan, a young Arrernte/Garrwa boy who is forced to navigate the Western culture driven school system that denies a place for Indigenous education. In My Blood it Runs highlights the need for a collaborative approach when it comes to education, a point accentuated when Dujuan and his classmates are taught a whitewashed history of Australia that celebrates the invaders of the land and holds Captain Cook up as a saint. After the film wrapped, Dujuan addressed the United Nations Human Right Council and talked about the need for Aboriginal-led education models around the globe. In My Blood it Runs shows the need for change in Australia and the power of community lead changes and decisions. It should force politicians to sit up and enact change immediately, but as has clearly been shown with a toxic welfare card system that only benefits a rich mining magnate, our current government has little sympathy for the traditional custodians of the land. I hope that any future leaders who do see this film keep it in their mind when making decisions about the changes upon this land we call Australia, because the people Western society stole it from deserve so much more than what they currently receive.  

Read the In My Blood it Runs review here.

Justin Kurzel’s barnstorming, spit-in-the-face-of-masculinity depiction of the Ned Kelly legacy just about works as the defining cinematic portrayal of the famed bushranger. George MacKay deftly handles the Aussie accent as the beardless Ned, one of the first signs that Kurzel is chucking the Kelly-rulebook into the fire and forcing the audience to question what the point of a legend like Kelly is. For Ned faithfuls, this perceived slander against their cop-shooting icon was too much to weather, with many turning against the film for its depiction of the Kelly gang as a dress wearing mob of mad men shooting the heavens down during the pitch-black night. Kurzel’s defiant attack on the myth of Ned makes for an entrancing experience, especially with a seizure-warning laden climax that feels like a shootout at a rave, which makes way for a silent Ned being hung in gallows with no audience. At its close, True History of the Kelly Gang shows a politician forcing the fateful line – ‘such is life’ – into Ned’s legacy, hammering home the point that with myths like Ned’s, the truth no longer exists. As Travis Johnson wrote in his review: ‘the key to True History of the Kelly Gang is understanding that this tension between history, artistry, and ideology is the entire fucking point.’ 

Read the True History of the Kelly Gang review here.

One of the greatest aspects of Jeremy Sims masterful Mount Barker set remake of the Icelandic film, Rams, is that not once during its powerful two-hour runtime do you ever question why Sam Neill’s disease fearing sheep farmer, Colin, doesn’t relinquish the ovine industry and shift across to the more iconic and notable chicken industry that has put the town on the map. Instead, you’re left so entranced and engaged with Neill’s career best performance, alongside his onscreen brother Les (a shaggy Michael Caton), that you don’t have a moment to consider the avian industry. Rams is easily one of the timeliest and defining Australian films of 2020, given it has a plot that grapples with an unstoppable disease, bushfires, isolation, and mental illness. Promoted as a comedy, Rams is anything but a laugh-fest, with the gravity of the situation that warring brothers Colin and Les find themselves in being explored to its empathetic natural conclusion. With Last Cab to Darwin and Rams, Jeremy Sims has created two defining odes to the ageing worker experience in Australia, respectfully honouring the hard-working souls of the land who toil day and night in solitude, with only their minds to keep them company. Rams managed to weather the pandemic and stood up high as a box office success, giving me a little bit of faith that the audience for great Australian films is still hungry for more.  

Out of all the films released in 2020, H is for Happiness is the one I rewatched the most. After seeing it for the first time at Cinefest Oz in 2019, leaving the screening with tears streaming down my face from laughing and smiling so hard, I caught it again in its theatrical release, and have found the exploits of Candice Phee (a luminous Daisy Axon) to be a great comfort over a rather distressing year. Her optimism and hope to find a little bit of happiness for her family helped give me some kind of strength to carry on and push forward. I wrote in my review how I wish that I had this film growing up, and while that’s still true, I’m just as happy that I have this film in my life as an adult. Family friendly entertainment is often overlooked in yearend lists, especially if it’s not ‘adult’ enough, but I do hope that the optimism and positivity that Candice, and her friend Douglas Benson from Another Dimension (the delightful Wesley Patton), exude as they walk on stage as Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, singing Islands in the Stream, rubs off on you and gives you a smile to make your day a little brighter.  

Read the H is for Happiness review here.

Natalie Erika James assured debut, Relic, should comfortable posit her next to Jennifer Kent as one of the great modern Australia directors on the rise. With this horror of the soul, James respectfully depicts the movements of a ceasing mind, ground down to a halt by the machinations of dementia. Emily Mortimer’s cautious Kay returns home with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to seek out her missing mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin). Together, Kay and Sam discover Edna’s house in disarray, post-it notes stuck to different accoutrements and furniture as beacons in the night for Edna to discover in a moment of cognisance. As Kay helps restore some kind of order in Edna’s home, she grows to realise that there is a darkness in Edna’s body that is stripping her mother away from her. Outwardly horrific, Relic remains grounded in empathy and reality, leading to a conclusion that swerves when you expected it to duck, and by doing so, leaves you emotionally shattered. Out of all the Australian films of 2020, even H is for Happiness that brings so much joy to my life, it’s Relic that I return to in my mind continually, thinking of how delicately and tenderly James and co-writer Christian White have managed to depict such a relatable and humane experience through the genre of horror. In short, Relic is a masterpiece. 

Read the Relic review here.

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