I’m not prefacing this batch with “not my preferred genre”, that’s for certain. It is my “go-to” genre when I have an appetite for pure, non-narrative cinema.
The films in this category are unashamedly divisive, as generally about 70% of the audience not only doesn’t care for them; they even love to badmouth them. Those who prefer their storytelling homogenized call the films “pretentious”. They are over-analyzed by folks who require order and clarity in their lives, as well as the attention of their peers. And they confuse the hell out of the average moviegoer who simply has to let go of predetermined ideas and release themselves into the hands of the filmmaker for a couple of hours and not mind a bit of logical abandonment.
Usually, such punishment lasts for a couple of decades until, suddenly, the films become anointed as cinematic milestones by the hardcore cinephiles who are actually the ones in control a film’s legacy.
Criteria for this most –polarizing of genres are as complex and different as the films that get sifted into this bucket, but basically, they deal with primal ideas regarding the human condition and the forces of nature by reinventing the film language in which they are presented. They ALWAYS require the complete surrender of the viewer, followed by some honest reflection. Multiple viewings have been known to help.
Here are five that knocked me out of my chair, three of which were my top films of their respective years:
Adieu au Langage (Goodbye to Language) – Jean-Luc Godard (2014)
Godard is the godfather of audience-abuse, a reputation that gives him immunity from all detractors: we have no right to attack his view of the world because nobody except Godard understands it completely. Fiercely political and critical of societal norms, involves an affair, a murder, and Godard’s own dog (Roxy). To me, the title refers to Godard’s farewell to accepted cinematic language in that he uses more than one actor to portray his characters and imbues his film with 3D technology that completely contradicts its original intention to titillate action movie fans. Best film of 2014 by a country mile – and it is only 69 minutes long.
The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick (2011)
Malick-haters received a gift that keeps on giving with Tree of Life as many of them still steam when the topic is raised. But so did his fans receive a once in a lifetime meditative masterpiece. Possibly the most polarizing film to be nominated for Oscar’s Best Film prize in recent memory, Malick’s grand tale of affection and loss is part 1960s bucolic, part 21st century disconnect from the natural environment, and punctuated by supernovas and the odd dinosaur, all perfectly shot and scored so that you can feel the breeze through the lace curtains, smell the grass and the trees on a hot, childhood summer day, as well as feel emotional heat from the profound violence that is creation and, ultimately, life itself. Not too ambitious, and, if you missed-out on the magnificence of Malick’s vision, he probably wasn’t speaking to you in the first place.
2001: A Space Odyssey – Stanley Kubrick (1968)
A contemplative and very playful Kubrick pulled the rug from under moviegoers expecting a standard sci-fi space adventure with his epic on the evolution of intelligence and inspiration. Taking us from the dawn of man to the metaphysical return of the “starchild” to earth, Kubrick gives us some insight into how human curiosity carries us forward to our own eventual oblivion and rebirth. A leopard, a few sneaky Russians and a misbehaving motherboard known as HAL – as well as the regular reappearance of a monolith one detractor referred to as that “goddamn 2X4”- serve as catalysts that propel the storyline from the beginning of human history to, supposedly, its end. It’s a colossus of a 60s head-trip that stands firmly astride fall other films of its period.
L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad ) – Alain Renais (1961)
Critical pioneer Pauline Kael referred to Renais’ stream of consciousness exercise as a “snow job at the palace,” while others claimed it to be the most important film in decades. Constructed around a script by hyperrealist writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, the film – basically structured as a dream – purports that the more closely one looks at something, the more difficult is to distinguish truth from fiction. The result is usually staggering confusion for any viewer who requires a tidy narrative flow, but the experience can be euphoric if you are simply willing to go along for the ride, appreciating the film on its own considerable merits. If nothing else, the film smashes through our imagined expectations of what can be done with film as a storytelling medium and ushered –in a new decade in cinema evolution.
Magnolia – Paul Thomas Anderson (1999)
Although not as obtuse as the other four films here, PTA’s mosaic is a crazy quilt of several storylines that weave in and out of each other’s orbits, fueled by coincidence. Each character operates on the grounds that they have all the answers based on their own experience, only to have that idea upended when the unexplained and unexpected suddenly happens., as it always does. A major Biblical reference near the end of the film leaves most of them slack-jawed and looking for explanations, but reality is random and chaos, not well-laid plans, rules. Anderson is one of only a handful of mainstream directors who are able to get projects like these on film in today’s immediate bottom line gratification-based film industry. Thoughtful, surprising and, well, just plain fun.
Now you tell me – which films upset your applecart, for better or worse?