Sandy George forecasts the upcoming cinema release slate, and examines why arthouse movies are especially big on Boxing Day.
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2 Sep 2011 - 3:32 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Some of the best films of the year open on public holidays. People flock to the pictures when they have a day off and, if they think they have a film that can withstand the intense competition on such days, film distributors are very willing to throw out the usual practice of opening on a Thursday.

December 26, Boxing Day, is one of the busiest days of the year in Australian cinemas, especially if it's raining. This year Boxing Day falls on a Monday and features such sure-fire commercial hits as the striking-looking Peter Jackson/Steven Spielberg motion-capture adventure The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (from distributor Paramount), the entertainingly silly family film Alvin & The Chipmunks 3: Chipwrecked (Twentieth Century Fox), director Cameron Crowe's family drama We Bought A Zoo (pictured below) starring Matt Damon (also Fox), the comedy caper Tower Heist starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy (Universal) and the second installment of dancing penguins, Happy Feet Two (Roadshow).

All the films mentioned are being shepherded into cinemas by the Australian offices of the US studios or the homegrown major Roadshow. Blockbusters are their core business. But December 26 will also see a number of films opening that are less mainstream in style and more focused on pleasing filmgoers whose taste is more at the arthouse end of the scale.

They are Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In, starring Antonio Banderas as a plastic surgeon developing skin that can act as a shield against assault (Transmission), This Must Be The Place (note: now delayed to 2012), starring Sean Penn as a retired goth rock star who returns to the US upon the death of his estranged father (Hopscotch), The Iron Lady, a dramatisation of the rise of former UK Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep (Icon), Lars Von Trier's new picture Melancholia (Madman) and The Women on the 6th Floor (Palace).

While they occasionally handle a blockbuster – and are delighted to do so because of the pleasing effect on their bank balances – the distributors of these films are critical to Australian cinemas having a rich film menu. That said, their Boxing Day choices are broader than many films on their slate: it is no coincidence that there are two very strong auteurs in the mix and a couple of much-loved actors.

“You have to bring your strongest hitter out to bat on such a competitive day and there is absolutely a spot there (on December 26) for something warm, feel-good and charming,” says Palace Film's general manager and chief acquisitions person, Nicolas Whatson, about The Women on the 6th Floor. Director Philippe Le Guay's comedy is set in Paris in 1962 and tracks what happens once a wealthy, staid stockbroker (regular Le Guay leading man Fabrice Luchini) realises he has more fun hanging out with a bunch of Spanish maids who live upstairs than his socialite wife.

And Icon opting to offer cinemas The Iron Lady (pictured left) indicates it thinks it has something special. The film is directed by Phyllidia Lloyd, who is renowned for her work in theatre, but also made the 2008 big screen hit Mamma Mia! Britain's track record of delivering films such as Her Majesty Mrs Brown and The Queen, Streep's ability to completely transform herself – think back more than 20 years to Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels – and Jim Broadbent playing Thatcher's husband Denis, all adds up to The Iron Lady being on the must-see list.

Clearly Icon also has faith in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, the first martial arts film to be made in 3D, given it is going out on December 22. Hark Tsui directs this tale of an escaped concubine and Jet Li is in a starring role.

Many at the arthouse end of the film business, argue that Australians will patronise arthouse, specialty and foreign-language films as much if not more than people from most other countries in the world. There could be a range of explanations for this. Perhaps the habit of travel, which many Australians establish early in life, makes them more curious about the world. Perhaps the strong film festival culture and the long-term presence of two strong arthouse cinema circuits in Dendy and Palace has made filmgoers inquisitive. Or perhaps Australia's broadband speeds deter film buffs from illegally downloading movies that develop a buzz at the key international festivals.

Whatever the reason, it was clear from last month's annual Australian International Movie Convention that diversity abounds in the coming year. The annual event is an opportunity for distribution companies to woo the 960 delegates – the majority are cinema operators – with selected upcoming films and they do it with vigour.

The presentations were held over four days in the 1,000-seat cinema in the bowels of Jupiters Hotel and Casino on the Gold Coast. They incorporated local and international distribution executives on stage talking delegates through their line-up, pre-recorded interviews from filmmakers and LA studio types and sometimes actors, plus trailers, sales and sizzle reels, and scene clips. There are 300 to 350 films released each year; perhaps one-third to a half were featured in some way at the convention.

With ticket sales amounting to $1.128 billion in 2010 in Australia, this is most definitely the business end of the industry and much fuss was made of the next installments of big Hollywood franchises: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is out on December 15 (Paramount), for example, and next year, Men in Black III on May 24, The Amazing Spider-Man on July 4 and Bond 23 on November 22 (all Sony).

But here too, just as on December 26, the distributors who pride themselves on the quality of their offerings favour their more commercial films. Despite the sensory overload, several offerings stood out for this delegate. Hysteria (pictured below), Hopscotch's romantic comedy starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, is set in 1880, based on the true story of the invention of the vibrator (seriously) and looks like a hoot.

Also based on a true story is Icon's slick-looking The Devil's Double, about an army lieutenant forced to act as a body double for Saddam Hussein's son Uday. That the film is directed by Lee Tamahori of Once Were Warriors fame adds anticipation. And Drive looks like it melds realism with the best attributes of the thriller genre in a story featuring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver who runs into trouble when he moonlights for some unsavoury types. Nicolas Winding Refn directed Bronson and earlier created the Pusher series and this film earned him the award for best director at Cannes. It is being released by Pinnacle, one of a range of smaller Australian distribution entities.

Arthouse and specialty cinema is not the just the domain of independent distributors, of course. Fox Searchlight, for example, a division of 20th Century Fox, has funneled a stream of quality films to interested exhibitors for the past 20 years. It is releasing Alexander Payne's The Descendants (pictured below) in January, and Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene (pictured top) in February.

Durkin won the directing award at Sundance for his debut film, a psychological thriller popular at the Melbourne and Sydney film festivals, in which Elizabeth Olsen plays a young woman struggling to recover from the damage caused during her time in a cult. The Descendants stars George Clooney as a man trying to be a proper father to two daughters and is from the director of Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways.

It's not always the case but there was much enthusiasm for a number of upcoming Australian films, including The Cup, Simon Wincer's tale of the dramatic events around the 2002 Melbourne Cup, a musical titled Goddess, a big screen version of the ladies from Fountain Lake, Kath & Kim, Wolf Creek 2 and Mental from PJ Hogan (Muriel's Wedding). Also on the list is A Few Best Men, a ribald comedy from Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) and the comedy Any Questions for Ben? starring Josh Lucas and made by the Working Dog team, who made The Castle and The Dish. When are these two films releasing? On Australia Day, a public holiday. Fancy that.