AFI Top 100: Cabaret

In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Cabaret (1972), #63 on the list.

Cabaret excels in so many aspects, it’s unfortunate that it ultimately ends up less than the sum of its parts. Its biggest accomplishment is that it works at all, because on paper it sounds like a surefire disaster—a film about a nightclub entertainer’s romantic exploits set against the rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s Berlin, complete with musical numbers and thematic material that was undoubtedly taboo for the early ’70s. And yet, owing much to Minnelli’s brilliant and dynamic performance, as well as the elaborate set design, the film was a huge success. Not only was it a hit at the box office, it also holds the record for winning the most Academy Awards without winning Best Picture, taking home eight Oscars including Best Actress, Director, Cinematography, and Art Direction. 

Its biggest drawback is evident in the other category in which it (rightfully) lost to The Godfather: Best Adapted Screenplay. The personal tribulations of Sally Bowles are mostly engaging and interesting in their own right, but the lack of structure makes the pacing feel uneven. Worse though is the narrative and thematic disconnection to the more haunting story being told in the background—the growing threat of Nazis. While this framing makes for an evocative final shot, especially when contrasted with the film’s opening, it doesn’t add depth to the characters or story, essentially serving as little more than a harrowing but hollow setting. The lackluster writing is disappointing, because the film is otherwise bursting with talent in front of and behind the camera.

Does It Belong on the List?

Even before this second watch, when I was more positive on the film, I would argue its lack of cultural relevance makes it an easy one to kick off the list.

AFI Top 100

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