Almanac Cinema: Australia’s Best Film? (Discuss)

 

A little over a month ago, I posted a discussion piece on The Footy Almanac website entitled “Australia’s Best Song? Discuss.” This title was chosen with a full awareness of the issues associated with it, such as the interpretation of the word best, and the virtual impossibility of selecting just one song. Also, I did put a question mark in the title, to point to the complications involved in responding to it. Fundamentally, though, what I was endeavouring to do was offer Almanac readers a stimulating discussion prompt – and you responded wonderfully well. In addition, I was hoping that the discussion which followed my piece would result in a great list of Australian songs to (re)visit – and it certainly achieved this aim, too.

 

In a similar vein, I’m putting forward this piece: “Australia’s Best Film? Discuss.” I’m inviting readers to nominate candidates for Australia’s best ever feature film. By “feature film” I mean any film designed to be the main item in a cinema. Mention a couple if you don’t want to narrow your choice down to just one.

 

My nomination for Australia’s best film is High Tide (1987), written by Laura Jones and directed by Gillian Armstrong, whose name some would know because of her direction of the iconic My Brilliant Career (1979). High Tide stars Judy Davis, Claudia Karvan and Jan Adele, with Colin Friels in the other major role. Basically, Davis plays a thirty-something woman, Lilli, who is sacked from her job as a backing singer in a touring Elvis impersonator’s band and then stranded in a small coastal town while she waits for her car to be repaired by a local mechanic. Consequently, she is compelled to stay in the town’s caravan park for a few days, where her life is turned upside down after she meets an adolescent girl, Ally (Karvan), who is living in the park with her grandmother, Bet (Adele). I won’t disclose what happens from that point, because some readers of my piece who haven’t seen the film may wish to watch it.

 

Now, the key question: what makes the film so good, that I’m nominating it as Australia’s “Best Ever”? Perhaps the most important point in this respect is that the film possesses such a wonderful sense of proportion and balance: all the key aspects – writing, direction, acting, cinematography and feeling for place work so beautifully together in terms of contributing to an excellent whole. The location of the film in a wintry, run-down fishing town on New South Wales’s southern coast dominates the feel of it, contributing a fittingly raw, elemental poetic quality. The film is highly successful in terms of creating its own world, too, something any fine work of art achieves. It deals with love, loss, pain, melancholy, heartbreak, becoming an adult, and underlines how life can suddenly change when one least expects it – or least wants it to happen. For those looking for allusions to other works, one may detect in Karvan’s youthful character aspects of young Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is also dominated by its seaside setting, as well as sharing a female adolescent rite-of passage story as an important component.

 

The acting in High Tide is splendid, also, from the major to minor roles. Davis and Karvan deserve particular praise here. Both are so emotionally affecting; Karvan, especially, delivers one of the best performances by a young teen that I can recall ever seeing.

 

At around 100 minutes, this film is not a second too long, or a moment too brief. As with every other aspect of it, the judgement is just right.

 

 

High Tide (1987), Movie Poster. (Source Wikipedia)

 

 

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About

Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His work has appeared in print in Australia, the UK and the USA, as well as on many online venues. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, will be published by Ginninderra Press later in 2020. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press.

Comments

  1. george smith says

    Numero uno by the length of Flemington Straight – Picnic at Hanging Rock. Peter Weir’s brooding masterpiece turned ordinary bits of near metropolitan Victoria into the most unworldly nightmare scape. Its themes – child abuse, lost children, British habits in a strange land and fear of the unknown out there still resonate with a largely urban population today.

  2. Incredibly hard to name just one…can I suggest four? Wake in Fright, The Castle, Samson and Delilah and The Proposition. All outstanding films (somewhat similar atmospheres in three of them).

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your reply, George – what a wonderful film! I can see already that I’m going to be revisiting some classic Oz movies.

    And what a resonant place Hanging Rock is, in itself.

  4. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Jarrod … you’ve certainly made choices here that strike a responsive chord with me. Parts of Wake in Fright, for example, have stayed with me (always a good indicator of quality) as the stuff of nightmares.

  5. Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne. Beautifully and hauntingly shot it’s a great tale of moral ambiguity and psychological loss. Inspired by the Raymond Carver short story it makes expert use of menace and redemption. The good John Howard’s excellent in this too.

  6. Mark Poustie says

    Kevin – wonderful unanswerable question. Under ” rough as guts” I’d nominate chronologically
    Sunday Too Far Away (1975) – Jack Thompson’s memorable portrayal of knockabout shearer, Foley.
    Mad Max (1979) – George Miller’s dystopian classic starring Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky
    Chopper (2000) – Eric Bana’s brilliant characterisation of Chopper Read.
    Under “coming of age” The Year My Voice Broke (1987) – directed by John Duigan, starring young Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn.

  7. Kevin Densley says

    Mickey – you’ve encapsulated Jindabyne wonderfully well, I reckon. Along these lines, what has stayed with me most about the film is its powerful overarching mood, an important aspect of which is a strong sense of place.

    Mark – fine films all! And I can’t remember an Australian film that captures growing up in a country town as well as The Year My Voice Broke, though there may be a number of candidates in this context.

  8. Some great films here.

    The Castle would have to be on the podium.

    Gallipoli had some flaws and the acting wasn’t brilliant, but the last few scenes impacted me greatly at the time.

    Shine was fabulous too. Geoffrey Rush was brilliant.

  9. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your contribution, Dips. You’ve noted some very worthy films here, to my way of thinking – and I agree with what you’ve said about them, too. We’re certainly in the process of putting together an excellent list here.

  10. The Dressmaker, Lantana, are worthy local films. What was the wonderful film about the final drive from Broken hill to Darwin? I however tend to revert back to my childhood/youth, with so many of my Bests.

    The first Mad Max, The Club, FJ Holden, Caddie, Picnic At Hanging Rock, the Alvin Purple films, resonate strongly. I don’t know where you fit the two Barry McKenzie films but i loved them. In this PC era they would NEVER be made.

    If i was picking a best would i toss a coin between Don’s Party and Sunday Too Far Away. Great movies, about real topics i can/do relate to.

    I look forward to this series Kevin. So many great films; so many films i’ve forgotten!

    Glen!

    PS: There was a film made a few years back about Ben Hall, but i’ve never managed to see it. Any ideas where it can be viewed?

    Glen!

  11. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Glen! You’ve certainly noted some fine films here. Last Cab to Darwin (2015) is the “final drive” film you’re thinking of. The Legend of Ben Hall (2016) is the bushranger feature you asked about, and is still (as far as I know) available on DVD and well worth a look

  12. Righto Kevin, how about Rabbit Proof Fence and for something a bit tongue in cheek “10 Canoes” what a classic!

  13. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks for these, KND. I feel quite close to “10 Canoes”, actually, as I taught it (with others) in a course at Federation Uni in Ballarat.

  14. LRB – It’s a Long Way There
    Mondo – Summer of 81
    Oils – Hercules
    Brod Smith – Faded Roses, Ocean Deep
    Farnham – Don’t You Know It’s Magic, Comic Conversations
    Jimmy B – Walk On

    All massively overlooked and under-rated, most of them overshadowed by the respective artists’ better known material

  15. Oops – wrong thread! Please move to ‘Aust Best Song’

  16. Spotswood
    Strictly Ballroom
    Gallipoli

  17. Kieran Dempsey says

    A Great ‘Australian’ Film
    ‘Breaker Morant’
    Setting and narrative – an Australian story in a foreign land
    Themes – ‘morality in war’, Australian identity, wrongful execution, ongoing unresolved ‘guily’ sentence’
    Acting – standout performances by Jack Thompson, Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown, and supporting cast
    Editing – courtroom drama and flashbacks
    Timing – released 1980 – renaissance Australian film industry
    Awards – 10 AFI awards, Direction Beresford, …
    Audience – recognition, Australian humour and nationalism
    Poignancy – “Australia for ever” sign off to a letter by Handcock (my Great Uncle) a few hours before execution, to his sister (my Great Grandmother, Jane Dempsey (nee Handcock)).
    .
    Others to consider that are often overlooked:
    ‘The Year My Voice Broke’ – filmed near Braidwood NSW, beauifully shot with Vaughn Williams soundrack
    ‘The Odd Angry Shot’ great Aussie cast set in Vietnam.
    ‘The Adventures of Barry McKenzie’ – classic Humphries work.
    PS – I have just realised that when I started teaching in 1989, the new Victorian curriculum included a compulsory ‘Australian Studies’ course, taught to all Year 11s about the world of ‘Work and society’.
    My classes watched these films (and others) instead.

  18. “Lantana” is a powerful contemporary drama that would be in my Top 5.
    “Breath” was a greatly underrated film of the Tim Winton book. Anyone with teenage boys should see it with them. Anyone who was a teenage boy will remember.
    As a Cate Blanchett stalker (why won’t you answer my texts/emails/tweets???) I loved her early “Thank God He Met Lizzie” with Cleaver Green.

  19. Colin Ritchie says

    ‘Man of Flowers’ Paul Cox with Norman Kaye, and ‘Bliss’ with Barry Otto I both enjoyed. Loved the ‘Smiley’ films as a kid.

  20. Luke Reynolds says

    The Castle is my favourite, can relate to it all, Daryl Kerrigan is exactly what my late grandfather was like. The Dish is another very well made film from Working Dog, so many great, understated lines.
    The Dressmaker is superb and quite moving, and has some Aussie Rules scenes.

    And as a Collingwood fan, how about The Club!

  21. Yes, with you Col on Bliss.

  22. Kevin Densley says

    Rick N – I’ll consider your responses to “Australia’s Best Song” moved, in my head, if not literally – many thanks for these!

  23. Kevin Densley says

    Great to to see the choices and comments continuing to roll in!

    Thanks JTH, for your fine trio – I have a particular soft spot for Strictly Ballroom, as I was still doing my uni job as cinema usher when it came out, and could almost recite the whole film line-by-line by the time its run ended. When the Barry Fife character in the film (played by Bill Hunter) talks about “the status quo vadis … so to speak”, it cracks me up every time!

  24. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Kieran. Many thanks for your choices. I’m so pleased you brought up Breaker Morant, as it’s one of my all-time Oz favourites, too – and what an interesting and close family connection you have to the history, also.

  25. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your selections, Peter B – “powerful” is certainly an apt word when it comes to Lantana. That film is one that has stayed with me, mainly because of its mood. I confess I’ll have to locate and watch “Thank God He Met Lizzie. ” It definitely has a fine cast!

  26. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Col – great that you included films directed by two fine artists, Paul Cox and Ray Lawrence. I like their work considerably.

    And those Smiley films would have been a couple of the small number of feature films actually made in Australia in the 1950s.

  27. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your input, Luke! So many people can relate to the characters and general milieu of The Castle, I feel.

    And there’s definitely room for a Footy Almanac piece on feature films involving Australian Rules Football, if there hasn’t already been one. The Club (1980) is probably the pick of them, though there’s not many – one thinks immediately of The Great Macarthy (1975) and Blinder (2013) as others.

  28. The Great Macarthy !?! Wow there’s a blast from the past. I don’t recall seeing it. I don’t recall it having a long run in the cinema.

    If we’re talking footy & films, Carlton’s Bob Chitty starred in the Ned Kelly movie just after WW 2.

    Glen!

  29. I’m not sure why but I have a sense I’ll be howled down when I nominate Muriel’s Wedding. But I’ll back it against any or all of the above on just about any criteria.
    Otherwise, Underbelly.
    Interestingly I read a few years back that Margaret Pomeranz rated Gallipoli No. 2 of her all time top ten films (worldwide). I saw it again recently – still profoundly moving, but rather clunky in parts, technically and dramatically. I could say the same about many of the Australian films that others have listed.

  30. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Glen! I remember watching The Great Macarthy (1975) on TV ages ago – not exactly a cinema classic, but it does have some points of interest..

    And Bob Chitty as Ned Kelly – yes, that was in The Glenrowan Affair (1951). The film was not received well, critically.

  31. Kevin Densley says

    G’day, Stainless. Thanks for your comments.

    Like you, I love Muriel’s Wedding; in fact, it’d be in my top half-dozen all-time favourite Australian films – the main characters are great creations and the comedy is so consistently biting and clever, to name but two reasons.

  32. A few that spring to mind:
    The Castle, Crackerjack, Samson and Delilah, The Club, The Black Balloon, Wake in Fright, The Tracker, Sweet Country, The Last Wave.

  33. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks for these, Damian – an interesting range of films indeed, though I’ll have to have a look for The Black Balloon, as it’s one that’s slipped by me.

  34. Nicole Kelly says

    Great question! Can’t narrow it down to one. The Castle, Looking for Alibrandi, Muriel’s Wedding. Personal favorites though Phar Lap and The Man from Snowy River!

  35. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Nicole, for your response. The Castle is getting a few guernseys! It’s good, also, to see some films involving horses, such an important animal in Australian history – and this just reminded me of another Australian “horses” film I’d forgotten about, The Lighthorsemen (1987), set in Palestine during World War One..

  36. If I am forced to choose only one, it would be “The Year My Voice Broke’.

    To round out a top 10: “Sunday too far away”, “Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, “The Castle”, “The Dish”, “Lantana”, “The last of the Knucklemen”, “Death in Brunswick”, “Crackerjack”, “Two hands”.

  37. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your “top ten”, Smokie – of course, more than one choice is welcome.

    I really like the choices you’ve made – and “The Last of the Knucklemen” (1979) comes as a pleasant surprise. I remember Gerard Kennedy’s powerful performance very well.

  38. I need to do some catch up movie watching as I’ve missed a few of these. Loved Rabbit Proof Fence.
    Not nominating it for a best award, but for memorable, was a Storm Boy as it was the first Australian film I saw as a child.

  39. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your contribution, Kate.

    Storm Boy (1976) certainly has an iconic place in Australian Cinema, I feel, partly on account of some superb imagery – the wild Coorong area in South Australia was the setting. So many would remember the young boy and the pelican on the beach.

    And Storm Boy was remade in 2019, starring Geoffrey Rush and Jai Courtney, with Finn Little in the title role.

  40. Hi Kevin
    In my morning fog yesterday I nominated Underbelly which of course is not a movie. I meant Animal Kingdom. Don’t think it’s received a mention so far.

  41. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for clarifying, Stainless – another critically acclaimed film thus goes on the list.

  42. Have to update my list to include some of the others mentioned here ‘Animal Kingdom’, ‘Lantana’ and ‘The Year My Voice Broke’. Thanks for the reminders. I have to see them again, particularly the last one Smokie.

    A complete aside, but I’ve always found something quite weird about the two co-stars Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn: back when the film was made, Ben was the bid masculine kid and Noah was the scrawny Nick Cave-looking younger kid. But I reckon as time has passed that Ben has morped into a Noah Taylor lookalike. Is it just me?

  43. Kevin Densley says

    Updates most welcome, Damian!

    I just checked out some contemporary photos of Ben Mendelsohn and Noah Taylor – and I think there’s something in what you say.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about since as this discussion thread has developed is that there are many urban-based Australian films that haven’t been mentioned yet, even in passing: Hard Knocks (1980), Monkey Grip (1982) Fighting Back (1982), Romper Stomper (1992) …

  44. The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith
    Muriel’s Wedding
    Bedevil
    The Boys
    Charlie’s Country

    (ye olde suggestion: The Sentimental Bloke)

    Best actor: David Gulpilil

  45. Kevin Densley says

    Excellent, Rick. Many thanks for these selections. (I’ll have to catch up with Bedevil.)

    Great to see you’ve included The Sentimental Bloke (1919). The bits I’ve seen of it are quite charming.

    And David Gulpilil is a fine candidate in the acting stakes, to my way of thinking. He’s a fabulous actor and dancer.

  46. I think Red Dog has to be close to the top of my list. Dead Calm would be another, with brilliant performances by Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane. And another Nicole Kidman film called Strangerland, although I’m not sure if it was ever released as a feature film. A very gritty examination of a dysfunctional family forced by scandal to move to a small outback NSW town. Ralph Fiennes and Hugo Weaving are very strong supporting actors and the whole movie is quite unsettling, raw and bleak.

  47. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks for your contribution to this discussion, Lea.

    I’ll have to check out Strangerland – it certainly sounds like a fine piece.

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