Culture / Film

Overcome the cultural cringe and plunge into these 25 quintessential Australian films

Everybody loves movies. That is just a fact. And when it comes to the films we gravitate toward, it very much varies from person to person: be it slasher horror, arthouse romps, the riveting dance film, or those with an excellent wardrobe. Of course, this is all no brainer stuff. But the point we'd like to make is that when it comes to our favourite films, we'd sooner point to the most esoteric of genre's before we'd recognise Australian made films.

So for those displaying symptoms of Australian cultural cringe: heavy sweating, eye-rolling at local jargon in films, embarrassment at Australian rap, then consider this a prescribed watch list. As for the rest of us who find joy in Australian cinema, below we've rounded up 25 films that will only solidify your love. From Babyteeth, Sweet Country, Hotel Coolgardie, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and countless others, read on.


1. Two Hands, 1999

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Our love for Two Hands is ironically, two-fold. First the films sense of place and time will have you itching to return to Kings Cross, Bondi and Chinatown in the 90s, if only to ride the monorail and listen to Powderfinger. The second? Yummy. That's all we have to say about the steamy pairing of Heath Ledger and bleach blonde Rose Byrne.


2. Samson and Delilah, 2009

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Warwick Thornton coaxes us into this story of survival with his unflinching lens. Set in the Australian outback, Thornton introduces us to 14-year-old Samson and Delilah as the two cross paths and form a silent, yet palpable bond. A history of violence and indifference has scratched out this plot of reality for the two to inhabit, one which they eventually attempt to escape from together in a stolen car.


3. Muriel's Wedding, 1994

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A visual masterpiece. The humour, the outfits, the gall of Rachel Griffiths, it feeds us every time. Although, whoever tells you that Muriel's Wedding is solely a comedy is lying to you my friends. Prepare to weep. Hard. Especially whenever Muriel's mum wanders onto the screen.


4. Gayby Baby, 2015

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Gayby Baby is a moving documentary that follows the lives of children of same-sex couples. Upon its release it was monumental in passing the microphone over to a community who are so often spoken over and spoken for. After all, it's no secret that the love and and mechanisms of LGBTQIA+ communities have always been dragged into the public domain to be picked apart and critiqued as though it's any of our business. One need only look toward the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey for an example.


5. My Brilliant Career, 1979

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A fixture of school curriculums across the country and Australia's answer to Little Women and Pride and Prejudice. My Brilliant Career trails Sybylla Melvyn — played by a young Judy Davis — as she makes the painful transition from girlhood to womanhood. Headstrong and fiery, Sybylla is on a mission for culture - for purpose outside of her working class, rural background, marriage, and domestic life. She gets a taste of this lifestyle when she is sent to her grandmothers house, but is once again slapped with the reality of poverty when her mother can no longer provide for the family alone.


6. Nitram, 2021

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Although the making and release of Nitram has been shrouded in controversy, Justin Kurzel and Shaun Grant inject the film with a commendable level of nuance. At once gritty, devastating and sinister, the film avoids sympathising with the man responsible for the harrowing Port Arthur Massacre, firstly by omitting his name, and also through accurately portraying the events that led to him committing this unspeakable act, and the culpability of the people and laws that allowed him to purchase guns in the first place. Only Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis, and Anthony LaPaglia could do this story justice.


7. In My Blood It Runs, 2019

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Once again Maya Newell, the same director that delivered Gayby Baby, incited public debate when she release In My Blood It Runs. The documentary trails the day-to-day life of 10-year-old Arrernte and Garrwa boy, Dujuan. We watch on as the real life consequences of dispossession and intergenerational trauma take place around him, before reeling Dujuan in himself. The film put a human face on the preposterous fact that in NSW the criminal age of responsibility is set at 10-years-old.


8. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1994

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An Australian staple loved the world-over. It's queer, it's funny and it's undoubtedly wonderful. Three cash-strapped drag queens take a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs to perform in a hotel lounge. To get them there they drive a converted bus christened Priscilla, which delivers them safely from show to show, where they're met with large crowds and homophobic locals. Needless to say the costumes are to die for, and received an Oscar upon the films release.


9. Snowtown, 2011

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Once again, Justin Kurzel mines the horrors of Australia's past to deliver this haunting piece of Australian cinema. Based on the Snowtown murders, also referred to as the "bodies in the barrels murders", the film becomes almost unwatchable in certain scenes where the violence and brutality reaches boiling point. However, unlike Nitram the film is from the perspective of Jamie, a teenage boy who soon becomes an accomplice to the murders committed by his mother's boyfriend.


10. Babyteeth, 2019

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Babyteeth is a marvel. For a story that centres on terminal illness, the film is remarkably not mawkish. Instead it approaches the subject with a measured, matter-of-factness, one that fills at home in its suburban Sydney setting. Moses is a vision we've seen before, after all we all know or have been that gangly, tattoo-covered teen hanging out at the train station. And if we can't relate to Moses, we can surely empathise with Milla and her pursuit to live fast. Or her parents played phenomenally by Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn. Also, the soundtrack deserves a mention for its inclusion of Sudan Archives, Vashti Bunyan...Mozart.


11. The Castle, 1997

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You know what I'm going to's the serenity? If you're slouched on your couch watching The Castle, I'd say chances are it's pretty good. Michael Caton is the underdog we're all rooting for and with the impact of these one-liners, this film has nestled itself firmly in the Australian lexicon for a good time.


12. Strictly Ballroom, 1992

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Love is in the air. Who could forget one of Australia's most loved exports? Baz Luhrmann. Strictly Ballroom is our answer to Dirty Dancing but distinctly camp. Lurid yellow and pink leotards showered in sequins and wispy feathers, matador suits, everything bedazzled within an inch of its life, and of course dancing. Who wouldn't love it?


13. Bran Nue Dae, 2009

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An infectious and energetic musical comedy from director Rachel Perkins. Through humour, song and dance Perkins broaches Australia's past, commenting on dispossession, Black deaths in custody, racism and assimilation.


14. Holding the Man, 2015

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We are convinced that anyone who finished Timothy Conigrave's memoir dry-eyed is most certainly a sociopath. So with this in mind you're going to need a box of tissues by your side as you sit through the film adaptation. The film trails the real life relationship between Timothy and his childhood sweetheart John Caleo as they fall in and out of love, endure family disapproval, come of age and ultimately lose each other to the harrowing AIDS crisis. It's a testament to the joyous lives they lived individually and together, and paints a mesmerising portrait of Sydney's queer history.


15. Candy, 2006

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Luke Davies' novel-turned-film has long been a beloved centrepiece of Australian cinema. Gritty and raw, Candy shadows the reality of heroin addiction through the metaphor of romance and the eyes of Heath Ledger as Dan. As Candy (played by Abbie Cornish) and Dan become more consumed by drugs, their relationship swiftly falls to pieces, as does their health, and Candy's parents (played by Noni Hazelhurst) are relegated to watch on helplessly from the sidelines.


16. Sweet Country, 2017

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A classic Western but make it Aussie. Warwick Thornton brings us this gripping tale of Sam, an Aboriginal farmhand who shoots a white man in an act of self-defense but must flee to avoid the vengeful authorities. Hamilton Morris makes his acting debut, joined by the likes of Bryan Brown and Sam Neill.


17. Looking for Alibrandi, 2000

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If I'm being completely honest, Looking for Alibrandi is the reason I set out to write this list in the first place. What is Australian cinema without the story of Josephine Alibrandi and her completely mad and messy Italian family? It perfectly captures the pressures of class and culture in Sydney and earns a bonus point for all the landmarks that flash past in the background.


18.  Puberty Blues, 1981

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Rack off ya fish-faced moll. It's not exactly an open-armed welcome, but high-schoolers Debbie and Sue are willing to do what it takes to make it into the cool, surfer gang. Whether you came to Puberty Blues the film via your parents or it's TV adaptation, it's portrayal of Australian surf culture, sex and friendship is not so much relevant, but like watching a historical event you're glad to be on the other side of. Still, don't be afraid to dive in.


19. The Dry, 2020

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Another book adaptation to make the list. Eric Bana returns to his outback hometown to attend a sudden and tragic funeral. However, his appearance dredges up old feuds and long standing questions the town has about his involvement in another death that occurred many years ago. Jane Harper's novel covers the devastation of drought, not just on the land but on people, and this film is no different.


20. Hotel Coolgardie, 2016

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I'm going to be honest with you, this one's not for the faint-hearted. Hotel Coolgardie is a heavy and disquieting watch, but that is the point. As two Finnish backpackers arrive in a Western Australian mining town with instructions to work at the local pub where they'll be housed for three months in order to save some money to continue their travels, their resolve its pushed to its utmost limits. The two encounter an Australian ugliness: blatant and relentless misogyny and xenophobia, which threatens to upend their time abroad.


21. Teenage Kicks, 2016

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A hidden opal in Australian cinema. Shari Sebbens, Charlotte Best, and the captivating Miles Szanto are thrusted together in a gutsy queer coming of age story set in suburbia. As the title declares, there are teenage kicks to be found here; cheap thrills like the drag of a makeshift bong, mutual masturbation and general risk-taking. But all of this is just symptomatic of the grief and guilt that erupt throughout the film, as the protagonist grapples with the tragic death of his brother and in turn his sexuality.


22. My First Summer, 2020

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A shimmering jewel of a film that follows two queer teens coming of age and falling in love in rural Australia. It's saturated in amber light, summer bliss and youthful exuberance, while the sobering reality of family violence and secrets anchor the plot. Maiah Stewardson and Markella Kavenagh deliver a tender, gentle portrayal of first love.


23. Storm Boy, 1976

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The late David Gulpilil shines here. A filmic adaptation of Colin Thiele's 1964 children's novel of the same name, Storm Boy lingers in the hearts of audiences who are moved to tears as the simple story of a child and his pelican friend unfolds. While the 2019 reimagining deserves kudos, we can't help returning to the grainy quality and nostalgic feel of the original version.


24. The Dish, 2000

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Say what you will, Sam Neill is supremely hunky, especially in The Dish. Helmed by the same director that gifted us The Castle, this film is a sentimental account of Australia's involvement in broadcasting the monumental Apollo 11 moon landing. For lovers of Australian history, the central western New South Wales' country town of Parkes, or simply those seeking a feel good film, this one's for you.


25. The True History of the Kelly Gang, 2019

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Where do we begin? Another masterpiece from the formidable duo that is Justin Kurzel and Shaun Grant. Not only does this film pick apart Australian masculinity and the fables its bolstered by, but it delivers a casting lineup that will make your heart sing. Essie Davis is a powerful presence, joined by the heart throbs, Earl Cave, George Mackay, Nicholas Hoult, Sean Keenan, and Thomasin McKenzie. There's a slate of local talent championed in this film, like Marlon Williams, Claudia Karvan and newcomer Markella Kavenagh. Even Tilly Lawless has a cameo. And if all of that isn't reason enough to add this film to the top of your watch list, the striking costume design sparked a partnership between costume designer Alice Babidge and Susie Cave's clothing label, The Vampire's Wife.

Because I'm a sucker for Australian cinema, the good, the sentimental and the cringe, here's a long list of films in case there's nothing above that piques your interest. Close runners up include: The Wog Boy, Babe, Animal Kingdom, Mystery Road, The Babadook, Satellite Boy, Wake in Fright, and Hating Alison Ashley.

As for those who prefer their stories to arrive in the form of novels and short fiction, we've curated an Australian reading list for you here. 

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