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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.

Ichi the Killer, a film by Takashi Miike

By James Gilmore

From the director of 13 Assassins comes Ichi the Killer, a gruesome but creative narrative that challenges the senses with its pushing of sex and violence to the extreme in an orgy of gore (a “gore-gy” if you will). (Ichi is banned in several countries for its “high impact violence and graphic depictions of cruelty”[Wikipedia].)

Although listed as an action/comedy/crime film imdb.comIchi may feel more like torture porn than anything else to regular movie-going audiences. Its surreal, creative departure from typical gore flicks is intriguing, enhanced by a unique soundtrack, thoughtful acting, and a deceptively simple plot which takes on new depth at the midpoint.

Ichi’s tortured main character is furnished with the uncanny ability to paint any room with a smorgasbord of blood and guts. A sexual dysfunctionary, this weak-minded assassin is the victim of manipulative bullies who push him to avenge a non-existent incident from his past. And while the film plays out as a visual dissertation on sadomasochism, the story is actually about bullying and bullies who, as adults, are fighting for survival among the fiercest criminals of the Shinjuku underworld. The protagonist manages to purge the screen of its many villains in a disappointingly anti-climactic conclusion.

Although it may be the most light-hearted torture porn ever made, Ichi the Killer is not for the faint of heart. Anyone expecting innocent laughs, seat-riveting action or a good old fashioned crime story should avert their eyes and ears and move on to something else. File Ichi in the “most gruesome films of world cinema” category, right next to Salo.

Rating: 3 / 5

Series 7: The Contenders, a film by Daniel Minahan

by James Gilmore

Before the Hunger Games (2012) there was a grossly popular Japanese film by director Kinji Fukasaku called Battle Royale (2000), and there was today’s subject, an obscure little film called Series 7: The Contenders (2001) by Daniel Minahan.

Movie poster for Daniel Minahan's 2001 film Series 7: The Contenders, as seen on Minimalist Reviews compact film and book reviews.

Based on his experiences working in reality TV, Minahan exploits his intimate knowledge of reality television to accost that hypocritical world with scathing ridicule.  In this deadly serious mockumentary, Minahan takes us through highlights from the seventh season of a fake hit reality series called “The Contenders” in which a group of individuals are selected at random to compete in an anything-goes deathmatch.  Think of Series 7 as the Roman gladiatorial games meets reality television.

The story is short and efficient, confronting head-on a two-pronged theme: that the American public’s insatiable lust for entertainment and the media’s unscrupulous push for ratings could ultimately lead to the sacrifice humanity itself. Minahan drives home his point with merciless precision by employing a faux unscripted format which so closely resembles the genuine article that one wonders if such an inhumane entertainment is not too far off, if our “advanced” civilization has deteriorated to the point of reviving Roman gladiatorial bloodsports just to keep audiences entertained. Or perhaps Minahan is saying that reality television as it is now is an emotional battle royale in which there can be only one survivor.

Character lies at the heart of the script. Plot twists usually occur in the form of character reveals, and everyone in The Contenders hides aces up their sleeves. Even the most unassuming combatant will surprise you more than once.

Viewers may recognize the star of the film, Brooke Smith, whose prior work include roles in Grey’s Anatomy and The Silence of the Lambs.

Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders is a complete surprise and a must see, an impressive low-budget film worthy of its stock. Available on streaming at Netflix.com.

Rating: 4 / 5

Battle Royale, a film by Kinji Fukasaku

by James Gilmore

Before the Hunger Games (2012) there was a grossly popular Japanese film by director Kinji Fukasaku called Battle Royale (2000).

Movie poster for Battle Royale, a film by Kinji Fukasaku, on the compact movie review at Minimalist Reviews.

Delivered in typical overdramatic Japanese style, Battle Royale is unlike any film known in Western cinema. Fukasaku blends beauty and brutality as we witness the innocence of youth corrupted with the ultimate need for survival, kill or be killed. With a death (or two) in every scene, this rapidly-paced narrative holds the sanctity of life as forfeit for each and every one of its multitudinous characters, who attempt a surprising array of tactics to kill, survive, or thwart the system in which they are trapped. All the social mores and pretensions of junior high school are replaced by love, loyalty, and raw fight-or-flight animal instinct.

The gems in this story are its intelligently characterized inhabitants, especially the teacher-turned-gamesmaster, Kitano-sensei. Through his character we see tragic, jaded adults devouring the lives of unblemished youth, especially the main characters, Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa, previously ignorant of the horrors of adulthood and disappointment.

Battle Royale’s plot fails to pursue a few red herrings which warrant further development, although this failure does not hinder the plot much, mostly because their elaboration would impinge on the rigorous pacing of the main story.

Although the over-the-top acting may be a turnoff to some, if you approach Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale with open mind, it may just surprise you with its juxtaposition of tenderness and violence, desperation and sacrifice, and ultimately, its human core.

Rating: 4 / 5

Damned, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk

by James Gilmore

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk follows the idea that every cliché you’ve ever heard about Hell is absolutely and completely true.  And Hell isn’t really that bad of a place so long as you don’t expect it to be like Heaven.  All it needs is a little optimism and some long-overdue re-landscaping by the supernumerous tenants.

Book cover for Damned, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, on Minimalist Reviews.

The book is creative, thoughtful and entertaining, and is probably more broadly-appealing to readers than most of Palahniuk’s other, more shockingly gruesome works.  With trim, lean writing the author creates the most sympathetic, likable protagonist of his career.  To his credit, the 13-year old female protagonist is thoroughly authentic in thought and viewpoint, which allows Palahniuk to lead the character to a number of unusually profound conclusions.  Like the protagonist, every member of the supporting cast is similarly illustrated with sympathetic—if not tragic—human weaknesses.  As the backstories of these characters are revealed the reader becomes continually haunted with the idea that there is no Heaven at all, and that Hell is for everyone.

Despite its strengths, Damned is not Palahniuk’s best.  His trademark technique of using repetition in changing contexts fails to fulfill its purpose in this novel.  The result is frequently negatively iterative, if not, at times, indulgent.

The structure of the final act is particularly weak as well, giving the impression that the novel was cut short of the full story the author was trying to tell.  Virtually without warning, we are ushered to a rapid climax which dissipates with an anti-climax.  The pivotal idea to the story’s final revelation—that the main character is driven by free will—is hindered by the poor structure and ultimately results in invalidating all the story which preceded it by making it feel pointless.

Damned is worth a read, especially for those who love anti-fundamentalist and anti-liberal satire.

Rating:  3 / 5

Pygmy, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk

by James Gilmore

Although all of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels satire American culture, Pygmy is perhaps the most pungent of the author’s bibliography. 

Book cover for Chuck Palahniuk's novel Pygmy on Minimalist Reviews.

Technically sound, fascinating and shocking.  And while many readers may take issue with the nature of certain violent events which occur in the story, these events are in fact appropriate to the story, even if they are presented in a fashion to maximize shock factor.

The audio book recording of the book is an excellent alternative for Palahniuk fans who wish to avoid the grammar headaches of reading the novel’s own form of pidgin English, which can be extremely laborious.

Pygmy is an absolute must-read for fans of Chuck Palahniuk.  However, strangers to his work may find the book distasteful if not virtually impossible to read.  On the other hand, adventurous readers should absolutely give the book a perusal.

Rating:  4 / 5

Oldboy, a film by Chan-wook Park

by James Gilmore

Movie poster for Oldboy, a film by Chan-wook Park, on Minimalist Reviews.

Unique, brilliant, the fantastic child of a truly artistic endeavor. A seemless marriage of script, camera and directing. Oldboy combines an intimate examination of human nature’s darkest facets with an entrancing story of revenge, love, and selfishness.

Stay tuned for the 2013 American of Oldboy, directed by Spike Lee and (according to rumors) starring Christian Bale and Rooney Mara.

Rating: 5 / 5