A Guide to Ten Great Australian Films Made after 1970

Photo of Ellen Von Weigand
29 December 2016

Australia played an active role in early 20th century cinema with the first public screenings taking place in 1896, yet the country’s film industry became relatively inactive in the period following the Second World War. Government support for the arts in the 1970s rejuvenated Australian film, inspiring a movement known as Australian New Wave Cinema. From depictions of Aboriginal life to coming of age tales, celebrations of the Australian landscape to portrayals of suburban struggle, this list of ten films represents the best of Australian Cinema from the past 40 years.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Directed by Peter Weir

During the 1970s Australian film entered a period of renaissance, jump-started by Prime Minister John Gorton’s government-sponsored support for the arts. Known as Australian New Wave Cinema, this period saw a resurgence in quality Australian films following its gradual decline after WWII. New Wave directors demonstrated a fresh creativity often played out in the wide open spaces of the Australian landscape. Director Peter Weir’s breakthrough film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) was the first Australian film of this period to garner international praise. The film is based on the novel of the same name by author Joan Lindsay. It tells the true story of a group of schoolgirls and their mistresses who went missing following a picnic at Hanging Rock near the town of Woodend in Victoria. In a highly unusual narrative decision the mystery remains unsolved at the end of the film. Other works by Peter Weir include Gallipoli (1981), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003).

The Devil’s Playground (1976)

Directed by Fred Schepisi

Screenwriter and director Fred Schepisi entered the Australian film scene in the 1970s, and created an early classic with his 1976 film The Devil’s Playground. The film develops as a semi-autobiographical account of a Catholic school boy coming of age in an Australian seminary. Seen from the perspective of the pre-pubescent boy as well as from that of the resident priests and schoolteachers, the film focuses on the struggles that arise between them and as a result the church’s efforts to control the boys’ sexuality. The film demonstrates Schepisi’s preference for stories in which headstrong outsiders face the close minded restrictions of larger establishments. Other examples of such narratives include A Cry in the Dark (1988) and The Eye of the Storm (2011).

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Directed by Gillian Armstrong

Gillian Armstrong is an award winning director of documentaries and feature films. Her first feature length film, My Brilliant Career (1979), is based on the novel by Miles Franklin of the same title. Introducing actress Judy Davis for the first time, the plot takes place in 19th century Australia and follows the story of a young woman who rejects two marriage proposals in order to maintain her independence. Receiving six Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards, the film was the first film of this length to be directed by an Australian woman in 46 years. Following My Brilliant Career Armstrong received various offers to direct films in Hollywood. The filmmaker turned these down in order to continue working on smaller productions in her home country.

The Year My Voice Broke (1987)

Directed by John Duigan

John Duigan is unusual when considered among the Australian New Wave directors for his tendency to resist national history or important Australian novels as the basis for his films, choosing instead to create his own stories. The Year My Voice Broke (1987) is an excellently crafted and superbly acted coming of age drama and is the film for which Duigan is best known. A prime example of the director’s ability to reveal the magnificent skill of young actors, the plot follows Danny, an adolescent boy growing up in 1960s rural Australia. Although the narrative is relatively predictable, the elegant acting and sincere poignancy make this a strong film. The Year My Voice Broke won eight AFI awards including that for Best Film.

Shine (1996)

Directed by Scott Hicks

Uganda born Australian director Scott Hicks began to make films during the 1970s New Wave period. Yet his career peaked in 1996 with the Academy Award winning production Shine, a biopic of the pianist David Helfgott. The film follows the mental breakdown, institutionalization and ultimate comeback of this great musical genius. Although critics praised the film on a number of grounds, and it was nominated six Academy Awards, Geoffrey Rush’s faultless command of Helfgott’s quirky eccentricities is the film’s greatest strength, landing Rush the Oscar for Best Actor. Scott Hicks’ other projects include his first Hollywood studio film Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) and his more recent documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (2007).

The Castle (1997)

Directed by Rob Stitch

Rob Stitch graduated from the University of Melbourne with a degree in Medicine and Surgery, but soon ceased work as a doctor to enter the world of writing and directing. His filmmaking debut came in 1997 in the form of the oddball comedy The Castle. Filmed in only 11 days on a A$750,000 budget, the film met rave reviews in Australia and New Zealand but was not released elsewhere. The plot surrounds the Kerrigan family whose lives are content on their modest property built adjacent to the Melbourne airport. When the Kerrigans receive an eviction letter in the mail, the family patriarch, Darryl, hires a lawyer to fight back against the evictions which have been issued by the airport. A charming and quirky depiction of unlikely heroes, The Castle is one of the most heartwarming films to come out of Australia.

Lantana (2001)

Directed by Ray Lawrence

Although he has only directed three films to date, England born Australian filmmaker Ray Lawrence has made a name for himself on the Australian film scene, and was even awarded the Australian Centenary Medal in the 2001 for his contribution to the country’s cinema. Much of this acclaim has come from the success of his 2001 film Lantana. Named for an indigenous weed that grows in suburban Sydney, where the film takes place, the narrative follows the mysterious death of a woman whose body is discovered at the start of the film. Although the plot itself is highly entertaining, the film’s biggest strength is its portrayal of complex human relationships. Lantana was the recipient of seven AFI awards in 2001.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Phillip Noyce made his first short film at the age of 18. Titled, Better to Reign in Hell, the new director financed the production by selling acting roles to his friends. Although not his most internationally successful film, Noyce has directed a series of mainstream American Films such as The Quiet American (2002) and Salt (2010), Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) is that most rooted in his home turf. Based on the book Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, the film tells the true story of the author’s mother who, together with two other mixed race aboriginal girls, walked for nine weeks from the Moore River Native Settlement to return to their home in Jigalong. The girls had been kidnapped by the Government and brought to the reservation in 1931 to train as servants and laborers for white families. The film is highly praised for its excellent acting and stunning portrayal of the Australian landscape.

Ten Canoes (2006)

Directed by Rolf de Heer

Dutch-Australian director Rolf de Heer was born in the Netherlands but moved to Sydney at the age of eight. Known for making alternative or art house films, de Heer’s 2006 production Ten Canoes is the first to be made entirely in the Australian aboriginal languages. Constructed as a mythical narrative within a historical one, Ten Canoes begins as a group of ten indigenous men embark on a hunt for goose eggs. When the group’s leader learns that the young Dayindi dreams of stealing away his oldest brother’s youngest wife, he begins to tell the ancestral tale of a man who, like Dayindi once desired his own brother’s wife. Celebrated as a union of anthropology and cinema the film placed 72nd in Empire Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Films of World Cinema in 2010. It has been nominated for numerous awards, including Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Academy Awards.

Animal Kingdom (2010)

Directed by David Michôd

Award winning director, producer, screenwriter and actor David Michôd is most well known for his depiction of the criminal underbelly of Melbourne in his critically acclaimed film Animal Kingdom (2010). Having worked extensively on short films and several documentaries in earlier years, Animal Kingdom is Michôd’s debut into the world of feature film-making. Based loosely on actual events, the film follows the experiences of a notorious Melbourne crime family as they struggle with drugs, violence and death. An intense psychological portrayal of the members of the family is offset by the civilized backdrop of the city of Melbourne, rooting the characters deeply in their particular urban context. Michôd has also directed the film The Rover (2013).

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