In the oddest of years, which films dominate the AACTAs?

The feature film doomsayers are forced to retreat in confusion once again as lower budget pearlers lock horns with modestly financed Austra-Hollywood gems.

The 2020 AACTAs is a chance to celebrate our evolving commitment to reviews. Rochelle Siemienowicz is a gifted reviewer and editor, who has pulled together a team consisting mostly of Mel Campbell, Anthony Morris, Chris Boyd, Sarah Ward and the legendary Adrian Martin. For the special purposes of Screenhub, we work with people who can deliver clear, entertaining reviews from a consistent perspective, who also understand that screen stories emerge from a gruelling industrial process. 

This year we have six major nominees for the feature film category.

Babyteeth

Babyteeth leads with 12 of the 13 possible nominations. Great team, with Jan Chapman as executive producer and Alex White in the full producer’s seat for the first time after a string of shorts. Director Shannon Murphy has built her career to this first feature as a director from shorts and solid television credits; the writer Rita Kaljenais developed the film from her own play script produced by Belvoir in 2012, part of a solid career as actor, playwright and essayist. 

It was reviewed by Mel Campbell: Babyteeth is a complex portrait of youth

‘Shannon Murphy’s debut feature, adapted by Rita Kalnejais from her stage play, begins with a strikingly literal motif: a disembodied tooth falling through clear water, trailed by shredded streamers of gum tissue, to a string-quartet arrangement of the Stranglers’ paean to heroin addiction, ‘Golden Brown’. The image frames the transition from childhood to adulthood in abject terms: as a loss, a drifting away. And it hints at an entanglement between the altered states produced by both drugs and music.’

The True Story of the Kelly Gang

The True History of the Kelly Gang is nominated ten times. The use of the novel by Peter Carey is inspired, and surely cried out for Justin Kurzel from the moment it was published. From Snowtown to Macbeth to Assassin’s Creed, his particular vision infuses idiosyncratic takes with unshakeable poise, no matter how messy the territory. It’s a tribute to Liz Watts and her determination to take on sophisticated films as well.

Our review comes from Chris Boyd:

‘By treating historical figures as fictional playthings – or ‘public domain’ characters as they’re wont to be called nowadays – Grant and Kurzel are free to genetically modify one of our grandest narratives. They gene-splice bits of Shakespeare into the Kelly myth, casting Ned as Hamlet and Ellen as Gertrude, making something wholly new and wholly original, something surprising and satisfying. “You’re my little man,” Ellen whispers to him after the old man has come home drunk, without food for the family. “You’re to be everything that he isn’t.”‘ 

Read more: Putting Ned Kelly in a dress, an interview with Justin Kurzel by Antony Frajman.

H is For Happiness

H is For Happiness is a bit of surprise with its nine nominations. It is very charming and flips around different visions of reality with aplomb, but it is a kids/family film of modest physical pretensions. From a children’s book by Barry Jonsberg, screenplayed by Lisa Hoppe, this Cyan Films production is directed by John Sheedy who has a solid reputation as a theatre maker. This is Sheedy’s first feature film after a single short, Mrs McCutcheon.

The dramatic appeal of H is for Happiness may be hard to find in the hearts of our more mature and physical members, but the appeal is buttressed by a lot of great craft work which keeps unobtrusively to its frothy style. 

Mel Campbell locked into the tone in her review. 

It took me a long time to warm to the Australian family comedy H Is for Happiness. So many mediocre films indulge in mannered production design and ‘quirky’ dialogue to compensate for the thinness of their storytelling and characters. So when I saw the vaguely retro look of this film – which, by the way, is delightful in its clear, bright colours of red, green, blue, yellow and pink – and met its odd-duck protagonist, Candice Phee (newcomer Daisy Axon), I was like, oh no, here we go again.

But director John Sheedy and screenwriter Lisa Hoppe, adapting Barry Jonsberg’s novel My Life as an Alphabet, have chosen their approach with wisdom, not whimsy. Happily – so to speak – the whole experience of the film is crucial to understanding Candice as a character. Like her, it’s never mean-spirited, angsty and depressive, or self-consciously cutesy, but absolutely earnest and enthusiastic.

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man is the second partnership between writer/director and horror tragic Leigh Whannell, producer Kylie Du Fresne at Goalpost Pictures, and the legendary horror machine of Blumhouse in the US. It was made for around $10m by the special Blumhouse formula, and hit the world screens just before COVID-19. 

The picture made around $8m here, and $160m altogether, split evenly between North America and the rest of the planet. Beautifully executed, extremely smart variation on a traditional trope. 

The Australian Production Designers Guild ran an excellent interview with Alex Holmes about the design work for the film. With Katie Sharrock Holmes, shares a nomination for an AACTA Production Design award.

I am Woman 

I am Woman has seven nominations, including Tilda Cobham-Hervey for her Best Lead actress version of Helen Reddy. We note this here because Cobham-Hervey has taken her unique style and intelligent persona all the way from a micro-budget South Australian feature to the daunting task of inhabiting an international feminist icon. She is competing against Elisabeth Moss, from The Invisible Man, and the formidable British actress Lupita Nyong’o who added dazzle to Little Monsters.

Though the film is nominated for Best Picture, it missed out on Best Director because there is one less slot in this category. Unjoo Moon, an Australian of Korean heritage, has a background in documentary and print journalism so this is her first feature. Right now she is 57 years old. All we can say is, Stuff The Rules. 

Mel Campbell has an interesting take on the film because she is not convinced by the script, which she says collapses into clichés. But the good stuff is very very good.

Together, Cobham-Hervey and Macdonald command the screen. I could have watched a whole movie about Helen’s and Lillian’s chalk-and-cheese friendship. Two outsiders striving to make it in the US, they were both perfectly placed to observe the shifting cultural zeitgeist. And their loyalty to each other is challenged by their divergent professional values – Helen is scared she’s not edgy enough for Lillian, while Lillian expresses her own fear of abandonment on the page, through her brutal, excoriating wit.

Relic

Relic, up for four awards, has a surprising and classy bunch of producers. American actor Jake Gyllenhaal occupies the role, as he often does, along with American Rivka Marker. From the Australian side we have Anna McLeish and Sarah Shaw, whose professional association is nothing short of epic as they fought to create a distinctive corporate vision.  

The director, Natalie Erika James, aka Natalie James, has been around feature production for at least ten years, with four shorts before Relic. She has a cast to die for, led in by Robyn Nevin, with UK actress Emily Mortimer and Melbourne to Hollywood transplant Bella Heathcote. 

Mel Campbell took to this one with glee. 

Decaying, abandoned objects hold a melancholy allure. They are relics: material artefacts of vanished lives. This is why the Titanic continues to fascinate us, and Chernobyl holds its morbid appeal. It’s why urban explorers find romance in disintegrating office buildings, theme parks and resorts. We use these objects to mediate the bleakness when someone dies alone and isn’t discovered until long afterwards.

Relic opens on a montage of dusty objects in a mouldering house, establishing the intense, almost suffocating quietness that makes Natalie Erika James’ directorial debut such an assured cinematic exercise in dread. Our gaze is particularly drawn to an octagonal leadlight window depicting a stylised landscape; this will become a key motif. Windows let in air and light; they mediate between natural and constructed worlds. This window is set in the house’s front door; it invites people inside. It’s a threshold crossed by family and friends who want to understand and care. But it’s also a warning, in the shape of a stop sign. And it allows less welcome presences to make themselves at home.

Missing from the major films in this list is Little Monsters. Anthony Morris chews over the nature of the comedy and explains why Lupita Nyong’o is so important:

It’s possible all this bad behaviour from the men is there to provide a contrast with Miss Caroline – you need a bad character to make the good one stand out. But Nyong’o radiant performance is so strong it’s simply not necessary. When she’s the focus, the whole film steps up a notch, and the scenes where she’s protecting her students, either physically or by pretending the zombies are all playing a game, are easily the high point of the film. 

While the attention is focused on the current crop, Rams is doing as well as possible in this weird time. Anthony Morris marks this as the first post-COVID ace release.  

Despite the publicity push, Rams isn’t exactly a feel-good comedy about Australian farmers. It is possible its variable nature will put off some viewers, even as others will enjoy the way it never quite settles down. It’s a rare pleasure in Australian film to still be unsure where things are going into the third act, but it’s the strong leading performances that bring it all home. Unless you’re a fan of animal husbandry jokes, in which case Rams is a sure-fire smash.

The craft awards. 

The Best Screenplay award pits Rita Kalnejais for Babyteeth up against Abe Forsyth for Little Monsters, Leigh Whannell for The Invisible Man, Natalie Erika James and Christian White for Relic and Shaun Grant for True History of the Kelly Gang.

Best Cinematography is more varied too. Andrew Commis shot Babyteeth, Brad Shield turned out for Bloody Hell, Geoffrey Hall for Escape from Pretoria, Bonnie Elliott for H is for Happiness, and Stefan Duscio for The Invisible Man.

Best Editing added Undertow, which was cut by Julie-Anne De Ruvo and Nick Meyers, while Steve Evans did the honours on Babyteeth, Dany Cooper on I am Woman, Andy Canny for Invisible Man, and Nick Fenton for True History of the Kelly Gang.

Best Sound brings together Sam Hayward, Angus Robertson, Rick Lisle, Nick Emond for Babyteeth, Robert Mackenzie, Ben Osmo, Pete Smith, Tara Webb for I am Woman, P.K Hooker, Will Files, Paul “Salty” Brincat on The Invisible Man, Robert Mackenzie, John Wilkinson, Steve Burgess, Glenn Newnham on Relic, and Frank Lipson, Steve Single, Andrew Neil, Andrew Ramage for True History of the Kelly Gang. 

Best Score? Amanda Brown for Babyteeth, Craig Armstrong for Dirt Music, Nerida Tyson-Chew on H is for Happiness, Rafael May on I am Woman, and Jed Kurzel on True History of the Kelly Gang. 

Production Design? Sheree Phillips for Babyteeth, Michelle Turner and Richie Dehne for I am Woman, Alex Holmes and Katie Sharrock for The Invisible Man, Robert Perkins for Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, and Karen Murphy and Rebecca Cohen for True History of the Kelly Gang.

And Costume Design. Terri Lamera for H is for Happiness, Emily Seresin for I am Woman, Zohie Castellano and Olivia Simpson for Measure for Measure, Nina Edwards for Standing up for Sunny and Alice Babidge for True History of the Kelly Gang. 

Here’s an interview about I am Woman with Unjoo Moon, Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Danielle Macdonald. It is not slick but the trio are a lesson in good humour, professional focus and personal modesty. 

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.