The most anticipated Australian films of 2020

From Relic to Rams, Slim and I and Babyteeth, our updated list for COVID-19 has films to look out for on socially distanced screens.

Updated 18 August 2020. First published 21 January 2020.

Most anticipated? We’ve cheated a little with that headline. These are actually all the Australian films we could find with distributors and dates (sometimes) attached. Some of them are straight to streaming services too. It’s a very fuzzy landscape right now as COVID-19 scrambled schedules around the world from March onwards. It continues to be a week-by-week proposition, with variations for different States.

Some trends we notice: There are female-led psychological thrillers (Undertow, Relic, The Invisible Man); comedies for older audiences (Never Too Late, Rams) and some quiet good-looking family fare (H is for Happiness, Go!). Kriv Stenders has a couple of documentaries about iconic Australians –  Peter Brock and Slim Dusty  – and there’s one about Leunig too. Some newcomer female directors like Natalie Erica James (Relic), Shannon Murphy (Babyteeth) and Unjoo Moon (I Am Woman) get their films released in unexpectedly changed theatrical circumstances. 

We’re still looking out for dates for some big pictures including Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s High Ground, Gregor Jordan’s Dirt Music and Robert Connolly’s The Dry.

Stay tuned and support your local cinemas wherever it’s safe and possible to do so. Let us know if we’ve missed a film and we’ll try to include it in the next update.

Here’s the schedule for 2020 so far, date by date. 

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

Directed by Justin Kurzel, with a screenplay by Shaun Grant, based on the novel by Peter Carey, this Stan original dropped on the streamer on 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, called it unmissable.

Go! (Roadshow) cinemas January 16, now online. 

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, said it was reliably fun and entertaining.

H is for Happiness (R&R Films) cinemas February 6, now online.

Announced 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.

Our reviewer, Mel Campbell, found it delightful.

The Leunig Fragments (Madman) cinemas February 13, now online.

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 came to cinemas amidst recent and mounting controversies over his criticism of vaccinationproponents of equal marriage rights, and mothers who own phones.

Synopsis: A prismatic 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.

Our reviewer, Anthony Morris, found it a very revealing portrait

In My Blood it Runs, (Bonsai/Closer Productions) cinemas February 20. On ABC and iview from 5 July.

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 screened at selected cinemas and through FanForce, and was shown to MPs in Canberra.

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.

Read more: Maya Newell: Don’t be afraid of doing things differently

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (Roadshow) February 27, now online.

Fans of TV’s favourite lady detective, Phryne Fisher are legion and Phryne gets her first feature film outing here, 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 released on 200-plus screens in Australia and now has it online. Acorn TV, which pre-bought North American rights, has it too.

Read more: Essie Davis on glamour, get-ups and compromises

The Invisible Man (Universal) cinemas February 27, and still going strong during lockdown.

This Australian/US co-production is 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 in Australia. Shot in Sydney, the film stars Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid and Harriet Dyer. Recent box office reports suggest there’s still hunger for this low budget high concept thriller.

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) cinemas February 27, now online.

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.

Read more: Undertow: Developing and financing an arthouse feature

The Mid-Year Pandemic Landscape

The Legend of the Five (Filmink Presents), cinemas 25 June

The first Australian film to be released in theatres as restrictions ease is PG-rated family fantasy adventure The Legend of the Five, just in time for school holidays, and distributed by Filmink Presents. The directing debut of Mad Max’s Joanne Samuel, and starring The Conjuring 2’s Lauren Esposito.

Synopsis: When a group of misfit teenagers encounter an ancient relic during a school trip, they find themselves caught up in a magical world, with elemental powers beyond their belief, and the responsibility of stopping an age old evil from destroying the world.

Brock Over the Top (Universal), cinemas 25 June

Kriv Stenders’ feature-length documentary about racing car driver Peter Brock will take rev-heads out of the house, but many others will remember this iconic Australian too. It’s produced by Veronica Fury.

Synopsis: Chronicles the extraordinary life of Australia’s greatest racing car driver, Peter Brock, but peels away the surface to reveal the profoundly human story behind the legend. This film is a cinematic, thrilling yet intimately personal portrait of a life lived on the racing track and in the public eye. Using a treasure trove of rare archival material coupled with candid interviews with the key characters in Peter Brock’s life including his family, his partners, and closest colleagues, this film tells the epic story of Brock’s early obsession with cars, his hard won ascension to the top, his incredible record-breaking victories at Bathurst, his various professional and personal controversies, and his ultimate, tragic death on the race track.

The Taverna, (Rescued Films) 2 July

The latest film from Melbourne filmmaker Alkinos Tsimilidos (Tom White, Blind Company), The Taverna is a low-budget black comedy set inside a Greek restaurant in Melbourne over one night. Produced by Jayden James and Tsimilidos, it stars Vangelis Mourikis, Rachel Kamath, Senol Mat, Emmanuela Costaras, Peter Paltos, Maria Mercedes, Tottie Goldsmith and Salman Arif.

Synopsis: Taverna owner Kostas gets more than he bargained for when his popular belly dancer refuses to work to avoid her ex-husband and his new girlfriend, and is replaced at the last minute by one of his eager waitresses. Matters are further complicated by a kidnapping, a scooter accident involving Kostas’ son, a well-meaning chef who cooks up rare treat and a sleazy customer who doesn’t know his limits. It all adds up to a darkly comic ride into the wild side of life, love, food and cultural differences.

Relic (Umbrella), Stan from 10 July.

A female-centric psychological horror film that premiered at Sundance, Relic is directed by Natalie Erika James, who co-wrote with bestselling novelist and screenwriter Christian WhiteRelic 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.

Never Too Late (R&R Films) previously April, now 15 October (USA & Canada via virtual cinema 15 July).

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.

Hearts and Bones (Madman), now online, and also in cinemas July.

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.

Read: Film Review: Hearts and Bones is warm and human.

Babyteeth (Universal Pictures), in cinemas from 23 July

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 (who just won the Sydney Film Festival Rouben Mamoulian Award for Best Director for her short film Mukbang) 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.

Read: Film Review: Babyteeth is a complex portrait of youth


Blood Vessel (online 5 August)

Supernatural Nazis board a WWII hospital ship in this Melbourne-made feature from special effects whizz Justin Dix (Crawlspace), who directs from a script he co-wrote with Jordan Prosser and produced with Steve McKinnon. The low budget horror thriller stars Nathan Phillips, Alyssa Sutherland and Alex Cooke.

Synopsis: ‘Somewhere in the North Atlantic, late 1945. A life raft adrift at sea, and in it, the survivors of a torpedoed hospital ship: With no food, water, or shelter, all seems lost – until an abandoned German minesweeper drifts ominously towards them, giving them one last chance at survival.’

Read: Film Review: Blood Vessel is not exactly a pleasure cruise

Slim and I (Universal), in cinemas 10 September

Written and directed by Kriv Stenders (Red DogDanger Close: The Battle of Long Tan), and produced by Chris Brown, James Arneman and Aline Jacques, this feature documentary looks terrific. It should appeal to country music fans and beyond, with its tale of the woman behind the man and their enduring partnership.

Synopsis: ‘For over 50 years, country music legend Slim Dusty and his wife, Joy McKean trail-blazed their way across Australia, creating a musical legacy that to this day continues to entertain and inspire. Theirs is perhaps one of the greatest partnerships in Australian music history. SLIM & I is a feature documentary that tells the incredible story of that partnership and of the brilliant woman who lived beside, rather than behind, the legend – Australia’s own “Queen of Country Music”, Joy McKean. Featuring: Joy McKean, Keith Urban, Missy Higgins, Paul Kelly, Don Walker, Kasey Chambers, Bill Chambers, Troy Cassar-Daley, Chad Morgan, Heather McKean, Anne Kirkpatrick, Darren Hanlon. 

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Rams (Roadshow) in cinemas 15 October

Sam Neill has been an unofficial hero of COVID-19 lockdown with his gentle, rural broadcasts on social media. That won’t hurt this rather bucolic-looking film at all, where Neill stars alongside Michael Caton. An Australian remake of the 2015 Icelandic Un Certain Regard winner of the same name, Rams is adapted by writer Jules Duncan, directed by Jeremy Sims, and produced by Aidan O’Bryan and Janelle Landers. It also stars Miranda Richardson, Asher Keddie and Wayne Blair.

Synopsis: In remote Western Australia, two estranged brothers, Colin (Sam Neill) and Les (Michael Caton), are at war. Raising separate flocks of sheep descended from their family’s prized bloodline, the two men work side by side yet are worlds apart. When Les’s prize ram is diagnosed with a rare and lethal illness, authorities order a purge of every sheep in the valley. While Colin attempts to stealthily outwit the powers that be, Les opts for angry defiance. But can the warring brothers set aside their differences and have a chance to reunite their family, save their herd, and bring their community back together? 


High Ground (Madman)

No sign of this Bunya Films production on release schedules yet, but the Aussie Western directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson (Yolngu Boy) had 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.

Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra (Icon) was June 2020 but TBC

Firestarter marks 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) was August 27, now TBC

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.

Dirt Music (Universal) 8 October

Gregor Jordan’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music played at Toronto last September. ‘A tale of love and redemption, set against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Australian West,’ it’s adapted by Winton and Jack Thorne and produced by Finola Dwyer, Angie Fielder, Amanda Posey and Polly Staniford. 

Synopis: Georgie Jutland (Kelly Macdonald) is barely holding it together these days without a drink. Once a nurse, now she’s trapped in the backwater fishing port of White Point with local crayfish baron, Jim Buckridge (David Wenham) and his two sons, whose dead mother she can never hope to replace. One hazy night she sees the lone figure of Lu Fox (Garret Hedlund) appear in the mists of the bay. A long time ago he was a dirt musician, but now he survives as a poacher – an unwise choice given Jim’s iron-grip on the local fishing trade. Georgie is instantly drawn to Lu, and the pair begin an intense affair. What Georgie doesn’t realise is that the Foxes and the Buckridges have a long, murky history. Fearing Jim’s fury and haunted by his tragic past, Lu flees north to Coronation Island, a place dear to Georgie’s heart. Discovering Lu has fled, Georgie decides to follow him north with the unlikely help of Jim.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is the ArtsHub Group's Education and Career Editor. She is a journalist for Screenhub and is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. Her second book, Double Happiness, a novel, will be published by Midnight Sun in 2024. Instagram: @Rochelle_Rochelle Twitter: @Milan2Pinsk