Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Baz Luhrmann has style and panache to spare, and his films often reflect that. The Australian director rose to prominence in the early 1990s before making a name for himself with his highly stylized take on William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Now, 30 years after the premiere of his first film, Luhrmann returns with the musical biopic Elvis, starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks.
Luhrmann, a modern-day auteur if ever there was one, is truly a one-of-a-kind director. His films are often hit-or-miss with critics — a quick look at his Rotten Tomatoes profile will make that more than clear. However, there’s plenty to love about his films, including but not limited to an uncompromising and unabashed love for his craft. Indeed, Baz Luhrmann’s sensibilities might not be to everyone’s tastes, but his work is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly homogenous cinematic landscape.
The Great Gatsby (2013) – 48%
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel about wealth, privilege, ambition, and obsession came to life like never before, thanks to Luhrmann’s singular mind. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the titular role, The Great Gatsby follows struggling writer Nick Carraway and his fascination for his fabulously wealthy neighbor, the mysterious Jay Gatsby. The film’s cast also included Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, and Elizabeth Debicki.
The Great Gatsby is far more style than substance, but Luhrmann still succeeds in bringing Gatsby’s tragedy to life through a perfect combination of music and unforgettable visuals. DiCaprio hams it up to an 11 with his take on Gatsby, throwing around far more “old sports” than anyone should utter in a lifetime, let alone a two-hour film. Even so, The Great Gatsby is a visual spectacle that enthralls the viewer and brings new life to a timeless classic.
Australia (2008) – 54%
Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, Australia follows the story of an aristocratic Englishwoman and an Australian drover who embark on a cattle drive across the outback. The film lives and dies with Kidman and Jackman, and while there’s sufficient chemistry between the two, it isn’t quite enough to seal the film’s epic love story.
Besides being one of the few films where Jackman gets to use his native accent, Australia is mostly forgettable. It is a tricky beast of a film, featuring tonal changes that go from the clumsy to the outright jarring and showcasing one of Kidman’s less credible performances. Above all, Australia commits the worst possible sin: It’s boring. And considering it has Baz Luhrmann as the director, that mistake becomes all the more egregious.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) – 73%
Back when Leonardo DiCaprio was still a young heartthrob, Luhrmann used his appeal to the fullest by casting him as the doomed Romeo in a new, Gen X-ified version of Romeo and Juliet. Co-starring a wide-eyed Claire Danes (fresh off her My So-Called Life success), Romeo + Juliet was Shakespeare by way of Baz Luhrmann. In other words, it was great.
The Elizabethan language sounds fresh and slightly clumsy on the young actors’ lips, but that only enhances the film’s commitment to its youthful approach. Coupled with the updated setting and DiCaprio and Danes’ undeniable chemistry, Romeo + Juliet becomes a worthy entry among the countless adaptations of Shakespeare’s seminal play.
Moulin Rouge! (2001) – 76%
Arguably Luhrmann’s “best” film, Moulin Rouge! follows a young and inexperienced writer who falls in love with a courtesan in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman stepped into the spotlight playing the star-crossed lovers, while John Leguizamo and Jim Broadbent play memorable supporting roles.
Moulin Rouge! cemented Kidman to the A-list, earning her an Oscar nomination. The film is devastatingly romantic, featuring luscious production design and a soundtrack that takes 1980s and’90s hits to turn-of-the-century Paris. Only a mind like Luhrmann’s could have conceived such a blend of style and content, and the result is a one-of-a-kind film that’s stood the test of time.
Elvis (2022) – 80%
Luhrmann’s latest effort puts former Disney-kid Austin Butler in the spotlight, casting him as one of pop culture’s greatest idols. Elvis follows the title character across the decades, tracking his rise to fame and complex relationships with manager Tom Parker and future wife, Priscilla.
Elvis is Luhrmann’s best film in ages, elevated by Butler’s star-making role and featuring a truly gonzo performance by America’s dad, Tom Hanks. Most importantly, like Luhrmann’s best films, Elvis doesn’t settle for its genre’s basic conventions. The film dazzles as brightly as the icon at its center, defying the audience to look away, even if just for a moment. There has seldom been a better combination of director and subject.
Strictly Ballroom (1992) – 89%
Luhrmann’s debut film remains his best, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes. The film follows a professional dancer whose unconventional antics earn him the scorn of his colleagues. After pairing up with a local, left-footed girl, the couple’s profile rises on their way to National Championship.
Strictly Ballroom is a classic romantic comedy. The central couple is endearing, their journey relatable, and the film around them enjoyable. Strictly Ballroom begins showing signs of Luhrmann’s trademark sensibilities: dynamic storytelling, inventive camera work, excellent use of music, and just a touch of camp.
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