Australia. Land of chooks, Acca Dacca, swagmen, bogans and much more besides, including some very fine films indeed. Here, apropos of nothing and in no particular order, are ten of my favourites. (Anyone who believes this post does nothing but add to the ridiculous amount of clickbait currently swirling around the web should just be thankful I didn’t go with my original idea of ‘101 Reasons Why Gal Gadot’s Cleavage Will Be The Best Thing In The New Batman Vs Superman Film’. Or maybe you’d have preferred that? Perverts.)
1. Gallipoli (1981)
Director Peter Weir and star Mel Gibson feature prominently on this list, and this is the movie that helped launch Gibson’s international career. A key film in the Australian New Wave of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gallipoli tells the story of two young rural Australians (Gibson and newcomer Mark Lee) as they travel to Egypt and Turkey to fight in the First World War. Dealing with lost innocence and the nature and identity of the Australian male, Weir’s film is a moving and heartfelt study of young ANZACs and includes some superb cinematography, with the vast, arid expanses of South Australia doubling for the Turkish peninsula that gives the film its title.
2. Lantana (2001)
Roger Ebert compared Lantana, Ray Lawrence’s masterfully-constructed tale of death, infidelity and suffocating suburban unease, to PT Anderson’s Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. There’s definitely more than a hint of those two LA-based films in this superbly-acted Sydney equivalent, but Lantana is more than a mere Australian copy and it has an odd, unsettling tone of its own. It’s a slow-burning tale of lives linked through circumstance as well as trust and grief, but a film that lives long in the memory afterwards, and it contains excellent performances from its stars Anthony LaPaglia, Barbara Hershey and Geoffrey Rush.
3. Romper Stomper (1992)
Geoffrey Wright’s bleak and controversial Romper Stomper is a snarling, spitting beast of a film, which directly addresses racism in Australia by concentrating on the violent criminal activities of a gang of neo-nazi skinheads in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray. Russell Crowe plays their leader, the brutal Hando, and if he has delivered a finer performance in his career I’m yet to see it (and yeah, that includes LA Confidential, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind). Romper Stomper does not promote or condemn far-right activity, but it is a fascinating insight into the groups and individuals that practice it, with clear parallels to the later Ed Norton film American History X. Awful title though.
4. Shine (1996)
Did Shine deserve more than its single Oscar win back in the mid-nineties? Geoffrey Rush picked up the Best Actor accolade but this finely-crafted tale based on the life of pianist David Helfgott was nominated in several other categories, including Best Picture (losing out to The English Patient) and Best Director (Scott Hicks, losing out to Anthony Minghella). It’s a beautiful film, with an equally impressive soundtrack, and Rush resumed piano lessons for the part so that he did not require a hand double. It’s a thoroughly uplifting story that thankfully manages to avoid schmaltz – a difficult thing to do.
5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
In all honesty I could have picked any of the films from the original Mad Max trilogy, as they all have their own particular merits, but I’m going for George Miller’s second instalment, starring the young Mel Gibson as the titular hero trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. It’s energetic from the off, with magnificent widescreen cinematography and a real minimal, post-punk edge; Mad Max 2 provides numerous action thrills, with the highlight being the extended and violent chase sequence in the final act.
6. Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)
Quite a few of the films in this list deal with masculinity, but Peter Weir’s haunting Picnic At Hanging Rock looks at female adolescence and femininity, and went on to influence Sofia Coppola (particularly with regard to her films The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette). Detailing the disappearance of several schoolgirls during a visit to Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day, 1900, it’s an eerie mystery that addresses the importance of the land to Aboriginal Australians as well as the failure of European settlers to recognise this relevance. A quiet, disturbing and profound masterpiece.
7. The Proposition (2005)
In a decade where the western was given a new lease of life thanks to a string of well-acted, brooding films, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition is up there with the very best. Written by Nick Cave – who also scored the film with violinist Warren Ellis – it’s yet another bleak, moody entry into this list and yet another film set near the end of the 19th Century / start of the 20th Century. It features sterling performances from Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson and John Hurt and is as gritty and uncompromising as any entry in the genre you care to name.
8. Walkabout (1971)
Loosely based on James Vance Marshall’s novel of the same name, Walkabout is a hallucinogenic study of clashing cultures, of intellectual and spiritual awakening and, above all else, communication. It is yet another story that attempts to get to grips with Australia’s recent history and its fascinating landscape, once again from the point of view of (colonial) outsiders. The subject matter of Nicolas Roeg’s second film is wildly different to the two he made before and after it (Performance and Don’t Look Now) but his style is clearly evident, with cross-cutting and intellectual montage featuring heavily.
9. Mary & Max (2009)
This clay-mation black comedy-drama from 2009 only made a fraction of its $9,000,000 budget back, unfortunately, but it’s a poignant and moving tale that deserves to reach a wider audience. Concentrating on an unlikely penpal-ship between an 8-year-old Melbourne girl and a 44-year-old depressed New Yorker with Asperger’s, the story spans two decades and addresses anxiety, autism and suicide, standing as a fine testament to the notion of friendship. It’s witty, well-observed and it contains stellar voice work by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette and Eric Bana, while Barry Humphries even contributes narration. Just had to get him in here somewhere.
10. Wake In Fright (1971)
Clearly years ending in the number ‘1’ are good for Australian films. Wake In Fright – also known as Outback – was long considered to be the great, lost Australian movie, as despite the fact it premiered at Cannes in 1971 and received excellent reviews, it bombed in Australia and was subsequently out of circulation for many years. The sole existing print of the film resided in Dublin but thankfully it was restored and re-released in 2009, and it has come to be viewed as one of the most influential Australian films ever made. This unsettling, dark thriller revolves around a schoolteacher who arrives in a tough mining town with the intention of staying for one night, but he becomes trapped when he loses his money through gambling and his attraction to the local hard-drinking scene lands him in no end of bother. It was chosen by Martin Scorsese as a ‘Cannes Classic’, which makes it one of only two films to have been shown twice at the festival.
So, those are my (fairly predictable) choices, how about yours? Are you annoyed that Breaker Morant has been left off? Disgusted I couldn’t find space for Animal Kingdom, Muriel’s Wedding or Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert? Or – and I dread to think – is there some love out there for Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee? Let me know!