All Baz Luhrmann Films Ranked

Alongside the release of Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, Elvis, there were also the familiar criticisms levelled against the director. Some find his style to be too off-putting, with his penchant for rapid and unrestrained editing, over-the-top characters, risky music choices, and sometimes even an overuse of narration. Tragic love stories and idealised pursuits a common source of exploration, naturalism certainly doesn’t play much of a part in Luhrmann’s work.

While I wouldn’t say he is my favourite director, I do appreciate creatives that are bold and commit to their choices. He has a vision and he sticks to it, and I admire that. In the world of cinema, it’s good to have a distinctive style to stand out from the plethora of merely average directors that are commissioned to complete a stock-standard production for a paycheque. It’s clear that Luhrmann does it for the passion. As a fellow Australian, it has also been interesting to follow his career through the years, as he shuffled from being a household name to becoming a Hollywood A-list director. With Elvis generally pleasing both critics and general audiences alike, I wondered whether Luhrmann’s contribution to the art form really was as horrid and unpalatable as some people make it out to be; is there genius there or is it simply a niche taste?

So I decided to revisit all of his films and rank them accordingly. For this list, only his feature length films that he directed (there are six of them) were included. Obviously this is purely subjective and ultimately comes down to my personal preferences, though I will do my best to explain why I feel some of his films are more superior compared to the others. Let’s start off with my least liked…

Baz Luhrmann on the red carpet of his latest film, Elvis. Visionary or a hack of a director?

# 6. Australia

At the time of its release, Australia was notorious for its audacity.

I recall it being an interesting period for Australian cinema. Having created the much adored and iconic film Strictly Ballroom, along with two more critically acclaimed hits, Aussies were proud of Baz Luhrmann and were keen to see his next project that would hopefully further promote the country. At the time, Australians didn’t feel they had much in the way of cultural clout; despite being an entire island continent, Australia didn’t have much in the way of representation, and there was always this almost obsessive desire to prove ourselves to the rest of the world, gaining recognition in Hollywood in particular. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman were rising stars and were generating international interest in the country within the entertainment industry. So Baz Luhrmann’s newest film, Australia, was primed to be the next big thing to really put Australia on the map and to scratch that cultural itch of representation. We felt as though Aussies were finally going to be understood and respected, as previous hits like Crocodile Dundee—whilst appreciated—did generate a somewhat cringe-worthy mythic reputation for the nation.

Striking poses in front of animals seems to be the thing to do in Australia.

Yet there’s also what’s known as “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. It’s a cultural attitude common in Australia that does more harm than good. Australians don’t like braggers or people that revel in their achievements, so therefore if you succeed at something, you are expected to deflect attention and praise, humbling yourself or offering self-deprecating humour. Australia was an interesting case, because on the one hand we Aussies truly did want Baz’s film to succeed, yet on the other, there was so much pressure on it that it was predestined to fail. In an odd move, it was propped up and paired with a tourism campaign as part of its promotional run, as though this production was Government-approved and therefore operating at a much larger scale than your regular average movie. When that happened, the project grew too big for its own good, and like all tall poppies, people tried to cut it down. It was the title which irked the public the most—Australia. People sneered at the audacity of naming a movie after the country itself, as though a single theatrical release could somehow encompass the sheer breadth of narratives our nation wished to share with the world.

Suffice to say, people went in with mega high expectations (I mean, millions of dollars in the tourism sector were banking on its success). Understandably many left disappointed. Historical inaccuracies aside, Australia wasn’t marketed correctly, and an epic old-fashioned romance channelling the vibe of Gone With the Wind and The African Queen wasn’t exactly what most people wanted. At least that’s my interpretation as to why Australia flopped in its own turf.

It was interesting to revisit Australia after so many years. It’s not a terrible film, and it does largely succeed at being Australia’s answer to the adventurous period romance subgenre. Taking a more conservative approach with his editing choices, some of Baz’s other film tropes are present, such as a biased narrator. It does touch upon a number of dark topics such as the Stolen Generation, so while Nullah (a half-Indigenous child) provides naïve commentary which is occasionally endearing for his sense of innocence, at times it feels like it makes too much light of history. Kidman and Jackman eventually make a good couple, though it is irritating that “The Drover” is only ever referred to by his job title and not his actual name, even by his lover. It’s those little things that whittle away a viewer’s enjoyment, though ultimately it’s a film that tries to be epic without the necessary gravitas in terms of themes and tone.

Australia wasn’t ready for an epic period piece romance.

#5. Moulin Rouge!

I know a lot of people would rank this higher. For many Moulin Rouge! would be the quintessential Baz Luhrmann film. After all, it has all of his trademark directorial choices on full display. There’s the rapid-fire editing, zany side-characters, a plot framed by a narrator, a tragic romance, and modern songs used in a historical setting. It’s the most Baz Luhrmann film on this list, so if you really don’t like his style, then chances are you’ll loathe this movie.  

Moulin Rouge! forms the final part of Luhrmann’s unofficial “Red Curtain” trilogy comprising of Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet as well. Each film is an exploration of an element of theatre as Luhrmann tries to represent the stage on screen. Moulin Rouge! is the celebration of music. In terms of that vision, it does well. The dialogue is littered with lyrics, sometimes from completely random songs, almost like a jukebox that spits out iconic melodies. Traditionally a musical would host its own original scores, and while Moulin Rouge! does contain a few, some of which went on to become chart toppers, it really cemented a trend of featuring a selection of toe-tapping pre-existing songs as opposed to new content. The reception was mixed.

Before I go on, I do wish to acknowledge just how much hard work is evident in this film. Every brief cutaway and energetic glimpse required an additional camera set up, and it’s mind-blowing to think about just how Baz Luhrmann knew what angle or shot was needed ready for the editing process. However, I remember when this film first came out, I really struggled to get into this movie. The first act is too frantic with its editing and too hectic with its pacing. I was a young teen when this movie released, and I felt dumb that it took me three tries to get past the first twenty minutes as I genuinely did not understand what was happening. Now that I’m more well-versed with the language of cinema it’s a much easier task, however I must confess that initial sour taste still remains.

As a teen, I felt as confused as the supporting cast.

Not every film in this list has aged well, although Moulin Rouge! is the one showing the most wrinkles. It’s genuinely surprisingly the Woke mob haven’t come after this movie yet. It contains a toxic romance (although I’ve heard it’s even more problematic in the new stage adaptation), the appropriation of Indian culture, uses sexual assault and coercion as a plot point, whilst the context around “Like a Virgin” is just plain gross. I don’t want to be that person to yank a movie out of its original context and view it through modern eyes, and I have mixed feelings about censoring artistic expression from the past; I’m merely a messenger that knows the lingo well enough to know that Moulin Rouge! is a prime candidate for cancel culture should anyone be inclined enough to chuck up enough of a stink. The glitz and glamour of the musical soften some aspects and make things more forgivable, helped also along by the story’s historic time period, yet it’s still difficult to say it’s a great tale.

However, in terms of emotional beats, it does hit most of them. Some moments fall flat, most notably when Kidman tries to distract others with only half-committed comedic wiles. Yet to the film’s credit, it does land when it matters the most, and the insatiable and rather impulsive love story does soar to the highest of heights along with their respective musical notes. The appeal of Moulin Rouge! is evident, though personally I still find this to be an uneven film, as sometimes Luhrmann’s choices create an unnecessary mess, while at other points it’s what makes the movie stand out from others in the genre.

Although Moulin Rouge‘s greatest accomplishment is informing us that Ewan McGregor can sing.

#4. Elvis (2022)

I’ve only just recently reviewed this movie, so I won’t go into terrible detail here. It can almost be left unsaid that Elvis is led by a fantastic central performance by Austin Butler, which in itself is practically worth the ticket price alone. Outside of that, Elvis is a fairly straight-forward biopic.

Compared with the rest of Luhrmann’s work, Elvis is the least theatrical in regards to the director’s penchant in bringing stage concepts to the silver screen. Even though Australia toned down a lot of Luhrmann’s typical techniques, its romantically sweeping, artificial appearing backdrop still produced that unspoken theatrical element, as though it begged the audience to remember they were watching a piece of cinema—a play of fantasy—consciously setting up a world to be immersed. Elvis in comparison just plays things straight.

Some tropes are still present, such as the frenetic editing particularly in the first act, and the narrative framing by an unreliable narrator. Meanwhile the songs and tragic tale are naturally woven into the life of Elvis anyway. Some risks were taken, but not many when compared to the rest of Luhrmann’s work. Elvis is a solid film, but aside from what will hopefully be an Oscar winning performance for Butler, its biggest flaw is that it’s not particularly memorable as a film. It stumbles in what it wants to say at a thematic level, and while it’s educational for the uninitiated as to why Elvis became the King and rose to fame, it still doesn’t deliver that final punch to drive it above other biographical films.

It’s a solid movie and a great watch, only ranking so low by default. The films below it featured notable flaws, while the movies yet to be discussed contain standout achievements. Elvis just feels average in comparison.

In addition to the film’s other issues, Elvis has been making headlines lately due to Luhrmann’s treatment of Austin Butler, manipulating the actor in a roleplay gone wrong scenario, ironically mirroring the film’s content regarding the handling and abuse of talent.

#3. The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby revels in its debauchery, turning human depravity into something scrumptious. There’s no party like a Gatsby party, and after this film was made, many cruise ships were quick to jump on the chance of hosting Gatsby theme nights. The movie was so good at making these vices seem enticing and exciting, I think many may have missed the point of the story, and I get the impression a lot of viewers like the first half but lose interest in the second. For this reason I don’t think most people would rank this film as high.

I must admit that I haven’t read the book, so I cannot comment on its accuracy as an adaptation, but whenever I watch this film I get the impression the text is oozing out onto the screen. Tobey Maguire feels like an unusual choice for Nick Carraway, although he’s an actor that always seems to bring a sense of wide-eyed wonder and innocence to his roles, which works to his favour in this narrative.

We follow alongside his character as he is first enchanted by the alluring sins of the city he is only just beginning to explore, before falling away in disgust at the vapid shallowness of its grotesque decadence, with his friendship with the titular tragic figure in the centre of it all. His narration of these events would be considered too pretentious in any other context, yet the level of wordsmithing grounds the story to its literary roots, and its profound style offers concepts to mull over while watching what would otherwise be considered a simple love triangle. It’s no Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, but The Great Gatsby’s use of narration is one of my favourite aspects of this film. The characters appear more flawed with every rewatch, with Daisy elevated to an unobtainable pedestal despite her seeking the same comforts as everybody else, while Gatsby exercises futility in trying to reclaim a moment of life that has already been lost with time no matter how hard he pursues the American dream of having it all, his material worth having no impact on life’s hard realities. Carraway may seem too sympathetic to Gatsby’s plight, and the titular character hasn’t aged well in the face of modern social politics, causing this film to draw criticism from audiences. Although with the metaphor of the green light frequently mentioned and Carraway’s constant questioning as a voice of reason, it would be remiss to label this film as being totally supportive of Gatsby’s dubious actions.

Tobey Maguire’s narration will either make or break this film for you.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of Gatsby isn’t always believable, with his frequent use of “old sport” feeling disjointed every time it’s uttered, as though DiCaprio and Gatsby are never synonymous as an entity. He just doesn’t sell the role, which is a shame considering the effort he no doubt provided to the production given his past work ethic. Yet the questionable casting decisions can be overlooked by the film’s strengths in other areas, particularly production design, costuming, and music. Some hated the use of modern music in a 1920s setting, but I personally love the soundtrack and purchased it. It just embodies that party atmosphere, not only vibing the era, but also that gritty and gutter-like pursuit of worldly pleasures hiding under a veneer of class and social distinction. The more the tragedy and misguidedness of the characters are embraced, the more ironic the lyrics seem, with the toe-tapping beats and the tendency to bop along to another’s misfortune almost offering another level of social commentary in itself.

The Great Gatsby won’t be enjoyed by everyone due to the directorial choices, the nuances of the drama and themes, or its declining sense of pace. But there is depth here. It may be a case of style over substance, but with a style such as this, I simply cannot complain.

Ok. It also earned third place due to giving us this wonderful image.

#2. Strictly Ballroom

This film is essentially the reason why this article exists. It demands attention and needs to be spoken about more often, especially since its 30th anniversary has arrived.

Once again, I could be biased. I grew up with this film. Being one of the most iconic films in Australian cinema, it frequently graced the television screens on free-to-air channels and was a regular go-to watch at my household. Baz Luhrmann’s first film and the beginning of his Red Curtain trilogy, Strictly Ballroom aims to be a celebration of dance and boy does it succeed! It unapologetically dives headfirst into the dance world, and on the surface presents a story that encourages self-expression inherent within the art form.

It’s a simple, straight-forward narrative about an unlikely pair of dancers that wish to change the traditions within competitive dance, but the film does dip into other topics. Having studied dance myself throughout my childhood and teenage years, and my sister continuing to pursue it professionally, I grew to love how Strictly Ballroom really captures the hilarious petty drama that’s often present within the industry. It pokes fun at the hypocrisy of how dance is promoted as an outlet of personal expression, and yet it is taught and judged through a rigid syllabus of pre-approved sets of movement. When the story begins to explore the more cultural roots of ballroom styles, it’s a wonderful exchange of passion and technique, fostering a yearning to rediscover what made the art form popular and attractive in the first place. There’s also a love story, a lament of a life filled with regret, and a brief social commentary on the insanity of keeping up appearances.

The quips and little moments amongst the supporting cast is what really elevates Strictly Ballroom to the next level.

There’s a lot here in amongst a film filled with dance routines. Yet the dance itself is worth the watch—it’s easily the best movie featuring ballroom dancing, if not one of the best dance films period. It gleefully covers a multitude of styles in dazzling costumes with fantastic choreography. That cliché dance party ending that has been riffed in lesser films actually makes sense within this story.

There’s a lot of chaotic energy and wild cartoonish twists, but the weird mishmash works as it transports the audience into a setting filled with people that are obsessed with dance. The characters may feel like caricatures yet they are all hilariously defined and have their own little moments, enriching the world and supporting the main cast, providing a comedic backdrop to two people that would otherwise appear too serious in a low-stakes drama. It’s a tactic that works better than what it did in Moulin Rouge! where the supporting cast felt too over the top for no real purpose. Strictly Ballroom does open as a mockumentary, introducing the audience to this tongue-in-cheek analysis of the film’s events, although that style is never bookended and oddly not referenced again after the first act. Along with an overuse of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, these are the few flaws of what is considered to be a tightly woven narrative with fun elements attached. If you’re a dance fan in particular, then Strictly Ballroom is a must see movie.

It also helps that its runtime is only 94 minutes long. A rarity in 2022.

A finale so good, this image will give you goosebumps.

#1. Romeo + Juliet

When I first conceived writing this article, I did not expect Romeo + Juliet to be my number one. Yet considering everything the film accomplished, I cannot fault it. After all, I am a 90s gal, and Romeo + Juliet manages to wonderfully encapsulate that decade.

Some may know that I am a theatre major. Studying Shakespeare comes with the territory. Whilst I do love the wordplay, the imagery, the poetry and iambic pentameter of the text, Shakespeare is a slog to get through at the best of times. It’s commonly said that it’s meant to be performed not merely read, yet it still never seems to translate well onto screen. If the movie is not merely a theatrical production captured on camera, then it’s an uninspired rendition lacking creativity and the cinematic magic which separates stage and screen in the first place.

By a landslide, Romeo + Juliet is the best Shakespeare movie adaptation. I’m talking about films which have taken the hard route and kept the language, not merely adapting just the plot like the excellent Throne of Blood or even more obscure appropriations such as The Lion King. The only other film I’ve found that even comes close to the sheer glory of Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. Granted, this is a niche part of cinema that I don’t actively explore because I have been so horribly disappointed in the past, so there could be others that come close to toppling Romeo + Juliet’s crown that I simply don’t know about. I typically only watch them if I’m in a situation where I need to study the play. Here’s the thing: I’ve never had to study Romeo and Juliet. I happily watch Luhrmann’s film out of my own volition, and revisit it every couple of years. It easily stands on its own two feet as a competent and entertaining film.

The opening scene to this film operates like an initiation by fire to Shakespeare.

The second movie out of Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy, this time focussing on the art of language, literature and poetry, the director achieves his vision to perfection here—he successfully brings the stage to screen. The use of narration, snappy editing, strong characterisation of supporting cast, and even song choice, all come together to bring life to a difficult and often stilted text. It bombards the audience with all of its tricks and heavily stylised features, like some sensory overload exposure treatment, so that by the time the viewer survives the first scene they have subconsciously developed a strong handle, understanding and bizarre fluency of the language. Luhrmann’s abrasive cinematic techniques work at their best here as it actually helps to remove Shakespeare’s most inaccessible boundary, which is the language itself, allowing the rest of the film to have fun, trusting the audience is now capable of tagging along.

There are so many fantastic choices on display here, from the setting, to the reimagining of props, and even the costumes. That soundtrack is on point; there are so many strong moments in the film burned into my brain that whenever I hear “Young Hearts Run Free”, “When Doves Cry” or “Lovefool” my mind is instantly cast back to Romeo + Juliet. There are a number of curious and risky interpretations of the script, with many lines delivered in a surprising way, but it all works out. Every actor understands what they’re uttering despite the archaic nature of the literature, and their character’s intent is wonderfully clear and strong. The story easily navigates the insanity of the blood feud and the foolishness and naiveté of the two young lovers. It finds the ups and downs of the story, conveying both the comedy and the tragedy of the central events.

This scene has its own search term in Google Images.

Then there’s the cinematography. The fish tank scene! It’s so iconic and has to be one of the most memorable first meetings for a romantic couple in cinematic history. Luhrmann understands that cinema is a visual medium and there’s so much in this film that doesn’t rely on the dialogue, which is a pitfall for too many Shakespeare adaptations as they lean too heavily on the power of the acting and script. If you’ve always struggled with enjoying Shakespeare, then I do recommend starting with Romeo + Juliet. Not only does it save a potentially expensive outing going to the theatre, but Luhrmann has achieved the unthinkable in making Shakespeare as accessible as it can be in the modern era.

And Paul Rudd is in the cast, which is always a plus.

Don’t worry, he dodges a bullet.

So there we have it, folks! How would you rank these films? Are some movies more forgivable than others, or are you not a fan at all of Baz Luhrmann? Do you enjoy lists like these and wish to see more? Let us know in the comments!

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

3 Comments

  1. ivavivian on December 26, 2022 at 3:09 pm

    As a child I absolutely loved Moulin Rouge, but I understand how weird the movie is. I would say the reception was mostly good though, do not forget about the Oscars and the Best Movie nomination.

    Also, why is the romance toxic? I am not sure what you meant by that, the other points I understand. Gatsby contains definitely a toxic romance, and I always found that movie to be a disappointingly shallow adaptation of one of my favorite novels.

    • Juliana Purnell on December 26, 2022 at 11:10 pm

      Moulin Rouge is brilliant certainly from a technical standpoint and it’s absolutely deserving of its Oscars (although I noticed it didn’t get a nod for its music). I do remember at the time (and it still seems to exist to this day), there was a lot of elitism from musical theatre fans where people disliked how a character would sing two lines from one song and then chop and change to another. From what I’ve read online, that seems to be people’s main beef with the film from a musical standpoint.

      As for why the romance is a bit toxic: Christian is in love with the idea of love. Satine merely passes through his crosshairs with his infatuation of the concept. So he’s not starting the relationship from a healthy mindset. Meanwhile, Satine is in poverty (as in, she is severely lacking in opportunities) and isn’t in a position to offer a healthy, exclusive relationship (and her love of the theatre is also a complicating factor). So a relationship with Satine naturally comes with a few caveats, and she can’t/is not willing to make the sacrifices needed to make things work, and both of them enter into the relationship knowing that, but it’s not long till Christian sulks and desires to change things up, and places Satine in an impossible position. When Satine wishes to end the relationship (granted it’s due to the Duke’s abusive manipulation and death threat by that stage), Christian disrespects that boundary. In the context of the film it’s understandable, but it’s a common trope in romances that teaches men in particular to keep persisting, when in real life it’s horrible for a woman to repeatedly reject a guy all because he believes that if he persists and pesters her long enough, eventually she’ll wear down and say yes to going out with him. It’s been a few months now since I’ve watched it, so there might be other factors, but I think that was the long short of it. The romance in Moulin Rouge isn’t too bad, but it’s not the model love story the film makes it out to be.

      As for the stage version, from what I’ve read, they changed the ending so instead of the Duke threatening to kill Christian, Christian instead threatens to commit suicide if he can’t be with Satine… That’s just a horrible rewrite which does a dirty on Christian’s character and starts to even alter who the villain is of the piece.

      You’re not alone in regards to Gatsby. I’ve heard from a lot of the book fans that the film is considered a poor adaptation. I haven’t read the book so I can’t compare. I’m just in love with the film’s tone and opulence.

  2. H. Jansz on August 26, 2022 at 11:59 am

    In watching Baz Luhrmann’s work over the years, I think he’s brilliant in many ways, he will do what is not done by others, he may choose different routes to get the job done, which means he’s creative directions offer many people a different yet beautiful way of looking at someone or something, adding unusual talent is a gift in itself! I truly believe the movie Elvis is Oscar worthy and very well done! Bravo Baz! ❤️Australia now has a Graceland venue for visitors if they want it, based in Australia!

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