The upcoming release of Australia -- directed by Australian Baz Luhrmann, shot in Australia and starring Australian-born actor Hugh Jackman, and Australian-raised Nicole Kidman -- inspired me to take a look at the Australian film industry, thinking I could easily pick out seven highlights. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for everyone else, Australian films are a much richer and more daunting prospect. I decided to stick to films shot in Australia by directors born there, thus eliminating things like Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971). I also eliminated New Zealanders like Jane Campion and Peter Jackson, who deserve their own list. At the 11th hour, I had to eliminate such an obviously great film as Babe (1995); though it qualifies under my rule, the Hoggett's farm could actually be just about anywhere (it's more of a fairy tale world, and Australia is never mentioned). And no, Crocodile Dundee (1986) didn't make the cutoff, but here's what did:
The Road Warrior (1981, George Miller)
This movie represents everything that's badass about Australia. It opened there in 1981 as Mad Max 2, mainly because everyone had seen Mad Max (1979). Here, it opened a year later, in the summer of 1982, with the changed title, hoping that Americans could be tricked into thinking it wasn't a sequel. It didn't matter; this film is far starker, funnier and all-around better than the original. Rarely have the roar of engines mixed so well with the wide, empty, sun-baked dust of the outback. Miller was -- and still is -- one of the most interesting Down Under directors, but he works slowly and sporadically and stays out of the limelight. (In the thirty years since Mad Max, he has directed only seven feature films.) And Mel Gibson may have gone a little nuts lately, but we'll always love him for this.
The Last Wave (1977, Peter Weir)
Weir may be the king of Australia. He made at least three important films there, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Last Wave and Gallipoli (1981), before heading off to America and racking up four Oscar nominations for Best Director (plus a fifth for writing and a sixth for producing). The Last Wave relates to the new Australia by dealing with the history of Aborigines and whites. Richard Chamberlain plays a lawyer plagued with prophetic visions who is hired to defend a murder case. But he finds that tribal secrets prevent him from getting to the bottom. It has a stunner of an opening, too.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978, Fred Schepisi)
A note of explanation is required. This legendary Australian classic has finally, finally been released on DVD just this month, and I've been working on getting a screener. I've been told it's in the mail, but it failed to arrive before deadline. (The good folks at Umbrella Entertainment are helping me out.) It actually relates directly to Lurhmann's new film. Jimmie is a half-white, half-aborigine who gets a job as a servant in a white household. When the daughter gets pregnant, everyone assumes Jimmie did the deed, and so he marries her. But things don't quite turn out as expected. It was based on a book by Thomas Keneally (who also wrote Schindler's List), and was the most expensive Australian production at the time. It was a critical hit the world over but a flop in Australia, and it has been subsequently difficult (impossible?) to find on video. Schepisi later came to Hollywood and made such terrific films as Roxanne, The Russia House, Six Degrees of Separation and Last Orders, but everyone agrees that this is his masterpiece. The National Society of Film Critics placed the film on their list of the 100 greatest films (published in book form in 2002).
Everything Goes (2004, Andrew Kotatko)
I fell in love with this short film at the 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival and subsequently helped director Andrew Kotatko by writing the liner notes for his upcoming DVD release. It's adapted from the Raymond Carver short story of the same name, and it's everything a great short film can be. Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) stars as Ray, newly separated from his wife. He starts drinking early in the day and decides to liquidate everything in his house by scattering it all over his lawn and holding a huge yard sale under the awesome Australian daylight. A feuding young couple (Sullivan Stapleton and dazzling Abbie Cornish) stop by and stay a while, drinking with Ray and struggling as he slips easily in-between their emotional cracks. Kotatko makes spectacular use of light and space, using Carver's words when necessary and conjuring up wordless images just as potent.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, Phillip Noyce)
Noyce returned to Australia after a series of dull Hollywood blockbusters, and it definitely re-charged his batteries. Here's another story of racism, and it could have been a preachy shambles, but instead it emerged as a highly entertaining, low-gear thriller. Taken from their families and forced to live in "white" orphanages, three mixed-race aborigine children escape, traveling 1500 miles back home, using the title fence as their guide. Kenneth Branagh plays the fascinating British villain, who truly believes he's doing the right thing. (Noyce's early Dead Calm, with Nicole Kidman, is also worth seeing.)
The Proposition (2005, John Hillcoat)
Luhrmann's new Australia is partly a Western, but Hillcoat's The Proposition is all Western, and in a shootout could whip Luhrmann's film with one hand tied behind its back. The Proposition is yellow-ish, grungy and dirty (widescreen again), telling the story of a man (Guy Pearce) who must kill his evil brother (Danny Huston) to save the life of their younger brother (Richard Wilson). Like these other films, it deftly blurs the lines between heroes and villains. Emily Watson co-stars in arguably the most interesting female role ever written for a Western. Gloomy musician Nick Cave (another Aussie) wrote the screenplay and one song.
High Tide (1987, Gillian Armstrong)
Finally, a comedy! Sort of... Judy Davis plays a backup singer for an Elvis impersonator who winds up stuck and drunk in a small town in New South Wales. She gets help from a girl who turns out to be her own, once-abandoned daughter. Armstrong also directed the better-known, better-loved My Brilliant Career (1979) and Starstruck (1982), but I love this film for its delicate balancing act and its great performances.
Runners Up: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, Stephan Elliott), Babe (1995, Chris Noonan), The Bank (2001, Robert Connolly), Breaker Morant (1980, Bruce Beresford), Crocodile Dundee (1986, Peter Faiman), Romeo & Juliet (1996, Baz Luhrmann), Romper Stomper (1992, Geoffrey Wright)...Anything I forgot?