I stumbled into the world of art house films. I remember vividly my first encounter: I was 17 and a bunch of my friends were fresh out of high school and we had maybe four hours to kill. That naturally led us to the cineplex and there was only two movies that fit with the time we had. One was the animated feature Ice Age featuring the laugh-out-loud hijinks of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Denis Leary but half our group had already seen it. So somehow through bizarre happenstance five seventeen-year olds found themselves willingly spending their free time and money watching the recently Academy-award nominated small town drama In The Bedroom about how a happy couple falls apart after the death of their adult son.
Maybe we did it because we saw the title “In the Bedroom” and thought that title promised something titilating (raging hormones and all) than anything we actually got. Maybe we were just bored and looking for something to kill the time. Whatever it was, it still represents the second weirdest film-watching experience I’ve ever had. And my introduction to the world of art house films.
(In case you’re wondering, the weirdest film watching experience I’ve had was when five single and recently dumped guys decided to go for a Friday evening performance of Hitch. There is nothing like being the only non-couples in the audience watching a romantic comedy to salve recent wounds.)
I’ll admit that of the lists I’ve made so far, this is going to be the hardest sell because I’m pretty sure that my love for art house films does make me a little bit of a snob. It’s hard to talk about all that is good about art films without talking about aesthetics, symbolism, narratives, and every term you’ve heard from an intro to philosophy college course. And naturally it is also very easy to frame art films against mere ordinary conventional films. So yes, inherent in anybody’s love of art films is at least the slightest hint of snobbery.
Before we get any further it might be good for me to just make clear what I mean when I say art house film. Basically I mean these following things:
- They are films that were made primarily for aesthetic and artistic reasons as opposed to commercial reasons. Now I say primarily because I think almost all movies are made with at least some consideration to commercial appeal – and people who think that art films must be films that only have artistic merit are also people who think art films are the only films worth watching. And those people are quite simply, the worst.
- Since the saleability of the film is not its primary concern, these films also tend to be smaller movies working with smaller budgets and smaller crews with smaller name stars.
- These films also tend to be director driven and not studio-driven. By this I mean that the authorial viewpoint of the director is often clearly present in the film. A studio-driven film on the other hand is driven by the market and designed to create as much profit for the studio as possible. For instance, a Terrence Malick film is going to almost always be instantly recognizable because there is a clear aesthetic he employs. By contrast a Marvel-Cinematic Universe movie can have a dozen directors in as many movies without skipping a beat because the aesthetic and vision for these movies come from Marvel Studios itself and not the individual directors. Thus an art house film is almost always going to be more personal. (Side note: Again, I’m not knocking big-budget studio films. But I just want to acknowledge that there are two different starting points for big-budget studio films and art house films.)
- The focus of these movies tend to be more internal (thoughts, dreams, angst of the characters) and the conflict often existential. This is as opposed to the more plot-driven films with clear opponents or goals that studios tend to (but not exclusively) put out.
- It would also be good to mention briefly how art film differs from its very close neighbour, the indie film. Indie films, while sharing many of the characteristics of the art film differ in that typically they are conventional films with much smaller budgets. For instance the film Little Miss Sunshine does ultimately follow a comedic narrative arc typical of bigger budget comedies – the smaller budget simply allows the filmmakers to be more creative in their presentation. Admittedly the line between indie and art-house is infinitesimal – but it is there.
So after describing what I mean by art house films, it should also be clear what the barriers to these films are. The primary barrier is that most of these films require you to do some work when you watch them. For people who see films as purely for escapism and entertainment (those people are wrong), this is a completely foreign way to talk about movies. Art films are frequently confusing, opaque, and require your full attention to watch them. But for me, though it is true that art films require me to work, the rewards tend to far outweigh whatever work I’ve had to do. The best art films tend to expand my horizons, sharpen my thoughts, and make concrete my vague emotions. Because art films tend to be concerned about internal motivations and realism, they also tend to be able to touch or at least hover close to truth especially as it relates to our human experience. And so while sometimes I can be mentally exhausted by the time I’ve finished watching an art film, most of the time that exhaustion is more akin to a “runner’s high” than actual fatigue. And when watching an art film does more than invigorate you but actually helps you navigate and process emotions and angsts within, the rewards can be immeasurable.
(Side note: Now having said all that, I do have many times when I am physically exhausted and completely not in the mood for intellectual gymnastics and emotional processing and in those moments I’m perfectly content for pure blockbuster glory. Escapism is sometimes a good thing.)
Like any exercise regimen, I do believe that you have to build up stamina to be able to appreciate the best art house films can offer. I’ve been avidly watching art films for close to a decade now and even I can only muster the energy for an Ingmar Bergman movie about once every six months or so (as rewarding as Bergman can be). And more importantly, I think some films are better gateways to art film than others. Of all the categories that I’ve covered so far I do believe that this is the only one where the barrier is more than just perceptual, and have to do with skills. So more than ever, finding these gateway films are critical to getting converts to the art film world.
So here is a little bit of my criteria when narrowing down this list:
- I’m looking for art films with some (or maybe in some cases, a lot) or commercial appeal. In doing this I realize that I probably violate the unwritten purity rules for art house film lovers (but we have already established that purist art house film lovers are the worst). The way I figure is that every filmmaker at some level wants their film to be seen. Ultimately most art house filmmakers are paying some attention to whether or not a film can make back its cost and turn a tidy profit. So in introducing a film to would-be devotees, it makes sense to lean towards art house films with a little bit more commercial appeal.
- Having said that, to keep things at least a little bit authentic I do think that an art house film has to at least have the typical budget of an art house film. While Interstellar does have the look, feel, and structure of an art house film, the fact is that it’s budget was $176 million USD. For that money you can make at least a half-dozen art films. By contrast the first Lord of the Rings movie’s budget was $93 million. To make this list your budget can’t be more than a major motion picture fantasy epic.
- In keeping with the other lists, the art films in question will be in English (so as to not come up against the foreign movie barrier) and are relatively modern (so not to run up against the “classic films are boring” barrier). Remember, Persona is our end goal not our starting point.
- As with the foreign film list, this list will also be heavily favoured towards genre art film (sci-fi, action, horror, fantasy etc.). I feel that it’s much easier to convince a skeptic to try something new in a genre they already like and are familiar with than something completely new and foreign.
But enough rules. On to the list:
Honorable mentions: THE TREE OF LIFE (2011) by Terrence Malick; THE “BEFORE” TRILOGY (1995, 2004, 2013) by Richard Linklater; HER (2013) by Spike Jonze; ARRIVAL (2016) by Denis Villeneuve.
All these films just missed the cut for the Top 10 for one reason or another. Of all the omissions, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is the one that surprises me the most. If you’re looking for the quintessential example of an American art film maker, the list begins and ends with Malick. He has made a career of making meditative and hypnotic art films and doesn’t seem to care if his films make a dime or not. It used to be that he would only put out one movie a decade or so which meant every new film he made was a not-to-be-missed art film event (his output has increased recently, and unfortunately that has correlated with a down turn in quality. Perhaps the man should take a break again). The Tree of Life is arguably his magnum opus and if this were simply a list of best art films it would be close to a shoo-in. But unfortunately it is also very much a stereotypical art film with a confusing narrative, barely any plot, and a 45-minute dialogue-free diversion into the creation of the universe. In short, it’s a horrible choice for a first outing into art house films.
The other honourable mentions are good (or maybe great), but just miss out because the ones in front are just a little bit more appropriate for this category beginning with:
10. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004) by Michel Gondry
Any discussion of great modern art films has to at some point include the works of screenwriter (and sometimes director) Charlie Kauffman. Simply going through most of his works (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Synecdoche New York, and Anomalisa) would be an excellent primer in and of itself of art house films. And Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind finds Kauffman at the peak of his literary powers.
The story is about Joel Barish (Jim Carrey, who should seriously just consider embracing his dramatic side) who suddenly finds himself unceremoniously dumped by his free-spirited girlfriend Clementine (the always great Kate Winslet). In his plight to soothe the pain of that dumping, Barish decides that the best solution is to undergo a new treatment in which the memory of Clementine is completely excised and removed. But in typical Kauffman fashion, the theoretical ease of such a solution turns out to be much more existentially horrifying in real life and Barish is forced to subconsciously fight back. How that is depicted is off-the-wall, confusing, and yet surprisingly tender and romantic. The sci-fi romance genre is a very tiny one, but Eternal Sunshine definitely tops that list.
9. WHALE RIDER (2002) by Niki Caro
Now here might be the first moment in which the art film purists cry foul. Arguably this movie belongs in the “indie film” camp rather than the art film camp – but I’ve included it here for several reasons. First, it is a film that can be safely viewed by the whole family (unlike most of the stuff on this list). It tells the story of Pai – a young girl who is the only heir to a royal Maori line that is traditionally very patriarchal – and the struggles she faces as she tries to live into her birthright but faces fierce opposition from her grandfather and the villagers who are loathe to appoint a female successor.
This brings me to my second reason. In a more conventional movie that plot description would unfold in a typical fight-against-the-system sort of narrative culminating in a triumphal upheaval and shaming of the previous order of things, preferably with an upbeat score. But Niki Caro is wise to let this complicated situation play out in the shades of grey that it needs to. While we are meant to identify with and root for Pai, we are not invited to vilify the elders especially since it involves the preservation of a culture that has long been overrun by colonialism.
But finally, this film is a wonderful marriage of down-to-earth intimacy that we see in the scenes around this village but also fantastical magical mythicism. While this would be jarring in most circumstances, under the watchful eye of Caro and by being seeped in an authentic picture of Maori tradition and culture – the shifts between the two are nothing but natural, uplifting, and beautiful to watch.
8. DRIVE (2011) by Nicolas Winding Refn
I hesitated putting this movie onto the list just because it is such a dude movie. But as my wife said, if you’re going to put together a list of art films that might appeal to non-art film people you, “can’t go wrong if you feature the Gos” (Ryan Gosling, for the uninitiated). So that’s my justification and I’m sticking with it.
As far as art films go, I doubt you are going to find a more stylish film than this one. Nicolas Winding Refn’s aesthetic, for good or ill, is one centred on being and looking cool. And in Drive he definitely achieves it. Gosling plays a nameless driver who does Hollywood stunts by day but masquerades as a getaway driver for hire at night. And though his quiet but fiery performance can be easily mockable there is no denying that just about everything about him oozes coolness. Seriously, take a look at those opening credits. How can you NOT be cool in that?
Word to the wise though – this stylish and deliberate coolness does give way half-way through to very stylish and deliberate hyper-violence. But this is a movie about the criminal underground and the impossibility of getting out – what did you expect to happen? But if you ever wondered what would happen if an art film met an action film you will most certainly find your answer in this film.
7. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013) by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
I can’t think of directors who move so seamlessly between conventional populist art (True Grit), cult-indie films (Fargo, The Big Lebowski), and more serious art film fare than the Coen brothers. And while the conventional stuff they do is excellent, it is when they get off the beaten track and embrace their idiosyncrasies that they are at their best. Nowhere is this more true than in their ode to the 1960’s New York folk scene, Inside Llewyn Davis. Where other films might choose to mine the heights of the period, the Coen brothers decide instead to do a profile on the decidedly less famous but talented Llewyn Davis.
By doing so, we get a loving, tender, and dark tale which explores the question of likability and its role in success as well as the never-ending debate about whether compromise in art is valid especially if it leads to a wider audience. In short, it is an art film about the nature of art (an art film unicorn!). But it also has one of the best soundtracks of all time which does a lot to soften the acerbic edges that Mr. Davis is prone to sharpen. Llewyn Davis is a character you don’t know whether to punch in the face or hug, and so is perhaps the most accurate depiction of an artist out there.
6. MOONLIGHT (2016) by Barry Jenkins
Thanks to a certain Oscar snafu this movie is now “that movie that won instead of La La Land.” But that is really a tragedy because it diminishes just how excellent this movie is. It tells the story of Chiron through three different periods of his life as he struggles with the fact that he is a poor, black, and gay man. But far from being an “issue” film, this film tackles those questions with such warmth, grace, authenticity, and such specificity to the the person of Chiron that it simply is loving portrait of the width and depth of human experience.
It is also just a beautiful film to look at. The movie takes some of the most dilapidated parts of South Florida and turns it into a ephemeral place. Add to this a transcendent soundtrack and you get what for me was one of the more spiritual film-watching experiences that I’ve had in awhile. Basically, while it’s taken a long time for an art house film to win the Academy Award, and it was a minor miracle that this film is the one to do it, I can hardly thing of a more appropriate film to win it and be for many their introduction to the art house world.
5. CAROL (2015) by Todd Haynes
Elegant and lush are two words that come to mind when I think about Todd Haynes’ latest work Carol. Borrowing from the playbook of Douglas Sirk and David Lean, Haynes weaves a beautiful and melodramatic tale of desire, dissatisfaction, and love framed against a society that is closeted and repressed. In this way Carol is very similar to Hayne’s earlier work Far From Heaven but here he is also assisted by the excellent work of the two leads Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese).
As Amy Taubin noted in her review, what is remarkable about this film is that it is altogether present existing “in that electric, elastic, heart-stopping/heart-racing present of romantic desire.” Much like Moonlight earlier, the movie focuses so much on the subtlety of human desire in Carol and Therese’s elegant maneuvering towards one another that it is instantly relatable and universal. It is definitely one of the most quietly moving films I’ve seen in recent years.
4. LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) by Sofia Coppola
I know, I know. This film comes up so much in any discussion about modern art films that it borders on self-parody. Who doesn’t love a good sad-sack Bill Murray performance and a dose of the pre-Avengers Scarlett Johansson? And nothing says “art film” like an American movie set in a foreign country with a leading man dealing with the existential crises of alienation, loneliness, and the crippling cost of fame. But while the premise does indeed lend itself to being mocked as “art film 101”, the fact remains that all these basic art film elements are executed extremely well to create one of the best movies of the 21st century. And so, predictable as this choice may be, there was no way that it was not going to make this list.
Bill Murray has his best performance as the aging movie star Bob Harris, stuck in Tokyo for an advertising gig. At one level Bob is an exaggerated version of Murray himself but on another he is the perfect vehicle for Murray’s unique blend of absurd and sardonic humour. And in Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte he finds the perfect foil to explore the reality of loneliness and alienation in an increasingly hyperactive and connected world (which, given this movie was made a year before Facebook, is extremely prescient). Framed against the beautifully shot Tokyo, the movie is a sad but ultimately sweet detour – and a welcome respite to my noise-filled life.
3. FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009) by Wes Anderson
I should preface this entry by saying that from here on out, the top three are close to interchangeable and were absolutely no-brainers for me. And the first of these films is by far the most crowd-pleasing of the bunch. While I briefly considered Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel I ultimately went with Fantastic Mr. Fox for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a children’s movie in a category that very rarely has anything children might find interesting. Second I think that it is the crucial lynchpin separating Wes Anderson’s early career from his more mature later output.
Fantastic Mr. Fox proves to be the perfect canvas for Anderson to apply his extremely meticulous and stylized aesthetic as well as the perfect avenue for his oft-kilter humour. There is just something hilarious about woodland creatures acting like socially-awkward and glib grown-ups as they treat the most ludicrous situations with grave seriousness. Where previously Anderson’s quirky characters veered towards the grating and acerbic, here he manages to calibrate the humor just enough to strike the perfect balance between deadpan and ludicrous. It is without a doubt the easiest and most lighthearted film to watch on this list, and also visually the most interesting of the bunch.
2. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) by Alfonso Cuaron
Alfonso Cuaron’s follow-up to his Harry Potter outing (still the best of the lot) was this stunning science fiction movie that plays less like an action movie but more like a political thriller and a rumination of the place of faith and hope in a place of despair. Set in a dystopic future in which no child has been born for 11 years, borders have become iron-clad shut, and all semblance to democracy has been replaced by fascism the movie does hit some very familiar sci-fi notes. So on paper this movie would be the most controversial to put on an “art-house” film list.
But what sets this movie apart from most of its populist fare is the care and craft that Cuaron puts into making it. First Cuaron grounds his future in the (then) present so that there are no flying vehicles, no strange costumes, and no weird eccentricities that could help us place distance between his vision and our reality. Children of Men is so effective because at some level it is very nearly plausible. But second and more importantly, Cuaron infuses his movie with grit and dirt that grounds the movie’s reality. His now-famous long takes and his low-to-the-ground camera placements always ensure that we are immersed in his fully realized world. These two elements playing together help turn this fable into a prophetic warning of the kind of paths we might set ourselves down (that are more relevant today than ever) as well as a dim reminder that hope is not something easily squashed.
1. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) by Paul Thomas Anderson
As with all the other lists I have made, there were several directors who got shortchanged just because I made the arbitrary rule of one movie per director. And in this case Paul Thomas Anderson can rightfully feel aggrieved to only have one of his movies appear. From Boogie Nights all the way to Inherent Vice Anderson has made a career out of exploring, expositing, and deconstructing the deep-held myths and beliefs of America. And of all his excellent films, There Will Be Blood stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.
There Will Be Blood is a sprawling epic that is Anderson’s treatise on the transcendent highs and odious lows of American capitalism. Starring the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, the story is about Plainview’s quest for his piece of the American dream through his search for oil. What is perhaps most terrifying of this portrait is that Plainview in all his dealings, acts exactly as the morality of capitalism would dictate he should – and yet it is clear that he is at best an antihero. This movie is Citizen Kane, but without the hope of a Rosebud. It begs the question that perhaps at the very heart of American capitalism lies at empty nihilistic shell devoid of meaning. And while doing all this, it is simply glorious to look at. There is a reason why this movie topped so many “Best of the Decade” lists in 2010, and there is still good reason for it to have a chance at topping many more “Best of the 21st century” lists that we’re bound to inundated with it soon. The movie is quite simply a force of nature.
So there you have it. Perhaps from the offset, the quest to get someone from Transformers to Persona was always going to be a fools errand. But whether I’ve succeeded or not, it sure has been fun to try. Hopefully at the least I’ve introduced you to some new rabbit holes to go down. And I think I have a bunch of films I’ve got to revisit now.