‘Slow’ can be a relative term when it comes to films. Those who are more attuned to watching Hollywood blockbusters will no doubt call even films by Alexander Payne or Clint Eastwood slow. It wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see even those who are familiar with American indie cinema calling European arthouse films by the likes of Michael Haneke or the Dardenne brothers slow.
Believe it or not, there are films that are even slower than the typical European arthouse film, a sort of sub-genre of the arthouse film that some have called ‘slow cinema’ and others have called ‘contemporary contemplative cinema’, which have become more prominent in international film festivals particularly in the last 20 years or so.
Obvious descendants of arthouse giants like Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr, but often taking things more extremely, these films are usually made up of minimal plots and seemingly meandering long takes and static shots that might seem pointless to most filmgoers.
But not every film needs to have a strong and well plotted narrative, and not all of them need to be paced fast. Such is our attachment to the by now very widely accepted norm of the three-act narrative arc that we sometimes forget that films are not “filmed theatre” in the first place. Films can also simply be a sensory experience.
The dovetailing of form and content is what’s crucial, and some things need time to be explored and expressed properly. There’s no such thing as calling a slow film bad because ultimately there are bad slow films and there are also good slow films. This is why sometimes patience can bring its very own special rewards, as these 20 slow (and sometimes very slow) films prove to those brave enough to give them a try.
20. Wendy And Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008, USA)
Of all the slow films on this list, this is probably the easiest to take for a beginner to the dark arts of slow cinema. Not only does it have a proper film star in Michelle Williams in the role of Wendy, a drifter on her way to Alaska for a job who’s stuck somewhere in the Pacific Northwest as her car breaks down, it also has a very relatable and relevant story about the practical problems of trying to make ends meets in today’s tough economic climate.
While it is still home to plenty of patient long takes, Kelly Reichardt’s heartbreaking film possesses an urgent tension that almost makes it a thriller and even an understated melodrama.
19. The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005, Romania)
Not many people would think of this film as part of the slow cinema movement, which is plain proof of why it’s such a rewarding watch. The film that launched what is now known as the Romanian New Wave with its Un Certain Regard Award win at Cannes in 2005, one need only look at director Cristi Puiu’s next film Aurora to realize that he has more in common with the slow cinema gang than he has with Romanian New Wave’s other premier exponent Cristian Mungiu.
The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu is actually no different than Aurora in terms of aesthetic choices, as it’s similarly filled with long takes and practically nothing happens. The only difference is that its story of a 63 year old man suffering chest pains who’s shuffled from hospital to hospital is a blackly comic yet touchingly humanist tale that carries a lot of emotional and narrative momentum, despite the ‘nothing happens’ premise.
18. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011, Turkey)
Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan may have finally won the Palme D’Or with his latest film Winter Sleep last year, but it’s with Once Upon A Time In Anatolia that he authoritatively announced his arrival as a modern day master after many years of building his reputation as an arthouse force to be reckoned with.
Set during one long night somewhere in the hills of Anatolia, a group of men that includes a police commissioner, a prosecutor, a doctor and a murder suspect spend the night driving around in the dark looking for a body, lit only by the headlights of their cars.
An elusive murder mystery that’s not only elusive in content, as the film takes its own sweet time revealing the bits and pieces needed to solve the mystery, it’s also supported and immensely strengthened by a wondrously elusive form as well, as important things happen slightly or well off-screen and the almost total darkness that envelops the film, mostly only illuminated by car headlights, just leads to a sort of satisfying frustration that can rarely be found on film.
17. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009, Romania)
Another highlight of the Romanian New Wave, this second film from Corneliu Porumboiu, about a cop battling his conscience when he’s assigned to tail a college student believed to be peddling marijuana, will truly test the viewers’ patience with seemingly endless scenes of the cop doing nothing but tailing the kid as he goes about his daily business.
In between these are seemingly meaningless scenes of the cop’s domestic life as the viewer gets to observe their personalities and the way they think and interpret things. It all makes sense, however, as the climax arrives, in which all those scenes about observing and making judgment as to what the cop and audience is seeing, together with the petty differences about interpretation come to a head in a climactic 20-minute sequence that looks like it’s been filmed in one very long take.
It’s a tour de force of deadpan comic filmmaking in which Porumboiu needed only 3 men, a blackboard, a dictionary and a deadpan discussion of the definition of words like “conscience”, “moral law”, “state law”, “police” and a few others to illustrate the absurdity and futility of legal interpretation to hilarious and frustrating ends. Taking the slow burn approach to comedy to its absolute limit, this is one punchline that is totally worth the wait.
16. Man Push Cart (Ramin Bahrani, 2005, USA)
American director Ramin Bahrani is usually associated with the new American Neo-Realist movement that once threatened to blossom somewhere in the mid to late 2000s as a bunch of American indie films like Tze Chun’s debut film Children Of Invention and Sean Baker and Shih Ching Tsou’s Take Out seemed to refreshingly point away from the standard Sundance relationship drama that has begun to suffocate the American indie film scene into boredom and oversaturation.
What makes Man Push Cart extra special in the slow department, at least compared to the other American Neo-Realist films of the time, is its very patience to just follow its protagonist Ahmad, a Pakistani immigrant, as he drags his heavy cart to sell coffee and donuts in New York City (and sell bootleg DVDs at night to supplement his income).
Any sort of easy psychological explanations are scrupulously avoided as Ahmad remains a mystery throughout the film. His past life as a sort of rock star in Pakistan is only hinted at, as the film (and Ahmad) sticks doggedly to the task at hand, which is to try and make a new start in America, the land of hopes and dreams. Far from being poverty porn, this is just humble and simple moviemaking about a humble and simple subject.
15. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez, 2013, Nepal)
Part ethnography and part structuralism, this 118 minute documentary has only 11 shots, each averaging 10 minutes long, shot with a static camera on a tripod, of passengers in a cable car either going up or down a mountain to visit or after visiting the Manakamana temple in Nepal. While not literally watching paint dry, viewers will literally watch ice cream melt in one of those shots as two ladies playfully try to eat them before they melt.
What may sound like a daunting watch will surprise viewers with how mysterious and dynamic it is, as the film revels in contradictions, such as the camera being static (because it’s on a tripod) and moving at the same time (because the cable car moves and viewers can see what’s outside it) and it being both a portrait film (of the passengers) and a landscape film (of the stunning background).