Australia’s top 50 movies (10 to 1): From My Brilliant Career to Muriel’s Wedding to Wake in Fright

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Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
5 Min Read
These are the best of the best, the top 10 Australian movies of all time.
These are the best of the best, the top 10 Australian movies of all time. Credit: The Nightly

Australia has made some ripper films but these are the best of the best, The Nightly’s Top 10.

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10. MY BRILLIANT CAREER (1979)

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When My Brilliant Career’s prickly heroine Sybylla turns down a marriage proposal from the very decent Harry, modern audiences would understand her desire for an independent life. In 1900, when Miles Franklin wrote the book from which Gillian Armstrong adapted her film, it was radical. Armstrong’s free-spirited movie matches the boldness and defiance of the ambitious rural Sybylla, yearning for a life of culture and ideas and not be tethered to what’s expected of her and her station. The character is beautifully captured by a freshly discovered Judy Davis in one of the most memorable performances in Australian cinema.

Watch: Stan

My Brilliant Career
My Brilliant Career launched Judy Davis’ brilliant career. Credit: Supplied

9. MURIEL’S WEDDING

Like Muriel Heslop, P.J. Hogan’s wedding is brash and understated at the same time — it had big dreams and the daring to realise them. The awkward Muriel wants nothing more than to be married in an extravagant fairytale wedding but with a bully for a dad, siblings who mock her and vipers for friends, it’s not an easy ambition. With that particularly Australian brand of honesty and humour, Muriel’s Wedding avoids that other Australian attribute, cultural cringe. It backs in its weird, flawed heroine with her strange desires and poor choices and gives her the most rewarding story arc of all, the clarity of her self-worth and real friendship.

Watch: Stan

A SCENE FROM THE MOVIE MURIEL'S WEDDING WITH RACHEL GRIFFITHS AND TONI COLLETTE.
You’re not so terrible, Muriel. Credit: Supplied

8. LOOKING FOR ALIBRANDI (2000)

With spunk and authenticity, Looking for Alibrandi is one of Australian cinema’s defining coming-of-age films — and one which takes place not at the beach but in the inner city, centred on a non-Anglo character female character whose teen experience is relatable because of its specificity. Pia Miranda’s Josie is special because she’s so normal. It’s crammed with turn-of-the-millennium cultural references such as Spiderbait, Killing Heidi and going to the formal in a panel van. Kate Wood’s adaptation of Melina Marchetta’s beloved book may be about a girl discovering her identity but the film is confident about what it is.

Watch: Netflix, iView

Looking for Alibrandi
Looking for Alibrandi perfectly captures growing up in inner Sydney. Credit: Supplied

7. GALLIPOLI (1981)

With a final shot no viewer will ever forget, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli is steeped in Australia’s national mythos of mateship and fairness, and how that can all be torn apart for the futility and waste of war. Starring Mark Lee as an aspiring athlete from Western Australia who signs up to fight in World War out of patriotism and the desire for a challenge, Gallipoli centres on a friendship between two young men whose futures are decided not by their actions but by generals and war strategists. David Williamson’s screenplay packs an emotional punch and then Weir deals the killer blow with those battle sequences.

Watch: Binge

Gallipoli
You’ll never forget Gallipoli’s final shot. Credit: Supplied

6. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Considered by many to be the greatest action movie ever made, the full-throttle adrenaline of George Miller’s movie demands to be inhaled for the visceral experience it is. In the scorched earth world of Fury Road, cruelty exists in abundance and humanity is hard to find. The real star of the film, Charlize Theron, has never been more fierce or formidable as Furiosa, a road warrior on a rescue mission, freeing villain Immortan Joe’s harem of women that he uses for breeding. The ambitious set-pieces are tightly choreographed and kinetic and the entire film is designed to get your heart beating faster.

Watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Stan

This photo released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows, from left, Riley Keough as Capable (Brainy), Courtney Eaton as Fragile (Cheedo), Charlize Theron as Furiosa, Nicholas Hoult as Nux, PHS-4, and Abbey Lee Kershaw as Wag (Smiley), in a scene from the film, "Mad Max: Fury Road." The film releases in the U.S. on May 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Jason Boland)
Fast and furious. Credit: Jasin Boland/AP

5. PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

The hypnotic dreamscape of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is a sensory experience. The overexposed light of a sunny day, Gheorghe Zamfir’s haunting panpipes, the wispy white cotton of the girls’ high-necked dresses are all etched in the minds of the viewer, forever obsessed with the mystery of the vanished figures. What fates befell the two girls and their teacher who never returned? The repressed sexual desires of the Victorian era collide with the indiscernible secrets of an ancient land. Do yourself a favour, never seek out the missing chapter of Joan Lindsay’s book — the answer is better left unlearnt.

Watch: Digital rental

Picnic at Hanging Rock
They mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock continues to haunt. Credit: Supplied

4. LANTANA (2001)

Lantana is a rare Australian film that is both a dark story about suburban secrets and a massive commercial hit. It’s a relationship drama in which everyone is miserable and lying to each other, and a whodunit when one of those characters turns up dead. The mystery is only compelling because director Ray Lawrence and screenwriter Andrew Bovell wove a rich character tapestry before shifting gears. Led by Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Armstrong and Geoffrey Rush, with cinematographer Mandy Walker’s cold palette. The film is named after the plant, a shrub that looks beautiful up top but whose dense undergrowth threatens everything around it. How apt.

Watch: Digital rental

Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong in Lantana.
Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong in Lantana. Credit: Supplied

3. ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010)

Australians have long been obsessed with crime figures. Whether it’s Ned Kelly or modern-day bikies, there’s an anti-authoritarian streak in the national identity that runs back to colonial frontier times. David Michod’s confident debut is a layered and unflinching look at a Melbourne crime family deep in drug distribution, led by matriarch Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and oldest son Pope (Ben Mendelsohn). Michod plunges us into this volatile, violent and chilling world through grandson J’s induction into its cabal of psychopaths, and becomes entangled in a cop shooting and the aftermath.

Watch: Stan, SBS On Demand

Animal Kingdom
Australia’s own godfather. Credit: Supplied

2. BREAKER MORANT (1980)

With a final line that is perhaps the most memorable in Australian cinema history, Breaker Morant is a biting indictment against the vicissitudes of war, a state of relativism masquerading as moral righteousness. Based on a real incident during the Boer War, the tightly directed (Bruce Beresford) and superbly acted (Jack Thompson) courtoom drama centres on three Australian soldiers who murdered prisoners of war and a missionary, ostensibly under the orders of their superiors. It’s a thorny contest and the film’s climax leaves you in doubt over whether justice can ever prevail in war.

Watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime, SBS On Demand, Brollie

Breaker Morant
Justice on trial. Credit: Supplied

1. WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971)

The classic of the Australian New Wave, Ted Kotcheff’s film follows a young teacher from the city, passing through the outback town of The Yabba on his way back to Sydney. He turns his nose up at the rough townies but devolves into the same beer-sculling, gambling and primal violence he abhorred. With a disturbing and visceral nighttime kangaroo hunt sequence that sears into your memory, Wake in Fright is an overwhelming, sweaty nightmare, a sociological horror movie, and a warning about the tempestuous violence lurking beneath man’s civilised veneer. It’s a perfect film.

Watch: Digital rental

Wake in Fright
Hedonism and savagery in Wake in Fright. Credit: Supplied

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