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15 Great Movies That Push The Boundaries Of Cinematic Language

28 July 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by José Lizárraga

The Holy Mountain

This list is about exploring films that aim to push the boundaries of cinema. It serves as an introduction to the concept of visual narration in film.

 

15. Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)

only-god-forgives-ryan-gosling

Combine elements of the western and gangster genres and put them inside Bangkok, which looks like a city with a sci-fi background. Then, develop characters while unfolding a story without dialogue or a voice-over narrative. Add no background stories whatsoever, as that isn’t what really matters in this film.

“Only God Forgives” plays like an avant-garde exercise on visual drama, and through the dramatic and violent expression of elements and forms on the screen, the film creates the feeling of a myth. It’s like planting a seed in the ground and having it gardened and growing as the public watches it.

This film is about having control over the uncontrollable. It is about living with that thing that transcends one’s self. Maybe “Only God Forgives” is about forgiving one’s self for whatever one may have done. The visual style is the most important tool here, in order to cinematically tell the story as it needs to be told. This is why the use of dialogue is reduced to a minimum.

 

14. Angst (Gerard Karlg, 1983)

Angst

A moving tree is represented by a crane shot. There is an odd conceit on the part of the filmmakers who decided to shoot the life of a serial killer by mostly observing the character from above. The sense of dread and solitude is more significant once the character has been released from jail. Inside the iron bars and concrete walls, it feels like being inside a comfortable egg, with a melodic and harmonious song generating a mood of poetic calm.

The language here is technical but it feels natural and grounded. It is filmed in such a way that the viewer is almost unaware of the technique. It does not bother but rather accelerates the experience, the horrifying notion of the passing of time. There is no story but a representation of moments within a single day. The film feels like a reality TV show or a found footage movie, yet it’s neither of those. This movie shows you how to use the camera in a unique way.

 

13. The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1997)

The End of Evangelion

This film references the television series, “Neon Genesis Evangelion”. Sometimes stories need to be seen from the beginning; they actually demand that the spectator watch the back story, to know the situations that concern the characters. This movie continues the original story that somehow doesn’t have much to do with the original ending, as the original series was canceled.

The movie works quite well on its own terms and is separate from the TV series in every way possible. It works if one just watches this movie and totally avoids the series. However, it may be better to have seen the series, since one may want to watch the series for the first time or watch it again. There are elements of a live-action feature film, such as people being filmed. The walls have been breached and the ending is just a sorrowful beginning, filled with black humor.

The pace of the story is perfect with every character having their moments, and they all are well drawn. The visual narrative excels, the cinematic construction of every scene is well paced, and there is always time for contemplation. Here, the use of the visual moving language that is cinema hits the bar, using every strength of its creators to the limit.

 

12. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

The Fountain

Only a single lifetime is needed to experience so many emotions. A person must find who they are and transcend the limits of the ego, go outside of the bubble that contains the self, and be released from the pain of attachment to what is known.

The devastating nature of death is the ultimate ecstasy, more so when it is accurately translated to the language of cinema. Just for the sake of creating visual poetry that is beautifully and convolutedly shown, nothing is left out. Everything that needs to be seen is there on the screen.

There is a mathematical precision to the whole look of this film and the way it was edited. The cinematic flow feels totally clinical, but it also feels inspired by mythology. The creators of this movie were aware that combining elements as diverse as mythology and science into one entity can create a successful piece of filmmaking art, though highly contradictory in its form and structure. Every change of pace and time frame feels out of context, but it works.

 

11. Tale of Tales (Yuryi Norshteyn, 1979)

The Tale of Tales (1979)

War is a never-ending tale of sadness and madness in contrast with beautiful childhood memories, such as big bulls with big horns, grey wolves, dance clubs, cars, trees, and family picnics outside on the open field in time for the setting sun.

Capturing the essence of folklore is the most important aspect of this film and the use of several forms of animation, specifically that of stop-motion, gives a dramatic and relevant feel to the wartime climate.

This 30-minute animated film juxtaposes moving images connected by a feeling of dread, loss, and kindling memories, which should be remembered in an imaginative and positive light in the face of the negativity of war and death.

In this movie, the camera hardly moves. At times it captures different scenes in different times and moments that look just like paintings, cut in time to background music. This animated short film proves that animation has an unknown universe that has yet to be explored.

 

10. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)

Enter the Void

This movie is based on “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”, or “Bardo Thodol”. It is actually a very loose adaptation, about a person unaware that he will die shortly while reading the book, without finishing it. The movie plays with the audience, going very slowly and repetitively.

It works like a stroboscopic effect of continuous movements connected to each other and going back to the past only to return to the present without substance, and through POV shots, we can experience what the person is “living” in his afterlife. The characters who are still alive seem more dead than the dead. It feels like a pictorial representation of memories of the character, who needs to move away from them.

The reason for this film’s existence here is the experience that can only be achieved through cinema. One can forget about how the scenes are cut, or even the technical achievement of the production. The most important part is the immersion of the viewer through the adventure into limbo, a phantasmagorical adventure into the netherworld as told in a masterful and respectful way, in the only way possible it could have been told: through the eyes of a camera.

 

9. Angel’s Egg (Mamoru Oshii, 1985)

Angel's Egg

This film is set in an apocalyptic otherworldly aftermath, based on the concept of Noah’s Ark, in which a bird that was sent to look for ground never came back. The picture takes a minimalistic approach to tell the story. The visuals include baroque scenery, fish sculptures all around, fishermen, a wandering man holding something that looks like a cross, and a little girl who very carefully tends to an egg inside her clothes.

There is no need for assumptions or interpretations, but one can praise the dialogue. There are biblical references, but it goes beyond that. It seems as though the dialogue and the plot are used to represent the world, not symbols nor allegorical references. They show a world turned into a city, an island, a place where a boat stays like a relic, intact like a black sculpture, a static shadow with no definitions or details.

The virtues of the film include the smoothness of the cinematography, with every cut meticulously chosen. The storyline itself is a presentation of the world, the travels of the two characters existing in a fantasy landscape. The sound design highlights a profound musical selection in helping to conjure a cinematic achievement often achieved only by some of the most magical live-action movies ever made.

 

 

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  • Kalli Z

    is the first pic in the article from a film?

    • Yes, it’s from Persona.

      • Kalli Z

        perfect thanks!

  • Eric Newman

    I’ve been dying to see On The Silver Globe but I can’t find it anywhere.

  • Alberto Rey Pérez

    I just watched On the silver globe. It is a masterpiece. And actually the last Mad Max film is really under the influence of this one, which is great!

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      I know is a masterpiece. I saw it again very recently too. As for the Mad Max reference I didn’t know about that. But I remember watching Fury Road and it made me want to go back and see On The Silver Globe once again.

  • Stephus

    Loved this list. I was surprised to see evangelism and angel’s egg here but I do agree with that both are awesome

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      Thank you for that.

  • Rus Archer

    enter the void has nothing to do with the tibetan book of the dead other than the book showing up in the shot
    with the exception of the psychedelic shots (which look nothing like the dmt trips they supposedly reference), the movie = mega yawnfest

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      Ok. Hopefully I made the point that I wanted to make. The character of Oscar doesn’t even finished reading it and is loosely based on the book. I even read the book though. And I know the book isn’t like the movie at all.

  • mokiszin

    only god forgives on the same list with 8 1/2, the holy mountain, man with a movie camera and persona?!?!

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      And you know what. I was even considering putting The Matrix Revolutions and Southland Tales on it as well.

      • Ricardo Lazaro

        Epic answer, it would have been lots of fun in the commenting section if you would have indeed put southland tales (though i’m not sure if you are serious or sarcastic, or a bit of both. Works for me in any way). Also, great list, looking forward to see tale of tales, thanks for it.

        • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

          Actually here are the reviews of those two films. read them here if you want.

          Ok, regarding those two films well.

          First. Matrix Revolutions.

          The
          film itself plays like a very straighforward action piece, also a
          continuation of Reloaded, which of course that the case, but what is
          interesting about it are the unexplained details, and in words of Lana
          Wachowski: “We wanted Reloaded to be desconstructive and Revolutions
          ambiguous”, maybe she meant for example the scenes of Neo’s visions of
          The Desert of the Real within The Machine City, then his powers fully
          develope without detailed explanation, then there is the Deus Ex Machina
          (God Machine), meaning, “¿What is that thing with a baby face?” “¿Why
          is it there?”, ¿Right?.

          So now that those cards have been
          put on the table, the reason as of why this film in particular is trying
          to accomplish something well beyond the boundaries of Cinematic
          Language resides on the presentation of the story, how this unexplained
          things work on the plot and why it wasn’t actually very necessary to try
          to fully understand them.

          Theories are that is has to do with the Directors faith on the elements at work, some say that it was just laizy writing, (which could be the truth),
          and also there is the explanation the Oracle gave Neo about his new
          found powers, why she didn’t tell him about Zion, The Architect and the
          Ones before him, why she didn’t tell him the “Truth”, of course they use
          once again the “Know Thyself” frase, and in this part going back to the
          same place in The Matrix (1999) in the trilogy as a whole, Revolutions
          has the advantage to work as an interactive film, not that it is highly
          complicated but whishes for the audience to get involve beyond the
          unexplaided ambiguous details.

          Is not about destroying the
          machines for good, let’s just remember scenes with Sati and her parents,
          the deal Neo makes with the God Machine, and how he is left untoched
          after the deal is done. It is about going through a new phase, going to
          the next moment, a change.

          That is why what The Oracle says
          to the Architech when he said to her “You played out a very dangerous
          game”, she only says, “Change always is”. Then to give a full circled
          close of what could be a totally open ending, before the light of a new
          sun, and a new day coming, Seraphs says to her, “Did you always know?”,
          she just says “Oh no, no I didn’t, but I believed, I believed”, she
          smiles.

          This film is not asking the audience to resolve
          the questions but invites them to experience what have been seen, is a
          very allegorical film concerning aspects well beyond religion and
          philosophy, but at the most it works as a film that points out that the
          consecuenses of personal choices sometimes, or always, affects others,
          and when you have a real and honest idea of what you want and need to do
          going beyond to unknown territory, sometimes, maybe just a few times it
          could give positive results no matter how long they will last.

          Yes,
          this film has many flaws, and is very obvious why many didn’t like them
          and hated the Directors Duo for what they did with them, specially
          Revolutions, and if they instead of shooting back to back the sequels,
          have made them with a 3 year of release from movie to movie, maybe it
          could have been more well thought, but for a reason they did choose to
          do it that way , actually they wanted the films to be released a week or
          a month apart, because based on the end results it seems like they
          wrote those scripts using the surrealist automatism way. Who knows.

          And
          as of why, Matrix Revolutions was the less succesful of The Matrix
          Trilogy in terms of box office and critical reception, is part of
          another topic, however it is the most succesful in terms of achieving
          what The Wachowskys probably wanted for the audience and fans of the
          Series, to trust their own interpretations regardles of what the real
          meaning of the films are. I hope is like that. At the end everything is
          on the screen.

          2nd. Southland Tales.

          After
          the fantastic debut that is Donnie Darko, everyone was expecting the
          new cinematic adventure of film director Richard Kelly, and in 2006 at
          the Cannes Film Festival, peoples prayers were finally answered.
          Although the outcome ended up being nothing as expected. The film got
          one of the lowest ratings ever, many “boos” at the Cannes Festival and
          what happened next, almost 20 minutes were cut out of the film and “new
          & better” special effects were added.

          For whateve
          reasons, Mr. Kelly during production or post-production, even before,
          maybe, in and after the premiere of the film at Cannes, was working on
          three Graphic Novel prequels that fully explains many details that are
          very diluted or nonexistent on the film, that is one of the main
          problems of the film itself. The Edited Cut of the film released
          worlwide in cinemas uses elements from the Graphic Novels which weren’t
          include at the Cannes Version.

          But the movie excels
          not for its marvelous visuals or stunning soundtrack, but because of its
          concept, trascending plot, character development, and even a more
          linear and easy to understand plot, because as of those who have already
          seen the movie, either of the two versions knows it is hard to follow,
          although after taking the time to read the Graphic Novels is easier to
          grasp the plot and its floating ideas.

          There are so
          many ideas and Kelly wanted to say so many things that the flick misses
          the mark. Sometimes the movie felt like as if Kelly was going to let
          himself go of everything, of compromise, not with the producers or the
          actors or whomever he was collaborating, but with himself. The movie
          felt like the artist behind the monumental task of creating of this
          Modern Day Sci-Fi piece was strulling to achieve freedom through the use
          of the black comedy genre.

          The movie doesn’t take
          itself too serious, but takes very seriously its ideas, and through the
          use of comedy in a very insightful, bright, unique and probably close to
          be original way, Kelly created a movie film with inmense flaws but a
          Highly rewarding experience.

          The film itself isn’t
          boring, but is tedious at times, because you absolutely want to know
          what really is happening. It seems that Kelly himself was trying to
          figure out everything at the time he was writing it. Sadly, its
          adventurous execution from the beginning of the scriptwriting process
          through the production and final version of the film, became a bomb, nor
          with critics nor fans or even at the box office was a success in any
          way.

          What I mean is, Cinema is a very hard and
          expensive medium, and if you really care about the possibilities of its
          expression, if you are truly passionate about it, sometimes its about
          doing wrongs instead of rights, but this movie is right in all its ways
          since its conception.

          Some directors are financialy
          succesful, but not with the critics, some with the critis but not with
          the box office. But the thing is, that in this medium as in any other
          Job, if you invest, at the very least you need to recover the inversion.
          Sometimes you get back the same amount of money, sometimes more, but
          sometimes nothing near even the 10%.

          The main struggle is that Kelly was still working on the script of the Graphic Novels, way after the Movie was finally edited.

          Without
          a doubt, the Cannes Version is the most regarding, it does not matter
          that the Edited shorter version has concepts of the Graphic Novels in
          it. The Cannes Version is way more effective and a exquisite take on
          comedy. There is passion all over it. It felt like Kelly was delirating,
          working against an invisible timming clock somehow.

          Maybe
          if the Graphic Novels were created at the same time as the movie
          script, maybe if Kelly was given more money to simultaneously produce
          all his Southland Tales into one big epic american movie, it could have
          being different, but the Graphic Novels are there and they work really
          really well with the Cannes Version.

          It could have
          being great if the Graphic Novels were filmed just like the movie which
          consist of the last 3 chapters of the 6 chapters including the Graphic
          Novels.

          The movie (Cannes Version) is outstanding to
          see nowadays, is aging so well. Without explaining anything about the
          movie, is possible to see, Southland Tales was breaking new ground, like
          trying to open life to another dimension.

          Hey remember Donnie Darko couldn’t trascend that barrier, however Roland and Ronald Tarverner achieved the impossible finally.

          Out
          there are many more films that could push the boundaries of Cinematic
          Language way better than all the films mentioned on this list, of course
          this is just based on a limited and personal opinion, considering the
          tiny knowledge I have on Film history.

          By all means. Thank you. Cheers.

          • Ricardo Lazaro

            Nice reviews, I think it’s refreshing the perspective you put on revolutions, most people see it as a fail atempt to close the story without realizing all the great stuff hidden behind concepts. About Richard Kelly I admire him a lot as a screenplayer, his movies push a lot of stuff (though i have my reserves with the box), but I think that as a director he limits the potential that his films have, just my opinion.

            It’s good to see some lists in the site that doesn´t try to please the readers, I mean you could have put Goddard, Resnais or heck, even Christopher Nolan and people would have loved this list, so, thanks for the strong perspective. Also, is nice that you care to respond the comments.

          • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

            By all means. Thank you for being interested and for the feedback of course. Cheers. Regards.

  • Jean-Philippe Morin

    No Godard in the list = useless list…

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      I know is useless. Do you know if Godard considered Vertov any kind of inspiring figure, with all the jump-cuts and stuff on Man with a Movie camera? Thank you for your comments. I know what you mean, though.

      • rahv

        He was a huge fan of Vertov, and most definitely influenced by his work. Going as far as to create a film collective called the Dziga Vertov Group along with Jean-Pierre Gorin. You can read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dziga_Vertov_Group

        • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

          Amazing. Hahaha. This is nuts and funny and awesome. Cheers.

    • HLLH

      what Godard movie is on the level of 2001, or even “pushes” the boundaries of cinematic language? He’s too overestimated.

    • Javed Khatri

      200% agreed

  • rahv

    No Resnais or Antonioni? Seriously? Hiroshima mon amour and L’avventura pretty much created a new cinematic language that practically kickstarted the post-modernism era in european 60’s cinema and its influence lingers to this day. Agree about Godard as well, good list, but I can’t believe you wouldn’t mention at least a film by any of this three directors.

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      I know. You want Godard but there is Man with a Movie Camera. I wanted to give balance to it. That’s all. I wish I could have put more movies. And I agree that your comment is very valuable because you are writing with a lot of sense.

      • rahv

        Great list nevertheless, good work man 🙂

        • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

          Thank you, rahv. I do really appreaciate your feedback. Regards.

  • bedsbedsbeds

    lmao what a trainwreck of an article

    “The movie works pretty well on its own terms and is separate from the series in every way possible. It works just watch this movie and totally avoid the
    series. However, it may be better to have seen the series since one may
    want to watch the series for the first time or watch it again. There are
    elements of a live-action feature film, such as people being filmed.
    The walls have been breached and the ending is just a sorrowful and
    black humorous beginning.”

    Top notch stuff.

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      Well is The end is a trainwreck on itself. Is about going back and forth. You don’t need to watch the series to watch The End but you should watch it or avoid it. Whatever fits better the person. That’s why I write it. And thank you for saying what I wrote is top-notch stuff although I know you are being sarcastic. Cheers for commenting though.

      • Black

        Dude, come on lol. Reread that segment of your article and tell me how someone would not go:

        • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

          I know. I hope to get better at writing. I saw that movie very recently and yes indeed myself I was like that too at some moment. I don’t know why I didn’t do a more constrained re-read of that part. Thank you for the feedback. Cheers.

          • Hey man I was being harsh, sorry. The list is great, It just feels like maybe you’re out of your comfort zone writing english.

          • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

            I know, man. Thank you.

          • Your command of English far exceeds my command of Spanish or Portuguese, plus the article made me think… so, well done you .

          • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

            Thank you. It would be great to know in which way it made you think. Regards.

  • Nejc Kovač

    Tale of tales <3 <3 <3

  • palefire

    What a strange list. While some of these films do push the boundaries of cinematic language, some clearly do not. God Only Forgives? The Fountain? Yet, you leave out Méliès, Porter, Gance, Resnais, Godard, Malick, and many others are missing.

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      There is also The End of Evangelion and Angel’s Egg being anime, animation from Japan. Also I was contemplating to put on the list The Matrix Revolutions and Southland Tales. Indeed I admit you are right regarding of what you mean. I think it would have been just too academic and ortodox to do that, specially because I have educated myself. And I haven’t seen any film of Abel Gance or even Porter. Thank you for your consideration.

      • palefire

        I’d change the title. Because films like the two mentioned above don’t add anything new to the language of film. And you seldom talk about it in your write-ups for any of the films you listed.

        • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

          According to your own opinion. But the process of influencing other films are as diverses as they come. Indeed The End of Evangelion is very influential as is Angel’s Egg, at least on Mamoru Oshii’s own filmography.

          • palefire

            But that is influence, not film language. Which is one of the few objective topics with regards to cinema. Keeping with my previous two examples, there is nothing unique (while granted they maybe unique films) in terms of film language. I might let you squeeze in some of the effects in The Fountain, but even that is using previous film language in order to tell its story. That isn’t putting two separate shots together for the first time ever. It isn’t the invention of cross-cutting.

          • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

            The films are pushing the boundaries, not breaking them.

          • palefire

            I don’t see either of those two films pushing any film language boundaries. I see them borrowing ideas that came 50 years prior.

            Hell, maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see you making any claims in your write-ups above to convince me otherwise. For instance, with God Only Forgive, you flirt with a few ideas on film language, but you never really talk about any. What boundaries did it push?You talk about lack of dialogue and visual flourishes, but you don’t comment on what specific film language it is pushing the boundaries of.

          • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

            Cinematic Language is not literature, nor painting nor photograph nor animation nor comic-book language. Is Live-Action.

          • palefire

            I never made any of those claims.

          • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

            That’s why in that regard those film try. As for Only God Forgives and The Fountain the directors do try to bring something else out of a well known field. As for your comment, actually you made a great point. Is so cool to get to think about it. Thank you. Really.

          • Мајк Тајсон

            You are fuckin stupid maaan, give it a break asshole ! The Fountain does push the boundaries, like no one film before and stfu !

  • Noah Garner

    L’Avventura

  • Christo Kj

    I’d also put Amer and/or The strange color of your body’s tears by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. The films are a homage to the Gialo films, but in my opinion they take to another level. I would probably also add Beyond the Black Rainbow by Panos Cosmatos

  • Guillermo Reyes

    The Mirror should be on the list

  • Jules F. Melo Borges

    For some of these, “try to” is more suitable.