Australian Cinema Part V – 1991-2015
The resurgence of the Australian Movie Industry during the Seventies and Eighties continued into the Nineties, but with an extra consideration: the industry had to make movies that could appeal to foreign audiences as much as those at home. Following the international success of “Crocodile” Dundee (1986), movie makers slowly came round to the idea that Australian movies didn’t have to be so insular or phlegmatic, determinedly historical or austere. It was during the Nineties that more and more Australian movies showed that they could get serious messages across – and still be fun.
Most of these movies were made on low budgets, but they were inventive and funny and warm-hearted, and audiences (and not just in Australia) found themselves enjoying the time they spent with some of the quirkiest characters to come out of any country’s working class psyche. Characters such as the determined Scott Hastings in Strictly Ballroom (1992), the socially awkward Muriel Heslop in Muriel’s Wedding (1994) (“You’re terrible, Muriel”), and the magnificently patriarchal Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle (1997) – these three and more showed audiences just how unconventional Australians could be and still be recognisable as individuals just like us. And these movies were hilarious, tapping into a cultural cheerfulness and sense of the absurdity of every day life that elevated them above the likes of Barry Mackenzie Holds His Own (1974) or The True Story of Eskimo Nell (1975). It was as if Australian producers, writers and directors had somehow (finally) tapped into the nation’s sense of humour and realised what a box office goldmine they had.
Further crowd pleasers followed: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) was such an unexpected treat that it spawned a stage musical that can still be seen somewhere in the world in 2015. Even now, lines like “Ummm… do you have The Texas Chainsaw Mascara?” and “That’s just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock” are still as laugh out loud funny as they were twenty-one years ago. And the performances in these and other comedies are all first class, guided by precocious up-and-coming directors like Stephan Elliott, P.J. Hogan, and the Dutch-born Rolf de Heer. 1996 saw an Australian movie that successfully combined drama with comedy to provide an emotionally charged study of a musician battling with mental illness. The movie was Shine, and it brought Geoffrey Rush to the world’s attention (and bagged him a Best Actor Oscar). Here was further evidence that Australian movie makers were growing bolder and less afraid of taking risks with their projects. Even when certain movies didn’t achieve their full potential – Doing Time for Patsy Cline (1997), Paperback Hero (1999) amongst others – there was enough that was right about each production to warrant giving each movie a more than cursory look.
With the industry at its healthiest, it eased into the new millennium and gave the world three very different movies that showcased the confidence and eclecticism of contemporary Australian movie makers. One was The Dish (2000), the second was Looking for Alibrandi (2000), and the third was Chopper (2000). Though each movie told a different story in a different style, and they were poles apart in terms of subject matter and approach, with, in particular, Chopper‘s uncompromising violence and hard-edged grittiness contrasted against The Dish‘s feelgood, humanistic recounting of Australia’s involvement in the 1969 Moon landing (who can forget the band playing the US national anthem?), Looking for Alibrandi was an emotionally resonant and complex look at the trials and traumas of regular teenage life. But this disparity was proof that Australian cinema was continuing to be vital and expressive on a variety of themes, and that it was growing bolder with each year, challenging the notion that such a relatively small producer of movies couldn’t possibly hold its own against Hollywood.
The decade continued in the same vein, with Australia proving a showcase for the type of talent that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Australia’s cultural heritage, once the “meat and potatoes” of Australian movie production, had given way to examinations of modern day issues that had previously been overlooked or given scant notice. Directors such as Baz Luhrmann came into their own, while actors such as Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett rose to prominence. Awards from around the world kept flooding in, and there was a feeling that Australian cinema was unbeatable, its refusal to follow cinematic trends or the dictates of other movie industries, leading to further examples of a country finally embracing all the elements and factors that go into making a great Australian movie. Between 2001 and 2006, Australian production companies made and released the following movies:
2001 – Charlotte Gray, Lantana, The Man Who Sued God, Moulin Rouge!
2002 – Black and White, Dirty Deeds, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Swimming Upstream, The Tracker
2003 – Cracker Bag, Gettin’ Square, Japanese Story, The Rage in Placid Lake
2004 – A Man’s Gotta Do, Oyster Farmer, Somersault, Tom White
2005 – Little Fish, The Proposition, Wolf Creek
2006 – Candy, Happy Feet, Jindabyne, Kenny, Ten Canoes
And then in 2007, a strange thing happened: roughly the same amount of movies were being made, but the steady stream of critical and commercial hits dried up. 2007 was a year that yielded a succession of disappointing, uninspired movies, and 2008 proved only slightly better, with only The Black Balloon and Mark Hartley’s energetic Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! making any real impact (sad, also, that a movie looking back over Australia’s recent output should prove to be more engaging than its current offerings). 2009 brought some minor gems – The Boys Are Back, Bright Star, In Her Skin, Mary and Max – but again there wasn’t one movie that stood out from the rest in terms of quality or, more importantly, appeal.
Less movies were made in 2010 as the industry began to stumble in the face of increasing disappointment from critics and audiences alike. Animal Kingdom (2010) bucked the trend, but it was alone in its efforts to reinvigorate what many were coming to feel was a stagnant period in Australian movie making. 2011 was no different, leading viewers to mistrust the idea that Australia was still capable of making provocative, entertaining, relevant movies any more. Fred Schepisi had some success with The Eye of the Storm, and Sleeping Beauty was an icily stylised look at sexual compulsion, but again, two movies out of around thirty doesn’t make for a good return.
As the decade continued, Australian movies found themselves precariously balanced between staying true to their cultural and historical roots (and putting enough of a twist on things to make them appeal to a broader audience), and attempting, as “Crocodile” Dundee (1986) had, to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. A degree of uncertainty seemed to be holding movie makers back, and risk taking seemed to be avoided at all costs. 2012 was no different, and despite featuring new movies from the likes of John Duigan (Careless Love), Rob Sitch (Any Questions for Ben?), Rolf de Heer (The King Is Dead!), and P.J. Hogan (Mental), left many wondering if the industry would ever climb out of the innovative mire it had found itself in.
And then in 2013, signs that a revival – of sorts – was beginning to happen began appearing, with a clutch of movies that showed it wasn’t all doom and gloom (though the industry wasn’t quite out of the woods just yet). Baz Luhrmann released his lavishly mounted but flawed The Great Gatsby. Mystery Road, Tracks, Two Mothers, and The Railway Man were also released and made an impact that suggested the downturn was about to be redressed. And 2014 continued the upward trend, with more well received movies being released than in previous years, including The Babadook, Kill Me Three Times, The Mule, and Predestination.
Now in 2015, there’s still a lingering sense that the industry needs to step up its game. But a massive boost was given to it this year with the return of one, sorely missed, iconic character from Australia’s post-apocalyptic future, Max Rockatansky, in Mad Max: Fury Road. Now officially the most successful Australian movie ever made – sorry, “Crocodile” Dundee – George Miller’s crazy, riotous action movie is the kind of bold, frenetic auteur-driven visual/aural experience that doesn’t come along too often, but if it helps to give Miller’s directing confederates the push needed to make their own bold movies then with a bit of luck Australian cinema might just regain the acclaim it deserved in the Eighties and Nineties.