Directed by Justin Kurzel
A special shout-out to Justin Kurzel’s Nitram, which won eight AACTA Awards (nominated for 15), including for Best Film and Best Direction.
Nitram dramatises the infamous mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, an incident which prompted a swift change in Australia’s gun laws in 1996. Rather than focus on the violence, Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant follow the years, months, weeks, days and then hours before the horrendous crime. This slow, sensitive unpeeling invites audiences to see the who, why and how of this event: who the perpetrator was as a child, who he became as an adult; the failures of the mental health system; the cultural clique of the Aussie surf culture he grew up amongst; the slow disintegration of his despairing parents; the community around him; and the abhorrently easy mechanics of his gun purchases. Kurzel and Grant made clear that their intentions were to make an anti-gun film. It is that, and more. Nitram cuts deeply under the meniscus of the Australian psyche, circa 1996. It’s a disquietingly sensitive analysis.
– Ghita Loebenstein, Head of Cinemas
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
The highly anticipated yet simultaneously esoteric blockbuster (made despite no conceivable link to the Marvel Cinematic Universe) finally reached Australian cinemas on December 2, rewarding those who staunchly resisted small screen downloads or the need to comprehend a steady wave of ‘Spice’ memes carried here on the Twitter currents since October. A star-studded cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, this 155-minute epic is part one of a three-film franchise, “an appetiser” the director has stated, to be followed by a second course in 2023.
Set in the distant future, the film introduces us to the noble House Atreides, one royal lineage within a feudal interstellar empire. The Artreides prepare as newly appointed colonisers/stewards of Arrakis, the mineral rich desert home of the Fremen, and a planet only recently relinquished by the brutal House Harkonnen. The patriarch of the Artredies, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his family, including mystical concubine, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and gifted son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) arrive with best intentions for an Atreides-Fremen alliance. However, the Harkonnens (and an offscreen Padishah Emperor) have other ideas. Amid the impending conflict, Villeneuve shows his knack for cinematic world-building, delving into ritual, folklore and material cultures, these storytelling elements (Crysknives, Thumpers) gradually unveiled aboard the vehicle of a well-paced plot.
For fans of Dune and followers of good sci-fi, this all adds up to an entertaining and convincing part one. Dune is visually thrilling, with an appropriately huge score, giant worms, sharp cheek bones, and the promise of a lot more desert power to come.
– Tim Woodward, Visitor Experience Guide
The French Dispatch
Directed by Wes Anderson
Like many emerging writers, in my youth The New Yorker was a gateway to larger, more interesting world, and I fell in love with its stable of editors, journalists, essayists and critics. So too did Wes Anderson, it seems. In possibly the most Wesandersonesque of his ventures to date, the eccentric director pays homage to the great American magazine and his other great loves – actors with interesting faces and a bygone France – in his gorgeously-shot, twee, clockwork style.
An anthology film told in parts corresponding to supplements in the magazine, The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, to use its full title) brings to life four articles: ‘The Cycling Reporter’ – Owen Wilson introduces us to the fictional French town of the Ennui-sur-Blasé, where the magazine is based; ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’ – Tilda Swinton gives a lecture on an incarcerated artist (Benicio Del Toro channelling Ai Weiwei) and his grandest, most tortured work inspired by a cold and beautiful prison guard (Léa Seydoux); ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’ – Frances McDormand breaks the bounds of journalistic neutrality with a student revolutionary leader (Timothée Chalamet), as Anderson sneaks in a sensitive critique of modern extremist discourse; and ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’ – Jeffrey Wright as a James Baldwin-inspired figure recounts a kidnapping foiled by a virtuoso chef in a caper that unfolds like a Tintin comic.
Bill Murray is pitch perfect as the magazine’s longtime editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., who exemplifies all the attributes of great editors: they set tight deadlines and obsess over the finances. They have an eagle eye for weakness and talent. They’re prepared to bend house style to give their trusted writers poetic licence. And what they do is more akin to a lifestyle choice than a profession. All this is conveyed by Murray with the surprisingly little screen time he's given.
Go see The French Dispatch. See it if you love magazines, visual candy and off-kilter storytelling.
– Dilan Gunawardana, Website Coordinator
Prayers for the Stolen (Noche De Fuego)
Directed by Tatiana Huezo
Tatiana Huezo’s feature film debut is an assured move into narrative filmmaking by the Salvadoran, Mexican-based filmmaker. Huezo’s 2016 documentary, Tempestad, (Mexico’s submission to the Academy Awards in that year) drew considerable attention – and collected well-deserved awards – on the festival circuit. Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de fuego) had its world premiere Un Certain Regard at Cannes earlier this year where it was singled out for a Special Mention. Huezo’s films explore the dynamics of fear and the way fear is internalised by (mostly) female characters living in the shadow of the drug cartels carving up central Mexico’s rural heartland. Huezo works with an impressively talented younger cast playing a trio of school friends at the ages of 8 and 13 in a village of anxious mothers alert to ever-present dangers – absent fathers work elsewhere or are trying to cross the U.S. border – and dedicated teachers risking their own safety to shield the girls from harm. Huezo avoids the gratuitous spectacle of the action genre – her film is far less Sicario and much more in the realm of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, from 2015, but the sense of dread and suspense conveyed through the framing and editing choices she makes are no less menacing. A film of great intimacy and immediacy notwithstanding its grim socio-political context, Prayers for the Stolen deserves a prize for casting alone. Young Ana Cristina Ordóñez González plays the trio’s lead, Ana, as an eight year old, and I haven’t seen eyes that soulful and knowing in a child on screen since Victor Erice’s Secret of the Beehive (1973).
– Roberta Ciabarra – Curator, Film
Directed by Alexander Nanau
In a world where All The President’s Men and Spotlight exist, saying Collective is one of the best films about journalism ever made is no small compliment. The documentary follows the events of a tragic blaze that broke out at a metalcore concert in Romania, killing 26 people and wounding hundreds of others. Despite some of the survivors' injuries being relatively minor, the death toll continues to climb and climb, leading journalists from Gazeta Sporturilor – a daily sports newspaper, of all places – to begin looking into what’s going on.
If the set up sounds extraordinary, that’s nothing compared to what comes next as the team of investigative reporters – some veterans, some barely out of their teens – uncover a far-reaching conspiracy that has ties to the mob, politicians and conveniently timed accidental deaths. It’s like the plot of a Stieg Larsson novel playing out in real time, with a relentless pace and fascinating pivot midway through the documentary to show an alternate perspective as these brave individuals work together in a relentless pursuit of truth. “When the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens,” Gazeta Sporturilor’s editor Catalin Tolontan says at one point during the film. “This always happens, worldwide, and it has happened to us.” There have been many injustices in 2021, but Collective losing not only Best Foreign Language film but Best Documentary at the Academy Awards to My (friggen) Octopus Teacher is right up there.
– Maria Lewis, Assistant Film Curator
Directed by Janicza Bravo
One of my favourite films of 2021 was born out of a Twitter thread circa 2015. Co-written by Janicza Bravo and playwright Jeremy O. Harris, Zola is a fabulous, twisting ride through the contemporary moment, full of internet culture, shifting power dynamics and sticky relationships.
The plot follows a dancer, Zola (the vivacious Taylour Paige), who quickly becomes embroiled in an absurdly suspenseful set of circumstances that defy cliché at every turn. After becoming sudden besties with Stefani (Riley Keough) she is enticed on a road trip with the promise of big money earned by dancing in a series of Florida strip clubs... but things rapidly devolve from there. The performances really pop – you might recognise ‘Greg’ from Succession (Nicholas Braun), who excels as an eerily similar inarticulate child trapped in a tall man’s body.
There’s so much quality in this A24 production – the way it navigates the uncomfortable use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and white fragility, the sexualisation and control of women’s bodies, the manipulative ways that people try to exert control in relationships; but it’s also ultimately a fun and funny romp of a film that will leave you guessing what’s next right until the final scene, set to a killer soundtrack by Mica Levi.
– Anaya Latter, Brand Manager
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Vinterberg unite once again for this remarkable story of a group of middle-aged schoolteachers in Copenhagen who decide to conduct an experiment that involves getting intoxicated each day. Their goal? To see whether their enthusiasm for and quality of teaching improves.
The ensemble of characters, each presented as once promising yet now defeated, commands the screen, and each of their flaws are acutely examined and picked apart in at times excruciating ways. Martin (Mikkelsen) struggles to connect with his wife and kids, and his ennui is the catalyst for the experiment, pushing the group beyond boundaries at every step. While Martin can (largely) hold his liquor, things don't go so well for the rest of the group as tragedy and comedy play out in equally arresting ways.
The film won the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, and Mikkelsen gives a career-best performance influenced by a director who knows how to push him to achieve new heights. An iconic final sequence fuelled with hope, despair and, of course, champagne, plays out as one of the key cinematic moments of 2021.
– Benjamin Haller, Membership and Engagement Officer
Directed by James Wan
Between James Wan’s Malignant and Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho, 2021 became a weirdly significant year for the rise of modern Giallo films off the back of other recent entries like Censor, Neon Demon and The Last Fashion Show. After breaking into Hollywood with multiple billion-dollar franchises – Saw and The Conjuring Universe – then helping turn DC’s dumbest superhero Aquaman into a box-office smash, Wan returned to his horror roots with Malignant. The less you know going in, the better as it’s truly a wacky and wild ride full of twists, turns, and absolute WTF moments.
Wan is a master of his craft, but with huge success often comes limits and seeing him return to the genre and genre flourishes he loves so much is a joy. ‘Batshit insane’ is a term that gets thrown around perhaps too often, but in the case of Malignant it’s truly warranted. Seemingly everyone from the crew to the cast – led by Annabelle Wallis – leans in to exactly the kind of film they’re making. Featuring one of the most unexpected and fun final act twists in recent memory, it’s unsurprising Malignant has inspired a year’s worth of memes, Tik Toks, and Halloween costume recreations as it burrows into the collective pop culture consciousness.
– Maria Lewis, Assistant Film Curator
Queen of Glory
Directed by Nana Mensah
I loved Nana Mensah's directorial debut, which she also stars in. She describes herself as the ‘Black Miranda July' which I’m not sure is necessary, but accurate, in that her direction and hero character holds a similarly tender self-consciousness to July’s films. Greta Gerwig’s mumblecore-Millennial-fumblecore is another stylistic kickstand; Mensah’s Queen of Glory also zeroes in on the experience of a woman at the crossroads of a crossroad in life; a time when her relationships to her mother, father, work, boyfriend, home and her Ghanian migrant culture are all demanding reconsideration.
We meet Sarah (Mensah) as she’s about to follow her married boyfriend to Ohio, when her mother dies and dominoes a series of major life-changes. Sarah is an accomplished scientist, but her mother has left her a small Christian bookstore in the Bronx with a colourful, and faithful, community – a working life far removed from the doctorate she is trying to complete at Colombia University. Cue the reappearance of her estranged father from Ghana, a chorus of opinionated aunties, and the huge pre-production that her mother’s traditional family funeral requires (an event not dissimilar to the Jewish funeral depicted in Emma Seligman’s similarly funny Shiva Baby) – and Sarah’s life turns awkwardly on its axis. Like her contemporaries, Mensah’s voice is deliberately awkward and imperfect, but confidently her own. Her story is one of a Ghanaian-American woman rediscovering herself in the City. A humble, queenly debut.
– Ghita Loebenstein, Head of Cinemas
Directed by Michael Sarnoski
Nicolas Cage has a long filmography, the quality of which swings wildly between ‘pretty good’ (Adaptation, Mandy), ‘fun’ (Wild at Heart, Con Air) and ‘I’ll do anything for money’ (Willy’s Wonderland, Grand Isle). Pig belongs in a new category: ‘great’.
Cage delivers a magnetic, understated performance as a chef-turned-hermit, Rob, who goes on a single-minded quest to recover his companion, the cutest pig ever seen in cinema history (sorry, Babe), which has been kidnapped (pignapped) for its ability to sniff out truffles. To find her, Rob enlists the help of his young, pretentious truffle dealer Amir (Alex Wolff of Hereditary fame) and the two descend into the underbelly of Portland’s fine dining scene.
It’s remarkable that this is Michael Sarnoski’s debut feature – it’s so assured and restrained. It’s not a perfect film but it comes close simply for its casting. Pig doesn’t work without Alex Wolff’s weediness or the tension of you wondering what the mercurial Nicolas Cage, all shaggy and caked in blood, is going to do next – “when is he going to go nuts with a rolling pin?” Pig subverts your expectations, opting for empathy over violence in its exploration of male grief, and it ends with a cover of one of the most famous songs about male yearning.
– Dilan Gunawardana, Website Coordinator
Directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous
Despite my best attempts to avoid COVID-heavy content in 2021, no other film has stayed with me quite like Wuhan documentary 76 Days. This was one of my few movie-going experiences this year, made all the more special by the fact that I watched it in the cinema at ACMI, just a few short weeks after our doors opened for the first time in almost 2 years.
76 Days takes you right inside the chaos of the unfolding pandemic in Wuhan, the camera hovering over the PPE-clad shoulders of exhausted frontline workers who still manage to comfort patients and find moments of levity despite the deteriorating circumstances. I still marvel at the bravery of the hospital patients and nurses and the heroics of the filmmakers who smuggled this footage out of Wuhan. Director Hao Wu shed further light on the process in a discussion with ACMI’s former Director of Film Kristy Matheson, earlier this year.
– Treise Armstrong, Films Programs Coordinator
Directed by Rebecca Hall
In terms of actors making the pivot to filmmaker, it doesn’t get much trickier for a directorial debut than Passing. Based on the critically acclaimed and widely studied 1929 novel of the same, it follows Irene (Tessa Thompson) a light-skinned black woman living in New York in the twenties who stumbles into an old high school acquaintance, Clare (Ruth Negga), who has infiltrated high society by passing as a white woman. What follows is a delicate dance between thriller and intimate adult drama as the two women’s lives become interwoven with danger and deceit.
Passing is the result of ten years’ worth of work for Rebecca Hall – an incredibly accomplished actress in her own right – whose stereotyping as an ‘English rose’ by Hollywood has often overlooked her own mixed ancestry. The deeply personal nature of this story for Hall – who serves as writer, producer, director – bleeds into her work with Thompson and Negga, with the trio working as a cohesive unit to build the film’s web.
Debuting at Sundance before a streaming deal with Netflix, its high-profile list of producers – everyone from Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker to the late Roger Ebert’s partner Chaz Ebert – speaks to the special nature of this film that has garnered such far-reaching support. A film that lingers in an overcrowded awards season, Passing is a film that says the quiet part loud.
– Maria Lewis, Assistant Film Curator
Directed by Kitao Sakurai
After a long day of work and then spending a few hours catastrophising about the state of the world, there’s nothing more satisfying than completely switching off. Netflix’s absurd, hilarious and at times heartwarming hidden camera comedy Bad Trip is the perfect antidote to the stress and anxiety of current times.
Through a series of real life hidden camera pranks, we’re introduced to besties Chris (Eric André) and Bud (Lil Rel Howery) as they embark on a road trip from Florida to New York so Chris can declare his love for his high school crush Maria (Michaela Conlin). They’re followed in hot pursuit by Bud’s prison escapee sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish) whose car they have stolen for the trip. It’s a stellar cast, but the real stars of the film are the unsuspecting prank victims who are launched into ridiculous situations and respond hilariously with shock, confusion and, sometimes, with genuine heart. An army recruiter faced with a man in despair ends up giving an inspiring speech on friendship and forgiveness. A staunch security guard makes an exception to the guest list-only rule after being told "if you’ve ever been in love you will let me through that door". There’s wise old men dishing out love advice, full-blown musical numbers and even a nod to the 2004 classic White Chicks. It's just one hour and 24 minutes of purely entertaining, extremely well-crafted chaotic nonsense.
– Ikumi Cooray, Marketing Assistant
The Green Knight
Directed by David Lowery
David Lowery’s visually dazzling retelling of an Arthurian legend didn’t get the attention it deserved, thanks in no small part to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down cinemas and the director’s aversion to putting it on streaming platforms, initially. As of 15 December, the film has only generated $19million worldwide – a shame.
Like Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story, The Green Knight is a slow burn; a mesmeric and off kilter take on the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which King Arthur’s nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) beheads a monstrous warrior (the titular Green Knight, played by the gravelly-voiced Ralph Ineson), only to be honour-bound to receive an equal blow. After a year of revelling, Gawain sets off through a fantastical landscape to meet his fate.
The Green Knight is not a swashbuckling adventure, nor is it an action-heavy epic in the vein of The Lord of the Rings, but rather, a meditation on the clash of nature (the pagan world) versus civilisation (Arthur’s crumbling kingdom), culminating in a grand, almost surreal sequence depicting Gawain’s future should he avoid facing the consequences of his actions with dignity.
As a man of subcontinental heritage, I was thrilled to see Dev Patel in the lead role of a thoughtfully made fantasy film. Take note fantasy filmmakers: if your imagination can stretch to create all manner of fantastical characters, creatures and settings, then surely it can envisage a brown person in a role outside buffoon or sidekick.
– Dilan Gunawardana, Website Coordinator
Directed by Nia DaCosta
The 1992 Candyman is something of a marvel, based on a little-read but effectively creepy short story by Clive Barker, it transplanted the action from the UK to the US. Writer/director Bernard Rose drew inspiration from real-life horrors in nearby housing projects, crafting a narrative about American racial dynamics that was groundbreaking at the time and featured one of the most iconic horror film scores by Philip Glass. With Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd going tête-à-tête as her, the intrepid busy body, and him, an urban legend manifested, the film’s legacy loomed large as Nia DaCosta stepped into the role of director for a 2021 legasequel.
In the hands of a black woman – and with nearly thirty years of the film’s message to percolate – Candyman becomes one of those rare entries in a horror franchise that is just as fascinating as the original. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, really, given DaCosta’s impressive debut Little Woods or the fact she came up under the mentorship of another superb black female filmmaker, Kasi Lemmons (who also starred in the original Candyman). As the writer/director on this – and with the backing of Get Out’s Oscar-winning Jordan Peele serving as co-writer and producer – DaCosta was able to reinvent and reinterpret a modern black horror story for modern times.
You can’t get to where you’re going without first acknowledging where you’ve been. This Candyman does that in extraordinary ways, from the innovative use of shadow puppets – one of the first moving image techniques – to staying true to the tone and theme of the original by utilising several 1992 cast members in small but vital ways. While the original touched on issues such as gentrification, DaCosta tackles them head on and uses the countless real-life racial horror stories in America’s past and present to ground the film’s mythology in a poignant political place. Terrifying, beautiful in parts, and feeling like the other half that completes 1992’s whole, Candyman this year also became the first film directed by a black woman to hit No.1 at the US box-office.
– Maria Lewis, Assistant Film Curator
The Father (Florian Zeller)
Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)
Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven)
Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)
The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg)
The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
The Last Duel (Ridley Scott)
Clara Sola (Nathalie Álvarez Mesén)
Apples (Christos Nikou)
Wife of a Spy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Raya and the Last Dragon (Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall)
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude)
The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier)
Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond)
Titane (Julia Ducournau)
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Lili Horvát)
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Kristina Lindström, Kristian Petri)
After Love (Aleem Khan)
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze)
Little Tornadoes (Aaron Wilson)
Drive My Car (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
The Killing of Two Lovers (Robert Machoian)
Freshman Year (Cooper Raiff)