Recommendations Roundup #2: Down Under Edition, Part 3 (Movies)
Top 10 Down Under Films
My husband and I have long been fans of Australian and New Zealand independent film. Below are ten of our favorites, some featuring budding stars such as Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Russell Crowe, Hugo Weaving, Nicole Kidman, and Noah Taylor.
1) Proof (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1991)
This delightful, little-known gem features a young Russell Crowe and Hugo Weaving along with a wickedly delicious performance by Geneviève Picot. Weaving plays a blind photographer (Martin) with trust issues who is befriended by Andy (Crowe). We witness the blossoming of their friendship, with several unforgettable scenes producing strenuous belly-laughs. This new relationship sparks the jealousy of Martin’s housekeeper, Celia (Picot), who is in love with Martin, despite his dreadful treatment of her. The growing tension in this triangle is underscored by a suspenseful soundtrack by Not Drowning, Waving (streaming, CD). The film won six Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, with Weaving securing Best Actor in a Lead Role and Crowe Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
2) Muriel’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1994) (Prime Video, blu-ray, DVD)
Three years after directing Proof, Jocelyn Moorhouse produced this euphoric romp, which was directed by her husband, P.J. Hogan. Packing on 40 pounds in under two months to win the role, the ebullient Toni Collette earned a thoroughly deserved award for Australian Best Actress in a Lead Role. Like Proof, this film is another hilarious and moving exploration of the nature of friendship as Muriel pairs up with a rambunctious Rachel Griffiths (Rhonda) in her feature film debut. The ABBA music on this ultimate feel-good soundtrack is interwoven with the storyline, arguably serving as a third major character. Even with all the humor and buoyant fun, the film sensitively addresses serious issues such as bullying, self-esteem, identity, and suicide, attaining some genuinely poignant moments. Such emotional dimensionality makes this a surprisingly deep, indelible treasure.
3) Angel Baby (Michael Rymer, 1995) (streaming, DVD)
You would never guess that a tale about two self-destructive schizophrenics falling in love could make for so many funny scenes, but John Lynch and Jacqueline McKenzie catapult the audience from the heights to the depths and back up again with acrobatic prowess. The otherworldly soundtrack (streaming, CD) includes a spine-tingling performance by Norwegian vocalist Anneli Drecker accompanied by The Big No No in “Blue & Green (Can Never Be Seen)” and “Until I’m in You.” Leavened by black comedy, this slow-moving train wreck raked in seven well-deserved AFI awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Actor.
4) An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990)
As mentioned in my book recommendation in Part 2, An Angel at My Table lovingly documents the life of Janet Frame. Now that I’ve read some of Frame’s work, I am amazed at the authenticity with which Jane Campion captures her luxurious inner and disquieting outer worlds. In her debut film, Kerry Fox expertly conveys the unbearable discomfort of self-consciousness and social ineptitude that made inhabiting the world of people so painful for Frame while simultaneously introducing us to the magical beauty of her interior, creative life. The ethereal soundtrack includes mood-setting fairy tale pieces like 12 Dancing Princesses. Campion’s second feature film netted eighteen awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Performance from the New Zealand Film & TV Awards.
This cinematic tour de force is probably the best-known film on this list, and for good reason. Holly Hunter’s ardent, Oscar-winning performance is matched only by the other protagonist in this riveting study in passion—Michael Nyman’s magnificent score (streaming, CD). Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill also turn in absorbing performances. Scarcely any words are uttered in The Piano, yet it speaks volumes about obsession, creativity, independence, love, and betrayal. In addition to its three Oscars, the film swept the AFI awards, earning eleven in total.
6) The Plumber (Peter Weir, 1979) (also available on The Criterion Channel)
This succulent psychological thriller will toy with your mind in a most gratifying way. As humorous as it is suspenseful, The Plumber will dangle you on tenterhooks as you experience Jill Cowper’s (Judy Morris) gaslighting by the mysterious, manipulative, and mental plumber, Max (Ivar Kants). It is hard to believe this is a TV movie given the caliber of the performances and the wholly original storyline. Peter Weir’s talent is evident in this early work, which would be followed two years later by his masterful tragedy, Gallipoli.
7) Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981) (Prime Video, DVD)
In one of his earliest roles, Mel Gibson delivers an affecting performance set in the context of the World War I Gallipoli campaign in Turkey. From the beginning to its inevitable, calamitous end, this film keeps your heart pounding as you hope against history for a different, triumphant outcome. Perhaps the most heartrending adagio ever composed (Barber’s notwithstanding) and my favorite classical work since high school, Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor (Cinema Classics 2) is the perfect score for this human tragedy. The film’s eight AFI awards include Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor in a Lead Role, Best Screenplay, and Best Achievement in Cinematography.
8) Dead Poet’s Society (Peter Weir, 1989) (Prime Video, blu-ray, DVD)
The third Peter Weir film on this list, Dead Poet’s Society is a bit of a fudge because it is an American rather than an Australian production. Still, the director is Australian, and it holds a special place in my heart. My favorite movie in high school, it deepened my love affair with poetry and introduced me to epic poets such as Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. This bittersweet film is so emotionally intense, I don’t know if I could bear to watch it now—especially given Robin Williams’s heartbreaking end. Williams, who demonstrated extraordinary range over the course of his career, plays the inspirational teacher, John Keating, who roused his students to heed Thoreau’s cry to suck the marrow out of life, including the shy fledgling poet Todd (Ethan Hawke) and the browbeaten Neil (Robert Sean Leonard). The film’s twenty awards include an Oscar for Best Writing in addition to its Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role.
9) The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997)
Unlike most of the films on this list, The Castle is all lightness and levity. This silly cabochon will keep you grinning from start to finish as you follow the ordinary adventures of an eccentric, down-to-earth Aussie family led by plucky father figure Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton), whose comical catch phrase, “He’s dreamin’,” you’ll find yourself repeating for days afterward. These Deplorables of Australia will charm their way into your heart as they take their You Can’t Take It With You–flavored battle against government/corporate infringement to the courtroom. AFI awarded this droll comedy Best Original Screenplay.
10) Flirting (John Duigan, 1991)
Nicole Kidman and Noah Taylor make early appearances in this sweet, coming-of-age film that defies clichés. Kidman pulls off a high school student surprisingly well, two years after her tense performance in Dead Calm (which, while it didn’t make my list, is well worth a watch if you enjoy taut, nail-biting psychological thrillers). Noah Taylor gives a touching performance fraught with all the clumsiness and angst of adolescence while Thandiwe Newton shines in her first role. This soft-spoken film won three AFI awards, including Best Film.
See the compilation of all four parts of this Recommendations Roundup plus a new section on Petitions by clicking below:
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