Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this story contains discussion of people who have died.
You could be forgiven for assuming that having every single cinema and film set closed for over six months would render any list of this year’s best Australian movies a slightly truncated one, the only possible upside being an accompanying dearth of ‘worst films’.
But while popcorn and choc top sales dipped alarmingly, there was no shortage of homegrown cinematic excellence, even if most of it never reached an actual big screen.
Depending on your viewpoint, the streaming behemoths are either providing life support for motion pictures by chucking big bucks at every single script they see, or downloading the final nail into the box office coffin as the lounge becomes the default location for movie viewing.
Either way, we weren’t short of entertaining distractions to a pretty crappy year.
10. Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky
Director: Steven McGregor
2020 marked the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook securing his place in history by ‘discovering’ Australia, a not-so-stunning achievement given it’s about as big as Europe and had been inhabited for over 60,000 years prior.
- READ MORE: ‘Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky’: Mo’Ju and Alice Skye on the power of First Nations-led storytelling
Celebrations were muted, partly due to the pandemic, but mostly because more people wanted to topple his statue than worship beneath it. Indigenous poet and playwright Steven Oliver’s gloriously black-humoured doco is staged through a string of modern songlines that cleverly expose some hard truths about the effects Cooky’s Botany Bay landing had on the peoples who found themselves getting in the way of ‘progress’.
For fans of: Black Comedy, Rabbit Proof Fence
Director: Natalie Erika James
Australia has delivered some top-notch, low-budget chillers in recent years – The Babadook, Cargo, Little Monsters, Killing Ground, The Loved One – and this haunted house parable is right up there with the best, proving a big hit at Sundance.
- READ MORE: ‘Relic’ director Natalie Erika James on Asian horror and Australia’s “sanitised view of death”
When her elderly mother goes missing, Kay (Emily Mortimer) goes to find her at a remote cottage, and things get very weird and creepy. Anchored by a suitably demented star turn by former Sydney Theatre Company boss Robyn Nevin, Relic’s a joyous roller coaster of jump scares, evil spirits, black urine and an old lady in the bath.
First-time helmer Natalie Erika James lets the dread build slowly without resorting to cheap gore splatters or spurious plot twists.
For fans of: The Haunting Of Hill House, Halloween
8. Never Too Late
Director: Mark Lamprell
Whereas Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods had a bunch of grizzled Vietnam vets plotting a risky mission to retrieve buried gold, this crowd-pleaser has its diggers, all former ’Nam POWs, planning an even more ambitious manoeuvre: escaping their nursing home to reunite one of their number (James Cromwell) with his lost love (Jacki Weaver). A sort of Old Dear Hunter, if you will.
Roy Billing, Jack Thompson and Shane Jacobson are on hand for comic support in the sort of feel-good comedy that old people complain aren’t made any more.
For fans of: Grumpy Old Men, Hope Springs
7. Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra
Directors: Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin
A barnstorming celebration of the Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 30th anniversary, Firestarter tells the sometimes-painful melodrama through the eyes of the three Page brothers who turned it into a First Nations cultural phenomenon. The incredible dance routines hid an inner turmoil that would claim two of the brothers’ lives, but the troupe’s mission to reclaim their history and shape a better future endured.
Interviews with founding members are interspersed with landmark moments like Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern park speech and the 2000 Sydney Olympics where the group performed. That they remain as important and passionate today is testament to an enviable tenacity and strength or purpose. If you haven’t experienced them live, you really need to.
For fans of: Only When I Dance, First Position
6. H Is For Happiness
Director: John Sheedy
Based on the book My Life As An Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg, this is a high-spirited jaunt about a 12-year-old girl determined to save her troubled family that makes full use of the quaint Albany coastline in WA. It mashes together the colourful surrealism of a child’s imagination with an offbeat love story involving a boy who thinks he’s from another dimension following a head injury.
Such family dramedies are usually weighed down with tiresome sentimentality and virtue signalling, but this feels more like a trippy blend of Wes Anderson quirk and an episode of Round The Twist.
For fans of: Moonrise Kingdom, Coraline
5. The True History Of The Kelly Gang
Director: Justin Kurzel
Australia’s unofficial saint was the subject of the world’s first feature-length movie in 1906, and has since been played numerous times both to good effect (Heath Ledger) and not-so good (Mick Jagger). But none of the biopics have delved quite as deeply into his psyche as this subversive, pseudo-punk retelling.
George Mackay (1917) is in full beefcake mode as the titular outlaw, but beneath that ripped torso hides a lost soul dominated by his mother, confused by his sexuality, and driven by a hatred of corrupt and masochistic authorities.
Russell Crowe has fun as the ruthless brigand who bought Ned from his mum to be his criminal protégé and guides him onto the road to infamy and metal helmets.
It’s breathless and wild, but also very moving as it challenges you to feel sorry for the notorious bushranger and realise that he was a victim, too, albeit a psychotic one.
For fans of: Wolf Creek, Mad Max, The Man From Snowy River
4. The Invisible Man
Director: Leigh Whannell
The seventh cinematic rehashing of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel (not to mention six TV adaptations) is one of the best for the simple reason that it’s genuinely scary. Elisabeth Moss is Cecilia, a woman trapped in a violent, abusive marriage who escapes her husband’s clutches only to be told that he’s been killed.
Sadly, he’s not as dead as she would have liked and is, in fact, now invisible.
But instead of wasting time using his superpower to achieve global fame and make billions, he decides a better option is to terrorise his ungrateful wife and frame her for murder.
For fans of: It Follows, A Quiet Place
Director: Ian Watson
In what is by far the year’s most affecting and genuinely original love story, a struggling Sydney musician falls for a deaf trans man who runs a nightclub for the hard of hearing and only communicates in Auslan, or Australian Sign Language.
Actress Yiana Pandelis, who is hearing impaired, and Reece Noi (Mossador in Game Of Thrones) are an appealing couple, gingerly navigating new territory and dealing with a spring tide of naysayers willing their romance to flounder. The haunting soundtrack by Mark J. D’Angelo is well worth a listen, too.
For fans of: The comedy of Brad Hearne and UK stand-up star John Smith
2. Idiot Prayer
Director: Nick Cave
Say what you like about coronavirus, but if it hadn’t found its way around the world, we wouldn’t have had this spellbinding, ethereal solo concert by Australia’s unofficial poet laureate Nick Cave, filmed by cinematographer Robbie Ryan in a deserted Alexandra Palace in London.
The echoing vastness of the setting gives even more depth and meaning to a set-list dripping with gothic fairy tales, grief-stricken existential ponderings and painful longing.
Carefully selecting pared-back ballads that suit the stranded grand piano he caresses in the emptiness, he works his way through over 30 years of back catalogue including a previously unreleased track, ‘Euthanasia’.
The ’80s brought the outsider yearnings of ‘Sad Waters’ and ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ and the ’90soffered up six tracks from 1997’s ‘The Boatman’s Call’, but for sheer emotional rawness it’s impossible to look beyond his last two albums, ‘Skeleton Tree’ and ‘Ghosteen’, both of which followed the death of his son, Arthur.
For fans of: Live music at its mesmerising best. If you’ve been shipwrecked since 1983 and had never even heard of Cave, this will still be the best concert film you’ll ever see
Director: Shannon Murphy
Winner of the 2020 AACTA Best Film and Best Director prizes, this is an eccentric new take on the ‘teenager with cancer falls in love’ genre where the disease itself becomes less and less important. Instead of the mawkish syrup The Fault In Our Stars served up, here the central figure Milla (a star-making turn from Eliza Scanlen) is more than just the sum of her white blood cells.
She’s flawed, and so is drug dealer she meets at a Sydney train station (Toby Wallace, who won Best Young Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his performance) and invites home to meet her horrified parents. From there, nothing is predictable as the rebellious couple happily ricochet between hazards on their way to nowhere in particular.
For fans of: My Sister’s Keeper, Lady Bird