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From Sissy to The Stranger: the 10 best Australian films of 2022 – ranked | Australian film

There was no shortage of excellent Australian films released this year. If 2021 was a particularly great year for documentaries (which accounted for half of my top 10, including three of the top five), 2022 boasts a more particular highlight: films about rivers. By coincidence, three of the titles below contemplate rivers historically, ecologically and spiritually.

But it’s not all beautiful streams of flowing water – there’s also witches, criminals and the scum of the universe (social media influencers). As usual, films needed to have a local theatrical or streaming release (outside film festivals) sometime during the calendar year to be eligible for this list.

10. River

To say Sherpa and Mountain director Jennifer Peedom’s latest production breaks the “show don’t tell dictum” is putting it lightly: the film is extensively vococentric, narrated by a biblical-sounding Willem Dafoe. “When the first rains fell, the Earth awakened,” he says, going on to ruminate in depth about how “rivers have shaped us as a species”. Yep: this dude really likes rivers. The film will be remembered, however, for its jaw-droppingly beautiful cinematic images, matched to music from artists including Radiohead and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

9. Franklin

Onwards we roll (swim?) from marvelling at the world’s rivers to one in particular: Tasmania’s exquisite Franklin River, which activists saved in the 1980s by blocking the production of a dam. Before director Kasimir Burgess explores direct action protesting and the divisive issue the proposed dam became, he creates two core connections: one with the environment itself, and the other with Oliver Cassidy, a conservationist whose father, Michael, was a key part of the resistance. This gently entrancing documentary is tenderly made and carries a powerful message – and a particularly relevant one now too, given the recent alarming treatment of climate activists.

8. Blaze

Many dragons have flown across our screens over the years, but none are like the dragon in Del Kathryn Barton’s feature debut: a uniquely magnificent creature that reflects the acclaimed artist’s idiosyncratic style – created using lots of strange materials and glittery bits. This sensational creation is an imaginary friend of Julia Savage’s 12-year-old protagonist, representing the inner strength she draws upon after witnessing a woman being raped and murdered. This is no Disneyfied experience: rather, a hard-hitting film littered with strikingly strange and beautiful embellishments.

7. Moja Vesna

The term “kitchen sink realism” is sometimes used to describe films like Moja Vesna, in this instance correctly implying an unwavering sense of authenticity from beginning to end. But it doesn’t do justice to the craft, diligence and humanity of this strikingly assured feature from writer/director Sara Kern, drawing on her own experiences as a migrant to Australia. Following the sudden death of her mother, 10-year-old protagonist Moya (Loti Kovacic) assumes a leader-like role in her family, consisting of her Slovenian father (Gregor Baković) and pregnant 20-year-old sister (Mackenzie Mazur). Young Kovacic delivers a quietly remarkable performance: finely controlled, layered and moving.

6. Sissy

Social media influencers and the wellness industry are the targets of Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’ diabolically entertaining and satirical flick, which is not for the faint-hearted or weak of stomach. Online celeb Sissy (Aisha Dee) gets roped into attending the hen’s weekend of former bestie Emma (Hannah Barlow) and bloody mayhem ensues. The horror is rooted in the unwanted rekindling of old relationships … but who will be the villain, and who the victim? Uncertainty and anticipation eventually explode into all-out carnage in an unpredictable film with style and sass to spare.

5. Little Tornadoes

Director Aaron Wilson’s moving small-town drama, which he co-wrote with Christos Tsiolkas, is visually elegant and verbally interesting. There is the voiceover narration reflecting on the migrant experience in 1970s Australia, from a mystery character whose identity is not revealed until well into the runtime. Then there is another voice, one that bounces around the mind of the film’s stoic protagonist, Leo, like a bad memory. Mark Leonard Winter’s outstanding performance as Leo, a gloomy metalworker who is struggling to raise two young children after his wife leaves him, painfully aligns body and soul.

4. Ithaka

Much of the footage in Ben Lawrence’s documentary belongs to a specific moment in history, focused on Julian Assange’s extradition hearings. In this sense it will age, though the subject – Assange’s father John Shipton – and the unique relationship he shares with his son give the film timelessness. The loquacious Shipton is an erudite thinker with an outwardly hostile attitude towards aspects of the film-making process, creating a tensely compelling energy between subject and director. The presence of Assange’s wife Stella Moris adds more personal insights into Assange’s story, though Ithaka of course is political too – asking important questions about journalism, justice and speaking truth to power.

3. Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow

Australian concert documentaries have never been better than this showcase of divine music from Indigenous musicians Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, whose songs involve, among other things, reconciling the past and connecting to country. The extensively used footage of the pair performing on stage in 2004 (in collaboration with Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra), is visually unexceptional, so director Philippa Bateman goes elsewhere for energy and oomph, for instance mixing in behind-the-scenes footage and cutting – as if in spiritual consultation – to the gorgeous Murray River. On the many occasions when this film soars, it’s sublime.

2. The Stranger

There was no second album syndrome in Thomas M Wright’s follow-up to his enthralling directorial debut Acute Misfortune, moving from biopic (of artist Adam Cullen) into a darkly sophisticated crime drama. Joel Edgerton’s brooding undercover cop Mark is posing as a mid-level gangster and suspects an ex-con, Henry (played by a supremely unsettling Sean Harris) is responsible for the kidnap and murder of a missing boy. The joints of this heavy and moody picture swell under its own, intensely melancholic weight. It sounds like a tough watch, but The Stranger’s sheer style and bravado make it broadly appealing, as its success on Netflix seems to have demonstrated.

1. You Won’t Be Alone

Narratives about witches have been tossed around since time immemorial, and yet writer/director Goran Stolevski’s feature debut – an Australian, UK and Serbian co-production set in and around a Macedonian village circa the 19th century – is brilliantly odd and original. Stolevski uses an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque twist to free the film from the convention of a single lead performance, following a malevolent shapeshifting force named Nevena who takes various bodies for a spin. Laced with a novel-like narration focused on the witch’s attempts to come to terms with humanity, the film has a bizarrely vast perspective, unmoored from the constraints of the body, beaming in from someplace else in the cosmos.

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