By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 15, 2012 at 2:33PM
Right now, Australian film is the most exciting it's been since the 1970s, when directors like Peter Weir, George Miller, Gillian Armstrong and Phillip Noyce were first emerging. And over the last few years, names like David Michod, Spencer Susser, Kieran Darcy-Smith and Nash Edgerton have made waves internationally thanks to films like "Animal Kingdom," "Hesher," "Wish You Were Here" and "The Square." But nothing within New Australian Cinema so far could have prepared audiences last year for "Snowtown" (or "The Snowtown Murders" in the U.S.), the debut feature from director Justin Kurzel. The helmer started off as a designer for theater and film before heading to film school at the Victorian College of Arts. His graduation film, "Blue Tongue," (which coincidentally shares its name with the production company behind "Animal Kingdom" & co, which Kurzel isn't involved in), about two teenagers and a lizard, saw him win the prize for Best Australian Short Film, and the project ended up selected for Critic's Week at Cannes 2011. Since then, he mostly directed music videos for bands like The Vines and The Sleepy Jackson, but when Warp Films, the British company behind films like "Dead Man's Shoes" and "Kill List," opened an Australian offshoot, Kurzel was the first person they came to. The result was "Snowtown," an unrelentingly bleak examination of the real-life Snowtown murders, where killer John Justin Bunting was responsible for a ring that led to the death of at least eleven victims in the 1990s. The killings took place near where Kurzel grew up, in Adelaide, and it's clear from the finished film the extent to which the events haunt him, and there's an extraordinary matter-of-fact feel to the movie, reminiscent of Gus Van Sant's more experimental work. It was one of the most unforgettable cinematic experiences of the last twelve months, and marked Kurzel as one of the most thrilling talents in world cinema right now. The director had been developing a feature film expanding on the themes of "Blue Tongue" at one point, but he'll join Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, among others, as one of the directors of portmanteau picture "The Turning," as well as writing a dark coming-of-age comedy set in the tennis world called "Ivan Lendly Never Learned To Borrow," also with Warp Films. But it looks like his next feature will be his first step into Hollywood territory -- he recently signed on to direct the John Le Carre adaptation "Our Kind of Traitor," penned by "Drive" writer Hossein Amini, with production aiming to start this fall.
While it was far from deliberate, having the two Cuban stars of her debut feature "Una Noche" go missing on their way to the Tribeca Film Festival premiere, only for them to resurface and claim asylum in the United States, was a pretty good way to get publicity. It's fortunate, then, that "Una Noche," the first film from 32-year-old director Lucy Mulloy, turned out to be the best thing we saw at Tribeca this year by about a million miles, with the helmer walking away with the Best Director prize from the festival. Mulloy has filmmaking in her genes: while New York born, she's the son of two acclaimed animators, Britain's Phil Mulloy and the Czech-born Vera Neubauer (her brother, Daniel, is also an award-winning filmmaker, who served as a producer on "Una Noche," and is developing his own debut feature, the Melissa Leo-starring "A Cold Day," at Focus Features). Mulloy studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, before heading to Tisch in New York to study film. While there, her film "This Morning" was short-listed for a Student Academy Award, following in the footsteps of directors like Robert Zemeckis, John Lasseter and Cary Fukunaga. After graduating, she went to Havana to research "Una Noche," about a group of young Cubans planning to escape to Miami. Production was underway early in 2008, and the work-in-progress saw her get the attention of Spike Lee, who mentored the young filmmaker, and in 2010, she was also given a Creative Promise Emerging Narrative Award by Tribeca to help her complete the film. And it's paid off in spades: the film is vibrant, funny, tender, exciting and moving. It premiered at the Berlinale in February to huge acclaim, which was mirrored at Tribeca (you can read our review from there here). The film is still awaiting distribution, but we're sure a deal isn't too far away, and Mulloy will surely be a much sought-after name in the years to come. We just hope it doesn't take her four years to film her next project...
Bowing to well-deserved acclaim at Sundance in 2011, the excellent lesbian coming-of-age drama "Pariah" failed to match Focus Features' hopes and cross over to a wider audience, but regardless, the film has certainly put Nashville-born 34-year-old director Dee Rees on the map. Like Lucy Mulloy, she's both a graduate of NYU's Tisch School Of The Arts and a protege of Spike Lee (indeed, the two interned together on his documentary "When The Levees Break"), before coming to attention with her short films "Orange Bow" and "Pariah." The latter saw her win awards at 25 film festivals around the world, and soon a feature version was in development, with Rees invited to the 2008 Sundance Labs. She kept busy in the meantime, directing the short "Colonial Gods" for the BBC, and the Sundance Channel documentary "Eventual Salvation," which followed her grandmother's journey back to Liberia, in 2009, each to much acclaim. But the feature version of "Pariah" finally got before cameras in 2010, and when it debuted, it earned instant praise, and rightly so. It's a tender, honest, beautifully acted film that looks absolutely stunning (it rightly won the Cinematography awards at Sundance that year), and is powered by a breathtaking performance by Adepero Oduye. Focus didn't wait long to work with Rees again, snapping up another project from her, a Southern-set thriller called "Bolo," which she's now finished writing, while she has another script ready to go, "Large Print," about a recently divorced fifty-something black woman. Furthermore, she's developing an HBO series with Oscar-nominee Viola Davis, set in a prep school, and recently signed to direct love story "This Man, This Woman," written by veteran Frederic Raphael ("Darling," "Eyes Wide Shut"). It's unclear at this point what her next project is, but whatever it turns out to be, we can't wait to see it.