How often do you pause between binge-watching the latest Netflix series to explore Australia’s incredible film history?
Ben Kenny, owner of Darlinghurst DVD rental library Film Club, is trying to encourage this.
“Australian film is especially important. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s a mirror reflecting society, us telling each other and ourselves who we are,” says Kenny. “We are so saturated with other cultures, entertainment and media, especially American culture, so it’s important for us to find our own tone and our own voice.” This country’s distaste for its own film industry was summed up by a customer interrupting our interview. “I don’t like Aussie films – they’re shit.”
Kenny has built up an impressive Australian collection amongst the library’s unparalleled collections of queer cinema, classics dating back to the 1920s, foreign and cult films. “That’s exactly the type of kneejerk reaction I want to try and get people past. We’re a great incubator for talent. We need to encourage our own industry.”
The Proposition (2005)
The screenplay and soundtrack are by Nick Cave, it’s directed by The Road’s John Hillcoat and has a cast of Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Danny Huston, David Wenham and Emily Watson. This western, set in 1880s outback Australia, is worth making a trip for.
The Proposition is an epic tale of retribution, family, the injustices of Australia’s colonisation and the forging of a fractured nation. Kenny regards it as one of the best Australian films in the past decade, and recommends it to people almost weekly.
“It’s well written, well directed, well acted – it’s a class act all round,” says Kenny. “I love the grittiness of it. You can almost smell the characters in their grime.”
A raw coming-of-age tale, Somersault is heart-wrenching, tentatively optimistic and visually evocative. Cate Shortland’s directorial debut follows the adolescent Heidi (Abbie Cornish) as she explores her sexuality and self.
It’s refreshing to see a female protagonist with a libido, and Cornish’s bold performance is an authentic portrayal of the fragile confidence of teenage girls.
“It feels real,” says Kenny. “It doesn’t resonate with me personally but that’s what I like about this film and about film in general. If done well it can give you insight into another life and another place. It’s a solid Australian film.”
The spectacular, wintry landscape of Jindabyne enhances the drama, creating a beautifully stylised, visually haunting film that was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and awarded 13 Australian Film Institute awards.
Young Einstein (1988)
An odd mixture of history, comedy and farce, romance and science, Young Einstein is an utterly unique film from actor and director Yahoo Serious. And it’s one of the most internationally successful Australian movies ever made.
“It’s a bit of an outlier,” notes Kenny. Certainly, it’s gloriously daft. The plot follows a young Tasmanian named Albert Einstein as he proves his theory E=〖mc〗^2 by splitting a beer atom with a chisel, falls in love with Marie Curie, meets Charles Darwin and saves the world with his latest invention, “roll’n’rock”.
“It’s that rare Australian thing, like Crocodile Dundee, that becomes a breakaway hit that the rest of the world ends up identifying us by,” says Kenny. “As a consequence of that it’s become a bit of a punchline.”
The Magician (2005)
The Magician is a darkly comic exploration of Melbourne’s underworld. It follows charismatic hitman Ray Shoesmith doing his job after he’s commissioned his neighbour to make a documentary about him. Written, directed and performed by Scott Ryan, the film is sharp, chilling and incredibly funny.
“It’s definitely an underrated little gem,” says Kenny. Although a mockumentary, the film feels very real. “There’s something very understated about it.”
With a distinct wit and a show-stopping performance, Ryan has created what could be a clichéd character into a human being. Ray is a considerate, loyal and philosophical man who loves to talk. Whether it’s disputing that bluestone and blueberries can be described as blue, arguing that Clint Eastwood was in The Dirty Dozen or describing heroin as a way to “thin out the dickheads”, Ray has an opinion about everything.
“It’s the perfect embodiment of the Australian spirit,” says Kenny, “that incredibly dry humour.”
Samson and Delilah (2009)
Warwick Thornton’s first feature film is a tender love story between two Indigenous kids that’s underpinned by an astounding and austere portrayal of addiction, poverty and racial commentary. The result is a movie that’s both beautiful and utterly harrowing.
“For a long time, representations of Indigenous people in Australian films were at best as the noble savage and at worse, much worse,” says Kenny. Samson and Delilah rejects dramatic caricatures and instead reveals a very harsh reality.
Both Rowan McNamara (Samson) and Marissa Gibson (Delilah) deliver excellent performances, a considerable feat in a film with virtually no dialogue. The soundtrack is evocative and the cinematography captures Australia’s vast landscape.
“We’re so used to seeing films from other countries that when we do see our own landscape on film it’s quite striking,” says Kenny. “It’s that strange familiarity mixed with otherness.”
Wake in Fright (1971)
The Interview (1998)
Age of Consent (1969)
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)
Road Games (1981)