The cinema of Australia

As far as countries go with film industry, Australia is not up to scratch with other giants such as France, Japan, Italy or China and particularly not the United States or United Kingdom. It still has a fairly busy industry. Its stability is far from prominent as other countries, particularly the English-speaking ones due to the competition. Success though – especially overseas – comes in peaks and troughs overtime.

Many talented folk have started their career in Australia, way to many to name, and gone on to find success – sometimes even major success later on in Hollywood. Few look back, and some return periodically to their roots. That is not what I am here to talk about either.

Much has been said about Australian cinema, and they are not without merit especially nowadays. The problem is the recent output has been weak and disappointing, with no standout really getting much attention. Ireland has less resources and still manages to get a steady and daring output, so what’s the problem?

The case is generally lots of “quirky” families, arty films and slice-of-life looks come up and more experimental but ultimately flawed executions often appear. Many are mediocre at best, and not all that memorable; most of the time there is a lack of edge and a tendency to play-it-safe.


There are predictable choices when asking people overseas for what they think of when they are asked about Australian films and what to see before heading to the country. Well, on the other end from a denizen of the actual country I will give a differing perspective. Here are:


The Top 10 Australian Films for Overseas Viewing

Unlike my list for foods, this is not a ranking of the best per se. Some of the films I still consider amongst the best the country has to offer though. I have attempted to avoid most of the obvious, famous films as I could. As little will be given away as possible. The films are presented in chronological order. Without much further ado…..


1. Walkabout (1970)

By technicality, this is not an Australian production. Directed by Brittish film director Nicholas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don’t Look Now) it is sort of an outsider’s observation of the Australian wilderness. Every shot is made to be as beautiful and striking as it can be, even when it has the clashing urban environment.

This is definitely an arthouse film using more of a visual way to describe the surrounding and happening as opposed to dialogue and exposition. It follows two school-aged siblings who find themselves stranded in the Outback using an Aborigine who is undertaking the rite-of-passage into adulthood known as the Walkabout. No common language is spoken but visual language. Amazing production values and a rewarding experience.


2. The Long Weekend (1978)

Likewise, this also looks at the Australian wilderness and its surroundings but takes a really different approach and perspective. A horror film that is more popular overseas than in its home country, it is an underrated and under-recognised piece of celluloid.

During a decade-and-a-half output of what is known as “Ozploitation” there were all sorts of films; these include thinly-veiled excuses to show off lots of full frontal nudity, to really oddball productions (that hardly have a fluid narrative) to cheap horror. This was released during that time falling into the latter.

It depicts a couple who go into the wilderness for a weekend who are really reckless to the natural environment. To continue would spoil the story, so I will stop there. This is a film that builds up tension and actually grabs the attention slowly as well. By the end of it I was actually surprised by how competently filmed it was – the script writer apparently just started writing and went from there.


3. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1980)

Of course there is the question, what about the original Mad Max? That is a good film and about the most iconic and influential overseas – just look at the costuming. While I think that it is quite good and has some of the most amazing stunts put into cinema, the sequel is one of those that goes on to be better than the original. It fixes some of the issues with the original, and vastly improves because of it. A continuation from the post-apocalyptic predecessor it further shows the lack of oil in the future with the title character finding a bunch of settlers hell-bent on getting the fuel by any means necessary. The film is low-budget, but that makes it all the more impressive with how they go about an authentic design, special effects and action sequences that top the original.

Not much can be said about Mad Max that has not already been said; both this and the original are must-watches.


4. Proof (1991)

So much is made from so little here; the premise is interesting and relies on little style as it can to avoid over-compensation on other aspects. Using only three characters in total, a complex triangular relationship is made.

An early feature for Russell Crowe (Gladiator, Les Miserables) and Hugo Weaving (the Matrix Trilogy, Priscilla; Queen of the Dessert), it follows Weaving playing a blind photographer who relies on people to tell him what the pictures depict. He has a hard time trusting anyone from a childhood memory involving not believing what he was told. One day Weaving runs into a dish-washer played by Crowe who describes the photographs in brilliant detail. This relationship is not welcomed by Weaving’s caretaker and she goes to intervene.

This is far from by-the-numbers and uses a minimalist setting which enhances it all the more. This won the Best Picture at the Australian Film Institute Awards and it fully deserved the award.


5. Romper Stomper (1992)

This is one film that is not the squeamish – and it is definitely not for kids. A very violent film that was and still is controversial.This film is amazingly shot with a lot of style to share; many comparisons have been made to A Clockwork Orange. I personally did not make the connection.

It follows the racial wars between gangs in Melbourne’s blue-collar suburbs between Neo-Nazi skinheads (another role by Russell Crowe) and Vietnamese-Australian youths, and the aftermath of a giant gang fight. There is as much recommendation to watch this as there is warning about its content; you will need a strong stomach for this one.


6. The Castle (1997)

This depicts Australian suburbia to a T, or at least the working class. It is a satire of the average Australian family who have to deal with an expanding airport and the authorities. An underdog story, think an amalgam of Rocky and a Man for All Seasons, but with a more light-hearted in approach. It is maybe bit bygone nowadays, but it still holds up strongly in many aspects.

This film is huge in Australia and is often shown on television – sometimes edited (one scene of language). It can be watched again and again. The humour is self-deprecating, and never feels like it is mean-spirited or elitist; most of it focuses on a number of aspects commonplace in Australia making an effort to be able to relate to the characters.  A lot of the jokes are simple, and might go over the heads of anyone who did not grow up in Australia.


7. Two Hands (1998)

Another really good thriller that utilises rather than over-stylises. A young man played by Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain, The Dark Knight) is in debt to a local gangster played by Bryan Brown (Along Came Polly, Dirty Deeds) after some street kids steal a huge lump of cash for a spending spree.

Filmed on location around Sydney’s red light district, it is a film that is worth seeing and can stand against many glossy American productions. Even though it was shown at Sundance, American residents had to wait until 2005 to get this on DVD; you’re welcome now that you get to experience this marvelous number.

8. Australian Rules (2002)

Let’s start on a tangent first. Many times in university and high school, you are given a film or a book or something to assess aspects of as part of an assignment. I’m not sure about you, but sometimes these end up being so numbingly uninteresting that the enforced investments makes them worse. However, once in a while there comes one that actually is enjoyable and you can appreciate it from how you are meant to (or maybe in a different way entirely). That is the case with this film.

In the first year of university, second semester there was the subject of Indigenous Health and one of the projects was to chose from one of two films (including this) and assess the many issues that Indigenous people face in real life as the film depicts. I ended up assessing the other, but ultimately preferred this film. It actually explores a fair bit. This is a bittersweet film that shows the life of a small town, its tensions and racism. The only thing that binds the whites and the blacks is sports, Australian Rules, but it also suggests that this is the raison d’etre of the town. In many ways, this rings true as for anyone the success in sport might be the only way out of a way of life which accumulate to little more than a generational whirlpool.

It shows two best friends, one a white guy – Gary – and the other an Aborigine – Dumby – who are the exception to the said rule. Dumby is an up-and-coming sports star and Gary is a bookish son of a hard-edged fisherman who is more interested in reading than sports; the father-son relationship is strained.

The way it is filmed is justifiable in dealing with the issues on screen. It is hard to find over here, so goodness knows how hard it will be to find overseas. However you go about it, I wholeheartedly recommend that you attempt to seek this film out.

It is a mature film that was not seen by many back in the day; this deserves a much wider audience.

9. Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)

A very sad story, based on the all-too true and recent events in Australia’s history. Up until the 1980s, authorities were taking away babies from Aboriginal families to “breed the black out”; I really wish that this was never the case – it is truly heart-breaking and very disturbing. I commend the entire crew of people responsible for this movie to bring such a dark and overlooked chapter in the nation’s history to the general audience.

Based on the novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, it follows three Aboriginal girls who escape a “re-education” camp to walk over 1500 miles (using the titular fence as a guide) to get back home to their community while being pursued by authority figures and a tracker.

This is an important film to watch for all Australians; it is also worth the time of anyone else. The film is heartbreaking and an absolute tearjerker made more intense from the realism depicted.

10. The Proposition (2005)

If this article was a list of the top x, this film would be in the number one spot. It is film-making perfection.

Set in the Outback during the 1880s, a notorious outlaw is given the choice to kill his older brother in 9 days time or his younger brother will be killed. It is a brutal and unforgiving film; and it makes the best use I have ever seen on the Australian wilderness. The land becomes its own character – simultaneously harsh and beautiful. I dare anyone to not make comparisons to the work of Sam Peckingbar (Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, The Wild Bunch).

This film is also notable for an accurate depiction of Indigenous Australian culture in the late-19th century. The cast and crew took great pains to follow advice of Indigenous consultants, and there is even a warning about dead people being depicted in the film. Absolutely amazing, the film is a prime example to show just how well a film can be made. Now I point to this and say budget etc is no barrier to making a great film.


There you have it, a good range of films from satirical comedy to brutal Western to a bittersweet musing of small towns. I recommend this entire list to anyone interested in movies and would welcome any inputs such as other good films, disagreements etc.

If you have seen any to all of these films, I am also interested in what your thoughts are.

Edit: When initially published on the previous website, I wrote several apologetic paragraphs about the delay in writing the article. At the time I had lost power in my house. Upon this article’s re-release, the information would have not been relevant. A lot more in the article was edited to make it more presentable and fluid.

Edit: Upon also writing the article, I had not yet seen Gallipoli. Consider that film to be an honourable mention; had I written the article afterwards it would certainly be on there.

Edit: I also have seen the third Mad Max movie, and it was no where near as good as the second or first but still fairly enjoyable.

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