The AACTA (Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts) Award for best film, the most prestigious Australian film gong, is being handed out tonight. The nominees are a diverse bunch: The Babadook, Charlie’s Country, Predestination, The Railway Man, Tracks and The Water Diviner. Predicting what will win is fraught with risk because “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” (and woman’s). In other words, subjectivity AND excellence co-rule. But cool calculation and the unconscious come into play too.
Let it all hang out
AACTA members judge the AACTA Awards. They are accredited “screen industry professionals” and take the job of judging their peers seriously. But they’re also old softies just like the rest of Australia and like to feel big emotions such as exaltation, grief and joy. The 2014 standouts on this front are The Railway Man and, if the cheesiness is not too off-putting, The Water Diviner. Both speak to the impact of war and use beautiful big themes – courage, forgiveness, love – to encourage cathartic sobbing.
But there’s cool calculation too. Best film isn’t decided in isolation: voters weigh up where they’re going to put all their votes simultaneously. Voting for David Gulpilil in the best actor category – and he sure does fill the screen in Charlie’s Country – might seem reward enough for that film for example. Voters also consider track record: Charlie’s Country director Rolf de Heer is a genius, but his mantelpiece groans with Australian awards, whereas the Spierig brothers haven’t had adequate acknowledgment for working their butts off, most recently on Predestination. And Jonathan Teplitzky either.
Under the influence
Friends, family and the media influence AACTA members, but big buzz can only come from a big audience. This list is a measure of popularity because it shows how much Australians spent to see the nominees in cinemas. But beware: The Water Diviner was only just released when voting closed; The Babadook is tremendously admired in industry circles and took the fussy international festival circuit by storm; and The Railway Man could have faded from memory having premiered in December 2013. (How many voters saw a film is taken into consideration during counting.)
The Water Diviner $13.09 million*
The Railway Man $7.28 million
Tracks $2.44 million
Charlie’s Country $761,000
The Babadook $260,000
* As of last Thursday January 15
Celebrity and other subconscious matters
There’s been a push to get more glamour and tall poppies into the awards. Last year there was a lot of industry muttering about how unfair it was that The Great Gatsby was in the race, because its budget was (perhaps) ten times bigger than the budgets of all the other best film contenders put together. But it won. A decade ago, it was more fashionable to favour the underdog. While on matters of the subconscious, Tracks and The Babadook have female leads, but in this world, the assumption is that men are meant to be heroes. You tell me if this is a good or bad omen.
Yeah but who votes?
A last-minute request for statistics on the 1,800 AACTA members, including a breakdown based on age, fell on deaf ears. But you can bet that they’re more likely to be at the theatre of an evening than tracking K-pop trends online. Member maturity is bad news for science-fiction film Predestination, given it’s more about mind-twist than meaning, but good news for Tracks because they all read Robyn Davidson’s book in their formative years! And all the old lefties are very willing to back the devastating portrait of contemporary indigenous life that is Charlie’s Country. The other 19 films entered were 52 Tuesdays; Around the Block; Backyard Ashes; Canopy; Fell; Felony; Galore; Healing; I, Frankenstein; The Infinite Man; The Little Death; My Mistress; The Mule; The Rover; Son of a Gun; These Final Hours; Turkey Shoot; William Kelly’s War; Wolf Creek 2. Which genres would have left voters cold? (A number on how many actually voted was also not forthcoming.)
The big unknown
I’ve heard rumours of people who’ve worked on films being taught how to vote and being instructed to vote. To what extent is that happening? Did they defy the directive despite them also standing to get some glory?
With the benefit of hindsight
A cursory look back indicates that most winners – seven in the last 20 years – were crowd-pleasers with laughs (eg. The Sapphires, Shine). Exemplary dramatic filmmaking can win (Animal Kingdom, Lantana), but only if the film isn’t too tough (Snowtown, The Boys). But maybe the vote was split between The Boys and Head On when The Interview won in 1998. The outcome might also be about the ho-hum-ness of the competition. Play with your own subjectivity using the last five years:
- The Great Gatsby, Dead Europe, Mystery Road, The Rocket, Satellite Boy, The Turning
- The Sapphires, Burning Man, Lore, Wish You Were Here
- Red Dog, The Eye of the Storm, The Hunter, Mad Bastards, Oranges and Sunshine, Snowtown
- Animal Kingdom, Beneath Hill 60, Bran Nue Dae, Bright Star, The Tree, Tomorrow When the War Began.
- Samson and Delilah, Balibo, Beautiful Kate, Blessed, Mao’s Last Dancer, Mary and Max
But here’s the thing
The Railway Man, The Water Diviner and Tracks are nominated for best film but not best director, and looking back threw up a surprising fact: NO film of the last 20 years has won best film without the director being nominated. Suddenly The Babadook, the film I think deserves the best film award, looks like it could win.
An each-way bet
So OK, in this anything-could-happen year, I believe The Babadook will win but, if it doesn’t, The Water Diviner will. (Gulp) If I’m wrong I won’t really mind – beyond the embarrassment – because it’s a very strong year for quality Australian film. (And that audiences aren’t seeing them in cinemas much for whatever reason breaks my heart.)
Sandy George is an AACTA member and has seen all the films mentioned. Every year she finds it too difficult to vote so doesn’t.