In Part 3 of our five part series on the 100 greatest Australian films of all time, we take a look at the tail end of the Australian New Wave and the birth of a new era of internationally successful film production in the 1990s. If the movies of the 70s and 80s revealed the competing cultural attitudes of a society seeking international recognition whilst irreverently rejecting the status quo, the 90s showed evidence of a young nation becoming more comfortable in its own skin, and an industry with more of an eye towards commercial success.
Films like Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert broke away from traditional representations of Australian culture; works like Romper Stomper turned an introspective eye on the nation’s darkest underbellies; and family films like Crocodile Dundee and Babe achieved levels of commercial success that were entirely unprecedented. And so, without further ado… here is the third installment in our series of articles on the 100 greatest Australian films of all time.
The Road Warrior (1982)
George Miller’s follow-up to the immensely successful Ozploitation film, Mad Max, ups the ante considerably. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that seems decidedly more camp and expensive than its predecessor, the punk-aesthetic of this film has had a major impact on the genre in the decades that have followed.
Here Max has abandoned his role as a police officer (some argue that he isn’t really even the same man – much like Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy) and now roams the desert looking for food, water and petrol. When he encounters a group of survivors living within an oil refinery, desperately fighting off the advances of a small army led by the psychotic Humungus, Max must fight for justice once more.
The Man from Snowy River (1982)
The incredible poem by Banjo Paterson, Australia’s most esteemed poet, is brought to life in this naïve Western. Gorgeous Australian vistas and simple values go along way to counterbalancing the general silliness of the narrative. Kirk Douglas’ presence lends the film a prestige it might not have otherwise.
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver star as an Australian journalist and a British embassy worker, who find themselves in Jakarta amidst the chaos of the 30 September Movement in 1965. Linda Hunt is oddly but effectively cast as Billy Kwan, a male dwarf whose exceptional connections prove to be a serious asset in Gibson’s search for a good story. The narrative crux really lies in the tensions between Gibson’s ambition, ethics, and the relationship between Gibson and Weaver. Peter Weir directs with his typically spare style, often proceeding in a manner that seems counter-intuitively dry when compared to traditional Hollywood productions.
A giant pig roams the outback tearing innocent people to pieces, whilst a pair of psychotic locals do much the same in their oversized tank of a vehicle. What’s not to like about that? Russell Mulcahy’s entry into the giant-animal canon is an admirable one, even if the film’s stunning cinematography seriously outflanks its narrative or performances. Check out a complete review here.
Where the Green Ants Dream (1984)
Werner Herzog’s eccentric addition to Australian cinema sees a mining company attempt to take over territory considered sacred by an aboriginal community. By their reckoning, destroying the sanctity of this land for the purposes of mining may bring about the end of the world. Herzog’s interpretation of aboriginal culture in this film was the subject of some debate at the time – he tends to create and conflate customs for his own purposes – but there is no denying the director’s passion for interpreting the natural world through a mystical lens.
Nadia Tass made her directorial debut with this affable Melbourne-based comedy about Malcolm (Colin Friels), a shy but brilliant young man who works for the city’s public transportation network. When Malcolm is found to have driven a miniature tram of his own making on Melbourne’s tram tracks, he loses his job and is forced to take on a boarder. The two of them find a great new use for Malcolm’s ingenuity – robbery.
Dead End Drive-In (1986)
At the other end of the Australian New Wave from Picnic at Hanging Rock, a subsidiary movement of low-budget exploitation filmmaking was taking place. It’s now commonly known as the era of Ozploitation, a category comprised of nudie flicks, cheap action movies and nasty horror films. But as a general rule, these films were exceptionally fun in an ugly sort of way, and Dead End Drive-In is almost certainly the finest of the lot.
The premise: In the future, disenfranchised youths are tricked into seeing movies at a drive-in that is converted into a prison slum over night. While the majority are content to wallow away the hours in captivity, one young man is unwilling to succumb to the oppression of the state. Beautifully shot and surprisingly well paced, this is one that shouldn’t be missed.
Dogs in Space (1986)
The late Michael Hutchence stars in this Melbourne-based grungy classic – a look at the lives of a group of musos and layabouts living in the suburb of Richmond (looking substantially less gentrified than it does today). Decadence, punk rock and chaos ensue. Richard Lowenstein captures something quintessentially ‘Melbourne’ here… although some of the film’s qualities may be lost on international audiences.
Crocodile Dundee (1986)
There are many people who love this film. I’m not one of them, but there is no denying the cultural impact that Paul Hogan’s cute Australian caricature has had abroad. By now, most are probably familiar with the story of an American reporter who travels to Australia to cover a story about a mysterious crocodile hunter. Circumstances eventually lead both her and Crocodile Dundee back to New York city where various fish-out-of-water scenarios play out. Fun, light entertainment that resonated more strongly than could possibly have been expected.
Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1986)
Long before directing The Proposition or The Road, John Hillcoat had already proved his worth with Ghosts… an indictment of the prison system that plays almost like a dystopian nightmare. The plot concerns a maximum-security prison placed into lockdown, in which the prisoners are deliberately provoked by the institution into acts of extreme violence. This is intense viewing by any measure.
The Year My Voice Broke (1987)
John Duigan directs this poignant coming-of-age tale set in rural New South Wales. Danny (Noah Taylor) is a shy teenager, desperately in love with Freya (Loene Carmen), a young woman who is far more interested in another guy. The other guy is a degenerate whose bad-boy ways appeal to the girl, resulting in her being impregnated just prior to his being arrested. Danny comes to Freya’s aid, as the awkward relationship between the trio becomes ever more complicated. Danny’s adventures continue in a sequel, Flirting (1990).
Les Patterson Saves the World (1987)
Barry Humphries is far better known for his Dame Edna character than he is for Les Patterson, an obnoxious, regressive politician that began as a parody of similar figures in the 80s. And there’s good reason for that – Patterson is an offensive relic unlikely to garner affection from anybody. All of which goes some of the way to explaining why this film was condemned by just about everybody upon its initial release. I’d argue that there is a difference between an offensive film, and a film that satirises offensive ideals… but I don’t think I’m going to change too many minds about this one.
Either way, George Miller directs this tale of Les Patterson, whose drunken antics in a United Nations forum see him assigned a post in the politically unstable nation of Abu Niveah. When the government is overthrown by Colonel Richard Godowni, Patterson finds himself in the midst of an international plot to spread a terrible disease to nations around the world.
Evil Angels, AKA A Cry in the Dark (1988)
Fred Schepisi directs this account of the circumstances that surrounded the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, and the subsequence trial (by both court and media) of Azaria’s parents. Meryl Streep plays Lindy Chamberlain with restraint and skill (although the accent is a little wonky), and Sam Neill is strong in the role of the father. The film is now most famous for that one line which formed the crux of Lindy’s defence: “A dingo ate my baby!”
Dead Calm (1989)
Phillip Noyce directs this taught thriller, starring Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill and Billy Zane. Kidman and Neill play a traumatised couple who have recently lost their child. As part of the recovery process they go on a sailing trip, only to encounter a seemingly abandoned ship in the middle of the ocean. Here they encounter Billy Zane, who claims to be the only survivor of a food poisoning epidemic. However, as time goes on it becomes clear that Zane’s tale is unlikely. Somewhere between The Knife in the Water (1962), Don’t Look Now (1973) and a shonky Halloween sequel – this is great fun.
The Big Steal (1990)
Nadia Tass makes the list twice for this light Australian teen comedy classic. When Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) asks Joanna (Claudia Karvan) out on a date, he makes one small mistake – in the heat of the moment he tells her that he owns a Jaguar. Queue various hijinks as Danny attempts to procure a Jag and arrange the perfect date. Great fun!
Admittedly, I was introduced to this film as a young man in a secondary school class on film appreciation… I was less than impressed. But, like many of the works that were destroyed for me in school, it is far more interesting upon a return visit. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, who is probably best known internationally for How to Make an American Quilt. Moorhouse does a find job in this quirky tale of a distrustful blind man (Hugo Weaving) who seeks proof of the world’s realities through photography. When he befriends somebody (Russell Crowe) who is adept at describing the contents of these photographs back to him, his disturbed and infatuated housekeeper, Geneviève Picot, takes matters into her own hand. There is something quite “Hal Hartley” about this one.
Romper Stomper (1992)
And then there was Russell. Geoffrey Wright directs this nightmarish descent into the minds of a group of neo-Nazis. Wright never flinches or softens blows in his depiction of this morally bankrupt collective, and Russell Crowe delivers a terrifying career-best performance as Hando, the gang’s patriarch.
Strictly Ballroom (1992)
Baz Luhrmann’s first, most restrained, and best film is an undeniable Australian classic. Paul Mercurio plays the dancer whose breaks with tradition are not accepted within the ballroom dancing community. When he partners with Fran (Tara Morice), a nerdy dancing fan, they take on the institution with a whole new set of moves.
Bad Boy Bubby (1993)
Rolf De Heer made quite a dent in the Australian film industry with this twisted black-comedy about a young man who has spent his entire life locked up in his deranged mother’s apartment under the mistaken impression that the world outside is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Eventually, a rather morbid series of events see him finally escape into the real world, where he pursues a passion for buxom women and music. Disturbing? Yes. Entertaining? Definitely.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
If you’ve not seen this one… the key question is “Why?” Stephan Elliott brings phenomenal energy to the story of two transvestites and a transsexual (Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp) who decide to escape their lives in Sydney and perform a drag act in the very distant city of Alice Springs. To get there they buy a tour bus and hit the road, travelling through outback Australia and getting into a lot of trouble along the way. This is a great time!
Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
P. J. Hogan manages to find that delicate balance between comedy and tragedy in this exceptional film. Toni Collette plays Muriel, an awkward, overweight and not particularly bright young woman, who spends most of her time fantasising of marriage while listening to ABBA. Muriel’s mother is meek and shy, and her father (Bill Hunter) stands out as an obnoxious politician with total disregard for the feelings of his family. When an opportunity comes to steal some money and begin again, Muriel takes it. As emotionally exhausting as it is painful, this is an exceptional piece of work.
What better way to finish off Part 3 than with this internationally renowned crowd-pleaser. This Chris Noonan helmed tale of the pig who thinks he’s a dog went on to become a global success both critically and commercially for very good reason. If you haven’t seen it… you really should.