Best Australian Films of 2016

2016 was another solid year for Australian cinema with some fantastic dramas, comedies and documentaries all being produced by great Australian talent. It was also the year that we decided to launch a second podcast, The Last New Wave, a show that is purely dedicated to covering Australian cinema, both new and old.

Australian cinema had another solid year with good attendance, although no film hit the heights of the 2015 box office (which saw superb returns for Mad Max Fury Road, The Dressmaker, Oddball and Paper Planes). The highest grossing ‘Australian’ film was Mel Gibson’s war picture, Hacksaw Ridge (46 on Box Office Mojo’s list) – the validity of how ‘Australian’ a film it is still being a contentious issue. The other Australian films that cracked the Top 100 Australian box office were, Red Dog: True Blue (86) and Alex Proyas’ critical darling Gods of Egypt (92). It’s worthwhile noting that dramas like The Daughter (103) and documentaries like Sherpa (118) found dedicated and receptive audiences.

2016 was an interesting year, in that the way Australian films were distributed bended to being ‘on demand’ for audiences. The film platform Fan Force provided avenues for films like Chasing Asylum, Embrace, Red Billabong and Broke to reach audiences. The benefit to this roll out was that it allowed these films to be seen with audiences that wanted to see them. The great documentary Embrace managed to deliver an empowering message to audiences, and women around Australia used the Fan Force platform to get their girlfriends, mothers, sisters and daughters along to screenings. One could argue that through Fan Force, audiences aren’t able to accidentally ‘stumble’ on to films like they may have done in the past. However, given the level of independent cinema Australia produces, it can be expensive for filmmakers to advertise and push their films into cinemas for extended runs – that is, of course, if the cinema chain decides to even screen the film.

The other avenue that delivered Australian films to audiences was through streaming services. Films like Cooped Up, Crushed, Drama, and even Scare Campaign all opted to have on demand streaming as their platform of choice. While this may not have been as successful as it was for the 2014 film, The Mule, it does at least provide an easier and cheaper way for Australian films to reach Australian audiences. Ideally with the arrival of OzFlix in 2017, the greater accessibility of Australian films of varying quality should hopefully deliver a wider audience.

I would be remiss to mention two films that had different releases, namely – being shown directly on TV rather than having a theatrical run – that were very solid releases. The TV series turned feature film, Top Knot Detective, that screened on SBS was a great homage to the early 90’s late night television many Aussies grew up on. Then, on the documentary front was the topical feature about politician Pauline Hanson with the AACTA award winning Pauline Hanson: Please Explain! On the surface, this could have been a wash of a film, but in fact it’s an interesting look into what drives Pauline and how she managed to end up as an influential power within Australian politics.

Locally, Revelation Film Festival’s monthly Australian film screenings continued to great success throughout the year, with films like Hotel Coolgardie, Downriver, Spear, Broke and Observance getting dedicated screenings with Q&A sessions afterwards. If you haven’t attended one of these screenings and you live in Perth, then make sure you head along during 2017.

Even with all of these platforms for delivering Australian cinema, there were still some films that sadly missed audiences completely, by either not getting a theatrical run, or a streaming run. Films like the boxing drama Beast, Sucker, Early Winter and The Menkoff Method either had one off screenings that were barely publicised, or no screenings at all.

With all that said, let’s take a look at my personal top ten films of 2016. While I didn’t get to watch every Australian film released in the year (I missed out on films like Spin Out, Gods of Egypt, Looking for Grace, Spear), I do feel this is as good a list as any that covers the wide variety of Australian films released. There is something for everybody on this list.

Honourable Mentions:

Downriver – Grant Scicluna’s film about a man trying to redeem himself after being in prison is an effective drama with good central performances.

Girl Asleep – actress Bethany Whitmore steals the show (as she should) in this quirky Australian coming of age story. While it loses its way in the second half, Girl Asleep is definitely worthwhile watching for Whitmore’s performance alone.

Early Winter – A chilling Canadian/Australian co-production that focuses on a marriage that is going through some difficult times.

Red Dog: True Blue – Kriv Stenders delivers a double rarity in Australian cinema – a sequel that’s also a prequel. Building on the foundations of the loveable wandering kelpie, Red Dog, by delving into the hounds backstory, Stenders essays not only Blue’s (as he is known as a pup) relationship with his companion Mick, but also touches on the history of Western Australia’s North West region.

10. Scare Campaign

Josh Quong Tart as Rohan

Australian horror is one of the few film exports that seems to work pretty well for us with films like Wolf Creek, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead and The Babadook all finding audiences overseas. Hopefully, then, Colin and Cameron Cairnes horror flick gets the international attention it deserves as it’s a fun twisting and turning film that has enough scares, and enough laughs, to be a really entertaining entry in the horror genre. The short run time keeps you enthralled at every turn, and each time a new twist is revealed, you’re left amazed and excited. Great central performances and all round good fun – move aside the Spierig brothers, here comes the Cairnes brothers.

9. Broke

Heath Davis’ directorial debut deals with an issue that’s plaguing Australian pubs and clubs and homes – the proliferation of gambling. Whether it’s through pokies or having a flitter on the trots, the insidious way that gambling has entrenched itself in society is given a look in this superb drama. Starring Steve le Marquand as retired rugby player, Ben Kelly, who has gone from a troubling end of his career to being homeless, Broke is an essay in how gambling can take a hold of a life. Ben grew up in a sport where the odds of success plague the player every day, and the way that has changed his life for the worse is powerfully displayed here. It’s not all drama though, as the supportive fans that are Cecil (Max Cullen) and Terri (Claire van der Boom) swoop in to help Ben get back on his feet, and doing so provide some of the films levity.

8. Chasing Asylum

Eva Orner, a child of refugee parents, directs this caustic and upsetting look at the harsh and cruel environment that are the Australian funded detention centres that make up the ‘homes’ of the legitimate refugees. Everyone from whistle blowers, to ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, appear to discuss the immigration policies that the Australian government has implemented. What’s most effective, and important, about Chasing Asylum is that it not only details the current immigration policies that the Australian government has implemented, but it also details how we ended up at this point. As a film, it doesn’t always hit the right marks, but as a protest document, it is effective.

7. Down Under

Alexander England as Shit-Stick, Chris Bunton as Evan, Damon Herriman as Jason and Justin Rosniak as Ditch

Dark comedy is one of the hardest ‘genres’ of film to reach wide audiences, so for writer/director Abe Forsythe to decide to turn the violent Cronulla riots of 2005 into a laugh a minute film, well, he must be as crazy as somebody getting a massive Ned Kelly tattoo done. So, Down Under, the film that looks at both sides of the Cronulla riots – the attacked middle easterners, and the idiotic white morons doing the attacking – attempts to cover the violent event in an even manner. While both sides, as presented in this film, are as bad as each other, they also have their empathetic figures, with Alexander England’s Shit-Stick and Lincoln Younes’ Hassim leading the pack in that regard. This introspective comedy ruffled a few feathers as many found the act of laughing at such a violent event distasteful, however, in a world where many laugh at the real world consequences of xenophobia and islamophobia, it’s honourable that Forsyth managed to make such a topic work as well as it does.

6. Embrace

Taryn Brumfit’s essential documentary about body images has been one of my most enjoyable and emotional film journeys I’ve followed throughout the year. After watching the film early in the year, I have seen Brumfit’s Body Image Movement empower women all around the world, and encourage the further breaking down of barriers around discussing body image issues. The film itself is wonderful, as not only does Brumfit come to accept her changing body as a mother, but her journey to find other stories about differing body issues is inspiring and simply beautiful. This is a film that deserves to be seen by women and men everywhere.

5. Beast

Chad McKinney as Jaime Grey

If there were two films that were released in 2016 that deserved wider audiences, they would be Paul Ireland’s Pawno and Sam & Toby McKeith’s Beast. Getting a theatrical release that hit one screen in Sydney and Melbourne, this tale of a boxer in Manila seeking redemption for the death of his opponent is a powerful and impressive film. Garrett Dillahunt delivers a powerful performance as Rick grey, the father of boxer Jaime Grey. Chad McKinney portrays the lead boxer, and as an untrained actor, he delivers a brilliant performance. The fact that he’s headed back into the world of boxing and hasn’t leaped into more films is saddening, but at least we got this one performance. It’s rare that we get to see a film detail a part of the world like we rarely get to peek into, and Beast is definitely a film that does just that.

4. Tanna

The base story of Tanna is not too dissimilar to that of Romeo & Juliet. Two people who can’t be together, but their love ends up dictating their destiny. However, to just dismiss the film as being a story of two people in love is to dismiss the other themes within the film. The progressive concept of listening and adapting to the desires of youth, and letting their views help mold the society they live in, is one that is rarely seen in cinema. Tanna is a simply beautiful film with grand cinematography by Bentley Dean, and glorious music partially by Lisa Gerrard. As Australia’s entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, this deserves a nomination. 

3. Pawno

If Goldstone is the representation of modern outback Australia, then Pawno is the representation of modern suburban Australia. It’s rare to capture a ‘slice of life’ on film, but with Paul Ireland’s direction and Damian Hill’s writing, Pawno cements itself as an Australian classic. Pawno creates relatable, realistic characters who you can’t help but empathise with. On initial screening, this is a sweet, funny, dramatic film. On subsequent viewings, the heart of each character shines stronger and stronger, with their actions becoming even more empathetic. Honestly, when compiling this list I struggled to decide which of these top three films deserved the ‘number one’ position – they all do. With Pawno, it is easily the one out of the three that I highly recommend everyone seek out. This right here is an all timer.

2. Sherpa

Jennifer Peedom’s essential documentary about the people that make climbing Mt Everest possible is one of the most powerful films I’ve seen all year. The mere fact that Peedom started this film as a plan to document climber Phurba Tashi’s 22nd ascent, and through its production managed to carve a fascinating tale about workers right, climate change, exploitation of tourist industries, and how to define one’s identity – is an amazing accomplishment. On top of that, Peedom manages to combine all of this into a searing 90 minute run time. The stunning cinematography gathered from footage captured from the sherpa’s climbing the mountain further the brilliance of this film. Not only is Sherpa one of the finest Australian films in years, it’s also one of the great modern documentaries. 

Goldstone

Ivan Sen’s fourth feature Goldstone furthers the story of Aaron Pedersen’s Detective Jay Swan, and with it, he cements himself as one of Australia’s great directors. Goldstone sees Sen’s dedication and care for the craft of cinema being perfected to the point where he can deliver a profoundly moving film that displays the destruction of a rural mining town and the lives that live within it. Sen manages to give Steven Soderbergh a run for his money by not only writing and directing the film, but also providing the score and the cinematography – is there nothing this man cannot do? The mere fact that a stunning piece of cinema of this level went mostly unnoticed by audiences is a shame – I stand by the fact that if the Coen Brothers name was on this film, it would be the frontrunner for the Oscars. Watch Mystery Road first, then watch Goldstone. Already seen them? Then watch them again on the biggest screen possible.

Andrew has been a film lover all of his life. For a while now he's been talking about how great films are and usually that's been directly to his wife, Bernadette. Now with the AB Film Review everyone else in the world can listen to what Andrew has to say to his wife.