Australia's 2009 movie lineup offers familiar ingredients

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Australian producers are sticking to tried-and-true formulas for their 2009 films. Take a few soap opera stars and pop stars, some token overseas actors, plenty of low-budget genre films, add a couple of book and stage adaptations, some serious art-house films, and the return of acclaimed local directors who have been working overseas for several years, and you have most of the Australian lineup for 2009.

There are some surprises, including two animated features. $9.99 focuses on apartment dwellers in Sydney, using the voices of Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia. The film was shortlisted in the Academy Awards animated feature category and is set for an April release in the U.S. Meanwhile, Academy Award winner Adam Elliot’s quirky claymation first feature Mary and Max opened the Sundance Film Festival, followed by Berlin, and has already been purchased by several countries. Geoffrey Rush is again one of the voices, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette.

The genre films include Long Weekend, a remake of a 1978 Australian horror film. Prey stars Aussie “So You Think You Can Dance?” host Natalie Bassingthwaite and centers on three couples on holiday who awaken a 5,000-year-old Aboriginal curse. Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill and Ethan Hawke lead the cast of horror flick Daybreakers, the second feature from cult favorites The Spierig Brothers. The Horseman is a revenge thriller that has been called Get Carter meets Quentin Tarantino. And Icon has U.K. and Australian distribution for the horror film Triangle, starring Melissa George.

Miramax and BBC Films are backing the Scott Hicks drama The Boys Are Back in Town, featuring Clive Owen as a sportswriter now facing life as a single parent. Kyle MacLachlan, Bruce Greenwood and Joan Chen star in Mao’s Last Dancer, the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a Chinese ballet dancer who defected to the US. Bruce Beresford directs.

A couple of comedies have potential. Geena Davis stars in the U.K./Australia production Accidents Happen, focusing on an accident-prone 15-year-old boy. Paul Hogan keeps searching for a new “Crocodile” Dundee and hopes he has found it in Charlie & Boots, a road movie following a father and son on a trip up the east of Australia.

Also of interest is Balibo, a film based on the murder of several journalists in Timor, starring Anthony LaPaglia. Jane Campion directs Abbie Cornish and Ben Wishaw in Bright Star, a U.S./U.K./France/Australia production based on the romance of poet John Keats and Fanny Browne. “Australian Idol” runner-up Jessica Mauboy joins pop star Missy Higgins and Geoffrey Rush in an adaptation of the local ethnic stage musical hit Bran Nue Day. And pop star Natalie Imbruglia is getting good reviews for her film debut, Closed for Winter, based on the Georgia Blain novel. The mystery drama premiered at the recent Adelaide Film Festival.

But perhaps the strangest film of the year is Eric Bana’s documentary Love the Beast. Bana gets people like Dr. Phil and Jay Leno to talk about his obsession, a Ford GT Falcon Coupe, aka The Beast. It opens locally March 12, and I have no idea what to expect.

E-mail your Australia/New Zealand news items to David Pearce at insidemovies@hotmail.com.