Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A strong year in Australian cinema

I promised you a recap of my Australian Audient series, but I always knew I wanted to combine it with a reflection on movies that were actually released in Australia in 2014. So read on, because that's the very hybrid I've written.

I chose Australian Audient as my 2014 monthly series because I wanted to deepen my appreciation of Australian cinematic history, and begin to commune cinematically with my new country. This in turn seemed to sharpen my awareness/appreciation of the new Australian movies coming out ... especially relative to the scarcity of titles from decades past.

Weirdly, even given the entire history of Australian cinema to choose from, there were only a few titles I had to leave off my shortlist of movies to watch for this series. Granted, many of the classics are movies I have already seen, either on my own or shown to me in the 10 years I have known my wife. But I was still rather amazed at the relative paucity of titles to choose from, especially in places you'd think you'd be able to find them (the local video store, public libraries, etc.). What also surprised me was how relatively recent Australia's cinematic history is. I didn't watch a single movie in the series made before 1980, and in fact, sitting here right now, cannot think of examples of movies made prior to then other than Wake In Fright ... which had to be unearthed even to be rereleased to audiences last year. (I should have rewatched Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! before I started the year, but most of the movies featured there are out of print and almost impossible to get your hands on, anyway.)

(Okay, there's also Mad Max (1979) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).)

So that got me thinking about the here and now, and how surprised I was/am at the quality coming out of this country. Or maybe not even so much the quality as the international prominence of these films ... since some of them did disappoint me.

And seeing one after another really interesting, internationally recognizeable or in some other way globally relevant film hit the theaters, I started to gain a sense of paternal pride over my newly adopted home. I started to see Australian cinema as "the little guy" showing up big on the world stage.

The ironic thing about this viewpoint is that now is perhaps the worst moment in the history of Australian cinema to talk about local successes. As my wife, who is very close to all this for her work, will attest, Australian audiences are less interested than ever about shelling out money to see homegrown movies -- a truth rendered indisputable by the anemic box office for these films. She attributes this to the historically limited appeal of the subject matter of Australian movies -- for a while, there were a lot of domestic dramas and low-level crime movies that didn't have high-concept hooks -- but also to the skyrocketing ticket costs. If you have only $20 a week to spend on the movies, are you going to spend it on a movie about Sydney drug addicts, or Guardians of the Galaxy?

Yet I still find the slate of Australian movies released this year, as a whole, to be a really exciting bunch, one that got a lot of international play. Here's just a few of them:

The Rover (David Michod). The post-apocalyptic follow-up from the director of the internationally acclaimed (and Oscar-nominated) film Animal Kingdom. One of my disappointments, but a film that contains a lot of things I like.

Felony (Matthew Saville). An Australian crime drama written by and starring one of Hollywood's rising stars (Joel Edgerton), featuring another rising star (Jai Courtney) and interesting enough to have attracted one of Britain's great living thespians (Tom Wilkinson). The pride goes into overdrive on this one, as I count the director among my friends.

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent). Considered by many to be the best and most exciting horror film of the year. William Friedkin even calls it the scariest movie he's ever seen. Who knew Australians could make horror movies?

These Final Hours (Zak Hilditch). Surprised this did not get an American release, given its gritty take on an arriving apocalypse. I include this here even though it didn't have the international (or local) success it should have, in part because it was such a deft entry into the end-of-the-world genre, and represents a big canvas type of thinking that is often absent from Australian films.

Tracks (John Curran). This feels like a little bit of a cheat as it was directed by an American, but it stars it-girl Mia Wasikowska and deals with a woman trekking across half of Australia on foot. It got a U.S. release and I suppose functioned as kind of a thematic precursor to Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild.

Charlie's Country (Rolf de Heer). Haven't seen this, but know it will be brilliant. Rolf de Heer (Ten Canoes) knows what he's doing, and he brought his latest sensitive look into the lives of Aboriginals all the way to Cannes.

Predestination (Michael & Peter Spierig). This has the polish of a Hollywood movie and stars Ethan Hawke, but has not actually been released in the U.S. yet. Undoubtedly the best-looking Australian film of the year, and it's absolutely massive on the concept front, involving all sorts of time-travel pretzel logic.

Wolf Creek 2 (Greg McLean). As much as I loathed this movie -- and I loathed it -- it is nonetheless a horror franchise that has made a splash internationally. With the exception of something like the Mad Max series, Australian movies are also not historically known for spawning sequels.

The Water Diviner (Russell Crowe). Only just released this week and isn't coming out in the U.S. until April, but it's Russell Crowe's directorial debut, and that has to be worth something in terms of prominence.

I, Frankenstein (Stuart Beattie). Well, it was shot here, and is listed as a joint Australian-U.S. production, but this feels more like a regular Hollywood movie.

There, that's ten. Did I convince you? I'm not sure if I convinced myself.

So okay, let's move on to the portion of this post that explicitly wraps up Australian Audient.

I don't usually go to the trouble to look back on the series I write on The Audient -- or maybe it was just that last year's series, Famous Flops, ended up being such a dud for me that I wanted to leave it behind as quickly as I could. But in the case of Australian Audient, the series achieved such a focus and seeming cohesiveness that I looked forward to each new entry, rather than it feeling like homework. In the rear view mirror, it looks to me like a nice little project I can wrap up with a bow and move on from. (Because if I had to do a second year of Australian Audient, I'd really be scraping the bottom of the barrel for movies I both hadn't seen and could actually get my hands on.)

I don't have too much profound to say in terms of overarching comments, but I did want to note that there was only one film I saw for this series that I genuinely did not like. And even that film was more silly than awful.

So I'll just end by ranking my films and offering the star ratings I gave them on Letterboxd. I don't know, just because.

1. Breaker Morant (1980, Bruce Beresford) - 4.5 stars
2. Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, Phillip Noyce) - 4.5 stars
3. Strictly Ballroom (1992, Baz Luhrmann) - 4 stars
4. Gallipoli (1981, Peter Weir) - 3.5 stars
5. A Cry in the Dark (1988, Fred Schepisi) - 3.5 stars
6. Phar Lap (1983, Simon Wincer) - 3.5 stars
7. Tracks (2014, John Curran) - 3.5 stars
8. Dead Calm (1989, Phillip Noyce) - 3 stars
9. Mystery Road (2013, Ivan Sen) - 3 stars
10. The Rover (2014, David Michod) - 3 stars
11. Garage Days (2002, Alex Proyas) - 3 stars
12. BMX Bandits (1983, Brian Trenchard-Smith) - 2 stars

Maybe moving to Australia has turned me into an old softie. Haven't spent enough time with Mick Dundee yet, apparently.

Bonus points to Phillip Noyce, the only director who got two movies into the series.

Okay! You are also owed a preview of my 2015 series. So here's what I'll be doing:

I started these monthly series way back in 2010 to help me achieve particular goals. Well, one of my longest-standing film goals is to see all the Oscar best picture winners. I'm still at least 20 short, probably more than that, despite acknowledging this goal as long as ten or 15 years ago.

So in 2015, I will knock a dozen more off my list. My monthly series will be Audient Auscars -- see what I did there? -- and will involve whichever dozen of the following are easiest to get my hands on:

The Broadway Melody
The Life of Emile Zola
All the King's Men
The Greatest Show on Earth
Around the World in 80 Days
West Side Story
Tom Jones
My Fair Lady
The Last Emperor

And quite possibly the 2014 best picture winner if I don't see it before my ranking deadline.

Okay, so 15 I haven't seen, not 20.

If I manage to get my hands on all of these, I'll only have three (or four) still to watch at the end of 2015. Let's see if I can do it.

See you back here in January.


Alien_Dwarf said...

May I suggest 'The Infinite Man' and '52 Tuesdays' both of which I found pretty great? Very nice year for Australia at the movies, indeed.

Derek Armstrong said...

You may, and thank you! Heard of both. Will check them out.