Cinema Autopsy on the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards Feature Film Nominees

29 October 2009
Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton in Balibo

Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton in Balibo

The nominations for the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards have come out and in a year that has been very strong for Australian cinema the nominations have nicely captured the diversity of Australian films that were eligible. This was the first year that I voted in the individual categories as a professional member of the Australian Film Institute and while the nominations don’t 100% reflect how I voted, I would have never expected them to and I’m overall pleased with the outcomes.

Among the feature film nominees I’m particularly happy to see Balibo, Samson and Delilah and Mary and Max – the three films that I regard as easily the best Australian films of 2009 – to be nominated for both the AFI Members’ Choice Award and the Samsung Mobile AFI Awards for Best Film. I’m less enthusiastic, but not surprised, about Beautiful Kate and particularly Mao’s Last Dancer also getting nominations in both these categories but I certainly don’t begrudge the fact that are included. Having said that, I would up upset if Mao’s Last Dancer won anything over the far superior films that it is up against.


Trisha (Anastasia Baboussouras) and Katrina (Sophie Lowe) in Blessed

The interesting point of difference between the two best film categories is that Australia got the sixth nomination for the AFI Members’ Choice Award while Blessed received the sixth nomination for the Samsung Mobile AFI Awards for Best Film. Both films are flawed but nevertheless contain elements of considerable merit. They also curiously represent the growing divide between the different types of films that various commentators argue we should be making more of or less of depending on where these commentators stand on the whole art versus commerce debate.

There were a number of films not represented in the nominations that I would have liked to see included but in the majority of cases their absence is understandable. I only saw Newcastle recently and was completely bowled over but its energetic depiction of youth surf culture, however I am aware that I am somewhat on my own with just how highly I regard Newcastle. Lake Mungo, Van Diemen’s Land and $9.99 are other films that I wish had picked up at least a couple of nominations each but they are all niche films and their absence is hardly surprising.


David Lurie (John Malkovich) and Lucy (Jessica Haines) in Disgrace

The real shock this year is the complete lack of nominations for Disgrace. While it is a film I had issues with (although I am increasingly realising that was exactly the point) I am still very surprised not to see it represented at all. It is an acclaimed film, technically very impressive, it contains strong performances and it is adapted from a well-renowned novel. So what went wrong? Perhaps it was too challenging and confronting. This is an unlikely explanation considering the number of nominations for other ‘challenging and confronting’ films such as Balibo, Samson and Delilah, Mary and Max, Blessed and Beautiful Kate. Maybe Disgrace wasn’t considered Australian enough (which is reasonable) and didn’t attract votes as a result (which is not so reasonable). Again, if that was the case then how do we explain the large number of nominations for Mao’s Last Dancer? I honestly have no brilliant explanation but the complete exclusion of Disgrace is the only significant sour note in the nominations this year.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to discuss each category in more detail closer to the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards Ceremony on Saturday 12 December and I’ll also then mention the mostly brilliant feature length documentaries, short fiction films and animated shorts that have been nominated this year.

In the meantime, below is a personally ranked list of all the feature films that were eligible for nomination:

(Robert Connolly, 2009) 14 nominations

Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009) 11 nominations

Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009) 4 nominations

Disgrace (Steve Jacobs, 2008)
Newcastle (Dan Castle, 2008)
Lake Mungo (Joel Anderson, 2008) 
Van Diemen’s Land (Jonathan auf der Heide, 2009)
$9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal, 2008)
Cedar Boys (Serhat Caradee, 2009) 1 nomination
The View from Greenhaven (Kenn MacRae and Simon MacRae, 2008)

Blessed (Ana Kokkinos, 2009) 4 nominations
My Year Without Sex (Sarah Watt, 2009) 2 nominations
The Combination (David Field, 2009)
Beautiful Kate (Rachel Ward, 2009) 10 nominations
Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008) 6 nominations
Dying Breed (Jody Dwyer, 2008)

Last Ride (Glendyn Ivin, 2009) 2 nominations
Charlie & Boots (Dean Murphy, 2009)
Two Fists, One Heart (Shawn Seet, 2008)
Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, 2009) 9 nominations
Stone Bros. (Richard Frankland, 2009)

Lucky Country
(Kriv Stenders, 2009) 1 nomination
Closed for Winter (James Bogle, 2009)

Under a Red Moon (Leigh Sheehan, 2008)

Beautiful (Dean O’Flaherty, 2009)

Sweet Marshall (Eva Acharya, 2009)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

30 September 2009
adult Li Cunxin (Chi Cao)

adult Li Cunxin (Chi Cao)

Li Cunxin was born into a very poor peasant family who lived in a rural Chinese province during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In 1972 a team of visiting inspectors selected him to accompany them to Beijing to train as a ballet dancer at Madame Mao’s Dance Academy. Despite not seeming to initially have the necessary qualities that are required to become a great dancer, Li eventually honed his skills with such dedication and discipline that he was sent to the United States to dance for the Houston Ballet. Li, who has since moved to Australia, wrote the very popular and acclaimed autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer in 2003, which has now been adapted into a film by Australian director Bruce Beresford (Black Robe, ‘Breaker’ Morant, The Getting of Wisdom). Unfortunately, despite all its potential, the film version of Mao’s Last Dancer is a very pedestrian affair that is only redeemed by its very powerful conclusion.

The biggest problem with Mao’s Last Dancer is that the contrasting in Li’s autobiography about his life in Communist China compared to his life in Texas during the 1980s, comes across incredibly bluntly in the film. What may have originally been a series of considered personal observations translates cinematically into the sensation of somebody screaming at you, “China equals poor! America equals wealthy! Communism is bad and oppressive! Democracy is good and free!” Hence, Li is repeatedly depicted looking dumbfounded at the wonders of American life while the Chinese officials are all suitably villenous. The representation of ideology in Mao’s Last Dancer is incredibly shallow and crude. The exploration of racial and cultural differences are also very clichéd and reducing Li’s early dialogue to pigeon-English is simply embarrassing.

teenage Li Cunxin (Chengwu Guo)

teenage Li Cunxin (Chengwu Guo)

Mao’s Last Dancer suffers in general from poor plotting and direction to the extent that many scenes resemble daytime soap operas. There is even one moment when a character throws themselves onto a bed in melodramatic anguish. The acting is overall not bad considering the limitations of the adaptation and it is always refreshing to see underrated actors Bruce Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan on the big screen. Chi Cao, who is a trained ballet dancer, plays the adult Li Cunxin. However, although the heavy use of slow motion and various editing techniques in Mao’s Last Dancer want to give you the impression that you are witnessing great dancing; you are not. Unlike the performances in classic ballet films such as The Red Shoes and the more recent 2003 Robert Altman film The Company, the dancing in Mao’s Last Dancer is only adequate.

Yet despite all its very large flaws Mao’s Last Dancer does end on a triumphant note. The film has two big emotionally cathartic ‘final’ scenes and although you can see the heart-string-tugging mechanics of these scenes a mile off, they are executed brilliantly. Mao’s Last Dancer is a very good example of why you should never leave a film early because to do so in this instance would be to miss 20 minutes of truly impressive filmmaking. If only everything that preceded it wasn’t so mediocre.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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