The 25 Most Intelligent Movies of All Time

This list/article is the fourth in a series arguing that for cinema to-be-and-to-be-taken-seriously as an art form, it must forgo and move beyond Hollywood-like visual-based ways of meaning-formation/understanding into actor-, face-, dialogue-, voice-, emo-tion-, body-, character-, feeling,-, behavior/psychology-, and tone-based ones.

Readers are strongly advised to read my three previous articles, especially (though by no means only) the lengthy theoretical/aesthetic introduction to the first, which obviously cannot be reprinted here for reasons of brevity, for a fuller understanding of this intellectu-al/critical project (and also because some important information contained therein about several directors to be discussed will also not be reprinted).


1. Breath (2007, Kim Ki-duk)

Breath (2007)

The masterful Breath (김기덕’s 숨) is similar in some ways to Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998). A depressed housewife hears about a murderer being placed on death-row on television and immediately begins an affair with him. She visits his cell numerous times and decides to ornate it, to sing and dance for him, etc.

A psychologically-profound, politically-incorrect, and fascinating study of the battle-of-the-sexes and lonely women’s empathetic attraction to a desire to re-form. Breath’s intelligence really is of the actually-intelligent kind rather than of a “know-it-all” smirk-and-wink.

It does not spoon-feed its audiences with “cinematic gaze, language, expression, and devices” shortcuts-to-understanding through which camera movements/positions and editing-tricks/techniques, easily-decodable within two seconds even by the most unsophisticated viewers and which do not end with teaching the audience anything about life and fellow human-beings, replace the hard work necessary on the viewers’s part with the actors’s bodily/physical, facial, to-nal/emotive, and vocal/verbal shits-and-turns in order to experience their own and the characters’s complex emotional states.

Rather than explicitly-and-instantly telling the audiences how to feel, like testosterone-fueled dudebros hating on emotional under-standing and fetishizing techniques like, it provides them with complex and confused emotions they need to work-up with, step-by-step, perceptually and perceptively, via the actors’s faces/bodies, so they will learn about, enhance/enrich, and experience their lives.


2. The Garden (1977, Victor Nord)

Like Rosamund Pike, few people know that Melanie Griffith made her breakthrough performance in an Israeli film (ויקטור נורד’s הגן). With as little as 78 votes on IMDb, this Talmudic poetic-religious-spiritual experience follows an elderly and pious Mizrachi man (Shaike Ophir, quite possibly the most famous Israeli actor of his generation) clingingly-attempting to salvage his dirty garden from the threat of encroaching urbanization, only to be changed/redeemed forever by the sight of (an angel?) Griffith.

English-subtitled legal DVDs available from Third Ear. Like the greatest Israeli works of literature or paint-ing – by e.g. Uri Zvi Greenberg-Tur-Malka, Israel Eliraz, Yitzhak Laor, Roy Hasan, Ithamar Handelman Smith-Ben-Canaan, etc. – this masterpiece remains virtually-unknown abroad.


3. Moments (1979, Michal Bat-Adams)

Critic Ray Carney noted how, screening art films to students, “meanings in [Hollywood] are simple, obvious, and clear-cut[, r]ight on the surface[, t]umble into your lap in the movie theater[, when a character] is dwarfed by the size of his livingroom or physically at a distance from his wife, we know what it means[, i]t’s clear and simple[, e]xperiences in [art films] never attain this degree of clarity[,] are mysterious, multivalent, and elusive[, a]ll of the ex-pressive force of [Hollywood] is communicated by generalized, metaphoric state-ments—in shot after shot, scene after scene[, e]very camera movement, prop, framing, lighting and sound effect is metaphorically meaningful[, t]here’s no behavior there[, t]here’s nothing real[, t]he people, events, scenes are metaphors[, a] generation of crit-ics has been created who are expert at unpacking these metaphors[, p]articularity, the tangibility, the specificity of experience disappear[, art films] are not abstract but con-crete; not mental but practical; not intellectual but worldly[, d]o not float Platonically above the ordinary world, but reside within the changeable particularity of specific bodies, voices, spaces, and pacings[, n]ot figured metaphorically, but embodied and enacted[,] plea that we stay in the flow of the moment and not rigidify our feelings by turning them into ideas[, i]t drives me crazy in the film courses I teach[, t]try[ing] to get the students to stay inside the perceptual experience—to really, really pay close attention to the shifting facial expressions, the changing body language, the tonal glis-sades—and so few of them can do it[, e]specially the boys[, g]irls are a little better at actually watching the faces and listening to the voices[, i]t’s not really surprising[, m]en’s imaginations are visual and women’s are verbal[, i]t’s why men [consume por-nography] and women [romances, i]t’s why men play video games or watch sports while women talk in the kitchen or on the telephone[, t]he image-addled focus of film study—all that overemphasis on camera movements, light and shadow, and visual symbols—[is] attributable to it being a male dominated field[, w]e need more female critics to re-center film study on voices and faces[, m]y students, most of the time [are] busy trying to leave the flowing vocal stuff behind in order to latch onto an abstrac-tion, a generalization about the relationship of the characters. I just want to watch the movie more alertly and intensely each time; they want to turn it into ideas—ideas that will spare them having to deal with the second-by-second demands of the perceptual experience[, m]y students’s favorite evasions are the same as the French critics’s—one group wants to read expressive meanings out of the camera work and lighting; another wants to study the ideological underpinnings of the film or the sociological meaning of the characters’s lives; and the third goes in search of symbolic or metaphoric mean-ings hidden somewhere in the props or events[, a]n example from [John Cassavetes’s 1968] Faces[: two characters] tumble out of a bar called ‘The Loser’s Club[,’ t]hat just happens to be the place that Cassavetes [was] able to film[, e]very single time I show that scene, someone raises his hand and says, ‘Did you see? The sign shows us they’re losers![,’ t]he professors are worse[, films] are turned into sociological position papers[, p]rofessors make the same metaphoric move my students do. I remember hearing a professor comment on [Cassavetes’s 1974] A Woman Under the Influence by saying that when Nick puts a Band-Aid on Mabel’s cut wrists, it’s a metaphor for how men don’t understand the depths of women’s problems[, t]hat’s supposed to be some-thing[?] [Y]ou don’t actually have to watch the movie Cassavetes made[, j]ust cruise through attaching other abstract tinker-toy pieces to that one, until you’ve made a whole interpretive skyscraper out of Tinker Toys! [W]hen you start translating artistic experiences into sociological or ideological abstractions, the physicality and temporali-ty drops out[, w]e lose the world[, w]ays of knowing that I am most interested in are not general, grand, abstract, static, and symbolic—but the opposite: temporal, tangible, in process, slipping, sliding, tentative, small[, m]eaning is the real enemy[, m]eaning stops the movement[, m]eaning freezes the flow.” Elsewhere he asked why “are there no sex scenes where a woman is embarrassed[,] where strangers feel a sense of empti-ness, shame, or regret[?]”

These two excerpts seem not-unrelated. The testosterone-fueled perpetual-adolescents/dudebros who comprise most film journalists, infatuated with technical/technological tricks and uninterested in emotions, get exceedingly-angry everytime they encounter a “talky/non-cinematic merely-filmed-literature/theatre without any utilization of cinematic gaze, devices, expression, or language” in which emotions (whether characters’s or audiences’s) and the difficult work and actual-life-experience-based-knowledge about human-beings (rather than how cameras operate) required to understand them step-by-step and perceptually/perceptively within-the-flow, rather than visual shortcuts instantly-telling the viewers via camera-tricks under-standable within two seconds even by teenage boys how characters feel or how audi-ences should feel, are emphasized.

The highly-reviled (for exactly these reasons) Israe-li directress (and poetess/fine-art-photographer [1]) Michal Bat-Adams’s debut master-piece, which unfortunately has only 44 votes currently on IMDb, perfectly-embodies everything Carney asked for. Scientists have known for some time that while men can be either gay or straight (but never in-between), women are innately bisexual.[2]

Bat-Adams’s bisexual orgy scene – for which she casted her naked self, probably the first actress/directress to do so, the casting-of-self-in-nude/sex-scenes actually being com-mon in Israeli cinema/art/culture, and which she claimed caused her to get wet – ex-plores exactly those feelings of sexual-ambivalence/confusion the “liberated woman” faces. The first Israeli lesbian/bisexual film remains one of the most profound treat-ments of sexuality ever.


4. Beware of a Holy Whore (1971); The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972); The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979); Veronika Voss (1982) Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Master director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was never politically-correct. Whether discussing homosexuality (the flawed, tragic, flamboyantly-effeminate, cruel/sadistic/codependent, self-destructive, promiscuous, and depressed figures in Fassbinder’s oeuvre are hardly the sugarcoated victims of Hollywood) or women (why do they wear high-heels?).

The four films to be discussed in this entry, whose original German-language titles are, respectively, Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte, Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant, Die Ehe der Maria Braun, and Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss, offer some of his truth-based learning-experiences es-chewing political-correctness and black-and-white “victimhood.”

Critic Michael Kore-sky, in his Criterion Collection DVD insert, discusses Beware of a Holy Whore (with only 1,680 IMDb votes!), which was Fassbinder’s favorite of his films and deals (based on his filmmaking experiences) with the (mostly-homosexual) sexual intrigues and orgiastics, slandering, jealousy, treacherousness, and dysfunctional power dynam-ics amongst a drug- and alcohol-addled filmmaking crew, as “Fassbinder’s bat-out-of-hell pace in the first few years of his career took a toll[, t]he set[s] of [his] film[s] had become a petri dish of insecurity and dysfunction; Fassbinder’s behavior toward his crew had grown borderline tyrannical[, e]rratic as he may have been, though, Fassbin-der did not lose his ability to be self-critical[, i]t is, according to Fassbinder, ‘a film about why living and working together as a group doesn’t function, even with people who want it to and for whom the group is life itself[,’ s]cathing but almost farcical, it was a sort of summation of Fassbinder’s moviemaking thus far[, h]e wondered how a group, however committed to a cause—the film within the film is intended to protest state-sanctioned violence—could ever rise above its own pettiness and interdependen-cy.”

Critic Michael Töteberg notes in his Criterion Collection DVD insert that Veroni-ka Voss is a “victimhood”-defying tale: “Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) is sitting in the cinema [watching] one of her old films, a melodrama called Insidious Poison (Schlei-chendes Gift)—a look back into her past, but also into the future[, t]his scene is fol-lowed without further ado by one in which she meets Robert Krohn[, h]er conspicu-ous behavior, the grotesque incongruity between the airs and affectations of a star and the complete disregard with which she is met by an indifferent public, is immediately evident in the streetcar. Krohn is fascinated by the woman, although the name [Voss] means nothing to him[, h]e has no memories of the cinema; he is at home on the play-ing field[, b]ut he is a man in midlife crisis, and life seems dull and monotonous. Fass-binder makes Krohn into the composer of strange poems that express his feelings of deficiency. ‘I was fine glass spheres, devoid of foliage or prospect,’ is one of his vers-es[, the d]rug wave of those years was not a phenomenon of the youth scene[, r]ecent German history, considering the way the Nazi period was being rewritten in the fifties, was a trauma for society; as different as their fates might be, both patients of Dr. Ma-rianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer) are victims of their past. Voss and Mr. Treibel (Ru-dolf Platte), UFA and Treblinka, propaganda and destruction, two industries of fas-cism[, i]t is a murder, but [Voss] is the ‘accomplice of her murderer[,’] Fassbinder jumps from Voss as she takes the sleeping with a glass of water to Krohn in the newspaper office taking aspirin[.] Voss is dead, the man will never in his life be con-cerned with anything except sports.”

Sex, heterosexual or homosexual (cf. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), is the ultimate form of power in Fassbinder’s world. Töte-berg (op. cit.) described The Marriage of Maria Braun as “[t]he marriage of Maria Braun lasts ‘half a day and a whole night[,’ y]et the forced separation only increases the longing[, ‘a]nd a great love is a great feeling, and a great truth,’ Maria has no doubt about that[, a] different truth, which is just as constitutive to the story, is ex-pressed by the bookkeeper, Senkenberg: ‘Don’t forget: it’s always about money[,’ d]o I give you my life or only my checkbook—that is what the lovers fight about in pris-on[, t]he marriage––it weaves through the film like a red thread––is a contract[, g]oods for goods, that is the simple rule of barter, and these people are thrown back on this primitive stage of economic exchange at zero hour[, w]hoever has anything barters it—in the family, with the neighbor, on the black market[, c]igarettes for a brooch, underpants for kindling wood[, t]he brooch travels on: the dealer at the black market gives Maria a bottle of schnapps and an evening dress for it[, t]he dress is an investment: Maria needs it ‘for business[,’ i]t raises her value, because she is selling illusions at an off-limits bar[, f]eelings are also sold here, and there is a market for love as well, with fine gradations and a clear currency. Maria dolls herself up for the Amer-icans with the support of Betti [Klenze] and her mother[, i]t is a model exercise in how the power structures of the sexes adapt to economic circumstances[, t]he film spans the time from when women cleared away the rubble of the war to the German eco-nomic miracle. Maria is a self-confident, emancipated woman who seizes her opportu-nities in the postwar years and period of reconstruction[, i]n reality, Maria, a woman who believes that she is in charge of her own life, has long since become––it is re-vealed in the contract [Karl] Oswald makes with Hermann [Braun]––an object of bar-ter for men.” Critic Kent Jones (op. cit.) also notes that “[w]e start with postwar mobi-lization ([Braun]’s decision to basically prostitute herself—to business and business-man—to a noble end), move on to mid-fifties consolidation (Veronika’s doctor elimi-nates not just a Nazi-era star but also, by implication, the embarrassing past she repre-sents)[,] [h]ard-nosed women, working twenty-four hours a day to construct futures for themselves from nothing, using their sexuality as a weapon, or at the very least as a bartering tool[, t]he odd woman out is [Voss], a star from a reviled firmament on whom Dr. Katz can feel free to practice blackmail with impunity[, w]hile you remem-ber [Hanna] Schygulla’s [spectacular] bod[y] (often clad in black lingerie), it’s Zech’s death-mask face and raw emotionalism that stay with you[, a]n intricate piece of work.”


5. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970, Jaromil Jireš)

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

Valerie a týden divů is an ode to a girl’s discovery of the burgeoning power of female sexuality set in a bizarre medieval fantasyland of vampires and witchcraft.

As critic Jana Prikryl wrote in her Criterion Collection DVD insert: “[i]t can’t be a total coincidence that other ‘se-rious’ directors in the late 1960s were also taking detours into the mythic zone where sex and horror (or ‘horror’) meet[.] [This film], too [can be included here], filming what you might call a surreal polychrome coming-of-age vampire costume drama.”


6. Yesterday Girl (1966, Alexander Kluge)

Abschied von gestern (Anita G.), which remains criminally-underseen with as little as 739 votes on IMDb, was the fea-ture debut of Alexander Kluge, one of those forgotten Neuer Deutscher Film/New German Cinema filmmakers (even though it is the first film of that movement).

A stu-dent of Frankfurt School/Frankfurter Schule scholars such as Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno who largely dismissed cinema (or, more precisely, Hollywood cinema and its offshoots, which is what they were familiar with), as mere entertainment for all the right reasons, Kluge’s masterpiece, like most of the important works originating from the movement, smartly does away with and satirizes “cinematic gaze, language, ex-pression, and devices.”

Instead of those shortcuts-to-understanding, through which camera movements/positions and editing-tricks/techniques, easily-decodable within two seconds even by the most unsophisticated viewer, replace the hard work neces-sary on the viewers’s part with the actor’s bodily/physical, facial, tonal/emotive, be-havioral, and vocal/verbal shits-and-turns in order to experience their own and the characters’s complex emotional states, we get something else.

About a young East German migrant to West Germany’s (played by Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister) struggle to adjust to her new life, here is an attack on all sorts of self-victimizations/self-pitying.


7. Three Colors: White (1994, Krzysztof Kieślowski)

Three Colors White (1993)

The most underseen, underappreciated, and underrated of the Three Colors Trilogy, the playful Trois couleurs: Blanc unsurprisingly is also its most subversive, intelligent, and emotionally-profound.

Perhaps it can be seen why it is so reviled. No doubt inspired by Krzysztof Kieślowski’s own experiences with socialism, this film remains one of the most trenchant reminders of the idea, elaborated by philosophers such as Erik von Ku-ehnelt-Leddihn, that there can exists no equality without feelings of revenge, ressen-timent, envy, jealousy, and cruelty.

Polish barber Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) receives the bad news that his wife Dominique Vidal (the beautiful Julie Delpy) has been granted a unilateral divorce (the marriage was never consummated).

After losing all property and being deported from France, he contorts various scheming and shrewd money-grabbing shenanigans and charades back in his native Poland. Using his newfound wealth as a scheme to win back Dominique, he then destroys her life by faking his own death and framing her for his murder. Karol looks at Dominique through the window of her prison cell, he has finally-achieved his long-awaited-equality.


8. The Travelling Players (1975); The Hunters (1977); Alexander the Great (1980); The Beekeeper (1986) Dir. Theo Angelopoulos

The Beekeeper (1986)

Most films directed by the late Greek master director Theo Angelopoulos (Θεόδωρος Αγγελόπουλος, 27 April 1935, Athens, Greece – 24 January 2012, Piraeus, Greece), with a few excep-tions mostly dating from the second half of his life, were little-known outside serious cinephile circles. That is true especially regarding his films made during the first half of his career, which tended to be the greatest.

Out of the thirteen he directed, some of his less-discussed films from the first half of his career were chosen for this entry. With merely 2,796, 545, 623, and 1,620 votes on IMDb as of the time of the writing of these lines, respectively, and, respectively, with the original Greek-language titles of Ο Θίασος, Οι Κυνηγοί, Ο Μεγαλέξαντρος, and Ο Μελισσοκόμος, Angelopoulos’s little-known gems, his life tragically cut short while attempting to film his fourteenth (never-completed) film due to a traffic accident, deserve new audiences.

Like the masterpieces of e.g. Pedro Costa, Tarr Béla, Dodo Abashidze, Larisa Shepitko, or Jancsó Miklós, the fact that they are filmed with the camera being merely-functional (a recording-tool rather than an originator of instant meaning and knowledge Holly-wood-style) and static for very longwinded periods of time and with no “cinematic expression, gaze, devices, and languages” being used, focusing instead on acting, emotion, dialogue, and human interactions and shifts i.e. exactly like a “merely-filmed play,” should serve as hint enough.

A longwinded presentation of several actors mere-ly speaking for a lengthy time while the camera does not move and no artificial and manipulative “cinematic language” is involved, in other words, the dreaded “merely-filmed non-cinematic literature and theatre,” not only has a much greater capacity to teach than any Hollywood mode of filmmaking but is more dramatic than any car chase.

Angelopoulos admonishes the naïve adolescent rebelliousness of virtue-signaling masquerading as political insight. His long-takes, consisting of less than a hundred in films stretching-out to four hours, deal with the passing-of-time and com-plex/confusing emotions as guilt like no other.