Friday, December 30, 2011

Superheroes, Fairy Tales & a Red Dog: The Top Ten Australian Films of 2011

You may notice a new banner up the top there of the blog. Well, that's a small nod to 2011 and just three of the films that I remember fondly. If you're interested in a traditional top ten list from me then by all means head on over to Trespass Magazine where I bestow my annual best of the year crown on - and I know this may shock you to your very core - Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive.

... Drive is no laughing matter. With liberal lashings of hot pink and neon green, Refn’s quietly explosive film is a candy-coloured, but black-hearted masterpiece.

That particular list goes by Australia release dates only so you won't find titles like Martha Marcy May Marlene or Weekend, but it does mean that you'll be reminded of the beautiful Rabbit Hole, The Illusionist and the hilarious I Love You Phillip Morris. Basically, it evens out. Australians don't get the chance to see all of the big American contenders until various points throughout the next year, so while I've been lucky enough to catch advance screenings of The Artist, Hugo, and others, there are still plenty that I have yet to see and I can't fathom doing any sort of 2011 list based on US release dates without having seen Steve McQueen's Shame or Alexander Payne's The Descendants is beyond me, so it's best to just play it safe and go purely by Australian release dates. I know many of my readers are from America, but I can only work with what I'm given. Sure, we all have out blind spots - that Trespass article mentions me sadly missing Thomas McCarthy's Win Win and Mike Mills' Beginners, but I have since rectified that oversight - but a list a mile long of unseen titles makes the task of making a "best of" list rather pointless, doesn't it? It's why I don't bother doing so for music anymore, because it's hard to write such a thing with a straight face.

I thought, however, that for the blog we'd do a countdown of the best Aussie films of the year. It was a curious year for local films, I think. While none of the below films made it onto my top ten (like Three Blind Mice, Jindabyne, Samson & Delilah, Look Both Ways, The Tree from years past), there were still plenty of titles to fill a list like this without embarrassing ourselves. Running the gamut of genres from superhero flicks to found footage horror titles; exploitation sex thrillers to heartwarming family fare... we kinda had it all this year. There was even our version of prestige period fare and big budget animation! So let's take a look, shall we?

Dishonourable Mentions: Two of the year's very worst films were Gale Edwards' A Heartbeat Away and Franco di Chiera's Big Momma's Boy. Whereas the former was just infamously plain ol' bad (Australia's answer to The Room, surely), the latter was down right offensive in its mining of homosexuality for quote unquote hilarious jokes. I've never walked out of a press screening, but I got damned close when I realised that's where Big Mamma's Boy was going. All class, it has an entire scene that revolves around the fact that the main character has to go to the bathroom BUT CAN'T OMG LULZ! No. Elsewhere, Rosie Jones' The Triangle Wars sunk to new lows for local home videos masquerading as cinema; Simon Wincer's The Cup belongs on a Wikipedia Movie Night with The Iron Lady; Michael Henry's Blame has promising aspects, but fails to thrill; John Soto's Needle is a pathetic excuse for horror with a twist ending that appears out of nowhere; Macario De Souza's Fighting Fear sainted its documentary subjects in between cheap filmmaking flourishes (but did have great surfing footage). Most contentious of all was my dislike for Justin Kurzel's Snowtown, which I found to be yet another case of low class miseraberalism trumping everything and sundry, even if it was exceptionally crafted and acted.

Honourable Mentions: I wished Sophie Hyde and Bryan Mason's Life in Movement had the same filmmaking verve of Matthew Bate's Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, as I felt both had issues that prevented them from truly soaring; Mrs Carey's Concert was a suitably rousing experience, but some of the key narrative decisions of directors Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond were questionable; Ben C Lucas proved he was an exciting new talent with his propulsive high school drama Wasted on the Young. Sadly, Jonathan Teplitzky's Burning Man did everything it could to not be seen by me. It's all the film's fault - ALL OF IT!

10. Happy Feet Two
dir. George Miller

Flawed from a storytelling angle - it's main narrative arc feels curiously secondary - but succeeds due to the astonishing animation, ace song selections and a pair of homosexual krill (voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon of all people) that feels truly radical and proves that George Miller's sequel wasn't just one big retread. That the film has flopped at the US box office is not really an indicator of the film's quality so much as it is representative of the film landscape; Happy Feet Two just wasn't all that necessary. Even as a fan I can admit that, but Miller and his team of gifted technicians more than proved their case. It was disappointing to see (er, hear of?) the departure of Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and, for obvious reasons, the late Brittany Murphy from the voice cast, but Sofia Vergara was a neat addition (let's just not go into the mechanics of why there are Mexican penguins in Antarctica... or at all!) And, of course... those krill! One of the most surprising delights of the year were those gosh darned krill.
Full review

9. Face to Face
dir. Michael Rymer

Stage adaptations can be tricky at the best of times, especially one that is as simply staged as David Williamson's play - a group of people sitting in a room, that's it - but while director Michael Rymer hasn't done all that much to expand the play to a cinematic landscape, he has at least still made a compelling film. Featuring a true ensemble of actors - actors who are forced to not only share a space, but to react and play off of each other like a proper ensemble should, SAG should take notice - giving some wonderful performances, Face to Face is intimate, boutique filmmaking, but filmmaking that speaks to larger issues that shouldn't be ignored. The inadvertent comedy of casting Matthew Newton in this role thankfully doesn't detract from the fine work by Ra Chapman, Robert Rabiah, Luke Ford, Sigrid Thornton and others around him. If the film has one major issue it's the way it all but wraps pretty little bows onto the end of its Serious Issues, but that's a somewhat minor quibble given the dramatic weight that Face to Face carries.
Full review

8. The Tunnel
dir. Carlo Ledesma

One of the biggest and most popular films funded by crowd sourcing, The Tunnel is a "found footage" horror film that works like a blend of The Blair Witch Project and Neil Marshall's The Descent. With a film crew descending into the underground tunnel systems of Sydney there are plenty of opportunities for things - whether they be humans, rats or the inevitable monsters - to come popping out of the darkness. While we all know what's going to happen, director Carlo Ledesma gets great mileage out of his assortment of night vision/dark room/cavernous tunnel setups and there were at least one moment when I screamed. Loudly. The Tunnel looks and sounds phenomenal so it's disappointing no American distributor took a fancy to it like they do to other similar titles. Of course, Ledesma's reward is, I suppose, not making a film that's comparable to Apollo 18.

7. Red Dog
dir. Kriv Stenders

As one of the highest grossing Australian films of all time - it secured a place on the top ten local hits, bypassing the likes of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Man from Snowy River - it was inevitable that Kriv Stenders' tale of "red dog" and his American master would find its detractors. I admired Red Dog, however, for the clarity of its desires and the skill with which it achieved them. Sure, there are by far too many overhead shots of cars/trucks/buses/vans speeding down dusty outback roads, but filmmaking this honest is hard to come by within the Australian industry. That Stenders is the man behind Lucky Country and Boxing Day, which are hardly indicative of a career in heartwarming family fare, is an inspiring thought and hopefully his success will inspire some fellow locals to put their considerable, but underused, skills to work on projects that are just as important as whatever Snowtown was trying to be.
Full review

6. The Hunter
dir. Daniel Nettheim

A genuine surprise was the Tasmanian-set The Hunter. Far from the overly grim and grey experience I was expecting, Daniel Nettheim's first feature film since something called Angst in 2000 (he has since been directing local television) is a very handsome production with powerful performances from its strong international cast - Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Frances O'Connor, Morgana Davies, Sullivan Stapleton amongst them - and a look that was unmatched in 2011. The greens of the Tasmanian forest pop right out of the screen in Nettheim's low-key boiler thriller about the hunt of the Tasmanian Tiger as he gradually brings out the ethics, morals and issues of Julia Leigh's story. It's quiet, yes, but an unmistakable and surprisingly gripping tale of man and nature.
Full review

5. The Tall Man
dir. Tony Krawitz

This evocative documentary about the in custody death of an Aboriginal man will surely raise blood pressure amongst anybody who sees it. Spectacularly filmed with cinematography that belies its digital documentary roots, The Tall Man plays like a typical Hollywood court drama with an escalating series of maddening events. Some of the stuff that transpires in Tony Krawitz' doco are so truly baffling that it's hard to believe it's non-fiction. Rather than rocking the boat with distracting attention seeking editing that is so popular in documentaries these days, The Tall Man is a simply told, but fascinating look at the injustices perpetrated by the titular "tall man" and the way the system tries to deify him and throw him under the bus in equal measure.
Full review

4. X
dir. Jon Hewitt

Yes, yes, I know! I can't help it that I was completely on board with Jon Hewitt's pulse-raising, electric, neon-soaked sex worker thriller from the streets of King's Cross. It's lurid and completely ridiculous, but that's why I enjoyed it. Perhaps it was because it came at the tail-end of a rather hard slog at the Melbourne International Film Festival when what I really needed was a dose of the silly, but I found myself totally on X's wavelength. With a screenplay full of clunkers and some performances to match, X doesn't exactly scream high class, but with an exploitation twist (this is far more genuine than, say, Hobo with a Shotgun) and some blistering craft skills made X a genuinely - wait for it - Xciting time in the cinema. Oh, har dee hah hah.
Full review

3. Oranges and Sunshine
dir. Jim Loach

I was as surprised as anyone to discover I had ranked Oranges and Sunshine as high as I have. Originally I thought it was a well-made, admirably conceived and nicely acted excursion into Erin Brockovich style filmmaking, but this Australia/UK co-production has grown in my estimation. The mystery at its heart of how and why the British and Australian governments were allowed to get away with the crimes they did - and crimes they most certainly were, even if not recognised by any specific law - is compelling and it's surprising it hadn't been told before now. It's the performances, however, that elevate Jim Loach's (son of Ken) film; Emily Watson finally being given a meaty lead role again after so many years, and work from David Wenham and especially Hugo Weaving that rank as some of their very best to date.
Full review

2. Sleeping Beauty
dir. Julia Leigh

One of the most divisive films of the year - from this or any other country it would see - was Julia Leigh's debut film. A Palme d'Or nominee on the back of a personal Jane Campion citation, Sleeping Beauty has been angering, boring and downright confusing viewers ever since it's premiere at a Croisette. Even if I wasn't initially as taken by it as it's #2 placing suggests, I was certainly on the positive side of the spectrum. However, no other film from 2011 as remained in my mind quite as long as Sleeping Beauty. Sticky like taffy, it has wormed it's way into my favourites of the year so much so that I'm scared to actually revisit it for fear of it actually proving that it's not actually all that brilliant. Ornately crafted, sumptuously filmed and superbly acted (Emily Browning in a true career changing role - casting directors take note, there is a certain Nicole Kidman/Tilda Swinton vibe about her in this role), Sleeping Beauty is a truly radical reinterpretation of the fairy tale (Red Riding Hood would never) and one that proves its worth by being exactly the sort of film that people can argue and debate about for hours. Truly a unique and daringly original piece of work.
Full review

1. Griff the Invisible
dir. Leon Ford

Sigh. I adore this movie. Earlier this year I wrote about Mark Joffe's 1992 Spotswood for an upcoming book on the city of Melbourne and I couldn't help but feel Leon Ford's caped crusader flick, Griff the Invisible, echoed the films of that era. Films set within inner suburbs of the big capital cities (in this case Sydney) that probe the delicate and frequently offbeat lives of people that we might normally think little about. Consider Proof, Death in Brunswick, Amy or Malcolm, but with the genre elements of a Heat Wave. Helped immeasurably by the chemistry of stars Ryan Kwanten and Maeve Dermody, Griff the Invisible is another one of the compelling left-of-centre films, like Melancholia and Bridesmaids, to look at mental health in 2011. It was a touching and yet vividly painted film that takes playful jabs at the genre, but never forgets for one second that it is ultimately about these two connected, deeply troubled individuals. It was the most original Australian film of the year and the one that I suspect I'll remember most fondly in years to come.
Full review

And with that we bid adieu to 2011. We'll have further looks at the year that was 2011 - done in the vein of my "design of a decade" pieces, looking at the scenes, performances and technical achievements that I loved most - but until then, don't disappear on me folks! We need you, we crave you, here at Stale Popcorn. Until we meet on the other side of New Years Eve...

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