The 10 best Australian films and TV shows of 2021 – so far

COVID has scrambled cinema schedules some – but TV is going gangbusters. Here’s the best Aussie releases on the big and small screens so far this year

The dumpster fire of 2020 put our plans, dreams and trips to the cinema on hold; this year so far has been slightly less terrible. The cinemas were back, sort of: lighter on content and prone to occasional lockdowns, but with some thoroughly decent films on the bill. Homegrown productions have done surprisingly well, at one point making history by taking the top three spots at the local box office – while others were always going to draw smaller audiences.

On the teev, which offers the appeal of not having to deal with outside pressures in this strange, virus-riddled world, the line-up of top-notch shows so far in 2021 has been eclectic – spanning masterful drama, witty black comedies, an electrifying documentary and more. Now that we’ve hit the halfway mark for 2021 (holy hell, that went quickly) here are NME’s picks for the best Australian releases on the big and small screens so far this year.

Luke Buckmaster

Top Australian movies of 2021 so far

My Name Is Gulpilil

Cinemas, May 27

Descriptions of the great actor David Gulpilil tend to lurch towards colourful adjectives in order to describe what is, in many respects, indescribable. Magnetic, magical, sublime! All of which might sound hyperbolic – if you haven’t seen a David Gulpilil movie.

Doing justice to the life and career of this amazing performer – a fixture of Australian cinema since his breakout performance in Walkabout in 1971 – is no small task, but director Molly Reynolds rises to the challenge sensationally in her moving and poignant new documentary. The film oscillates between his present life in Murray Bridge, South Australia (where he is terribly ill with terminal lung cancer, and is being cared for) and various moments in his long and impressive career.

Early on, Gulpilil declares the film “my story of my story”, which is a more enigmatic way of saying: his ‘real’ life and his life in film. The various strands are edited together so smoothly they feel less like collections of footage than coils of memory, with some surreal images (such as a shot of Gulpilil lying in a coffin full of film reels) taking the film to another atmospheric level. This is a poignant, emotionally striking work certain – like Gulpilil himself – to be remembered and treasured for a long time to come.

For another great recent documentary on Aboriginal artistry, check out Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra, which was one of NME’s top Australian films of 2020.

The Dry

Cinemas, January 1

Robert Connolly’s adaptation of Jane Harper’s page-turning crime novel made big business in cinemas, surpassing $20 million and becoming the 15th highest grossing film of all time in Australia. More importantly it drew audiences into an engrossing and quintessentially Australian landscape, a fictitious small town providing the arid backdrop for a thriller involving dual mysteries: in the recent and distant past, both involving deaths that may or may not have been murders.

Eric Bana is the emotionally stoic, hard-bitten police detective Falk, who grew up in the town and has a chequered reputation there, connected to the death of a childhood friend many years ago. When he starts investigating the new case, which is initially viewed as a murder-suicide, the townspeople don’t much like the cut of his jib and react with hostility – except for potential love interest Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly).

Despite mostly outdoor settings and a lot of oxygen in the frame – with many spacious wide and mid shots sculpted by cinematographer Stefan Duscio – Connolly induces a squirm-inducing feeling that the proverbial walls are closing in. The boilerplate genre elements explicit in Harper’s book feel classier and subtler in the film.

The Witch Of Kings Cross

Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, Google Play and cinemas, February 9-11

Another fabulous documentary! This one, directed by Sonia Bible, flew largely under the radar and is waiting to be discovered – like the peculiar work of its subject, the artist and self-professed witch Rosaleen Norton. Living in Kings Cross until her death in 1979, the boundary-pushing Norton’s interests included: provocative art, spells, sex magic and drug-enabled pursuit of a higher consciousness.

The Witch Of Kings Cross belongs to an expanding group of Australian documentaries that not only explore counter-cultural figures, but use film aesthetics to reflect and honour their style (see also: Ecco Homo and Whiteley). Bible gives the docu a cryptic and enigmatic feel, bathing it in smoky monochrome and inserting various strange reenactments and visual interpretations. The irresistibly idiosyncratic results feel like something cooked up in a cauldron, possibly while high, to be consumed only by candlelight.

High Ground

Cinemas, January 28

It’s unlikely that director Stephen Johnson’s meat pie western – led by Simon Baker and shot on location in Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land – will keep its place in our top film list by year’s end. It has big ideas on its mind, such as coming to terms with Australia’s horrific history of massacres and genocide, and is visually appealing, like pretty much any film shot in the aforementioned locations.

But dramatically it is limited, particularly in the function and depth of the protagonist Travis (Baker), a sharpshooter hired by a police chief (Jack Thompson) to track down a vengeful Indigenous man who survived a massacre several years ago. Only narrowly avoiding the ‘white saviour’ trope, the film seems afraid to paint Baker’s character in a negative light.

The great Aaron Pedersen feels under-used, in a small supporting performance, as do a few other cast members, including Ryan Corr as a priest. But as with other big-thinking Australian westerns that use genre conventions as tools for historical revisionism, there’s still a lot to like about High Ground.

Top Australian TV shows of 2021 so far

Wakefield

ABCiview, April 2

For a long time, filmmakers have tussled with the challenge of visually portraying mental illness. Various approaches have been undertaken – from using sets and costumes to reflect psychological elements (the German classic The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is a great example) to pushing performances and characters to the fore (like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest). In this magnificent ABC drama, creator Kristen Dunphy and directors Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kim Mordaunt combine both approaches and several others to tell a story about a psychiatric nurse who may be on the cusp of a breakdown.

Things start to go pear-shaped when this nurse, Nik (Rudi Dharmalingam), gets a song (Dexys Midnight Runners’ ‘Come On Eileen’) stuck in his head. First comes the humming and singing, which is harmless enough – but the earworm leads to darker things, bringing forth deep-seated trauma and childhood memories long buried in his psyche. Again: not easy stuff to visualise.

Moorhouse and Mordaunt deploy an arsenal of cinematic techniques to illustrate various matters of the mind, including rhythmic flashbacks (it’s like the cuts themselves are set to music) and strange disruptions to realism, such as characters bursting into song. Coming together with a mosaic and puzzle-structure that only paints a full picture right at the end, this masterfully written, directed and acted eight-part series is a sublime achievement – one of the standout Australian TV productions so far this century.

Phenomena

YouTube and ABCiview, May 12

Been hankering for some recreational drugs, but your dealer won’t return your phone call? Check out this amazing short-form series from the ABC Science YouTube channel, which has an accompanying half-hour compilation episode streaming on ABCiview.

It might not give you head-to-toe body rushes, but visually it’s up there with the wildest acid trip. The cameras in Phenomena capture intensely psychedelic visual patterns created by manipulations of matter and energy, which are set to a pumpin’ electronic soundtrack from The Presets’ Kim Moyes. Director Josef Gatti splices the show together with a fast, free-flowing energy, but no digital tricks were used to create its many stunning images – it’s just science, dude!

The first episode for instance uses alcohols, oils and inks to create squidgy looking circular patterns; the second uses heat, salts and a glass plate to make kaleidoscopic sheets of ice-like crystals; and on we go. Rather than just being generally trippy, which it certainly is, Phenomena also has an underlying point: to identify patterns in nature, viewing energy and matter as forms of authorship.

Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire

ABCiview, March 16

The expression “stranger than fiction” gets bandied around a lot, but every once in a while a true story comes along that really does remind you that reality is a reservoir of freakishly weird narratives. The excellent investigative journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna spearheads this gooseflesh-raising three-part investigation into a horrific event that occurred at Sydney’s Luna Park in 1979, when a fire burnt down the popular ghost train ride and resulted in the death of six young boys and an adult man.

The first episode contains a re-enactment (interspersed with interviews with survivors) of that tragic event, forming a prolonged sequence for which the expression “nail-biting” barely begins to cut it. It is a terribly brilliant stretch of filmmaking: shocking, electrifying, nerve-jangling.

After exploring the night itself, Meldrum-Hanna investigates in the next two episodes – which are all fast-paced and feature-length – who or what caused the fire, and the subsequent police investigation. Various acts of jiggery-pokery involve shady deals and high-level corruption. If a fictional film had as many belief-beggaring twists as this, critics like me would slam it for being unrealistic.

The End

Fox Showcase, February 2

Shows prying open the debate around assisted dying don’t have to be morbidly depressing. Creator and writer Samantha Strauss demonstrates as much in her cheeky, sometimes sardonic, always humane series, using absurdity and black comedy to take on a difficult subject. The first episode begins with the recently widowed Edie (Harriet Walter) attempting to take her own life, in a provocative intro sequence that invites you to laugh at very grim circumstances.

There are many well-drawn characters including Edie and her daughter Kate (Frances O’Connor), a doctor who works in palliative care and is against euthanasia – but will change her mind as circumstances around her work and family evolve. The show opens fast and loud, sustaining the pace in subsequent episodes and adding layers of various kinds – from complex personalities to the ethical quandaries the characters face.

That impish, mordant sense of humour bubbles away, always just beneath the surface, ready to rise to the top and catch you by surprise. Look out for a glorious sequence in episode six involving veteran actor Roy Billing and a giant ladder into the clouds, set to the tune of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Into My Arms’.

Why Are You Like This?

ABCiview, February 16

Contemporary issues such as workplace diversity and cancel culture are minefields for even the sharpest comedians to navigate. But Why Are You Like This? dives right in, taking a fresh, frisky, ballsy perspective on various social mores, in effect arguing that progress is inevitably exploited by objectionable people pursuing selfish motivations. In this case: by Gen Zers who are cunning, disillusioned and extremely selfish.

Mia (Olivia Junkeer), who is South Asian and bisexual, leads the charge, getting fired from multiple jobs for callousness and incompetence – then raising hell about her supposed oppressors being racist, sexist and propelled by other kinds of discrimination. Her holier-than-thou bestie Penny (Naomi Higgins) similarly accuses colleagues of virtually everything, and her gay drag queen housemate Austin (Wil King) isn’t much better.

The trio loaf around, scheme, socialise and make large issues out of matters of little consequence. The writing is a little uneven – but it makes up for that with originality and verve. Fingers crossed for a second season.

Laura’s Choice

ABCiview, March 17

Like The End, Laura’s Choice explores assisted dying – but beyond sharing that topic they are chalk and cheese productions. The latter is a two-part doco charting the final chapter in the life of Laura Henkel, a colourful and articulate 90-year-old who felt “almost inclined” to spearhead a documentary about her decision to die, given both her daughter and granddaughter (Cathy Henkel and Sam Lara) are filmmakers.

Henkel and Lara construct the production in a way that could only come from family, imbuing it with tender, ruminative qualities, expressed for instance in voice-over narration written as letters to their beloved mother and grandmother. Its warmth, memoir-like structure and softly inquisitive investigations into familial connection reminded me of Sarah Polley’s 2012 documentary Stories We Tell.

Laura’s Choice reminds us of the importance of personal narratives: how social and political issues should be framed less as concepts to debate than matters that profoundly impact real people. While the story is sad in some respects, it is uplifting in others: a celebration of a woman who did it her way, as they say, and left behind a proud and meaningful legacy.