As each year rolls on, we find ourselves celebrating the anniversaries of classic and significant films. 2021 is one such year, with some of the most iconic and legendary Australian films celebrating huge milestones. From the fifty year anniversaries of Wake in Fright and Walkabout, to the tenth anniversary of the Aussie canine that could, Red Dog, these are ten landmark Australian films that are celebrating milestone anniversaries in 2021.
Wake in Fright
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Cast: Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Donald Pleasance, Jack Thompson
Writer: Evan Jones
Release date: 8th October 1971
When I kicked off this website, I used to ask filmmakers what Australian films they would recommend people seek out. The one title that would continually come up would be Ted Kotcheff’s iconically Australian film, Wake in Fright. Even The Endless directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson suggested it when I asked them for a Canadian film, and they responded with, ‘well, this is made by a Canadian director, so…’
Wake in Fright is a film that was almost lost to time. Rescued by Martin Scorsese and firmly cemented as one of the grandest, horrifying depictions of the untethered masculinity in outback Australia, Wake in Fright feels ultimately timeless. Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary seems as terrifying as the film itself. How can it still be so salient and relevant? If you haven’t seen this classic, then buckle in and give it a watch, and beware of the fabled kangaroo slaughter sequence, it’s as difficult to watch as you’ve heard. For everyone else, now’s the time to revisit one of Jack Thompson’s best films.
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Cast: David Gulpilil, Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg
Writer: Edward Bond
Release date: 17th December 1971
Where Wake in Fright typified the Australian outback a sanctuary for fear, terror, and violence, creating a blanket of horror that it’s been trying to escape for decades, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout proposed a different perspective for the Australian landscape, one that contains moments of tranquillity and a vision for the future. While violence tinges the wandering narrative of two English kids captured by the wild and transformed as the days wear on, it’s the appearance of one David Gulpilil that elevates Walkabout into a fascinating comparison piece between the colonisers who invaded this land and the traditional custodians of this country we now call Australia.
Nicolas Roeg’s pedigree helps elevate Walkabout into the pantheon of internationally recognised classics, enduring as a significant work in a career defined by significant works. The visual language and searing iconography that Roeg creates have cemented itself through time as being some of the most enduring imagery within Australian cinema – a burning car in the desert, scientists launching weather balloons, red dirt tinged school attire – making this one of the most powerful Australian film classics. It celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year,
Mad Max 2
Director: George Miller
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Kjell Nilsson
Writers: Terry Hayes, George Miller, Brian Hannant
Release date: 24th December 1981
George Miller’s tea-leaf reading futuristic series Mad Max has endured as one of the iconic Australian film series around. While Crocodile Dundee may stick as the most financially successful of the bunch, it’s Mel Gibson’s leather coat wearing former policeman Max Rockatansky that has lasted as the image of the Australian male – gruff, no bullshit, taking names and restoring order. It’s a testament to Miller’s talent that not only is this considered one of the best films in Australian film history, but its quality and brilliance helped usher in the Best Picture Oscar nominee, Mad Max: Fury Road decades later.
Released just in time for Christmas in Australia in 1981, Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. I’m ashamed to say that out of all the Australian films released, I’m still yet to absorb myself in this legendary sequel, and as such, cannot wait to see this entry in the enduring franchise for the first time.
Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, Bill Kerr
Writer: David Williamson
Release date: 13th August 1981
Peter Weir’s masterful ANZAC film comfortably sits alongside Breaker Morant as one of the finest Australian war films around, with both casting a shadow for subsequent military focused films to come. Celebrating its fortieth year this year, Gallipoli is a powerful film that exposes the horrifying reality of the Battle of Gallipoli for Australian soldiers. After all these years, it’s hard to shake the devastating final shot of the film, one that sits alongside All Quiet on the Western Front as being as fitting a rebuke for the act of war than any other film.
1981 was also a standout year for Mel Gibson, with Mad Max 2, Attack Force Z, and arguably his greatest film, Gallipoli, all being released in the same year. While he had already made waves internationally, 1981 helped usher him in as one of the best emerging Australian talents. Yet, Gallipoli truly belongs to Mark Lee, whose youthful face carries the weight of so many young lives lost during the wars over the years so powerfully.
Director: Richard Franklin
Cast: Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marion Edward
Writer: Everett De Roche
Release date: 26th June 1981
1981 continues to be marked as a landmark year for Australian film with Richard Franklin’s horror classic, Road Games, also being released in the same year. Pulling strains of Duel and the tension of Hitchcock’s filmography, Road Games blends the isolation of the open road with Stacy Keach’s menacing truck driver, and the Jamie Lee Curtis’ hitchhiker that he picks up.
Just like Wake in Fright, Road Games impact on how the open roads of Australia were represented on screen has been hard to shake, with the realisation that drivers could go hours without seeing anyone else. As noted in the essential documentary Not Quite Hollywood, Road Games is a powerfully influential film, with its shadow being witnessed clearly in Tarantino’s Grindhouse film, Death Proof. Forty years on, Road Games still packs a punch, and the Umbrella Entertainment Bluray makes for an essential inclusion in your Aussie film collection.
Death in Brunswick
Director: John Ruane
Cast: Sam Neill, John Clarke, Zoe Carides
Writers: John Ruane, Boyd Oxlade
Release date: 25th April 1991
Aussie comedies often find the greatest comfort in operating in the dark, and John Ruane’s uproarious morbid-delight, Death in Brunswick, is possibly one of the finest examples of Aussie dark comedy. Sam Neill stars as the floppish chef Carl, with the great John Clarke as his grave robbing buddy Dave. Together, they find themselves wrapped up in a dark thread of mania with accidental murder and romance.
While maybe considered the less widely appreciated of the films on this list, Death in Brunswick is no less worthy of celebration. It’s amazing to see Sam Neill’s transition from affable Aussie larrikin to palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park just two years later, highlighting just how malleable and masterful he is as an actor. Equally iconic is the dry-wit of John Clarke, so brilliantly presented here. Thirty years old feels far too young for this film, but here we are celebrating its grand milestone.
Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Russell Crowe, Geneviève Picot
Writer: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Release date: 15th August 1991
Jocelyn Moorhouse’s AFI award winning masterpiece, Proof, brought three simply masterful performances from Russell Crowe, Geneviève Picot, and Hugo Weaving to Australian audiences attention. As powerful an Aussie drama as one can get, Proof tells the story of Weaving’s blind photographer Martin, his carer Celia (Picot), and their encounter with Crowe’s Andy, a man who can describe Martin’s photos in great detail.
Expertly directed and intimately performed, Proof helped establish Jocelyn Moorhouse as one of the great Australian directors, with her next feature being the iconic American drama, How to Make an American Quilt. Russell Crowe’s nineties output is arguably the finest run of films of his career, and the duality of Proof and The Sum of Us each show a titan of Australian cinema on the rise. The same can be said of Hugo Weaving, whose dedication to the Australian film movement has been tantamount to both his and the industries success.
Director: Ray Lawrence
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Rachael Blake, Kerry Armstrong
Writer: Andrew Bovell
Release date: 8th July 2001
Director Ray Lawrence seemed to take a leaf out of Terence Malick’s book, breaking a decade plus change drought of filmmaking with his masterpiece, Lantana. My personal favourite Australian film, this intricate tale of families in suburbia torn apart by infidelity, the loss of partners and children, and the fractures of friendships, is profoundly moving and simply stunning to watch. Paul Kelly’s score identifies the Australian summer as one tinged with the sound of cicadas, the heat hanging in the dead air, and the crackle of dry leaves.
I’ve written at length about Lantana, and will likely do so again in the future, but what strikes me as the most enduring aspect is the dual performances from Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong. Their Leon and Sonja are two of the most realistic and humane portrayals of ‘married couples’ in Australian cinema, and provide the backbone for this considerate drama about suburban relationships. Cruelly unavailable on home media, Lantana is desperate for a re-release for its twentieth anniversary.
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Richard Roxburgh
Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Release date: 24th May 2001
Equally itching for a 4K, extras loaded re-release is Baz Luhrmann’s hyperactive colour soaked jukebox musical bonanza, Moulin Rouge! Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor glitz it up as lovers in Bohemian Paris, fated to be torn apart by illness and Richard Roxburgh’s moustache twirling villain. Fuelled with a diet of whizz fizz and poppers, Moulin Rouge! acts like the musical to end all musicals.
Jill Bilcock finesses Luhrmann’s mania with her frenetic and immaculate editing, while Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie’s Oscar winning costume design typified a visual identity that many musicals afterwards tried to imitate. Like many films on this list, Moulin Rouge! is effectively timeless, making its twentieth anniversary feel like an absurd anomaly. I recall floating out of the sold-out theatre the first time I saw this, feeling as alive as cinema could ever make you feel. Dust off those dancing shoes, it’s time to do the can-can again.
Director: Kriv Stenders
Cast: Josh Lucas, Rachael Taylor, Koko the Dog
Writer: Daniel Taplitz
Release date: 4th August 2011
Kriv Stenders blockbuster canine flick celebrates its tenth inning this year in fine fashion. Having recently been donned the audience ‘Best in Show’ winner at the 2020 AACTA Awards, triumphing as the Audience Choice Award winner for the Best Aussie film of the decade, Red Dog endures as a modern Aussie family favourite. It shouldn’t be a surprise, given how expressive lead canine Koko is as the mythical titular kelpie.
Spawning two sequels (and given the success of Bluey, I’m sure some eager animation team is itching to turn Red Dog into a kids TV series too), Red Dog sits comfortably in the pantheon of great Aussie films. I can’t imagine anyone has missed this classic, but if you have, its tenth anniversary is a great time to set aside a moment to give it a watch.
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