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10 Artistic Films to Watch Before You Die

A quick heads up: We’re going to hit the international smorgasbord of taste in this article.

Are you a cinephile who loves artistic film? The road less traveled? Films that dare to defy convention? Then you’ve come to the right place.

I’m not going to lie, each of these films holds a special place in my heart and have stayed with me in the decades since I first experienced them. Now I want to pass those memorable experiences onto others.

No, not every one of these movies hits a Perfect 10 on the quality scale, and no, I’m not asking you to absolutely love every one of these films. However, I will ask you to keep an open mind and ignore the IMDB ratings. This discussion is about expanding your horizons beyond the narrow cookie-cutter Hollywood norms.

Let’s start with something soft and light:

1. Heartbeats

heartbeats

Originally: Les amours imaginaires
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan
Year: 2010
Runtime: 1h 41m
Genre: Drama, Romance
Country: France
Watch: YouTube, DVD

Perhaps the most mainstream film of this bunch, Heartbeats carries itself with subtlety, tenderness, and an almost uncomfortably close intimacy. This beautifully film takes a carefully crafted approach to navigating the uncertainties of love, friendship, gender and sexual fluidity by exploring the complex relationships within an ambiguous love triangle. A small cast in character-centric film, the content itself is somewhat progressive, but breathtaking in its heartfelt simplicity.

Still with me? Good. Let’s challenge your senses a little more.

2. Princess Mononoke

mononoke

Originally: Mononoke-hime
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, Neil Gaiman (Adapted By)
Year: 1997
Runtime: 2h 14m
Genre: Animation, Action/Adventure, Fantasy
Country: Japan
Watch: DVD, Blu-ray

This anime feature film expresses a deep, theme-laden story through a dichotomous portrayal of beauty and brutality. The plot literalizes the metaphor of industrialization polluting the purity of nature, playing out the struggle on-screen with visual moments that will make your heart drop in your chest. But don’t let me spoil the plot. Experience it yourself. After all, there’s a reason this Studio Ghibli masterpiece has remained popular over the years.

3. The Tenant

tenant

Originally: La locataire
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski, Roland Topor (novel)
Year: 1976
Runtime: 2h 6m
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
Country: France
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD

You’ve heard of Rosemary’s Baby, but maybe you haven’t heard of Roman Polanski’s other other, arguably better, psychological horror film, The Tenant? Probably not. But here’s why you should watch it: The storytelling pays incredible attention to detail and the fluid, gradual madness that befalls the protagonist. You won’t even realize how deep into the story you are until the circular plot throws you for a loop with a powerful finale—or is it the beginning?

4. Run Lola Run

lola

Originally: Lola rennt
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Year: 1998
Runtime: 1h 20m
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Country: Germany
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray

A well-known international film popular among American cinephiles, Run Lola Run straddles the line between feature and short film while exploring the surreality of multiple endings. In the story, the protagonist finds herself in a jam, forcing her to make quick decisions, each leading to a cascading series of unforeseen consequences. Lola doesn’t hold your hand along the way, either, creating plenty of material for thought-provoking analysis.

Still there? Great. Let’s move into more obscure territory…

5. Kanal

kanal

AKA: The Sewer
Director:
 Andrzej Wajda
Writer: Jerzy Stefan Stawinski
Year: 1957
Runtime: 1h 31m
Genre: Drama, War
Country: Poland
Watch: DVD

A film by one of the Polish masters, Andrzej Wajda, the predecessor to other Polish greats like Krzysztof Kieslowski and controversial directing great Roman Polanski, Kanal offers a layered retelling of Dante’s Inferno. Set in the sewers of Warsaw in WWII, the surface plot acts as a proxy to express Poland’s struggle to regain its lost identity after the USSR takeover. Bravery, insanity, and tragedy all have their place in this incredible piece of Polish Cold War-era film history.

6. Baraka

baraka

AKA: Baraka – A World Beyond Words
Director:
 Ron Fricke
Writers: Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson, Genevieve Nicholas, Constantine Nicholas, Bob Green
Year: 1992
Runtime: 1h 36m
Genre: Documentary
Country: United States
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray

No, this awe-inspiring documentary has nothing to do with former U.S. President Barack Obama. Rather, it’s a visual record of a day in the history of the world from sunrise to sunset, without any dialogue or narration. In many ways, Baraka is a more of a motion portrait of humankind than a true documentary, but let’s leave that distinction to the film critics. If you love documentaries, or even just love still photography, this often forgotten film should move to the top of your list.

7. The Double Life of Veronique

veronique

Originally: La double vie de Véronique
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Writers: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Year: 1991
Runtime: 1h 38m
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Music
Country: France/Poland
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD, Blu-ray

Kieslowski explores the idea of an individual meeting their doppelganger in a surreal, dramatically emotional film layered with spirituality and ambiguous meaning. This is the film to watch and analyze if you want to get your fingers dirty with film criticism. And if you like Double Life, be sure to check out Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue.

Great work! You’ve made it this far. Time to bring out the big guns:

8. Man of Marble

marble

Originally: Czlowiek z marmuru
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Writer: Aleksander Scibor-Rylski
Year: 1977
Runtime: 2h 40m
Genre: Drama
Country: Poland
Watch: DVD, Blu-Ray

A personal favorite of mine, this Polish film (Andrzej Wajda again) requires some historical background knowledge to fully grasp. Essentially, a young film student tracks down an old communist-era hero of the working class, uncovering a long trail of untruths in the process. While watching Man of Marble, keep a keen eye open for how Wajda and Scibo-Rylski dodge the communist censors while simultaneously criticizing that very same institution of censorship with every second of motion picture. And sure, the dramatic leg poses and disco music can certainly be a sensory challenge, but hey, it was over 30 years ago. Those superficial issues aside, the film’s storytelling technique is deceptively deep and intricate, and every act and every line of dialogue comes loaded with subtext and double meaning. For depth in storytelling, it doesn’t get much closer to technical perfection than Wajda’s Man of Marble.

9. A Hole in My Heart

holeinheart

Originally: Ett hål i mitt hjärta
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Writer: Lukas Moodysson
Year: 2004
Runtime: 1h 38m
Genre: Drama
Country: Sweden
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD

Now we’ve arrived to the most obscure, avant-garde point of the article. This film experienced an extremely limited release (1 screen for 2 weeks only), paltry box office returns ($3,306 gross), and no mainstream reception whatsoever (just look at the IMDB rating and Metascore). A Hole in My Heart takes on the unrestrained lust of the pornography industry and peels away the layers to reveal the rot and disgust that lies beneath through visual metaphor and reality TV conventions such as the confession box. Sure, Moodysson’s film can be aesthetically challenging, if not outright bizarre, but simultaneously thoughtful, satirical, and—of all things—incredibly intimate and heartfelt.

Finally, let’s end on a (slightly) more positive note:

10. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

cherbourg

Originally: Les parapluies de Cherbourg
Director: Jacques Demy
Writer: Jacques Demy
Year: 1964
Runtime: 1h 31m
Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance
Country: France
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD, Blu-ray

This award-winning musical hangs somewhere between the realms of obscurity and cherished history, sweeping Cannes in 1964 but losing out at the 1966 Academy Awards to more mainstream films like The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago (yes, THAT Doctor Zhivago). Strange in its vivid colorfulness but drab, unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a romance that doesn’t work out, Umbrellas is nothing short of a filmic experience every cinephile should have. And while you’re at it, maybe you can settle the debate over whether it’s a true musical or really a modern asymmetrical opera.

 

Did you like this list? If so, give me a shout out on Twitter or Facebook and I will write another!

Or pick my brain yourself at Storysci.com.

Hannibal, a film by Ridley Scott

Hannibal, aka “Ridley ScottDavid Mamet and Steven Zaillian make a stinker.” Drawing on the original characters and ideas of Silence of the Lambs, this sequel makes a paper mache mockery of the original, turning stellar characters into shallow caricatures of themselves, and in so doing, forgets to provide an adequate story. Plot is weak, advancing little over the second act from frivolous scenes of fan service and obvious filler. The film has to go out of his way to inject horror into this non-story, and does so in a way that seems almost amateurish and outdated.Movie poster for Hannibal, a 2001 film by Ridley Scott

Worst of all? It’s BORING.

The main characters spend most of the film pining away for each other and very little else. Emphasizing the Hannibal-Starling love story serves as a through-line for the film, but is not strong enough on its own to carry the story, and ends up feeling repetitive and tired. Lack of dimensions in the characters exacerbate the issue. Agent Starling has very little to do with the film except as an opener and an agent in the closing sequence of the film. Julianne Moore handles her role well considering the cardboard she was given to act with.

The writers attempt to portray Hannibal with the elegance and sophisticated depth found Silence of the Lambs but fail to do more than put up a poor façade sorely lacking in both content and depth, although Anthony Hopkins’s voice and some large words try to obscure the fact. With his complexity grossly reduced, the audience is left with a weak story and artificial horror.

In short, Hannibal lacks the artistic vision and execution of the original, making it just another slapdash horror movie. Unless you’re a fan of the genre…don’t waste your time. Check out Red Dragon instead.

Rating: 2 / 5

Ender’s Game, a science fiction film by Gavin Hood

(Although we have a few comments to make regarding the film as a whole the majority of this review will be dedicated to the story’s adaptation from page to screen.)

Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game takes a science fiction classic and visualizes it with dazzling realism and originality. The opening is rough and plagued by hokey dialogue but as the story progresses it gradually comes into its own, culminating in arguably the most breathtaking climactic end battle in all of science fiction to date, although the penultimate battle scenes leading up the climax feel truncated, making the third act feel rushed. Asa Butterfield (the principal lead) delivers a performance that becomes increasingly impressive as the film progresses.

photo poster of the film ender's game by writer/director gavin hood, the minimalist review being written by james gilmore

As both writer and director, Hood impressively adapts difficult material to the silver screen, improving notable segments from the book such as the battle school sequence and simulated battles, and correlating Mazer Rackham’s final battle with Ender’s active progress during the course of the main plot.

However, some adaptation decisions were more poorly chosen, such as the near total absence of Ender’s older brother, Peter, who features so prominently in terms of theme and character development (for Ender) but is almost completely absent from the film, despite his being referenced often. As written, the character of Peter should have been omitted altogether to prevent unnecessary dilution of the plot. Also the psychologist character whose presence remains strong throughout the story is so poorly written and spouts redundant dialogue and concepts that are not illustrated in the film, especially earlier in the portions. So much more could have been done with the character to both expand and draw out Ender’s character but very little is ever utilized. The character ends up as a bloated element of fat filled with hot air.

Ender’s Game’s greatest weakness is its botched final reveal. By showing an additional point of view (an excellent adaptation choice) the filmmaker expands on the world of the story but presents the new information in a way that prematurely gives away the ending, thereby lessening the potential impact of one of the greatest reveals in science fiction history.

Despite its shortcomings, Ender’s Game is an enjoyable cinematic journey through an original world tantalizing to viewers who are fans of science fiction. Ender’s Game was adapted from the widely known novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Star Trek: Into Darkness, a film by J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams’s long anticipated sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness outdoes its predecessor in action, intensity and spectacle. Despite a running time of 2:12 (132 min) the film feels a little too short to play out the struggle between the protagonists and the main antagonist, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The saturation of fan service and cross-references to other events in the Star Trek universe is an unending treat for fans of the franchise but at times detrimental, especially when it results in lines of hokey dialogue. A simple substitution of one of the film’s mindless action scenes for a short sequence to deepen character and theme development would have greatly benefited Into Darkness.

The first Star Trek took us with surprise by the acting intensity portrayed by its young cast. Into Darkness retains the same cast but fails to carry over the compelling emotional punch from its prequel. Part of this failure results from the from the disappointing script characterization of several cast members, namely Kirk, Spock, and Uhura. Benedict Cumberbatch proves the exception to this rule in his portrayal of the notorious Khan.

The biggest issue in Into Darkness is with the main antagonist, Khan. As one of the most intelligent and complex characters in the Star Trek Universe, more story and screen time oriented toward exploring the character’s intricacies is required in order for his personal journey to feel complete by the conclusion of his story arc. Instead of actually exploring the character, the story turns him into a 1-dimensional foe with no further development beyond the mid-point—a sad misappropriation of story potential. Much more could have been made of his shifting ally/enemy role as well but the film took the easy way out with his character, thereby losing both strength and depth as a result.

One of the most exciting films of the 2010s.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Suspiria, a horror film by Dario Argento

Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria is one of the highlights from the golden age of the 1970s horror genre.

Intense in every sense of the word, Argento’s film is violent, visually vibrant and surreal with an alarmingly ear-grating soundtrack intentionally designed to set the audience’s nerves on edge. Be prepared for an experience that is both oddly immersive and abrasive to the senses.

minimalist review of dario argento's 1970s horror classic SuspiriaThe lighting, set design and shot composition are more the stars of this film than the doe-eyed lead, played by Jessica Harper, who merely drifts from one scene to the next as if led by an invisible hand.

The film’s vibrant visuals are just enough to counterbalance a feeble, sometimes nonsensical story and nonexistent character development. Some of its colorful dream-like qualities and childish dialogue make more sense when the viewer understands that portions of the film were inspired by the dreams of co-writer Daria Nicolodi, and that the script originally intended for the protagonist and her classmates to be no older than 12, but neither excuse a weak story.

Suspiria is a stunning film like no other, so be sure to put it in your canon of “must-sees” for cinematographers, art designers, filmmakers and horror buffs alongside other visually salient works like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

Rating: 3 / 5

Get the Gringo, a film by Adrian Grunberg

By James Gilmore

Adrian Grunberg’s gritty tough-guy film, Get the Gringo, is a wry tongue-in-cheek action crime drama with an edgy but resourceful troublemaker for a protagonist. He is proactive and refreshingly clever, a guy who only looks out for himself in world where everyone is corrupt and everyone is out to get him.

Colorful in texture, tone and visuals, Gringo creates a palatable experience for the audience free from the dictatorial confines of the mainstream Hollywood studio system, as is evident in some of its more taboo elements and several touches of brutal violence. Characters grow out of the naturally developing, organic plotline and are inseparable from this well-told story.

Some viewers may find parts of the third act low on the believability scale but overall Gringo’s storytelling flaws are minimal.

Although the film may not aspire to deep philosophical pondering the film fulfills its goal as a solid piece of entertainment. If you are in the mood for a Friday night flick that is refreshing, stimulating and all-around entertaining, give Get the Gringo a try.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Last Airbender, a film by M. Night Shyamalan

by James Gilmore

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is nothing short of a fiasco. Watching Airbender is like watching a group of kids play make believe on a $150m budget. Of its scant virtues are a solid midpoint with an interesting twist and beautiful cinematic scenery, neither of which are enough to save this film from ridicule and oblivion.

The plot is a series of anticlimactic events wherein few sources of conflict come to a head in a do-or-die confrontation. The acting lacks any sense of urgency, even at the most critical of moments, and most of the characters appear to have only a narrow range of emotions, most of which consist of being at the brink of bursting into tears at any given moment. Further exacerbating the problem, awkward, immature dialogue is almost exclusively expository and devoid of subtext, castrating every scene of any potential emotional fortitude. Although targeted to a younger audience this does not give the filmmaker an excuse to leave out basic elements of storytelling (contrast Airbender to any Pixar film and one can see the difference is not so much a disparity as a black gaping chasm).

For a director incapable of creating fast-moving action sequences to take on an action film is certainly laudable as a challenge to Night’s filmmaking abilities, but unfortunately the result is an abysmally failed experiment. While is directorial skills remain unquestioned, he should stop writing his own material and stay away from action-oriented films as his own style caters much better to the slow-moving sequences of his earlier works.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw of Airbender is its repeated penchant for “telling” the audience about the world of the film and hardly ever “showing” it. Most of the story is revealed through expository dialogue instead of showing the audience through visual imagery. He takes “show, don’t tell” to the polar opposite, telling the audience about the movie instead of actually illustrating it for us. The oddity is so extreme that one might think there wasn’t enough time/money to finish shooting these sequences, as in the climactic battle of the classical sword-and-sandal epic Cleopatra.

Through his restrained intensity and confident subtlety, Aasif Mandvi is the acting highlight of the film and just about the only positive element in it.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is a fantasy epic that falls far short of its grandiose aspirations, ultimately coming across as a very expensive B movie (like his previous film, The Happening). It’s safe to say that we won’t be expecting any blood-pumping thrillers or teen heartthrob sensations out of Shyamalan anytime soon—or ever.

Rating: 1.5 / 5