Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this story contains discussion of people who have died.
This year, we saw the pandemic’s unexpected impact on the Australian film industry: Aussiewood. As a slew of major Hollywood productions fled California for the Queensland coast, the local industry’s coffers swelled by well over a billion dollars.
- READ MORE: Thor, Elvis and Joe Exotic in Aussiewood: 15 film and TV productions filming in Australia’s pandemic screen boom
The bounty had a downside, though: our trademark low-budget yet critically-acclaimed pictures found themselves shunted back – only to be trampled to death by the likes of King Kong, Venom and James Bond when they finally did secure release dates.
But the absence of bums on seats belied the number of genuinely impressive movies coming out of Australia this year. If you didn’t catch any of these on the big screen (which, let’s face it, you didn’t), then you really should check them out on a streaming service near you.
10. June Again
The feature debut from Kiwi director JJ Winlove is a poignant essay on dementia that isn’t as showy as The Father, but still packs an emotional punch.
Noni Hazlehurst puts in a career-best performance as the titular mum who’s been confined to a care home for five years with vascular dementia, a particularly cruel variant where sufferers have extended periods of lucidity.
When she has just such an episode, June absconds – only to find her children (Stephen Curry and Claudia Karvan) feuding. So begins her race to reconcile them before her condition takes another turn.
An upbeat parable, delivered with laughter amid the tears.
For fans of: The Father, Awakenings
9. Occupation: Rainfall
This fun but silly alien invasion flick is a sequel to a movie that hardly anyone went to see. Occupation was released in 2018 and died at the box office before becoming a surprise (but deserved) hit on Netflix.
So now the same plucky band of outback resistance fighters are back in a sequel that’s more fun, more silly, and more special effects-laden. Ken Jeong is on board, too, to snare some US viewers.
The rubber-suited extra-terrestrials are straight out of central casting, but the CGI sequences are surprisingly awesome. It’s not Dune, but it’s good to see a full-blooded Aussie blockbuster amid the year’s mostly sombre fare.
For fans of: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Cowboys vs Aliens
8. Penguin Bloom
A magpie called Penguin helps wheelchair-confined mum Sam (Naomi Watts) adjust to her new life in an affecting family drama based on a true story.
After falling from a faulty hotel balcony in Thailand, Sam withdraws into a cocoon of helplessness and resentment. But when her son brings home the injured bird, they form an unlikely bond and nursing it back to health renews her strength.
Watts is, as always, pitch perfect, but the credited ‘magpie trainer’ Paul Mander is clearly a master of his art, too. Let’s hope he has other skills, as it might be a long wait for the next magpie-based melodrama.
For fans of: Million Dollar Baby, Storm Boy
A taut, unsettling potboiler set in a seemingly serene middle class idyll, Michael Bentham’s first feature was made for less than $1million and garnered critical acclaim at the 2020 Palm Springs Festival.
When the nine-year-old son of a local pollie is accused of sexually abusing a family friend’s four-year-old daughter, the pretence of suburban bliss is shattered and deep-seated recriminations surface.
The claustrophobic narrative keeps the audience on edge, a series of revelations undermining assumptions and keeping a clear-cut resolution at bay. No one could watch Disclosure and not wonder what they’d do in the same circumstance.
For fans of: Mystic River, Little Children
6. My Name Is Gulpilil
Director: Molly Reynolds
Streaming on: ABC iView
David Dalaithngu (the name his family requested be used after his death in November) was just 16 when Nicholas Roeg cast him in Walkabout. His film star status was cemented 15 years later in Crocodile Dundee, but it was his AACTA Award-winning turns in The Tracker (2002) and Charlie’s Country (2014) that showcased his acting chops.
Mainly filmed in 2017 when the gifted but flawed legend was given six months to live after a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer, this intimate doco sees Dalaithngu ruminating about his culture, alcoholism, marriage and his acceptance of death. A brutally honest and self-aware tribute to a true icon.
For fans of: In My Blood It Runs, Utopia
5. Girls Can’t Surf
Director: Christopher Nelius
Streaming on: Stan
There have been some stellar Aussie surfing movies including Morning Of The Earth, Puberty Blues, Bra Boys, Drift and Breath, but all have one thing in common – female surfers hardly get a look in.
Through the ’70s and ’80s, talented female board riders were excluded from serious competition and often forced to compete wearing demeaning bikinis for derisory prizes. Their battle to turn the tide is expertly documented here with spectacular archive footage and inspiring interviews with the pioneering icons who overcame genuinely shocking toxic masculinity (even for Australia) to gain equal status.
For fans of: Bra Boys, Soul Surfer
4. Moon Rock For Monday
Director: Kurt Martin
Streaming on: Amazon Prime
A big hit on the festival circuit, this tragicomic fugitive road movie from debut writer/director Kurt Martin is exquisitely shot and carried by two award-worthy performances from George Pullar and Ashlyn Louden-Gamble.
The duo are youngsters on the run in the Northern Territory. Pre-teen Monday has a terminal condition and an overprotective father, whom she delights in escaping with wayward crim Tyler. As the cops close in, the two make the most of the ever-dwindling time they have left together.
The plot’s as well-worn as the red dirt tracks they navigate, but the script avoids the usual potholes and delivers by far the year’s most affecting piece of homegrown cinema.
For fans of: The Fault In Our Stars, Bonnie and Clyde
3. High Ground
Director: Stephen Maxwell Johnson
Streaming on: Stan
The genre of Australian outback cowboy / early settler movies has become known as the ‘Meat Pie Western’ (named in response to Italy’s spaghetti westerns) and this is one of the best. After debuting at the Berlin Festival, its limited domestic release was in a rare week where four Australian films accounted for nearly half the box office take.
The always-reliable Simon Baker is a NT cop, horrified when a botched operation results in a massacre of Aboriginal people. Years later, while eking out a living as a bounty hunter, he works with young Indigenous man Gutjuk (first-time actor and West Arnhem Land ranger Jacob Junior Nayinggul) to track down the warriorBaywara when his past is revealed and the tables turn.
For fans of: Sweet Country, The Tracker
2. The Dry
This edgy outback whodunit was easily the most popular Aussie film of 2021 – bucking the trend by actually beating Hollywood behemoths including Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow – and is now the 14th highest grossing local production of all time.
Eric Bana, in his first movie down under for over a decade, is a cop returning to his rural Victorian hometown for a funeral. Before long, he’s dragged into solving the 20-year-old murder of his girlfriend – where he was a prime suspect.
The darkly textured, sometimes sinister landscapes are framed to perfection by cinematographer Stefan Duscio and the supporting characters are rarely easy to gauge as the investigation lurches unpredictably towards a knotty climax.
For fans of: Mystery Road, Animal Kingdom
Director: Justin Kurzel
Streaming on: Stan
A disturbing yet brilliantly realised portrayal of Martin Bryant, the gunman who carried out the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, Australia’s deadliest mass shooting. The title is ‘Martin’ backwards as Tasmanians avoid ever uttering his name.
The film swept the board at the AACTAs in December while Caleb Landry Jones won the best actor prize at Cannes for his nuanced portrayal of the killer as a social outcast who’d shown psychopathic tendencies his entire life.
Nitram, which wisely does not depict the actual killings, was barely shown in Tasmania, where victims’ groups, politicians and police leaders spoke out against it. But, like 22 July and Elephant, it’s a harrowing and important indictment of gun ownership that will linger in audiences’ minds for a long time.
For fans of: 22 July, Monster