Australia’s top 50 movies (30 to 21): From Judy & Punch to Chopper and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

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Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
5 Min Read
The Nightly
The Nightly Credit: The Nightly

For a small country with a small film industry, Australia has made some ripper films, including the world’s first ever feature-length movie.

Whether it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy, a terrifying horror or a moving drama, Australian filmmakers have been entertaining audiences for more than a century.

Here is The Nightly’s list of the top 50 Australian films. We’ll reveal 10 each day, so be sure to come back throughout the week. You may even discover some new gems or an old favourite to add to your watchlist.

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30. JUDY AND PUNCH (2019)

By twisting the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show, director Mirrah Foulkes challenges the audience to consider why a story about a negligent father who beats his wife and one-ups the law is so uproariously funny. Urgent and fresh, Judy and Punch, which literally inverts the title, stars Mia Wasikowska as a woman who wreaks revenge on her alcoholic husband (Damon Herriman) after he kills their baby and assaults her so violently he thinks she’s dead. But it’s not just about the dynamics between men and women, it condemns the social forces and structures that enable gendered violence.

Watch: Digital rental

Judy & Punch is a female-driven revenge story starring Mia Wasikowska.
Judy & Punch is a female-driven revenge story starring Mia Wasikowska. Credit: Supplied

29. LIMBO (2023)

Ivan Sen’s black-and-white outback noir gives Simon Baker another opportunity to show his dramatic chops. Here, his quiet presence matches Sen’s filmmaking energy (Sen also wrote, produced, shot, edited and composed the score) as Travis Hurley, a former drug squad city cop sent to a small outback community to review the investigation into the disappearance of a young Indigenous woman 20 years earlier. The town is teeming with secrets, as is Travis, but the real story is the injustice of how a life was devalued because of institutional racism.

Watch: iView

Simon Baker Limbo
Simon Baker in Limbo. Credit: Supplied/TheWest

28. PROOF (1990)

Featuring early-career performances from Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s relationship drama Proof is about Martin, a blind photographer with a deep-seated mistrust of people due to a childhood incident. He asks people to describe what’s in the photos he takes, but it’s a test of whether they’re truthful. When he strikes up a friendship with the kind-hearted Andy, his jealous femme fatale housekeeper tries to intervene. Moorhouse’s disciplined screenplay and direction, in the hands of instinctive performers, makes for a sensitive and smart character-driven film.

Watch: Digital rental

Proof
Proof was one of Hugo Weaving’s early roles. Credit: Supplied

27. STONE (1974)

A classic of the Ozploitation genre, Sandy Harbutt’s motorcycle gang road movie Stone is a favourite of Quentin Tarantino’s. With a bold attitude to the story and how it’s told, you can easily see how it appealed to Tarantino’s brazen sensibilities. There’s nothing subtle about Stone, it declares exactly what it is – an adrenaline-fuelled fetishisation of bikie culture and the almost-dumb loyalties that go with it. Ken Shorter plays a detective sent undercover into the Gravediggers gang when several of its members turn up dead. The plotting is uneven but the real attraction was always the daredevil riding scenes.

Watch: Brollie, digital rental

Stone
Stone is a classic of the Ozploitation era. Credit: Supplied

26. TWO HANDS (1999)

Famed for being Rose Byrne’s first big role and for its association with Powderfinger’s “These Days”, Two Hands is a chaotic crime caper, and not just because no one has ever made a successful escape on the slow-moving, now-defunct Sydney Monorail. It was stressful just watching them attempt it. Heath Ledger plays a wannabe crook who gets into deep water with a mob boss (Bryan Brown) after losing the $10,000 he’s meant to deliver. He tries to get himself out of it by robbing a bank. As you do. With a propulsive energy, the film is full of raw talent ready to break out.

Watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime, iView

Rose Byrne and Heath Ledger in Two Hands.
Two Hands was a breakout role for Rose Byrne. Credit: Supplied

25. TEN CANOES (2006)

In making Ten Canoes, a film spoken entirely in Indigenous languages, Dutch-Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer consulted extensively with the Aboriginal community, including his eventual co-director Peter Djigirr, and good friend and frequent collaborator David Gulpilil, who also narrates this whimsical collection of connected stories. Drawing on the tens of thousands of years of Indigenous storytelling, Ten Canoes cast predominantly non-actors and shot in the dazzling Northern Territory. Made of morality tales framed within each other like a Marushka doll, Ten Canoes is a journey through a culture’s bond to its land.

Watch: Digital rental

PIAF 2017 - Tracking Country Ten Canoes features in a Rolf de Heer retrospective
Ten Canoes won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes. Credit: Unknown/Supplied

24. BEAUTIFUL KATE (2009)

Rachel Ward’s haunting and dark family drama was never going to escape controversy. It had incest and teen sexuality as some of its central themes, and poster art and a visual aesthetic that evoked the Bill Henson photographs that caused a public furore a year earlier. It starred Ben Mendelsohn as Ned, a prodigal son who returns to his family’s rural home on the news his father (Bryan Brown) is dying. The visit forces him to confront what happened decades earlier that resulted in the deaths of his twin sister Kate (Sophie Lowe) and brother Cliff. Thorny and uncomfortable, it also features a sensitive performance from Rachel Griffiths as surviving sister Sally.

Watch: Digital rental

Sophie Lowe in Beautiful Kate.
Beautiful Kate was Rachel Ward’s feature directorial debut. Credit: Supplied

23. THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE (1987)

Based on writer and director John Duigan’s own childhood, The Year My Voice Broke is a seminal coming-of-age story in Australian cinema. Starring Noah Taylor, Ben Mendelsohn and Loene Carmen, the 1962-set film tells the story of Danny, a gawky and kind 15-year-old who realises his feelings for his best friend Freya has morphed. But Freya is interested in local rebel Trevor. The love triangle and sexual awakening make for familiar storytelling but the trio of characters are richly coloured in and ultimately, the film twists the nostalgia of growing up in an idyllic town with the small-minded judgment that comes with it.

Watch: DVDs on eBay

The Year My Voice Broke
The Year My Voice Broke Credit: Supplied

22. CHOPPER (2000)

Mark “Chopper” Read understood something about mythologising his own story, especially for an Australian public obsessed with its criminals. There is an argument that Chopper glorifies a violent criminal but what it also does is make him human – and it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend the likes of Read are extra-human outliers. Andrew Dominik’s film declares it’s not a biography and the creative freedom it takes in this striking and explosive movie, featuring a manic performance from Eric Bana, certainly makes you pray it’s not all true.

Watch: Stan

Eric Bana as Chopper Read
Chopper was a departure for Eric Bana who had been a comedic and sketch performer before it. Credit: Supplied

21. PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (1994)

Campy and extravagant, Stephan Elliott’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert busted stereotypes of what Australian “maleness” had to be on screen. This was a film that mainstreamed LGBTQI stories and drag culture when it was still being shunted into a corner – this was 15 years before RuPaul’s Drag Race, which arguably may not have existed without Priscilla. Emotionally poignant and exuberantly fun, it featured some of the best work of Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp’s careers, as two drag queens and a transgender woman making their way across the desert from Sydney to Alice Springs and encountering friendship and prejudice along the way.

Watch: Amazon Prime

CHANNEL FOUR TELEVISION 124 HORSEFERRY ROAD LONDON SW1P 2TX 0171 306 8685   The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert Drag queens Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce cross Australia by bus. Tx.Sunday 9 May 1999  FREE OF CHARGE FOR CHANNEL FOUR PROGRAMME PUBLICITY ONLY
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has spawned a stage musical. Credit: Vickie P

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