Global pandemics don’t always play fair. But even before reports of infectious sniffles in Wuhan broke, cinemas were already facing an unremitting bombardment from the amassed artillery of all-conquering streaming giants, with even senior generals like Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuarón defecting to the dark side of stay-at-home viewing.
So when we were literally ordered by Scott Morrison to bunker down on our lounge and binge-watch the gogglebox for four months, it represented a further brutal assault on Australian movie theatres, and a yet another shot in the arm to the likes of Amazon Prime, Netflix, Stan and the new, cashed-up agitator Disney+.
It’s been a bumper time for local TV, but 450 padlocked Hoyts multiplexes hasn’t meant a barren landscape for homegrown films. Here’s our pick of the best releases so far on big and small screen.
– Paul Merrill
Top 5 Australian movies of 2020
The True History Of The Kelly Gang
Stan, January 26
Cinematic depictions of Ned Kelly, our greatest cultural icon, have been mixed at best. On the upside, his story was featured in the first full-length motion picture ever filmed, but then there’s the woeful 1970 version that was so bad that its star, Mick Jagger, still hasn’t watched it and Kelly’s descendants complained that a better, more antipodean actor should have portrayed their psychotic ancestor.
The first thing to say about the 2020 version, starring 1917’s George Mackay (also not technically an Aussie) is that it isn’t actually a true history. It’s a fictionalised account adapted from a novel and presented as a letter written to a daughter Kelly never had.
That said, it’s an exciting freewheeling romp, peeling away the armour and helmet to show the iconic outlaw as a deranged and misunderstood product of his time. Homoeroticism blends with a punk aesthetic to produce a feast of firearms and fun that garnered glowing reviews and a US theatrical release.
The Leunig Fragments
Madman Films, February 13
Although he’s Australia’s most celebrated cartoonist, Michael Leunig is a notoriously private man, so getting him to open up for this documentary on his life and career was never going to be a walk in the park. “I’m not trying to conceal anything,” he says early on. “I just don’t want to reveal everything.”
And he doesn’t.
His minimalist scribblings – forlorn men sporting large noses and ducks are specialities – are whimsical and often Picasso-like in their dreamy bending of physical norms. They’re also bloody funny.
The artist and poet himself is every bit as aloof and detached as the desolate characters he sketches. He was estranged from his parents, and didn’t even know they’d died until after their funerals. He doesn’t talk to his siblings, only one of which agreed to be interviewed on screen. The only person he appears close to is his second wife… until she leaves him halfway through filming after a 26-year marriage. He even made a voodoo doll of the docu’s director, Kasimir Burgess.
The film won’t make you particularly warm to Leunig and his wistful ramblings, but it does offer a rare insight into a cultural phenomenon and official ‘National Treasure’.
In My Blood It Runs
Closer Productions, February 20
Director Maya Newell previously focused on children raised by same-sex parents in 2015’s Gayby Baby, but this fly-on-the-waller about the life of an Aboriginal boy in Alice Springs is a more intimate affair. It focuses on smart but troubled Dujuan Hoosan as well as the struggles his mother and grandmother endure in keeping him on the straight and narrow in a society where too many Indigenous kids end up in detention.
It was filmed in the wake of the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre scandal and exposes the inequality in justice and education, and the lack of cross-cultural understanding. A damning indictment of an outdated system in dire need of reform, the film’s powerful message has only been amplified in the wake of global protests against police brutality.
Miss Fisher And The Crypt Of Tears
Roadshow Films, February 26
Essie Davis has been killing it as 1920s Melbourne’s most glamorous lady detective since 2012, and this year she finally got to tango her way across the silver screen in a globe-trotting romp thanks in part to a crowd-funding campaign that raised $250,000 in just two days.
After helping a young Bedouin girl escape her captors in Jerusalem, our heroine totters on her heels from the deserts of Negev to the seedy back alleys of London to solve an ancient mystery in time for her signature high tea of lobster mayonnaise with cucumber.
The film was a much bigger hit in the States than on home soil, possibly because American critics were much kinder in their assessments. In truth, the movie feels more like a continuation of the third and final series than a cinematic event, but there’s no denying Miss Fisher’s charm as a role model for young women sick of male detectives having all the fun.
The Invisible Man
Universal, February 27
The latest spin on the H.G. Wells chiller by Aussie writer/director James Whannell was far from invisible at the box office – topping the charts in the US and raking in US$130million worldwide from a budget of just US$7million.
Whannell, who wrote the first Saw movie and Insidious, teamed up with horror-meister Jason Blum to give the tale a feminist spin, with Elizabeth Moss looking even more stressed than she did in The Handmaid’s Tale – here, she plays a woman who escapes a violent relationship with a wealthy engineer, who then seems to take his own life, except he hasn’t.
Instead, he’s invented an invisibility suit and, like so many mad scientists, is bent on an act of sadistic revenge that will inevitably end badly for him. It doesn’t end badly for Whannell, though, as a sequel is in the works, rumoured to be called The Invisible Woman.
Top 5 Australian TV shows of 2020
Australia’s detention centres have come into sharp focus recently. And this devastating six-part psychological drama, created by and starring Cate Blanchett, exposes the desolation and hopelessness that long-term residents can suffer at the hands of a cold-hearted bureaucracy.
The plot, involving four strangers thrown together in a remote immigration outpost, each with a troubling backstory, was inspired by the horrific real-life case of Cornelia Rau. Rau is an Australian permanent resident who escaped a cult – and who also suffered from mental health illnesses – only to be illegally detained for 10 months under the Howard government’s mandatory detention program.
The appalling conditions in such ‘prisons’ have been well documented, but rarely in mainstream dramas, and never with such panache and heartbreak as here. Netflix picked up the worldwide rights of the series as the issues explored are sadly far from exclusive to these shores.
#Informer3838. Monday April 20. Channel 9.
Posted by UNDERBELLY on Tuesday, April 7, 2020
An off-shoot of the Underbelly franchise, this legal drama tells the shocking story behind the Lawyer X scandal. The controversy exploded in 2018 when it was revealed that informant Nicola ‘Gobby’ Gobbo had passed to Victoria police details of several notorious figures in the Melbourne underworld that she herself was representing.
This, in legal terms, was a big no-no. Suddenly a bunch of gangland figures could reasonably claim that their convictions should be overturned. The High Court was pretty brutal in its assessment of officers, using words including “appalling”, “reprehensible” and “atrocious” to describe their actions.
‘Gobby’ Gobbo’s life has certainly been a colourful one – early drug conviction, political scandal and marriage to a drug trafficker – and this two-part production, with Gyton Grantley reprising his role as Carl Williams and Ella Scott Lynch in barnstorming form in the title role, is essential viewing.
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay
Josh Thomas’ follow-up to Please Like Me (and we did like him) is a gentle parable on how even the most broken families can regroup and become stronger in the wake of tragedy.
The 10-part series was commissioned by the Disney-owned Freeform Channel in the US and, like its predecessor, is written by and stars Thomas, this time as a neurotic Aussie visiting his father and half-siblings in the US. When his dad drops dead, he suddenly has to hold the family together.
The most interesting character is his 17-year-old autistic sister, Matilda, played by actress Kayla Cromer, herself on the autism spectrum. Her attempts to lose her virginity end in chaos and recriminations, with some questioning whether she could give consent. It’s gentle, darkly funny and, as with everything Thomas touches, extremely likeable.
Drunk History Australia
The historical stories are true but the story tellers… are completely sauced! An entire series of the hilarious smash hit comedy Drunk History Australia is streaming in full now on 10 Play! #InThisTogether
Posted by Channel 10 on Thursday, March 26, 2020
After six shambolically hilarious seasons in the US, the boozed-up show finally got an Aussie offshoot this year with some priceless results. For anyone unfamiliar with the format, a celebrity gets pleasantly bladdered before attempting to recall a keyseminal piece of history, with actors lip-syncing the incoherent, pissed-up ramblings to bring the story alive.
Among the smashed storytellers are James Mathison on Gough Whitlam’s downfall, Brendan Fevola struggling to recall the story of crime boss Abe Saffron, and Darren McMullen rambling on about convicts eating each other. It’s every bit as dumb as it sounds, and 10 times as entertaining as it deserves to be.
You could be forgiven for believing Tasmania is a seething cesspit of grisly murders, with psychopaths lurking amid breathtaking landscapes and sinister locals harbouring dark secrets in their picture-postcard cottages.
This creepy occult-tinged thrill ride follows on from the island’s blood-soaked convict drama The Nightingale, the satanic nuns of Lambs Of God and the menacing forbidden forest of The Kettering Incident.
Admittedly there are worse places to be disembowelled than the lush meadows and twinkling mountain streams on show here, though Discover Tasmania may hesitate to fully embrace it for its next campaign: Viewers could be forgiven for thinking Tasmania a seething cesspit of grisly murders, with psychopaths lurking amid breathtaking landscapes and sinister locals harbouring dark secrets in their picture-postcard cottages..
The action revolves around two slightly damaged cops, both with skeletons rattling their closets, investigating a murder that has links to dastardly events decades earlier, and being drawn into an elaborate and unexpected mystery. If that sounds like well-walked police drama territory, it’s not. Oh, and “gloaming” is apparently the time when dusk surrenders to darkness, which is very apt.