The yearly year-in-review articles on Australian cinema tend to stick to a set format: "Here are all the great films no one saw because you suck!" "The surprise box office smash was…" "What does this mean for the future of Australian cinema?" We're addicted to the meaningless big picture analysis, so let's forego as much of that as possible. Here's everything you need to know about Australian cinema in 2015:
The big local hit of the year was surely The Dressmaker. This was director Jocelyn Moorhouse's first film in 18 years (thank to the still-extraordinary implosion of Eucalyptus in 2005), and as absurd as it was that we had to wait so long for another film from the director of 1991's Proof, it was definitely worth it.
A brilliantly absurd mix of drama, comedy, and tragedy, The Dressmaker showcased some brilliant central performances from Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, and basically everyone. It's a triumphant, confident work featuring some career-best work from an Ocean's 11-type dream team of crew members, including costume designers Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson, composer David Hirchfelder, cinematographer Don McAlpine, and editor Jill Bilcock. It's gratifying to see it find an audience.
The other big hit of the year was Mad Max: Fury Road. But with the money coming from America, the stars from the UK and South Africa respectively, and the production forced to move to South Africa, is it still Australian? The first answer is yes of course it is, and the second answer is that Mad Max will drive a Ford XB into your face if you disagree. Mad Max is and always will be Australian.
Expectations were high for George Miller's follow-up to his classic trilogy, and he did not disappoint. Fury Road sketches the details of a world that is simultaneously inconsistent-with and exactly-like the original. Featuring the best action scenes of any film this year, the most interesting production design, and a feminist bent that was woven in seamlessly, Fury Road is possibly 2015's best film, Australian or not. The International Federation of Film Critics and America's National Board of Review agree, each awarding it Best Film.
Neil Armfield directed the adaptation of Timothy Conigrave's memoir Holding the Man. Written by Tommy Murphy (based on his own stage adaptation of the memoir), the film follows the love affair between Tim and high school football star John, which lasts for fifteen years from their school days to their adulthood. It is a very good film that elevates to excellence in its third act. A lot of seemingly disconnected moments from throughout the film are all brought together expertly in its compelling final moments.
Following the extraordinary box office success of 2011's Red Dog, family films are enjoying a minor comeback. For the most part these films have been able to capitalize on this emerging market. Robert Connolly's Paper Planes followed the adventures of a boy who dreams of competing at the World Paper Planes Championships in Japan. It was a big success, as was Stuart McDonald's Oddball, the misbehaving-dog-protects-endangered-penguins comedy based loosely on a true story. Opening on the same day as Oddball was the CGI-animated adaptation of the classic story Blinky Bill. This one did not fare as well, despite the film pushing its all-star cast on billboards across the country. This version curiously drops the environmental message inherent in Dorothy Wall's original stories. Despite this, the 26-episode spinoff series commissioned by Channel Seven is still going ahead.
Meanwhile, legendary Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong gave us the documentary Women He's Undressed, the story of Oscar-winning Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly. Further refining the style she employed in her 2006 doco Unfolding Florence, Armstrong crafted a film that is both distinctly Australian but also steeped in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is revelatory and beautifully-constructed, and a must-watch for cinephiles.
The Melbourne-shot Partisan, starring Vincent Cassel and directed by Melbourne wunderkind Ariel Kleiman, did not receive the success it deserved. A stunningly confident and unsettling film, it never quite confirms where or when it's set: is it a present-day Eastern European country? Or a postapocalyptic future? An exploration of a cult from the inside out, Partisan, intriguingly, does not feel remotely like an Australian film.
Justin Kurzel followed up his remarkable Snowtown with his period adaptation of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cottillard. Many wondered why we needed another version of the well-covered play, and then immediately stopped wondering the moment that red-drenched opening battle sequence kicked into gear. Kurzel's Macbeth was forced to film in the UK instead of Australia, but we can still claim ownership of it thanks to Kurzel's involvement.
A surprise hit came in the form of Last Cab To Darwin. Adapted from Reg Cribb's play by Cribb and director Jeremy Sims, the film follows a Broken Hill cab driver (Michael Caton) who, upon discovering he does not have long to live, drives to Darwin in search of a controversial euthanasia treatment. There was a lot to admire about this film, but the biggest takeaway is the turn from Mark Coles Smith, who is clearly Australia's next breakout star. You could power a city from Smith's charisma alone.
Director Tony Ayres made, in my mind, his best film to date with the 1970s-set thriller Cut Snake. High on style and substance, the film is a clever twist on the traditional "ex-con from the central character's past turns up and causes trouble" sub-genre. Blake Ayshford's tight writing and some perfectly-balanced performances should get this one onto some more radars when it hits home video.
Similarly, a poster that boasted Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, and Hugo Weaving couldn't attract audiences to the outback kidnap drama Strangerland. Possibly due to the words "outback kidnap drama," which is usually the go-to genre for people attempting to dismissively characterize all Australian cinema. And that's a shame, because Kim Farrant's film is a stylish film with big ambition, and a supremely confident ending. Hopefully it will find an audience on video, or on streaming services such as the soon-to-be-launched Ozflix.
Honorable mentions go to Grant Scicluna's Downriver, which received a festival premiere ahead of its 2016 release; Joel Edgerton's tight, tense US-shot thriller The Gift; Paul Cox's autobiographical drama Force of Destiny; Lawrence Leung and Ben Chessell's autobiographical comedy Sucker; Brendan Cowell's adaptation of his own play Ruben Guthriel; Shane Abbess's sci-fi horror Infini; semi-autobiographical comedy/drama Manny Lewis; stand-up comedy comedy The Heckler; Bollywood co-production romcom UnIndian bizarrely starring cricketer Brett Lee; Paul Ireland's romantic drama Pawno; documentaries Another Country, Ecco Homo, Gayby Baby, Graceful Girls, Only the Dead, and Sam Klemke's Time Machine.
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