In last week’s Sunday Age production editor Michael Coulter chastised the Australian film industry, writing despairingly about its apparently unrelenting penchant for doom-‘n’-gloom productions.

Coulter opened by reminiscing about Rolf de Heer’s Alexandra’s Project — in particular that he needed a cold shower after watching it, which is fair enough considering its uncomfortable relationship-revenge story and sticky-icky atmosphere — and concluded by suggesting that he’d prefer to attend the next session of Transformers than watch anything made by down-in-the-dumps local filmmakers.

The story was put in the context of a debate about public funding (Coulter argues that the money used to finance the local industry would be better spent on MICA paramedics, though this rationale can surely be applied to every government-funded arts initiative) but really it’s just a naive piece of waffle about how he feels local films don’t connect because they are too often bleak, gritty and uncompromising.

Here’s a snippet:

After more than a decade of being flailed by nihilistic, violent and/or depressing fare, ranging from the masterful — Chopper and The Boys — to the diabolical — Dirty Deeds, Fat Pizza and Metal Skin — enough was enough. A film doesn’t need a happy ending, but neither should it leave you with a contempt for humanity.

If I’m going to loan my emotions to someone for 90 minutes, I expect them to be returned in at least as good a condition, if not better.

Avoiding Australian films has since become routine. It may well be that I’ve missed many great cinematic experiences, but at least I have the comfort of knowing I’m not the only one.

Over the years I’ve been a vocal critic of the Australian film industry, criticising about as many films as I’ve praised, so I would hope not to be perceived as a blinkered Aussie film stalwart blindly raging into battle to defend local artists. Before I voice my misgivings about Coulter’s piece allow me to state that the man certainly has a point about how Australian films by and large do not carry enough commercial appeal and seemed to be buoyed by the attitude that they don’t make any money because, well, they don’t have to. That ain’t cool. Australian filmmakers and financers should learn from the mistakes of the past — i.e. the countless wishy-washy dramas that have floated onto our screens in mists of pseudo poeticism then quickly drifted into obscurity –- and try to make features that are marketable and appealing to general audiences without selling out to commercial impulses. And the thing is … they have.

Coulter’s piece arrives at a time in which Australian cinema is particularly strong and diverse. The timing of the story belies its central argument: that local films are pretentious and poorly made downers that tell the same story again and again. A few years ago these kinds of op-eds were a dime a dozen, with regular strongly worded pieces grumbling about the dearth of quality Australian films and/or predicting/endorsing the local industry’s demise. Contrary to what Coulter’s piece suggests, 2009 has been a rip-snortin’ year for local cinema, a damn fine showcase of varied and bold films from many genres and intended for many audiences.

Yes, box-office receipts are still very low and local films are still getting smashed by big budget American fare, but can anybody envision that changing any time soon? The quality ensemble of 2009 films gives credence to the idea that local films will continue to be shirked no matter what, irrespective of how good they are or how much potential they have to “cut through”. This year demonstrates what many of us have known all along: that the problem is not just with the quality of Australian films but the public’s perception of them.

The headline for Coulter’s piece reads “screening the same old dreary story”. Let’s take a cursory look at some of this year’s standout Australian films to see if Coulter’s Aussie-films-are-miserable-and-crap-and-done-to-death rant has credibility.

  • Samson & Delilah: yes, Warwick Thornton’s highly acclaimed Cannes prize-winning debut feature is bleak and uncompromising, but it’s also savagely beautiful, brilliantly made and — as far as I’m concerned — a one of a kind.
  • The Combination: David Fields’ crime/racism drama about Lebanese Sydneysiders is edgy, swift-moving and intensely entertaining.
  • Mary and Max: quaint and bold, light and heavy, funny and sad, frivolous and profound, Adam Elliot’s Plasticine-animated gem masterfully blends emotions via the sweet and touching story of two long-time pen pals.
  • Balibo: Robert Connolly directs an electrifying political sizzler based on the true story of the Balibo Five, who were murdered in East Timor in 1975.
  • Cedar Boys: a crime-don’t-pay story featuring complex stereotype-defying characters, writer/director Serhat Caradee’s blistering debut packages a maturely handled coming-of-age story with the punch of an entertaining narrative.
  • My Year Without Sex: a light, funny, quirky look at an Australian family going through financial and emotional difficulties. Director Sarah Watt infuses the story with a lightness of touch so that even the serious bits are never particularly heavy viewing.
  • $9.99: another spectacular Plasticine-animated film, this one cutting between the lives of residents in a Sydney apartment building. It’s funny, punchy, ruminative and laden with quirks.

You can see from this cursory analysis that suggesting doom-‘n’-gloom downers make up the crux of this year’s line-up of Australian films is totally untrue. There are other features that demonstrate more diversity still: Beautiful Kate is about a haunted family grappling with a dying father and painful memories (message to Coulter: don’t see this one); Prime Mover is an odd comedy/drama about the relationship between a man, a woman and a truck; Van Diemen’s Land is a realistically made cannibal movie about Alexander “the Pieman” Pearce and his forays into flesh-chewing. Those last three didn’t particularly work for me but hey, everyone’s different.

I wonder if Michael Coulter has seen any of the films I’ve mentioned in this post. I doubt it, because it’s hard to believe anybody who has recently seen films as good as Balibo, Mary and Max and Samson & Delilah would then argue they should never have been made and that the money allocated to finance them should have been spent elsewhere. During most other years I’d be inclined to agree that Australians films are not diverse, marketable or appealing enough but 2009 is different, y’all, and credit should be given where credit is due.

Coulter might not have been to the cinema to see an Australian film this year but I have — many times — and what I’ve seen is impressive. Media commentators ought to praise our admittedly fickle film industry for finally delivering the goods — providing rich, interesting and diverse films — rather than contributing uninformed and out of date moans encouraging audiences to shirk the good stuff and instead head into a Michael Bay craptacular. These good times for the local industry can’t last very long. Let’s enjoy them while we can, eh?

Crikey readers, what do you think? Australian film: a gritty, bleak, unwatchable mess or an industry enjoying a renaissance?