AACTA/AFI 2019 - decisions to make your head explode

A remarkable bunch of feature films are in competition this year, as teams wrestle with complexity, authenticity, sentiment and sheer sass.
AACTA/AFI 2019 - decisions to make your head explode

Just because you are a great cultural ambassador doesn't mean you don't dream of an AACTA Award. Here is Miranda Tapsell in Top End Wedding.

The feathers will fly when the full list of 34 films is culled to the finalists. There are an awful lot of excellent actors with names like Radha Mitchell, Sam Neill, Hugo Weaving, Wayne Blair, Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat, Dev Patel, Hilary Swank, Mia Wasikowska, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Damon Herriman, Teresa Palmer, and Richard E. Grant.


Ditto for the other categories as well. There are several films in here that emerge from a strongly female sensibility which makes them really striking.

AACTA has explained why The King has been included, adding arguments of festival success and audience reach, even though it is packed full of Sydney veterans like Liz Watts, David Michôd, Ben Mendelsohn who tick boxes for directing, writing and producing. The decision opens the door to Netflix, but its Strine artistic cred is strong than a picture like Hacksaw Ridge where everyone played let's pretend to be American. Personally I reckon Shakespeare is a legitimate part of our cultural heritage.  

Judging is going to be very difficult. What about the sheer relevant sweetness of Top End Wedding? The exuberant authenticity of Animals? The approach to contemporary history in Danger Close? The management of complexity, tension and othering inside Hotel Mumbai? The sheer dash of Judy and Punch? The performances in Hearts and Bones? The sheer audience appeal of Ride Like a Girl? The daring of Undertow? The unflinching eye in The Nightingale?

And that is just a random sample. There is a sense of complexity about so many of these films, of a journey to authenticity. The search for audiences so strongly emphasised by financiers has resulted in some self-conscious crowd-pleasers but also some films that state their claim to audiences through the power of their cinematic universe. 

Do try and see them all. If you don't have a chance to see them in the cinema, at least stream them on AACTA's internal service where they are available between now and 30 September, which is the Round One voting period to determine the nominees. 

With the rise and rise of crafty and clever low budget films, the AACTA/AFI feature section offers an additional category for feature films which cost less that $2 million. Those films are still going head to head with the larger projects, but we have split them off into a separate list. There is much less chance that audiences have seen them and their profile often comes from the festivals.

The synopses come from AACTA but I have condensed the longer ones.

Best Indie Award for features under $2 million

Acute Misfortune.

The film adaptation of Erik Jensen's biography of Adam Cullen is the story of the biographer and his subject as it descends into a dependent and abusive relationship.

PRODUCER Virginia Kay, Jamie Houge, Liz Kearney, Thomas M Wright DIRECTOR Thomas M Wright SCREENWRITER Thomas M Wright, Erik Jensen


BILCHED is an Aussie teen comedy following best mates Hal and Matt as they blunder through their final days of High School. Raw, honest, hilarious and heart-warming in equal measure, Hal's striking writing, producing and acting debut (written when just 18) perfectly captures the banter and laconic humour of Australian coastal youth..

PRODUCER Hal Cumpston, Rachel Lane, Jeremy Cumpston, Noel Vinson, James Campbell, Ewan Wall DIRECTOR Jeremy Cumpston SCREENWRITER Hal Cumpston


Book Week is a shaggy, dark comedy about a disgraced novelist turned English teacher trying to fnd redemption.

PRODUCER Heath Davis, Joanne Weatherstone DIRECTOR Heath Davis SCREENWRITER Heath Davis


A 14-year-old Cambodian boy secretly leaves home in search of a better life, but is sold to a Thai broker and enslaved on a fishing trawler. As fellow slaves are tortured and murdered around him, he decides his only hope of freedom is to become as violent as his captors.

PRODUCER Samantha Jennings, Kristina Ceyton, Rita Walsh DIRECTOR Rodd Rathjen SCREENWRITER Rodd Rathjen


Celeste was once Australia's most beloved opera singer. Yet she threw it all away to follow the man she loved to a crumbling property deep in the rainforests of Tropical North Queensland. Ten years after his tragic death, Celeste is ready to make one final return to the stage....

PRODUCER Lizette Atkins, Raphael Cocks DIRECTOR Ben Hackworth SCREENWRITER Ben Hackworth, Bille Brown

Chocolate Oyster

Follows twenty-somethings Ellie and Taylor, who live in Bondi apartments they can't really afford, and pursue their dreams in a city that seems intent on thwarting them. Taylor chases a dance career by day and works as a waitress at night, while supporting her new boyfriend Henry, an aspiring playwright.

PRODUCER Christine Luby, Steve Jaggi DIRECTOR Steve Jaggi SCREENWRITER Steve Jaggi

The Combination - Redemption

Six years have passed, and Lebanese Australian John Morkos remains haunted by the events that led to his death of his brother. As John begins to rebuild his life, he fnds solace in the boxing ring at his local gymnasium. Meanwhile, tensions are building on the streets of western Sydney, as a ruthless new crime boss, Nas, seeks to expand his empire, and the formation of a radical group of white supremacists threatens to shatter the social fabric of the entire community.

PRODUCER George Basha, David Field, John Tedesco DIRECTOR David Field SCREENWRITER George Basha

Emu Runner

EMU RUNNER is about the impact a mother's death has on an Indigenous family living in an isolated Australian community. The story is seen through the eyes of Gem, a spirited nine-year-old girl, who deals with grief by forging a bond with a wild emu, a mythical bird of her ancestors. It is a bond she will do anything to keep but one that puts her at odds with a young and inexperienced social worker.

PRODUCER Victor Evatt, Imogen Thomas, Antonia Barnard, John Fink DIRECTOR Imogen Thomas SCREENWRITER Imogen Thomas

Juvenile Delinquents

Broken teens facing incarceration for a crime they were forced to commit decide not to accept their destiny and go about making a new one. The Juvenile Delinquents (JD's) form a new dysfunctional family as they manoeuvre around problems manifesting from their youth, competitiveness, irrationality and the gruesomeness of their new lives. Nobody said teen vengeance would be painless.


The Locusts

Estranged tech entrepreneur Ryan Black returns to his remote post-mining boom hometown for his father's funeral, where he's reluctantly reunited with his ex-con brother. But when he becomes the target of an extortion scam at the hands of a gang of small-town criminals, Ryan is forced to resort to desperate measures, exposing the dark underbelly of the dystopian town.



Down Under for an adventure-filled vacation, a young American couple quickly find themselves stranded in the unforgiving Australian outback.

PRODUCER Mike Green, Julie Kneebone, Antonia Barnard DIRECTOR Mike Green SCREENWRITER Mike Green


Sarah Montrose is a conflicted, mysterious woman who meets the philosophical, smooth-talking Lewis Blake. Handsome and captivating, Lewis is the bait in a sick and twisted game conjured up with his low-life rich-kid housemate, Kenneth. When the men's sexual game backfires, Sarah has to do battle with a psychopath and her own inner demon.

PRODUCER Annie Kinnane, David Barker DIRECTOR David Barker SCREENWRITER David Barker, Lou Mentor


In Melbourne, 1953, fve-year-old Robert and newborn Angela are promised in marriage by their fathers, Sal and Joe. Against the misgivings of Angela’s mother, Sal is insistent that he must uphold his promise to Joe... Fast-forward to 1974, despite changing times, fading traditions and Angela’s love for another man, she is still expected to marry Robert. As a web of secrets, lies and revelations surface, it teaches everyone involved that love, like life, can never be perfectly arranged.

PRODUCER Nathan Primmer, Nick Conidi DIRECTOR Nick Conidi, Nathan Primmer, Tony Ferrieri SCREENWRITER Nick Conidi

Reflections in the Dust

An unspoken event has caused civilisation to crumble, leaving the survivors to cluster in the wilderness. Among them is a blind girl who struggles to survive with her father- a tormented and emotionally abusive clown. There is no future anymore, so the past becomes their only resource for meaning.

PRODUCER Giovanni De Santolo, Luke Sullivan, Carla Sullivan DIRECTOR Luke Sullivan SCREENWRITER Luke Sullivan

Sequin in a Blue Room

After a chance encounter at an anonymous sex party, a sixteen-year-old boy hunts through the world of a hook-up app to track down the mystery man..  until he finds his way to an anonymous sex party, where a whole new dizzyingly alluring world unfolds before him.  

PRODUCER Sophie Hattch, Linus Gibson DIRECTOR Samuel Van Grinsven SCREENWRITER Samuel Van Grinsven, Jory Anast


Ricky is a Muslim refugee who is proudly assimilated into Australian culture. His estranged sister Ameena, is a hijab-wearing, politicised slam poet who is unafraid to air her views on Australian society. When Ameena disappears, Ricky is forced to revisit his internal conflicts over his own identity as he and his mother desperately search for her.

 PRODUCER Michael Wrenn, Tenille Kennedy, Marc Irmer DIRECTOR Partho Sen-Gupta SCREENWRITER Partho Sen-Gupta

Suburban Wildlife

With one week left before the departure of their best friend, a close-knit group of university graduates are left facing decisions that will define the rest of their lives.

PRODUCER Imogen McCluskey, Beatrice Barbeau-Scuria, Sophie Hattch DIRECTOR Imogen McCluskey SCREENWRITER Imogen McCluskey, Beatrice Barbeau-Scuria


Seventeen of the 34 films were made under that $2 million barrier. The collection shows just how much can be done in that budget range, while the synopses demonstrate that smaller scenarios can have a lot of energy. 

That $2 million barrier is a bit artificial because many of the higher budget films had similar disciplines but a larger scale, and some of them achieve enormous amounts on pretty low budgets. 

The full list of larger budget feature films in competition are: 

Angel of Mine

Divorced mother, Lizzie, an imbalanced woman battling for custody of her son, has her life turned upside down on crossing paths with Lola, a child who she believes to be the daughter she lost seven years ago in a hospital fire.

PRODUCER Brian Etting, Josh Etting, Su Armstrong DIRECTOR Kim Farrant SCREENWRITER Luke Davies, David Regal.


After a decade of partying, Laura and Tyler's friendship is strained when Laura falls in love. But what is really stopping her from fulfiling her dreams? A fierce and unapologetic celebration of female friendship, ANIMALS is an intimate, funny and bittersweet examination of the challenges of turning talent into action, and being a modern woman, with faults, longings and competing desires.

PRODUCER Sarah Brocklehurst, Rebecca Summerton, Cormac Fox, Sophie Hyde DIRECTOR Sophie Hyde SCREENWRITER Emma Jane Unsworth

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan

South Vietnam, late afternoon on August 18, 1966 - for three and a half hours, in the pouring rain, amid the mud and shattered trees of a rubber plantation called Long Tan, a dispersed company of 108 young and mostly inexperienced Australian and New Zealand soldiers are fighting for their lives, holding off an overwhelming force of over 2,000 battle hardened North Vietnamese soldiers.

PRODUCER Martin Walsh, John Schwarz, Michael Schwarz DIRECTOR Kriv Stenders SCREENWRITER Stuart Beattie, Jack Brislee, James Nicholas, Karel Segers, Paul Sullivan

Escape and Evasion

After his men are killed in Burma, a lone soldier returns home in search of solace. Hiding a dark secret and confronted by an unrelenting journalist, he's forced to face the ghosts of his past one last time.

PRODUCER Blake Northfeld, Jane Corden DIRECTOR Storm Ashwood SCREENWRITER Storm Ashwood

Hearts and Bones

A war photographer has just returned home to prepare for his latest exhibition when a South Sudanese refugee appears at his door with a request - that he not exhibit any photographs of the massacre in his village, taken 15 years earlier. What emerges is an unlikely friendship between the two men. While sifting through the photographer's archive, they make a startling discovery: the refugee's daughter, thought dead, may still be alive....

PRODUCER Matt Reeder DIRECTOR Ben Lawrence SCREENWRITER Ben Lawrence, Beatrix Christian

Hotel Mumbai

Based on the true story of the devastating terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in 2008. The terrifying assault brings together the guests and staff of the luxurious hotel...  This story celebrates humanity, compassion, courage, resilience and the unwavering desire to survive.

PRODUCER Basil Iwanyk, Gary Hamilton, Julie Ryan, Jomon Thomas DIRECTOR Anthony Maras SCREENWRITER John Collee, Anthony Maras

I am Mother

A sci-f thriller about a teenage girl, who is the frst of a new generation of humans to be raised by Mother, a robot designed to repopulate the earth after the extinction of humankind.

PRODUCER Timothy White, Kelvin Munro DIRECTOR Grant Sputore SCREENWRITER Michael Lloyd Green

Judy and Punch

In the anarchic town of Seaside, nowhere near the sea, puppeteers Judy and Punch are trying to resurrect their marionette show...   turns the traditional story of Punch and Judy on its head and brings to life a fierce, darkly comic and epic female-driven revenge story.

PRODUCER Michele Bennett, Nash Edgerton, Danny Gabai DIRECTOR Mirrah Foulkes SCREENWRITER Mirrah Foulkes

The King

Hal, wayward prince and reluctant heir to the English throne, has turned his back on royal life and is living among the people. But when his tyrannical father dies, Hal is crowned King Henry V and is forced to embrace the life he had previously tried to escape.

 PRODUCER Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Liz Watts, David Michôd, Joel Edgerton DIRECTOR David Michôd SCREENWRITER David Michôd, Joel Edgerton

The Naked Wanderer

Dumped by his girlfriend and sponsored by media scoundrel Brian King, desolate Jake walks all-but-naked up Western Australia's coast for charity, in the hope that his gesture will win back his ex, Jasmine. That is, until he meets mesmerising backpacker Valerie.

PRODUCER Alan Lindsay, Helen Clucas DIRECTOR Alan Lindsay SCREENWRITER Callan Durlik


Howard North, a scruffy down-on-hisluck sewerage-waste worker, mysteriously orphaned while still a baby, learns that he is the only one with the ability to stop a demonic corporate billionaire's plot to devour the souls of a million human beings. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the corporate billionaire is Finnegan... his mother.

PRODUCER Tristan Roache-Turner, Andrew Mason, Troy Lum DIRECTOR Kiah Roache-Turner SCREENWRITER Kiah Roache-Turner, Tristan Roache-Turner

The Nightingale

Set in 1825, Clare, a young Irish convict woman, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence he committed against her family. On the way, she enlists the services of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, who is also marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.

PRODUCER Kristina Ceyton, Bruna Papandrea, Steve Hutensky, Jennifer Kent DIRECTOR Jennifer Kent SCREENWRITER Jennifer Kent 

Palm Beach

PALM BEACH is a drama/comedy about a group of lifelong friends reuniting to celebrate a special birthday. Sydney's iconic Palm Beach provides a stunning backdrop for the unfolding drama. The good times roll, with loads of laughter, lavish meals, flowing wine and fantastic music, but tensions slowly mount and deep secrets soon emerge.

PRODUCER Bryan Brown, Deborah Balderstone DIRECTOR Rachel Ward SCREENWRITER Joanna Murray-Smith, Rachel Ward

Ride Like a Girl

The incredible true story of Michelle Payne - the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup.

PRODUCER Richard Keddie, Rachel Griffths, Susie Montague, Naomi Cleaver, Felicity Stoward DIRECTOR Rachel Griffths SCREENWRITER Elise McCredie, Andrew Knight

Storm Boy

A beautiful and contemporary retelling of Colin Thiele's classic Australian tale.

PRODUCER Michael Boughen, Matthew Street DIRECTOR Shawn Seet SCREENWRITER Justin Monjo

Top End Wedding

Lauren and Ned are engaged, they are in love, and they have just ten days to find Lauren's mother who has gone AWOL somewhere in the remote far north of Australia, reunite her parents and pull off their dream wedding.

PRODUCER Rosemary Blight, Kylie du Fresne, Kate Croser DIRECTOR Wayne Blair SCREENWRITER Joshua Tyler, Miranda Tapsell


Grieving the loss of her stillborn baby, Claire meets pregnant teenager Angie. Feisty and irrepressible, Angie challenges Claire's careful control. Drawn into Angie's world, Claire develops a dangerous obsession that risks both of their lives. Only when Claire is confronted with the terrible secret behind Angie's pregnancy can both women begin to heal.

PRODUCER Lyn Norfor DIRECTOR Miranda Nation SCREENWRITER Miranda Nation


About the author

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub. He is a writer in screen media with a long mostly freelance career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.

Twitter: @DavidTiley1