Australia’s top 50 movies (40 to 31): From Rabbit Proof Fence to Kenny and Happy Feet

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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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40. MARY & MAX (2009)

After Adam Eliot won an Oscar for his short Harvie Krumpet, he set about to make his first feature, the story of two unlikely pen-pals – Australian girl Mary and American man Max. The tender film explores the connection of two people demographically and physically apart but who still find friendship and commonalities, and how that relationship evolves. It’s also a story about loneliness and how humans need to be seen by others The stop-motion animation is beautiful to look at with Eliot’s meticulous and dynamic staging of the Australiana of Mary’s world and the urban jungle of Max’s.

Watch: Digital rental

Mary & Max
Mary & Max is made by Oscar-winning filmmaker Adam Eliot. Credit: Supplied

39. RABBIT-PROOF FENCE (2002)

That Rabbit-Proof Fence’s release stirred controversy in Australia’s ongoing culture wars over its history demonstrates the power of Phillip Noyce’s film. It is based on the true story of three Indigenous girls who in 1931 escaped from the Moore River Native Settlement to trek 2400 kilometres back home, along the rabbit-proof fence that crosses Western Australia from north to south. It’s a soulful, empowering and challenging movie of grit and determination, and it’s also a vital story of Australia’s Stolen Generation. When conservative forces including former Senator Eric Abetz hit out at Noyce’s film and demanded an apology, the filmmaker said, “Maybe they could apologise to our Indigenous citizens”.

Watch: Netflix, Stan

A scene from 2002 film Rabbit Proof Fence.
Rabbit Proof Fence is inspired by a true story. Credit: Supplied

38. OF AN AGE (2023)

There are few coming-of-age stories that so successfully put the audience in the headspace and heartspace of its protagonist as Of An Age does. Writer and director Goran Stolevski’s LGBTQI romance is so full of desire, it’s bound to trigger memories of experiences past. The tender film is set in Melbourne’s multicultural suburbs, set in the summer of 1999, a moment of transition for the world and for its main character, Kol, a Serbian-born teenager who meets the openly gay Adam. The palpable hunger, the intoxication of their chemistry, boy, it really takes you back.

Watch: Amazon Prime, Binge

cinefest Of An Age film still
Of An Age is an aching story about desire and discovery. Credit: Supplied

37. KENNY (2006)

The key to a great “straight man” performance in any comedy is to never play for laughs and always play it as if it was real and grounded. It’s why Shane Jacobson’s Kenny is so effective and endearing – he’s a genuine guy who takes pride in his work as a purveyor of portaloos. And he’s right, even the most glamorous citizens will have need of a portaloo at some point. The mockumentary has heart and decency and created an Australian hero who has no airs or graces and takes his work but not himself too seriously. The contrast of Kenny’s literal toilet humour and an affable character made the film an instant classic.

Watch: Amazon Prime, Stan, Tubi

Kenny
Kenny is full of literal toilet humour. Credit: Supplied

36. LOVE AND OTHER CATASTROPHES (1996)

Oh, to be young and freaking out over a $600 library fine. As scrappy as its uni student characters, Emma-Kate Croghan’s Love and Other Catastrophes captures that fleeting moment in time, when you’re at the cusp of adulthood with all of its promises, but none of the heavier responsibilities. But everything is still liable to go wrong. Your dickhead lecturer won’t let you transfer out of his course, your housemates are grubs or you’re four years behind on your thesis. With an exciting cast of Matt Day, Frances O’Connor and Radha Mitchell, it’s like an Australian version of a Richard Linklater film.

Watch: YouTube

FRANCES O'CONNOR PICTURED IN A SCENE FROM THE MOVIE LOVE AND OTHER CATASTROPHES.
Frances O’Connor in Love and Other Catastrophes. Credit: Supplied

35. SNOWTOWN (2011)

Ultra-violent and unflinching in its darkness, Justin Kurzel’s tight feature debut Snowtown is still whispered with a shudder. Based on the South Australian “bodies in barrels” murders, Kurzel’s film is bathed in the worst of human actions, but it’s not gratuitous. Through his chilling portrayals of the two men at the centre of the killings – John (Daniel Henshall) and Robert (Aaron Viergever) – he expands the story by looking at the thrall of a charismatic and domineering personality over a vulnerable teenager, and the effects of poverty and marginalisation.

Watch: Stan

Snowtown

Lucas Pittaway
The horrors of Snowtown burns deeply into your psyche. Credit: Supplied/WAN

34. SOMERSAULT (2004)

Cate Shortland’s feature debut features a luminous and profoundly sad Abbie Cornish as Heidi, a teenager who leaves her suburban Canberra home when she is caught locking lips with her mother’s deadbeat boyfriend. She arrives in Jindabyne in the off-season and drifts from one hustle to another, often involving her nascent sexuality, just to survive. Cornish’s remarkable breakout performance here was a springboard into other roles, notably in Bright Star, while Shortland’s command of her nuanced young female character without judgment propelled Somersault to 13 AFI Awards.

Watch: Digital rental

Joe (top, Sam Worthington) comforting Heidi (Abbie Cornish) in a scene from Cate Shortland's feature film Somersault.
Somersault was director Cate Shortland’s feature debut. Credit: Unknown

33. CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH (1978)

Adapted from Thomas Keneally’s book, Fred Schepisi’s film is remembered for its stark depiction of the abuse and grisly violence perpetrated against Indigenous Australians. Through the character of half-white, half-Aboriginal Jimmie (Tom E. Lewis in his first screen role), the film charts the many ways in which he is mistreated – denying him payment for fair work, encouraging his white wife to leave him – as a way to look at colonial Australia’s refusal to reconcile its two identities. Jimmie’s subsequent, extreme actions and fate are not excused, but contextualised in the bloody heritage of Australia’s shared heritage.

Watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Brollie

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Tom E. Lewis in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Credit: Supplied

32. HAPPY FEET (2006)

With a huge voice cast that includes both Australian stars (Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving) and international talent (Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Robin Williams), Happy Feet is a toe-tapping crowd-pleaser about an underestimated penguin overcoming the odds to prove his worth. But beneath the vibrant jukebox musical hits (tracks include Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder ditties) is a darker seam about human encroachment on the penguins’ natural habitat. The CGI Antarctica may look stunning and crisp, but it won’t stay that way, and Happy Feet knows it.

Watch: Netflix, Stan

Happy Feet
Dancing, songs and environmental catastrophe in Happy Feet. Credit: Supplied

31. BEDEVIL (1993)

Tracey Moffat became the first Indigenous woman to direct a feature film when she made Bedevil, a horror movie structured as a triptych of stories inspired by the ghostly folk tales she heard from her Aboriginal and Irish families as she was growing up. Across the trio – “Mr Chuck, “Choo Choo Choo” and “Lovin’ the Spin I’m in” – Moffat weaves a tapestry of how narratives are formed and how the past and present are entwined. The ghosts in BeDevil are not of the past, and the non-linearity of her work challenges the viewer to rethink history, all while visually dazzling them with a hyperstylised aesthetic.

Watch: SBS On Demand

Bedevil
Filmmaker Tracey Moffat also starred in Bedevil. Credit: Supplied

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