Just as The Artist returned us to the age of silent filmmaking with its loving tribute to the coming of sound in Hollywood, Miguel Gomes’s one-of-a-kind fantasia Tabu riffs on F.W. Murnau’s late-silent-era tropical island romance Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) for a story of unrequited love in colonial Africa.
In the 1950s, some of the well-known films with artistic sensibilities include La Strada (1954), a film about a young woman who is forced to go to work for a cruel and inhumane circus performer in order to support her family, and eventually comes to terms with her situation; Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), centering on a family with a lack of faith, but with a son who believes that he is Jesus Christ and convinced that he is capable of performing miracles; Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), which deals with a prostitute’s failed attempts to find love, her suffering and rejection; Wild Strawberries (1957), by Ingmar Bergman, whose narrative concerns an elderly medical doctor, who is also a professor, whose nightmares lead him to re-evaluate his life; and The 400 Blows (1959) by François Truffaut, whose main character is a young man trying to come of age despite abuse from his parents, schoolteachers, and society. In Poland, the Khrushchev Thaw permitted some relaxation of the regime’s cultural policies, and productions such as A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds, Lotna (1954–1959), all directed by Andrzej Wajda, showed the Polish Film School style.
As with much of Lynch’s other work (notably the film Blue Velvet), Twin Peaks explores the gulf between the veneer of small-town respectability and the seedier layers of life lurking beneath its surface. The show is difficult to place in a defined television genre; stylistically, it borrows the unsettling tone and supernatural premises of horror films and simultaneously offers a bizarrely comical parody of American soap operas with a campy, melodramatic presentation of the morally dubious activities of its quirky characters. The show represents an earnest moral inquiry distinguished by both weird humor and a deep vein of surrealism, incorporating highly stylized vignettes, surrealist and often inaccessible artistic images alongside the otherwise comprehensible narrative of events.
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Other directors in the 1990s explored philosophical issues and themes such as identity, chance, death, and existentialism. Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994) explored the theme of identity. The former is an independent road movie/buddy film about two young street hustlers, which explores the theme of the search for home and identity. It was called a “high-water mark in ’90s independent film”, a “stark, poetic rumination”, and an “exercise in film experimentation” of “high artistic quality”. Chungking Express explores themes of identity, disconnection, loneliness, and isolation in the “metaphoric concrete jungle” of modern Hong Kong.
Several 2000s-era films explored the theme of amnesia or memory, but unlike Memento, they did so through the use of narrative techniques rather than filmmaking and editing methods. Mulholland Drive (2001), directed by David Lynch, is initially about a young woman who moves to Hollywood and discovers that an amnesiac is living in her house; as the plot progresses, it becomes apparent that the film is holding something deeper in terms of its plot and characters. Oldboy (2003), directed by Park Chan-wook, is about a man imprisoned by a mysterious and brutal captor for 15 years. After his abrupt release, he must then chase his old memories. Peppermint Candy (2000), directed by Lee Chang-dong, starts with the suicide of the male protagonist, and then uses reverse chronology (similar to Memento) to depict the events of the last 20 years, which led the man to want to kill himself.
The simplicity of the story resembles silent cinema, but these people talk. The film is enhanced by one of the cinema’s first great musical scores (by Maurice Jaubert), and Vigo’s inspired compositions and images in which the spirit of romanticism seems threatened by the very light that reveals it. But it’s Boris Kaufman’s cinematography that is most impressive – it serves as an example of the way realism can be infected by the characteristics of poetry and dream. Not the least legacy left by Vigo – to Truffaut and Godard, for instance – was the essential artistic value of black-and-white photography and its curious but easily forgotten establishment of a new way of seeing. DT
Lewis Beale of Film Journal International stated that Australian director Andrew Dominik’s western film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is “a fascinating, literary-based work that succeeds as both art and genre film”. Unlike the action-oriented Jesse James films of the past, Dominik’s unconventional epic perhaps more accurately details the outlaw’s relinquishing psyche during the final months of his life as he succumbs to the paranoia of being captured and develops a precarious friendship with his eventual assassin, Robert Ford. In 2009, director Paul Thomas Anderson claimed that his film Punch-Drunk Love about a shy, repressed rage-aholic was “an art house Adam Sandler film”, a reference to the unlikely inclusion of “frat boy” comic Sandler in the film; critic Roger Ebert claims that Punch Drunk Love “may be the key to all of the Adam Sandler films, and may liberate Sandler for a new direction in his work. He can’t go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he? Who would have guessed he had such uncharted depths?”
Like time-travelling classic Back to the Future (1985), Gary Ross’s film plays on nostalgia for the good ol’ days of the 1950s, but cleverly subverts this backward-looking impulse by showing how this world of conservatism and small-mindedness is transformed by its visitors from the future. As David and Jennifer’s modernising influence is felt in the community, Pleasantville gradually introduces splashes of colour into its monochrome palette, a wonderfully cinematic ploy to prove that – where some things are concerned – time is never best standing still.
This delightful comic fable begins in full colour in 1998, when an introverted, TV-watching teen, David (Tobey Maguire), and his sister Jennifer (Reece Witherspoon) are magically transported into reruns of a 1950s black-and-white sitcom called ‘Pleasantville’. Everything seems just so in this cookie-cutter small town, where family values rule, nothing ruffles the primped surface, and the firemen are mainly employed scaling trees to rescue little kittens.
Family is a group in which everyone has his or her reason. In Tokyo Story, Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) visit their grown children, full of hope and the wish to be recognised, but they find the children too busy, too preoccupied. This is not depicted as bad behaviour, or a sign of cultural breakdown; it is the way of the world. The acting is intimate, humane and reserved yet there are no stars, let alone heroes or heroines. There are no “happy endings” in the terms western culture requires. Instead, the riddle of happiness or its opposite runs through “time and again” like light on moving water. Does it sound dull, or too simple? Be warned – it can make other films seem unbearably crass. DT
And so a new orthodoxy set in, whereby Kane became the best film ever made, a position it has held for 60 years. That greatness now hangs over the history and the future of the medium. Still, if you have never seen it, prepare for one of the great experiences in your life and notice this – Kane has lasted not for innovation alone, but because it is so emotional and tragic. It’s a great man asking himself whether anything matters. In Kane and Welles alike, there was the same rueful mixture of genius and lack of self-belief. David Thomson
World cinema Michael Haneke Film adaptations Ingmar Bergman Terrence Malick blogposts
According to Raphaël Bassan, in his article “The Angel: Un météore dans le ciel de l’animation”, Patrick Bokanowski’s The Angel, shown at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, can be considered the beginning of contemporary animation. The characters’ masks erase all human personality and give the impression of total control over the “matter” of the image and its optical composition, using distorted areas, obscure visions, metamorphoses, and synthetic objects.
A gay, Marxist Catholic: not the most likely candidate, you’d have thought, to make arguably the greatest of all religious films – and one of the very few based on the New Testament that doesn’t lapse into hectoring, literal piety. Pasolini had already roused the wrath of the religious establishment with La Ricotta, a 35-minute comedy on the making of a biblical film; he actually received a four-month jail sentence as a result. But the Gospel According to St Matthew is altogether different: serious, spiritual and utterly clear-eyed about getting to the heart of the Christian gospel. And though Pasolini remained a non-believer, his film was dedicated to “the dear, happy, familiar memory of Pope John XXIII”.
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The film’s greatest feat is to give us all the thrills of a classic Hollywood movie within an avant-garde framework – and to get away with it. First-time viewers unfamiliar with Lynch’s ways will be taken in by the initial set-up: an amnesiac car-crash victim (Laura Harring) staggers into the house of an aspiring actress recently arrived in town (Naomi Watts), but three-quarters of the way through, having been drawn into a glossy noir fantasy, the rug is pulled out from under us completely. The same actors now appear to be completely different characters. The glamour has all evaporated. The relationships have all changed. Nothing’s nice and sunny any more. Who’s dreaming who? What goes where? What does it all mean?
Along the way we run across an androgynous madman, a bloated, bedridden aunt and a lecherous uncle who lights his own farts. Few films boast as many indelible supporting characters as Fanny and Alexander.
Another feature of 1970s art films was the return to prominence of bizarre characters and imagery, which abound in the tormented, obsessed title character in German New Wave director Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973), and in cult films such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s psychedelic The Holy Mountain (1973) about a footless, handless dwarf and an alchemist seeking the mythical Lotus Island. The film Taxi Driver (1976), by Martin Scorsese, continues the themes that A Clockwork Orange explored: an alienated population living in a violent, decaying society. The gritty violence and seething rage of Scorsese’s film contrasts other films released in the same period, such as David Lynch’s dreamlike, surreal Eraserhead (1977). In 1974, John Cassavetes offered a sharp commentary on American blue-collar life in A Woman Under the Influence, which features an eccentric housewife slowly descending into madness.
2. Mulholland Drive Mulholland Dr Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
Haneke’s films always feel, once the credits have rolled, untoppable. This one surely is. Catherine Shoard
There are scholars who point out that mass market films such as those produced in Hollywood appeal to a less discerning audience. This group then turns to film critics as a cultural elite that can help steer them towards films that are more thoughtful and of a higher quality. To bridge the disconnect between popular taste and high culture, these film critics are expected to explain unfamiliar concepts and make them appealing to cultivate a more discerning movie-going public. For example, a film critic can help the audience—through his reviews—think seriously about films by providing the terms of analysis of these art films. Adopting an artistic framework of film analysis and review, these film critics provide viewers with a different way to appreciate what they are watching. So when controversial themes such as lesbianism or torture are shown, the public will not immediately dismiss or attack the movie where they are informed by critics of the film’s value such as how it depicts realism. Here, art theaters or art houses that exhibit art films are seen as “sites of cultural enlightenment” that draw critics and intellectual audiences alike. It serves as a place where these critics can experience culture and an artistic atmosphere where they can draw insights and material.
Using a story as wispy as a fable, Malick constructed one of the most mesmerisingly beautiful evocations of the past ever laid on celluloid. Set between 1916 and 1918, it follows three urban fugitives (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Malick’s wonderful discovery Linda Manz) as they flee smoky Chicago for the Texas panhandle and seasonal jobs as wheat harvesters.
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev (1966) is a portrait of the medieval Russian icon painter of the same name. The film is also about artistic freedom and the possibility and necessity of making art for, and in the face of, a repressive authority. A cut version of the film was shown at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI prize. At the end of the decade, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) wowed audiences with its scientific realism, pioneering use of special effects, and unusual visual imagery. In 1969, Andy Warhol released Blue Movie, the first adult art film depicting explicit sex to receive wide theatrical release in the United States. According to Warhol, Blue Movie was a major influence in the making of Last Tango in Paris, an internationally controversial erotic art film, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and released a few years after Blue Movie was made. In Soviet Armenia, Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, in which Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays five different characters, was banned by Soviet authorities, unavailable in the West for a long period, and praised by critic Mikhail Vartanov as “revolutionary”; and in the early 1980s, Les Cahiers du Cinéma placed the film in its top 10 list. In 1967, in Soviet Georgia, influential Georgian film director Tengiz Abuladze directed Vedreba (Entreaty), which was based on the motifs of Vaja-Pshavela’s literary works, where story is told in a poetic narrative style, full of symbolic scenes with philosophical meanings. In Iran, Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969), about a man who becomes insane after the death of his beloved cow, sparked the new wave of Iranian cinema.
Daryush Shokof’s film Seven Servants (1996) is an original high art cinema piece about a man who strives to “unite” the world’s races until his last breath. One year after Seven Servants, Abbas Kiarostami’s film Taste of Cherry (1997), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, tells a similar tale with a different twist; both films are about a man trying to hire a person to bury him after he commits suicide. Seven Servants was shot in a minimalist style, with long takes, a leisurely pace, and long periods of silence. The film is also notable for its use of long shots and overhead shots to create a sense of distance between the audience and the characters. Zhang Yimou’s early 1990s works such as Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) and To Live (1994) explore human emotions through poignant narratives. To Live won the Grand Jury Prize.
Other directors in the 1980s chose a more intellectual path, exploring philosophical and ethical issues. Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron (1981), a critique of the Polish communist government, won the 1981 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Another Polish director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, made The Decalogue for television in 1988, a film series that explores ethical issues and moral puzzles. Two of these films were released theatrically as A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing. In 1989, Woody Allen made, in the words of New York Times critic Vincent Canby, his most “securely serious and funny film to date”, Crimes and Misdemeanors, which involves multiple stories of people who are trying to find moral and spiritual simplicity while facing dire issues and thoughts surrounding the choices they make. French director Louis Malle chose another moral path to explore with the dramatization of his real-life childhood experiences in Au revoir, les enfants, which depicts the occupying Nazi government’s deportation of French Jews to concentration camps during World War II.
Art film producers usually present their films at special theaters (repertory cinemas or, in the U.S., art-house cinemas) and at film festivals. The term art film is much more widely used in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, compared to the rest of Europe, where the term is associated more with auteur films and national cinema (e.g. German national cinema). Since they are aimed at small, niche-market audiences, art films rarely acquire the financial backing that would permit large production budgets associated with widely released blockbuster films. Art film directors make up for these constraints by creating a different type of film, one that typically uses lesser-known film actors (or even amateur actors) and modest sets to make films that focus much more on developing ideas, exploring new narrative techniques and attempting new film-making conventions.
8. Fanny and Alexander Fanny and Alexander: Xan Brooks’s dream Christmas viewing. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
Alex Holdridge won the 2008 Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for his charming feature debut about a down-on-his-luck 29-year-old, Wilson (Scoot McNairy), relocating to Los Angeles, only to find himself lonely and penniless as the celebrations of New Year’s Eve approach. Persuaded to post a personal ad, he encounters kooky Vivian (Sara Simmonds) and the pair stroll the city getting to know each other as the year plays out its last hours.
Cinéma pur, a French avant-garde film movement in the 1920s and 1930s, also influenced the development of the idea of art film. The cinema pur film movement included several notable Dada artists. The Dadaists used film to transcend narrative storytelling conventions, bourgeois traditions, and conventional Aristotelian notions of time and space by creating a flexible montage of time and space.
4. Tokyo Story “Now I have only to look at the opening credits of Tokyo Story and I’m welling up” … Anne Billson
Time and again, Ozu has made films about family, and the shifting structure we refer to as “time and again”. Family is less a fixed entity than a kind of weather system that keeps coming back. So children need parents, and need to outlive them. But while the weather will go on, and your children will become parents, so your life will close, and you will not be there to see the way your own children look back as if to say they understand you, too late.
Arthouse cinema is dismissed as the connoisseur’s elite fetish; others find it, in the dumbed-down cinema jungle, to be an endangered species.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) was released after decades of development and won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival; it was highly praised by critics. At the Avon Theater in Stamford, Connecticut, a message was posted about the theater’s no-refund policy due to “some customer feedback and a polarized audience response” to the film. The theater stated that it “stands behind this ambitious work of art and other challenging films”. Drive (2011), directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is commonly called an arthouse action film. Also in 2011, director Lars von Trier released Melancholia, a movie dealing with depression and other mental disorders while also showing a family’s reaction to an approaching planet that could collide with the Earth. The movie was well received, some claiming it to be Von Trier’s masterpiece with others highlighting Kirsten Dunst’s performance, the visuals, and realism depicted in the movie.
The 1960s was an important period in art film, with the release of a number of groundbreaking films giving rise to the European art cinema. Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless) (1960) used innovative visual and editing techniques such as jump cuts and hand-held camera work. Godard, a leading figure of the French New Wave, would continue to make innovative films throughout the decade, proposing a whole new style of film-making. Following the success of Breathless, Goddard made two more very influential films, Contempt and Pierrot le fou, in 1963 and 1965 respectively. Jules et Jim, by François Truffaut, deconstructed a complex relationship of three individuals through innovative screenwriting, editing, and camera techniques. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni helped revolutionize filmmaking with such films as La Notte (1961), a complex examination of a failed marriage that dealt with issues such as anomie and sterility; Eclipse (1962), about a young woman who is unable to form a solid relationship with her boyfriend because of his materialistic nature; Red Desert (1964), his first color film, which deals with the need to adapt to the modern world; and Blowup (1966), his first English-language film, which examines issues of perception and reality as it follows a young photographer’s attempt to discover whether he had photographed a murder.
In India, there was an art-film movement in Bengali cinema known as “Parallel Cinema” or “Indian New Wave”. This was an alternative to the mainstream commercial cinema known for its serious content, realism and naturalism, with a keen eye on the social-political climate of the times. This movement is distinct from mainstream Bollywood cinema and began around the same time as French and Japanese New Wave. The most influential filmmakers involved in this movement were Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. Some of the most internationally acclaimed films made in the period were The Apu Trilogy (1955–1959), a trio of films that tell the story of a poor country boy’s growth to adulthood, and Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder (1973), which tells the story of a farmer during a famine in Bengal. Other acclaimed Bengali filmmakers involved in this movement include Rituparno Ghosh, Aparna Sen and Goutam Ghose.
U.S. photographer and filmmaker Man Ray (pictured here in 1934) was part of the Dadaist “cinéma pur” film movement, which influenced the development of the art film.
Art for art’s sake, and proud of it, Days of Heaven has no reason to exist beyond the fact that Terence Malick was determined to make it exist and, as with all Malick’s movies, it finally came to exist entirely on his own terms.
Despite its apparent formlessness, Andrei Rublev is precisely structured and entirely aesthetically coherent. Acts of creation are mirrored by acts of destruction, there are themes of flight, of vision, of presence and absence; the more you look, the more you see. And then there are the horses, Tarkovsky’s perennial favourite: horses rolling over, horses charging into battle, swimming in the river, falling down stairs, dragging men out of churches. At times the screen resembles a vast Brueghel painting come to life, or a medieval tapestry unrolling. We’re always conscious of life spilling out beyond the frame, and never conscious of the fact that this was made in 60s USSR. In Tarkovsky’s own turbulent time, the film lit all manner of controversy. Its Christian spiritualism offended the Soviet authorities; its depiction of Russia’s savage history upset nationalists like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and its challenging form led to various cuts. After opening in Moscow in 1966, it was suppressed until the 1969 Cannes film festival, and didn’t reach Britain till 1973.
1 History 1.1 Antecedents: 1910–1920s 1.2 1930s–1950s 1.3 1960s–1970s 1.4 1980s–2000s 2 Deviations from mainstream film norms 3 Art Film and Film Criticism 4 Timeline of notable films 4.1 1920s–1940s 4.
2 1950s 4.2.1 Asia 4.3 1960s 4.4 1970s 4.5 1980s 4.6 1990s 4.7 2000s 4.8 2010s 5 Related concepts 5.1 Artistic television 6 See also 7 References
Reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), it’s a talky, mumblecore romance that succeeds cinematically because of its glorious two-tone images of downtown LA. Though the City of Angels isn’t famous for its walkers, the couple’s street-level perambulations give Holdridge excuse to conduct a black-and-white love-letter to the gleam of the metropolis at night, mapping the lights, signs, marquees, amusement parks and rundown theatres that other films forget. Full of the offbeat quirks typical of current US indie cinema, Holdridge’s film nonetheless becomes unexpectedly affecting as this long night of two souls passes gently into the dawn.
Haneke’s film offers no easy answers; instead, returning to his favourite themes of repression, guilt and denial, he mounts a claustrophobic sense of anxiety and insidious morality that draws a whole society into its whirlpool of culpability. Haneke’s regular cinematographer, Christian Berger, matches the Austrian auteur’s exacting gaze with crisp, gin-clear monochrome visuals.
Within the universe he created, he let loose a cast of characters closer to grotesque gargoyle status than anything in the rest of Kubrick’s body of work, and it is here that Kubrick first deploys his tactic of starting close-up on a face and pulling back drastically to show its environs (by the time of The Shining, most of his camera movements tracked maniacally forwards, not sombrely backwards).
When Billy Wilder’s The Apartment won the 1960 Oscar for best picture, no-one thought twice about it being in black and white. Even in the early 1960s, it was still often a case of either/or. But only two black-and-white films have ever won best picture since then: Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and Michel Hazanavicius’s jubilant tribute to silent filmmaking, The Artist (2011). Sometime during the 1960s, black and white began to be associated with either artiness or cheapness.
A bolt from the blue, Mathieu Kassovitz’s urban drama La Haine (literally, ‘Hate’) arrived in 1995, its sit-up-and-listen force amplified by its story of disaffected youth in the suburbs of Paris being filmed in steely monochrome. Inspired by a real-life case of police brutality, it introduced Vincent Cassel to the world, playing one of three rage-filled twentysomethings living in a multi-ethnic housing project. A corrective to the bourgeois, glamour-filled vision of life in the City of Light so commonly depicted in the cinema, Kassovitz’s searing youth film is a compelling slice of life. It dares to counter the image of ‘la vie en rose’ with a confrontational portrait of a society characterised by violence and racial segregation.
This was Pasolini’s third full-length feature, and with it he began his experiments with anthropology that would mark much of his future output. An hour-long documentary, Location Hunting in Palestine, showed him looking for places to shoot his film; intriguingly, he rejected modern Israel and neighbouring Arab areas for having lost the ancient biblical spirit. He ended up doing what you suspect he wanted to do all along: filming in the rundown southern Italian city of Matera.
This is a red rag to a number of different bulls. Lovers of what are called arthouse movies resent the label for being derisive and philistine. And those who detest it bristle at the implication that there is no artistry or intelligence in mainstream entertainment.
The interiors are not studio-shot, but take place inside the building whose exteriors one sees in the movie. Against such beauty the humans inevitably seem like small figures dwarfed by malign fate. But the performances are vividly real and Manz’s narration is one of the universal benchmarks of the movie voiceover. John Patterson
Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) depicts a succession of nights and dawns in Rome as witnessed by a cynical journalist. In 1963, Fellini made 8½, an exploration of creative, marital and spiritual difficulties, filmed in black-and-white by cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo. The 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad by director Alain Resnais examines perception and reality, using grand tracking shots that became widely influential. Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967) are notable for their naturalistic, elliptical style. Spanish director Luis Buñuel also contributed heavily to the art of film with shocking, surrealist satires such as Viridiana (1961) and The Exterminating Angel (1962).
For many, the stereotypical arthouse film is Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin was a classic art film from the 1920s and Luis Buñuel investigated cinema’s potential for surreality like no one before or since. The Italian neorealists applied the severity of art to a representation of society and the French New Wave iconoclastically brought a self-deconstructing critical awareness to film-making. Yasujiro Ozu conveyed a transcendental simplicity in his work. Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni achieved a meditative beauty, while David Lynch and John Cassavetes demonstrated an American reflex to the genre.
Starring Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his beleaguered wife Deborah (who co-wrote the screenplay based on her memoir Touching from a Distance), it charts the band’s rise to prominence in late 1970s Manchester, followed by Curtis’s increasingly fractious mental health and eventual suicide. Done with an unerring eye for period detail, it makes for blistering drama in which the visuals’ dynamic power and the pitch-perfect performances help to counter the underlying sadness. As critic Peter Bradshaw remarked in The Guardian: “Control is a film about England, about music, about loneliness and love; there is melancholy in it, but also a roar of energy. I thought it might depress me. Instead I left the cinema walking on air.”
Bryony Dixon , John Oliver , Sue Woods , Josephine Botting , Patrick Russell , Lisa Kerrigan , Alex Davidson , Samuel Wigley
Look around at the current crop of independent releases and everything’s in black and white. Ben Wheatley transported us back to the time of English civil war in painterly monochrome in A Field in England; Joss Whedon updated Much Ado about Nothing to a Southern California setting, tying Shakespeare to the Hollywood screwball tradition of the 1930s by filming in black and white; while Pablo Berger’s black-and-white Blancanieves is a Spanish neo-silent-melodrama version of the Snow White story.
Three men work a barge (it is named L’Atalante) on the waterways of northern France: Jean, the skipper is young and hopeful (Jean Dasté); le père Jules, a tattooed veteran of the world’s oceans (Michel Simon) and a cabin boy. They stop at a small town. Jean meets a girl, Juliette (Dita Parlo), and they are married, while hardly knowing each other. So the barge moves on. It is not an easy transition for the married couple. In Paris they go ashore and the wife flirts with another man. There is a fight and she runs away, then the husband goes in search of her. Marriage is the film’s subject and it is most moving in its cinematic grasp of a deeper bond than that permitted by the lovers’ temporary misalliance.
In 1980, director Martin Scorsese shocked audiences, who had become used to the escapist blockbuster adventures of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, with the gritty, harsh realism of his film Raging Bull. In this film, actor Robert De Niro took method acting to an extreme to portray a boxer’s decline from a prizewinning young fighter to an overweight, “has-been” nightclub owner. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), while labeled as a fast-paced action film, could also be seen as a science fiction art film, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Blade Runner explores themes of existentialism, or what it means to be human. A box-office failure, the film became popular on the arthouse circuit as a cult oddity after the release of a “director’s cut” became successful via VHS home video. In the middle of the decade, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa used realism to portray the brutal, bloody violence of Japanese samurai warfare of the 16th century in Ran (1985). Ran followed the plot of King Lear, in which an elderly king is betrayed by his children. Sergio Leone also contrasted brutal violence with emotional substance in his epic tale of mobster life in Once Upon a Time in America.
Richard and his wife Maria seek solace from their disintegrating marriage in the arms of other lovers in John Cassavetes’s powerful 1968 feature.
According to director, producer, and distributor Roger Corman, the “1950s and 1960s was the time of the art film’s greatest influence. After that, the influence waned. Hollywood absorbed the lessons of the European films and incorporated those lessons into their films.” Corman states that “viewers could see something of the essence of the European art cinema in the Hollywood movies of the seventies… [and so], art film, which was never just a matter of European cinema, increasingly became an actual world cinema—albeit one that struggled to gain wide recognition”. Corman notes that, “Hollywood itself has expanded, radically, its aesthetic range… because the range of subjects at hand has expanded to include the very conditions of image-making, of movie production, of the new and prismatic media-mediated experience of modernity. There’s a new audience that has learned about art films at the video store.” Corman states that “there is currently the possibility of a rebirth” of American art film.
While extensive sets are associated more with mainstream than with art films, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa had many sets built for his 1985 film Ran, including this recreation of a medieval gate.
It’s dangerous to start watching Japanese cinema, because the world is so extensive and dazzling you may quickly develop a taste for nothing but Japanese films. Is there a romance more mysterious than Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari? Is there action to surpass Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai? And, in terms of family drama, has any film been more moving than Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story?
At the age of 29, Jean Vigo died from rheumatic septicaemia, just a few days after the opening of his only feature film, L’Atalante. Those bare facts are a landmark not just in French cinema, but in the larger history of artistic film-making, and of the absolute commitment of film-makers. Moreover, the poetic lyricism of L’Atalante, far from dating, has been more appreciated over the years. L’Atalante is 75 years old, yet its beauty and its harshness are still hauntingly alive.
Some notable films from the 2000s are considered to possess art film qualities yet differed from mainstream films due to controversial subject matter or narrative form. For example, Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant (2003), which depicts mass murder at a high school and echoes the Columbine High School massacre, won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Other films of his include Gerry, Last Days, and Paranoid Park. Todd Haynes’ complex deconstruction of Bob Dylan’s persona, I’m Not There (2007), tells its story using non-traditional narrative techniques, intercutting the storylines of the six different Dylan-inspired characters. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth uses computer-generated imagery (CGI) to create a fantastical world, imagined by a ten-year-old girl to block out the horror of the Spanish Civil War.
In 2007, Professor Camille Paglia argued in her article “Art movies: R.I.P.” that “[a]side from Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series, with its deft flashbacks and gritty social realism, …[there is not]… a single film produced over the past 35 years that is arguably of equal philosophical weight or virtuosity of execution to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Persona”. Paglia states that young people from the 2000s do not “have patience for the long, slow take that deep-think European directors once specialized in”, an approach which gave “luxurious scrutiny of the tiniest facial expressions or the chilly sweep of a sterile room or bleak landscape”.
A certain degree of experience and knowledge is generally required to fully understand or appreciate such films. Film critic Roger Ebert called one mid-1990s art film, Chungking Express, “largely a cerebral experience” that one enjoys “because of what you know about film”. This contrasts sharply with mainstream blockbuster films, which are geared more towards escapism and pure entertainment. For promotion, art films rely on the publicity generated from film critics’ reviews; discussion of the film by arts columnists, commentators and bloggers; and word-of-mouth promotion by audience members. Since art films have small initial investment costs, they only need to appeal to a small portion of mainstream audiences to become financially viable.
7. Days of Heaven Richard Gere (centre) in Terrence Malick’s film Days of Heaven from 1978. Photograph: The Kobal Collection/www.kobal-collection.com
Kieślowski was not the only director to transcend the distinction between the cinema and television. Ingmar Bergman made Fanny and Alexander (1982), which was shown on television in an extended five-hour version. In the United Kingdom, Channel 4, a new television channel, financed, in whole or in part, many films released theatrically through its Film 4 subsidiary. Wim Wenders offered another approach to life from a spiritual standpoint in his 1987 film Wings of Desire, a depiction of a “fallen angel” who lives among men, which won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1982, experimental director Godfrey Reggio released Koyaanisqatsi, a film without dialogue, which emphasizes cinematography and philosophical ideology. It consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse cinematography of cities and natural landscapes, which results in a visual tone poem.
Art films were also influenced by films by Spanish avant-garde creators, such as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (who made L’Age d’Or in 1930), and by the French playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, whose 1930’s avant-garde film The Blood of a Poet, uses oneiric images throughout, including spinning wire models of a human head and rotating double-sided masks. In the 1920s, film societies began advocating the notion that films could be divided into “entertainment cinema directed towards a mass audience and a serious art cinema aimed at an intellectual audience”. In England, Alfred Hitchcock and Ivor Montagu formed a film society and imported films they thought were “artistic achievements”, such as “Soviet films of dialectical montage, and the expressionist films of the Universum Film A.G. (UFA) studios in Germany”.
Some of these early, artistically-oriented films were financed by wealthy individuals rather than film companies, particularly in cases where the content of the film was controversial or unlikely to attract an audience. In the late 1940s, UK director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made The Red Shoes (1948), a film about ballet, which stood out from mainstream-genre films of the era. In 1945, David Lean directed Brief Encounter, an adaptation of Noël Coward’s play Still Life, which observes a passionate love affair between an upper-class man and a middle-class woman amidst the social and economic issues that Britain faced at the time.
Bergman diehards usually cite this as the director’s most user-friendly film, as though that’s somehow a bad thing. True, it contains more in the way of light and warmth than some of his more nakedly anguished masterworks. But light does not necessarily mean lite, and certain sections are as harrowing and profound as anything you find in Cries and Whispers or Through a Glass Darkly. In fact, by the time this film pitches towards that astonishing climax (bedsheets burning; magic working) one might even make a case for Fanny and Alexander as Bergman’s most mature, clear-sighted and fully realised work.
So many things about Citizen Kane were outrageous at the time: that this arrogant kid, Orson Welles, in his early 20s, had a deal to do what he liked; that he chose to make a thinly disguised lampoon of one of the most powerful men in the country, William Randolph Hearst; that it was a film ultimately about his own flawed glory (“There, but for the grace of God, goes God,” people said); that he made the picture look and sound richer, denser and more beautiful than anyone had dared before; that he took the attitude, “Don’t expect to understand this on one viewing”; that he cared more about being outrageous than he did about the money.
Kubrick thought of every detail in the costuming (the droogs’ white thug outfits, with their crotch-emphatic outer jockstraps and bowler hats, not to mention Alex’s false eyelashes), furniture, decor and art (the giant plaster penis that Alex uses as a murder weapon) – giving them as much attention as he had to the dashboards of his bomber in Dr Strangelove, the spaceships in 2001, or the painterly compositions in Barry Lyndon.
Other television shows that have been called “artistic television” include The Simpsons for its use of a “flurry of cultural references, intentionally inconsistent characterization, and considerable self-reflexivity about television conventions and the status of the programme as a television show”. Charlie Brooker’s UK-focused Black Mirror television series explores the dark and sometimes satirical themes in modern society, particularly with regard to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies; while classified as “speculative fiction”, rather than art television, it received rave reviews. HBO’s The Wire might also qualify as “artistic television”, as it has garnered a greater amount of critical attention from academics than most television shows receive. For example, the film theory journal Film Quarterly has featured the show on its cover.
Darren Aronofsky’s film Pi (1998) is an “incredibly complex and ambiguous film filled with both incredible style and substance” about a paranoid math genius’ “search for peace”. The film creates a David Lynch-inspired “eerie Eraserhead-like world” shot in “black-and-white, which lends a dream-like atmosphere to all of the proceedings” and explores issues such as “metaphysics and spirituality”. Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002) is a cycle of five symbolic, allegorical films that creates a self-enclosed aesthetic system, aimed to explore the process of creation. The films are filled with allusions to reproductive organs and sexual development, and use narrative models drawn from biography, mythology, and geology.
The French New Wave movement continued into the 1960s. During the 1960s, the term “art film” began to be much more widely used in the United States than in Europe. In the U.S., the term is often defined very broadly to include foreign-language (non-English) “auteur” films, independent films, experimental films, documentaries and short films. In the 1960s, “art film” became a euphemism in the U.S. for racy Italian and French B-movies. By the 1970s, the term was used to describe sexually explicit European films with artistic structure such as the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow). In the U.S., the term “art film” may refer to films by modern American artists, including Andy Warhol with his 1969 film Blue Movie, but is sometimes used very loosely to refer to the broad range of films shown in repertory theaters or “art house cinemas”. With this approach, a broad range of films, such as a 1960s Hitchcock film, a 1970s experimental underground film, a European auteur film, a U.S. “independent” film, and even a mainstream foreign-language film (with subtitles) might all fall under the rubric of “art house films”.
Film scholar David Bordwell outlined the academic definition of “art film” in a 1979 article entitled “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice”, which contrasts art films with the mainstream films of classical Hollywood cinema. Mainstream Hollywood-style films use a clear narrative form to organize the film into a series of “causally related events taking place in space and time”, with every scene driving towards a goal. The plot of mainstream films is driven by a well-defined protagonist, fleshed out with clear characters, and strengthened with “question-and-answer logic, problem-solving routines, [and] deadline plot structures”. The film is then tied together with fast pacing, a musical soundtrack to cue the appropriate audience emotions, and tight, seamless editing.
Filmed in black and white throughout, it begins in full sound in contemporary Lisbon, where Aurora, a glamorous octogenarian who knows she is dying, asks her neighbour to look up an old acquaintance from her time in Africa. In flashback, we are then told the tale of Aurora’s illicit love for an explorer at her farm at the foot of Mount Tabu. For this second half of the film, Gomes mimics the wordless drama of silent cinema, but includes the ambient sounds of the savannah, creating an original and utterly beguiling texture for his melancholic, hilarious and resolutely offbeat saga of past lives in the bush.
Several 1990s films explored existentialist-oriented themes related to life, chance, and death. Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) explores themes of chance, death, and infidelity by tracing 10 parallel and interwoven stories. The film, which won the Golden Lion and the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, was called a “many-sided, many mooded, dazzlingly structured eclectic jazz mural” by Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Véronique (1991) is a drama about the theme of identity and a political allegory about the East/West split in Europe; the film features stylized cinematography, an ethereal atmosphere, and unexplained supernatural elements.
Starting with an impromptu barroom demonstration of the movement of celestial bodies (one of the all-time great movie openings), this deeply mysterious film hinges on the events occurring in a remote community after a circus of attractions brings the body of a whale into town. Composed in Tarr’s trademark, hypnotically slow-moving tracking shots, Werckmeister Harmonies is a bleak yet bewitchingly atmospheric vision of life at the end of its tether, such as no one else but Tarr could have made. Coming after Pleasantville on this list, it’s fun to imagine what teens David and Jennifer would have made of this languorous world of anomie and dread, had their TV transported them instead to this bitterly cold outpost on the Hungarian plains.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the term “art film” became conflated with “independent film” in the U.S., which shares many of the same stylistic traits. Companies such as Miramax Films distributed independent films that were deemed commercially viable. When major motion-picture studios noted the niche appeal of independent films, they created special divisions dedicated to non-mainstream fare, such as the Fox Searchlight Pictures division of Twentieth Century Fox, the Focus Features division of Universal, the Sony Pictures Classics division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and the Paramount Vantage division of Paramount. Film critics have debated whether films from these divisions can be considered “independent films”, given they have financial backing from major studios.
9. The White Ribbon Scene from Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009). Photograph: PR
It’s clearly – and this is, by and large, a strikingly foggy film – a fascist parable, an attempt at explaining the psychology of the people who came to power some 30 years later. It’s also a mystery without resolution, a whodunnit with a hole at the centre – which is why it’s one of those films more satisfying on second view, when you’re primed for the withheld resolution.
Bordwell claims that “art cinema itself is a [film] genre, with its own distinct conventions”. Film theorist Robert Stam also argues that “art film” is a film genre. He claims that a film is considered to be an art film based on artistic status in the same way film genres can be based on aspects of films such as their budgets (blockbuster films or B-movies) or their star performers (Adam Sandler films).
It strikes me that the director spent the bulk of his career tackling the notion of a world without God (how liberating this is; how terrifying, too), only to arrive at the conclusion that we are all God, and that man makes God in his own image, for better or worse. Significantly, the God who crops up in these final moments is represented by a cheap dummy, jiggled into life by an untrustworthy puppet-master. He is also embodied by an overimaginative child, still smarting from his father’s death and sending malign thoughts out into the ether. And then he is, by implication, the director himself; a man who spent a lifetime conjuring entire worlds on a black-and-white screen and yet who never managed one as beguiling, as terrible and true as the one we see here. Xan Brooks
The stars and director of the film Mulholland Drive at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Left to right: Actress Naomi Watts, director David Lynch, and actress Laura Harring and actor Justin Theroux.
Also in the 1970s, Radley Metzger directed several adult art films, such as Barbara Broadcast (1977), which presented a surrealistic “Buñellian” atmosphere, and The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (and its derivative, My Fair Lady), which was considered, according to award-winning author Toni Bentley, to be the “crown jewel” of the Golden Age of Porn, an era in modern American culture that was inaugurated by the release of Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie (1969) and featured the phenomenon of “porno chic” in which adult erotic films began to obtain wide release, were publicly discussed by celebrities (such as Johnny Carson and Bob Hope) and taken seriously by film critics (such as Roger Ebert).
The antecedents of art films include D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and the works of Russian filmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who both influenced the development of European cinema movements for decades. Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) was a revolutionary propaganda film he used to test his theories of using film editing to produce the greatest emotional response from an audience. The international critical renown that Eisenstein garnered from this film enabled him to direct October as part of a grand 10th anniversary celebration of the October Revolution of 1917. He later directed The General Line in 1929.
The following list is a small, partial sample of films with “art film” qualities, compiled to give a general sense of what directors and films are considered to have “art film” characteristics. The films in this list demonstrate one or more of the characteristics of art films: a serious, non-commercial, or independently made film that is not aimed at a mass audience. Some of the films on this list are also considered to be “auteur” films, independent films, or experimental films. In some cases, critics disagree over whether a film is mainstream or not. For example, while some critics called Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) an “exercise in film experimentation” of “high artistic quality”, The Washington Post called it an ambitious mainstream film. Some films on this list have most of these characteristics; other films are commercially made films, produced by mainstream studios, that nevertheless bear the hallmarks of a director’s “auteur” style, or which have an experimental character. The films on this list are notable either because they won major awards or critical praise from influential film critics, or because they introduced an innovative narrative or film-making technique.
In contrast, Bordwell states that “the art cinema motivates its narrative by two principles: realism and authorial expressiveness”. Art films deviate from the mainstream “classical” norms of film making in that they typically deal with more episodic narrative structures with a “loosening of the chain of cause and effect”.
In the 1990s, directors took inspiration from the success of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) and created films with bizarre alternate worlds and elements of surrealism. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) depicted his imaginative reveries in a series of vignettes that range from idyllic pastoral country landscapes to horrific visions of tormented demons and a blighted post-nuclear war landscape. The Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, features various literary allusions in an enigmatic story about a writer who encounters a range of bizarre characters, including an alcoholic, abusive novelist and a serial killer. Lost Highway (1997), from the same director as Blue Velvet, is a psychological thriller that explores fantasy worlds, bizarre time-space transformations, and mental breakdowns using surreal imagery.
These days we have cause to wonder what all the fuss over the violence in the movie was about. It seems so tame now (and probably did even then, alongside, say, Straw Dogs). Evidently the copycat aspect of the audience response – certain violent crimes were rumoured to have been inspired by the film – was real enough for Kubrick, who made the movie unavailable in his adopted homeland for the rest of his life. More’s the pity, because it’s a crucial British film of its period, and a key to our larger understanding of Kubrick himself. JP
We don’t necessarily know, or need to know, how Andrei Rublev works or what it’s telling us, but by the end we’re in no doubt it’s succeeded. When in the final minutes, the film pulls off its most famous flourish: the screen bursts into colour and we’re finally ready to see Rublev’s paintings in extreme close-up – coming at the end of this epic journey, they can reduce a viewer to tears. As the camera pores over the details, the tiny jewels on the hem of a robe, the lines forming a pitiful expression on the face of an angel, the tarnished gilding of a halo, we feel like we understand everything that’s gone into every brushstroke. We’re reminded of what beauty is. It is as close to transcendence as cinema gets. SR
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman began the 1960s with chamber pieces such as Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963), which deal with such themes as emotional isolation and a lack of communication. His films from the second half of the decade, such as Persona (1966), Shame (1968), and A Passion (1969), deal with the idea of film as an artifice. The intellectual and visually expressive films of Tadeusz Konwicki, such as All Souls’ Day (Zaduszki, 1961) and Salto (1962), inspired discussions about war and raised existential questions on behalf of their everyman protagonists.
Japanese filmmakers produced a number of films that broke with convention. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), the first Japanese film to be widely screened in the West, depicts four witnesses’ contradictory accounts of a rape and murder. In 1952, Kurosawa directed Ikiru, a film about a Tokyo bureaucrat struggling to find a meaning for his life. Tokyo Story (1953), by Yasujirō Ozu, explores social changes of the era by telling the story of an aging couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their grown children, but find the children are too self-absorbed to spend much time with them. Seven Samurai (1954), by Kurosawa, tells the story of a farming village that hires seven master-less samurais to combat bandits. Fires on the Plain (1959), by Kon Ichikawa, explores the Japanese experience in World War II by depicting a sick Japanese soldier struggling to stay alive. Ugetsu (1953), by Kenji Mizoguchi, is a ghost story set in the late 16th century, which tells the story of peasants whose village is in the path of an advancing army. A year later, Mizoguchi directed Sansho the Bailiff (1954), which tells the story of two aristocratic children sold into slavery; in addition to dealing with serious themes such as the loss of freedom, the film features beautiful images and long, complicated shots.
The plot, in a nutshell, goes like this: two wealthy siblings, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve), grow up in the bosom of a lovingly dysfunctional home. Following their father’s death, their mother marries the bishop (a superb performance from Jan Malmsjö) and an Oedipal struggle breaks out between Alexander and his icy new stepfather. Matters are resolved in a devastating final section inside an old curiosity shop in which Alexander is shown “the swift way that evil thoughts can go”.
Filtered through a nostalgia for a bygone era of filmmaking, the scratchy, antiqued visuals induce a heady, narcotic dream-vision of this eccentric outpost of humanity, essentially as morose as Tarr’s in Werckmeister Harmonies, but madcap and frenetic where the Hungarian’s is flinty and solemn.
If only a few of those ideas gained ground, Hollywood was in trouble. The secret might get out that film could be art! This astonishing, un-American notion took time to get established. The Hearst media did all they could to block the film. Citizen Kane was a hard film for audiences raised on the slick narrative arc of Hollywood pictures to understand, with its scheme of flashbacks. And Welles would prove not only self-destructive, but also his own worst enemy – why let anyone else fill that vital job?
Days of Heaven takes time to linger on every exquisite image conjured up by Malick and his cinematographer, Néstor Almendros. A train loaded with harvest migrants sailing, it seems, over a high viaduct bridge; a locust storm that turns into a wheat-field inferno; the many harvest scenes shot at “the magic hour” after the sun has gone down and its last horizontal rays remain.
In the late 1950s, French filmmakers began to produce films that were influenced by Italian Neorealism and classical Hollywood cinema, a style that critics called the French New Wave. Although never a formally organized movement, New Wave filmmakers were linked by their self-conscious rejection of classical cinematic form and their spirit of youthful iconoclasm, and their films are an example of European art cinema. Many also engaged in their work with the social and political upheavals of the era, making their radical experiments with editing, visual style and narrative part of a general break with the conservative paradigm. Some of the most prominent pioneers among the group, including François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, began as critics for the film magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Auteur theory holds that the director is the “author” of his films, with a personal signature visible from film to film.
With Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky was consciously crafting a language that owed nothing to literature, and it’s a pity so few others followed him. In today’s cinema, we’re still served up linear, cause-and-effect biographies of artists as if, by doing so, we’ll understand the person and be able to make sense of their art. Andrei Rublev operates according to a different understanding of time and history. It asks questions about the relationship between the artist, their society and their spiritual beliefs and doesn’t seek to answer them. “In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer’s feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought,” wrote Tarkovsky in 1962.
Actress Lena Nyman from the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow)
With a manic glint in his eye, Johnny Depp stars as the cross-dressing auteur, while Martin Landau plays Bela Lugosi, the washed-up horror star who finds a new home in Wood’s schlocky rubber-monstered fantasies. Burton returned to black and white for a full-length version of Frankenweenie in 2012, surely the world’s first monochrome 3D stop-motion animated film.
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin was screened at the 2013 Venice Film Festival and received a theatrical release through indie studio A24 the following year. The film, starring Scarlett Johansson, follows an alien in human form as she travels around Glasgow, picking up unwary men for sex, harvesting their flesh and stripping them of their humanity. Dealing with themes such as sexuality, humanity, and objectification, the film received positive reviews and was hailed by some as a masterpiece; critic Richard Roeper described the film as “what we talk about when we talk about film as art”. This decade also saw a re-emergence of “art horror” with the success of films like Black Swan (2010), Stoker (2013), Enemy (2013), The Babadook (2014), Only Lovers Left Alive (2014), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Goodnight Mommy (2014), It Follows (2015) and The Witch (2015).
In the early 1970s, directors shocked audiences with violent films such as A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick’s brutal exploration of futuristic youth gangs, and Last Tango in Paris (1972), Bernardo Bertolucci’s taboo-breaking, sexually-explicit and controversial film. At the same time, other directors made more introspective films, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative science fiction film Solaris (1972), supposedly intended as a Soviet riposte to 2001. In 1975 and 1979 respectively, Tarkovsky directed two other films, which garnered critical acclaim overseas: The Mirror and Stalker. Terrence Malick, who directed Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) shared many traits with Tarkovsky, such as his long, lingering shots of natural beauty, evocative imagery, and poetic narrative style.
Tim Burton made his first cinematic steps in black and white, with his two ghoulish stop-motion animated shorts Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1984). By 1994, with the blockbuster successes of Batman (1989) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) behind him, he had enough commercial clout to embark on a feature-length monochrome production, a biopic of the bargain-basement exploitation filmmaker behind such infamous productions as Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956): Edward D. Wood Jr.
An art film is typically a serious, independent film, aimed at a niche market rather than a mass market audience. It is “intended to be a serious, artistic work, often experimental and not designed for mass appeal,” “made primarily for aesthetic reasons rather than commercial profit”, and contains “unconventional or highly symbolic content”.
Not many films have managed to have their cake and eat it quite like Mulholland Drive (technically it’s “Dr.” not “Drive”, which is important). It is a movie about the worst of Hollywood and the best; the dark, brutal undercurrents and the sparkly celebrity froth, the dream and the reality. But it’s the way it twists the two into some unfathomable Moebius strip that makes Mulholland Drive such a work of art.
Malick was determined to emulate the silent movies of the film’s own historic setting, and therefore used many of the same methods, ordering his crew to turn off the lighting set-ups and allowing Almendros (and his replacement, Haskell Wexler) to use film stock that greedily drank up the meagre light available in the most gorgeously grainy ways.
Frances Ha, the new film by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), is the latest to ditch colour, channelling the free-and-loose spontaneity of the French New Wave for its story of a directionless 27-year-old dancer (played by Greta Gerwig) living in New York.
Carl Theodor Dreyer, pictured here in 1965, directed the 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is widely regarded as a landmark of cinema.
French New Wave. Silent melodrama. Screwball comedy. Can the sudden surge of black-and-white filmmaking be down merely to an attempt to relive the glories of the cinematic past?
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1. Andrei Rublev Andrei Rublev Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
John Cassavetes, directorial debut follows the relationship between a mixed-race woman and a white man.
Elitist and pretentious, or an endangered species? Whatever your feelings, there’s no doubt that arthouse movies are among the finest ever made. Here the Guardian and Observer critics pick the 10 best • Top 10 romantic movies • Top 10 action movies • Top 10 comedy movies • Top 10 horror movies • Top 10 sci-fi movies • Top 10 crime movies
When you listen to the stark, desolate music of Joy Division it seems to be in portentous black and white, so it was apposite that, when he turned to a biopic of tragic frontman Ian Curtis for his directorial debut, photographer Anton Corbijn (who shot the band during his early career) would choose high-contrast monochrome – the better to capture the band’s post-punk shows in all their smoke-filled, strobe-lit intensity.
Film critics and film studies scholars typically define an art film as possessing “formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films”. These qualities can include (among other elements): a sense of social realism; an emphasis on the authorial expressiveness of the director; and a focus on the thoughts, dreams or motivations of characters, as opposed to the unfolding of a clear, goal-driven story. Film scholar David Bordwell describes art cinema as “a film genre, with its own distinct conventions”.
The cinema pur movement was influenced by German “absolute” filmmakers such as Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann and Viking Eggeling. Richter falsely claimed that his 1921 film Rhythmus 21 was the first abstract film ever created. In fact, he was preceded by the Italian Futurists Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Ginna between 1911 and 1912 (as reported in the Futurist Manifesto of Cinema), as well as by fellow German artist Walter Ruttmann, who produced Lichtspiel Opus 1 in 1920. Nevertheless, Richter’s film Rhythmus 21 is considered an important early abstract film.
Viewers and critics always have their personal favourites, but some films achieve a masterpiece status that becomes unanimously agreed upon – something that’s undoubtedly true of Andrei Rublev, even though it’s a film that people often feel they don’t, or won’t, get. It is 205 minutes long (in its fullest version), in Russian, and in black and white. Few characters are clearly identified, little actually happens, and what does happen isn’t necessarily in chronological order. Its subject is a 15th-century icon painter and national hero, yet we never see him paint, nor does he do anything heroic. In many of the film’s episodes, he is not present at all, and in the latter stages, he takes a vow of silence. But in a sense, there is nothing to “get” about Andrei Rublev. It is not a film that needs to be processed or even understood, only experienced and wondered at.
Mainstream films also deal with moral dilemmas or identity crises, but these issues are usually resolved by the end of the film. In art films, the dilemmas are probed and investigated in a pensive fashion, but usually without a clear resolution at the end of the film.
The CNN review of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) called it “an art film for everyone”, unlike his earlier films, which were “considered inaccessible art house fare”. This film, which won the 2010 Cannes Palme d’Or, “ties together what might just be a series of beautifully shot scenes with moving and funny musings on the nature of death and reincarnation, love, loss, and karma”. Weerasethakul is an independent film director, screenwriter, and film producer, who works outside the strict confines of the Thai film studio system. His films deal with dreams, nature, sexuality, including his own homosexuality, and Western perceptions of Thailand and Asia. Weerasethakul’s films display a preference for unconventional narrative structures (such as placing titles/credits at the middle of a film) and for working with non-actors.
Even though it was made in long-ago 1971, there is still something fetishistically futuristic about A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps that is owed to the exuberant and indelible production design, its characters’ peculiar teenage argot (“nadsat”) or its electrified, classical score by transsexual composer Walter (later Wendy) Carlos – or perhaps simply because the early 70s were crazier – in hyper-stylised design and fashion – than any period since. Either way, A Clockwork Orange endures, not so much for its philosophical musings on the nature of free will in the face of good and evil, but because it is simply a triumph of style from its opening sequence in the Korova Milk Bar through its cartoony violence and horrible retribution, all the way to its bizarre final shot of Alex (Malcolm McDowell in a role that has dogged him for 40 years) having wild sex before an audience of voyeurs clad in Louis XIV courtier finery as he crows: “I was cured all right!”
But all this is standard-issue for Haneke – not a huge leap on from Hidden or Funny Games. What makes The White Ribbon the finer – and the more sinister – film are the flickers of warmth and humour. The doctor’s young son, traumatised by the death of his pet caged bird, and, most of all, the unimpeachably sweet romance between our schoolmaster narrator and a fresh-faced servant girl. The scene in which they go for a picnic and she tearfully requests that they don’t go to a spot too remote, is unforgettable, less for the undertone of previous horrors, than the fiance’s baffled acquiescence. When all around you have a heart of coal, kindness can be the more upsetting.
Piecing Mulholland Drive together is half the film’s appeal – and there’s still no guarantee it all makes sense. Lynch even issued a set of clues shortly after the release to guide people through the mystery – “notice appearances of the red lampshade” – which only made the story more cryptic. But even after we think we’ve deciphered it, the film somehow loses none of its power. That sense of being taken in, only to realise we understood nothing, gives us some emotional connection to Watts’s character. And even as he’s tying our brains in knots, Lynch is showing us behind the curtain in Mulholland Drive – showing us this is all really just his dream. But the illusions remain intact even after they’ve been dismantled. Lynch can still create charged scenes out of nothing but a few skilled actors and our own subconscious. He knows how to push our buttons, and he shows us that he knows how to push our buttons. And we love it. Steve Rose
The story in an art film often has a secondary role to character development and an exploration of ideas through lengthy sequences of dialogue. If an art film has a story, it is usually a drifting sequence of vaguely defined or ambiguous episodes. There may be unexplained gaps in the film, deliberately unclear sequences, or extraneous sequences that are not related to previous scenes, which force the viewer to subjectively make their own interpretation of the film’s message. Art films often “bear the marks of a distinctive visual style” and the authorial approach of the director. An art cinema film often refuses to provide a “readily answered conclusion”, instead putting to the cinema viewer the task of thinking about “how is the story being told? Why tell the story in this way?”
In the late 1940s, the U.S. public’s perception that Italian neorealist films and other serious European fare were different from mainstream Hollywood films was reinforced by the development of “arthouse cinemas” in major U.S. cities and college towns. After the Second World War, “…a growing segment of the American film going public was wearying of mainstream Hollywood films”, and they went to the newly created art-film theaters to see “alternatives to the films playing in main-street movie palaces”. Films shown in these art cinemas included “British, foreign-language, and independent American films, as well as documentaries and revivals of Hollywood classics”. Films such as Rossellini’s Open City and Mackendrick’s Tight Little Island (Whisky Galore!), Bicycle Thieves and The Red Shoes were shown to substantial U.S. audiences.
Theatrical release poster for Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), often referred to as the first art film
A number of films from the 2000s with art film qualities were notable for their use of innovative filmmaking or editing techniques. Memento (2001), a psychological thriller directed by Christopher Nolan, is about a man suffering from short-term memory loss. The film is edited so that the plot is revealed backwards in ten-minute chunks, simulating the condition of memory loss. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is a romance film directed by Michel Gondry about a man who hires a company to erase the memory of a bad relationship. The film uses a range of special effects techniques and camera work to depict the destruction of the man’s memories and his transitions from one memory to another.
Ingmar Bergman’s self-styled farewell to cinema is an opulent family saga, by turns bawdy, stark and strange. For novices who are put off by the director’s reputation as a dour, difficult doom master, the film provides a good introduction. But it may also count as the ideal final destination: the picture in which Bergman took hold of his demons and forged a kind of truce.
Typical for films given the ‘mumblecore’ tag, the dialogue in Mutual Appreciation stops, starts, falters and fumbles, its nervy young metropolitan protagonists stammering their way to expressing their thoughts. In both sound and image, however, Bujalski’s film is even more rough and ready than those of his contemporaries, harking back to the John Cassavetes of Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968) with its high-contrast, handheld 16mm filming. The story rambles on with much of the same lack of direction shared by its characters; instead Bujalski lets their foibles and feelings do the talking.
From Damnation (1988) via the seven-hour Sátántangó (1994) to his most recent film, The Turin Horse (2011), black and white has always been essential to the mood in the unique, apocalyptic universe of Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr.
Still, there has been a steady stream of truly great black-and-white movies since then. The tap is currently running on full, but there’s never less than a trickle. Presented below are 10 of the very best from the past 20 years, in the time since Schindler’s List broke the best-picture monochrome moratorium in 1994.
Another approach used by directors in the 1980s was to create bizarre, surreal alternate worlds. Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) is a comedy-thriller that depicts a man’s baffling adventures in a surreal nighttime world of chance encounters with mysterious characters. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), a film noir-style thriller-mystery filled with symbolism and metaphors about polarized worlds and inhabited by distorted characters who are hidden in the seamy underworld of a small town, became surprisingly successful considering its highly disturbing subject matter. Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) is a fantasy/black comedy about cannibalism and extreme violence with an intellectual theme: a critique of “elite culture” in Thatcherian Britain.
6. A Clockwork Orange Stephen Woolley’s first X-rated film … A Clockwork Orange. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
In the 1920s and 1930s, filmmakers did not set out to make “art films”, and film critics did not use the term “art film”. However, there were films that had sophisticated aesthetic objectives, such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr (1932), surrealist films such as Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1929) and L’Âge d’Or (1930), or even films dealing with political and current-event relevance such as Sergei Eisenstein’s famed and influential masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. The U.S. film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) by German Expressionist director F. W. Murnau uses distorted art design and groundbreaking cinematography to create an exaggerated, fairy-tale-like world rich with symbolism and imagery. Jean Renoir’s film The Rules of the Game (1939) is a comedy of manners that transcends the conventions of the its genre by creating a biting and tragic satire of French upper-class society in the years before WWII; a poll of critics from Sight & Sound ranked it as the fourth greatest film ever, placing it behind Vertigo, Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story.
Though the first full three-colour Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp, arrived in 1935, it took several decades before colour completely overtook black and white in numbers, with colour initially being reserved for expensive prestige films, or westerns and musicals that were seen to benefit from the lustrous new technology.
French cinema of the 1980s and early 90s was defined by the extravagantly coloured, hyper-stylised and visually slick films of directors like Luc Besson and Léos Carax – originators of the so-called Cinéma du look.
10. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew ‘Austere and realistic’: Enrique Irazoqui in The Gospel According to St Matthew. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
Where chess is concerned, who needs any colours but black and white? Director Andrew Bujalski shot his latest film – Computer Chess, the story of a 1980s chess contest between man and machine – on vintage analogue cameras, revelling in their grainy, retro aesthetic. But he’s no stranger to monochrome, following his 2002 debut Funny Ha Ha with this lo-fi story about the knotty lives of young New Yorkers.
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This may not sound “entertaining” or active or even interesting, which only means the viewer needs to undergo the gentle process of being helped to see through Ozu’s withdrawn but compassionate style. So he watches from the corner of a room at a low level (for Japanese domestic life is often conducted from a sitting position) and he declines to rush in with forgiving, approving, loving close-ups – because he believes people are beyond forgiveness or individual glamour.
Period drama made with a scalpel, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’or-winning masterpiece is a subtly creepy lifting of the rock on an ostensibly peaceful Protestant village in rural Germany in the years before World War I. Beneath the calm surface, unexplained accidents are occurring to children, as if some of kind of organised punishment is being meted out to the community. But by whom? And what for?
In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood films could be divided into the artistic aspirations of literary adaptations like John Ford’s The Informer (1935) and Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home (1940), and the money-making “popular-genre films” such as gangster thrillers. William Siska argues that Italian neorealist films from the mid-to-late 1940s, such as Open City (1945), Paisa (1946), and Bicycle Thieves can be deemed as another “conscious art film movement”.
In 1997, Terrence Malick returned from a 20-year absence with The Thin Red Line, a war film that uses poetry and nature to stand apart from typical war movies. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
From the first scene, following the flight of a rudimentary hot air balloon, we’re whisked away by silken camera moves and stark compositions to a time and place where we’re no less confused, amazed or terrified than Rublev himself. For the next three hours, we’re down in the muck and chaos of medieval Russia, carried along on the tide of history through gruesome Tartar raids, bizarre pagan rituals, famine, torture and physical hardship. We experience life on every scale, from raindrops falling on a river to armies ransacking a town, often within the same, unbroken shot.
Yet it worked in the end. Ordinary film-makers knew that the work with lenses, darkness, sound and structure was unique. The film was full of wonderful new actors. The French critics seized upon it. By the late 50s, Citizen Kane was proverbial: it was cinema itself, a tribute to directors, as well as the power and opportunity of cinema. It breathed the unAmerican gospel: see what one man can do, see how films can be owned and authored not by the factory, but by brilliant minds bent on self-expression.
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Some 1990s films mix an ethereal or surreal visual atmosphere with the exploration of philosophical issues. Satantango (1994), by the Hungarian director Bela Tarr, is a 7 1⁄2-hour-long film, shot in black and white, that deals with Tarr’s favorite theme, inadequacy, as con man Irimias comes back to a village at an unspecified location in Hungary, presenting himself as a leader and Messiah figure to the gullible villagers. Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy (1993–4), particularly Blue (1993) and Red (1994), deal with human relationships and how people cope with them in their day-to-day lives. The trilogy of films was called “explorations of spirituality and existentialism” that created a “truly transcendent experience”. The Guardian listed Breaking the Waves (1996) as one of its top 25 arthouse films. The reviewer stated that “[a]ll the ingredients that have come to define Lars von Trier’s career (and in turn, much of modern European cinema) are present here: high-wire acting, innovative visual techniques, a suffering heroine, issue-grappling drama, and a galvanising shot of controversy to make the whole thing unmissable”.
Quality artistic television, a television genre or style which shares some of the same traits as art films, has been identified. Television shows, such as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the BBC’s The Singing Detective, also have “a loosening of causality, a greater emphasis on psychological or anecdotal realism, violations of classical clarity of space and time, explicit authorial comment, and ambiguity”.
Pasolini’s Gospel is a long way away from the stolid interpretations we’ve become accustomed to from the Cecil B DeMille school. Everything is simplicity itself: the primitive backdrop, the sparsely sketched-in scenes, the minimal dialogue (practically all lifted from the biblical text itself). Pasolini’s aim was to extract the ancient essence from the Jesus story; he does this not by exact recreation, but by inspecting faces, evoking Renaissance and medieval iconography, and mixing Bach, Mozart, spirituals and African masses on the soundtrack. If ever a film told a beautiful, brutal truth, this is it. Andrew Pulver
Is this tragedy or comedy? Ozu is never quite sure. He seems to wonder whether any progression can amount to tragedy, or whether it is not simply as inevitable as passing time and changing light.
Mon 21 Oct 2013 16.28 BST First published on Mon 21 Oct 2013 16.28 BST
What is it about Michael Haneke’s 2009 Palme d’Or winner that makes it so immaculately disquieting? It’s not just the plot: a series of crimes – some ascribable, most anonymous – rumple the surface of a small town in northern Germany on the eve of the first world war. A disciplinarian doctor tries and fails to instil a sense of responsibility and culpability into his children. A woman is left by her lover, then subjected to a torrent of abuse that makes Max von Sydow’s dismissal of his girlfriend in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (a film whose warm monochrone this movie echoes) look compassionate in comparison.
Timecode (2000), a film directed by Mike Figgis, uses a split screen to show four continuous 90-minute takes that follow four storylines. Russian Ark (2002), a film directed by Alexander Sokurov, took Figgis’ use of extended takes even further; it is notable for being the first feature film shot in a single, unedited take. Waking Life (2001), an animated film directed by Richard Linklater, uses an innovative digital rotoscope technique to depict a young man stuck in a dream.
Guy Maddin is another modern director who’s made the majority of his films in black and white, all the better to replicate the flickering, shadowy world of the silent films and monochrome melodramas he loves so much. This 2003 film is set in wintry Winnipeg (Maddin’s hometown) at the end of the Prohibition, when beer-brewing baroness Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) announces a contest to find the saddest music in the world, which finds chanteuses and musical troupes from around the world competing in a kind of world cup of musical woe. The prize? 25,000 “Depression-era dollars”.