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Australian Cinema in 10 Films

Australia's film industry has always been a little unstable. From the decline of Australian-made films in the inter-war period to the increased arts funding by the liberal government of John Gorton, the industry seems to travel in peaks and troughs much more than the American industry. Indeed, the fierce competition from American-made movies no doubt contributes to the infrequency of

Wolf Creek Australia

Australia’s film industry has always been a little unstable. From the decline of Australian-made films in the inter-war period to the increased arts funding by the liberal government of John Gorton, the industry seems to travel in peaks and troughs much more than the American industry. Indeed, the fierce competition from American-made movies no doubt contributes to the infrequency of big-selling Aussie flicks. Just last year, Crave reported that the promising Josh Lawson comedy The Little Death debuted to just $77,700, while American-made The Maze Runner, considered by many to be a second-rate Hunger Games clone at best, made over $3 million at the Australian box office.

Nevertheless, Australia has exported plenty of fine film talent all over the world. Although often tempted away from the Australian industry by Hollywood, the likes of Peter Weir, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman, Baz Lurhmann and Russell Crowe have all attracted box office numbers and charmed critics at home as well as internationally.

Despite Hollywood’s influence, there are still plenty of great homegrown films from both the boom and the bust periods of Australia’s industry. If you want to brush up on Aussie cinema, here are ten films you may have missed and should remedy immediately.

10. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

the story of the Kelly Gang

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) – source: Australian Centre for the Moving Image

The Kelly Gang, a group of infamous bushranging brothers in 19th century colonial Australia, were led by Ned Kelly on a campaign against injustice. Considered by some to have been a blight on society, and others to have been Australia’s own band of Robin Hoods, their adventures have long been the attention of films, books and other stories. You may be familiar with the story thanks to the 2003 film Ned Kelly which starred Heath Ledger as the eponymous criminal.

If you learn one thing from Australian cinema, it should be this – Charles Tait’s film The Story of the Kelly Gang is considered by many to be the first feature length film ever made. Running over 60 minutes in length, nowadays only fragments remain. Some footage is proudly on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, which is an absolute must-see if you’re ever in that part of the world.

Fun facts: The Kelly Gang’s antics were relatively recent in the time the film was released. Ned Kelly himself was only hanged twenty-six years prior to production, and his mother was still alive. Apparently one of the gang member’s actual suits of armour was featured in the film. Ned Kelly’s own armour, complete with bullet holes, is currently on display at the State Library of Victoria.

9. Kokoda Front Line! (1942)

kokoda front line

Kokoda Front Line! (1942) – source: National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra

The first Australian film to win an Oscar, Kokoda Front Line! was actually an Allied propaganda newsreel produced during World War II. Filmed by war photographer Damien Parer and directed by Ken G. Hall, it sheds light on Australia’s role in the war and the gruelling Kokoda Track.

The most famous trail in Papua New Guinea was a 37-mile trek through the mud to fight Australia’s Pacific enemies – the Japanese. Hot days, cold nights, malaria and a steep climb made the five-month campaign an awful ordeal. In November 1942 Australian forces finally recaptured the outpost of Kokoda.

Clips from the film can be found at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

8. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

picnic at hanging rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) – source: Janus Films

After a lull in production in the 1960s, Australian cinema underwent a resurgence after Prime Ministers John Gorton then Gough Whitlam supported the industry. Picnic at Hanging Rock was director Peter Weir’s major breakthrough domestically and internationally, and was one of the first significant films at the beginning of the ‘Australian New Wave’. Featuring Anne-Louise Lambert, Helen Morse and Jacki Weaver, it tells the creepy, haunting story of the disappearance of three schoolgirls while on a picnic at Hanging Rock.

Despite being based on the novel by Joan Lindsay and entirely fictional, it was marketed as a true story and captured the imaginations of audiences at home and abroad. Watch it for the beautiful costumes and the unnerving, iconic pan flute music from Gheorge Zamfir.

7. Strictly Ballroom (1992)

strictly ballroom

Strictly Ballroom (1992) – source: Miramax Films

Strictly Ballroom was Baz Lurhmann’s first film, and the beginning of his Red Curtain Trilogy that also includes Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!The ballroom dancing romantic comedy is based on Lurhmann’s own play which he devised while studying in Sydney.

It stars Paul Mercurio as a ballroom dancer on his mission to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship. Laugh-out-loud funny, charming and famed for its costume design, it ushered in another successful decade of Australian film. It won BAFTA Awards for Costume Design, Production Design and Original Score, and is worth watching for the magnificent silk and glitter alone.

6. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

priscilla queen of the desert

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) – source: Gramercy pictures

Featuring two drag queens and a transsexual woman played by Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving and British stalwart Terence Stamp, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert did great things for introducing both Australian film and the LGBT community to international attention.

Written and directed by Stephan Elliott, Priscilla tells the story of the drag queens’ road trip across the outback from Sydney to Alice Springs. It is equal parts funny and dramatic, raising serious social and cultural issues about the representations of the LGBT community and small-town Australia.

Magnificent costumes and outstanding performances from the main cast aside, it is well worth seeking out for Guy Pearce’s outrageously campy Felicia Jollygoodfellow. The film was adapted into a stage musical in 2006.

5. The Castle (1997)

the castle

The Castle (1997) – source: Village Roadshow

Directed by Rob Sitch, the suburban satire The Castle features Michael Caton as the father of a family who embroils in a legal battle to prevent their house being acquired as part of the expansion of an airport.

It is frequently considered to be a classic Australian film and a clever look at the working class of modern Australia. With fantastic lines that have worked their way into Australian culture, and featuring Eric Bana in his first film role, The Castle was produced on a tiny budget of less than a million dollars. 

It’s safe to say that if you slip the phrases ‘Tell him he’s dreamin’!” or “So much serenity!” into a conversation with an Australian, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Bonnie Doon.

4. Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

rabbit proof fence

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – source: Miramax Films

In the 1930s, Aboriginal children were relocated from their villages to re-education camps and missions. The aim was to Westernise, Christianise, and ‘breed out’ the impure blood of mixed race children. Philip Noyce’s film, based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, tells the story of three children who escaped the re-education centre and followed the eponymous landmark 1,500 miles back to their family. < It might be difficult to imagine a feature-length movie about three children walking through the desert for nine weeks, but it turns out to be a remarkable story of endurance and family. This one is worth watching to get an insight into one of Australia’s darkest periods of history.

3. Ten Canoes (2006)

ten canoes

Ten Canoes (2006) – source: Palace Films

Written and directed by Rolf de Heer, the half black-and-white and half col0ur Ten Canoes is the first movie ever to be filmed in Aboriginal languages. Set before Western colonisation, a tribe elder tells the story of a case of mistaken identity and revenge as part of a framing narrative. The film is slow and the story simple, but it is beautifully shot and a fascinating look at Aboriginal culture which is so often overlooked in film. If you want an insight into the Aboriginal languages of Gunwinggu and Yolŋu Matha, look no further than Ten Canoes.

2. Wolf Creek (2005)

wolf creek

Wolf Creek (2005) – source: Roadshow Entertainment

Playing on the stereotype of crazy outback backpacker murderers and marketed as being based on true events, Wolf Creek is a modern horror film that revels in serial killer violence. Three backpackers driving their way around Australia find themselves in Wolf Creek National Park with a car that won’t start. A friendly local offers to help them out, but – as seems to happen a lot in these parts – he’s actually a serial killer with a taste for foreign backpackers.

There certainly is a history of backpackers and hitchhikers meeting grisly ends in the Australian outback, but that also happens everywhere else in the world. Either way, writer/director Greg McLean has great fun with the bloody and sadistic torture of Wolf Creek, evidently on a mission to put off the hordes of backpackers that descend on Australia each year. Well, it worked. This certainly isn’t one to watch if you are about to set off travelling.

1. Animal Kingdom (2010)

animal kingdom

Animal Kingdom (2010) – source: Madman Entertainment

David Michôd’s debut feature, this crime drama set in Melbourne was inspired by the real-life Pettingill family. A dark, gritty view of urban Australia, Jacki Weaver is a tour-de-force as the matriarchal head of the family and the film is worth watching for her performance alone. If you want to paint yourself an extremely depressing image of Australia, watch Animal Kingdom as a double-bill with Michôd’s next film The Rover (2014) which stars Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson travelling through the lawless outback in a dystopian future.

And that brings us pretty much up to date. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. There are countless fantastic Australian films to follow up this list, from the classics like Crocodile Dundee and Mad Max to the lesser known Bran Nue Day and Chopper. But hopefully this list has given you an overview of Australian culture and opened your eyes to an exciting overseas industry.

Is there anything I’ve left out? What are your favourite Australian films? Let us know in the comments!

(top image: Wolf Creek source: Roadshow Entertainment)

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Thomas is a freelance writer and video editor who spends most of his time complaining about British weather.

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