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20 Great Movies That Break The Rules of Cinema

06 January 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Linus Tolliday

Inland Empire David Lynch

In the beginning decades of cinema, there was no set language, no decided poetry, and no formal structure or grammar in filmmaking: there were no rules. The Lumière brothers experimented with realism (“Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” (1895)), emotion (“Train Pulling into a Station” (1895)) and colour (“The Serpentine Dance” (1899)). Georges Méliès, another avant-garde filmmaker, trained his focus on narrative (“The Haunted Castle” (1896) and surrealism (“A Trip to the Moon” (1902)).

It was not until Edwin S. Porter’s 12 minute short, “The Great Train Robbery” (1903), that cinema starting developing its basics, such as cross-cutting and composite editing, which are now staples in filmmaking.

Once these rules were made, they became ingrained in filmmaking culture, championed by the likes of D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin and Sergei Eisenstein, all of whom developed cinematic tradition in many ways.

This list will be about the films by directors who rejected the ideals of their contemporaries by challenging the norm, or completely disregarding it.


20. Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

Man With a Movie Camera

The documentary’s documentary, the epitome of observational filmmaking, and sometimes regarded as the greatest achievement in the history of all documentaries, “Man With a Movie Camera” (1929) is no film to be taken lightly. Although director Dziga Vertov would otherwise make countless forgettable propaganda films, this effort midway through his career is not diminished.

With no sense of plot, no major characters or development, the film is a simple one: a documentation of a Russian city. Such a basic idea avoids the possibility of being weighed down by convoluted plotting or biased politics, and the result is a remarkable study of everyday life in 1929.

This exercise in social realism has never been repeated to quite the same level of success, though it is often imitated. This film breaks the rules of conventional cinema by barely qualifying as a film; rather, it is life in 1929 Russia, distilled on celluloid.


19. Oslo, August 31st (2011)


Rapidly gaining a cult following, acclaimed director Joachim Trier’s film is a realist study of drug addiction. Using a similar style to Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7” (1963), following the protagonist through a series of everyday encounters, the film compiles a comprehensive look at the disheveled character, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie).

The film is bleak, though insightful and profound. The contained style of the film, all set over the course of one day, has been experimented with and mastered by some arthouse directors, though this style often comes first to the substance of the film.

In “Oslo, August 31st” (2011), however, a transcendental take on drug addiction counterpoints the understated, minimalist structure of the film. Probing into the mind of Anders with such conviction and unexpected efficacy, whilst avoiding contrived morals and melodrama, is so delicately handled that it eschews mainstream conventions and feels completely natural throughout the whole film.


18. Bicycle Thieves (1948)


The term “Italian neorealism” is thrown around a lot when describing a lot of social realist films nowadays, as gritty cinematography and down-to-earth characters with realistic problems are commonplace in cinema. Never was the case preceding “Umberto D.” (1952) director Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (1946). The now heralded classic was a groundbreaking cinematic endeavour upon its release.

Unlike many of the films on this list, “Bicycle Thieves” was almost instantly appreciated as one of the all time greats, topping the prestigious Sight and Sound greatest film poll of 1952.


17. Jules et Jim (1962)

jules et jim (1962)

Sometimes labelled the masterpiece of François Truffaut’s extensive oeuvre, it is also his most paradoxical film. Utilising tropes that would come to define his films, “Jules et Jim” (1962) features an array of filmmaking techniques that give the film a light quality, such as montage, narration and sentimental sequences fuelled by cheerful music.

Despite these, the dialogue and character relationships strike the right balance to propound a deep melancholy in the story. The film is made like a shallow romantic comedy, but achieves deep emotional resonance.

“Jules et Jim” is the story of the friendship between two young adults, Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre), and their emotional turmoil when presented with a ménage à trois of dissatisfying proportions. Neither of them want to share Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), though neither of them is enough on their own to hold the interest of the turbulent Catherine. As well as using conflicting styles of filmmaking, the film was sexually transgressive at the time, challenging and changing cinema forever.


16. The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

The Sweet Hereafter

Reverse-chronology became big after Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2000), bringing the plot device to the fore of the film. In “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), however, the reverse-chronological structure of the film is seamless and so natural that it is near unnoticeable.

The film finds a small town rocked by a harrowing accident in the form of a school bus crash. The members of a once tight knit community are at odds with each other, some blaming the bus driver, others faulting the weather. The community is partly pulled closer together, and partly torn into bitter disarray, arriving at an uncertain conclusion.

Directed by Atom Egoyan, this Canadian film features standout performances from Sarah Polley and Ian Holm as tragic and conflicted characters. The depth of their inner conflicts are never quite revealed until the film’s finale, which is chronologically the beginning of the story. “The Sweet Hereafter” avoids the potential confusion that this plot structure could collapse into, displaying the deftness of Egoyan’s direction.


15. Polyester (1981)


Any film that automatically renders the image of the infamous “Scratch-n-sniff” cards ought to be recognised in a list like this. To be entirely honest, John Waters’s entire oeuvre could compile this list, though “Polyester” (1981) is his most fully realised. Waters has made a career out of eschewing convention, and this film is his least conventional yet.

The film finds a housewife, Francine Fishpaw, played by Waters regular Divine, as she uncovers her pornographer husband’s multiple affairs, her teenage daughter’s pregnancy, and the growing suspicion of her foot-fetishist son’s involvement in the recent crime spree centred on breaking the feet of local women.

Fishpaw’s world is crumbling amongst colourful, creative and repugnant characters. Loaded with criminals and disrepute, Waters manages to create real sympathy for Fishpaw, somehow creating real, honest emotions in the most artificial of worlds.



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  • Hugo Silva

    Even “Inherent Vice” being a great movie, is actually a film adaptation of a novel by Thomas Pynchon with the same name. And the picture of “Inland Empire” is a frame from “Rabbits” also by David Lynch. (which is also a great piece of art).
    Anyway, thank you for this list!

  • christopherchapman

    Last Year in Marienbad not on the list? The 360º mirror scene, with no camera reflections, is worth mention, alone.

  • cinemaomyheart

    I mean every great film in one way or the other break some rules, if you include every worthy mention this list you can put like 1000 movies

  • Camilo

    If a film is bizarre, strange or unconventional doesn’t mean it is breaking the rules of filmmaking

    • Thundercleese

      true true, and they claim they are 20 great movies that break the rules.
      looks to me that they are 20 of the crappiest movies ever made.
      no rules broken. just made poorly,

      • Joao Ribeiro

        Wtf ? Tarkovsky, bergman, lynch, just to name a few and you say poorly made ? What movies do you like ?

  • Rudi

    You can come up with a thousand reasons why Inherent Vice is special, but when a comedy isn’t funny at all it’s just a bad movie.

  • Noah Garner

    Come on! No L’Avventura? Antonioni created a new film grammar all together!

  • lando

    I think if Inherent vice is a homage to something it’s The long goodbye by Altman (one of PTA most notable influences) which is also a novel by Raymond Chandler. Maybe Pynchon had that influence in mind, but I haven’t read the book.
    Also I agree with L’Avventura.
    I’ll add The color of the pomegranates by Parajanov

    Weird list dude, but there’s great films.

  • Vincenzo Politi

    Strange: you cite Raymond Chandler’s novels when speaking about Inherent Vice, without even mentioning Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same title upon which the movie is actually based!

  • Tyler Grey

    There is no Godard on this list. One could make a case for Breathless, Vivre Sa Vie, Contempt, Masculin Feminin, and Goodbye to Language to name a few.

    • Joe Montoto

      Alphaville??? Jump cuts were practically defined by it!

  • Florian Popescu

    What about Samsara?

  • Klaus Dannick

    Psycho is probably the most famous cinematic rule-breaker, especially due to its high-profile, curiously absent from this list, for the early killing-off of an identification figure, the (replaced) audience-identification with the film’s villain, and an almost documentary-style closure technique.

    Also curiously absent are Godard’s Breathless and, arguably, Citizen Kane. Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula also broke rules in US cinema for its refusal to rationalize the supernatural elements of the story.

  • More Fries

    Watch the David Lynch documentary, LYNCH (one), that was shot during the making of Inland Empire. It is not only more interesting than Inland Empire, it shows that Lynch doesn’t have any faith that Inland Empire will even be completed. It looks like the production was a total mess. Lynch was full of uncertainty and anxiety while shooting it.

  • Satyaki Ray

    Very happy to see Persona as number 1. But I miss Last Year At Marienbad here. Solipsism translated into Cinema. Pathbreaking, to say the least.

  • The Holy Mountain, Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist

  • Maria Spelleri

    The first paragraph of Agnes Varda refers to Varda as “he”! Come on, please! It’s hard enough to be a woman in the film world.

  • lauramoreaux

    Surprised there’s not ” A bout de souffle ” by J-L Godard

  • Joe Montoto

    Alphaville? Jump cuts were practically defined by it.

  • Vincent Galiano

    Break the rules? Why being so rigid? Why not just talking about originalty, creativity? The more lists show up on that website the more stupid they are. it was fun, but not these lists always look like being written by a 15 years old Avengers fan… And they are ALWAYS incomplete of course.

  • Michel Duthin

    You missed Marcel Hanoun’s “Une Simple Histoire ” (