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20 Great Poetic Films That Are Worth Your Time

19 May 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Hassan Husseini

7. Landscape Suicide (1987, James Benning)

Landscape Suicide

In this dual narrative docufiction, Benning turns the two testimonies of Bernadette Protti (a teenager who stabbed her class mate to death) and full fledged serial killer Ed Gein into an account of despondent Americana and social alienation that is brought to a lingering doubtful denouement. When the camera aims its focus diligently on an actress playing the part of Bernadette who is questioned by an unseen interrogator against a flat lifeless wall, we are lead into the world of contingent information.

The interviewer exhaustively questions Bernadette about every detail in long scenes that are made to look like they were violently and abruptly spliced together. The efficiency of the interview comes from the young fragile actress and her monotone vocalizing which so accurately embody an alienated teenage angst and emit a sense of poetic urgency to the scene’s pseudo-reality.

Later, we see a formal replica of the interview when an Ed Gein impersonator expounds a wavering testimony of his murders. The two rigorous interviews are cut with pop scenes of American consumerism and poetic images of snowy backwoods, white churches and a hunter disemboweling his game deer. Benning refuses traditional documentary rhetoric and replaces it with poetic amalgams of violent culture.


8. Colossal Youth (2006, Pedro Costa)

Colossal Youth

Costa’s slow sedating probe into a squalid Lisbon community on the brink of collapse is accented by his extensive takes and sparse settings. A Cape Verde immigrant plays a Cape Verde immigrant (Ventura), a mythological presence who walks through the poverty-stricken ramshackles of the ghetto, interacting with its Cape Verde refugees. He sits on a bed with his hefty gruff daughter.

The walls are bare-white. Scant light in the room. They both watch a wildlife show, occasionally staring off into space. The tranquil, but sometimes claustrophobic, ambience of Colossal Youth is an immersion into a soporific world of destitute life and an exercise of visual rigor and dead time.


9. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid)

meshes of the afternoon

Though Meshes is more a visual reproduction of the subconscious and its messy mechanisms than a modest exploration of the corporeal world, the temporal/spatial shifts, its fascination with everyday objects, and mirroring of events contribute to its sense of ethereal poetry that refuses to reduce the film to psychoanalytic interpretation.

Instead of unfolding and undisturbed events as with Costa or Barthas, Deren and Hammid construct an image-puzzle where events are constantly mutating and turning against themselves.

The film opens with the first recurrent and fetishistic object, a flower being descended as if from the sky by a synthetic-looking arm. The next image is the shadow of a woman moving against a wall (Deren’s). The film is already endowed with an ethereal and transparent feel through the slow smooth descension of the doll-like arm and the gliding of Deren’s shadow. A dark robed figure with a mirror for a face seems an elusive fascination of the woman’s.

Throughout the film, we are bombarded with close-ups of telephones, knives and keys, not serving exactly as plot devices but everyday objects that are made enigmatic through the woman’s vivid dream.


10. Gummo (1997, Harmony Korine)


A monument of trashy poetry, Gummo is a portrait vignette of unsanitary and weird characters in a small town in Ohio that was struck by a tornado years before. Two teenagers drift through the town on their bicycles. They collect cats to sell to a Chinese restaurant and spend their time sniffing glue. But the film transcends a narrowed narrative. It is rambling, disconnected and discursive; fascinated with psychotic Americana and its gross freak show of strange human behavior.

In an unsimulated scene, two brothers, in an extended scene, smack, hit and jab each other around for kicks. An albino explains her Patrick Swayze crush. And a widowed mother playfully threatens her son by aiming a gun to his head. Intercutting home-movies, grainy records of the townspeople and tornado aftermath bestow a documentary urgency to the episodes.

The shared nihilism of the town’s inhabitants is not far removed from the existential aliens of Bartha’s Koridorius, except Korine’s aliens are trailer trash with a penchant for the perverse that might feel more welcome in a John Waters film.


11. Fata Morgana (1971, Werner Herzog)

Fata Morgana

Playing up to the idea of equating the poetic with instinct and the immediately emotional, Herzog’s film is a pseudo-documentary whose pieces are constructed not on any preconceived and logical hierarchy but on feelings invoked in Herzog when he surveyed the mirages of the Sahara Desert. Feelings that he, admittedly, could not articulate.

The film was concocted from any material or scenes that Herzog found interesting in one way or another. A narration accompanying the episodes of mirages, sand dunes and African villages is also digressive and sometimes contradictory to the images.

A progression can be seen though in Fata Morgana when Herzog eventually shifts focus from alluring landscapes to more intimate and strange portraits. Particularly, an eccentric musical duo: an old lady with a solemn face and a goggled drummer with stiff body language that segues towards a Roy Andersson-esque absurdity away from the mythic grandiosity of Herzog’s earlier landscapes.


12. Window Water Baby Moving (1959, Stan Brakhage)

Window Water Baby Moving

Stan Brakhage films the birth of his first child, Myrrena. As his wife sits into a vat of water, we see the shadows of rectangular window frames visually dissecting her swollen belly. Her angelic face is hit by the reflected waves from the pool that surrounds her. She looks patient.

Brakhage visually accents the birth by creating an assaulting barrage of beautiful images and textures. Mixed feelings of repulsion and the sublime arise when we see quick abrupt images. Textures of a woman’s belly revolving across the screen. Her face in agony. A bloodied vulva. And finally a child’s head being reared out of the womb. Stan Brakhage creates a poetic visual kaleidoscope of life and birth.


13. Institute Benjamenta (1995, Stephen & Timothy Quay)

Institute Benjamenta

The Quay brothers come from a background of stop motion and puppet manipulation. In their debut feature film, they strove to show people as puppets and the strings attached. Sticking close to their trademark surrealism of Kafkaesque influence, the film is a mystifying experience. Jakob enrolls into the Institute Benjamenta, where they train men to be servants, and ultimately rob them of individuality.

Then on, the film slips into an elusive narrative smothered in hazy shadow and mystery. The institute is a limbo space between reality and dream. A circle of chalk drawn on a board can become an entrance into a deeper and more mysterious fantasy space. And light seems to constantly shift haunting the institute and breathing life into it.



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  • Bryton Cherrier

    Not even a single Terrence Malick film.

    • Shib Shankar Sikder

      Yes exactly, the cinema poet. Days of Heaven is a must in this list.

    • James Watrous

      My thoughts too!

  • DSteel

    Glad to see Tarkovsky in the list but no Bergman, Fellini, Jodorowsky or, as mentioned, Malick???

  • Dimitrije Stojanovic

    Movies on the list are good and interesting, but I think that every good movie is poetic. If it’s not poetic it isn’t worth a dime.

    • Strough

      Couldn’t agree more.

  • Rob

    How do you not have “The Crow” on here…!

  • Klaus Dannick

    I would have liked to see Koyaanisqatsi here.

    Interesting list of which I’ve only seen two entries: Walkabout (which I love) and Gummo (which I find repellent).

  • melvin-udall

    wong kar-wai … ` in the mood for love ` !

    • Strough

      The greatest ever!

    • Jake LaMotta

      I reall love Kar-Wai and In the Mood for Love is one of my 3-4 favorite films ever,but it wouldn’t fit with the other films on the list,cause it has a quite linear narrative.Maybe some other film of his(2046 or Ashes of Time maybe),would be better for such a list,but I can’t blame them for leaving Kar-Wai outside

  • DJ

    As already mentioned by fellow readers, I miss Theo Angelopoulos, Bergman, Lynch, Malick and Kieslowski on the list. Maybe more but no list is complete anyway 🙂

  • No Lynne Ramsay, Sofia Coppola, or Jane Campion?

  • Alex Nasaudean

    Good list!


    I am so happy to see “The house is black” in the list. Thank you.

  • Brian Lussier

    I understand how some are disappointed that Terrence Malick, Wong Kar-wai, Kenji Mizoguchi, Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman aren’t on the list (along with many others), but understand that the title of the list does not say the 20 “best”, merely 20 “great”. Therefore this list is subjective and entirely the taste of the author here.

  • nyugger

    Hi Hassan,
    where is your third list: ” 20
    Subversive Films Dealing With Sexual Perversion ” it’s disappeared from TOC.

  • HLLH

    Holy Mountain is also a great poetic film. Nice list.

  • Tural Mahmudov

    Fellini, Bergman, Malick?

  • Matthew Sutton

    I thought Perfumed Nightmare, Yellow Earth, Sans Soleil, Badlands, and maybe Woman of the Dunes would’ve made the list. Also Visitors of the Devil or Port of Shadows by Carne and maybe Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad would’ve been good additions.

    • Lucas Keating

      I also thought about Perfumed Nightmare! Great and unique film!

  • Bogdan Colpacci
  • Bogdan Colpacci
  • Schummell Hertz

    La Formula Secreta (The Secret Formula) de Ruben Gamez

  • Dave

    Despite missing several names that have already been mentioned, I would enourage people to check out Abderrahmane Sissako’s films Waiting For Happiness and Timbuktu. Both are extremely poetic films. Also for the sake of discussion I would add Charles Laughton’s Night of The Hunter as a film that is very poetic.

  • andrewklynsmith

    Bright Star by Jane Campion?

  • andrewklynsmith

    Snow Falling on Cedars by Scott Hicks?

  • Jugu Abraham

    A very good list, indeed. I would have added works of Malick, Kawase and Mehrjui.

  • La Double Vie de Veronique

  • luke

    McCabe & Mrs Miller
    Picnic at Hanging Rock
    Aguirre or Stroszek
    A Field in England (perhaps not conventionally poetic but some sequences in that film are like no other film)

  • lilyboosh

    Peter Weir’s The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock I think would qualify.

  • ne_me_sis

    Theodore Aggelopoulos??????????

  • Agustín Pardini

    Argentina film “El lado oscuro del corazón.” (The dark side of the heart) directed by Eliseo Zubiela. Highly poetic.

  • Jacob Lyon Goddard

    I was seconds away from typing WHAT ABOUT GUMMO!, before I realized I had skipped over the second page.

    Excluding any and all Malick films seems like an intentional decision, and I’d love to hear why.

  • The Wild One

    More like “Movies where there’s animal cruelty”.

    You sir don’t understand anything about Cinema.

  • Rijwan Karim

    Days of Heaven
    In the Mood for Love

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