If there is a better day to watch Australian films that on Australia Day, we don’t know what it is. But rather than give you the standard roll-call of flicks that you can see on any list of great Australian films, we thought we’d recommend some that represent a broader Australian experience and that offer insight into the history of Australian cinema.
For the Term of his Natural Life (1927)
For the Term of his Natural Life was originally intended to be Australia’s silent era of cinema’s version of a blockbuster, a film designed to put Australia on the world filmmaking map. And this bombast is evident in the film – there are shipwrecks, cases of mistaken identity, amnesia and even cannibalism. Yet the advent of the ‘talkies’ just as this film was released meant that this highly entertaining film never went on to achieve the recognition that it should have.
Wake in Fright (1971)
Never again will the offer to get a beer with a stranger be anything but sinister after you see Wake in Fright. The film is about a posh young schoolteacher (Gary Bond) at an outback school who winds up trapped in a country town known colloquially as ‘The Yabba’. Losing all his money in a two-up game, he descends into a sordid hell involving alcohol, sex and a truly disturbing kangaroo hunt. Wake in Fright stunned and mesmerised audiences when it premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1971, and became one of only two films to ever screen at the festival twice when the restored version of the film floored audiences again in 2009. Wake in Fright is a brutal, confrontational exploration of what lies beneath the surface of the Australian character and the idea of ‘mateship’.
Look Both Ways (2005)
After seeing a man get hit by a train, Meryl (Justine Clarke) becomes preoccupied with death. She begins to imagine disaster in even the most mundane situations – killer whales launching themselves out of the sea to eat toddlers, earthquakes splitting apart suburban homes. Then she meets Nick (William McInnes) who actually is being followed by death, in the form of impending cancer test results. What could be a depressing story is, in the hands of director Sarah Watt, one of dark humour and affecting whimsy, due in large part to sequences of beautifully conceived animation which punctuate the live action and act to smooth over the film’s devastating edges. This allows viewers to ruminate over the film’s themes of death, impermanence and, ultimately, hope.
Ten Canoes (2006)
Australian films have rarely featured Indigenous Australians beyond tokenism, let alone featured their stories in their own languages. That is why a film such as Ten Canoes is so special. Narrated by David Gulpilil, the film is set in a time before white settlement and focuses on a hunter telling a younger man an ancestral story of kidnapped wives, sorcery, and revenge in order to teach him the responsibilities of being a husband and a tribe elder. Beautifully composed and deftly elaborate, Ten Canoes is a treat. And Australian viewers weren’t the only ones who felt that a film that told a truly Aboriginal story in Aboriginal language was long overdue – Ten Canoes won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2006.
The Home Song Stories (2007)
For a nation of immigrants, Australia has a nasty tendency to be unwelcoming to those from elsewhere hoping to make a home here. The Home Song Stories is based on director Tony Ayres’ own childhood after his mother brought he and his sister to Australia from Hong Kong in the 1960s. The magnificent Joan Chen plays Rose, a nightclub singer who bounces from man to man trying to find stability for her family and ultimately finding the opposite. The film effortlessly captures the loneliness and isolation of the migrant experience familiar to many new Australians exposed to a mostly uncaring – often hostile – white majority. The film also touches on the challenges that face those wanting only to fit in, but forever being pulled between cultures.
Not Quite Hollywood (1978)
While most people, when asked to name great Australian films, tend to go for dramas from the Australian New Wave period of the 1970s and '80s (think Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli), most forget that during that time the industry was also experiencing a boom in cheap action, horror and sex comedy films, now referred to as Ozploitation. Mark Hartley’s insanely entertaining documentary charts the rise, fall and subsequent influence of this, frankly, completely bananas period in Australian filmmaking. From the success stories such as Mad Max (1979) and Patrick (2013), to the utterly bizarre yet entertaining likes of The Man From Hong Kong (1975) and Turkey Shoot (1982), film history has never been so enjoyable. Honestly, it’s worth watching just to see Quentin Tarantino gush over how great Ozploitation movies are and how they’ve influenced his own work.
100 Bloody Acres (2012)
“We’re not psychos! We’re small business operators!” If some of the films above seem a little too heavy to pop on after the Aussie Day barbeque, this clever horror comedy is for you. Reg and Lindsay Morgan are brothers who run an organic fertiliser business in rural South Australia. The kicker is that their super effective fertiliser has a secret ingredient. Intent on trapping a group of lost music-festival goers and turning them into plant food, the brothers discover that live prey is trickier to handle than they at first thought. Damon Herriman’s performance as the hapless yet endearing Reg lends a humourous sweetness to a genre generally lacking in both. And after you watch this film you will be forever terrified by Angus Sampson as the bass-toned, murderous Lindsay.
Mystery Road (2013) – or any film directed by Ivan Sen.
Ivan Sen is one of the best Australian directors working today. His skill for using the bare bones of conventional film genres and then repurposing them is what makes a film such as Mystery Road so compelling. Ostensibly a murder mystery – which involves genuine intrigue and one of the best shoot-out scenes in recent memory – the film also explores the position of an Aboriginal detective (Aaron Pedersen) who is stuck in a cultural limbo between white and black worlds. Likewise Toomelah (2011) is a gangster film set in an Aboriginal mission that deals with the stolen generation. Sen’s first film Beneath Clouds (2002) is a teen road movie that reflects on Aboriginal belonging and cultural identity. Sen’s films are entertaining, contain blisteringly good performances and offer audiences intelligent and subtle cues for reflection.
If you're looking for more, here are some other Australian gems to settle in for:
Japanese Story (2003)
Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)
Wolf Creek (2005)
Two Hands (1999)
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)