Upending the Canon:
10 Alternative Entries for the Australian Film Canon

by Ben Kooyman

While the Western canons of literature, art, music, and philosophy are well-established, the cinematic canon is a work-in-progress. Clocking in at just over a century, the medium of film is still in its infancy compared to other art forms, and what constitutes its canon is still relatively nebulous. Nonetheless, plenty of tastemakers have strived to create their own film canons, from the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd in the 1950s to Sight & Sound’s Greatest Film List to the popular Earwolf podcast The Canon, and there are some sure bets across all these sources: Citizen Kane, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, The Bicycle Thieves, and so on.

Australia, too, has a film canon of sorts, populated in equal measure by critical darlings (many derived from the Australian New Wave, such as My Brilliant Career, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and Breaker Morant, along with newer classics like Shine, Animal Kingdom, and Samson & Delilah) and popular commercial successes (e.g. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Castle). While I don’t begrudge these films their canonical status, there’s a risk of fossilisation when the same films get the curatorial push each and every time.

Below are 10 films firmly established in the Australian film canon and 10 alternative entries: films which were not necessarily commercial or critical successes, and which hover on the margins of the Australian film canon and deserve a second wind. My aim isn’t to be contrarian, to take down sacred cows or demolish the established Australian film canon; as stated, I don’t begrudge those films that have cemented their place in posterity. Rather, I want to propose an alternative canon of lesser-known, neglected, but nonetheless interesting titles. These films may be imperfect, and are not necessarily better than their canonical counterparts, but in their own ways they exemplify the uniqueness of Australian filmmaking …

The Staple: Picnic at Hanging Rock (dir: Peter Weir, 1975)

The Alternative: Long Weekend (dir: Colin Eggleston, 1978)


Peter Weir’s artful and enigmatic Picnic at Hanging Rock, which depicts the disappearance of four boarding school students in the outback in the late Victorian era, is a jewel in the crown of Australian cinema. However, Weir’s woozy, otherworldly melodrama isn’t the only film of the 1970s in which nature turns the tables on those presumptuous enough to claim it as their own. Three years later, Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend follows strained couple Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets) as they venture into the outback, trash the local flora and fauna, and proceed to be thrashed by the local flora and fauna. While Picnic at Hanging Rock was commercially and critically successful and continues to be revered, Eggleston’s exercise in escalating environmental comeuppance was lauded at a smattering of overseas festivals but ignored locally, and has only re-emerged following the gentrification of Ozploitation in the late noughties. There’s no question Weir’s film is a rarefied specimen, but Long Weekend feels far more pressing and pertinent in this era of global warming and climate change, dramatising the consequences of humanity’s complacency towards nature through the guise of a slasher film in the woods where the woods are the slasher. In the decade that followed Eggleston continued to crank out genre fare, including the bargain basement Indiana Jones wannabe Sky Pirates (also starring Hargreaves), but Long Weekend remains his best work, elevated by two terrific leads in Hargreaves and Behets and a superior script courtesy of Australia’s premier thriller ironist Everett de Roche. It’s a testament to what a solid journeyman (to use a term held in equal parts affection and disparagement) can accomplish with a juicy piece of material.


The Staple: Mad Max (dir: George Miller, 1979)

The Alternative: Resistance (dir: Hugh Keays-Byrne, 1992)


While The Road Warrior (or Mad Max 2 for the OG crowd) established the series’ mythological dimension and Mad Max: Fury Road fulfilled every fan’s lifelong dreams and then some, 1979’s Mad Max is deservedly cherished for its DIY aesthetic, low-budget moxie, and punk attitude towards established filmmaking practices and cast & crew safety. Mel Gibson aside, chief among its cast is Hugh Keays-Bryrne, chewing scenery and asphalt alike as the delightfully monikered villain Toecutter. Between this and his equally iconic turn as Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road, Keays-Byrne co-directed and co-starred in his very own dystopian action thriller. Resistance, co-helmed with Paul Elliott, is set in a flailing Australia operating under martial law. Following a violent military intervention to halt female workers protesting their mistreatment by an agricultural giant, the people of the remote Ithaca Plains township fight back against their oppressors. Resistance joins Mad Max – not to mention Turkey Shoot, Dead End Drive-In, The Rover, and others – in painting a pessimistic portrait of Australia’s future. Where Mad Max is primarily preoccupied with pulp and kineticism, Resistance is more overtly political in its concerns; nonetheless, the directors show a real talent for executing set pieces and conjuring striking, raw imagery. The film was never afforded a proper release despite costing over $6 million to produce and earning some technical AFI (Australian Film Institute) Award nominations – I’ve read some juicy conjecture about this, but won’t spill here – and the DVD I own has a French soundtrack sans English subtitles, hence it’s not an easy film to locate in its intended format. But it’s worth seeing as one of the more didactic, Oliver Stone-esque additions to Australia’s corpus of dystopian cinema.


The Staple: Gallipoli (dir: Peter Weir, 1981)

The Alternative: The Odd Angry Shot (dir: Tom Jeffrey, 1979)


Another Peter Weir film and another Mel Gibson film, Gallipoli is almost mythopoeic in its portrait of Australia’s rite of passage through collective sacrifice. It’s an impeccably made, exquisitely burnished work of national mourning. In sharp contrast, The Odd Angry Shot is a scrappier, more laconic affair. Directed and scripted by Tom Jeffrey (based on an autobiographical book by soldier William Nagle), the 1979 film depicts Australian troops engaged in Vietnam and focuses on a platoon comprising one of the starriest Australian casts of the period, featuring John Jarratt, Graham Kennedy, Bryan Brown, John Hargreaves, and Graeme Blundell. Whilst the American Vietnam films of the late 1970s were ruminations on the psychological trauma of war – see The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Apocalypse Now – and films like Platoon would recreate the experiences of soldiers at the coalface of combat in the subsequent decade, The Odd Angry Shot is interested in neither. It’s anti-war in its maligning of the wastefulness of war and the squandering of lives – both through and tangential to actual combat – but it’s ultimately a mild black comedy, depicting the boredom and idleness of wartime rather than recycling the “War is Hell” mantra. Kennedy, Hargreaves, and Blundell all starred in the David Williamson adaptation Don’s Party a few years earlier, and there’s a Williamson-esque counter-cultural vibe to proceedings (ironically, Williamson would go on to pen Gallipoli, showing a knack for national mythmaking equal to his knack for cultural critique). But this film’s a bigger venture than that suburban-set battle of the sexes and sexless, and was shot using hardware and at locations provided by the Australian military, giving it an authenticity and scale beyond its modest investment. The Odd Angry Shot is an underrated gem, and a very Australian antidote to the reverential spirit of Gallipoli and the dominant Vietnam War film aesthetic established in American movies.


The Staple: Crocodile Dundee (dir: Peter Faiman, 1986)

The Alternative: Roadgames (dir: Richard Franklin, 1981)


The most successful and widely recognised Australian film of all time, Crocodile Dundee needs no introduction. It has plenty of fans and more than a few detractors, but I’m here to neither bury nor praise it. What I would love, more than anything, is for readers of this article to go watch Roadgames. Directed by Hitchcock disciple Richard Franklin (of Patrick and subsequently Psycho II fame), Roadgames relocates the drama of Rear Window from Jimmy Stewart’s apartment complex to the open road, with truck driver Quid (Stacy Keach) and aptly named hitchhiker Hitch (Jamie Lee Curtis, then-scream queen, future Wanda, and daughter of Hitchcock alum Janet Leigh) travelling the stretch of the Nullarbor Plain with a suspected killer in their sights. If Crocodile Dundee is the most mainstream, blatant crowd-pleaser on this list, then Roadgames represents the most mainstream and blatant crowd-pleaser of the alternative canon. This film is a blast, a terrific entertainment, with director Franklin and writer de Roche (again) operating on all cylinders. It’s also, much like Crocodile Dundee, a fish out of water comedy. While we tend to grumble about imported overseas stars shoehorned into Australian productions, a trend which was particularly rife during the Ozploitation era – I’m looking at you Steve Railsback, Robert Powell, David Hemmings, etc – Keach makes for a terrific and atypical lead. His character is an eccentric, neurotic, urbane, and verbose man of words rather than action, whose several attempts at decisive heroism are woefully inadequate, and Keach’s Americanism adds a further fish out of water dimension that would have been lost had a more traditional Australian leading man like Jack Thompson essayed the role. Despite the perfect casting, the production was plagued with criticism for hiring Keach and especially Curtis, as well as for its commercial aspirations. Neither ultimately helped the film at the box office, and director Franklin was forced to work overseas for the next decade and change: a massive loss to Australian genre cinema, as few antipodean thrillers rival Roadgames in its craft and smarts.


The Staple: Muriel’s Wedding (dir: P.J. Hogan, 1994)

The Alternative: Dance Me to My Song (dir: Rolf de Heer, 1998)


P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding resonated palpably with audiences in 1994, catapulting Toni Collette to fame and scoring second only to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – another spirited outsider comedy with a healthy helping of ABBA on the soundtrack – among local box office contenders that year. But when it comes to films about outsiders finding companionship, Dance Me to My Song features an even more unlikely protagonist than Muriel Heslop. Julia (Heather Rose) has cerebral palsy and is largely dependent on her exploitative nurse Madelaine (Joey Kennedy), who spends her money, has sex in her apartment, is negligent in her duty of care, and enjoys the power trip afforded by their relationship dynamic. The film centres on a love triangle that forms between Julia, Madelaine, and the unlikely object of their mutual affection, Eddie (John Brumpton). Director Rolf de Heer is a filmmaker who has, quite literally, danced to his own song throughout his career, crafting films as idiosyncratic and anomalous as Bad Boy Bubby, The Tracker, Alexandra’s Project, and Ten Canoes. The films comprising his eclectic body of work are often borne of novel opportunities (e.g. using antiquated film technology and stock for his silent comedy Dr. Plonk, using his empty house as a setting before relocating interstate for The King is Dead!) or novel collaborations, such as his work with David Gulpilil on Charlie’s Country. Dance Me to My Song is another novel collaboration with autobiographical dimensions: the project was instigated by star and co-writer Rose, who wanted to upend stereotypical depictions of disability on film. The result is a film that eschews the Daniel Day-Lewis-style mega-method acting of My Left Foot (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and stock rise/fall/rise or riches/rags/riches trajectory of disability-centred films. Instead, it presents an authentic slice of life with a genuine outsider star, whilst still clicking as a fairly mainstream entertainment straddling several popular genres, including comedy, drama, romance, and thriller.


The Staple: Lantana (dir: Ray Lawrence, 2001)

The Alternative: Metal Skin (dir: Geoffrey Wright, 1994)


Ray Lawrence’s ensemble drama Lantana, adapted from playwright Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues and featuring some of Australia’s finest actors in its starry cast – was an awards darling and commercial success. It’s an intelligent, textured, and understated exploration of deteriorating relationships, with plenty of thematic meat to gnaw away at. Geoffrey Wright’s Metal Skin, meanwhile, spray paints your fence, vandalizes your letterbox, and does drunken wheelies on your front lawn while shouting obscenities about your mother. I exaggerate, but not really. Returning to the mean streets of Melbourne that served as his seedy muse on Romper Stomper, the film centres on the damaged, intertwined relationships of accident victim Roslyn (Nadine Garner), her disinterested and philandering boyfriend Dazey (Ben Mendelsohn), the troubled and rebellious Savina (Tara Morice) who’s turned to dabbling in the dark arts, and the unfortunately-faced innocent Joe (Aden Young) who’s burdened with caring for his ailing father. The film feels like Rebel Without a Cause filtered through the sensibilities of Martin Scorsese and Ken Russell and fused with the director’s own coarse aesthetic, with Wright swinging big and living up to the poster’s tagline: “Everything is about to go totally out of control”. While Lawrence’s Lantana is an adult take on intersecting and fractured relationships, Metal Skin is a much more adolescent take on this terrain, specifically an adolescent who’s just watched Mad Max for the twentieth time: it’s palpably angry, a clenched fist waiting to extend to your face and leave you aghast ala Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It’s not to all tastes, but it’s also bold, decisive filmmaking in a country whose film culture leans towards the lackadaisical.


The Staple: Moulin Rouge! (dir: Baz Luhrmann, 2001)

The Alternative: One Night the Moon (dir: Rachel Perkins, 2001)


Two Australian musicals were released in 2001. The first, Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge!, was a made-in-Australia, set-in-France, co-starring-a-Scotsman musical spectacular, which cost and made a mint, scored Oscars, and helped revive the musical with its lavish design and its song & dance numbers, all reinventions of popular modern tunes. Rachel Perkins’ sophomore feature One Night the Moon is an altogether more frugal, sombre affair. Real-life partners Paul Kelly and Kaarin Fairfax play farmers Jim and Rose Ryan, whose daughter goes missing in 1932. Jim refuses to allow Aboriginal tracker Albert Yang (Kelton Pall) to assist with the search, despite his intimate knowledge of the land, and it’s a fatal decision that costs the Ryans dearly. Perkins’ film perfectly encapsulates the cliché “epic but intimate”: it’s a small three-hander human drama, but the drama is amplified by the music (composed by Mairead Hannan) and the vastness of the film’s Flinders Ranges’ locations. Those vast landscapes are equal parts majestic and terrifying, and One Night the Moon belongs to that same lineage of films as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Long Weekend, where the Australian environment takes no prisoners and has no qualms about devouring or decimating those who don’t belong, who try to tame or claim it. This motif is accentuated by the fact that Jim, as a coloniser and dispossessor of the land, is complicit in his own tragedy. In its use of musical conventions, One Night the Moon shares Moulin Rouge!’s innate theatricality, but where Luhrmann’s film is untethered to physics in its choreography and geography, Perkins’ film is all weight, oppressive and foreboding.


The Staple: Rabbit-Proof Fence (dir: Phillip Noyce, 2002)

The Alternative: Yolngu Boy (dir: Stephen Johnson, 2001)


Rabbit-Proof Fence was one of several films released in 2002 – along with The Tracker, Beneath Clouds, and Australian Rules – which made that year a watershed for Indigenous Australian stories on film. Phillip Noyce’s film was the biggest and slickest of the group, applying the polish and craftsmanship the filmmaker had honed working on Hollywood thrillers over the previous decade. It was widely embraced, earned a respectable sum, and through its recreation of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s escape from her abductors and 2,400km journey home along the titular fence helped many viewers put a human face to the Stolen Generation. The collective impact of these 2002 releases meant the previous year’s Yolngu Boy was overshadowed, and that’s a shame. A contemporary story about three Yolngu teenagers - Lorrpu (John Sebastian Pilakui), Milika (Nathan Daniels), and Botj (Sean Mununggurr) – travelling from Arnhem country to Darwin, Stephen Johnson’s film is an adolescent adventure/road film but with an Aboriginal cast. It hits the same beats as classics of this genre like Stand By Me and The Goonies, but folds in topical concerns facing Indigenous youth as well as Dreamtime elements, mythical and survival knowledge which the boys apply along their journey, and an extra layer of hormonal machismo befitting a story about three 15 year-olds boys. The film’s visual style is jittery and caffeinated, and the storytelling is propulsive, reflecting writer Chris Anastassiades’ background scripting on fast-paced children’s television shows like Round the Twist. As is often the case with films centred on young Indigenous protagonists (including Rabbit-Proof Fence and the aforementioned Beneath Clouds), the three leads are non-professionals, and there’s an abrasive authenticity to their performances.


The Staple: Japanese Story (dir: Sue Brooks, 2003)

The Alternative: The Goddess of 1967 (dir: Clara Law, 2000)


Five of the films from this canonical film line-up were Best Picture winners at the AFI (now AACTA) Awards: Gallipoli, Muriel’s Wedding, Lantana, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Japanese Story (amazingly, Picnic at Hanging Rock did not win this gong, though that year’s winner, Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground, was no slouch). Japanese Story is the least of these winners, but is still a very good film, and embodies the platonic ideal of a canonical Australian title: it won some awards, was liked by audiences and critics, featured a popular actor or two, did respectable box office, and exhibited some of the pictorial beauty and/or liberal humanist sentiment that’s characterised ‘quality’ Australian film since the New Wave. However, this film about a geologist (Toni Collette) forging a relationship with a Japanese businessman (Tsunashima Gōtarō) on a road trip is not the only Australian film of the early noughties about an Australian woman forging a relationship with a Japanese man on a road trip. Clara Law’s The Goddess of 1967, released a few years earlier, is the grungier, mostly forgotten older sibling to Japanese Story, in which a young blind woman (Rose Byrne, who won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for her efforts) travels across the country with JM (Rikiya Kurokawa) in a Citroën DS, and the initially mismatched pair develop a bond that helps them overcome past traumas. Where Japanese Story adopts a naturalistic approach to its performances and aesthetic style, Law’s film is far more stylised, with its heightened and painterly compositions, use of flashbacks to peel back the onion of the story, and contrast of dark tragedy with behavioural comedy. The Asian/Australian experience is a rich vein to be tapped on film, and The Goddess of 1967 is one of the most fascinating products of this small but burgeoning genre.


The Staple: Australia (dir: Baz Luhrmann, 2008)

The Alternative: Lucky Country (dir: Kriv Stenders, 2009)

If the alternative recommendations peppering the tail end of this article – i.e. Metal Skin, One Night the Moon, this film – are rounding off this list on a downer note, that wasn’t intended. But I get it. And unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a more perfect alternative entry to Baz Luhrmann’s epic, romantic fantasia on Australiana than Kriv Stenders’ grimy, minor-key Lucky Country. Stenders, a hit and miss director but always interesting, would exhibit a knack for Lurhmann-esque mainstream showmanship with his later, delightful Red Dog films. But his priorities are very different here, as suggested by the film’s pointed, ironic use of its titular sentiment (a commonplace earlier used, pointedly and ironically, by author Donald Horne). To appropriate The Royal Tenenbaums’ Eli Cash, everyone knows Australia is a lucky country; what Stenders’ film presupposes is ... maybe it isn’t. Set in 1902, Lucky Country pits a mentally deteriorating father (Metal Skin’s Aden Young) and his children Tom (Toby Wallace) and Sarah (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) against three conniving ex-soldiers on their outback property, and centres on Toby’s rite of passage into a complicated, predatory adult world driven and dominated by greed. While deconstruction is undoubtedly the fashion of the day, making Lucky Country perhaps too obvious and cliché an alternative to Luhrmann’s bombastic entertainment, there’s still much to recommend it. Like Long Weekend it’s a gritty survival thriller, except here the flora and fauna are second to Australia’s newly Federated human populace as the real source of danger. Stenders would double down on his attack on national mythmaking in last year’s similarly provocatively titled Australia Day, but where that film overreaches and stumbles, Lucky Country’s reach never exceeds its grasp.


Ben Kooyman is a teacher and author based in Sydney whose writings on Australian film can be found at Down Under Flix.

See also:

The alternate canon of "great Australian films"  by Bill Mousoulis

Obscure but worthy Australian films  by Bill Mousoulis

A Secret History of Australian Cinema      by Adrian Martin

Published March 27, 2018. © Ben Kooyman, March 2018