Meet the Contenders – the feature films in the running for the L'Oréal Paris 2008 ‘Best Film’ AFI Award
They’re a varied bunch, the 25 feature films vying for nominations in this year’s AFI Awards. They represent the diversity of a national filmmaking culture that produces lavish international co-productions (Children of the Silk Road, Death Defying Acts) alongside edgy improvisational dramas (The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, Men’s Group) and tightly crafted genre thrillers (Black Water). Crime takes centre stage in a number of films (The Square, Cactus, The Jammed) and there seem to be fewer explicit
comedies than in some previous years. Nevertheless, there’ll be laughs along the way in sweet romantic comedies (All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane), coming-of-age dramas (Hey Hey it’s Esther Blueburger) and in the slapstick world of cinema ushers running amok (The Plex).
This year has seen the AFI take into account a rapidly changing film production and distribution landscape. Our changing eligibility criteria reflects this, and now allow entry into the Awards for films with smaller and less conventional release patterns. We hope that this results in an exciting mix of films in competition that broadly represents Australian feature film production from this period. In our next E-Newsletter we’ll be talking specifically about these self-funded or independently distributed films, and trying to make sense of the changing landscape – its pitfalls,
challenges, and opportunities.
Here though, we offer a taste of all the feature films you’ll be judging this year, grouping them roughly into genres and introducing some of the people and stories behind the films.
While we strongly encourage members to see as many of the films as possible, remember it’s not essential to see all 25 films in order to vote. Here they are, for your consideration:
From writer/director Peter Duncan comes Unfinished Sky, a love story with a thriller twist. A remake of Dutch film, De Poolse Bruid, it focuses on an isolated farmer (William McInnes) whose life changes when he stumbles across a distraught, female refugee. Describing the film as “a movie about trust,” Duncan says “this is a timely subject for audiences… We live in an increasingly fragmented world and stories about people connecting, despite their fears, are a small antidote to this fragmentation.”
Exposing the sinister workings of human trafficking, illegal prostitution and governmental deportation is gritty social thriller The Jammed. When a young woman (Veronica Sywak) agrees to help a Thai mother find her missing daughter, she is unwittingly drawn into the underworld of Melbourne’s sex slave trade. Inspired by actual events and court transcripts, The Jammed is a self-funded, independently distributed film that almost went straight to DVD but managed to break box office records due to strong word of mouth and some key critical support. Director Dee McLachlan
and producer Andrea Buck are thrilled that the AFI’s new eligibility criteria will allow members this year to see and vote for small mould-breaking films like theirs.
A married man and his lover, who plan to steal a stash of money and run away, become caught up in crime in The Square. Director Nash Edgerton, who has previously worked as an actor, stunt performer and short filmmaker “wanted to make a film that was entertaining, that had tension and suspense and a little bit of shock value.” Producer, Louise Smith, says she was attracted to the script (penned by Joel Edgerton and Mathew Dabner) because of the genre – “that it was a dark, plot-driven thriller with interesting characters that had many layers.”
A stylised version of 1920’s Sydney forms the back-drop for The Tender Hook, the story of a young woman (Rose Byrne), in a dangerous love triangle with her possessive lover (Hugo Weaving) and a young boxer (Matt Le Nevez). Pleased with the work of her filmmaking colleagues, co-producer Michelle Harrison says she “loved the story of a young woman making her way in 1920s Australia” but that “filmmaking is akin to extreme sport; for a producer it’s like climbing Mt Everest and roller skating down the other side!”
Described as a “chiller” Punishment is the story of a revenge that goes horribly wrong. The action-packed drama was written and directed by first-timer Danny Matier, and stars Nicholas Bishop and Roxanne Wilson.
Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan makes her directorial debut with Cactus, the story of a kidnapper who takes his hostage on a journey into the Australian outback. Acting icons Bryan Brown and Shane Jacobson (Kenny) both appear in the film in supporting roles alongside Travis McMahon and David Lyons.
Creature-feature Black Water follows the misadventures of three young holiday-makers (Diana Glenn, Maeve Dermody and Andy Rodoreda) when their boat capsizes in crocodile infested waters in the Northern Territory. Using real footage of crocodiles rather than CGI effects, the film’s producer/director Andrew Traucki says he was “more interested in creating suspense” than in depicting gore.
Set in 1926, Death Defying Acts tells the story inspired by the life of the great Harry Houdini. When Harry, played by Guy Pearce, arrives in Edinburgh for the grand finale of his world tour, he throws out a challenge: he will give $10,000 to any psychic or spiritualist who can tell him the last words his dying mother spoke to him. The challenge is taken up by psychic Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones). A UK/Australian Co-production, the film is produced by Marianne Macgowan and Chris Curling, and directed by veteran Gillian Armstrong.
Based on the real life events of English journalist, George Hogg, The Children of the Silk Road is set in China, during the Japanese invasion of the 1930s. A co-production between Australia, America, China and Germany, the film was directed by English native, Roger Spotiswoode, and co-produced by Australian Jonathan Shteinman. Personal history attracted Shteinman to the material as his father was born in Harbin, Northern China, in 1929. Shteinman explains “he lived through the whole period of history that this film covers. He never suffered at the hands of the Japanese but
told us many stories about the Japanese occupation as well as the civil war in China.”
Multi-narrative drama, Bitter and Twisted begins with the death of a young man and flashes forward three years to assess the toll it took on those around him. Written and directed by then-26-year-old Christopher Weekes, the film, which stars Noni Hazlehurst, Mathew Newton and Rhys Muldoon, was funded with a $200,000 insurance cheque that Weekes had received as an inheritance. Screened to acclaim at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Bitter and Twisted has seen its young director feted in New York, a situation he finds “very strange and weird”
after enduring years of disappointment and knock-backs when trying to script and finance his film in Australia.
The story of a family re-uniting over the course of a weekend, Ten Empty is the brainchild of talented actors Anthony Hayes and Brendan Cowell. Co-writer and director Hayes says, “we wanted to write a father-and-son story, an ode to fatherhood.” Hayes also stars in another 2008 AFI ‘Best Film’ contender, The Square, while Co-Writer Brendan Cowell was nominated for the 2007 AFI ‘Best Lead Actor’ Award for his role in Noise.
Actor Matthew Newton’s feature film directorial debut, Three Blind Mice, focuses on three young Navy officers (played by Newton, Ewen Leslie and Toby Schmitz) who hit the town for one last night before being shipped to the Gulf. The boys lose each other, find themselves, and along the way, discover love, courage and redemption.
Male friendship is also at the heart of Men’s Group, the story of six very different men who meet once a week to talk. Directed by Michael Joy, and co-written and produced by John L Simpson (who was also responsible for taking on the distribution of The Jammed last year), Men’s Group had its world premiere at the 37th Rotterdam International Film Festival earlier this year. Its portrayal of men at crisis point was so convincing, says Simpson, that some members of the audience were convinced it was an intrusive documentary.
Acting veteran Kate Gorman takes a look at love and betrayal in her directorial debut, Five Moments of Infidelity. The drama depicts the stories of five different love affairs taking place in a city, where lives intersect and change in moments of love and lust.
Hamlet is transported to the grimy late-night streets of Melbourne in director Oscar Redding’s The Tragedy Of Hamlet Prince Of Denmark. Redding, who has a background as an actor, draws on the Dogme school of filmmaking, shooting long takes with a hand-held camera to create a contemporary and raw re-telling of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.
From prolific filmmaker Paul Cox comes the satirical drama, Salvation. The story centres on Barry (Bruce Myles) whose wife is a frigid televangelist (Wendy Hughes). He seeks comfort in the arms of Irina (Natalia Novikova) a Russian prostitute who works to send money back home to her mother and daughter. A strange and funny love affair ensues, in a film that also features Kim Gyngell, Bud Tingwell and a very straight cameo by Barry Humphries.
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The Black Balloon is a heart-warming story of teenager, Thomas, who is facing the challenges of growing up with his autistic brother and wacky parents, played by Toni Collette and Eric Thompson. The film’s director, Elissa Down, grew up with two autistic brothers herself. She hopes audiences at the AFI screenings are entertained by the film but also that it helps them “gain an understanding of how other families live and cope and how unconditional love, acceptance and humour can save the day.”
Also featuring Toni Collette, this time as a hip single mum, is the cheerful coming-of-age comedy Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueberger. Danielle Cantanzarit plays Esther, a thirteen year-old Jewish girl who can’t fit in.
Another coming-of-age drama is Green Fire Envy, the story of 19 year-old Matt who is struggling to rebuild his life after a tragic car accident. Made through Sydney’s Participate Film Academy, the film was directed by Jessica Lytton and produced by the academy’s founder and director, Artur Kade. According to Kade, the film is made through a unique method of “basically putting students into the deep end and getting them to swim and survive in successfully making a film with hands-on experience.”
Set in the outback wheat-belt in 1968, September is the story of two 15 year-old boys – one black, one white – whose friendship falls apart under the pressures of turbulent social change. Co-written and directed by Peter Carstairs, September was selected by producer, and Tropfest founder, John Polson who says he was “a fan of Peter Carstair’s previous work – including his Tropfest finalist film, Pacific”. Polson says he hopes “September continues to achieve the recognition we think it deserves. The film has
done well outside of Australia… but it’s nice for it to be seen and appreciated in its own country.”
From the team behind Wilfred, the Tropfest winning short that became the SBS series, comes Rats and Cats. Directed by Tony Rogers and produced by Jason Byrne and Jenny Livingston, the film is about a one-time soap star actor (Jason Gann) who has dropped out of favour and retreated to life in a small, country town, where he is forced to confront his life by a visiting journalist (Adam Zwar).
All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane focuses on 25 year old Anthea who is faced with a decision: should she follow her friends to Sydney or London or stay in hometown Brisbane? Produced and directed by Louise Alston, and starring Matt Zeremes and Charlotte Greg, the film is witty 20-something romantic comedy which celebrates life in ‘Bris-Vegas’.
A group of cinema ushers and the crazy customers they encounter are at the centre of The Plex. The film has received a limited theatrical release and director Tim Boyle says he is excited by the AFI screenings: “It means it’s in a position to be seen in some areas where we weren’t going to put it out, for example in Adelaide and Tasmania. So it’s really great that there will be a screening out there for people who are interested to go and check it out.”
Also receiving a limited distribution is The Independent, a political satire that follows the story of Marty Browning, an independent politician who wants to represent his community at the next state election. Co-written and co-directed by John Studley and Andrew O’Keefe, the film is created in a convincing documentary style with lots of sly humour about the democratic process.
From first-time feature director Shane Abbess, comes Gabriel, a highly stylised fantasy/action film about an angel on a journey through Purgatory. Shot on a shoestring budget, the film was picked up by Sony International who released the film on 98 screens in Australia and have sold the film on DVD in 60 territories. Producer Kristy Vernon says that Gabriel has taken Abbess to Hollywood where he now has a three-picture deal with Universal Studios. “Shane’s done something pretty special – if you met him you’d understand that. He has this
infectiousness and he could get anything done that he wanted.”
So there they are; this year’s feature film contenders. Be sure to check out the screenings schedule for your state here and remember that if you’re unable to make a particular screening, there may be another option for catching the film. See our list of alternatives in this month’s AFI E-Newsletter.