An art film is typically a serious, independent film aimed at a niche market rather than a mass market audience. An art film is "intended to be a serious artistic work, often experimental and not designed for mass appeal"; they are "made primarily for aesthetic reasons rather than commercial profit", and they contain "unconventional or highly symbolic content".
Film critics and film studies scholars typically define an art film as possessing "formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films", which 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".
Art film producers usually present their films at specialty theatres (repertory cinemas, or, in the U.S., "arthouse cinemas") and film festivals. The term art film is much more widely used in the United States, the UK and Australia than in Europe, where the term is more associated with "auteur" films and "national cinema" (e.g., German national cinema). Because they are aimed at small niche market audiences, they can rarely get the financial backing that will permit large production budgets, expensive special effects, costly celebrity actors, or huge advertising campaigns, as are used in widely released mainstream blockbuster films. Art film directors make up for these constraints by creating a different type of film, which typically uses lesser-known film actors (or even amateur actors) and modest sets to make films that focus much more on developing ideas or exploring new narrative techniques or film-making conventions.
A certain degree of experience and knowledge are required to fully understand or appreciate such films. One mid-1990s art film was called "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 their 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 the mainstream viewing audiences to become financially viable.
An art film may also be called an "art movie", "specialty film", "art-house film" (or the variant spelling "arthouse film"), or, in the collective sense, it may be referred to as "art cinema". There is overlap between the categories of "art film", independent film and experimental film.
The antecedents of art films included D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and the works of Sergei Eisenstein, both of which would influence the development of European cinema movements for decades. Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin (1925) was a revolutionary propaganda film that he used to test his theories of using montage (editing) in a manner which would produce the greatest emotional response in the audience. The international critical renown that Eisenstein garnered from this film enabled the Russian filmmaker to direct October (aka Ten Days That Shook The World) as part of a grand tenth-anniversary celebration of the October Revolution of 1917 and then The General Line (aka Old and New). The critics of the outside world praised these films. However, in Russia, Eisenstein's focus on structural issues such as camera angles, crowd movements, and montage brought him and like-minded others, such as Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko, under fire from the Soviet film community.
Art films were also influenced by films by Spanish avant-garde creators, such as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (e.g., L'Age d'Or from 1930), and by the French playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (e.g., The Blood of a Poet, also from 1930, an avant-garde film that 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 an "...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 that 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".
Cinéma Pur, a 1920s and 1930s French avant-garde film movement also influenced the development of the idea of art film. The cinema pur film movement included Dada artists, such as Man Ray (Emak-Bakia, Return to Reason), René Clair (Entr'acte), and Marcel Duchamp (Anemic Cinema). 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.
Pure Cinema was influenced by such German "absolute" filmmakers as Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, and Viking Eggeling. Richter claimed that his 1921 film, Rhythmus 21, was the first abstract film ever created. This claim is not true: he was preceded by the Italian Futurists Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Ginna between 1911 and 1912 (as they report 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.
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 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 filmgoing 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.
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, the New Wave filmmakers were linked by their self-conscious rejection of classical cinematic form and their spirit of youthful iconoclasm and is 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 famous 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.
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 "arthouse 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".
By the 1980s and 1990s, the term became conflated with "independent film" in the U.S., which shares many of the same stylistic traits with "art film". Companies such as Miramax Films distributed independent films which were deemed commercially unviable at the major studios. 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 the films from these special divisions can truly be considered to be "independent films", given that they have financial backing from major studios.
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".
According to director, producer, and distributor Roger Corman, the "1950s and 1960s were 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.
Deviations from mainstream film norms
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 against 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 for 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, musical soundtracks to cue the appropriate audience emotions, and tight, seamless editing. Mainstream films tend to use a small palette of familiar, generic images, plots, verbal expressions, and archetypal "stock" characters.
In contrast, Bordwell states that "...the art cinema motivates its narrative by two principles: realism and authorial expressivity." Art films deviate from the mainstream, "classical" norms of filmmaking in that they typically deal with more episodic narrative structures with a "...loosening of the chain of cause and effect". As well, art films often deal with an inner drama that takes place in a character's psyche, such as psychological issues dealing with individual identity, transgressive sexual or social issues, moral dilemmas, or personal crises.
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 protagonists in art films are often facing doubt, anomie or alienation, and the art film often depicts their internal dialogue of thoughts, dream sequences, and fantasies. In some art films, the director uses a depiction of absurd or seemingly meaningless actions to express a philosophical viewpoint such as existentialism.
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 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?"
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 that 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).
Timeline of notable films
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, noncommercial, 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 in 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 in 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 filmmaking technique.
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 more 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 that was rich with symbolism and imagery. Jean Renoir's film The Rules of the Game (1939) was a comedy of manners that transcended the conventions of the "comedy of manners" genre by creating a biting and tragic satire of French upper class society in the years before WW II; a poll of critics from the British Film Institute ranked it as the third greatest film ever, placing behind Citizen Kane and Vertigo.
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 that stood out from mainstream genre films of the era. In 1945, David Lean would direct 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 economical issues that Britain faced at the time.
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 coming to terms with her situation, Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (1955), centering on family with a lack of faith among it 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, and her suffering and rejections, and Wild Strawberries (1957), by Ingmar Bergman, whose narrative concerns an elderly medical doctor and 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 the abuse from his parents, schoolteachers, and society in general. 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.
In India, there was an art film movement in Bengali cinema known as "Parallel Cinema" or the "Indian New Wave". It 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 the French New Wave and Japanese New Wave. The most influential filmmakers involved in this movement were Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. One of the most internationally acclaimed films made in the period were The Apu Trilogy (1955–1959), which tells the story of a poor country boy's growth to adulthood. Satyajit Ray's Distant Thunder (1973) tells the story of a farmer during a famine in Bengal. Other acclaimed Bengali filmmakers involved in this movement include Mrinal Sen.
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 masterless samurai 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 and complicated shots.
The 1960s was an important period in art film; 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 filmmaking. 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.
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman started off the 1960s with chamber pieces like Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963), which deal with such themes as emotional isolation and a lack of communication. His films from the later 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 especially Salto (1962) inspired discussions about war and raised existential questions on behalf of their everyman protagonists.
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 shot in sumptuous 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 like Viridiana (1961) and The Exterminating Angel (1962).
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 where Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays five different characters, and which was banned by Soviet authorities, and also long unavailable in the west, was 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 and where story was 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.
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. Nevertheless, other directors did 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 respectedly, Tarkovsky directed another two 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.
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 would offer a sharp commentary on American blue-collar life in A Woman Under the Influence, which features an eccentric housewife slowly descending into madness.
Also in the 1970s, Radley Metzger directed several adult art films, like Barbara Broadcast (1977), presenting 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), and 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 were just beginning to be widely released, publicly discussed by celebrities (like Johnny Carson and Bob Hope) and taken seriously by film critics (like Roger Ebert).
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 rather be seen as a science fiction art film, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Blade Runner explores themes of existentialism: what it means to be human. A box office failure, the film became popular in the arthouse circuit as a cult oddity after the release of a "Director's cut" became successful on VHS. 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 a mobster's life in Once Upon a Time in America.
Other directors in the 1980s chose a more intellectual path, exploring philosophical and ethical issues. Andrzej Wajda's Man of Iron (1981) is a critique of the Polish communist government which won the 1981 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Another Polish director, Krzysztof Kieślowski made The Decalogue for television in 1988, a largely melancholic 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 would make, in the words of The New York Times critic Vincent Canby his most "securely serious and funny film to date" in Crimes and Misdemeanors, which deals with multiple stories of people trying to find a moral and spiritual simplicity in life 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 Nazi occupation government's deportation of French Jews to concentration camps during World War II.
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 UK, Channel 4, a new television channel, financed in whole or part many films released theatrically via its Film 4 subsidiary. Wim Wenders offered another approach on 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 photography of cities and natural landscapes which creates a visual tone poem.
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), is a film noir-style thriller mystery filled with symbolism and metaphors about polarized worlds and inhabited by distorted characters that 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 an outlandish fantasy/black comedy about cannibalism and extreme violence with an intellectual theme: a critique of 'elite culture' in Thatcherian Britain.
According to Raphaël Bassan, in his article «The Angel: Un météore dans le ciel de l'animation,» La Revue du cinéma, n° 393, avril 1984, Patrick Bokanowski's The Angel, shown in 1982 at the Cannes Film Festival, can be considered the beginnings of contemporary animation. The masks erase all human personality in the characters. Patrick Bokanowski would thus have total control over the "matter" of the image and its optical composition. This is especially noticeable throughout the film, with images taken through distorted objectives or a plastic work on the sets and costumes, for example in the scene of the designer. Patrick Bokanowski creates his own universe and obeys his own aesthetic logic. It takes us through a series of distorted areas, obscure visions, metamorphoses and synthetic objects. Indeed, in the film, the human may be viewed as a fetish object (for example, the doll hanging by a thread), with reference to Kafkaesque and Freudian theories on automata and the fear of man faced with something as complex as him. The ascent of the stairs would be the liberation of the ideas of death, culture, and sex that makes us reach the emblematic figure of the angel.
In the 1990s, directors took inspiration from the success of 1986's Blue Velvet and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover by creating films with bizarre alternate worlds and elements of surrealism. In 1990, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's Dreams 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. In 1991, the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, which won the Palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival, told an enigmatic story about a writer who encounters a range of bizarre characters including an alcoholic, abusive novelist and a serial killer. David Lynch's 1997 film Lost Highway is a psychological thriller that explores fantasy worlds, bizarre time-space transformations, and mental breakdowns using surreal imagery.
Other directors in the 1990s explored philosophical issues and themes such as identity, chance, death, and existentialism. The 1990s films My Own Private Idaho and Chungking Express explored the theme of identity. Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) 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". Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express (1994) explores the themes of identity, disconnection, loneliness, and isolation in the "metaphoric concrete jungle" of modern Hong Kong. The film uses a visual style that could be seen as music video-influenced, and also bears similarities to the French New Wave. While the British Film Institute called it one of the best Asian films of contemporary cinema, it is considered to be a film for cineophiles, because it is "largely a cerebral experience" which you enjoy "because of what you know about film".
Daryush Shokof's film Seven Servants (1996), makes a most original high art cinema piece about a man who wants to "unite" the world races until his last breath. The film remains a surprising visionary experience both in form and concept for anyone who sees it for the first time ever. 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 as in the Seven Servants with a different twist in which it is about a man trying to hire a person to bury him after he commits suicide. The film was shot in a minimalist style, with long takes, a leisurely pace, and long periods of silence. The film was also notable for its use of long shots and overhead shots which creates 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 a poignant narrative. To Live won the Grand Jury Prize.
Several 1990s films explored existentialist-oriented themes related to life, chance, and death. Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993) explored themes of chance, death, and infidelity by tracing ten 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 which features stylized cinematography, an ethereal atmosphere, and unexplained supernatural elements.
Darren Aronofsky's film Pi (1998) is a dream-like "...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", which explore issues such as "metaphysics and spirituality" Matthew Barney's The Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002) is a cycle of five symbolic, allegorical films that create a self-enclosed aesthetic system that aims to explore the process of creation. The films are filled with allusions to reproductive organs and sexual development, and they use narrative models drawn from biography, mythology, and geology.
In 1997, Malick returned from a 20-year absence with The Thin Red Line, a war film that uses poetry and nature to stand out from typical war movies. It was nominated to seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Some 1990s films mixed 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, that of inadequacy, as con man Irimias comes back to a village at an unspecified location in Hungary, setting himself up as leader and as a 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 alongside their day-to-day lives. The trilogy was called "explorations of spirituality and existentialism" that created a "truly transcendent experience". The Guardian has 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."
A number of films from the 2000s with art film qualities were notable due to 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 used a range of special effect techniques and camera work to depict the destruction of the man's memories and his transitions from one memory to another.
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.
Several 2000s-era films explored the theme of amnesia or memory, but unlike Memento, they did so using 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, although as the plot progresses it becomes apparent 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 who must then chase his old memories when he is abruptly released. Peppermint Candy (2000), directed by Lee Chang-dong, starts with the suicide of the male protagonist, and then uses reverse chronology (like Memento) to depict the events of the last 20 years which led the man to want to kill himself.
Some of the notable films from the 2000s that have been considered to have art film-qualities differed from mainstream films in controversial subject matter or in narrative form. Elephant (2003), a film directed by Gus Van Sant, for example, depicting mass murder at a high school that echoed the Columbine High School massacre, won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Other of his films 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) technology to create a fantastical world that a ten-year-old girl imagines to block out the horror of the Spanish Civil War. Encyclopædia Britannica calls del Toro's film "...a wonderful marriage of Hollywood genre [film] and European art film".
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 more 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 finds himself succumbing to the paranoia of being captured and developing a rather 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 rageaholic 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?"
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. His films display a preference for unconventional narrative structures (like placing titles/credits at the middle of a film) and for working with non-actors.
Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011) was finally released after decades of being in development. It also won the Palme d'Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and was highly praised by critics. In Stamford, Connecticut, a message was posted in the Avon Theater about the film and the theater's no-refund policy due to "some customer feedback and a polarized audience response" about 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 even claiming it Von Trier's masterpiece; highlighting Kirsten Dunst's performance, the visuals and realism depicted in the movie.
Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin was screened at the 2013 Venice Film Festival and received a theatrical release the following year. The film, starring Scarlett Johansson, follows an alien in human form as she travels 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, while Richard Roeper declared 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) and It Follows (2015).
A television genre or style of quality artistic television has been identified, which shares some of the same traits of art films. Television shows such as David Lynch's Twin Peaks series and 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".
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 it. 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.
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 explored the dark and sometimes satirical themes in modern society, particularly with regard to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies, and while classed as "speculative fiction" rather than art television received rave reviews. HBO's The Wire might also be qualified as "artistic television" as it has garnered a larger amount of critical attention from academics than most television shows. For example, the film theory journal Film Quarterly has featured the show on its cover.
- Auteur theory
- Criterion Collection
- Czechoslovak New Wave
- Documentary films
- Experimental film
- Film genres
- Independent Film Channel
- Independent Spirit Award
- List of directors associated with art film
- Parallel Cinema
- Souvenirs from Earth—art TV station
- Sundance Film Festival
- Surrealist cinema
- Swansea Bay Film Festival
- Television studies
- Toronto International Film Festival
- Turner Classic Movies
- Underground film
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