Sometimes, it’s satisfying to take a break from formulaic movies. Don’t misunderstand, no film fan worth your time is above the pleasures of a kinetic action scene or a shameless romance. The appeal still remains for the novelty of a movie experience that makes you try to ponder its symbols, technique, and intricacies, and perhaps provide a memorable new perspective for a viewer to take with them.
Now, let’s also make it clear: This isn’t a list about arbitrary nonsense either. No art is needed for that. A computer algorithm can write a script where superficially artistic things happen. As it happened at least one was said to have written a commercial by now (although that turned out to likely not be true.) This is about movies that have structure and when the creators break film-making rules, it’s with a purpose in mind.
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The most popular interpretation of David Lynch’s 1978 debut film is that it’s about a printing factory worker in a bleak town named Henry Spencer who accidentally impregnates his girlfriend Mary, and they have an inhumanly deformed baby. The reason that’s only the most popular interpretation is because Lynch has explicitly said in interviews that in the following decades no one came close to accurately interpreting his grim debut (he has said the true intended meaning has something to do with the Holy Bible, but that’s as revealing as he’s gotten.)
So what keeps compelling people to try? Because Lynch’s movie not only has the loose structure of a comprehensible if grim story, it also has teases for the audience that seem to play off how abstract certain surreal scenes are. For example, during a scene where Henry meets his girlfriend’s mother, there’s a loud, off-putting squeaking noise through much of the scene, leaving the viewer anxious about what that noise is and what it could mean… then revealing it’s a benign litter of puppies. Later, when Mary leaves Henry, there’s an extended scene where she’s messing with the end of the bed while Henry’s lying on it. It’s framed from Henry’s POV so we can’t see what she’s doing, and we’ve seen enough surreal imagery with ominous sounds that it could be anything. It goes on for a deliberately extended period of time. Then with a pop, she pulls her suitcase out from under the bed. In short, Lynch’s trick was to know that just showing harrowing tableaus would be off-putting, and that including some comedy and pleasant surprises would make the movie less predictable, one of the keys to its intrigue lasting for decades.
9. Van Diemen’s Land
This 2009 movie is based on true events and tries very hard to treat them with due respect. It follows a band of eight convicts sent to a penal colony on the island of Tasmania, the de facto leader Alexander Pearce having been sent from Ireland for stealing six pairs of shoes. In 1822 the group broke out for the settlements on the Eastern side of the island. In the harsh Tasmanian Wilderness, in desperation they had to resort to cannibalism. Despite the nightmarish situation, director Jonathan Auf Der Heide made sure to restrain the violence and gore to avoid making an exploitative movie. Yet during its premiere multiple audience members vomited and others fainted at the film. These were presumably people that by 2009 had seen far more graphic footage. How was Auf Der Heide’s film having such an extreme effect accidentally?
According to the director, the trick he sort of backed into was downplaying the violence. The lack of graphic, heightened imagery and special effects took away some of the distancing effect that some cinematic technique inevitably has. As he put it, “… when it becomes a reality, murder can be mundane and clumsy and ugly.” Not that directorial restraint in and of itself is the magic bullet for a movie to reach an audience on a visceral level, but it worked unintentional wonders here.
8. A Ghost Story
This 2017 movie written and directed by David Lowery may be the most polarizing film featured on this list, with a large gap between the critical and audience consensus on sites like Rotten Tomatoes for instance. The story is that Casey Affleck’s character known only as “C” dies, his ghost (which is literally rendered as the actor under a sheet) haunts the home of his significant other “M” played by Rooney Mara. “M” doesn’t know that “C” is there, tries to endure the grieving process, and eventually leaves their home, but “C” can not leave with her. Trapped at the home, it eventually crumbles around him. Then time loops around, and “C” finds himself not only haunting “M” for a time but himself.
The most memorable aspect of the movie is how it plays around with the passage of time. The movie will play events that are meant to carry particular emotional weight in real time, and moments where the characters feel numb or disconnected flow by much faster. By far the most noted example of this is a scene where M eats most of a whole pie. For four minutes in a single, darkly lit take where Mara is sitting on the floor. Instead of just showing a few seconds of binging to get the point across, Lowery lingers so that it by turns it becomes depressing, uncomfortable, then disgusting and harrowing. It turns the sadness of grief from something that can have some kind of aesthetic into essentially torture for everyone involved, including the audience. Seeing the actress eat the pie in real time lets the audience know that the actress actually did it instead of using editing to make the scene go down easier. No blaming audiences if they’d rather do just about anything with their time than watch that, but the creative choice clearly struck a chord with many.
7. Enter the Void
The plot for this film is essentially simplicity itself. A low-level drug dealer named Oscar is living in the wake of a severe childhood trauma. He goes to make a sale, the police raid the site of the transaction, he tries to scare them off by saying through a closed door that he has a gun, and consequently gets gunned down. The lives of his sister and colleagues spiral out of control as a result.
But what will make an impact on a viewer is very likely not its story or characters. It’s how Gaspar Noe tells his 2009 story so immersively from the perspective of Oscar, complete with showing what Oscar sees what he trips on DMT and his death visions. Almost all from literal first person POV, even as he drifts from his body into the neon-drenched Tokyo skyline. He drifts above scenes of his sister hooking up with a club manager (which results in an unwanted pregnancy) and one of his associates becoming a dumpster scrounging homeless person. He also travels into the past and sees the automobile accident that shaped his life as it ended his idyllic family life. There are several scenes that are simply flashing strobe lights in the audience’s eyes, as if to simulate the “light at the end of the tunnel” effect as the cerebral cortex shuts down. Noe himself unusually tried to take all ambiguity out of the ending, saying in an interview that all the events in the film after Oscar gets shot are hallucinations and that while he wrote the movie he was completely areligious. But whatever an audience member’s view of life, it provides a very convincing vision of entering the afterlife and reincarnation.
There are very, very few movies that are more minimalist than Derek Jarman’s 1993 film. That’s not to say nothing happens in it. The soundtrack is full of narration by the director, Nigel Terry, and Tilda Swinton where the protagonist speculates about the things to see, his life experiences, his medical treatment, rejecting all acts of shallow charity and pity that have been extended to him. But all there is to see throughout the entire movie is an unbroken blue screen. That’s because when he was making it, Derek Jarman was dying of AIDS and his vision would intermittently have flashes of blue light as he went blind from retinal damage.
The Washington Post said that the effect of watching it was “an unyielding bout of suffocation.” It also described how the effect was at time “nauseating,” and considering that at the time he was making it Jarman described himself as a “walking lab” from all the pills he was taking, including experimental ones, then that means he certainly got some viewers to relate. The Independentmentioned while watching it the “eyes play tricks on you,” indicating that it also imparted at least a little of his own hallucinatory headspace.
Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s 1994 film sounds like the setup for a novel John Steinbeck would write. A farming community (a former collectivist farm, as it’s based on a 1985 novel written in the Soviet Union) has received a government subsidy. From hardened criminals to abusive older children, we see the various ways that the cunning take the shares of the cash from the unsuspecting. The movie stretches seven and a half hours with a much smaller cast than a film like that would usually involve (unless you count the cows in it as cast members) but since it’s conveniently divided into twelve parts watching it is more akin to watching a miniseries.
The time commitment isn’t the most daunting sounding aspect of Sátántangó to the uninitiated. This movie shows its various subplots mostly in very long takes that often amount to traveling from place to place on foot, or even walking around buildings. Additionally, certain scenes are replayed from different points of view. Sound boring? For many it will be. But it also has the effect of removing any sense of quaintness to the rundown rural setting. Even though the images are filmed in crisp black and white, they feature muddy, sloshing paths. The effect is that being inside the village can seem so oppressive and uncomfortable for the viewer that they become numb to the wickedness of the many thieves. Even such severe crimes as a girl who learns her peers tricked her into burying her money and responds by going home to abuse her cat become much more, if not exactly sympathetic, then at least more understandable. Viewers will likely come away from it completely disabused of any notions they had of pastoral rural life.
4. The Matrix
Oh, were you expecting this list to only include arthouse/cult movies? No way, commercial success is no barrier to effective technique. While surely many others have commented to death on its use of Hero’s Journey structure, color, etc. in 2017 vlogger Patrick Willems shared with the internet a novel observation. It was a simple but highly effective method that the Wachowskis used for keeping the audience unsure: Sound mixing during scene transitions.
For example, during the scene where protagonist Neo is interrogated by the villainous Agent Smith and a cybernetic tracking device modelled after a crayfish is put in his navel as Neo screams, the same sort of scream Neo makes as he wakes up in bed. This match of edit and sound mixing mimics an earlier scene where Trinity introduces Neo to the idea of entering a new world at a club, and immediately after he wakes up. But on the sound mix the musical score shifts in rhythm and pitch to resemble the buzzing of an alarm clock before transitioning in bed to the next scene, helping to sell the notion that the previous scene was a dream through connected sound and establishing a pattern in the movie. It’s a perfect illustration of how movies need to set up rules and frameworks if change in the flow of events is going to have an mean something to audiences and how even the subtlest filmmaking methods can be important.
3. The Shining
Since 1980 the mystique of Stanley Kubrick’s loose film adaptation of Stephen King’s horror story in the Overlook Hotel has only increased. Its trademark scenes of overt horror (the eerie twins, the door being axed open, the blood from the elevator, etc.) have been discussed at length and by this point parodied or patisched even more often, such as in the 2018 blockbuster Ready Player One. Lately, though, a belief has emerged that give credit for the movie’s effectiveness for something seemingly trivial. It’s the presence of continuity errors.
In the wake of Rodney Ascher’s 2013 documentary Room 237, these errors have become a relatively hot topic in film circles. One of the main errors is the physical impossibility of the Overlook Hotel as pointed out in videos by Rob Ager (who noticed because his friend was trying to create a fan level in the video game Duke Nukem to resemble the Overlook Hotel.) For example, for the interview at the beginning of the film, the office it takes place in has a window to the outside. Yet in the movie, when comparing the location of that office to the hallways protagonist Jack Torrance later walks through, it becomes clear that the office is completely enclosed by the building. The window is “impossible” as Ager put it. Another significant error is that Grady, the previous caretaker who killed his family in a murder suicide before the events of the film, is named Charles Grady at the beginning but is named Delbert Grady later on, which is a pretty bizarre mistake for everyone involved in the production to miss. It adds to a theme suggested by the final shot of the movie that somehow these characters have been reincarnated and will visit this hotel again and again over the years.
If all this was intentional, it wouldn’t have been the first time for Kubrick. In A Clockwork Orange, during the scene where protagonist Alex DeLarge is drugged, Kubrick intentionally futzed with the portions of the meal laid out in front of him to disorient the audience. To expand that notion out from a scene to a feature film would be pretty ambitious even by his standards.
2. Picnic at Hanging Rock
This 1975 film not only launched the career of future The Truman Show and Master and Commander director Peter Weir. It’s been credited with revolutionizing Australian cinema and effectively making films from down under an international force to be reckoned with. Little wonder that it was sufficiently beloved to be remade in 2018 as a TV series.
What helps hook Picnic at Hanging Rock is its seeming normalcy. It begins with the class of a finishing school in Adelaide of 1900 going on a day out. While they’re there, four of the girls vanish. Subsequent search parties can’t find a trace. One man tries going it alone, and goes blind. Hanging Rock refuses to even hint what caused the women to vanish or what made the subsequent investigation have such odd occurrences. Then one of the women returns, but she can’t remember anything that happened to her around Hanging Rock. Aside from the hypnotic score by pan flutist Zamfir, it’s also so mundanely, meticulously told that many believed the wholy fabricated story was based on a real unexplained mystery. Little wonder that when it was initially released, despite containing barely any onscreen violence, it was treated as a horror movie.
1. The Battery
No one would call this 2012 movie an art film and its makers didn’t aspire for it to be one. It’s a buddy zombie film, The Battery of the title refers to a duo in cricket who pitch and are at bat. One such battery is traveling through countryside with a few mates trying to find shelter. It was not a massive hit or a critical darling. Its budget was a paltry $6000. So what’s it doing in the #1 position on this list?
Because creators Jeremy Gardner and Adam Cronheim hit upon a brilliantly simple and cheap way to add a subconscious effect to their movie through infrasounds. Infrasounds are a type of white noise that’s usually outside the range of conscious human hearing. Such machines as air conditioners, generators, and anything else that produces a 19 hz or lower sound. Because they register subconsciously, they provide stimulus that often puts humans on edge without being aware why, which was exploited considerably for the sound mix of this movie. It just goes to show that for all the artistry and cleverness that many directors try to put into their movies. People are still people, and susceptible to the most basic tricks.