The Top 15 Australian ‘Recent Memory’ Drama Films


‘Looking back on the 60s & 70s’

‘Recent Memory Drama’ is a strange sub-genre, which I have had to create to cover a number of films which fell down the cracks between period drama and contemporary drama. These films were set too close to the present to fit into my (obviously random) cut-off date of the end of 1950s for period drama, and too long ago (between 10 and 40 years before) to be considered contemporary.

(I ran into the same problem when I struggled to define period films here, and ended up dividing them into ‘Proper period films’ and ‘Borderline period films, or “films of recent-memory”’. Taxonomy keeps coming back to bite me.)

In effect, this category includes mainly films about the 1960s (made between 1978 and today), as well as films about the 1970s (made after 1990). (It could also have included films about the 80s (made after say 1999), but so far there have been no major Aussie films looking back on the 1980s, at least none that do not continue to the contemporary era.)

Also, I have chosen to restrict the page to drama films, but there were a number of good comedies about the 60s and 70s which fall into the ‘recent memory’ category, including Swinging Safari (2018), Girl Asleep (2015), Bran Nue Day (2009), Dirty Deeds (2002), The Dish (2000), Spotswood (1992), and Dimboola (1979). The best of these appear in my Top Comedy page.

Many would ask whether a page covering these films is worth it, but there are some great Aussie films which fall into this category, so it didn’t seem fair to leave them out in the cold.

So here are my Top 15 Australian ‘Recent Memory’ Drama films, ranked from #1 to #15:

1.   The Year My Voice Broke (1987) (John Duigan)

An adolescent, nerdish boy in a small town in the NSW Southern Tablelands in 1962, falls in love with a girl, who unfortunately is in love with his friend, a local bad boy.  This is a fine drama about the pain of adolescence, of first love and heartbreak, of the isolation of small towns, of life in Australia in the 1960s, and the unfairness of life. Noah Taylor does a fine job as Danny, the skinny, bookish teenager in love with his friend Freya, who thinks of him only as a friend and confidant, while she fancies Trevor, the football-playing, car-stealing larrikin, played by Ben Mendelsohn. The film vividly captures the small-town experience of childhood and adolescence, and the trials of becoming an adult. The film won the 1987 AFI awards for best film and best director, and Ben Mendelsohn won the award for best supporting actor. (See here for more information)

2.   The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) (Peter Weir)

A young Australian journalist arrives in Indonesia in 1965, just in time to witness the lead-up to the failed Communist coup, the aftermath of which included bloody reprisals against the Communists and the Chinese, in which perhaps one million Indonesians died.  This gripping political drama captures the intrigues and chaos of Indonesia in the Sukarno years prior to the catastrophe of the coup attempt and subsequent massacres. Mixed with this strong political intrigue is a slightly forced love story between Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver as two Westerners, caught in a culture and events they don’t really understand. The Year of Living Dangerously was the first Australian film to be financed by an American studio (MGM), and the film stars two American actresses, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt. Hunt won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her magnificent portrayal of Chinese-Australian cameraman, Billy Kwan, who tries to help the Australian journalist, play by Gibson, to tell the world what was happening in Indonesia. The film was also Weir’s last Australian film before he moved to Hollywood, and also Gibson’s last Oz film before his Hollywood career (although he did return to play in the third Mad Max film in 1985). (See here for more information)

3.   Flirting (1991) (John Duigan)

Bookish teenager Danny is now at a rural boarding school in Bathurst, NSW in 1965 where he falls in love with an African girl from the nearby girls’ school. This sequel to The Year My Voice Broke (see above) is also an excellent sweet drama about adolescence and young love. The film finds Danny three years later adrift in the hothouse environment of a boys boarding school, until he meets Thandiwe, the daughter of a Ugandan diplomat, at a debating contest against the nearby girls school. Noah Taylor does a fine job again as Danny, and the film features British/Zimbabwean actress Thandie Newton as Thandiwe, and Nicole Kidman as a school prefect, as well as Naomi Watts as a schoolgirl. The film won the 1990 AFI award for best film, and along with The Year My Voice Broke is one of prolific director John Duigan’s best. (See here for more information)

4. The Sapphires (2012) (Wayne Blair)

This film is based on the true story of four young Aboriginal women who formed a Motown-style girl-group and went to Vietnam to entertain Australian troops during the Vietnam War.  This is a feel-good film, which touches on big social issues, but leaves you with a warm heart and good music in your soul. The movie includes our top Aboriginal actress, Deborah Mailman, as Gail, the tough-talking elder sister with the heart of gold, and she does a great job of anchoring this film. Jessica Mauboy, who is more famous as a singer, also does a great job here as sister Julie, as do the two new faces, Shari Sebbens and the effervescent Miranda Tapsell. Irish funnyman Chris O’Dowd is surprisingly good as the group’s Irish manager. The film is one of a few films on Indigenous themes that exudes positivity and transcends the problems many Aboriginal and Torres Strait People face and have faced. If you liked The Commitments or Dreamgirls, this is a film for you. The film won five AFI awards in 2012: best film, best director, best actress (Mailman), best actor (O’Dowd) and best supporting actress (Mauboy). (See here for more information)

5.         Tracks (2014) (John Curran)

This film is based on the true story of Robyn Davidson’s 1,700 mile solo trek across the deserts of Western Australia from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean in 1977, with four camels and her faithful dog, Diggity. It’s a remarkable and engaging story of a young woman eschewing society for 8 months in the desert with four delightful camels and her dog. The film is a remarkable portrait of this determined solitary woman, and Mia Wasikowska gives an outstanding performance. The photography is beautiful and the scenery spectacular. The woman’s interacts positively with Aboriginals and lonely mavericks she meets along the way, while trying to avoid journalists and tourists who come with their four-wheel-drives to see the crazy woman. American actor Adam Driver puts it another fine performance as the National Geographic photographer who tracks her down from time to time to document her trip, and who worries about her at other times. It’s a positively uplifting experience. (See here for more information)

6. The Home Song Stories (2007) (Tony Ayres)

A man remembers his turbulent multicultural childhood in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s as the son of a tempestuous Chinese singer, whose marriage to an Australian sailor falls apart. There is a world of truth in director Tony Ayres fictionalisation of his own childhood, as a Chinese child in a mixed-race family, constantly moving as his Chinese mother tries to fit into the alien Australian society. Joel Lok and Irene Chen are great as the brother and sister who yearn for stability, and American actress Joan Chen is excellent as the children’s troubled mother, whose marriage to a Westerner did not bring her the happiness she had hoped for. This is a gripping drama and a look into the lives of many of Australia’s migrants in those days. (See here for more information)

7.         The Eye of the Storm (2011) (Fred Schepisi)

In Sydney in the early 1970s, a rich old woman nearing death, continues to torment her two middle-aged children who are waiting for her inheritance.  This is an excellent adaptation of one of Australian Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White’s best novels. The film is characterised by White’s psychological understanding of the bitterness, jealousy, resentment and cruelty which can exist within families, and how age does not always help people transcend these qualities, but can even accentuate them. The film is helped by a great trio of actors – Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis, as the two children desperate for either affection or money from their mother, and Charlotte Rampling, as the sly old society lady, confined to bed with two nurses, but still able to manipulate those around her. Actually Rampling, whom I don’t always like, is perfect in this role, bringing depth and nuance to the old lady, dreaming of past love, while maintaining an iron grip on those around her. Some have commented that the film is more reminiscent of an earlier era, perhaps the 1950s with which White was more familiar, or even the 1930s, and I tend to agree, as the characters seem untouched by the world of the 1960s. But it’s an engrossing story, nevertheless. (See here for more information)

8.   Jasper Jones (2017) (Rachel Perkins)

A young white boy, Charlie, and an older mixed race boy, Jasper Jones, try to investigate the death of Jasper’s white girlfriend in a small country town.  This adaptation of a popular Craig Silvey novel about a young boy in 1969 covers a lot of ground – murder, mystery, racial prejudice in small-town Australia, young love, family secrets, infidelity and community. And it succeeds due to good direction, great cinematography and excellent acting from the child actors as well as some of our best adult actors. If you haven’t read the story, the mystery unfolds engrossingly as young Charlie (Levi Miller) finds himself pulled this way and that by the other characters in the story: by the young Aboriginal outsider Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), whose white girlfriend is found hanging from a tree, by the girl’s sister Eliza (Angourie Rice) who is Charlie’s friend, by his best friend, Jeffrey (Kevin Long) the cricket-mad Chinese/Vietnamese kid who chats non-stop about all manner of ideas, and by Charlie’s demanding mother (Toni Collette in fine form) who is constantly ordering him about. But the movie is best in its depiction of 1960s small town Australia, with its sense of community and suppressed tensions. (See here for more information)

9. The Odd Angry Shot (1979) (Tom Jeffrey)

A group of young Australians are drafted and sent to fight in the Vietnam War in the 1960s.  This was Australia’s only film about our involvement in the Vietnam War until 2012, when The Sapphires appeared, followed by Danger Close in 2019. Made in 1979, it follows a group of conscripts from Sydney to the Mekong Delta and watches them patrol, drink beer, engage the enemy, gamble, grumble, gambol, drink more beer, watch friends die, and occasionally wonder what they are fighting for. Though the cast includes famous names such as Bryan Brown, John Hargreaves, John Jarratt and Graeme Blundell, it is comedian Graham Kennedy who steals the show as the wisecracking NCO on his second tour. He provides the MASH-type quips as well as thoughtful commentary on the war. Overall, the script is a bit obvious and the action sequences are somewhat on the low-budget side (with quite a few locations looking distinctly Australian and a few too many gum trees). The movie pales in comparison with American depictions of the war, with neither the wit of MASH (ostensibly set in the Korean War, but with much to say on America’s involvement in Vietnam as well) nor the powerful criticism of Apocalypse Now nor the grit of Platoon. However, the movie does have its moments: it captures the distinctly Australian mateship element of our soldiers and provided our only cinematic depiction (for many years) of this important event which divided Australian society in the 1960s and 1970s. As such it is well worth seeing, despite its limitations. (See here for more information)

10.       La Spagnola (2001) (Steve Jacobs)

A teenage girl lives in a shack near an oil terminal on the edge of Sydney in 1960 with her volatile Spanish mother, after her Italian father has run off with an Australian girl. This is a quirky, lively, multicultural drama-comedy which plays like an operatic tragedy. It is essentially the story of a mother and daughter who have fallen down the cracks between three countries, and live in a tiny cottage in the middle of nowhere. The film is in Spanish, Italian and English in that order, and characters from all three cultures impinge on the women’s lives as they struggle to cope with the poverty left by the husband’s absence. Lola, the mother, played by Spanish actress Lola Marceli, reacts with anger and energy, seeking revenge on the world for her situation. The daughter Lucia, played by Alice Ansara, blames her mother for her father’s departure and resists her with silence and dreams. Like most migrant kids, she tries to fit into Australia, despite the fact that most of their neighbours are Italian. It’s unusual, and at times you feel you could be watching a European black comedy, until the gum trees and open skies bring you back. (See here for more information)

11.       Riot (2018) (Jeffrey Walker)

A group of Sydney gay and lesbian political activists struggle for equal rights, and come up with the idea of a street party protest, which becomes the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. This dramatization of historical events captures the excitement of the late 70s, when political and social change gripped Australia. Based on the real history of the gay rights movement in Australia, the film shows how a number of activists, led by Lance Gowland and others, led the battle for decriminalisation of homosexuality, and against police brutality, discrimination and general violence against gay people. Damon Herriman again demonstrates his talent playing Gowland, and Kate Box is also excellent playing lesbian activist, Marg McMann, who works with Gowland to bring about change. This TV movie won a stack of AACTA awards including Best Tele-feature or Miniseries, Best Actor (for Herriman) and Best Actress (for Box). (See here for more information)

12.   The Nostradamus Kid (1993) (Bob Ellis)

Ken (Noah Taylor) starts out as a randy Christian youth trying to seduce girls at Christian evangelist camps in the late 50s in country NSW. By 1962 he becomes a university student in Sydney still trying to lose his virginity before the Cuban Missile crisis results in a nuclear holocaust.  Noah Taylor relives writer-director Bob Ellis’ life (or reimagined life) as a louche student in 60s Sydney. Taylor dabbles in politics and philosophy while he tries to live down his strict Adventist upbringing in Lismore and get the girl of his dreams, Jennie (Miranda Otto). The leisurely pace of the film reflects the era, a time of reduced expectations in an out-of-the-way place like Australia. Bob Ellis was a journalist and political commentator as well as a screenwriter, and film is full of his witticisms and shrewd social observations. Taylor plays the sexually inexperienced but horny university student with admirable world-weariness, and Otto is her usual nervous but charming self. This is the third of Taylor’s coming-of-age films, and he does it well. (See here for more information)

13. September (2007) (Peter Carstairs)

Two teenage boys living in West Australia’s wheat belt in 1968, one the son of a white farmer, the other son of an Aboriginal worker, living on an isolated farm, find their friendship tested as adulthood offers them very different prospects. This film is a coming-of-age story loaded with racial overtones, as the innocence of childhood gives way to an uncertain adulthood for both the boys. The boys have been friends since childhood in this isolated region, despite the fact that Ed’s father owns the farm, and Paddy’s Aboriginal father does not receive proper wages, only food and housing. When the laws finally mandate equal wages for Aboriginal people during a bad season, the futures of both families suddenly change. This is a modest slow film which mirrors the pace of farm life, but it captures both the spirit of the times and the problems of growing up. Xavier Samuel and Clarence John Ryan are very good as Ed and Paddy, and the always delightful Mia Wasikowska is also very good as Ed’s distracting new neighbour Amelia. (See here and here for more information)

14. December Boys (2007) (Rod Hardy)

Four orphan boys are sent from an outback orphanage for a seaside holiday with an old couple on the windswept South Australian coast in the late 1960s. December Boys is a beautiful, poignant tale of adolescence and abandonment with the vast, awe-inspiring Australian outback as a backdrop. The boys have longed for adoption and family life, only to be continually disappointed, but realise on this trip that they have each other for family. The film met with mixed reactions, some viewers finding the film moving, while others found it old-fashioned. Despite the inclusion of English actor Daniel Radcliffe and some fine Australian actors, such as Teresa Palmer, Jack Thompson, and Kris McQuade, the film was not a box office success. (See here for more information)

15. The Night, The Prowler (1978) (Jim Sharman)

Felicity Bannister, the only daughter of an upper middle-class family living in a wealthy Sydney suburb, tells her parents that she was attacked and raped one night by an intruder, but refuses to let a doctor examine her. After this, her behaviour changes and she breaks off her engagement to a respected young diplomat.  Part social satire and part absurdist drama, the screenplay for this film is by Australia’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White. The first half of the film examines and lampoons the manners and pretensions of Sydney’s upper middle-class in the 1960s, a favourite subject and target of White’s in his novels. The great Ruth Cracknell and John Frawley play Felicity’s class conscious parents, full of pride, ambition, scorn and jealousy. Kerry Walker plays Felicity, a surly 22 year-old, tired of the dull life in a neat house and her mother’s pressure to marry a respectable man and go on to reproduce in an upper middle-class fashion. The rape incident provides her with the opportunity she needs to forge a new, individual path for herself. The first half of the film is more successful than the more anarchic second half, but the film works overall to convey White’s vision of social change in Australia in the 1960s. (See here for more information)

* * *

This is the last in my series about the best Australian drama films – the previous pages were The Top 40 Australian Period Films – ranked,  The Top 22 Australian Contemporary Drama Films of the 1970s & 1980s – RankedThe Top 32 Australian Contemporary Drama Films of the 1990s – Ranked, and The Top 60 Australian Contemporary Drama Films of the  2000s – Ranked.

I have seen and recommend all of these films, and I encourage everyone to leave comments with your thoughts on these and any other Australian films.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Some great oz movies there for sure

    Liked by 1 person

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