[4 December 2008]
With director Baz Luhrmann’s epic “Australia” inspiring theatergoers worldwide with what the Aussie tourist board hopes is the sting of Outback wanderlust, it recalls 30 years ago when many Americans got their first cinematic gaze at that big, brown land on the far side of the Pacific.
That was when the first eddies of an Australian cultural wave began lapping at our shores through such films as “My Brilliant Career,” “The Last Wave” and “Mad Max.” Of course, it all climaxed in an orgy of kangaroo commercialism with Men at Work’s “Down Under,” Olivia Newton-John’s Koala Blue stores and more shrimp on the barbie than Paul Hogan could shake a platypus at.
But that didn’t smother the original sense of discovery that a country long ignored on the world scene was finding its voice in film, music, literature and art. For those intrigued by the imagery of “Australia” - and for those who would like to see Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Rachel Griffiths and Guy Pearce before they made their names in the States - along with a crash course in Australian films, here are some suggestions (roughly in alphabetical order) of titles you might have missed. All are available on DVD in the U.S. (And “‘Crocodile’ Dundee” was not included, because most know about that one already.)
“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (1994) - Not a great film by any means but an ebullient one, whose energy is infectious. The story of a transsexual and two drag queens who journey to a remote Outback town to perform, it not only features a singalong soundtrack (ABBA, CeCe Peniston) but two actors who would go on to global success: Guy Pearce (“Memento,” “L.A. Confidential”) and Hugo Weaving (“The Lord of the Rings,” “The Matrix”).
“Bad Boy Bubby” (1993) - Adelaide director Rolf de Heer is not well-known outside of Australia, but his original vision is one of that country’s most striking. That’s especially true in this twisted black comedy, which won the Venice Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, about a 35-year-old lifelong shut-in who has been told that the outside world is toxic.
“Japanese Story” (2003) - This is a flawed but haunting portrait of dependence amid isolation. It stars Toni Collette (“The Sixth Sense”) as a geologist in far-flung Western Australia who’s stranded with a visiting Japanese businessman. Like the spectacular landscape setting, the film is starkly beautiful and possesses a quietly moving ending that packs a wallop.
“Jindabyne” (2007) - Featuring knockout performances by non-Aussies Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne, “Jindabyne” updates a story by American writer Raymond Carver that recounts what happens when the body of an Aboriginal woman is found near a small Australian town. (Trivia note: The same Carver story is the basis for a song, “So Much Water, So Close” to Home by Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly).
“Lantana” (2001) - Anthony LaPaglia (“Without a Trace”) and Geoffrey Rush (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) star in this powerful portrait of marriages in collapse. It was a huge winner at the Australian Film Institute awards ceremony (the Aussie Oscars), where its honors included best picture.
“The Last Wave” (1979) - Peter Weir’s unnerving study of a white, yuppie Sydney lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) who begins to have visions of the Aboriginal apocalypse (the world destroyed by water) is a stirring mood piece.
“Muriel’s Wedding” (1995) - Like “Priscilla,” “Muriel’s Wedding” gets by on energy and ABBA. It’s also the first time most Americans got to see Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths (“Six Feet Under,” “Brothers & Sisters”).
“Proof” (1992) - Easily one of the best films to come out of Australia, “Proof” - about a blind amateur photographer (Hugo Weaving), his embittered housekeeper (an amazing Genevieve Picot), and the busboy he hires to tell him what his photos look like (a young Russell Crowe) - is a searing commentary on friendship, trust and obsession.
“The Road Warrior” (1982) - This kinetic sequel to the low-budget “Mad Max,” starring Mel Gibson, became an iconic vision of the postindustrial apocalypse.
“Starstruck” (1982) - A giddy new-wave rock musical set in Sydney that may not age well but is definitely emblematic of its time.
“Strictly Ballroom” (1993) - If you want to see where Baz Luhrmann got his start, check out his first film, a whimsical fairy tale set in the world of ballroom dancing.
“Breaker Morant” (1980), “Gallipoli” (1981) - These are two moving stories of Australian bravery during wartime: “Breaker Morant” (directed by Bruce Beresford, who would later go on to do “Tender Mercies” and “Driving Miss Daisy”) revisits a tragedy during the Boer War in South Africa; “Gallipoli” (starring a young Mel Gibson) recounts the slaughter of Australian troops in Turkey during WWI.
“The Dish” (2000) - Many Americans don’t know that the Aussies played a role in the 1969 moonwalk and this low-key comedy starring Sam Neill, set in a remote Aussie town where a satellite interface system was set up, throws a light on this little-known slice of history.
“Don’s Party” (1976) - Set at a house party on a pivotal election night in 1969, this raucous comedy (another early effort from director Bruce Beresford) explores Australian socio-political attitudes.
“My Brilliant Career” (1979), “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1979) - 19th- and early 20th-century Australia may have been an environment for rough-and-tumble men that makes these very different takes on a woman’s place all the more intriguing. “Career,” starring Judy Davis and Sam Neill, about a woman who spurns love to follow her own bliss, and “Rock,” Peter Weir’s eerie evocation of the disappearance of several schoolgirls on a field trip, both deal with what it’s like to be a woman in such a harsh land.
“Newsfront” (1978) - This is a captivating early work from director Phillip Noyce (“Patriot Games”) about the guys who made the newsreels that were shown in theaters in the days well before CNN was a gleam in Ted Turner’s eye.
“The Proposition” (2005) - Written by songwriter/author Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat (whose vision of “The Road” is highly anticipated), “The Proposition” is a dark, brooding Australian Western starring Guy Pearce.
“The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982) - Like Australia, this is a love story set against the backdrop of unrest. The setting is 1960s Indonesia and Mel Gibson is a reporter who falls in love with a diplomat played by Sigourney Weaver.
“The Year My Voice Broke” (1987), “Flirting” (1991) - These sparkling films were the first two installments in a planned trilogy from director John Duigan about adolescence and youthful romance in the early ‘60s. “Flirting” stars Kidman (in one of her last appearances in an Aussie film before going Hollywood) and a then-unknown Thandie Newton.
“Babe” (1995) - It’s hard to believe that this fantastical, charming Oscar winner about a talking pig is from the same director (George Miller) who gave us the kinetic, dystopian futurism of “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior.”
“The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” (1978) - Based on the book by Thomas Keneally (“Schindler’s List”), directed by Fred Schepisi (“Six Degrees of Separation,” “Roxanne”), and controversial upon its release in Australia, Blacksmith tells the true story of a young Aboriginal man in the late 19th century who goes on a murder spree.
“Rabbit-Proof Fence” (2002) - Sad, moving and ultimately uplifting, “Fence” recounts the hellish journey of three Aboriginal girls across the desert in the 1930s as they try to reunite with their parents. They were separated from them by the government’s racial assimilation policy of the time. Be sure to have plenty of tissues ready.
“Ten Canoes” (2006) - Director Rolf de Heer turns out another triumph in the first commercial feature film with an all-Aboriginal cast and entirely in an Aboriginal language. Set in the wilds of Australia’s remote Arnhem Land and delving into the world of Aboriginal tribalism, “Ten Canoes” is a peek inside a rarely seen place.
“Walkabout” (1971) - While not truly an Australian film (director Nicolas Roeg is British), this portrait of two English children lost in the Outback who come to depend on a young Aboriginal man was the first time many in the Northern Hemisphere got a glimpse of Australia’s otherworldliness.