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20 Essential Australian Films You Need To Watch

08 April 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Liam Clark

australian films

Australian Cinema has never been content to tell a normal story. It finds the weird, the beatific, and the controversial in all it looks at. What was Peter Weir’s mind frame when in 1971, he shot a film in his own house on a remote island near Sydney where several visitors arrive at the expensive guest house and are forced act out their violent private fantasies and participate in a series of games about death and murder? Homesdale seems like it could have been made by Greenaway or even Lynch but instead is an important short that insinuates Weir’s future screen masterpieces and Australian Cinema as a whole.

Interestingly, a seldom know fact is that the first ever feature length film was an Australian one, shot in 1906 and immortalizing the infamous outlaw Ned Kelly with ‘The Story Of The Kelly Gang’. Since then, antipodean auteurs of the screen have been weaving their imagerial visions into challenging portraits of Outback Australia, racism, crime and hauntingly beautiful stories. Here are 20 essential Australian films you need to watch.


20. Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Every director must have a trilogy, in Lars Von Triers case three or four. This is Baz Luhrmann’s first film in his Red Curtain Trilogy (followed by Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge). ‘Strictly Ballroom’ is Eccentrically idiosyncratic, as is its director with stylish embraces that plays with clichés and stereotypes, mocking and embracing them at the same time.

Luhrmann is the epitome of either love or hate and the visual style used here may be too bright, gaudy and exaggerated for some tastes, yet he treats his characters with compassion, which makes ‘Strictly Ballroom’ such an engaging wildly off-beat comedy.


19. Sweetie (1989)

Sweetie (1989)

The first sparks of a shining star. Opening monologue begins with our paranoid protagonist remembering as a child the roots of the tree in her back yard crawling up under the house and into her bed. Thus leaving her with a fear of her own roots; her family.

Jane Campion’s debut feature of a hazardous relationship between sisters could have easily been a straightforward narrative of family drama but instead, in the hands of an Australian, this darkly humorous picture works its way into an oddball portrait of joyfully demanding characters. This original film plumbs the psyches of these women and gives a skewed insight into an Aussie family who has gone wrong.


18. Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max (1979)

Director George Miller who would later bring us Babe and Happy Feet begins his career with this debut feature of a post-apocalyptic dystopian Australia, credited as further opening up the market for Australian New Wave cinema to flourish. This was the first Aussie film shot in widescreen and starred a relatively unknown Mel Gibson and pretty much the entire cast of Stone (1974).

Gaining praise from the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro, ‘Mad Max’ was noted as championing the blossoming renegade Ozploitation movement. The documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation is a fantastic starting point for those interested in the significant influence Aussie cinema had during it weird and wonderful Golden age?


17. Gallipoli (1981)

Gallipoli (1981)

Peter Weir brings us ‘Gallipoli’, the heroic tale that follows two idealistic young friends, Frank (Mel Gibson) and Archy (Mark Lee), who join the Australian army during World War I and fight the doomed Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey.During the course of the movie, the young men slowly lose their innocence about the purpose of war. The climax of the movie occurs on the Anzac battlefield at Gallipoli and depicts the futile attack at the Battle of the Nek on 7 August 1915.

Following the likes of the great Australian New Wave film Breaker Morant, ‘Gallipoli’ shares the recurring themes of the Australian identity, such as mateship and larrikinism, the loss of innocence in war, and the continued coming of age of the Australian nation and its soldiers.


16. Muriel’s Wedding (1994)


‘Muriel’s Wedding’ resides in the same world of Campion’s ‘Sweetie’, albeit slightly, and only slightly, a bit more normal one. Muriel is a socially inept young woman played by the hilarious Toni Collette, who is deeply unsatisfied with her Porpoise Spit life. Finding solace in ABBA and fantasy weddings, Muriel hides from the mean world until she meets her old school friend Ronda who encourages Muriel to take control of her life.

Premiering at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ was a sleeper hit but eventually managed to connect with all the other oddball, gawky misfits. The films good heart keeps it from ever making real fun of Muriel and instead leaves us with a melancholic undertone of big laughs.


15. Lantana (2001)

Lantana (2001)

The film begins with a shot of overgrown, flowering lantana and we hear the sound of the Australian wilderness, the drone of life, hesitant machine music bordering on psychosis. We are reminded of Lynch’s Blue velvet as we delve deep into the scrub and instead of finding seething bugs or even an ear we see a woman’s foot and then her body.

Set in suburban Sydney, ‘Lantana’ focuses on the complex though disparate relationships of the characters that are linked together by one central event of the film. Brilliant performances by all especially the great Geoffrey Rush in this gripping tale of the connections between the lives of strangers which successfully proves itself as Roger Ebert compares ‘Lantana’ to Anderson’s distinguished Magnolia.


14. Snowtown (2011)

Snowtown (2011)

Based on the true story of the grizzly Snowtown murders, ‘Snowtown’ is a bleak and brutal endurance test though doubles as one of the most powerful viewing experiences to be had. One of Australia’s most notorious serial killers John Bunting is portrayed by Daniel Henshall in one of the most convincing and genuinely terrifying performances of a madman.

This hybrid crime horror is director Justin Kurzel’s debut feature. With exception to the two main leads, all the actors were locals with no acting experience that Kurzel had found in the area where the murders occurred, the evil Davoren Park.‘Snowtown’ is the epitome of an uncomfortable film, of innocence lost and will remain with the viewer long after seeing it. Think twice before the next time you watch cricket with your brother.


13. The Dish (2000)

The Dish (2000)

This is the true story, albeit somewhat fictionalized for dramatic purposes, of Australia’s role, namely the Parkes Observatory’s in relaying live television of man’s first steps on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.‘The Dish’ is as humanistic as a human comedy can get, alive with that feel good spirit Alexander Payne’s films exhibit.

We are all part of planet earth and Stich’s film reminds us of one of the rare moments the world united in awe. Complete with memorable characters and smiling situational humor, such as the highest cricket game, let us party like its 1969.


12. Candy (2006)

Candy (2006)

Candy (Abbie Cornish) plays a free spirited art school student and Dan (Heath Ledger) a roguish poet who both share a bohemian lifestyle and a love for heroin. This intensely personal tale is one of the great junkie love stories committed to screen with heartbreaking performances by each.

Geoffrey Rush, the hero of this list plays a William S Burroughs type chemistry professor who was at first complicit in their experimentation, admits that Candy and Dan’s blind devotion to the drug is now forever ingrained into their commitment to one and other.


11. Dogs In Space (1986)

Dogs In Space (1986)

Melbourne, 1978. Set against the backdrop of the late 70s little band scene of punk rock mayhem is in full decadent swing. Lead singer of INXS and champion of ‘Dogs In Space’ Michael Hutchence, unreliably guides us through his chaotic life of sex, drugs, parties and television. This relatively unknown piece of genius was directed by Richard Lowenstein and documents Melbourne’s underground music scene faultlessly.

Hutchence is a brilliant symbol of reckless youth in this, his first dramatic screen role, giving ‘Dogs In Space’ instant cult status upon its release. This is rock n roll in its most raw form, held up respectively amongst its counterparts Sid and Nancy and The Doors.



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  • Elisabeth White

    awesome list… seen most of those.. Dogs in Space was a classic

  • oohl

    I thought The Hunter was a Stinker. I’d replace it with Rabbit Proof Fence, The Tracker, Ten Canoes, The Castle or Van Diemen’s Land.

  • Joshua Lookout Smithers

    What a shit list. Chopper in a runner up list? Watch it again! Im willing to think that the lists were mistakenly swapped in transit.

  • kelly orchard

    Chopper, Metal skin and BAD BOY BUBBY…

  • kelly orchard

    Romper Stomper

  • James Warne


  • s_dee

    the boys, romper stomper, bad boy bubby

  • Sancar Seckiner

    Terrible list and too weak knowledge. I strongly advise Jane Campion’ s Sweetie-1989, An angle at my table-1990, The Piano-1993, Richard Roxburgh’ s Romulus, My Father-2007, Vincent Ward’ s Map of the human heart-1993, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty-2011, Peter Weir’ s The year of living dangerously-1982 ( Picnic at Hanging Rock-1975 acceptable) and Clara Law( formerly HK, now citizen of Australia) The Goddess of 1967-2000. Nicolas Roeg is still British.

  • Richard Watts

    Jane Campion’s SWEETIE may have been filmed in Australia but she’s not an Australian filmmaker – she’s a New Zealander.

  • astrolin

    I liked Travelling North but I don’t claim to be an expert on movies by the same token.

  • julie

    Ghost of the Civil Dead (1988) and The Proposition (2005) deserve to be the list

  • David R Velasquez

    What about Bliss, The Coca Cola Kid, Starstruck, and Ghosts of the Civil Dead?

  • frankie

    romper stomper is a must,all three Mad Max films should be in mad max two/three were better than mad max one,one from left field They’re a Weird Mob should be in,

  • missteakandkidknees

    I had a think about Australian films that I found admirable and influential in regard to my experience of life and moving media…I think “Wake in Fright”, is a powerful Australian film and it won a Palme D’Or in Cannes as a film classic.
    “The Club” with Graham Kennedy at the helm is a clever film about the changing nature of Australian Culture from naive, corrupt bigotry, to institutionalised Late Capitalist Dystopianism, Monkey Grip gives us a moment in time in Melbourne long lost after institutionalised negative gearing.
    “Ghosts of the Civil Dead”, by John Hillcoat with ‘YES’, the beloved Nick Cave, is powerful with a strong social conscience and reflects what Swinburne Tafe @ Prahran produced, along with fine and important artists such as Tony Clark, Howard Arkley, Alex Danko, Sue Bignell and so, so, many more, then there is, ” The Proposition” another Hillcoat and a beautiful nod to Nolan, Drysdale, etc. And finally there is “Care He Might Hear You”, by Carl Schultz. It is great to see Australian stories told on screen – “The Boys is wonderfully nihilistic, and Animal Kingdom gave Jackie Weaver a new international career. Wish we made more films, told more stories about ourselves and our complex culture that only appears easy and innocent.

  • giffey

    In my opinion the BEST Australian film ever is “The Sum of Us” with the greatest Russell Crowe performance ever.

  • Peter Galvin

    Interesting piece Liam – folks might be interested in checking out an article i did on the making of Wake in Fright a few years ago…it gives a strong background on the film culture in the years immediately before the 70s Oz New Wave as it was somewhat inaccurately dubbed by many..

  • Ned

    Really well written spiel on Picnic at Hanging Rock, well done

  • Kuba Lagoda

    The picture illustrating “The Adventures of Priscilla…” is not a still from the movie, but from the stage production of it. 🙂

  • Abdeldjalil E.

    Opal Dream should be on the list.

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  • Matthew Peers

    The Castle and Two Hands are glaring omissions.

  • lauramoreaux

    Shine should’nt be on this list…

  • Aleksandar Šurbatović

    vary good list eapecialy puting Picnic on the top. Lantais tne masterpiece, should be higher placed though

  • Leigh Owen

    The Rover, Ten Canoes and Chopper, you could have also tried We of the Never, Never, Man of flowers and Sunday too far away. What a poorly thought out list. Less Led Zeppelin and more film history before you think of making another inadequate attempt.

  • Jos Vandebergh


  • Carlo Beer

    Bad Boy Bubby?!