While it might not be quite the same as Hollywood, the Australian film industry is becoming more well-known even outside Australia. Reading books and watching films from a certain place are both great ways to see what a destination is like, whether you are planning to go there or not. Today I’ve put together this list of the Australian films I think are most iconic, and which should be watched either before you visit Australia or during your time in the land down under. Some of these are well-known classics while others are a bit more obscure, but they all show a glimpse of Australian culture and life that you might not otherwise see.
Australian Movies You Should Watch Before Travelling to Australia
Mainly set in: Darwin, the Northern Territory and Northern Western Australia
Simply called “Australia”, this film by Baz Luhrmann is totally epic, featuring stunning scenery and many of the best Australian actors. While Nicole Kidman plays a British woman, other Aussies get to play Australian characters, including Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, and David Gulpilil. The film is quite long and almost has two main stories, one about droving cattle from Western Australia to Darwin and then one about rescuing an Aboriginal boy from a mission during the WWII bombing of Darwin. It’s definitely worth seeing if only for the incredible landscapes, but the story is also great and the characters very memorable.
Film: Crocodile Dundee
Mainly set in: The Northern Territory and New York City
Even though it was released in 1986, and looks pretty dated, Crocodile Dundee is beloved by Australians. Starring legendary Aussie actor Paul Hogan as Mick “Crocodile” Dundee, he made crocodile wrestling cool long before Steve Irwin came onto the scene. Even though it’s dated it’s still enjoyable to see the stereotypical Aussie larrikin, especially when he utters his most famous words, “that’s not a knife. That’s a knife!”
Film: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Mainly set in: A road-trip from Sydney through the New South Wales and central Australian outback to the town of Alice Springs
Most people have at least heard of this classic Aussie film, even if they haven’t seen it. If you haven’t seen it, you should, if only because it stars iconic Aussie actors Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce as gay drag queens. Even though the film is a bit dated, none of the issues it deals with are, and there are some truly hilarious moments as well as sad ones.
Film: Bran Nue Dae
Mainly set in: Western Australia
I worked for three years as a teacher in a town called Carnavorn, which is located on the West Australian coastline roughly halfway between Perth and Broome. This film came out while I was there (and I even taught a student who has a very small role) and was loved by pretty much everyone, especially as it’s a road trip movie about a boy going home to Broome from Perth. Ernie Dingo (who plays ‘Uncle’ Tadpole) is a very well-known Australian Aboriginal actor (who I’ve also met!), although the film has plenty of famous Australians in it, including Geoffrey Rush, Deborah Mailman, Magda Szubanski, Jessica Mauboy and Missy Higgins. The film is based on a musical of the same name, and is set in the 60s. The songs are great and it’s also really funny.
Film: Red Dog
Mainly set in: Western Australia
Red Dog also came out while I was living in Carnarvon, and is based on a book which in turn was based on a true story about an Australian Kelpie/cattle dog cross who travelled throughout the Pilbara region (a mining area) of Western Australia. There’s even a statue of him still standing today in the town of Dampier. This movie is a great way to see what it’s like in the really rural areas of Western Australia, where many residents are transient and often migrants and the dirt is really red. Be warned though, if you tend to cry at sad animal films, you will bawl your eyes out at this one! I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch it a second time as I cried so much when I saw it at the movies.
Film: Ned Kelly
Mainly set in: Victoria
Ned Kelly is a kind of mythological figure in Australia, inspiring many artworks, books and films, although he was actually a real person. This film version from 2003 stars Heath Ledger as Ned Kelly, an Irish-Australian bushranger who turned to crime and violence after the persecution his family received from the local police. This is a good film to watch if you want to know more about Australia’s bushranger history. It also stars Orlando Bloom, along with a plethora of talented Australian actors including Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts, Joel Edgerton, Rachel Griffiths and Emily Browning.
Film: Rabbit-Proof Fence
Mainly set in: Rural Western Australia
While it can be difficult to watch, it’s important that stories like Rabbit-Proof Fence are seen, so we can better understand some of the horrible things that were done to the Australian Aboriginal people by the Australian government. Between 1905 and 1967 (or even into the 70s in some places), many “half-caste” Aboriginal children were taken from their families by government and church agencies in order to “properly assimilate” them into white culture. These acts had profound impacts on many generations of Aboriginal Australians (definitely do some more research on it) and Rabbit-Proof Fence deals with just one example of it. This film is about three Aboriginal sisters who escape from the settlement they were taken to and follow the ‘rabbit-proof fence’ over 2,400 kilometres to get back home.
Mainly set in: Melbourne
In 2006, Geoffrey Wright made an Australian version of Macbeth, set in modern-day Melbourne. It’s a bit like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in that the original lines are used but the setting is made modern. However, this version of Macbeth isn’t really anywhere near as good as Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, but it’s still a fairly entertaining watch. Aussie actor Sam Worthington (who later became the star of Avatar) plays Macbeth, and the witches are depicted as Catholic school girls!
Film: Gettin’ Square
Mainly set in: The Gold Coast
Not everyone will enjoy this one, but if you’re a fan of Australian actors like Sam Worthington (from above) and David Wenham (Lord of the Rings, Van Helsing, Australia, 300 and Iron Fist) then it’s an interesting experience, if only to see David Wenham play a real loser of a character, complete with mullet! It also features Timothy Spall, who played Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. It’s a comedy about ex-criminals trying to go straight, or get square as we say it Down Under, and is quite entertaining.
Film: Finding Nemo
Mainly set in: The Great Barrier Reef (Queensland), Eastern Coast of New South Wales, Sydney
I mean, you’ve probably already seen this one, but if you haven’t then now’s the perfect time! Finding Nemo is about a fish travelling from the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland to Sydney to find his son, and has lots of well-known Australian actors in the voice roles. Geoffrey Rush voices the pelican Nigel, Eric Bana is one of the small sharks and Barry Humphries (who is also drag queen Dame Edna Everidge) voices the big shark Bruce! Bill Hunter (who was also in Red Dog, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Australia) is also the voice of the dentist.
Film: The Sapphires
Mainly set in: Melbourne, Vietnam
The Sapphires is very loosely based on a true story about an all-female Australian Aboriginal singing group named The Sapphires in the 1960s, who travelled to Vietnam to entertain the troops during the Vietnam war. While much of the story is different in the film, this is a really entertaining comedy/drama starring some excellent Australian Aboriginal actresses/singers, particularly Jessica Mauboy and Deborah Mailman. It also deals a little bit with the issue of The Stolen Generation, where many Aboriginal children were taken from their families because they could pass as white, and were then placed in institutions to teach them to be ‘more white’.
Film: The Light Between Oceans
Mainly set in: An island off the coast of Western Australia
I’ve put this one last because while it’s set in Australia it was actually mostly filmed in New Zealand, and doesn’t feature any Australian actors. However, the cast is really good (Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz) plus the film does capture how it would feel to live in a remote part of Western Australia in the post-war years. Some scenes were also filmed in Tasmania as well!
What NOT to watch (sort of)!
Mainly set in: Melbourne
Kenny is a mockumentary about an Aussie plumber who works for a business renting out portaloos. It’s quite funny if you enjoy the style of mockumentaries, but you definitely don’t want to watch it if you’re a bit squeamish about toilet humour!
Film: Wolf Creek
Mainly set in: Western Australia (although it was filmed in South Australia)
Don’t watch this unless you like really creepy horror films! I personally hate scary movies so I have never actually watched this, although other fans have said it’s good, you know, for being awful. Critics apparently criticised it for being too realistically violent. It’s very loosely based on a couple of true events, about backpackers in remote Australia who are taken captive and then murdered by a serial killer. The only reason I have ever been slightly tempted to see this is because the Australian actor who plays the bad guy, John Jarratt, was really known for being this sweet and goofy man. He was on Better Homes and Gardens for years but apparently his performance in Wolf Creek was very chilling, especially in contrast to how he’s always been seen.
A lot of other articles of this kind also recommend the Australian films “Muriel’s Wedding” (1994) and “The Castle” (1997) but I personally wouldn’t, because I don’t think they really translate too well to non-Australian audiences. They’re also quite dated and probably just not as entertaining to people who didn’t live in Australia during the 90s. But hey, if you’re a big fan of Toni Collette (in Muriel’s Wedding) or Eric Bana (in The Castle) and want to see their very early roles, go for it!
Have you ever seen any of these films, or have a favourite Australian film you think should be included on this list? Let me know in the comments and pin one of these to come back to this later.