Ten Great Australian Movies You (Probably) Haven’t Seen

Some little-seen rippers from Down Under...

by Phil de Semlyen |
Published on

This week sees the release of Animal Kingdom, a Melbourne-set family crime drama that stands equal to some of the greats of the genre (think White Heat transplanted 60 years and 10,000 miles, or Mystic Yarra River). It’s proof that the Australian film industry has plenty more to offer than just a steady stream of Jackmans, Kidmans, Worthingtons and the odd rogue dingo. It’s also a reminder of some of the true blue Aussie classics of recent years. We’ve all seen Shine, The Proposition, Chopper, Romper Stomper, Mad Max and other big-league exports, but what are the lesser-known greats from down under? Following on from our first instalment, here’s another ten to hunt down. Get a dog up ya! (Sorry)

Director: Phillip Noyce

One that’d challenge even the most determined Aussie completist, Phillip Noyce’s debut is out there somewhere but you’d probably need the skills of Indiana Jones to find a copy. So what’s it doing on this list? Well, it’s arguably the best Australian film of the decade, an early dividend from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School set up by John Gorton’s government in 1972 (other alums include Dion Beebe, Jane Campion, Alex Proyas and Rolf de Heer), and a fly-on-the-wall glimpse at a tumultuous time in Australian history. It’s also a moving tribute to the dying art of newsreel photographers. The story revolves around the rivalry between fictional newsreel companies, the Aussie-owned Cinetone and US competitors Newsco, who battle it out Anchorman-style (no axes or clubs), while both slip slowly and sadly into obsolescence. Nostalgic and funny, it’d be worth breaking into Noyce’s house for, if there weren’t laws against that kind of thing.

Director: Rowan Woods

A sparse, moving drama set on the mean streets of Sydney’s Cabramatta suburb, Little Fish exists on the same end of the pharmaceutical spectrum as Requiem For A Dream, but offers a slightly more hopeful outlook from society’s margins. Only slightly, mind. It’s a story of second chances and doomed dreams in which Cate Blanchett shows rare vulnerability as a video shop assistant whose attempts to leave her druggie past behind her are stymied at every turn. The little fish – soy sauce tubes filled with heroin – are an ever-present temptation for her and her ex-addict mate (Hugo Weaving), an ex-NRL star also struggling to shrug off the past. The cast is universally excellent, but special props go to Sam Neill for a cameo so blistering it would’ve cleared Jurassic Park in about ten seconds.

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Gillian Armstrong’s BAFTA and AFI-winning costume drama was, amazingly, the first Australian feature-length drama directed by a woman in more than 50 years. Like Campion’s The Piano after it, My Brilliant Career had a female lead defying the expectations of gender and dumping Sam Neill a lot. Judy Davis plays Sybylla, a young aspiring novelist who, faced with the choice between marriage and a staid existence and pursing her dreams to their (possibly bitter) end, plumps firmly for Option B. With a passionate turn from Davis in her first feature and expertly adapted from Miles Franklin’s turn-of-the-century tome, it’s landmark cinema. It’s safe to say the iconic status afforded the source material (Franklin’s name adorns Australia’s chief literary gong), hasn’t extended to the movie – Davis hated her character – but a standing ovation at Cannes speaks volumes.

Director: Rolf de Heer

Imagine Forrest Gump directed by Lars von Trier and every bit as weirdly twisted and biting as that sounds. Bad Boy Bubby (Nicholas Hope) is kept closeted at home for 35 years, told that the air outside is too toxic to breath, and kept on a short leash – sometimes literally – by his abusive and domineering mum (Claire Benito). Then his drunken ‘Pop’ shows up and Bubby realises he’s been tricked. Parents get suffocated (the cat doesn’t fare too well either), as the man-child embarks on an eyes-wide exploration of the seedier corners of Port Adelaide. Debutant Hope is astonishing throughout, while Dutch émigré Rolf de Heer pulls no punches, laying waste to taboos like incest and child abuse in a way that’d make Frankie Boyle blush. A staggering and original film on many levels, but probably not one to sit down to watch with your folks.

Director: Cate Shortland

Long before she bust out of the Sucker Punch asylum and he went off to annoy Colonel Quaritch and fly space dragons, coming-of-age indie Somersault set Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington on the path from TV dramas to the Hollywood big time. She’s rarely been better than in her turn as teen runaway Heidi, stumbling blindly through her late adolescence and numbing her loneliness with sex, while he shows a muscular humanity as farmer’s son Joe, one sexual conquest she can’t run from. Director Cate Shortland, sadly quiet since, lends a gossamer touch and easy empathy for her troubled heroine’s fate, while DoP Robert Humphreys gives the Snowy Mountains the blue tint of a pre-dawn apparition. Listen out too for a fragile, beautiful score from Sydneysiders Decoder Ring.

Director: Peter Weir

Take one kinky VW Lovebug, a sprinkle of J.G. Ballard and an auto-fixation that’d thrill the cast of Top Gear, bung in some dystopian freakiness and a slug of post-modern satire and you’ve got The Cars That Ate Paris, Peter Weir’s debut feature, a prescient sci-fi that foreshadowed Aussie movies to come. The Paris in question is entirely free of jaunty berets, flaky pastries and tall pointy towers, instead expect a hardscrabble New South Wales outpost inhabited by grasping oddballs who earn their corn rescuing scrap from car wrecks. Into this hell-hole comes Arthur (Terry Camilleri), a naïve man who discovers that, in Paris, violence is never far from the surface – and usually comes with a fender attached. While it’s not Weir’s best work by any stretch, The Cars That Ate Paris set the tone for Mad Max and more than a few blockbuster disaster movies ahead.

Director: Ken Hannam

Part of the Australian ‘70s New Wave that also boasted The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) and Long Weekend (1978), Ken Hannam’s drama is all grit and Coopers-soaked banter as shearers battle for ascendancy in the most alpha environment this side of Gordon Gekko’s racquetball club. That sun-baked location - South Australia’s Carriewerloo sheep station, where Robert Mitchum had shorn a lamb or two in The Sundowners 15 years before – is a key player as Hannam expertly captures the pain and joys of a rarely visited world. Forget Hugh Jackman in Australia: if you want to see what drovers and sheepmen really get up to when they’re not taking their shirts off, this is the movie for you.

Director: Richard Franklin

Yes, it’d have probably been even better if Sean Connery’s salary demands hadn’t scotched his appearance in this rip-roaring Hitchcock homage, but Stacy Keach did a more than decent job as quirky trucker Pat Quid, despite a CV that read like a stock-check at your local bargain bin. It got much better after this, but his moment in the sun came trekking across south Australia’s ginormous Nullarbor plain hunting for a missing hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis, cast as a nod to Psycho) who may or may not have fallen victim to a serial killer. Before you can say Wolf Creek, the unlikely knight of the road is hot on his heels. Keach went on to American History X and Prison Break; director Franklin to, um, Psycho II.

Director: Alister Grierson

Before Alister Grierson turned his hand to Sanctum, he tackled peril of a bayonet-brandishing kind on a whole different Pacific island. His debut feature is set on New Guinea in 1942 and tackles the Anzacs’ most brutal campaign of World War Two. The Kokoda Trail was 60 kilometres of mud, mountain, snake and battle-hardened Japanese soldier. Like Gallipoli, it occupies a special place in the Australian psyche. It’s understandable, then, that the director handles the characters a little over-respectfully, but the combat is fierce and there’s one mesmerising, mud-caked shot that would make even Coppola proud. It definitely impressed James Cameron, who hired Grierson for his underwater-cave-movie as a result.

Director: Gregor Jordan

Gregor Jordan’s career has yet to match the promise of the blackly brilliant Buffalo Soldiers, but his debut feature, a high-tempo crime thriller set around Sydney’s eastern suburbs, marked him out straight away as a talent to watch. While it gives a much lighter treatment to its gangs-and-getaways material, it’s not hard to draw a line from here to Animal Kingdom, with Jimmy (Heath Ledger, breaking through) and J (James Frecheville, likewise) both new to the criminal underworld; both trying desperately to swim in a pool filled with sharks. Two Hands also introduced Sydneysider Rose Byrne, tender country girl Alex, and gave us the reassuring presence of Bryan Brown as nutso crim Pando, Ledger’s mentor-stroke-nemesis.

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