As it was for many, 2020 was a disaster for cinemas. Doors were closed for much of the year and even when they opened, the major studios’ reluctance to release their big properties into a compromised theatrical market left them light on product. Depsite this, it has actually been a pretty good year for movies. The space created by the near total absence of mega-blockbusters allowed those small and mid-level films which had found a home on streaming services to enjoy more of the spotlight than they might have initially expected.
While the demands of reworking curriculum on the fly for online delivery meant that I didn’t get to write as many reviews this year as I might have liked, I still got to see plenty of films. Here are my top ten for 2020…
Director: Daniel Gordon
Starring: Adam Goodes, Stan Grant, Michael O’Loughlin, Gilbert McAdam, Tracey Holmes, Nova Peris, Nathan Buckley
While it is not unheard of for two films on the same subject to come out at roughly the same time, what is more unusual is for them both to be quite good. Only eight weeks after Ian Darling’s The Final Quarter premiered at the Sydney Film Festival, Daniel Gordon’s The Australian Dream, written by journalist Stan Grant, premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Both films examine the final stages of the career of Australian Rules footballer and indigenous activist Adam Goodes which saw him prematurely retire after a prolonged campaign of racially charged crowd abuse. However, their different approaches ensures that they don’t feel like they are treading the same ground and end up complementing rather than competing with each other in the telling of this important story. Continue reading
Director: Ian Darling
Starring: Adam Goodes
Australia is famously a sports loving nation. We see in sport a microcosm of life. The sporting contest provides a stage on which competitors can demonstrate admirable human virtues: determination, mastery, courage, striving, teamwork and leadership. We see risk and reward, triumph in the face of adversity, falling and getting back up. As a supporter, sport can provide a sense of community, the opportunity to feel like a part of something. But just as the sporting arena can bring out some of our best qualities, it can also reveal the uglier side of our culture. Ian Darling’s The Final Quarter focuses on just such an example. Continue reading
Director: Raoul Peck
Starring: James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson
In 1979, author, intellectual and activist James Baldwin wrote a thirty page treatment for a book to be called ‘Remember this House.’ It was going to be his personal account, describing his experience of the murders of his three friends and fellow civil rights champions, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. However Baldwin ultimately couldn’t bring himself to write the book and he passed away in 1987 having never returned to it. Using Baldwin’s own words, Raoul Peck’s Oscar nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro sets about trying to bring this unrealised work to life.
While Baldwin is the film’s principal character, I Am Not Your Negro is not a biography. Peck does not concern himself with delivering names, dates, milestones and achievements. If you come into this film without a great knowledge of who Baldwin was and what he did (and as a thirty-something Australian I confess to being far from an expert), you are not going to come out of the film with all of those questions answered. But you will come out with the desire to learn more, because what the film does emphatically show you of Baldwin was that he was a towering mind, a great thinker and powerful debater. Continue reading
Director: Warwick Thornton
Starring: Warwick Thornton
In 2010, riding high on the success of his debut feature Samson & Delilah, Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton found himself in hot water when he suggested that the Southern Cross was fast becoming Australia’s equivalent to the swastika. His new documentary, We Don’t Need a Map, which opened this year’s Sydney Film Festival, is his effort to explain those remarks by delving into the historical meaning of the Southern Cross. We Don’t Need a Map is one of four films funded by NITV (National Indigenous Television) as part of the ‘Moment in History’ initiative to mark fifty years since the 1967 referendum which saw Aboriginal people officially recognised as part of Australia’s population. Continue reading
Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
Starring: Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin
Sometimes the best documentaries happen when things don’t go quite according to plan, when the story the filmmakers end up telling is not the one they set out to. This is definitely the case with and Weiner. When Josh Kriegman (former chief of staff to Anthony Weiner) and Elyse Steinberg approached the disgraced congressman about documenting his 2013 campaign for the mayorship of New York, they probably envisioned a comeback story, a tale of redemption. However they ended up getting much more than they bargained for. Continue reading
Director: Stevan Riley
Starring: Marlon Brando
Stevan Riley’s documentary Listen to Me Marlon starts with the voice of Marlon Brando explaining how in the 1980s he had his head digitised, scanned with a laser and captured in a computer. We then see this primitive 3D recreation of his face speaking the words we are hearing as Brando describes a future in which actors like himself will be replaced by these malleable recreations. In a way, this becomes a metaphor for the film we are about to watch. Riley uses old footage, photographs and recordings to recreate Brando in an intimate and personal way, in what almost amounts to a posthumous autobiography.
Marlon Brando is one of the most fascinating figures in film history. Regarded by many as the greatest actor in screen history, he cast a large shadow. But many of the attributes that made him such a special talent caused him to struggle greatly under such an intense spotlight. Always a reluctant star, he was reclusive later in life. Even in his youth when he was at his most charismatic, his engagement with the press always saw him playing a role, different roles depending on the situation and his mood, but always careful not to reveal himself. Continue reading
Director: Baillie Walsh
Starring: The Fans, Bruce Springsteen, the E Street Band
While many rock stars over the year have had fanatical fans, very few have had a fan-base as devoted and loyal as that of Bruce Springsteen. One of the reasons that even after more than three decades of touring Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band are still one of the very best live acts in the world is the way that Springsteen connects with his audience. His fans both worship him and identify with him. For many millions of fans the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is the soundtrack to their lives. His songs speak to the lives of ordinary, working class people and validate their experiences. I once heard Springsteen described as having written a song about every beer you ever drank. In Springsteen & I a young Asian woman talks about riding her bicycle to work at Jamba Juice early in the morning, listening to The Boss and being made to feel like through her labour she was “the backbone of America.”
Executive produced by Ridley Scott, Springsteen & I is effectively a fan-film. Fans were invited to record their own messages, memories and reflections. These submissions have been compiled together by director Baillie Walsh and punctuated with concert footage from different points in Springsteen’s long career.
Rather than any sort of narrative or career overview, this diverse fan base which crosses continents and generations gives us a series of very personal moments and encounters – whether the man who went to a concert dressed as Elvis in the hope of fulfilling a lifelong dream of singing with the Boss, the women who went with her “I’ll be your Courtney Cox” sign and got invited up to dance, the busker who saw him in the street and had an impromptu jam session, or the man dumped by his girlfriend the day before the concert who was invited up on stage for a hug. In a number of cases these stories are brought to life by the inclusion of archival footage from the relevant concert. Devoted fans tell us, in their own words, what Bruce Springsteen means to them. Some are funny, some are touching, some offer way too much information (one woman lost her virginity to ‘Thunder Road,’ another talks in detail about discovering her womanhood as an early teenager seeing Springsteen dance to the saxophone solo in ‘Jungleland’), but all are sincere.
The strength of Springsteen & I lies in its authenticity. With all of the films contributors having shot their own footage on devices of differing quality and with differing levels of thought and preparation given to what they would say and where they would say it, the end result is a film which is completely lacking in pretention. Walsh obviously recognised the importance of this authenticity so does minimal cleaning up of people’s recordings. This results in a bit of awkwardness, as we see people stopping and starting over, getting up to turn off or adjust the camera, and so on, but rather than being off-putting the lack of polish feels appropriate given Springsteen’s standing as a working class hero.
Springsteen & I gives us insight into fandom of an equally powerful but less extreme nature than we have seen in documentaries on Comicon or Trekkies. It also gives you some idea of the incredible pressure someone like Springsteen must be under with so many millions of people around the world having such a strong emotional investment in him and his music. Springsteen & I will be of interest not just to fans who can identify with the stories but also to anyone interested in trying to understand what the big deal is.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: David Schmidt
Starring: Jessie Taylor, Ali Reza Sadiqi
Arguably the biggest political and humanitarian issue facing Australia over the last decade is that of asylum seekers, or “boat people” as they are un-affectionately known. The discourse over this issue is made up of voices from all sides; the left and the right, shock-jocks, politicians, activists and journalists. But the one group of voices that we consistently don’t hear from are the boat people themselves. David Schmidt’s documentary Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea seeks to make those voices heard, to humanise this issue and in doing so explore the question of what compels a person to become a boat person.
Young Melbourne lawyer Jessie Taylor and her friend and interpreter Ali Reza Sadiqi, himself a refugee, travel to Indonesia, the doorstep to Australia for asylum seekers, in order to meet with the men, women and children contemplating making the dangerous journey. Their stories expose us to not only the horrifying situations they are fleeing from – situations made all the more horrifying when they are being explained to you by children – and hopeless inefficiency of the official channels they are trying to follow.
Mostly the film is made up of on-location talking-head footage, but we also get to see footage taken inside a detention centre by a concealed camera Taylor wore under her headscarf. For mine though, the most harrowing image of the film is that of a rickety smugglers boat packed with people being pummeled against the rocks by rough seas.
The filming took place over two years, which means that we are able to get an idea of the progress of the journey. The picture finishes by taking us through all of the people we have heard from in the preceding hour with on-screen titles informing us which have since been resettled in Australia, which have had their claims denied, which are now missing and which have drowned at sea.
Schmidt doesn’t do anything too stylistically complex. He doesn’t experiment with the documentary form. But a film like Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea doesn’t need to. By far the most powerful way you can present an issue like this is to simply put the faces of the asylum seekers on the screen and let them tell their story. Any artifice would run the risk of detracting from their impact. Schmidt is smart enough to understand this and thus keeps it relatively simple.
Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea is not in cinematic release but has been touring around the country. Visit www.deepblueseafilm.com for more information on how you can see this potent, insightful and important documentary.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean