From Relic to The Invisible Man: the best Australian films of 2020

Guardian Australia’s film critic picks the crop from the movies that made it to market in a year that has been anything but ordinary

It’s been a tough year, hasn’t it folks – with horrific bushfires, a global pandemic and the continued existence of Pete Evans. To say the spread of coronavirus has affected the worldwide movie industry is of course something of an understatement. The pandemic is acting as a great accelerant, fastening pre-existing trends towards a streaming-centric industry.

The Australian film industry is more practised at being resilient than Hollywood, with homegrown productions battling for audiences at the best of times. This year they more than held their own, delivering plenty of fine works in a wide range of genres.

Here are the 10 best Australian features from 2020, all receiving a local theatrical or streaming release (outside of film festivals) during the calendar year.

10. A Lion Returns

There’s lots of talking in writer/director Serhat Caradee’s Sydney-set family drama, with almost the entire first act consisting of a single dialogue scene in the back of a car. Jamal (Tyler De Nawi) is the black sheep of his family, to say the least, secretly returning home to Sydney’s western suburbs to visit his dying mother after joining Islamic State in Syria.

The radicalised Jamal engages in long and tense debates with his kith and kin, during skilfully constructed dialogue exchanges that toss around big discussions about motivations people have for joining groups like Isis. The pangs of pain and betrayal are never far from the surface, with a baffled and heartbroken family unable to separate the personal and the political.

9. H is For Happiness

A still from John Sheedy's H is For Happiness.
Daisy Axon (as Candice) with Wesley Patten (as Douglas Benson) in H is for Happiness. Photograph: David Dare Parker

Big, bright, juicy colours dominate the mise en scene of director John Sheedy’s H is for Happiness . A vibrant aesthetic for a coming-of-age film about a very perky pipsqueak – the cherub-faced 12-year-old Candice (played charmingly by Daisy Axon).

Candice becomes besties with the new boy at school, a potential love interest named Douglas (Wesley Patten), whose full name according to her is “Douglas Benson from Another Dimension”. The question of whether Douglas is indeed from another dimension is one of the subjects pondered in this sweet, nuanced and lovingly textured film, peppered with various Wes Andersonisms and coated in that beautiful, radiant, rainbow look.

8. Hot Mess

I’m tempted to say you don’t see films like Hot Mess much anymore: a nano budget character-oriented drama that turns scruffy aesthetics and pared-back production values into virtues. But in truth we didn’t see these films much before either. Sarah Gaul is utterly authentic as 20-something aspiring playwright Loz, who has a tenure at a small Sydney theatre (I used to live around the corner!) and struggles to balance her workload and love life.

Writer/director Lucy Coleman brings a plucky spirit that reminded me of other spritzy dramedies from cash-strapped Australian film-makers – such as Love and Other Catastrophes, All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane and That’s Not Me. Hot Mess had a small number of event-based screenings in cinemas last year but didn’t receive a proper release until landing on Netflix in October.

7. A Sunburnt Christmas

In Christiaan Van Vuuren’s feature film directorial debut, the camera is in on the joke; it probes the space for laughs. A Sunburnt Christmas is Bad Santa crossed with the 1987 Australian family movie Bushfire Moon, following an on-the-run-criminal (Daniel Henshall) who arrives at a tinder-dry farm in the middle of nowhere, recruiting a couple of children (Lena Nankivell and Eadan McGuinness) who believes he is Santa Claus to help him find stolen money hidden somewhere on the property.

It’s cute, warm-spirited, very entertaining and not short on attitude and sass. Van Vuuren presents a unified approach to comedy, from script to performance and cinematography, bundling everything together to land the jokes. When the sentimental stuff eventually arrives, it’s well-earned and satisfying.

6. Brazen Hussies

A still of a protest captured in Catherine Dwyer's new documentary, Brazen Hussies.
A women’s liberation protest featured in Catherine Dwyer’s Brazen Hussies. Photograph: State Library of NSW

The director Catherine Dwyer’s fist-pumping documentary about the women’s liberation movement in Australia during the 60s and 70s is one of those films that makes you want to take to the streets. The focus is on second wave feminists who saw a window for change and fought tooth and nail for it.

Dwyer blends talking heads, photographs, posters, archival footage, music and more with momentum, capturing the movement’s energy. Many interesting discussions are raised, such as whether the activists ought to work within the system or try to rip it down: that age-old, important debate about reform versus revolution.

5. Rams

Director Jeremy Sims’ remake of the excellent 2015 Icelandic drama of the same name stars Sam Neill and Michael Caton as brothers and neighbouring sheep farmers who haven’t spoken to each other in years. It is a very thoughtful drama about masculinity, isolation, long-held familial grievances and, erm, that annoying yobbo redneck who happens to be your brother.

Caton is the belligerent drunk and Neill the more sedate and sensible of the pair. Both react in different ways to the compulsory culling of their prized cattle following the spread of a terrible disease. What at first feels like a simple film grows increasingly nuanced, buoyed by a gentle but profound tone and temperament.

4. The Furnace

David Wenham’s career is ageing like fine wine or malted whisky, the actor exuding gravitas as a pasty-faced gold thief who teams up with an Afghan cameleer (Ahmad Malek). But fine wine and whisky sound a tad too gentle on the palette, given his gritty and gravelly portrayal in writer/director Roderick MacKay’s commandingly styled western. Is it possible to age like fine ... rocket fuel?

The Furnace is another reminder that the Australian or “meat pie” western is alive, well and packing heat, adding to the genre’s very impressive recent titles – including Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Its focus on ethnic minority communities (including Chinese immigrants and Islamic, Sikh and Hindu cameleers) suggests there are many more stories to tell and histories to revisit.

3. The Invisible Man

You know Leigh Whannell’s second feature as a director – a US/Australia co-production, like his terrific previous film Upgrade – is working on bizarrely good levels when you can sense the titular character on the frame, despite no human actor being there, and anticipate with utter dread his next move. Every Invisible Man movie has involved dodgy men and their use of the sleaziest of all superpowers, from Claude Rains’ flaky scientist in the 1933 original to Chevy Chase’s yuppie stock analyst in 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man.

This time things are decidedly different, with Whannell washing away the B movie tropes to configure a thrilling drama about domestic violence and the terror of living with an abusive partner. A wonderful performance by Elisabeth Moss further elevates already powerful material as the terrorised protagonist Cecilia.

2. Relic

Time makes monsters of us all is, broadly speaking, what I think director Natalie Erika James is getting at in her mysterious and big-thinking rumination on womanhood, family and dementia, which dabbles in the visual language and atmospheric framework of a horror movie. A deteriorating elderly lady, Edna (Robyn Nevin) is losing her grip on her memories and her mind – possibly also on her relationship with her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote).

Presented with a musty and sticky veneer, creating the impression that moss may be growing in the spaces between pixels, James finds various ways to reiterate in visual terms the key theme of the passing of time – from visions of an overgrown tennis court to mouldy produce in a fruit bowl. All the performances are great and the film is weirdly and intensely effective, yanking the heartstrings while delivering the collywobbles.

1. True History of the Kelly Gang

When I interviewed George MacKay, who plays Ned Kelly in Justin Kurzel’s brilliantly bold and punkish film, the actor spoke about the famous bush outlaw using words that have stayed in my mind ever since – describing him as “a man who became, in the end, a fridge magnet”. Re-teaming with Snowtown scribe Shaun Grant and adapting Peter Carey’s best-selling novel, Kurzel’s thrillingly cerebral exercise positions the iconoclastic historical figure inside pop culture’s infinite cycle: less a hero or a villain than, indeed, a future fridge magnet, doomed to be reduced by his own destiny.

The dialogue is strewn with lines reminding us the film is about the loss of life to legend and man to myth; also of history as an endless process of reinvention, ever-informed by the mores of the present. The drama gains velocity as it tumbles forward to the shootout at Glenrowan – a stunning sequence that paints in electric prose the film’s feverish meta qualities.


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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