The most anticipated Australian films of 2020

From Ned Kelly to Miss Fisher, via Helen Reddy, Bangarra, The Invisible Man and The Dry there's a lot to look out for on the big screen.
The most anticipated Australian films of 2020 Romance, adventure and escape. 'Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears' is one of the glossier offerings on the slate. Image courtesy Roadshow.
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Rochelle Siemienowicz

Thursday 23 January, 2020

Most anticipated? We've cheated a little with that headline, because these are actually all the Australian films we could find with cinema dates and distributors attached. We've included a few yet-to-be dated films too.

It's only the beginning of the year, and more films will emerge quickly out the end of the theatrical pipeline, especially after they've proved themselves at festivals. With these titles, we notice some trends already: Female-led psychological thrillers, a couple of good-looking family films, a definite focus on Indigenous subjects in both documentaries and fiction. There's some intelligent adult drama alongside pure escapism. Established names and production companies are dominant, with a few newcomers running alongside.

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Here's the schedule so far, date by date. 

True History of the Kelly Gang (Transmission/Stan) January 9

Directed by Justin Kurzel, with a screenplay by Shaun Grant, based on the novel by Peter Carey, this Stan original drops on the streamer from 26 January as an Australia Day event. Produced by Liz Watts, Hal Vogel, Justin Kurzel, Paul Ranford, and starring George MacKay,  Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Louis Hewson, Charlie Hunnam and Russell Crowe.

Synopsis: An epic, fictionalised re-telling of the life of legendary Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, revealing the essence behind his notorious life. 

Our reviewer, Chris Boyd, calls it unmissable.

Go! (Roadshow) January 16

Directed by Owen Trevor, written by Steve Worland and produced by Sonia Borella and Jamie Hilton (See Pictures Ltd), this kids’ film about go-kart racing stars Richard Roxburgh, Frances O'Connor, Dan Wyllie, Will Lodder, Anastasia Bampos, Darius Amarfio-Jefferson and Cooper Van Grootel.

Synopsis: Jack (14) is a charismatic larrikin who has just discovered the one thing he is really good at - go-kart racing. With the support of his mentor, Patrick (55), an old race car driver with a secret past, and his best mates Colin and Mandy (both 15), Jack must learn to control his recklessness if he is to defeat the best drivers in Australia, including the ruthless champion Dean, and win the National title. A high-octane family film from the writer and studio of Paper Planes and the acclaimed director of the UK version of Top Gear.

Our reviewer, Anthony Morris, says it’s a tad predictable, but reliably fun and entertaining.

H is for Happiness (R&R Films) February 6

Just announced this week as the opening film of the Generation KPlus section of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, H is for Happiness is the feature debut from long-time theatre director John Sheedy. The family film premiered at MIFF 2019 and won the top prize at CinefestOz. Based on the young adult novel My Life as an Alphabet by Australian author Barry Jonsberg, it’s adapted for the screen by writer/producer Lisa Hoppe, who produced with Julie Ryan (Red Dog) and Tennille Kennedy. The film stars newcomers Daisy Axon and Wesley Pattern, with Richard Roxburgh, Emma Booth and Joel Jackson.

Synopsis:  A twelve year old girl with boundless optimism and a unique view of the world, is inspired by the strange new boy at school and sets out to mend her broken family – whatever it takes.

The Leunig Fragments (Madman) February 13

This documentary about cartoonist and artist Michael Leunig is written and directed by Kasimir Burges and produced by Philippa Campey (Film Camp). After premiering at Sydney Film Festival 2019, and screening at MIFF, BIFF and Byron Bay, The Leunig Fragments comes to cinemas amidst recent and mounting controversies over his criticism of vaccinationproponents of equal marriage rights, and mothers who own phones.

Synopsis: A prismic view of acclaimed cartoonist-philosopher Michael Leunig. Filmed over five eventful years, we observe Michael grappling with life, art and mortality. The reflections of an ageing man encompass the curious boy-Leunig; past, present and future hopes and dreams collide in this portrait of one of Australia’s most prolific artists.

In My Blood it Runs, (Bonsai/Closer Productions) February 20

This acclaimed documentary from filmmaker Maya Newell (Gayby Baby) premiered at HotDocs in Canada and was selected for the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals before also screening at the United Nations last year, where the 12-year-old Indigenous star Dujuan Hoosan became the youngest person ever to address the United Nations Human Rights Council. Produced by Sophie Hyde, Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, Larissa Behrendt and Maya Newell, the film screens at selected cinemas and through FanForce, and will be shown to MPs in Canberra, and according to the press release, Dujuan wants meet with the Prime Minister Scott Morrison: “Adults don’t listen to kids like me, but we have important things to say. I want to go to Parliament and show the Prime Minister my movie so he can make things better for us kids, stop cruelling 10 year old kids in jail. Make schools that are run by Aboriginal people. And stop the racism in Australia.” he said.

Synopsis: Ten-year-old Dujuan is an extraordinary 10-year-old Arrernte/Garrwa boy from central Australia. He’s a child-healer, a good hunter and speaks three languages. As he shares his wisdom of history and the complex world around him we see his spark and intelligence. Yet Dujuan is 'failing' in school and facing increasing scrutiny from welfare and the police. As he travels perilously close to incarceration, his family fight to give him a strong Arrernte education alongside his western education lest he becomes another statistic. We walk with him as he grapples with these pressures, shares his truths and somewhere in-between finds space to dream, imagine and hope for his future self.

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (Roadshow) February 27

This one’s going to be big, especially among the legion of fans of TV's favourite lady detective, Phryne Fisher, who finally gets her first feature film outing. Directed by Tony Tilse, written by Deb Cox, and produced by Every Cloud Productions’ Fiona Eagger, Lucy Maclaren and Cox, the partly crowd-funded mystery-adventure stars Essie Davis and Nathan Page.

Synopsis: In her debut cinematic adventure, detective-extraordinaire, the Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher embarks on a globe-trotting romp of mystery and mayhem across the exotic 1920s deserts of the Negev, glamorous manor-house ballrooms, and the darkened back alleys of London. After freeing a young Bedouin girl, Shirin Abbas, from her unjust imprisonment in Jerusalem, Miss Fisher begins to unravel a wartime mystery concerning a priceless jewel, an ancient curse and the truth behind the suspicious disappearance of Shirin’s forgotten tribe.

After premiering at Palm Springs in January, Roadshow will release on 200-plus screens in Australia. Acorn TV, which pre-bought North American rights, plans a cinema release in about 12 US cities, targeting those with the biggest Phryne Fisher fan base, before a roll-out on the streaming platform.

The Invisible Man (Universal Pictures) February 27

Is it an Australian film? The usual discussions will be had about this Australian/US co-production, a horror thriller loosely adapted from H.G. Wells' famous story, by writer, director and producer Leigh Whannell, one of the original conceivers of the Saw franchise. Like Whannell's Upgrade (2018), The Invisible Man is a co-production between Jason Blumhouse's Blumhouse Productions and Kylie du Fresne of Goalpost Pictures Australia. Shot in Sydney, the film stars Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid and Harriet Dyer.

Synopsis: Trapped in a violent, controlling relationship with a wealthy and brilliant scientist, Cecilia Kass (Moss) escapes in the dead of night and disappears into hiding, aided by her sister, their childhood friend, and his teenage daughter. But when Cecilia’s abusive ex commits suicide and leaves her a generous portion of his vast fortune, Cecilia suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of eerie coincidences turns lethal, threatening the lives of those she loves, Cecilia’s sanity begins to unravel as she desperately tries to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

The Wishmas Tree (Odin’s Eye) February 27

This cute-sounding Brisbane-made animated film premiered at the 2019 Brisbane Film Festival. Directed by Richard Cusso Judson, written by Peter Ivan and Ryan Greaves, it’s produced by Nadine Bates, Kristen Souvlis, with Michael Favelle one of the EP’s. Voice talent includes Miranda Tapsell and Ross Noble.

Synopsis: A young possum's misguided wish for a white Wishmas freezes her entire hometown of Sanctuary City and threatens all who live there.

Undertow (Mind Blowing World) March 5

A MIFF Premiere Fund film, written and directed by Miranda Nation and produced by Lyn Norfor, with Liz Watts as executive producer, this psychological thriller shot around Geelong and the Surf Coast, stars Olivia DeJonge, Laura Gordon, Rob Collins and Josh Helman. The film had its US Premiere at the Austin Film Festival and International Premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year, and was praised by The Guardian for its richly evoked and gripping female-centred story.

Synopsis: Struggling to accept the loss of her baby, Claire becomes suspicious of her husband's relationship with a feisty young woman, Angie. When she discovers Angie is pregnant, Claire develops an increasingly irrational obsession with her that puts both their lives in danger. Only when confronted by the explosive secret behind Angie's pregnancy does Claire begin to reclaim her sanity.

Never Too Late (R&R Films) April 23

A cast of golden oldies heads up this comedy set and shot in Perth: James Cromwell, Dennis Waterman, Shane Jacobson, Jacki Weaver, Jack Thompson and Roy Billing. It's directed by Mark Lamprell (My Mother Frank), written by Luke Preston and produced by Antony I. Ginnane and David Lightfoot.

Synopsis: It has been a long time since Caine, Bronson, Angus and Wendell, AKA, ‘The Chain Breakers,’ escaped the torturous Vietnamese POW camp. They now find themselves sharing a new prison, The Hogan Hills Retirement Home for Returned Veterans. Each of the boys has an unrealised dream they want to achieve. So they band together to devise a plan to escape this new hell. But the rules of engagement have changed, in fact, they can’t even remember what they were and that’s half the problem. A cross between Grumpy Old Men and The Great Escape, about four mates reconciling after years apart to teach each other that it’s never too late to chase your dreams.

I Am Woman (Transmission) 21 May

This biopic about Australian-born musician and 1970s activist Helen Reddy premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. Directed and produced by Unjoo Moon, written by Emma Jenson, and produced by Rosemary Blight (Goalpost), the film stars Tilda Cobham-Hervey in the lead, alongside Danielle Macdonald and Evan Peters.

Synopsis: The story of Helen Reddy, who in 1966 landed in New York with her three-year-old daughter, a suitcase and $230 in her pocket. Within weeks she was broke. Within months she was in love. Within five years she was one of the biggest superstars of her time, and an icon of the 1970’s feminist movement, who wrote a song which galvanized a generation of women to fight for change.

Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra (Icon) June 2020

Firestarter will mark the 30th anniversary of Australia’s most iconic performing arts company: Bangarra Dance Theatre. Told through the personal family story of its celebrated and longstanding artistic director, Stephen Page, the feature documentary is co-written and co-directed by Nel Minchin and Wayne Blair, alongside Ivan O’Mahoney and executive producer Nial Fulton.

Synopsis: Interweaving exclusive and intimate behind-the-scenes footage, Firestarter uncovers the roots of Stephen Page’s artistic activism and the socio-political context from which he and Bangarra have grown. 

The Dry (Roadshow) August 27

There's a lot of anticipation around this crime thriller adapted from Jane Harper’s award-winning 2016 novel of the same name, and originally slated for January. It's directed by Robert Connolly, who co-wrote the screenplay with Harry Cripps and the producers are Bruna Papandrea (Made Up Stories), Jodi Matterson and Steve Hutensky. Eric Bana stars in a cast including Genevieve O’Reilly, Keir O’Donnell and John Polson.

Synopsis: After an absence of twenty years, Aaron Falk returns to his drought-stricken hometown to investigate an apparent murder-suicide committed by his childhood friend, Luke Hadler. But when Aaron's investigation opens a decades old wound - the unsolved death of 16-year-old Ellie Deacon – Aaron must struggle to prove not only Luke's innocence but his own.

TBC Dates

Hearts and Bones (Madman)

Directed by Ben Lawrence (Ghosthunter), who co-wrote with Beatrix Christian, Hearts and Bones stars Hugo Weaving as a Sydney war photographer haunted by what he witnessed on assignment in Africa.  Produced by Matt Reeder, the film premiered at SFF 2019, and had its international premiere at Toronto where it was nominated for the Discovery Award. It was well reviewed by the likes of The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, who praised its complex depiction of contemporary multicultural Sydney.

Synopsis: A shell-shocked photojournalist, haunted by what he has witnessed on assignment in Africa, returns home on the eve of becoming a father. When one of his photographs threatens to destroy a Sudanese refugee’s new life, the two men are reunited by nightmare events from the past. In the wake of a tragedy, a startling revelation forces each survivor to help the other find hope again. Hearts and Bones is a story about the mysterious bonds of family, friendship and fatherhood.

Babyteeth (Universal Pictures on behalf of eOne)

Shannon Murphy’s debut feature premiered in competition for the Golden Lion at Venice in 2019, with a Marcello Mastroianni Award winner for young actor Toby Wallace. The bittersweet comedy was adapted by Rita Kalnejais from her stageplay, and produced by Alex White. Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis star alongside Wallace, Eliza Scanlen and Alexandra Demetriades.

Synopsis: When seriously ill teenager Milla falls madly in love with smalltime drug dealer Moses, it’s her parents’ worst nightmare. But as Milla's first brush with love brings her a new lust for life, things get messy and traditional morals go out the window. Milla soon shows everyone in her orbit - her parents, Moses, a sensitive music teacher, a budding child violinist, and a disarmingly honest pregnant neighbor – how to live like you have nothing to lose. What might have been a disaster for the Finlay family instead leads to letting go and finding grace in the glorious chaos of life.

Relic (Umbrella)

With its world premiere at Sundance just behind it, we’ll likely see this psychological horror on the local slate this year. Directed by Natalie Erika James, who co-wrote with bestselling novelist and screenwriter Christian White, Relic is produced by Sarah Shaw and Anna McLeish (Carver Films) and Jake Gyllenhall and Riva Marker (Nine Stories). The cast includes Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote.

Synopsis: When Edna, the elderly and widowed matriarch of the family, goes missing, her daughter Kay and granddaughter Sam travel to their remote family home to find her. Soon after her return, they start to discover a sinister presence haunting the house and taking control of Edna.

High Ground (Madman)

No sign of this Bunya Films production on any release schedules yet, but the Aussie Western directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson (Yolngu Boy) has this week been announced as having its world premiere in the Berlinale Special Screenings section of the Berlin International Film Festival. Inspired by true events and written by Chris Anastassiades, High Ground was shot in Kakadu and Arnhem Land, and produced by David Jowsey, Stephen Maxwell Johnson, Witivana Marika, Maggie Miles and Greer Simpkin. It stars Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey, Jack Thompson, Aaron Pederson and newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul.

Synopsis: 1919. WW1 sniper Travis, now a policeman in the vast and remote landscape of Northern Australia, loses control of an operation resulting in the massacre of an Indigenous tribe. With his superior officers intent on burying the truth Travis leaves disgusted before being forced back twelve years later in the hunt for outlaw Baywara, an Aboriginal warrior attacking new-settlers. Recruiting Gutjuk as his Tracker, Travis realises this young mission-raised Indigenous man is the only known massacre-survivor. When the truths of Travis’ past actions are suddenly revealed, it is he who becomes the hunted.

About the author

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the the co-host of Australia's longest running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press.

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