By Erin Free

There is an ever widening gap starting to gape and yawn in Australian cinema, delineating even further the type of films being made in this country. On one side of the perilous drop are “big” films like, for argument’s sake, Hacksaw Ridge: produced partially on Australian government money, this powerful, beautifully made WW2 drama triumphed at the AACTAs, and may even have a presence at the international awards ceremonies. Is it realistic, however, to really call Hacksaw Ridge an Australian film? Its director, Mel Gibson, has spent a lot of time here, but is essentially an American; the true life story details an unconventional American war hero; and many of the principal acting roles are filled by British and American actors. Yes, it was shot here with Australian crews, but so was The Matrix. You could argue that Mad Max: Fury Road is equally “un-Australian” too, but at least that was directed by a “card carrying” Aussie, and continued a deeply Australian film franchise.

Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge

Either way, these big, heaving un-Australian Australian films (The Great Gatsby and Gods Of Egypt click in here too) almost seem to have been responsible for the growth of exciting, inspired low budget filmmakers in this country. Disenchanted (or just not even bothering) with government funding bodies, many producers and directors have turned to private investment after receiving too many knock-backs while going down traditional funding routes. While the government appears to be content with backing safe, non-culturally specific bets like Hacksaw Ridge, industrious local directors are taking huge gambles of their own, resulting in a raft of fascinating films, if not great financial reward for their makers.

The Legend Of Ben Hall
The Legend Of Ben Hall

Film-interested business ventures and – increasingly so over the past couple of years – the crowd-funding arena have allowed low budget films to flourish, across all genres: bushranger epic (The Legend Of Ben Hall), teen film (Is This The Real World?), thriller (Observance), sci-fi (Terminus), hard-edged drama (Broke, Downriver), and sprawling ensemble drama comedy (Pawno). Strong, essential films like these might have struggled to make headway in cinemas, but through alternative screening methods, they made minor inroads into a cinema scene dominated by lumbering American money-spinners. This was also unquestionably where all of the really exciting filmmaking was happening.

Red Dog: True Blue
Red Dog: True Blue

Though there were very, very good films being made under the auspices of Australia’s funding bodies (Abe Forsythe’s satire, Down Under, was one of the best films of the year; Red Dog: True Blue is an utter delight; and The Daughter marked a very auspicious debut for actor turned director, Simon Stone), most of the “bigger” films of 2016 (Spin Out, Looking For Grace) were a little disappointing, though not without obvious merit. Hopefully, some of the filmmakers who debuted with low budget efforts this year might enjoy the benefits of broader screen industry support on their next titles.

Sherpa
Sherpa

And while low budget feature filmmakers punched aggressively above their weight, so did their counterparts in the documentary genre, with a whole host of superb non-fiction films – Spear, The Will To Fly, Remembering The Man, Wide Open Sky, Embrace, The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, Sherpa and Neon, with the latter two made by Australians but about international subject matter – proving once again that Australians do vividly, powerfully well when dealing with the truth. These are the true “little films that could”, and showcase the tenacity, passion, and sense of individuality that characterised the Australian films released in 2016.

THE BEST AUSTRALIAN FILMS OF 2016

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DOWN UNDER Writer/director, Abe Forsythe, took the comedic blowtorch to race relations in this country, and ingeniously mined both gut-busting laughs and heartbreaking sadness from the seemingly taboo subject of Sydney’s infamous Cronulla Riots.

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PAWNO Proving themselves a stunning creative combo, actor/writer, Damian Hill, and director, Paul Ireland, crafted an Altman-esque wonder with the brilliant Pawno, a compassionate dig through the broken but fascinating lives of a rogue’s gallery of characters winding their way through the ramshackle Melbourne suburb of Footscray.

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GOLDSTONE Following on from the creative success of his cracking 2013 thriller, Mystery Road, writer/director, Ivan Sen, cooked up another compelling, insightful adventure for his beleaguered Aboriginal detective, Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), with the masterful Goldstone.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: RED DOG: TRUE BLUE, GIRL ASLEEP, IS THIS THE REAL WORLD?, THE DAUGHTER, SHERPA, BROKE

THE BEST AUSTRALIAN PERFORMANCES OF 2016

Odessa Young in The Daughter
Odessa Young in The Daughter

There were truly stunning performances in 2016: hugely talented up-and-comers, Odessa Young, Bethany Whitmore, and Sean Keenan anchored The Daughter, Girl Asleep, and Is This The Real World?, respectively; Kerry Armstrong turned a supporting role into something special in Pawno; Aaron Pedersen got the opportunity to explore the character of compromised Aboriginal cop, Jay Swan, with even greater depth in Goldstone; Bryan Brown gave one of his most endearing, finely judged turns ever in Red Dog: True Blue; and character actor extraordinaire, Steve Le Marquand, got a rare lead role in Broke, and crafted something breathtaking with it. But the most unforgettable performance of 2016? It was short and not necessarily sweet, but David Field’s full-tilt turn as a camp, intimidating, utterly bizarre drug dealer in Down Under has forever been burned into our collective psyches.

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  • Johanna Toia
    Johanna Toia
    29 December 2016 at 6:06 pm

    The Legend of Ben Hall us an excellent movie which deserved better exposure from our Australian Theatres.

  • Steven
    Steven
    30 December 2016 at 12:26 am

    The Legend Of Ben Hall was the most Outstanding and ambitious movie of 2016 in my opinion, the creator started with almost nothing and was able to make a very well thought-out movie with a very low budget. The Australian Bushranger is now seen in a different light. Love the accurate Australian accents and language!

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