Tuesday, December 10, 2013

EOY Lists - Top 5 Australian Films of 2013

I have to note that there have been a few 2013 Australian releases I didn't get the chance to see (mostly through limited exposure), which perhaps makes this list a little premature. They include Save Your Legs, Patrick, 100 Bloody Acres, Lasseter's Bones and In Bob We Trust. The chances of me seeing these films before the end of the year are very slim, so I am going to recognize the best of very recent Australian cinema without their consideration.

While I quite enjoyed Catriona McKenzie's outback-set coming-of-age adventure-drama Satellite Boy and some elements of Baz Luhmann's outrageously overblown adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic, The Great Gatsby, they fall just short of this list.

My #4 selection actually came out in Australian cinemas late 2012, but missed the consideration cutoff for the 2012 AACTA Awards. As it is amongst this year's AACTA nominees, and as I have begun to appreciate it a lot more now than I did when I first watched it, I have decided to draw some attention to it.

5. Drift - A good-looking Australian surf drama directed by Morgan O’ Neil (who also wrote the screenplay) and Ben Nott, tells the story of Andy (Myles Pollard) and Jimmy (Xavier Samuel) Kelly, who escaped from Sydney with their mother (Robyn Malcolm) in their teens, to a surfing hotspot in the Margaret River region in Western Australia. Over a decade later, Jimmy has become a gifted talent with the potential to take on the worlds best. With their mother still in debt from the mortgage, Andy decides to start an ambitious entrepreneurial venture, which unites the skills of the family, as well as some local friends including JB (Sam Worthington), a Combi-dwelling surf photographer and his companion from Hawaii, Lani (Lesley-Ann Brandt) and personally crafted surf gear straight out of their backyard.

Drift focuses on a small pocket of this development, but surf gear is everywhere in Australia and the carefree beach-dwelling lifestyle will be relatable to anyone who has ever lived near or visited a coastal tourist spot. Commendably, it is a film about the drive required to embrace your passion, the selfless decisions we make for one another and the importance of maintaining a strong sibling relationship and surrounding yourself with friends you can trust. It is a shame the script is dragged under by some forced drama and antagonism despite the compelling central relationship between the brothers. There are some convenient and far-fetched developments in the final act, in which the future of the family business predictably rests in a competitive event. The spectacular surfing captures possess plenty of tension, but the film’s dark turn into crime and drug abuse is less effective.

The charismatic Pollard is especially impressive. He builds an endearing everyman who in the wake of a serious injury in his youth saw a potential career cut short. He had to settle into a stable but unrewarding job to take care of his family. Headstrong and ambitious, he embraces his ‘go-for-it’ attitude and decides to take a chance and try and steer his family out of debt. He knows it will take a lot of hard work – knowledge not shared by his irresponsible younger brother – and he cultivates his family’s unique skills, his own business interests, as well as JB’s insight into creative publicity, into an expansive business with potential.

4. Dead Europe - Adapted by Louise Fox from the novel of the same name by Christos Tsiolkas, Dead Europe tells the disturbing tale of a young Greek-Australian photographer, Isaac (Ewen Leslie, Jewboy and Sleeping Beauty), who, while attending an exhibition of his works, transports his recently deceased father’s ashes from Australia to his ancestral homeland in Greece. Visiting Europe for the first time, Isaac finds it not only a rich environment for future work, but comes to learn about his father’s sinister past involving a young Jewish boy at the end of World War II. Isaac’s world begins to unravel as he journeys from Athens to Paris to Budapest and realizes he cannot escape the ghosts of the past. There is an intense clash of inherent guilt, embedded prejudice, sordid behaviour and personal discovery.

Dead Europe is an odd film, and having not read Tsialkas’ novel I found the narrative difficult to penetrate. The story is episodic, the developments are jarring and often lack context, and rather than simultaneously focus on the two stories – Isaac’s and his father’s – it reveals the latter almost exclusively through testimony. A problem I had with the film was that the information Isaac collects about his late father and his family’s past doesn’t feel earned, but falls into his lap often through inexplicable convenience and following some questionable decisions. Isaac comes to realize that the ghosts of his father’s past – embedded within the architecture of Europe, and the still-prevalent social issues – are making their presence felt.

Dead Europe is smartly shot by Germaine McMicking and director Tony Krawitz builds a tense, unsettling atmosphere and makes excellent use of the locations, simultaneously capturing the beauty and the ugly side of these picturesque European cities. The intense tone is enhanced by a sensational synth score from Jed Kurzell, who worked on Snowtown. This bleak and unpleasant story eats at your soul and left a grimy mark that I am still carrying. The daring 80-odd-minute adaptation feels like it is missing many pieces, which is unfortunate, because there is plenty to admire. A beguiling ending ensures it is contemplative and resonating and Leslie and Csokas are strong in their roles.

3. The Turning - For this unique cinematic event, a winning collaboration between some of Australia’s most talented directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, actors and designers, Tim Winton’s beloved collection of individual short stories have been brought to the big screen in one of our industry’s most ambitious projects – seventeen shorts, each with a different filmmaker at the helm. The stories in The Turning feature moments of emotional enlightenment, deal with the impact of the past and present colliding and one how one shapes the other and features serious recurring themes of addiction, obsession, regret, identity and youthful anxiety. As a whole it is a collection of fascinatingly linked, yet individually powerful, emotive and visceral Australian stories that paint a portrait of the Australian experience, with predominant focus on the lower class and beach culture, infusing natural elements like fire and water with flawed characters dealing with personal demons and moral quandaries.

The standout chapters certainly leave an impression. Callan Mulvey stars in Aquifer (directed by Robert Connolly) – the embodiment of The Turning’s most potent themes – in which he plays a high school music teacher who is reminded of a secret from his past when he learns of a story on the news. The way the past and the present are entwined in the editing, and the fact that Mulvey’s mysterious motivations aren’t revealed for some time, give this one a tense edge.

The photography is superb throughout – with the work in Fog and Family especially standing out for me. The films are a blend of visceral experiences – little dialogue or plot with more reliance on voice-over, image and soundtrack – and narrative-driven storytelling. The unique approach by each filmmaker to the stories they tackle means that recurring characters aren’t in common with cast and locations aren’t concretely set. The ties between the stories aren’t always easy to decipher, which is what makes the beautiful colour-illustrated program that viewers are given as part of their ticket purchase so important in enhancing one’s appreciation.

2. Mystery Road - The latest feature from Ivan Sen – who not only writes and directs, but photographs, edits and composes too. The story follows an indigenous detective who on return to his hometown finds himself the sole investigator into the death of a young girl. In this gripping, cinematic, well-acted and admirably patiently-crafted police procedural a harrowing mystery collides with national prejudice. This provocative contemporary western depicts the crime and corruption that continues to pollute small isolated towns of outback Australia.

Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) returns to his Western Queensland country hometown after a stint in the ‘big smoke’, headlong into a case involving a murdered indigenous girl.  Wild dogs, heard in the vicinity at the time, and rumours of a suspected drug ring become just some of the primary clues Jay follows to every corner of the town leading to the unveiling of further disconcerting operations. He suppresses the prevalent resentment he faces as he investigates – both from the distrusting indigenous community, who have all-but ostracized him, and the uncooperative white folk – as well as dealing with a contemptuous and apparently lackadaisical local police force who he is reluctant to entrust. Surrounded by unforgiving, dwarfing nature, the isolation results in the town becoming a breeding ground for criminal enterprises, and the bored and disillusioned youth find themselves easily exploited. As we watch this determined man try to win back his identity and credibility within his former community and prove that he has the skills the make a difference, the suspense begins to mount.

I have to admit the sole investigator crime procedural is an attractive genre for me personally. But watching one that is so culturally specific, which addresses a number of issues plaguing Australian lower class outback dwellers – drugs, alcoholism, gambling, youth dysfunction and an unchecked gun culture – and the corrupt white police force overseeing it all, made it all the more fascinating. I remained engrossed throughout, stunned by how the terrain was photographed, the understated score, the brewing tension that sneaks up on you, and how the pieces of the mystery gradually are assembled as the empowered Jay seeks to make his worthy intentions clear. The well-choreographed final face-off offered up something completely unexpected, a suitable culmination that is sure to reward a patient viewer.

1. The Rocket - An optimistic and spirited tale of a young man’s personal journey to alter his destiny.
The story follows Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), a ten-year old boy whose family are forced to relocate after an Australian energy company announces the construction of a dam set to flood their area. Considered bad luck in the traditions of the family as he is delivered into the world preceding a stillborn twin, Ahlo finds himself blamed for the string of misfortunes that fall upon the family. After a tragic accident and the forging of a friendship with a young girl, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), and her outcast uncle, Purple (Thep Phongam), Ahlo’s father (Sumrit Warin) begins to believe that the prophecy is true. Ahlo must prove his worth to his family as they come to terms with the economic change that threaten their livelihood, with their future reliant on the most unlikely of events. 

The Rocket covers similar themes to director Kim Morduant’s last film Bomb Harvest, a documentary about an Australian bomb disposal specialist who leads a team to rid Laos, the most bombed country, per capita, on the planet, of the bombs left from The Secret War. In The Rocket we get a sense of the ongoing danger local civilians (who I believe were involved in assisting the teams) find themselves in. There are remnants of the past found on every stage of Ahlo’s journey for a brighter future. What is brilliant about this film are the fairytale qualities. The realities are grim, but stemming from the child’s innocence, courage and his intoxicating sense of hope, it is brimming with tender, heartfelt moments.

All of the relationships built in this film are complex and beautifully drawn. Ahlo’s bond with his father is in the wake of tragedy and though he loves his son, he insists on taking leadership and making rational decisions on what he believes is best for the family. Ahlo and Kia’s friendship is very sweet, and with Kia left the responsibility of looking after both herself and her uncle, she’s as much a fighter as Ahlo. For Ahlo, Uncle Purple, a suit wearing, liquor swigging, James Brown fan (sure to be a crowd favourite), becomes a stand-in father figure. He’s a man who understands that the adventurous Ahlo cares deeply for his family, but feels betrayed by their lack of belief in him. He offers timely wisdom and a realistic outlook on the situation. There is credible emotional drama that affects each one. Mordaunt has evidently built a remarkable rapport with all of his actors, especially the youngsters, which is all the more impressive as most have little-to-no acting experience. For such a tiny budget, the photography is beautiful. The small story is embraced and made handsomely cinematic. With subtle humour and eccentric characters, this moving story of family tragedy, residential displacement and tribal conflict is as entertaining as it is importantly grounded in realities.


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