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Australian films
Photograph: Time Out

The 40 best Australian movies you need to watch

From ‘Mad Max’ to ‘Ten Canoes’, the finest flicks from Down Under

Written by
Stephen A Russell
Contributors
Phil de Semlyen
&
Matthew Singer
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If you thought Australian cinema was all Croc Dundee and tourists being terrorised by Outback nutters, think again. Not only is God’s own country a vibrant force in world cinema – producing Hollywood directors and stars at an impressive lick – it boasts more than a few bona fide masterpieces of its own. George Miller’s Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is just another reminder of how great – and completely unique – Aussie movies can be, with their ancient landscapes, rich light and social commentary. What other country could produce a horror movie as singular and disturbing as Wake in Fright and a comedy as boisterous and brilliant a Muriel’s Wedding?

It also has a unique claim on cinematic history: in 1906, Melbourne hosted the premiere of the world’s first feature film: Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang starring Frank Mills as the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly. Just a 17-minute fragment remains, but it’s a reminder that Australia has embraced the medium since the beginning. And as this list shows, it does it in style. 

This story contains the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died.

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Best Australian films

  • Film

Few films can claim to have harnessed the power of myth-making as completely as Peter Weir’s mesmeric spin on Joan Lindsay’s legendary 1967 novel. Did a handful of students and their teacher really vanish from the peak of Victoria’s volcanic outcrop, a place that’s sacred to First Nations people, on Valentine’s Day 1901? The truth doesn’t matter. This mystery captured in ghostlight convinced the haunted hearts of millions.

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Stephen A Russell
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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

The greatest action movie ever made? As Steven Soderbergh famously noted, it’s impossible to watch George Miller’s super-high-octane road movie and not wonder how hundreds of people didn’t die making it. The unrelenting, streamlined storytelling – big truck drives to mythical oasis, drives back again – generates a propulsion that Fury Road’s also magnificent prequel, Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga, can’t quite match, while the world-building is up there with anything this side of Lord of the Rings. A staggering achievement by any standard.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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  • Film
  • Drama

This astonishing dissection of ultra-toxic masculinity – Nick Cave’s favourite Aussie film, no less – mines unlikely horrors from the humble schooner of beer. In Bundayabba, a sun-baked, shifty place in Outback Australia, booze is a way of life and, for Gary Bond’s transiting teacher, a slippery slope to oblivion. Aussie legend Chips Rafferty brings local colour to a boozesploitation classic made by Canadian Ted Kotcheff and two Brits, in Bond and the ultra-menacing Donald Pleasence. The rape scene and kangaroo hunt are just two of its knock-you-sideways horrors.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor

4. My Brilliant Career (1979)

Gillian Armstrong’s firecracking comedy musical Starstruck remains unfairly overlooked, but it’s her 1897-set debut feature that carved her most enduring mark on Australian cinema. Breathing the light fantastic into feminist author Miles Franklin’s mighty text, Judy Davis shines as headstrong young Sybylla, wooed by Sam Neill’s childhood mate Harry but determined to maintain her hard-fought independence. 

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Stephen A Russell
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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Dutch-Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer memorably collaborated with the irreplaceable David Gulpilil, a Yolngu man and magnetic screen presence, multiple times, but perhaps his haunting narration here sings brightest. Shot in north-eastern Arnhem Land, it’s the first feature relayed only in Aboriginal language (Ganalbingu, mostly), with Gulpilil’s ‘Storyteller’ relaying a tale of his ancestors. His son Jamie depicts a young hunter, and co-director Peter Djigirr also folds in a mythical story, told in black and white, informed by the stories of his people. It all adds up to an epic tale.

Walkabout (1971)
  • Film

Cannes had two Aussie films in competition in 1971 – Walkabout and the equally seminal Wake in Fright – a gala year by any standard for the country’s burgeoning new wave and festival-goers alike. Both movies explore the vast expanse at the continent’s heart and what it does to the human psyche, with Brit auteur Nicolas Roeg’s survival story a more spiritual fable about two school kids lost in the Red Centre and the indigenous boy (David Gulpilil) who helps keep them alive. A breakthrough role for the legendary Gulpilil, it changed attitudes towards indigenous characters on screen and launched one of Australian cinema’s key careers.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
  • Film
  • Fantasy

People often forget that Australia has not gone full ‘post-apocalypse’ in George Miller’s Mad Max, which was, for much of its runtime, a family road-trip movie with unusual levels of violence. By his barnstorming sequel, fuelled by the belief ‘bigger is better’, we’re plunged headlong into the war-riddled Wasteland. Mel Gibson’s lone wolf, driven half-mad by the slaughter of his family, becomes the myth most know him to be as he battles marauders in his supercharged V8. So established is it in Aussie moviemaking lore, it even has its own museum. How many sequels can you say that about?

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Stephen A Russell
Contributor
  • Film

Drag had only just begun to go mainstream when Stephan Elliott made this romp about three drag queens and the pink tour bus that carries them to a show in distant Northern Territory. The focus is on the jaded Bernadette (a terrific Terence Stamp, playing way against type), whose midlife crisis is compounded by the homophobia she and her friends – played by Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving – face on the way. But the movie is no pity party: it’s raucous and tender, with much to say about ageing, regret and proclaiming who you are in the loudest possible voice.

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  • Film
  • Comedy

Forget Australia, it’s Baz Luhrmann’s fabulously romantic, Lycra-clad debut that best captures the have-a-go spirit of the nation. As set to Aussie pop star John Paul Young’s ubiquitous hit, ‘Love is in the Air’, we’re rooting for Paul Mercurio’s young buck Scott as rejects ballroom’ stuffy rules and burns up the floor with Tara Morice’s Fran. A toe-tapping classic, it personifies the larrikin spirit of doing it your own damn way. 

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Stephen A Russell
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  • Film
  • Drama

A cinematic statement of national identity, Peter Weir’s sweeping epic defined Anzac spirit and mateship under fire with groundbreaking clarity for a country still shaking itself free of its colonial past. Romantic, yet gritty and unsparing, its history may be wobbly at times, but the performance of a young Mel Gibson as a gifted sprinter forced to put his talents to suicidal use against overwhelming odds captures a deeper truth of the Aussie experience of the war. The freeze-frame ending is an all-timer, too.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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  • Film
  • Comedy

One of the greatest tricks of PJ Hogan’s career-best feature is it convinced everyone there’s more of the latter in this unforgettable tragicomedy. Yes, we can all quote Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths’ liveliest zingers in her big breakout roles (‘You’re terrible, Muriel!’), but let your guard down for a moment and the story’s truly brutal flexes will floor you all over again. But for all the trauma faced by these women, at heart it’s a glowing tribute to friendship and feminist spirit, as Muriel and Rhonda rewrite the narrative to look after one another.

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Stephen A Russell
Contributor
  • Film
  • Horror

One of the great horror films of the 21st century, Jennifer Kent’s grief-lashed journey into the supernatural is, most of all, just extremely scary. The Brisbane filmmaker dips into German Expressionism’s handbook to deliver one of the most indelible of movie monsters, a top-hatted demon that lurks in the shadows to terrifying a young boy (Noah Wiseman). But is it just the manifestation of his mum’s (Essie Davis) acute sorrow? Parenting as a crucible of terrors… an ingenious idea, executed with devilish panache.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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13. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

Fred Schepisi’s devastating treatise on the festering wounds of colonialism makes for difficult viewing. Adapted from Schindler’s Arc author Thomas Keneally’s Booker Prize-nominated novel, itself based on the true story of outlaw Jimmy Governor. Hung on an incredible performance from Tom E Lewis as an Aboriginal man worn down by unrelenting racist abuse, when he ultimately snaps, no easy answers emerge from the resulting rampage.

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Stephen A Russell
Contributor

14. The Castle (1997)

The most quotable film in Australian movie history, folks still drop one-liners from Michael Caton’s working-class battler Darryl nearly three decades on. Standing tall against developers intent on expanding the nearby airport, his battle cry of: ‘How’s the serenity?’ is as enduring as his ‘tell him he’s dreaming.’ Then there’s useless lawyer Dennis (Tiriel Mora) arguing the eviction notice is against ‘the vibe’ of the constitution. Handled with love by director Rob Sitch, it’s the vibe of a nation.

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Animal Kingdom (2010)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

An out-of-the-blue reminder that Aussie crime thrillers are right up there with the best that Hollywood can muster, Animal Kingdom is a steel-cable-taut recreation of the notorious Pettingill crime family and its 1988 killing of two Melbourne cops. Jacki Weaver scored an Oscar nomination and scared us half witless as ruthless matriarch ‘Smurf’, while Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce and newcomer James Frecheville showcased the depth of Australia’s talent pool as the criminals and detectives inhabiting its violent world. Debut director David Michôd had critics reaching for the Scorsese comparisons – and justly so.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
  • Film
  • Drama

Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat first collaborated with Nick Cave on his brilliant but hard-to-find prison-bound nightmare Ghosts... Of the Civil Dead, as well as several music videos for The Bad Seeds, before turning to this magnificent dead man’s dalliance. Invasion-era bushranger Charlie (Guy Pearce) makes a deal with Ray Winstone’s cop, Captain Stanley, that if he can track down his rabid older brother (Danny Huston) by Christmas, Charlie and his sweet younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) can go free. A brutal colonial horror dressed up as a western, it’s a visceral thrill. 

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  • Film
  • Thrillers

This relationship drama-cum-crime mystery kickstarted a purple patch for Australian filmmaking, with the likes of Jindabyne, Little Fish and Somersault ahead. But Lantana is arguably the strongest of the lot, with a stacked cast (Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Armstrong, Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey) and powerful insights into marital drift, midlife angst and urban living transplanted immaculately by Andrew Bovell’s script from his own play ‘Speaking In Tongues’. A kind of Aussie Short Cuts, it has LaPaglia on career-best form as an emotionally inarticulate cop who leads with his fists.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Samson & Delilah (2010)
  • Film
  • Drama

Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s visceral and unmooring debut feature thrusts you headlong into a specifically First Nations story, but one that also echoes a doomed Shakespearean teenage romance. Two Aboriginal teenagers (Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson) leave their community and head to Alice Springs, blazing an unforgettable trail along the way in a seminal exploration of the deepest scars of colonialism.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Bruce Beresford’s Oscar-nominated masterpiece, which dismantles the ‘glory’ of war with a clear, unwavering eye, remains a topical and compelling watch. A steely courtroom drama based on a true story from the Second Anglo-Boer War, it focuses on Lieutenant Harry Morant’s (Edward Woodward) reaction to an order to murder POWs, and the initially hapless defence mounted by Jack Thompson’s lawyer that follows.

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Stephen A Russell
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  • Film
  • Drama

The Citizen Kane of talking animal movies, Chris Noonan’s indelible charmer should be used by cardiologists to identify heart issues, because if yours doesn’t swell with joy at the story of a pig who thinks he’s a sheepdog, there must be something wrong in there. Aided by a gruff-yet-warm performance from James Cromwell and filmed in Robertson, NSW, it vied for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, making it one of the more kid-friendly nominees ever – but in truth, its appeal has no age limit.

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  • Film

Andrew Dominik’s (The Assassination of Jesse James) explosive debut remains Eric Bana’s career-defining role, propelling him from beloved comedy sketch show Full Frontal and on to a Hollywood career, the Hulk and all. Adapted freely from the unreliable memoirs of real-life crim Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, one of infamous Pentridge Prison’s most notoriously volatile inmates. Ferocious in both its furious violence and off-colour humour, it exposes Australia’s ingrained antihero worship.

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Stephen A Russell
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  • Film
  • Drama

For brooding menace, this true-crime horror film, a bleak-as-tundra recreation of Adelaide’s Snowtown murders in the 1990s, may just be the modern heir to Wake in Fright (it’s certainly another tough movie for kangaroos). Teenager Jamie Vlassakis falls under the spell of charismatic psycho John Bunting (Daniel Henshall, mesmerising) and through his eyes director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) ushers you into a grimly believable world of depravity, abuse and poverty, where the journey to murder has its own horrible momentum. Few films leave you needing a gulp of fresh air more than this one.

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Global film editor
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  • Film
  • Horror

Era-defining filmmaker Peter Weir revved up the New Wave with punked-up psychocars before Mad Max was a thing with his debut feature. Terry Camilleri’s dazed Arthur spends the flick trying to figure out what’s going on in a wigged-out town run by John Meillon’s Mayor, where plenty of folks wind up in hospital, having been run off the road, but precious few leave. Restored by the National Film and Sound Archive for its 50th anniversary, it all boils down to its centrepiece steel-spiked road hog.

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Stephen A Russell
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  • Film

As Aussie fans of Flying High (aka Airplane!) know, titles occasionally get their own local spin Down Under. In Australia, this terrific, knotty Meryl Streep drama – known as Evil Angels abroad – sticks with the name of John Bryson's forensic account of a baby’s disappearance in Outback. And fair enough, though for our money, ‘A Cry in the Dark’ better captures the heartache and confusion distilled into Streep’s performance as Lindy Chamberlain, a grieving mum accused of killing her child, and that of Sam Neill as her husband. Fred Schepisi’s sympathetic handling of the story and quiet condemnation of the ensuing media circus gives it an ageless quality.

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Global film editor
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  • Film
  • Thrillers

What is it about Billy Zane and boats? The future Titanic villain (iceberg aside) charges this highly effective yacht thriller with unknowable menace in a Phillip Noyce thriller that was once earmarked for Orson Welles. Shot by great Aussie cinematographer Dean Semler, with breakout turns from Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill as a grieving couple whose seaborne vacation goes horribly wrong, it was one of those out-of-the-blue international hits that alerted the world – and especially Hollywood – to the impressive talent pool Down Under. The Whitsunday Islands offered a suitably spectacular backdrop.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
  • Film
  • Horror

An adventure story that confronts the injustices committed against Australia’s Stolen Generations, in which First Nations children were abducted from their parents, Phillip Noyce’s take on indigenous author Doris Pilkington Garimara’s ‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ is a sweeping story of survival and defiance made with elegance and urgency. Three stolen kids make their way across 2400 kilometres of inhospitable landscape, accompanied by Peter Gabriel’s haunting score. A box-office hit in its homeland, it helped move the dial on Australia’s relationship with its past.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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27. Looking for Alibrandi (2000)

Sydney author Melina Marchetta poured herself into her 1992 debut novel about the Italian-Australian experience, and her story is captured beautifully by Kate Woods’ adaptation. Pia Miranda plays 17-year-old Josephine, more than holding her own opposite a pair of legends: Greta Scacchi as her mum and Anthony LaPaglia as her absentee father. It’s as beloved as high-school dramas come – and for good reason. 

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Stephen A Russell
Contributor

28. The Home Song Stories (2007)

Few Australian filmmakers have grappled with the complex story of immigration as generously as Tony Ayres. Casting remarkable Chinese-American actor Joan Chen as a version of his mother, a nightclub singer whose high hopes of settling down in ‘60s Melbourne are cruelly dashed by the reality of suburban life, she spirals ever downward while her kids spin through a revolving door of ‘uncles’. Unflinching stuff, love lights in the darkness.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Heath Ledger followed up the devastating romance of Brokeback Mountain with yet another love story of sorts – this one, at least in part, with drugs. Director Neil Armfield’s adaptation of Luke Davies’s unsparingly personal novel draws on the author’s own experiences of heroin addiction. Ledger plays Dan to Abbie Cornish’s Candy in a harrowing, three-act story that takes them from a woozy romantic heaven to a dope-pushing hell and earned the film a Golden Bear nomination at the Berlin International Film Festival.

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  • Film

Australian film critic royalty notoriously butted heads when Geoffrey Wright’s incendiary debut feature landed in 1992, with At the Movies influential presenters Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton – the Ebert and Siskel of Aussie telly – having a fierce clash (she was into it, he wasn’t). Whichever side you fall on, the sledgehammer power of Russell Crowe in his breakout performance can’t be denied. A violent neo-Nazi terrorising Melbourne’s multicultural communities, his character offered an extremely unsettling mirror to society.

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Somersault (2004)
  • Film

Set up in the windswept Snowy Mountains town of Jindabyne and accompanied by Decoder Ring’s lush electronica, Cate Shortland’s striking relationship drama delivers alienation and insight with deceptive gentleness. The casting is immaculate, with the filmmaker’s debut introducing Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington in roles that remain among their best work. Cornish is a teenager on the run from her family home and Worthington plays a farmer’s son, a tentative bond with a hint of danger.

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Global film editor
  • Film
  • Drama

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande director Sophie Hyde’s debut dramatic feature is a beautifully drawn portrait of evolving identity with a profound depth of humanity. Starring non-binary actor Del Herbert-Jane as an emerging trans man, he asks his teenage upstart daughter (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) to move out for a year while he transitions. Shot once a week across a year, this unique movie is relayed through the resulting video diaries.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Forget the remake, Henri Safran’s sublime 1976 adaptation of the Colin Thiele novel is both a vanguard of Australia’s New Wave and a heart-sore film for kids that doesn’t insult their intelligence. The late, great David Gulpilil glows as Fingerbone Bill, the Aboriginal hermit who teaches him about nature’s delicate balance by caring for orphaned pelican chicks including Mr Percival, whose fate scarred a generation.

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34. Limbo (2023)

Gamilaroi man Ivan Sen’s impact on Australian cinema has burned brightly since Beneath Clouds won Berlin’s First Movie Award. Since then, he’s tackled everything from sci-fi to social realism, but he’s indelibly linked to outback noir with 2013’s Mystery Road and Goldstone (2016). But Limbo perfected the formula in stark black and white. Simon Baker’s drug-addicted detective drives into a pockmarked town (Coober Peedy, IRL) to wrap a cold case that’s wrenched the souls of two estranged First Nations siblings (Rob Collins and Natasha Wanganeen), but the deep scars of history allow no closure in this chiaroscuro masterpiece.

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  • Film
  • Horror

Adelaide-born twin-brother YouTubers Danny and Michael Philippou (aka RackaRacka) made quite a first impression with their debut, a supernatural teen horror flick in which demonic possession is treated like an illicit party drug. A young woman (the impressive Sophie Wilde) grieving the loss of her mother falls in with a group of kids who get their kicks by allowing ghosts to enter their body for short bursts. What could go wrong? Everything, of course. Talk to Me is fresh, thrilling and scary as hell.

  • Film

The enduring success of the 1979 novel co-written by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, and squirrelled away by many a teenage girl, was that it spoke to the reality of emerging sexuality and boozy experimentation. It was no PG fairy tale and neither is Bruce Beresford’s adaptation. The authenticity shines in the sunkissed misadventures of high-school surfie chicks Deb and Sue (Nell Schofield and Jad Capelja), who go all out to fall in with boofhead boys before undergoing an awakening in a lovably larrikin counter to Hollywood’s glossier John Hughes efforts.

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37. He Died with a Felafel in His Hand (2001)

Richard Lowenstein practically established the Australian branch of chaotic sharehouse movies with INXS frontman Michael Hutchence-led Dogs in Space in 1986. While it climaxed with a tragic overdose, the same scenario opens this darkly comic adaptation of John Birmingham’s memoir, already a wildly successful play, with Noah Taylor as the Kerouac-spouting Beatnik leaping from one OTT set-up to another.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

An international smash, this action-comedy is ground zero for every Down Under stereotype out there, although that’s sort of the point: according to writer and star Paul Hogan, his g’daying, knife-wielding, exceedingly chill title character is meant as a jab at the rugged Australian self-image. Not that Aussies held it against him: Crocodile Dundee is still the all-time highest-grossing Australian movie in Australia. The story, of an Outback frontiersman lost in New York, may be standard-issue, but Hogan’s easygoing charisma represents his countrymen well, even while lightly poking fun at them.

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Wolf Creek (2005)
  • Film
  • Horror

Loosely inspired by real-life backpack murderers Ivan Milat and Bradley Murdoch, Greg McLean’s Outback slasher sparked yet another bloody wave of world-conquering Australian horror movies when it was unleashed in 2005. The spectre of John Jarratt’s ocker antagonist hunting kidnapping then mercilessly hunting two young British women and their Australian mate is seared into our collective memory.

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  • Film

Scooping up no fewer than six Australian Film Institute awards in 1991, writer-director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s delicately drawn and subversive romantic-comedy offers an unusual three-hander in which Hugo Weaving plays Martin, an always suspicious blind man caught in a never-ending tussle with Geneviève Picot’s snappy housekeeper, Cecilia. Russel Crowe plays against type as the sensitive restaurant dishwasher, Andy, who brings trust back into the equation in the emotionally deft conclusion. A quiet gem.

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