Australian film and TV in 2020: the good, the bad and the great

Featuring washed-out comedians, outlaw legends and quietly spectacular missives from the edge of Western Australia

This grim year of misery and misfortune has highlighted the difference between cinema and the movies: it’s been terrible for the former and excellent for the latter. The pandemic-induced closure of theatres across the world took the focus away from big tentpole releases and shifted it to smaller budget, water cooler productions that were wolfed down by homebound audiences.

“Streaming” should probably be listed as the Oxford Word Of The Year, given how much we’ve all been doing of it. There’s been plenty of TV ‘events’ drawing conversation around the proverbial water cooler – such as, to name a few, I May Destroy You, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, The Last Dance, The Queen’s Gambit and the wildly overrated Tiger King.

All up it’s been a pretty good year for local movies and TV, though it would be remiss of me to ignore the negatives, given how foul the last 12 months have been. With that spirit in mind, let us first look at the Australian productions of 2020 that were pretty, well, crappy, before moving on to the good and the great.

The bad

Miss Fisher And The Crypt Of Tears
Miss Fisher And The Crypt Of Tears

Thank god: another Crocodile Dundee movie! Said nobody, ever. At least not for 30 years.

Paul Hogan stumbled back into the spotlight this year with his meta-ish comedy The Very Excellent Mr Dundee, looking like he’d just woken up from an ancient slumber. The film embraces his status as a cranky dinosaur, casting Hoges as a befuddled version of himself who is confused about the state of the world, with its political correctness and all these online thingmebobs. The story is simple and daft, involving him wandering around accidentally offending people. It was Very Far From Excellent.

Another disappointing movie that felt like it belonged to an older era was Miss Fisher And The Crypt Of Tears, the Saturday matinee-style, big-screen debut of glamorous TV fashionista-detective Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis). Not because the film is set in the 1920s, but because this hammy adventure feels like it was made in the 10BA era of Australia, a period in the local entertainment industry when outrageously generous tax incentives encouraged filmmakers to create money-burning spectacles.

The Crypt Of Tears didn’t have a massive budget (a substantial amount of it was raised by Kickstarter) but it does retain the 10BA era’s lavish attitude. Director Tony Tilse cobbles together a silly story involving murder, valuable artefacts, a tattoo that doubles as a map and glowing green rocks. I wish the film was as stupidly entertaining as it sounds.

Hopes were high for Dirt Music, the latest film based on a book by beloved Australian novelist Tim Winton, whose work has made impressive screen conversions before, including Breath, The Turning and In The Winter Dark. But this was not, as we all know, a good year for high hopes.

Dirt Music turned out to be a visually and emotionally uninteresting romance between a lobster-stealing beach hunk (Garrett Hedlund) and a bored former nurse (Kelly Macdonald). It’s one of those adaptations that feels conspicuously… adapted, with dialogue that might have worked on the page but comes across wishy-washy when spoken on screen.

Dirt Music
Dirt Music

On the subject of disappointing and/or bad and/or ‘burn it to the ground’ Australian TV shows released in 2020, I believe reality TV is the work of the devil. Therefore you will find no mention of Pooch Perfect or Yummie Mummies or whatever other dross that needs holy water thrown on it.

And talking about (segue alert!) a show that needs holy water: consult Stan’s morbid true crime series After The Night. The four-part series examines one of the country’s most notorious serial killers, Eric Edgar Cooke, who brought terror to Perth in the 1960s, murdering eight people and violently assaulting many more. As the crimes occurred more than half a century ago, most interviewees were simply reflecting on what it was like living in Perth at the time; few have any real connection to the crimes. After The Night has an amateurish, rinky-dink vibe.

While the Four Corners documentary Black Summer certainly isn’t amateurish, this investigation into the bushfires, which caused many human fatalities and the death or displacement of around three billion animals, was heralded as a riveting and important watch. Guess how many times climate change – a driving force fuelling the length and severity of the worst wildlife disaster in modern history – was mentioned? None. Not once. Nada. Nil.

The filmmakers appeared to have followed the “now’s not the time to mention climate change” mandate as dictated by our fossil fuel-loving Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Not cool at all. In fact, extremely dodgy work from the ABC.

The good

I Am Woman
I Am Woman.

Time to move on to a more upbeat conversation: local films and TV shows that were good but not great.

Starting with the small screen first, this year marked the arrival of Informer 3838, the latest spin-off of the often trashy Underbelly series. The titular character is Nicola Gobbo (Ella Scott Lynch), who begins the show in a graffiti-strewn bathroom, deploying the classic ‘stay tuned’ device via voiceover narration: “I was the most notorious police informer in Australian legal history. I broke all the rules… Why did I do it? You’re about to find out.”

Content-wise, the show covers familiar ground, with Gobbo rubbing shoulders with characters explored previously including Tony Mokbel (Robert Mammone) and Carl Williams (Gyton Grantley). But the female perspective adds freshness, as does Informer 3838’s rigorous editing style – it’s chopped up and assembled with a frenetic, fast-paced kind of sass, making it an interesting stylistic exercise.

Halifax: Retribution, belatedly returning Rebecca Gibney to her most famous and high-rating series (which was a huge hit in the ’90s) is also told from a strong female perspective, “strong” in this instance being a synonym for “total bad arse”. Gibney reprises her role as a forensic psychiatrist or “psychological sleuth”, helping the police (including Anthony Lapaglia) get to the bottom of a series of killings orchestrated by a sniper.

The best Australian LGBT movie drama this year was Sequin In A Blue Room, a richly styled and intensely colour-graded film about a 16-year-old boy (Conor Leach) addicted to online hookups, who attempts to track down somebody he desires while trying to avoid unwanted attention.

Young romance was also the subject of the gently stylish and AACTA award-sweeping Babyteeth, about a teen protagonist with terminal cancer (Eliza Scanlen) who meets and develops feelings for a drug-dealing nogoodnik (Toby Wallace). Her parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) don’t like this, but it’s not the biggest issue in their lives.

Rams
Rams

Australian cinema has countless stories about cancer victims, but surprisingly few musician biopics. Enter I Am Woman, a fist-pumping celebration of feminist singer and glass ceiling-breaker Helen Reddy (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), who passed away in September at the age of 78.

Another film about an artist (albeit of the ‘aspiring’ kind) that landed this year was the very low-budget but well-made Hot Mess, a Sydney-set dramedy about a young playwright (Sarah Gaul) struggling to balance her romantic life with her career. It played at a few event style screenings last year, but didn’t get a proper release before being added to Netflix in October.

For an older and blokier affair, check out the excellent Rams, starring Sam Neill and Michael Caton as sheep farming siblings who live next door to each other but haven’t spoken in years. It’s a very good, very tender film, funny and well acted, with an unprepossessing vibe that gradually manifests into touching and heartfelt drama.

Other standouts this year that were just shy of crossing the threshold into greatness: Hungry Ghosts, a modern-day ghost story set within Melbourne’s Vietnamese-Australian community; The Gloaming, a moodily shot series that follows a police detective investigating all sorts of jiggery-pokery, and A Lion Returns, about a jihadist who returns home to visit his dying mother after having been radicalised by his uncle.

The great

The Beach
The Beach

Now it’s time for the pedigree titles. The top-shelf whiskey. The fine dining experience.

The words “rustic worn-down shack” don’t usually gel with “fine dining” – but anybody who’s seen Warwick Thornton’s sublime series The Beach, the best Australian TV show of 2020 by a considerable margin, will probably empty their bank account for a chance to eat in this beautiful isolated place in the Dampier Peninsular in Western Australia. But the real feast here is not about food but rich cinematic visuals. Some images from the show have been burnt into my psyche: a leaf floating in water; boats in the sand; a guitar by the door.

It might not sound like all that much. But in Thornton’s hands (his oeuvre includes the great Samson And Delilah and Sweet Country) The Beach becomes a rumination on many things – from the healing of self-isolation (before it was compulsory) to connection with the land. It is a sublimely emotional and yet utterly enjoyable experience, with notes of the ‘slow TV’ style.

Stateless
Stateless

ABC’s gripping six-part series Stateless, which explores the lives and distressing circumstances of characters connected to an Australian detention centre, is a different kettle of fish – with harder edges and a pointier political context. Nevertheless it’s something special.

As is the tranquil sitcom Rosehaven, from stars and co-creators Celia Pacquola and Luke McGregor, who play best friend real estate agents working and living in a sleepy Tasmanian town. Its fourth season premiered this year, which is at least good as the others – and these are very good, matching Seinfeldian narrative minutiae with a lovely ebb and tone.

Mystery Road
Mystery Road

The Mystery Road franchise (comprising two feature films and two TV shows) isn’t beautiful or slow, but it does have an absolutely killer performance from Aaron Pederson. His character, the outback sleuth Jay Swan, belongs to the pantheon of great 21st-century Australian screen detectives, joining the likes of Phryne Fisher and Jack Irish. Season two marked his fourth screen adventure and it didn’t disappoint, with Swan’s investigations beginning with a headless corpse (natch) and leading into drug-distributing crime syndicates.

Criminals are the subject of the best Australian film of the year, which is also one of the best 2020 films from anywhere in the world full stop. Not just any two-bit bad guy, either, but Australia’s most famous and legendary.

I’m talking about old mate buckethead Ned Kelly, who is played by a beardless George MacKay in The True History Of The Kelly Gang. Justin Kurzel’s high-powered and brazenly stylish film, dotted with horse riding and shootout scenes, contemplates the bush outlaw as a victim of his own legend – a man doomed to become a myth.

This is a complex subject to explore, signalled most obviously in lines of voiceover narration such as “a man cannot change the past nor ever outrun his destiny”. Everything comes to a head in a breathtaking final act, depicting Kelly’s last stand at Glenrowan in a way that’s both utterly original and connected to previous representations – if only to mark a fascinating point of departure. And depart from the norm it does: this is a truly wild ride.

Relic
Relic

Away from hotheaded masculinity, director Natalie Erika James explored womanhood, family and the losing of one’s marbles in Relic, a richly textured horror-drama centred around an elderly lady (Robyn Nevin) suffering from dementia. When she goes missing her daughter and granddaughter (Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote) visit her house in regional Victoria, conveniently located near cinematic-looking woodlands. What they find is… well, actually, see it for yourself.

What you won’t see – at least for most of the running time – is the titular villain in Leigh Whannell’s excellent second feature as a director: the US/Australia co-production The Invisible Man. Wiping the cobwebs off an old and tired franchise, Whannell delivered a socially conscientious thriller that explores the terrors of domestic violence and an abusive relationship. Elisabeth Moss delivers another white-knuckled performance in the lead role as the victim, widening our eyes and draining the blood from our faces.

Although, do we even have any blood in our faces left (final segue alert!) after this collective haemorrhage of a year? Hard to say. I’m pretty sure all my internal organs are operating at reduced capacity. Ah well. Time to have a stiff drink, get through the silly season and welcome in 2021.

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