Australia’s top 50 movies (20 to 11): From Babe to Romper Stomper

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Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Australia’s top 50 movies (20 to 11) have been revealed.
Australia’s top 50 movies (20 to 11) have been revealed. 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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Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains the name and image of a deceased person, used with the permission of his family.

20. BABE (1995)

Will there ever be a sight more wholesome than James Cromwell as the taciturn Farmer Hoggett singing “If I Had Words” and dancing a jig to cheer up Babe, a little piglet that defied his fate as Christmas dinner to become a champion sheep-herder? The family-friendly film directed by Chris Noonan touches hearts of all ages because it’s a story about an underdog who through kindness and goodness brought together a farm and wrote his own story. In turn, he brought together an audience and unleashed buckets of happy tears.

Watch: Binge, Paramount+

Babe
Babe stars James Cromwell as Farmer Hoggett. Credit: Supplied

19. THE BABADOOK (2014)

A horror movie that delights in drawing from the masters within its genre, The Babadook relies on a simple premise but elevates it with its richly layered craftsmanship to elicit maximum creeps and emotional weight for a film that terrifies on many levels. Jennifer Kent’s feature debut stars Essie Davis as the mother of a young boy, still grieving her husband’s death, who reads her son a grim fairytale about a monster named the Babadook. Soon, they both start to hear and see the mythical creature in their own home, a place of safety turned into one of peril.

Watch: Amazon Prime, Paramount+, Brollie

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in "The Babadook," an IFC Midnight release. (Matt Nettheim/TNS)
Truly terrifying. (Matt Nettheim/TNS) Credit: Handout/McClatchy Tribune

18. THE PROPOSITION (2005)

Directed by John Hillcoat and written by Nick Cave (who also composed the music, obviously), the suspenseful and ruthless The Proposition takes the black-hat-white-hat tropes of the American western and transposes it into the Australian outback during colonial times. In this harsh, dusty and blazing world, moral codes and loyalties mean little when power and survival are at stake. Guy Pearce plays an outlaw who is given a choice between saving his younger brother Mikey from hanging or hunting down and killing his older brother Arthur, a murderous rapist.

Watch: Digital rental

The Proposition starring Guy Pearce.
Guy Pearce in neo-Western The Proposition. Credit: Unknown/Supplied by Subject

17. SUNDAY TOO FAR AWAY (1975)

Featuring the most iconic of Jack Thompson’s Australian alpha male characters, Ken Hannam’s film is a pillar of the national cinema renaissance of the 1970s. Thompson is Foley, a hard-drinking top shearer who has held the record of most sheep sheared for 10 years and who falls for the station owner’s daughter. But the main thrust of the story is a labour fight with Foley and his union shearers versus the boss who tries to bring in scabs when they stand up for their rights. A pro-worker story that laments the hard jobs of the working man in Australia that might be even more urgent now.

Watch: Prime, Brollie, YouTube

Sunday Too Far Away
Sunday Too Far Away is one of Jack Thompson’s most iconic films. Credit: Supplied

16. BLISS (1985)

What is Ray Lawrence’s Bliss but a question with an impossible answer: How can one be a good, happy person? Barry Otto is beguiling in this surrealist dramedy about an advertising executive who reconsiders his materialistic lifestyle after a heart attack that left him clinically dead for four minutes. Upon waking, he realises his family is far from picture perfect and the trappings of his former life are now a noose, rather than a comfort. Absurd and initially controversial (a fifth of the audience walked out of its Cannes premiere), Bliss is a mid-life crisis on an acid trip.

Watch: DVDs on eBay

Bliss
The absurdism of Bliss. Credit: Supplied

15. WALKABOUT (1971)

Despite its British director (Nicholas Roeg), Walkabout is elementally Australian, showcasing the vivid beauty and brutality of the outback, from small creatures and native fauna to the abuses of man. The story follows a young white girl and her little brother who are abandoned in the desert by their father. They meet a young Indigenous man, who shows them how to survive the landscape, even though they do not share a language. It’s one of the first movies to prominently feature an Indigenous character but Walkabout’s main legacy is it introduced David Gulpilil. Even then as a teenager, he had undeniable warmth and vivacity, especially when he danced.

Watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime, iView, Shudder, Brollie, AMC+

Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil in the movie Walkabout (1971).
Walkabout was David Gulpilil’s first role. Credit: imdb/imdb

14. THE CASTLE (1997)

From the pool room to “Tell him he’s dreaming”, The Castle was such a cultural phenomenon. The Australian film industry spent years trying to recapture lightning in a bottle by aping Rob Sitch’s movie in tone and theme. The story of the Kerrigans fighting against the compulsory acquisition of their home is a classic David vs Goliath battle repackaged in a tale that taps into the Australian dream of the suburban quarter-acre block and being the master of your own domain. Increasingly a wish-fulfilment fantasy in 2024, The Castle’s fighting spirit lives on in all optimists.

Watch: Stan

Image still from movie The Castle
A classic Australian comedy that others tried to replicate. Credit: Supplied

13. MOULIN ROUGE (2001)

Baz Luhrmann’s exuberant romantic pop musical is a story of lovers and artistic ambition, set in a sentimentalised bohemian Paris in 1900. It’s led by Nicole Kidman’s charismatic performance as Satine, the coquettish star performer of the Moulin Rouge, and Ewan McGregor as the naïve, newly arrived writer who falls for her. The film’s vivid production design by Catherine Martin is a visual treat and every rewatch is a delight. The big emotions are matched by reworkings of great needle drops in “Elephant Love Medley”. A perfect balance of sincerity and playfulness.

Watch: Disney+

TO GO WITH STORY TITLED OSCARS MUSICALS--Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor perform a song-and-dance number in the musical "Moulin Rouge," one of the five films nominated for a best- picture Oscar. "Moulin Rouge" was the first live-action musical nominated for best picture since "All That Jazz" 22 years ago. (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Sue Adler)
Moulin Rouge was inspired by the likes of La Traviata and La Boheme. Credit: SUE ADLER/AP

12. SAMSON & DELILAH (2009)

Warwick Thornton’s directorial feature heralded the arrival of an important filmmaker for the local industry. Already on show was his ability to be subtle and powerful at the same time, as well as an eye for the beauty in every frame (Thornton often serves as his own cinematographer). Starring first-time actors Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, their raw talent and lived experience courses through the love story of two young Indigenous teenagers whose challenges include addiction and neglect. Almost wordless, Thornton never revels in misery but finds the grace in his character’s love for each other.

Watch: Netflix, SBS On Demand

Rowan McNamara in Samson and Delilah.
Rowan McNamara in Samson and Delilah. Credit: Unknown/Supplied

11. ROMPER STOMPER (1992)

Legendary critic David Stratton famously refused to give Romper Stomper a rating on its release, calling it a “dangerous film” for its fearless depiction of racially motivated violence. Russell Crowe’s scorching performance as a young neo-Nazi in Victoria is indeed distressing to watch but Geoffrey Wright’s film does not glorify their savagery. The intensity of Romper Stomper’s brutality is fuelled by its honesty and kineticism. Scenes of beatings and hate are painful because it’s not really make believe. Australia has to accept it exists off-screen.

Watch: Foxtel, Stan

Romper Stomper
Chilling and still relevant. Credit: Unknown/Supplied

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