The best Australian movies of the 1990s

Here’s why it was the greatest ever decade for homegrown cinema

The Australian film industry exploded in the 1990s, splattering audiences worldwide in lashings of green and gold celluloid goodness and showcasing that we had important stories to tell and talented people to tell them.

If Crocodile Dundee had unlocked the door to international markets in 1986, then quintessentially ocker blockbusters like Babe, Priscilla…, Strictly Ballroom and Shine kicked down the walls with their R. M. Williams steel-caps. A few Americans even learned that not every Aussie wears a croc skin waistcoat and grabs trans women by the groin.

There were also a clutch of Hollywood studio productions written or directed by Aussies including Green Card, Romeo + Juliet, Patriot Games, The Truman Show and, er, Free Willy.

So if you haven’t experienced every one of these true blue trailblazers at least a dozen times, then, nah mate, you’re not a full-blooded, hard-baked, sun-damaged, drongo Aussie bludger.

On the bright side, you have some deadset treats in store.

Flirting (1991)

This is the second and final film in writer/director John Duigan’s autobiographical coming-of-age trilogy. Despite the success of both this and its predecessor, The Year My Voice Broke, the planned third instalment never actually materialised.

Which is a pity as the story, set in 1965, of awkward boarding school teen Danny (Noah Taylor, reprising his role) fumbling his way through a stolen romance with Thandiwe (Thandie Newton’s debut feature) from the nearby girls’ school, is both funny and touching. Inherent racism, Catholic school cruelty and entrenched conservatism all conspire against the lovesick rebels as it gradually dawns on them that some rules really need to be broken.

A then-largely unknown Nicole Kidman plays a minor role, but, in a cynical move, she’s all over the film’s poster and trailer because, by the time it was released, she’d hit the big time with Dead Calm and Days Of Thunder.

Proof (1991)

A young blind boy Martin takes a snap of the garden from his bedroom window and his mum tells him a man is out there raking leaves. But the lad can’t hear a thing, so decides she is lying and vows never to trust a sighted person again.

Admittedly it’s an odd setup. And in truth, it doesn’t get any less odd as he grows up into a beekeeping photographer, portrayed by Hugo Weaving, who has a deranged housekeeper plotting to drive him insane because he won’t have sex with her. Then Russell Crowe enters, befriends Martin and sleeps with the housekeeper before storming off in a huff (something he’s repeated a few times since).

It sounds more like a Monty Python acid trip than an emotional character study, but the Australian Film Institute Awards liked it enough to name it the year’s best flick, and bestow prizes on both leading men as well as writer/director Jocelyn Waterhouse, who produced Muriel’s Wedding three years later.

Romper Stomper (1992)

Russell Crowe’s breakthrough performance is based on the life of Melbourne neo-Nazi Dane Sweetman whose gang waged war on Jews, Asians and gay people in the late 1980s before he was jailed for life for murdering a fellow skinhead and cutting both his legs off at a party to celebrate Hitler’s birthday.

Crowe is genuinely terrifying as the fictional Hando, a psychopath terrorising Vietnamese-Australians who turns on a member of his gang, Davey (played by Daniel Pollock, who took his own life before the movie’s release), after the latter reveals he wants out.

It’s a brutal and ultra-violent indictment of the far-right extremism that was rife in the city at the time and has since become a cult classic, with a sequel TV series released on Stan in 2018. Given the populist nationalism currently infesting so many countries, its message has never been more relevant.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

This gloriously camp ‘Footloose Down Under’ celebrated snapping the parental ties through that classic medium of rebellion and counter-culture: ballroom dancing.

Whereas Kevin Bacon shocked the yokels by gyrating his hips, Paul Mercurio’s character subversively unleashes Armageddon with a risqué Spanish pasodoble which horrifies his folks and enrages the crusty organiser of a prestigious dance contest.

It started life as a stage play dreamt up by director Baz Luhrmann eight years before the film’s release, while he was at drama school. It became his debut film and one of the most successful antipodean productions of all time, winning a slew of awards and establishing Luhrmann’s theatrical, flamboyant style. It also gave Sonia Kruger her big break as the manipulative Tina Sparkle.

The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

The ultimate feel-good, ABBA-infused outback LGBTQI+ celebration became that rare beast: a global phenomenon that’s also a cult classic. Like Strictly Ballroom, it’s a kick in the nuts for the flannelette-shirted ’Strayan bigots out of Woop Woop as three drag artists groove their glittery way from Sydney to Alice Springs in a bus called Priscilla to put on a show for the locals.

Hugo Weaving brings poignancy to the scenes with his secret son, while Terence Stamp’s career-best turn as a bereaved trans woman is heartbreaking and ultimately touching. Guy Pearce’s transitioning, meanwhile, was from dull Neighbours hunk into bona fide movie star, with a string of Hollywood roles following on.

It was, more than anything, a landmark in Aussie queer cinema, and further cemented our reputation for quirky, eccentric stories of big, bold characters taking on the establishment, usually with feather boas and heels.

Babe (1995)

The fact that Quentin Tarantino listed this as one of his favourite films of 1995 shows just what an impact a cute, orphaned piglet can have on even the most cynical moviegoer. Its US$30 million budget was astronomical by Aussie standards, but it brought home the bacon to the tune of 10 times that amount.

Actual bacon producers weren’t impressed, though, as the movie reportedly led to a huge fall in demand when fans realised that their tasty rashers were made from actual animals who appeared to be able to talk.

The plot sees our plucky CGI hero escape a Christmas butchering by Farmer Hoggett (an Oscar-nominated James Cromwell) to become a skilled herder of sheep. Like Priscilla… and Strictly Ballroom, it’s all about getting one over on the dogmatic jobsworths, here in the shape of sneering sheepdog trial judges.

It garnered an impressive seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and took home the statuette for special effects. Sadly, producer George Miller and director Chris Noonan ended up bickering over who deserved the most credit. Miller insisted on directing the sequel (which flopped) while Noonan has only helmed one picture since.

Shine (1996)

Another quirksome, intimate production that somehow became an awards juggernaut and unexpected international hit, winning an Oscar for Geoffrey Rush (beating odds-on favourite Tom Cruise for his turn as Jerry Maguire).

Shine is based on the life of Adelaide piano genius David Helfgott, a child prodigy whose schizoaffective disorder manifested itself in young adulthood, causing a mental breakdown and leading to electro-shock treatment in a psychiatric hospital before an unlikely recovery. The scintillating piano playing and Rush’s tour-de-force performance charmed audiences worldwide.

At the Academy Awards ceremony, the real-life Helfgott received a standing ovation for a fevered rendition of ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’. Some music critics have questioned just how masterful his playing really was, and his sister trashed the movie for making their dad out to be a monster, but its iconic status has remained unscathed.

The Castle (1997)

Perhaps the most cherished Aussie movie of all time, The Castle follows a larrikin battler from the suburbs who takes on faceless bureaucracy to live the Aussie dream and prove his home really is his castle.

Rissole-loving tow truck driver Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) is certainly the nation’s greatest cinematic champion (Mad Max? Tell him he’s dreaming), a fair dinkum patriarch fighting the compulsory acquisition of his beloved house to save his family, his neighbours and his pool room. The script was written in two weeks, filming took 11 days and the budget was a mere $750,000. It made over $10million here and even got a little run in the States, probably with subtitles.

Oscar And Lucinda (1997)

A wild, tragi-comic love affair between a young outcast priest (Ralph Fiennes) and gambling-addicted glass factory owner (Cate Blanchett in her first major role) forms the basis of this riotously strange 19th-century romp directed by Gillian Anderson, from Peter Carey’s impenetrable novel of the same name.

As Oscar, Fiennes casts aside the buttoned-up formality he brought to Schindler’s List and The English Patient to wallow in dishevelled overindulgence and wild misbehaviour. His character’s obsession with delivering a full-sized glass chapel to an outback vicar to win a bet with Blanchett’s Lucinda is equally funny and heartbreaking as tensions flare and violence erupts. Oscar soon wishes he’d heeded the edict that people who transport glass churches shouldn’t throw stones.

Two Hands (1999)

This largely forgotten crime drama is an Australian Goodfellas. A young, mulleted punk (played by a 19-year-old Heath Ledger) is lured into Sydney’s glamorous organised crime scene by a gentleman mafia boss (Bryan Brown), but when he loses $10,000 of his boss’ cash, he plots a shambolic bank robbery to pay it back.

Where Martin Scorsese imbued his suited wise guys with polish and glitz, writer and director Gregor Jordan’s landscape is pokey flats infested with moustachioed standover men in singlets and baggy shorts.

It’s a bog-standard heist premise, but Ledger’s electrifying performance makes it sexy
and funny, and shows exactly why he was on the verge of greatness. A real hidden Aussie gem.

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