Best in the World: Australia
They may speak the same language as us, but Australian films have a look and style that makes them very distinctive and sometimes startlingly unique, even if the majority of them are about dysfunctional families, World War 2 or sheep. Sitting at the arse end of the planet, it’s no surprise the world didn’t really take much notice of the cinematic efforts of our antipodean friends until the 1970s, something not helped by its production of cheap but cheer-free snorefests that were about as enticing as a date with Morag off Home And Away. But then things changed and some young diggers got to work and came out with classics that brought new talents to our screens and perhaps most noticeably, a whole new lexicon that quickly caught on (but inevitably led to cliché after becoming as overused as a dunnie after a day eating undercooked shrimp off the barbie… see?) This was no more evident than in the 1980s when Hollywood briefly fell in love with a certain knife-wielding crocodile wrestler, but thankfully things picked up again and we’ve been left with some very tough calls on what was good enough to make this list. Mr Dundee doesn’t make it (it’s an American film), but then neither does BMX Bandits, such was the quality to choose from. So who is in the Top Five? Read on and find out…
5. Muriel’s Wedding
They love ABBA down under, but the kitsh and camp value of the soundtrack works well with both the dark dysfunction and the bubblegum brightness of this enduringy charming story of a frumpy girl on a quest to find a husband at any cost. Said out loud, its obvious where the darker side of the story lies, and director PJ Hogan (no, not Paul) does well to go a little further into dark territory than many other feelgood films of the time, slicing up and serving us a scathing criticism of modern Suburban Oz. The bitchiness is brilliant and full of witty one-liners, and even though it does tend to leap from one set-piece to another too easily, the overall story is simple and effective. Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths are excellent and have deservedly gone on to bigger things, but the whole cast is good and though they may be a little over the top in terms of stereotyping the average Australian, you get the impression they’re doing it with a sense of nostalgia and perhaps with one eye on a global audience the script hinted they would enjoy. They may be painted in broad strokes, but the overall picture is great – funny, moving and really enjoyable. Muriel may be terrible, but the film is anything but.
4. The Castle
The story of the dim-witted Kerrigan family living happily at the edge of an airport who take on the goverment’s plan to demolish their home in order to extend a runway is a fairly run of the mill little man versus big government / business film, but it stands out due to the excellence and sincerity of the acting. It may be all over the place, but its very funny and ultimately heartwarming. It did extremely well in Australia despite being made in just 11 days and with a budget of less than 20,000 Australian dollars (which might buy you a car in Melbourne) but was never released globally, which is a shame, not just because the world needs films like this but because it also introduced the Hulk himself, Eric Bana, to moviegoers. Catchphrases aplenty are riddled throughout the sricpt, many of which have passed over into everyday Aussie use. How’s the serenity? Pretty good after watching this.
3. Mad Max
Ok, there’s got to be a Mel Gibson film in there, doesn’t there, and after an internal debate that went on longer than the abelone fishing-turned illegal people smuggling ring plot in Home And Away, this just wins out over the exellent Gallipoli, not because its better but beause in many ways it is the essential Australian film, offering up a bleak yet gloriously sunny landscape full of deranged drongos and simple outback sorts who couldn’t really come from anywhere else. Back when the Bible-bashing, Jew-hating, tanked-up misogynist Gibson still claimed to be Australian, he excelled in the role he will forever be identified with – helped in no small part by the ‘Mad’ moniker. In a vague, post-apocalyptic world, our gruff anti-hero puts in a sterling performance as the cop turned vigilante out to avenge a brutal act of violence, only to find himself becoming more like the very villains he seeks to punish. Great, haunting set-pieces and a well depicted desolate environment offer up many a taste-of-things-to-come vision of the future, with stone the crows violence and a hell of a lot of souped-up cars that practically run on testosterone running the show. The sequels were a bit on the dodgy side, but the original remains an influential classic.
Any film that can make us root (in the English, not the Australian sense of the word) for the guy who shot Kevin Spacey in LA Confidential has got to be a classic. James Cromwell gives a brilliantly understated performance as the simple sheep farmer who discovers that one of his piglets would be better as a sheepdog than a nice piece of bacon for his dinner. It wasn’t the first talking animal film, but its brilliance and worldwide success guaranteed we would see many imitators, almost to the Look Who’s Oinking stage. The star may be a pig, but this never gets hammy, with great humour mixed with scenes of real drama and emotion – you almost want to stand up and shout ‘You fools, can’t you see he’s right?’ when poor farmer Hoggett stands alone in the middle of the field at the Sheep Trials while, as his little piggie trots out nervously, and the whole crowd starts to laugh and mock him. But we are really made to feel for all of the animals too, and there’s even a very grown-up attitude to what farm animals are essentially for that makes this far more than a kids film. There’s almost nothing to fault in this heartwarming tale – the animalation (is that a word? – it should be) is so well done we really start to believe in talking critters and become immersed in their world as opposed to that of the humans, and from start to finish its a great movie you’ll want to watch again and again. That’ll do pig, that’ll most certainly do.
1. Picnic At Hanging Rock
In Australia, a list of the best films without the presence of director Peter Weir is like having a pack of dingos that hasn’t carried off a baby – it’s pretty much got to be expected. With Gallipoli not making it, this highly unusual, deeply disturbing and enigmatic film roars in to take top place. Based on a true, and unsolved case of a group of schoolgirls who disappear while on a trip into the outback in 1900, it casts a dreamlike veil over our eyes for its entirety – think a rural Virgin Suicides directed by Terrence Malick – so that even after two hours we don’t really know what we’ve just seen, we just know we are a bit disturbed, and pretty much blown away. The eerie soundtrack, perfectly balanced with the hazy and illusory cinematography, draw us in to a mystery that we know will never be solved because it happens in Dreamland, not our world. Kudos to Weir for not going down the Hollywood route and offering us some sort of explanation. We are simply left hanging, appropriately enough, because some stories are better without a real ending. In an unusual move, Weir’s director’s cut, released in 1998, actually shaves seven minutes off the story, leaving us even less to go on and adding to the overall air of mystery. Did the missing girls fall down a crevice? Were they murdered by one of their troop? Abducted by Aborigines? We just don’t know. Sometimes it’s better not knowing, but we owe Peter Weir a lot for at least letting us know that…
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN MOVIES?