Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Writer/ director, Baz Luhrmann, best known for his pinache, made his moviemaking debut with this one. And what a first impression! Let’s face it: regardless of medium, most first attempts are sincere but earnest and eschew anything flashy, which is understandable. Yet this gutsy storyteller somehow manages to fully develop his characters in a short amount of time. Though the movie is fast-paced it doesn’t feel the least bit rushed; Luhrmann knows exactly when and where to move the camera around his stylized set.

Though he gradually drifted into the realm of cinematic adaptations, this story is truly unique as a perfect synergy of any element you can name. I initially remembered it being a creative little daydream (i.e. a much classier version of Dirty Dancing) that someone more sentimental than I made me watch. Over the years it periodically surfaced in various conversations, referenced by everyone but cinephiles. I finally decided to rewatch it, assuming it would be a subtle precursor to Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized version of “Romeo and Juliet,” which I loved but hadn’t connected as being from the same visionary. Though many movies with vaguely similar elements came to mind, I couldn’t think of a single one to which this compares. In my humble opinion, it remains his finest work.

Footloose (1984)

I know this one’s a pop culture classic but it’s usually dismissed as a musical. Is it about music? Yes. Does it have choreography? Yes. But it’s primarily about censorship and communication. The main point of the dancing is to represent something that’s harmless in and of itself—even beneficial for exercise and social bonding—that’s been banned due to certain connotations stemming from an unfortunate incident remotely related to it. Fair points are made about the value of community and kinship but the script has nothing to do with country vs. city or traditional vs. modern. When a character—and not even the main one—matures from rallying his neighbors in an effort to suppress free speech to speaking out against a book-burning organized by the very people he inspired with his fear-mongering, the story needs to respected rather than remade into a one-dimensional musical about mean uptight adults forced to lighten up and let kids channel their creativity into provocative dancing.

Across the Universe (2007)

Though the title borrows the more popular lyric/ song title, this film could’ve been aptly named “Nothing’s Gonna Change my World”; the irony being the massive upending of life as everyone knew it prior to the turbulent 1960s. To craft a plot from a collection of music not written as a cohesive narrative is tricky enough; to seamlessly infuse the playlist with a personification of the music and events that equally influenced and inspired each other is a true work of Art. The inclusion of live musical performance, choreography, imaginative cinematography, depiction of history and socio-political commentary take this mesmerizing spectacle way beyond a Beatles-inspired musical.

Whiplash (2014)

While I’ve heard this short-turned-feature dismissed as an overwrought caricature, writer/ director, Damien Chazelle had yet to prove his storytelling chops with “10 Cloverfield Lane” and certainly before the successful “La La Land” when he crafted his depiction of a sadistic music teacher, who he patterned after one of his own. Since the film’s release, many musicians have spoken out in support of its accuracy, which was the only compelling reason I had to watch it.

It took me a couple of days to finish this movie; due to its emotional intensity I took frequent breaks. Had it not been for sublimely meticulous craftsmanship it would’ve seemed melodramatic. It also helped that I had warm associations with both J. K. Simmons and Paul Reiser, not that it should’ve mattered. Still, overall—despite its anxiety-inducing quality—it paints a vivid picture of that fine line between focused motivation and injurious obsession. The likes of which may never be matched.

Baby Driver (2017)

The very thing this gem has going for it is also its downfall, at least as far as marketing is concerned: its genre is unclassifiable. The closest comparison would be a musical, the likes of which have only been attempted during a few seconds of a TV ad. The score is the soundtrack is the playlist to which the main character listens throughout the movie. But rather than singing, choreography is the main draw. In fact, it’s practically a main character. Everything from windshield wiper blades swiping to car doors slamming to gunshots firing is perfectly synched to the rhythm of the music. Be ready to immerse yourself in the story of a silent getaway driver the moment it starts (e.g. the lyrics of the opening song are visually incorporated into the scenery as graffiti, product labels, print ads, etc.). The style of this film is certainly clever but excellent acting coupled with the unique premise of unlikely partners in crime is what makes it thoroughly engaging.