For a director whose films — from the eclectic pop confection Romeo + Juliet to the widescreen-nostalgic Australia — are rich with references to cinema history, it should come as no surprise to find Baz Luhrmann arrives at his “Five Favorite Films” list both well prepared and bearing a caveat of sorts. “To me there are the usual suspects, in terms of the things I particularly like,” he begins, when asked to break it down to five, “from Apocalypse Now to Lawrence of Arabia to Bandwagon, to The Seventh Seal or Annie Hall or The Wizard of Oz or Cabaret. They go from epics to musicals, but when I started to think about it, I started scribbling down these lists and there was Battle of Algiers and Being John Malkovich, All the President’s Men and Casablanca, for example. So I was thinking, maybe my list will be what I think are remarkable films worth seeing, that are perhaps not on the radar. These are like the side menus to the main banquet, to broaden your palette.”
Cabaret is the classic work [from director Bob Fosse], but Star 80 I think is really worth visiting, because it wasn’t a successful film and it really dealt with a kind of heinous crime. The film itself is brilliantly made, in terms of rhythm and storytelling; if you look at it you’ll see that a lot of directors of my era have been influenced by the aesthetic. Bob Fosse’s great ability with rhythmic storytelling is very alive in the movie, and what’s so intriguing is that it takes a true chapter in the history of Hugh Hefner and the world of Playboy and tells it as a kind of psychological thriller — but with a whole lot of Fosse-like theatricality. So I think that’s a kind of little off-the-radar gem.
One of my great all-time loves in cinema, and I’ve seen it three times, is Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Not a lot of people may have seen that film. It was made during the Soviet era. I’d be happy to see it again — it is, however, 12 hours long. It took 10 years to make, and some actors lived and died during the period of making the movie. It’s a little bit influenced by being a ’60s film, so it’s got a bit of a trippy edge to it; it’s a little bit abstract. But it has some of the finest examples of Russian acting of that era. I was profoundly affected by the Russian theater and the style of Russian acting. It was shot on cameras and film stock that we simply never have access to. If I’m not mistaken, during the opening credits the camera is in a cosmonaut’s space capsule being shot into Earth. It’s probably the biggest crane shot of all time. At first you think, “Well this is going to be tedious,” but stay with it and I think you’ll find yourself drawn in. And the girl who played Natasha [Lyudmila Savelyeva] is a dead ringer for Audrey Hepburn and she’s one of the most luminous stars that ever found herself on the screen.
Medium Cool. I’m crazy about that film. To me, there are a lot of great films from that era because I was seeing them in our movie house when I was a kid [Luhrmann’s dad ran a theater for a period], but what I love about Medium Cool is that it preempts the idea of taking a real historical event and weaving a drama around it. So that’s great about it. Robert Forster is great in that picture. Not to mention — and I’ll be a bit flippant here — the clothes are fantastic. It’s just a great pop cultural picture.
I kind of think Fitzcarraldo. Cinephiles know it, but the new generation don’t really know that picture. It’s a flawed film but if you watch that and the companion making-of [Burden of Dreams]… there’s a great Criterion of it; it’s the one with Mick Jagger in it, when he started the film and had to pull out. What I love about this film is that it represents what I love about film making: The film is about a person who has an insane passion for art, to the extent that they drag a boat over a small isthmus to make money, but he’s making money to bring Caruso, the great Italian Opera singer, to build an opera house. But the backstory, with Klaus [Kinski], and the relationship between Klaus and [director] Werner [Herzog], is so fantastic a backstory. I mean, they try and kill each other. And I think the intense passion between actor and director is in the film. To me it’s kind of a package deal, this film. You have to involve yourself in the movie, but it’s really worth going beneath the film, up the jungle and into the psyche of the drama itself. Its companion film is one of my favorites of all-time, Apocalypse Now — and you can go on the same journey with that film.
It could be 8½. I mean, 8 ½ to me is such a great dissertation on the whole, you know, act if filmmaking and creativity. And you can probably link it with Stardust Memories, because I love the way that Woody [Allen] did a take on it as well. I mean, it’s a little bit of a self examination of the act of making a film. [Reels off another long list of films] Apu. That’d be my fifth, if I didn’t get a fifth one. Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy — I just love those films; the way he uses scenery to create close-ups and wides, and just the emotion of it.
Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! are out now on Blu-ray.