The 25 Most Intelligent Movies of All Time

18. Lights in the Dusk (2006, Aki Kaurismäki)

Lights in the Dusk_

Laitakaupungin valot is a playful Bressonian ode to the power of female sexuality. The beautiful porcelain-like Maria Järvenhelmi plays a woman (Mirja) associated with a criminal gang using the mere potential promise of companionship to seduce a naïve loner (she abruptly leaves when he tries to put his arms around her, yet he desperately-continues to pursue her), so desperate as to watch her dancing with other men yet not caring, planting evidence to frame him for her gang’s crimes. Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) notices her hiding the evidence yet in his desperation, does nothing to stop her and lets himself be arrest-ed.


19. Ghost World (2001, Terry Zwigoff)

“[O]ne of the best films of the last ten years. Terry Zwigoff not only creates a movie without Hollywood visionary depths and melodramatic intensities, [he] doesn’t nostalgically long for such things and regret their unavailability[, h]e creates a world without spiritual peaks and valleys, [romantic] passions[, s]entimental mood music orchestrations or tight close-ups[, b]ut he doesn’t get into a funk about it[, h]e accepts it[, t]hat’s life[, h]e and his characters accept what is [and] isn’t and go on from there[, h]is characters are flawed [but] rather than condemning them for not being white horse heroes [like Hollywood], Zwigoff appreciates them[, l]oves them for what they are. Ghost World leaves Hollywood be-hind without looking back. Zwigoff is not nostalgic for heroes and sentiment and ide-als[, h]e accepts and affirms rather than regrets and bemoans[, Hollywood] is as flat as a cartoon[, its] suffus[ion] with nostalgia for some golden age when everybody lived in one big happy family [is] an adolescent belief[, t]here never was, there never could be, such a time. [Hollywood’s] characters are locked in states of arrested develop-ment[, l]ike they never got over their pre-teen years[, e]nough already about not being loved[, d]ysfunctional families[, h]ow much fun it was when you and your friends could all hang out together[, l]et your characters grow up[, l]et go of the past[, g]et over their childhood lack of love[, t]heir parents’s divorce[, t]here’s life after high school[, m]ake a movie about that[.] [Hollywood] has theses[, m]ake[s] points[, c]haracters represent generalized views and ideas[, c]ritics [love] abstract movies[, t]hey make their jobs easy[, f]ilms that originate in ideas can be translated back into ideas with almost nothing lost[, a]re are eminently discussible[.]” Thusly succinctly summarized this masterpiece of criticizing Hollywood/square/middle-class/petite-bourgeoisie conventions/formulas/dogmas Ray Carney.

Critic Howard Hampton from his Criterion Collection DVD insert: “[t]he two eighteen-year-olds at the off-center of Ghost World, the artsy-kitschy Enid (Thora Birch, profoundly and riotously engaged with disengagement) and her implacably sullen coconspirator since childhood Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, a smirking no sign), are a match made in mutual disgust [at] strip-mall, masscult surroundings.” One is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip that “[i]t is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances[, t]he true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”[3]


20. Virgin Mountain (2015, Dagur Kári)

Virgin Mountain

Fúsi follows an obese and social-ly-awkward loner (frequently mistaken for a pederast and violently-harassed by his macho coworkers and neighbors) who works as ground-staff personnel-man at an Ice-landic airport (Gunnar Jónsson) enrolled by his parents, as a birthday-present for his forty-second birthday (that he is less-than-willing-to-accept) in a dance class. There he meets an average/mediocre-looking woman named Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) who turns out to be a depressive-and-dysfunctional mess, hiding her low-status job as a garbage-collector.

Despite Fúsi’s big heart and best intentions in trying to help her overcome her predicaments and find some meaning and happiness in her life, she ends up dumping/rejecting him as not being up to her high standards. An intelligent look at the battle-of-the-sexes, Virgin Mountain may tell where the “incel” movement came from.


21. Helicopter String Quartet (1996, Frank Scheffer)


A documentary fol-lowing the preparations for and showcasing a performance of experimental/avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett, with merely 23 votes on IMDb, this film is a must-watch for any aspiring/prospective filmmaker and/or critic.

There was once a time in which the atonal compositions of Stockhausen (and Alban Berg, John Cage, John Zorn, Iannis Xenakis, Durkó Zsolt, Hermann Nitsch, Bozay Attila, etc., maybe even e.g. Sergei Prokofiev, Leoš Janáček, Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Carl Orff, José Torregrosa, Ricardo Fernández de Latorre, Ariel Ramírez, or Dmitri Shostakovich for some, not to mention jazz giants like Robert Wyatt, Pink Floyd, Gilad Atzmon, Ros Stephen, etc.) were considered “un-musical” and hence lacking in artistic merit even by most high-brow music critics.

Their equiva-lents amongst art and literary critics once called e.g. James Joyce’s, Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s, Günter Grass’s, or Vladimir Nabokov’s work “un-literary” for its eschewal of plot and storytelling and e.g. Jackson Pollock’s or Salvador Dalí’s work “un-painterly” for its eschewal of representation and prettiness. Those days are thankfully largely-gone as it is now understood that art, like science, is primarily about experi-menting and exploration rather than sheepishly-following dogmatic formulas and mindless automatic conventions.

There is no “correct” way to compose a sympho-ny/opera, tonality, melody, and harmony are just-as-musical as atonality and a nega-tion of melody and harmony, just as there is no “correct” way to render a painting or to write a poem/novel. Stockhausen is as musical as Hector Berlioz or Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Joyce is as literary as John Milton, Virgil, Nikolai Gogol, or Herman Melville. Not so in cinema culture, unfortunately. Not yet, anyway.

The considerable majority of film journalists (“critics”) insist that Hollywood-style “cinematic gaze, lan-guage, expression, and devices” shortcuts-to-understanding, through which camera movements/positions and editing-tricks/techniques, easily-decodable within two sec-onds even by the most unsophisticated viewers and which do not end with teaching the audience anything about life and fellow human-beings, are the only way to go. They become extremely-angry at the sight of “talky/uncinematic merely-filmed-literature/theatre” films, in which the focus is on emotions and acting and the camera is merely a functional recording-device, necessitating the hard work on the viewers’s part with the actors’s bodily/physical, facial, tonal/emotive, and vocal/verbal shits-and-turns in order to experience their own and the characters’s complex emotional states.

As a young and commercially-focused art-form, 99.95% of whose products being ar-tistically-worthless, this is somewhat-expected, though no-less-disappointing. Though one must query. When will cinema’s much-reviled equivalents of Stockhausen – Lars von Trier, John Cassavetes, Tom Noonan, Mike Leigh, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Michal Bat-Adams, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Costa, Helma Sanders-Brahms, Margarethe von Trotta, Marian Dora Botulino, Jørgen Leth, Morten Arnfred, etc. – who experiment and leave Hollywood conventions behind, finally receive their due respect and stop being derisively called “uncinematic?”

When will film culture finally grow-up, leave the reptilian comic-book fight-or-flight/button-pushing thriller-ish “plots/”“storytelling” approach, “pretty pictures,” adolescent/macho/dudebro “cin-ematic gaze, language, expression, and devices,” “identification,” etc. behind, under-standing that if there is no “correct” way to write a poem/novel, draw a painting, or compose a symphony/opera, then there is no “correct” one to direct a film either? When will we finally look back in embarrassment at IMDb’s Top 250 page and even supposedly more high-brow lists? Am I too optimistic?


22. Thelma (2017, Joachim Trier)


Another ode to a girl’s discovery of the burgeoning power of female sexuality. A Norwegian student (Eili Harboe, looking like she came from a Helmut Newton photograph) with fundamentalist parents moves to Oslo in order to attend university. She falls in love with another girl (Kaya Wilkins). The whole thing triggers inexplicable powers and reveals dark family secrets.


23. Poétique du cerveau (2015, Nurith Aviv)

Israeli documentary filmmaker Nurith Aviv, the world’s first female cinematographer, makes films bridg-ing the gap between science and the arts. The original French-language title means “poetics of the brain” and this film, which is much more moving and poetic than it may sound like at first glance, combines childhood photos from Aviv’s family album, evoking memories and reflections, with her encounters with researches in neuroscience.


24. Under the Pavement Lies the Strand (1975, Helma Sanders-Brahms)

Under the Pavement Lies the Strand (1975)

Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand, little-known (with only 46 votes on IMDb, it surely is criminally-underrated and underseen!) Neuer Deutscher Film/New German Cinema filmmaker Helma Sanders-Brahms’s debut feature masterpiece, is a semi-autobiographical (like most of her films) gem not to be missed.

Based on Sanders-Brahms’s own involvement in Germany’s 1960s-counterculture-movement, it is a ma-ture and self-reflexive “talky/non-cinematic merely-filmed-literature/theatre without any utilization of cinematic gaze, devices, expression, or language” (i.e. emotionally-profound and complex, dealing with confusing-and-bewildering emotions) look into the misplaced/displaced utopian-juvenile/adolescent/youthful idealism/rebelliousness and difficulty realigning reality with ideological-and-political expectations/ideals.

Grischa (Grischa Huber) and Heinrich (Heinrich Giskes) are radicals-turned-actors (grappling with growing insignificance in the demands of adulthood), locked in a re-hearsal hall one night. She will dump her husband and sleep with Heinrich, who ups-the-ante by suggesting they have a child. She starts a project interviewing working mothers (about abortion), delving into their sexual histories. Heinrich only turns to sulking when she spends evenings with the project, childishly, though she took him seriously, mistakenly.

Someone recently published on Reddit a chart, which quickly went viral on social media, comparing men’s and women’s favorite films. The obvious intent (at least for most men sharing it) was to chide, ridicule, and put women down. While women’s favorite films tended to be chick-flicks and romantic-comedies, men’s tastes tended to those “greatest-films-ever,” viz. IMDb’s Top 250 page’s thuggish-macho-thrillerish explosionfests glorifying gangsters/mobsters. The truth is that both lists disturbingly-reveal the two sexes have equally-bad taste. Yet, the real question remains.

Why do bad films pandering to women’s emotional weaknesses, comfort-zones, and clichés tend to be (correctly-and-rightfully, it needs to be said!) dismissed by society and the “critical” establishment, while equally-horrendous flicks pandering to men’s (and, a fortiori, teenage boys’s) are treated as if they were the greatest works of Western civilization? Why does anybody-with-half-a-brain treat “nobody-understands-you-and-adult-society-is-just-a-bunch-of-dirty-secrets-and-tricks, so-be-a-real-man, rebel-against-authority, and-blow-something-up”-flicks, found time-after-time in “greatest-films-ever” lists written by dudebros thinking they are special/unique (yet cinephiles are “clichés”), as if they were profoundly-philosophical statement about life? When some boys try to pass video-games as “art,” do we really need to ask? Col-umns claiming television-series glorifying the macho-thuggery of mobsters are equal to the greatest works of Western civilization have quickly morphed into claiming HBO’s “quality-dramas” have eclipsed cinema with regards to artistic merit.

Those disliking Hollywood’s explosionfests and the Oscars’s one-big-commercial for them are called “haters-of-cinema.” In reality, there is more artistic value in a single frame, even if one restricts oneself only to films made since the millennium, from Melancholie der Engel (Marian Dora Botulino, 2009), Dogville, Manderlay, or Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier, 2013) than in the complete episodes of all series ever broadcast by HBO com-bined. “Quality-dramas” are just exploitation-thrillers.

Often more vulgar than Holly-wood’s explosionfests. It was not long ago that every adult intuitively-understood that feature-film-length-toy-commercials about “super-heroes”-and-dinosaurs were for children. Now, they are being sold to adults as great artworks.

Hollywood uses “inde-pendent/art film” as a ploy for anything more-intelligent-than-explosionfests to lure a crowd wishing to appear sophisticated without working-and-watching actual art films (why do they need to, if Hollywood’s products are equal?), failing to differentiate art from mere-money-making.


25. Diary (1983); Meetings With Nathan Zach (1996); Revised Diary: 1990–1999 (2001); My Stills, 1952–2002 (2003) Dir. David Perlov

Diary (1983)

The late Israeli master documentarian David Perlov’s (דוד פרלוב, 9 June 1930, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 13 December 2003, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel) life-consuming four-part project(s), some forty years in the making and with the length of almost eleven hours, is probably the greatest documentary film(s) ever.

With as little as 75 votes on IMDb now, and with the original Hebrew-language titles of יומן, פגישות עם נתן זך, יומן מעודכן: 1990–1999, and תצלומי: 2002/1952, Israel’s greatest film(s) and greatest contribution(s) to the legacy of film grammar practically-invented the form of the experimental/avant-garde poetic/personal non-narrative documentary film.

In early 1973, Perlov, disgusted with not being able to find financing for his personal projects (he complains several times throughout the film[s] that most producers seem only interested in films with “social-ly-important” middle-class/bourgeois/yuppie concerns, neglecting personal expression and supposedly-“small” moments), bought a 16mm film-camera.

The film(s) focuse(s) on the life of Perlov and his family in the years 1952 to 2002, showcasing his life and the developments in area politics, while Perlov himself narrates. Travelling, inter alia, to Tel Aviv-Yafo, Paris, London, and Brazil, plus a great many other places through-out the globe, the film(s) being primarily a family-diary in which Perlov records the coming-of-age of his two daughters, Yael and Neomi (also notable for being one of the few films ever in which a film director shot his own grown daughter naked, possi-bly the first[s]). Like living the entire range of life’s emotions on steroids – family, love, coming-of-age, happiness, loneliness, depression, death, loss, grief, bereavement, alienation, adolescence, etc. – (a) masterpiece(s) really-eagerly-await(s) new viewers.

Note: All the sources of citations in this article can be found in this page.

Author Bio: Mr. Gal Ben-Kochav, B.A., M.A., received his B.A. (2013) and M.A. (2016) in Sociology and Anthropology from the School of Social and Policy Studies, Gershon H. Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences, Tel Aviv University. He spent the last couple of years writing a (yet-unpublished) draft of a lengthy scholarly monograph, in Hebrew, dealing with the application of evolutionary psychological theory in the study of social (ethnic- and sex-based) stratification and structure in Israel, currently standing at 1,086 single-spaced pages in Times New Roman standardized at a font of 12. He has long been interested in art, avant-garde/experimental, and independent cinema.