After I completed my Best Australian Films of 2019 list, I took a look over the entries and was surprised at the overwhelming presence of a certain genre among the titles. No, not documentaries or dramas, but instead, the one genre that Australian films are often criticised for not being: comedies.
Me and My Left Brain, Standing Up for Sunny, Hot Mess, Animals, Chocolate Oyster, Palm Beach, Two Heads Creek, Top End Wedding, and a couple that didn’t make the list like Book Week and Little Monsters.
Honestly, it’s been phenomenal to see Aussie comedies making a massive comeback in 2019. Every one of these films would make for a suitable rebuttal to the remark that ‘we just don’t make films that are funny like The Castle or Priscilla’ anymore.
What is a genuine shame is the way that almost every single one of these films failed to find an audience (Top End Wedding is the lone box office success in the bunch). Granted, it was an overall weak year for the Australian box office, with Ride Like a Girl being the biggest success of the bunch, but the mere fact that nobody turned up for some great Aussie comedy is a real shame.
I’m not going to lament the lack of audience attendance for these great films, but instead, I’m going to celebrate their existence and circle out why every one of these films is worth seeking out.
I first saw Alex Lykos’ excellent comedy at home by myself in 2018, and while I found it enjoyable and entertaining, it wasn’t until I saw it again with an audience laughing at the rights comedic beats til I fully appreciated the self-sacrificing comedy that Lykos was delivering. The allusions to Woody Allen are certainly there, but there’s so much more to this utter treat of a film that being a mere homage to Allen’s introspective comedy styling.
Take Rachael Beck and Mal Kennard for example, the MVP support acts to Lykos’ anxious lead character, Arthur. As his mind races, keeping him awake til the early morning, overthinking a potential relationship, as well as his audition in the morning, Arthur tries to encourage sleep to arrive by rubbing one out on the couch. Mal Kennard’s Left Brain – the physical representation of Arthur’s inner mind – sits next to him, egging him on, all the while Rachel Beck’s Vivien slips into his apartment, quietly taking her place next to Arthur as he tries to reach some kind of bliss.
It’s one of the funniest moments in an Aussie film this year, thriving in the moment with the reactionary glances from Beck and Kennard as Lykos fully commits to the bit, overplaying the ecstasy to an extreme comedic level. Yet, as one of the many romantic comedies on the list, Me and My Left Brain, is not completely focused on sex jokes, but instead it’s a genuinely loving film about a guy trying to find his true love. I’m grateful that Alex Lykos is out there in the world creating his brand of entertainment, because we need more multi-hyphenates like Lykos out there – someone who knows how to write a great script, direct it to life, and bring the comedic timing it needs.
Honestly, I adore this film. It’s one of the finest shining examples of Aussie indie filmmaking. Lucy Coleman draws from the extensive indie filmmaking movements in America, providing a welcome ockeristic take on the mumblecore movement. In many ways, this is as Greta Gerwig-ish as you’re gonna get in Australian cinema, with Sarah Gaul’s titular ‘hot mess’ Loz skewing the idle and failing characters that made Gerwig the name that she is in films like Frances Ha and Mistress America.
Yet, what makes Hot Mess such a comedic high point in 2019 is the way Coleman writes pitch perfect dialogue for her troop of women characters. There’s a wealth of equally laugh inducing, mildly cringeworthy scenes to talk about, like the one where Loz sits with her presumed boyfriend and his friends and tries her darndest to impress them, or her earlier attempt to have sex with him and his refusal due to ‘religious reasons’, but the best part has to be the ever hilarious opening sequence where Loz sits down to write a song about committing suicide via toxic shock syndrome.
It’s a darkly hilarious tone to kick the film off on, and Coleman successfully manages to weave the laughs through the deeply human and relatable film. Loz is both equally pathetic and endearing, loving and losing. She is so many of us, that while we laugh at her actions, we’re also consistently laughing with her. Y’know, we’re so often told by the boomers on the internet that we should ‘learn to laugh at ourselves’, and Hot Mess is a film that does exactly that. Coleman writes the film from a place of knowing and understanding, and celebrates the failures of millennials. I adore this film, and cannot wait to see more people fall for it in 2020 like I did.
Top End Wedding was a worthy success in 2019, a film that was co-written and driven by the heart and wonder of one ever joyous Miranda Tapsell. I’ve said this before, but if we could somehow tap into the luminous energy that Tapsell’s smile creates, we’d probably solve our energy problems. She simply lights up the screen like no other Aussie actress has in recent years, and it’s her performance as Lauren in this utterly heartwarming romantic comedy that resonates as one of the best of the year.
For some reason, the romantic comedy genre went on a bit of a hiatus. Maybe it was the over Matthew McConnaugh-isation of the genre that killed it off, or maybe it was that time that Hollywood tried to make Dane Cook a romantic lead? Either way, it disappeared for too long. But, with films like Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe out in the world, the romcom field is getting a much needed facelift. Thankfully, Australia isn’t left behind, with what is possibly the first romantic comedy with an Indigenous voice.
For the most part, Top End Wedding is sweet and loveable, providing a fair amount of chuckles and laughs along the way – mostly at the expense of the great Huw Higginson playing Lauren’s love-lost dad -, but in great romantic comedy tradition, it’s how the film wraps up that makes this one extra special. Honestly, the climax to Top End Wedding is an instant all timer, with the titular wedding taking place amongst the finest of families on the glorious Tiwi Islands. This is a purely smile inducing finale, one that squeezed more than a few happy tears out. I hope it’s not long before we see Miranda Tapsell back on the big screen, because after The Sapphires, this, and that extra hilarious episode of Get Krack!n, she has easily become one of the finest comedic talents this country has ever seen.
Two Heads Creek
Horror comedies are a difficult thing to pull off – how do you balance the horror, and how do you balance the comedy? Lean too far to one direction, and it loses the essence of the other. Fortunately, director Jesse O’Brien and writer Jordan Waller managed to perfectly blend the two genres in Two Heads Creek, arguably one of the finest horror comedies in Australian film history.
What makes this film work so darn well is how hard Waller leans on the cultural cringe of Australia, focusing on the eccentric nature of hardcore nationalists, and sending up their lunacy to extreme levels. Helen Dallimore leads the pack of cringeworthy outback freaks as Apple, a matron who runs the titular town, providing a place for refugees to come and live. Only, instead of them finding a place of safety and welcome, they’re quickly slaughtered and turned into beef casserole.
The line between highlighting a genuine issue and making a mockery of those who engage with rampant xenophobia is straddled perfectly here, with the outrageous and exaggerated hard right wing maniacs who run the town getting their just desserts. Honestly, I can’t wait to see Two Heads Creek on repeat endlessly at home given how many lines I missed due to laughing so loudly. This is Australia’s answer to Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, a perfectly performed, uproariously bloody horror comedy affair. Now, has anyone got a right wing nut?
I stand by the fact that if Standing Up for Sunny were given a proper marketing budget and a wide release that it may have had a genuine impact out there in the world. This is mostly because this is seriously one of the most hilarious films of the year. Standing Up for Sunny is partly focused around the world of stand up comedy, but that in itself doesn’t make it a comedic film. No, it’s the lived-in characters that Steve Vidler creates and crafts to perfection with his lead actors RJ Mitte and Philippa Northeast.
Both actors deliver some of the finest comedic performances this year, ensuring that Standing Up for Sunny will become the sort of film that people will discover down the line and say, why the heck did I miss watching this when it first came out? I can already hear people saying, ‘I had no idea the guy from Breaking Bad could be so funny’, and yeah, you’re right, RJ Mitte is genuinely hilarious. His stand up comedy sequences, all delivered with a bag on his head, are frank and funny, and knowing that Mitte did do a few stand up gigs makes me wish that he’d continue that as he’s a master at comedic timing.
But, the shining star of the piece is Philippa Northeast. Portraying the titular Sunny, Philippa manages to balance the same comedic beats and the human elements that makes this film not only a relatable one, but a hugely memorable affair as well. The way that both Philippa and RJ spit out comedic retorts is effortless, and the fact that the comedy isn’t afraid to go into some darker places – as all great comedy should – is why this one is a major winner. Again, this deserves a wide audience, so when it comes to home video, watch it with a few people around, you’ll love it more with lots of laughter.
Elsewhere, we saw the way that real life hi-jinks made for entertaining laughs in the doco Koko: A Red Dog Story. In Sophie Hyde’s Animals, a hilarious flashback sequence shows life before childhood with Amy Molloy’s sister character Jean getting more than a little inebriated and exuberant in public. Steve Jaggi’s titular Chocolate Oyster story is one of cringe inducing laughter, especially as the enter debacle unfurls on screen in all its glory thanks to a perfect performance from Aaron Glenane. In Abe Forsyth’s zom-com Little Monsters, it’s Josh Gad’s OTT kids performer who brings about the laughs from the pitch black comedy he delivers so masterfully, and Lupita Nyong’o’s sweet singing of Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off as a zombie horde follows is cutely comedic. While Palm Beach may not be an out-and-out comedy, it is the tender, uplifting fare that has usually come from the UK, with a fare few laughs mined from the women of the film engaging in some harmless yoga. Finally, Heath Davis’ Book Week mastered the hilarity that comes with a frustrated teacher full of resentment for his students, friends, lover, and literally everyone else.
It’s been a killer year for Australian films, but I really hope that when this one is logged away in the history books that it’s the fact that Australian comedy made a massive comeback that makes this one a memorable year.