In Part 4 of our five part series on the 100 greatest Australian films of all time, we take a look at the best films released between 1996 and 2004. As a nation, this was a period of significant cultural shift for Australia. Globalisation and an increasingly diverse population were moving Australia further away from insulated ideas about the nation being a place of “true blue” Aussies of British heritage. Unfortunately, this diversity was not necessarily reflected within the films and television programs of the period. What was reflected, however, was an increasing discomfort with many of the old ways of thinking. More and more often, Australian cinema was moving its focus away from cultural mythologising and celebration, and moving towards films aimed at the deconstruction of those mythologies, or films which simply moved entirely beyond such myths towards a more complex view of the world.
Scott Hicks directs Geoffrey Rush and Noah Taylor as the older and younger incarnations of famed and troubled pianist, David Helfgott. The film has received some criticism for its historical accuracy from some quarters, but incredible performances from the two leads and the delicate direction of Hicks make this a powerful film nonetheless.
Idiot Box (1996)
David Caesar captures the aimlessness of disenfranchised youth in this energetic yet imperfect tale of two men looking for life in all the wrong places. When their televisually over-stimulated craniums stumble on the idea of a robbery, things get messy. Ben Mendelsohn and Jeremy Sims both do well in the lead roles, and Caesar’s grungy vision is still the finest piece of cinema he’s delivered up to this point.
The Castle (1997)
If there is one thing Australians have always championed, it is the heroic endurance of the ‘Aussie battler’. The term refers to those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum who work hard for everything they get – without complaint – and there is perhaps no more loved film on the subject than Rob Sitch’s The Castle. Written collaboratively by a collective of well renowned comedy writers – Sitch, Jane Kennedy, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner – the timeline between initial conception and the final product was reputedly only a staggering five weeks.
The film itself is an affectionate parody of working class Australia, centred around the challenges that face family man, Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton), when his home by the airport is to be repossessed by the government for the airport’s expansion. With the help of his eccentric family and incompetent lawyer, Kerrigan must “put the system on trial”.
The Boys (1998)
Rowan Woods takes us into an almost nightmarish world of human entropy in this examination of a family devoid of emotional connection, ambition, or ideology. When Brett (David Wenham) arrives home from prison to his three brothers and mother, he does his best to re-establish himself as the resident alpha-male. The film’s intense energy lies in the almost primal interactions between this family of lethargic animals. Near perfect.
Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
George Miller took the helm of this sequel to the earlier hit Babe, this time relocating the action to a foreboding city as the young pig finds himself struggling to stay afloat in the big smoke. It’s not as perfect as its predecessor, but the darker edge helps to make this a minor Australian classic.
The Interview (1998)
Sometimes less is more, and this is a damn fine example. Eddie Rodney Fleming (Hugo Weaving) is an eccentric oddball accused of murder. Detective Steele (Tony Martin) wants to make him squeal. For nearly two hours, Steele grills Fleming from every angle. Kudos to Craig Monahan for his direction of this minor classic.
Dark City (1998)
What is an Australian film? If a film is shot in Australia and has an Australian writer, director, and a largely Australian crew, does it qualify? Even when it is populated by American accents, international performers, and a noir aesthetic? I’m going to assume so… if only for a moment. Alex Proyas’ under-appreciated science fiction classic gets far less attention than the similar themed The Matrix, which was released the following year. Both philosophically profound and visually overwhelming, Proyas’ tale of an amnesiac attempting to discover his own identity is cinematic art.
Two Hands (1999)
There is a long-standing rumour that an earlier cut of this gangster film, containing a sub-narrative concerning the ghost of the protagonist’s brother, is far superior. Who knows… but Gregor Jordan’s first feature as director is a solid effort that feels far more fresh than it did upon its initial release, when comparisons with the British film Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels undermined the film’s individual achievements.
The late Heath Ledger plays a naïve young man whose criminal aspirations see him quite accidentally falling on the wrong side of Pando (Bryan Brown), the local bigwig whose peculiar mix of family-man and psychopath make him both adorable and deplorable. Ledger works to make things right whilst falling in love with his newly found lover interest (Rose Byrne), whilst a separate side-narrative about two street kids threatens to collide with all of the above. Funny, occasionally touching, and always good fun.
Andrew Dominik’s directorial debut, a biopic on the life of notorious Australian criminal, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, was a triumph by any measure. Eric Bana, who’d been known in Australia solely for his work as a comedian up until this point, effortlessly captured the charm and volatility of the protagonist. And Dominik managed to create a film that went beyond the typical biopic, utilising a structure that acknowledged and deconstructed issues of historical representation.
Looking for Alibrandi (2000)
Pia Miranda stars in this teen-targeted look at the plight of a young Australian dealing with adolescence, the return of a long-lost father (Anthony LaPaglia), and the death of a close-friend. This film resonated strongly upon its initial release, particularly because of its engagement with the experience of second-generation Australians.
The Dish (2000)
Rob Sitch directs this irresistible Australian comedy about the role of the Parkes Observatory radio telescope in the Apollo 11 moon landing. Written by the same team as the aforementioned film, The Castle, their irreverent take on the material works just as well here. A cast of well-known Australian faces, and the more internationally recognisable Sam Neill and Patrick Warburton are all exceptional. You’d be hard pressed to stay dry-eyed at the end of this one.
Ray Lawrence has only directed three films in his career, but they’ve all had a significant impact on the Australian film scene. This, however, is considered his defining work. Lawrence takes us deep into the bowels of suburban Australia with this tale of four couples whose domestic lives are ruptured by the discovery of a woman’s body in Sydney. Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong, Vince Colosimo… I’m probably missing a few – they all deliver top-notch work here.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
I’m going to put my hand up and admit that this isn’t my kind of cinema (a conversation for another day), but there is no denying the cultural impact of Baz Luhrmann’s unique musical vision. Shot in Australia primarily with Australian talent, this is a landmark achievement.
The Tracker (2002)
Set in 1920s Australia, Rolf de Heer’s stark and simple allegorical exploration of the dangers of racism is incredibly effective. Three men (played by Gary Sweet, Damon Gameau and Grant Page) enlist the help of an aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) to seek out an aboriginal man suspected of murdering a white woman. As their journey takes them deep into the outback, tension grows between the three men and their tracker. Gulpilil dominates the film with his understated performance.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
Phillip Noyce directs this account of one of the great shames in Australia’s history: the stolen generation. Set in the early 1930s, this is the tale of three aboriginal girls taken from their homes and placed in re-education settlements because they are suspected of being “half-caste” (based on the lightness of their skin). The idea behind this appalling program was to forcefully raise these children as white, integrate them into the wider community, and breed out their aboriginal heritage. The film follows the journey of these three girls as they escape their re-education settlement and attempt to head home.
Japanese Story (2003)
Sue Edwards directs this deceptively simple film, which seems to encompass so much about the nature of life that it’s almost overwhelming. Toni Collette plays Sandy Edwards, the director of a company dedicated to building software for mining operations in Western Australia. A series of events see Edwards driving a potential Japanese client (Gotaro Tsunashima) to several mining sites in the Pilbara region. On this rather gargantuan journey, the cultural barriers between the two begin to dissipate, and some sort of relationship begins to develop. None of this will prepare the viewer for the conclusion…
Harvie Krumpet (2003)
Adam Elliott’s Oscar winning stop-motion comedy short covers the surprisingly disarming tale of Harvie Krumpet. Harvie is a deeply troubled individual, suffering from severe Tourette’s Syndrome and rather compulsive behaviour. In Elliott’s hands, Harvie becomes a hilarious and semi-tragic ode to humanity.
Alexandra’s Project (2003)
Rolf De Heer directs this taut domestic drama about a man who arrives home on his birthday to discover a video-cassette made for him by his wife. At first, he assumes that the cassette represents some kind of birthday surprise. In a sense he is correct, but it’s not exactly the kind of surprise he’d wish for. In this stark and simple film, De Heer beautifully challenges the presumptions of middle-Australian suburban men.
Gettin’ Square (2003)
There are many who might argue that Jonathan Teplitzky’s comedic crime caper is a little light-on for this list, but I’d comfortably rate it against most of the other Australian entries in the genre (especially the much loved but incredibly unsatisfying Dirty Deeds). It’s pretty typical stuff, really. Sam Worthington plays the young crook, just out of prison, who wants to go straight. Unfortunately, an ensemble cast of junkies (David Wenham), gangsters (Gary Sweet), and restaurateurs (Timothy Spall) are making things far more complicated than they should be.
Abbie Cornish shines in the feature film directorial debut of Cate Shortland, whose meticulous attention to detail make this an insightful glance at the nature of human beings. Cornish plays Heidi, an emotionally starved young woman attempting to find affection through sexual attention. When her mother finds her in an intimate moment with her mother’s boyfriend, Heidi is cast out. Soon enough, Heidi finds herself moving from Canberra to Jindabyne in an attempt at a fresh start. Here she meets Joe (Sam Worthington), a man struggling with his own sense of sexual identity.