In the madcap world of arthouse films pretty much anything goes. Take the groundbreaking European art cinema of the sixties, when Jean-Luc Godard challenged the mainstream and pioneered the French New Wave using bold colours and harsh jumpcuts.
At a similar time, the likes Federico Fellini and then later Stanley Kubrick continued to defy filmic convention. This new age social realism garnered a loyal albeit niche audience, where the rulebook was tossed out the window and mavericks created feasts for the eyes that gave a distinct alternative to the traditional cinema fare.
The turn of the millennium marked something of a special period in the genre which led to a glut of very talented directors making their mark on the industry. With that in mind, we take a look at what might be the best arthouse films of the 21st century.
In the Mood for Love – Dir. Wong Kar Wai (2000)
The visually alluring beauty of contemporary ‘king of the avant-garde feature’, Wong Kar Wai’s work, has led to him being recognised not only in his homeland but globally as an icon, responsible for some of the best arthouse films. Hot off the heels of his critically acclaimed work Happy Together came the seminal In the Mood or Love.
Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the story follows Li-zhen, wonderfully realized by Maggie Cheung, and Chow played by Tony Leung, who move into an apartment building on the same day and quickly learn that their other halves are having an affair.
What transpires is an extremely intimate melancholic, almost tragic tale of bitterness, that unfolds in a dreamy visual narrative as the two lead characters come to terms with their reality and slowly, form a bond and attraction to each other.
A magical piece of storytelling, that lacks the traditional narrative cues tailored for the mainstream moviegoer, a hallmark of the Grandmaster Wong Kar Wei.
Let the Right One In – Dir. Tomas Alfredson (2008)
Adapted for the big screen by the very author who penned the novel, John Ajvide Lindqvist, and brought to life by Director Tomas Alfredson, Let the Right One In, despite its horror status is more romantic drama with a bloodsucking vampire twist.
Incredibly atmospheric and wonderfully choreographed the story follows 12-year-old Oskar who becomes acquainted with his strange and otherworldy neighbour Eli. As Oskar’s life is marred by the attention of the local bullies his friendship with Eli grows and their bond is strengthened by the fact that Eli is, in fact, a vampire – both living on the margins of society as outsiders.
As their friendship deepens and the reality of Eli’s actions hit home, Oskar finds himself at odds, however, his own desires to help his friend outweigh his moral struggles and he lends a hand in helping her survive, despite the cost.
A slow paced coming of age horror movie that doubles up as a genuine work of art, at its heart Let The Right One In is a very sweet film about love, friendship and sacrifice, despite the graphic bloodletting. Not just one of the best arthouse films of the 21st century, one of the best vampire films period.
A Prophet – Dir. Jacques Audiard (2009)
This powerful crime drama appeared out of nowhere to huge critical acclaim and justifiably so. Directed by Jacques Audiard the man who also helmed the excellent The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet offers a gritty portrayal of life inside a French prison and the fragile hierarchical power structure of those that dance on the wrong side of the law.
Malik a young Algerian serving time in the slammer for assaulting police officers finds himself under the gaze of the Corsican mafia who are engaged in an ongoing battle with the Muslim population. Keeping himself to himself slowly but steadfastly becomes aligned with mob boss Luciani and as their bond grows so does the trust.
As Malik is afforded day release Luciani sets him to work in the outside world, but Malik’s growing friendship with another inmate and Lucini’s realisation that Malik is using his release for his own personal enterprise sets off a devastating chain of events.
One for gangster film buffs who want to broaden their horizons, A Prophet is essential viewing for any lovers of expertly crafted crime thrillers.
Force Majeure – Dir. Ruben Östlund (2014)
This brilliant dark comedy from Sweden became something of a must-see movie back in 2014, thanks to its wonderful cast and thoughtful narrative. As businessman Tomas and his wife Ebba take their content and comfortable family skiing in the French Alps for a picture-perfect holiday a storm is brewing, of natural and marital description.
While enjoying lunch surrounded by the spectacular mountains, a freak avalanche appears to be hurtling towards the restaurant and the al fresco diners. As Ebba protects her children and calls out to her husband, he’s nowhere to be seen. A decision that in turn rocks this familial structure to the core.
An acutely observed reflection on perceptions of oneself and each other, masculinity and the age-old question – how well do you really know anyone? Force Majeure unravels at a leisurely pace, but is genuinely funny, heartfelt, at times intense and addresses some of society’s stigmas and stereotypes. Something of a gem when it comes to the best arthouse films.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Dir. Julian Schnabel (2007)
The nominations, awards and acclaim just kept on coming back in 2007 for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Directed by bona fide visual artist Julian Schnabel, the film is based on the real-life story of one-time journalist and former editor of French fashion magazine ELLE, Jean-Dominique Bauby.
Having suffered a stroke and spent three weeks in a coma, Bauby comes round to a very new reality. Suffering from locked-in syndrome, rendering him physically paralysed, however, his mind is unaffected and it is here in his thoughts that we follow his astonishing journey. Trapped in this prison Bauby recollects his former playboy lifestyle which in many compounds his misery and loss.
You might be forgiven for mistaking Schnabel’s film as being somewhat depressing. But instead, it’s a powerful, transformative tale, that never wallows, but rather meditates on how even the most traumatic of life events can be turned into a positive.
Enter the Void – Dir. Gasper Noé (2009)
Gasper Noé’s innovative and visually stunning dreamscape is like a hallucinogenic journey that’s certainly not for the faint of heart or the fair weather filmgoer. Following or should we say experiencing – thanks to the point of view presentation – the life of Frenchman Oscar who lives in Tokyo and supports himself by dealing drugs.
Oscar’s life comes to an abrupt end after he is stitched up and pounced on by police, and in his efforts to escape is shot dead. What follows is a bonkers journey through Oscar’s former life as he drops in on family, friends and enemies in an uncomfortable, bonkers and sometimes brilliant headf**k of a voyage through the depths of humanity.
Stunning visuals belie the structureless narrative and messed up message in what is an often beautiful yet brutal film that lives long in the memory.
Mulholland Drive Dir. David Lynch (2001)
Written and directed by the master of the dark and disturbing David Lynch, Mulholland Drive is one of his finest films, but don’t expect us to explain exactly what this strange piece of cinema means.
Reminiscent of a lucid dream we follow bright-eyed young actress Betty (a debuting Naomi Watts) as she travels to Hollywood, only to be caught up in a dark conspiracy involving ‘Rita’ a woman who was nearly murdered and now has amnesia due to a car crash.
Both women come together to solve the mystery of Rita’s true identity, encountering all kinds of oddities along their way and generally leaving audiences in awe, yet scratching their heads.
The film has the firm feel of noir, yet with the dial set all the way to surreal. With its unconventional narrative and skill to make the viewer feel like they’re in various altered states, this is one of Lynch’s most befuddling, yet brilliant works.
The Tree of Life – Dir Terrence Malick (2011)
Terrence Malick has been sporadically making gorgeous looking movies for almost 50 years, often ones that throw up big existential questions on life. Few more so than the philosophy drenched The Tree of Life, a film which includes some visually stunning scenes of the director’s interpretation of the universe being created.
The film examines the small matter of the meaning of existence on this planet, shown in part by following the life journey of the eldest son in a Texan family, Jack, from childhood innocence to disillusioned adult, where he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt),
It’s clear Jack is a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith.
It’s hard not to be bowled over by the film’s sheer beauty and ambition. It’s a metaphysical meditation that once watched hovers in the memory for a very long time.
What are the movies you think are the best arthouse films? Let us know in the comments.
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