Best Australian Films 2020: plunging into genre, betting the audience gets the point

As the screen sector contemplates the same small group of films, we ask what we mean by quality.

What is the Australian hero film of the year? The answer takes us straight into the post-colonial tall-poppy genre=bad/art=good quicksand around Australian identity and the power of filthy lucre.

We have one box office success which is in profit around the world. That film is The Invisible Man. Released in the middle of March, it made $150m around the world and $5.52m in Australia before COVID-19 struck. Director Leigh Whannell shows us once again the value of a talented director whose approach is honed by international experience. 

The producers’ poetry

The Invisible Man is the second collaboration between Goalpost Pictures and the LA genre powermasters at Blumhouse. It was shot here, and written as well as directed by Whannell, whose association with James Wan is probably the most successful Australian genre collaboration ever. It started with the Saw franchise, on which Whannell moved from writer to writer-director. 

In a way, the artform which this project emphasises is the secret producer poetry of building a project which transcends borders, contains its budget, reworks favourite material, brings in key performers like Elisabeth Moss, hooks a substantial audience, is released at exactly the right time and makes a heap at the box office. And it went online at exactly the right moment. 

It made at least $15 at the box office from every $1 of the budget, which was around $10 million, although Blumhouse budgets are unusual entities which share risk with the creative principals. 

Read more: Can Hollywood be turned against itself? Horror God Jason Blum shows how.

The popular success 

After seven weeks Rams is still on 190 screens and has taken $4.2m. Lead actors Sam Neill, Michael Caton, Asher Keddie and Miranda Richardson share a superpower ability to enchant a large Australian demographic into the cinema to share some laughs, some tears and a shock of recognition, all based on a film which producers Janelle Landers and Aidan O’Bryan spotted when it was hidden inside an Icelandic drama full of snow rather than dust. 

Read: Film review: Rams rides home on the sheep’s back

That decision was a touch of genius. This film is also a success which builds on experience. Director Jeremy Sims started as an actor, with a WA theatre company called Pork Chop Productions, originally set up with Kym Wilson in 1995.

Sims then turned an early Cribbs play, The Return, into a contained low budget film called Last Train to Freo, which took only $100,000 at the box office but put Sims on the map as a film talent. Four years later, his Beneath Hill 60 off a David Roach script, brought World War One to another broad audience as the lead-up to the Anzac centenary began. It had an $8.2m budget, was on 160 screens and made $4.3m in 2020 $. 

Then Pork Chop made Last Cab to Darwin as a feature film with a $4m budget. It took $8m off a [surprise!] wide demographic and was loved in regional cinemas, partly because of Jackie Weaver. It is respected as a popular success by the Australian film industry, and Screen Australia supported Sandy George to write a thorough set of articles about the financials.

Sims has also made some good television, like episodes of Doctor, Doctor and A Place to Call Home before he worked with WMBC, a WA company which emerged with low budget feature Wasted on the Young, and now claims offices in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, and a first look deal with UK outfit WestEnd, which has sold the Rams rights to North America, the UK, chunks of Europe and China.  

Arthouse challenger

The Australian film of the year turned out to be Babyteeth, which took over the AACTA Awards like  a mass cult with a few abstentions. It also has an honour we hope is never possible again – it went into cinemas on a limited release, dropped 37% in its third weekend and then simply hung in week by week like a reliable friend in a time of ghastly adversity. 

It has made around $1.2m around the world, with $300,000 from The Netherlands and $260,000 from the United Kingdom, though the US market did not fire beyond some exploratory screenings as COVID killed the opportunity.

As of the second weekend in December 2020, it is down to 7 screens after 21 weeks, with $440k in sales. It is available to rent online from the major streaming sites, with a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes to encourage international viewers. 

The picture cut through so many gloomy theories about the film sector. As we said in August: To all the naysayers who are mocking Australian movies once again, Babyteeth is a challenge. It is executive produced by Jan Chapman, who has a genius record in her own right, the producer Alex White is a force, director Shannon Murphy is gifted in film and theatre, the cast contains Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfidder, Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn. It had heavy agency involvement, Entertainment One was on board and Universal handles the distribution. The critics love it, the pic has transgenerational appeal and audiences get a tough-minded but happy ending. It ran well at the Venice and London Film Festivals.

Read more: Babyteeth is a complex portrait of youth

This Christmas there are several ‘young people with cancer, be sad but hopeful as you whimper’ pictures. The LA Times has a compelling interview with Shannon Murphy which encapsulates the mindset to get beyond the problem:

On the page when you try to describe this film, it sounds like a lot of things we’ve seen before, but I think it’s essential when you choose to make a project as a filmmaker that you’re showing a new version of whatever story you’re telling. And so we knew we had to steer far away from melodramatic cliché, over-sentimentalizing a young person’s illness. And it was important to me that we gave Milla an authentic life. So we didn’t want to just focus on the illness, that she’s driven by all the desires that teenagers have and then magnified by necessity to accelerate her life rapidly.

The power of adaptation

With different finance plans, and different audiences, these three films have one thing in common. They are all adaptations. Babyteeth was based on a 2012 play by actress Rita Kalnejais, who developed her stage writing career through Melbourne’s Black Box and the Sydney Theatre Company, and attended the Sydney Film School in 2008. Her career has expanded to London, and she is working on screen projects for both countries. She wrote the film of Babyteeth.

Rams comes from the successful arthouse Icelandic film; the DNA of theatrical adaptation is woven through the project through Jeremy Sims. 

The Invisible Man ultimately comes from the H.G Wells 1897 book of the same name which inspired at least thirteen films. He was an important figure in the evolution of science fiction, who also wrote The Time Machine. The War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr Moreau. His own history was pretty dark in a class-infested world, and he remained a committed socialist who saw his most imaginative fiction in political terms. That is a grotesque summary of a giant in popular and genre fiction. 

These three projects are all road-tested before their filmic versions, and have extremely sturdy foundations in character and metaphorical terms.

These three projects are all road-tested before their filmic versions, and have extremely sturdy foundations in character and metaphorical terms. We know exactly how they work structurally and their ultimate creators are drenched in story. 

We could add The True History of the Kelly Gang to this list, as it is based on the Peter Carey book which is a perverse and unstable retelling of history in the way that a European saga is derived from the past. In Australia the film took $116k off 16 screens late in the Xmas season and passed happily to Stan, while it took $132k in the UK, $215k in Russia and $45k in North America. 

Read: Film review: H is for Happiness is delightful

Ditto H is for Happiness, the young people’s film based on the popular book, which took $190k and is now on Prime Video and Google Play. That too is pre-Covid. With both of these films the producers had fair warning about the fantastical elements; to their credit the films kept faith with their conception. Would more strictly realist version have done better? Not possible with either of them so we will never know. Reviews for the Kelly film are all over the place.

Looking forward into 2021

The next popular Australian film may well be Penguin Bloom, due out on January 21 next year via Roadshow. Again, this is an adaptation, from a true story told in a book of photographs. In a review which takes this film very serious, The Guardian ends with this:

It’s a handsomely made and sturdy little movie, mercifully devoid of cloying sentimentality, an old-fashioned throwback for families in search of something safe and superhero-free that might not sing quite as loud as it could have but flies just about high enough nonetheless.

There is a particular tension around this film, at least for observers who haven’t seen any audience responses. The basic meaning stuff is pretty obvious, but the elements are touching; if audiences see it as a grown up family film it could do very well in mainstream outlets, or it could collapse in a puddle on the late summer floor. 

Australian producers poured into genre to create a slew of films which have lots of possibilities. 

Victoria Wharfe McIntyre wrote and directed The Flood, which she produced with Craig Deeker, Steve Jaggi and Amadeo Marquez Perez. The synopsis starts like this:

‘Set during WWII, the film is the story of Jarah’s (Alexis Lane) coming-of-age in a brutal and lawless land – growing from a sweet child to a strong, independent and ferocious woman taking on Australia’s corrupt and bigoted system one bad guy at a time.’

It is already out on Fanforce in a small release. Madman holds all the Australian rights so its bets are on streaming, while XYZ has rights to North America. At the moment it said to be buying a lot of completed content to fill the hole left by the pandemic, which is both a smart strategy and perhaps an opportunity for The Flood.

The Furnace started in a small way on December 11. Robert Mackay’s debut film took him to the Venice Film Festival, and word of mouth is working in its favour. This story about the WA frontier has the 1890’s, a cache of stolen gold in need of a good smelting, and a wild collection of outsiders from all over the world. According to The Guardian

Setting the record straight also meant including Indigenous Australians in the narrative. The Aboriginal characters feature heavily and, as they did in real life, embrace cameleers and in some instances invite them to live within their communities. “It makes a lot of sense,” says MacKay. “A lot of the cameleers came from tribal-based cultures, deeply spiritual, nomadic people and obviously, a lot of these traits are shared by Aboriginal people. And then they both received a great deal of prejudice from the colonial Anglo-Celtic community. So that laid the foundation for this bond.

Read: Film review: The Furnace is an exciting western delivering history by stealth

Robert Connelly’s The Dry is due out on Dec 31. Based on a book by Jane Harper and co-written with Harry Cripps, it brings Connelly back to direct for the big screen after Balibo and Paper Planes. The synopsis seems almost routine, as in ‘Eric Bana stars as a troubled investigator dragged back to his home town in a sombre Australian thriller.’ But Connolly shapes his career on social conscience and this film turns on a suicide deep in a long drought, not some nightmare killer with a high pitched giggle who you know will use a child as a human shield.

Read: Author Jane Harper watches The Dry turning into a film

Madman is releasing High Ground on January 28. According to the synopsis, ‘In a bid to save the last of his family, Gutjuk, a young Aboriginal man, teams up with ex-soldier Travis to track down Baywara, the most dangerous warrior in the Territory, his uncle.’ The Yolngu Boy team of director Stephen Johnson and writer Chris Anastassiades are deep in genre territory here, and producers David Jowsey, Maggie Miles and Greer Simpkin will be hoping that an upside down Western promises enough to grab an audience. 

The reinvention of the Western as a vehicle for the Indigenous experience has been a favourite of Bunya Productions, which is part of the mix here, with Mystery Road, Sweet Country and Goldstone among its credits, which surely reflects the influence of Ivan Sen, responsible for two of these titles. It is too easy to notice a cluster of films and call them a trend when they are mostly connected to one company.

Read: Film review: High Ground delivers its own reckoning

But here we have a spread and three of the four are by different companies. To see a diverse group of Australian filmmakers using the clapped-out conventions of an old racist and sexist tradition from the US via Italy to confront our historical nightmares is fun on a formal level. Genre is a game, after all. 

But it also looks like a fascinating way of engaging with the pain in our society today. All these stories, from The Invisible Man to True History of the Kelly Gang show us the need to push genre much further, but retain the coolest of cool control. Right now, that is what we mean by quality – although this particular genre tends to be very, very boysy. 

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.