The Olympics are a good reminder about embracing the talents that the whole world has to offer, which here, means delving into works of national cinema. Movies from overseas are too often unfortunately lumped into the nebulous, unexciting and broad “Foreign” category. National cinema, on the other hand, refers to a film made in and about a certain country, that helps illuminate and define it both narratively and artistically. Foreign, yes. Awesome, definitely.
Australian cinema is one of my personal favorites, because it is usually so closely tied in with its sense of place and culture, uniting both stifled colonialism and the freedom (and occasional terror) of a wild, natural setting. The following films are a few of the best, but often overlooked, from Australia’s rich cinematic reservoir. Also as a reminder: if you don’t currently have the streaming service paired with each film, search the one(s) you do have — many of these titles are available on more than one online platform. Hit the jump for my recommendations.
The Man from Snowy River (Netflix)
• Style: Drama
• Director: George T. Miller
• Year: 1982
• Stars: Tom Burlinson, Kirk Douglas
The Man from Snowy River (based on a Banjo Patterson poem) takes place in the late 19th century, focusing on young hero Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson), fresh off of personal misfortune, who seeks a steady job and a good horse. This leads him from his mountain home down to a lowland farm to do menial labor in a stable, until his skills with horses are noticed and rewarded. Craig’s fortunes, and the fortunes of those around him (including those of two men, both played by Kirk Douglas) are all tied in with a mob of wild horses that roam nearby, led by a rogue stallion whose history with the characters goes deep.
The Man From Snowy River is a rich story from start to finish, but what makes the film really stand out is Miller’s cinematography, as well as the film’s unabashedly Australian sensibilities (despite the presence of Douglas, an American, who is nevertheless fantastic in his duel roles). A particularly stunning scene towards the end of the film, when Craig and his mountain horse pit themselves against a group of fortune hunters set on capturing the stallion and his brood, is one that has been emblazoned in my mind since I first saw it in my youth. The beauty, power and rawness of Australia is all on full display in this captivating work.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (Hulu)
• Style: Mystery/Drama
• Director: Peter Weir
• Year: 1975
• Stars: Rachel Robers, Dominic Guard
Peter Weir‘s Picnic at Hanging Rock (adapted from a 1967 novel) takes place in 1900. The tale begins innocently enough, as some young students of Appleyard College take a day trip to explore a local geological formation. During the course of the day though, several of the students and a teacher disappear from (around? within? underneath?) the rock, without a trace. The possibilities of what happened to them are nearly endless, and include a potential supernatural occurrence. The women are all dazed by the rock, as if it holds some kind of power, and Weir’s direction keeps viewers in a haze that is both lulling and unsettling.
There are many attempts to search for the missing women, and many further strange occurrences that lead some of the women to frenzy. The movie is sometimes classified in the horror genre, because of the sinister feel which pervades every aspect of the work. Ultimately,Picnic at Hanging Rock is a strange and beautiful film that captures a very Australian juxtaposition of colonial propriety and the haunting wildness of the outback.
Muriel’s Wedding (Amazon)
• Style: Cult Drama/Satire
• Director: P.J. Hogan
• Year: 1994
• Stars: Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths
Muriel’s Wedding is usually called a romantic comedy. It’s not. There’s nothing romantic here, and the comedy even starts to give way to difficult drama in the second act. But viewed as a satire, the film’s off-beat sensibilities shine, and the reality is that the film is not one about romance as much as the transformative power of true friendship. Toni Collette plays Muriel, an awkward and overweight layabout from Porpoise Spit, Queensland. She’s obsessed with ABBA (a recurring theme in Australian cinema …) and the idea of marriage, even though she has never even had a boyfriend. After meeting the wild Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), Muriel takes charge of her life (and her father’s bank account), and starts over in Sydney, believing herself to be transformed. But a continual deluge of tragedy and unfortunate moments is what really begins to shape Muriel, turning her into a truly selfless and mature person.
Aside from the acting strengths of Collette and Griffiths, Bill Hunter, as Muriel’s local politician father, also steals every scene with his self-absorbed patter. Muriel’s strange, lazy siblings and fogged-out mother, as well as a quartet of horrible popular girls from her hometown, really help flesh out both the humor and drama that is all deeply Australian. Muriel does have her wedding eventually, but there’s nothing romantic about it. That subversion — along with the ups and downs of her friendship with Rhonda — cements the movie’s lasting legacy.
Note: The Nick Cave-written film The Proposition, and seminal work The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert must always be included in any discussions of Australian cinema. Unfortunately, neither are currently on streaming … but keep checking! They will hopefully be included in the future.
Catch Up on Prior Recommendations: