From A Land Down Under: The Best Films From Oz

If you thought all that Australian film had to offer was Baz Luhrmann and Mad Max, think again. These films from down under are all must sees.
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If you thought all that Australian film had to offer was Baz Luhrmann and Mad Max, think again. These films from down under are all must sees.

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I don't think I'm alone in thinking that Baz Luhrmann's take on "The Great Gatsby" looks, well, a bit style over substance, shall we say? That's Luhrmann all over I guess. He pulled it off with his red curtain trilogy of Strictly Ballroom, Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge, but there's more to Gatsby than nice suits and lavish parties. Going by the trailer, admittedly a risky thing to do, it seems Luhrmann didn't read between the lines of Fitzgerald's seminal text, a shame considering how well he cast the lead characters.

However, it did get me thinking about Australia's cinematic output over the years. Sure they've produced a slew of Hollywood stars: Eric Bana, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, more recently Chris Hemsworth, but what about Aussie flicks? If you want a crash course, then look no further than these five films:

Mary and Max

Oscar winning director Adam Elliot's thoroughly gorgeous "Mary and Max" sort of came and went in this country, picking up great reviews but hardly setting the box office alight. A shame, considering it's one of the most emotionally affecting and visually stunning films of recent years.

The story is quite simple really (aren't the best ones always?): Mary, a lonely Australian girl with an alcoholic mother and a depressed father, begins a penpal relationship by chance with an old New Yorker named Max who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, or something similar at least. The film shows their relationship grow over the years, in the process detailing Max's illness with a tenderness and lightness of touch that would make Forrest Gump, I Am Sam or Adam ashamed. In those films, the mentally ill character is defined by his illness. Here, this is absolutely not the case.

The sets are beautiful too, brilliantly rendered and a great example of how inventive you can get through animation. Mary's Australia is burnt orange, dusty, oppressive, while Max's New York is frightening, loud and black and white. Quite simply, Elliot shows us the world through the eyes of his two protagonists, the good and the bad. One final point, and that is that Mary and Max contains probably the most heartbreaking final scene of any film. If you can watch it without bursting into floods of tears then you need to check your pulse.

The Castle

The kind of comedy that Flight Of The Conchords and its ilk owe a heck of a lot to. The Castle absolutely smashed it back in Oz, resulting in a lucrative distribution deal with Miramax that should have seen it get the recognition it deserves in this hemisphere. However, Miramax also acquired The English Patient around that time, and so The Castle sat on the  back burner and fizzled out.

A story of a family desperately trying to prevent their house being bulldozed to make way for an airport runway, The Castle is essentially a vehicle for sweet, funny, naturalistic comedy, great performances, notably Michael Caton taking the lead, and a really touching conclusion. To this day it still holds a massive cult following, which manifested itself when the family home from the film went up for sale, resulting in fans calling up the estate agent to inquire about the price, before repeating the film's most enduring catchphrase back at him: "Tell him he's dreaming!"

Picnic At Hanging Rock

Peter Weir establishes tone and atmosphere like no other. Look at The Truman Show: there, he manages to turn a picturesque beach fronted idyll into an eerie, macabre prison, achieving these results with amazing subtlety too.

Picnic At Hanging Rock carries with it a similar sense of foreboding, of otherworldly forces existing and conspiring against the main protagonists, a group of schoolgirls venturing into the outback on a school trip. The mystery of the film is the disappearance of one of them, which is never solved (though a resolution was written, but scrapped, presumably on account of it being wank).

In a sense, the film almost acts like an Australian version of a Grimm's fairytale, the sense that nature is a place both to be feared and admired in equal measure. A truly wonderful movie. Also, if you have seen it, then you'll be horrified to know that a musical version exists. It's...well...it's misguided, at best. At worst, it's a fucking travesty. Although it does sound like they've roped in John "The Voice" Farnham to write the tunes. Well you would, wouldn't you?

Samson & Delilah

A brilliant piece of cinema that got a lot of praise on the European festival circuit a couple of years ago, winning the Cameron d'Or at Cannes, and was hailed by many Australian critics as the best film to have ever emerged from the country.

The film depicts tragedy in a small Aboriginal community through the eyes of the two title characters, both 14 year olds and both existing in opposition to the towns elders. Samson spends his days sniffing petrol and listening to rock music, while both are victims of violent domestic abuse which leads to Samson stealing a car and getting out of dodge with Delilah. It's fair to say, the film isn't all roses after that.

Bleak, harrowing, most certainly, but the relationship between Samson and Delilah is powerful as they both attempt to help each other out of the environment they have unfortunately been born into. Troy Cassar-Daley's version of David Gray's "Nightblindness" provides a beautiful soundtrack too.

The Dish

Another great Aussie comedy in the same vein as The Castle, set around the time of America's historic moon landing, and on the people charged with manning the satellite dish that would beam the now legendary images all around the world. Ok, so it's not a world beater of a film, but I think it was the first vaguely adult comedy I saw at the cinema, and I remember laughing so loudly that I was shusshed by the usher, so it'll always have a place in my heart because of that.

So those are my picks, but really they just about scratch the surface. Last year's Animal Kingdom was a terrifically brutal work that put director David Michod firmly on the map, and Nick Cave's The Proposition is comfortably one of the best contemporary attempts at the Western, a genre which sadly doesn't fill up cinemas nearly in the same way as it used to. And if none of that floats your boat, then you've still got Baz to fall back on, eh? Bonza.

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