For every Red Dog, Mad Max: Fury Road and Happy Feet, there are dozens of locally made productions that are just as good, and usually better, but cruelly never seem to catch the attention of mainstream audiences in the cinemas.
Some of these titles were released amid a raging torrent of rave reviews, have opened international film festivals and are lavished with awards… but only a meagre trickle of punters bother to buy a ticket, possibly because the latest Marvel big boy they planned to see has already sold out its four screens.
You may not have heard of most of the little gems here, but trust us, each deserved to go down as a true blue classic and be seen by more than the population of Humpty Doo.
Do you really need to gawp at another conflicted superhero saving New York when these 15 treats await?
1. Wake In Fright (1971)
One of the reasons you haven’t seen this sadistic-but-fun horror romp filmed in Broken Hill is that it was literally lost for decades as its master negative had gone missing, though it was rediscovered and the film restored and re-released in 2009.
Nick Cave reckons it’s “the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence”, while Martin Scorsese declared it a “deeply, and I mean deeply, unsettling and disturbing movie”. If you thought Wolf Creek made the outback seem creepy, it’s got nothing on this.
2. Pure Shit (1975)
In retrospect the title may not have been wildly helpful to the marketing team promoting this gritty, low-budget window into Melbourne’s heroin scene – after a young junkie dies, her four friends spend the night searching the streets for good quality ‘shit’ to inject. (Another slight setback was when the glittering premiere was raided by the vice squad and the authorities banned its release.)
When it was grudgingly given an R rating (and renamed Pure S), the press slammed it for glorifying drugs, so it sank faster than a flushed turd. The Sydney Morning Herald’s critic described it as “the most evil film that I’ve ever seen”, which is reason in itself to get hold of a copy.
Luckily it deservedly gained a reputation as a cult classic as a realistic and compelling portrayal of serious addiction.
3. Newsfront (1978)
Director Phillip Noyce’s debut feature was lauded by some critics as the “Australian film of the decade”, but these days getting your hands on a copy might be a challenge.
It’s the story of two rival cameramen in the early 1950s battling each other to get the best newsreel footage of landmark national events as the advent of television threatens their very existence.
Think Anchorman, but with better suits and smaller moustaches. A fascinating look at post-war Australia with a cracking cast including Bill Hunter, Bryan Brown and Home And Away grump Ray Meagher.
4. Razorback (1984)
Released the same year that dingo baby mum Lindy Chamberlain lost her final appeal against her conviction for murdering her daughter Azaria (she was cleared four years later), this outback horror about a giant wild boar snatching and killing a small child was either an attempt to give credence to her claims, or an unsubtle cash-in.
As with the Azaria case, the person looking after the child is charged with murder, but he then tracks down the rogue animal before it gets to too many other locals.
It’s perhaps a bit too much like Jaws, but it’s undeniably scary and the animatronic pig is more convincing than Spielberg’s mechanical shark ever was. Surprisingly for such a low-brow gorefest, it was nominated for 12 AACTA awards, and won two.
5. Dogs In Space (1986)
Set amid the angry mayhem of Melbourne’s late-’70s punk scene, this is the story of the titular fictional band and their wasted singer, Sam. He was played by a mesmerising Michael Hutchence, who also contributed new songs to the impressive soundtrack (which is now a collectors’ item, after the record company went bust soon afterwards).
Writer/director Richard Lowenstein based Sam’s character on Sam Sejavka, lead singer of The Ears, but the two fell out when Sejavka hated the portrayal and disputed many of the events featured. Judging by the movie, it’s a miracle he remembered anything much from the period.
5. Sweetie (1989)
One of the most hypnotisingly dysfunctional Aussie families ever to be given screen time play out their paranoid, disturbing lives in director Jane Campion’s debut feature. The title character is a monstrous prodigal child who returns to her childhood home as a feral middle-aged woman intent on dishing out her bonkers reality to freak out her sister.
It’s way too surreal to be labelled a family drama, and too dark and cruel to be a comedy. Rather, it cynically positioned itself as a strange cautionary tale about manipulation and psychological cruelty that you might need to watch twice to fully appreciate all the evil deeds playing out.
7. Return Home (1990)
Made on a shoestring in suburban Adelaide, this touching study on the importance of community won an Australian Film Institute award for director Ray Argall and nom for star Frankie J. Holden despite not making back its budget at the box office.
A divorced insurance exec returns to his childhood neighbourhood where his brother is struggling to keep his small garage business going, and contemplating an uncertain future. OK, so it doesn’t sound like a thrill-a-minute joyride, but there’s real heart in its slow-burning rumination on coming home and facing a society intent on leaving you behind.
8. Dark City (1998)
Shot on the leftover sets of The Matrix, this noir fantasy mystery stars Rufus Sewell as a murder suspect who wakes up in the bath, realises he has lost his memory and then finds a dead body in the next room. Also, a trenchcoat-clad gang from outer space with supernatural abilities is after him.
It’s not based on a true story. As the various parties enter each other’s minds, find secret passages that lead beyond the Solar System, dodge force fields and search for a mythical beach, there’s a lot to take in. But the sheer originality and a stellar cast including Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt means there is literally never a dull moment.
Perhaps one reason it didn’t resonate at the box office was that its release coincided with a certain little flick called Titanic.
- READ MORE: The best Australian movies of the 1990s
9. Somersault (2004)
A troubled 16-year-old girl (Abbie Cornish) flees Canberra for the desolate ski fields around Jindabyne and meets a farmer’s son (Sam Worthington) in turmoil over his sexuality. It’s the roller coaster bond between the two misfits that frames the action: she’s shagging her way around the town, wallowing in the upset it causes him, while his awkward attempts at romance only add to his despair.
Cornish is genuinely spectacular in an unsympathetic role as the architect of all her disasters, while Worthington shows a vulnerable side that hasn’t been much in evidence since.
Somersault won a record 13 AFI awards including Best Film, acting awards for the leads and the director prize for Cate Shortland (who is helming the upcoming Black Widow). Sad then, that it died at the box office and isn’t held in the esteem it deserves.
10. The Proposition (2005)
It’s odd that Nick Cave could write a spellbinding screenplay like this – every bit as impressive as his musical accomplishments – and then fail to follow it up. Still, as one-hit cinematic wonders go, this is top drawer.
Russell Crowe subsequently asked Cave to write the sequel to Gladiator, but the studio rejected his ideas, and a rumoured collaboration with Andy Serkis on an adaptation of The Threepenny Opera failed to materialise. His only mild success afterwards was the so-so Western Lawless in 2012.
But The Proposition really is such a masterclass in plot, pacing, dialogue and mood it makes you wish the Bad Seeds had exiled him years ago so he could churn out more (one or two music fans may disagree). Guy Pearce plays a pitiless outlaw forced to hunt down one of his brothers to save the other from execution. His journey to redemption through an unforgiving, grimy outback is unflinching, bleak and brilliant. More please, Mr. Cave.
11. Candy (2006)
An outlier poet (Heath Ledger) and a zany art school student (Abbie Cornish) can’t decide if they’re more in love with each other or with heroin. As with most junkies-in-love parables there’s sex, heartbreak, deep joy, more heartbreak, growing self-awareness, cold turkey anguish, more heartbreak followed by clear heads and reflection on surviving the whole caboodle.
Don’t expect the gritty horrors of Trainspotting: this is an enjoyable soap opera of self-absorbed beautiful people apparently not ravished by their addictions. The playful chemistry between Ledger and Cornish electrifies the screen and Geoffrey Rush has fun as an oddball professor.
12. Ten Canoes (2006)
The first film to be told entirely in Aboriginal languages, this was inspired by stories Crocodile Dundee star David Gulpilil told co-director Rolf de Heer about life in traditional tribes before any white men showed up.
It stars Gulpilil’s son Jamie as the younger brother of a warrior killed by a rival community as punishment after an ill-judged attack. The death resonates through the camp as the widowed wives seek a new companion.
It won countless awards, including the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival despite questions being asked about a white director telling an Indigenous story. De Heer’s response was that the actors themselves are retelling their own history, not him.
13. Samson And Delilah (2009)
Another much-lauded Indigenous production, this time written and directed by an Aboriginal filmmaker, Warwick Thornton. The title characters are 14-year-old runaways, he a mute boy addicted to sniffing petrol, and she an orphan driven out of her home when she is unfairly blamed for her grandmother’s death.
It pulls no punches in its depiction of inhalant abuse, gang rape and family violence, but the brutality is matched by a touching love story and an ambitious hope for the future. Samson And Delilah is a spellbinding achievement that deserves to be seen by many more people.
14. Last Ride (2009)
Hugo Weaving is a modern-day outlaw, fleeing across the outback with his young son (Tom Russell) on a journey he knows won’t end well. As they find places to squat, steal a car, shoot rabbits and evade capture, the boy finds the inner strength to cope with adversity and grapple with what his dad has done.
Weaving has never been better, but Russell is so impressive and matches him for intensity. Another sublime picture that hardly anyone saw.
15. The Loved Ones (2009)
A gruesomely delicious slasher with Robin McLeavy as a deranged teen exacting bloody revenge on the boy (Xavier Samuel) who rejected her invitation to prom. There are sadistic shades of Wolf Creek here, as the captured teen is tortured in the claustrophobic confines of what turns out to be an eerie dungeon.
Unusually for such explicitly violent material, it was screened at festivals worldwide, scooped a clutch of gongs and has a 98 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s also placed 37th in the all-time list of horror films. But criminally, it still only brought in less than a quarter of what it cost to make.