Sometimes you’re not looking for an easy movie; you don’t want the same old stories. You’re tired of the silly and frivolous films that come out all over the world every year. This is the list of the best 21st century art house movies. It’ll give you a different perspective on cinema, and hopefully, it’ll make you ask for more.
10. Russian Ark (2002)
A mesmerizing journey through Russian history, set in the empire style rooms of the Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg, once the residence palace of the tsars and then the most important museum in Russia, named Ermitage.
We follow the adventure from the point of view of a narrator – whose voice belongs to Alexander Sokurov, the director – and his traveling companion (Sergey Dreyden). As they wander through many rooms in the palace, they meet multiple historical characters and unknown people from different time periods: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Tsars Nicholas I and II, and many others.
The first thing to mention is the bold choice of the director: the movie is shot in a single sequence shot for 96 minutes, all in one take. Contrary to movies like “Birdman” (2014) – where multiple long takes were joined together digitally – “Russian Ark” was shot entirely in one take, with no digital editing, using a special Sony HDW-F900 camera, mounted on a steady-cam. The exclusive use of a steady-cam gave the film a dreamlike tone, with its wavy camera movement.
This movie is a landmark piece of art in the art house world and a masterpiece of modern cinema. Its originality – both in the screenplay and in the shooting techniques – is astonishing. The viewer is absorbed in history, wandering around with the two main characters.
The highlight of the movie is definitely the ending, in all its grandeur and epic sequence. Without giving anything away, it’s the perfect final sequence for a perfect movie. An eye-opening experience that proves how cinema is always evolving and never stopping; there’s always a possibility to take a step forward.
9. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Charlie Kaufman is a misunderstood genius. His screenplays – from “Being John Malkovich” (1999), “Adaptation” (2002), and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) to the later “Anomalisa” (2015) – are always warm and clever, with a strong sense of surrealism. “Synecdoche, New York” is no difference.
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director, suffering from an existential crisis and physical diseases; moreover, his marriage with Adele (Catherine Keener) is falling apart. After a big success with a play, he receives a MacArthur Fellowship, which will give him the economical possibility to write and direct his own play.
The film is a tour de force of emotions and feelings: it’s surreal, dramatic, oddly funny, touching, soulful, and poetic. It’s the description of the sadness and loneliness of life, a surreal Greek tragedy; when something can be worse, it’ll be that way.
Obviously, the great merit of the movie is the wonderfully chaotic and rich screenplay by Kaufman; even if this was his debut movie, we could regard him as an author, considering his prolific and coherent career as a screenwriter. His surrealistic and visionary take on common themes like love, death, life, struggle, and sadness is unmatched.
“Synecdoche, New York” is full of great actors and actresses – aside from Hoffman and Keener, there are Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan – but the show is stolen by the astonishing performance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his best performance ever. His depiction of the dejected director is flawless.
Please Mr. Kaufman, don’t stop making movies! Ever!
8. Antichrist (2009)
A couple loses their child when he climbs through his bedroom window and falls out. The mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is devastated by grief and her husband (William Dafoe) tries to cure her through psychotherapy. In order to concentrate on her healing, they move to their cabin in the woods, called Eden. Her condition will start to worsen and her behavior will change dramatically and violently.
Lars von Trier shoots one on his most visually stunning and provocative movies. Shot mostly in color, with a black-and-white sequence, the movie is captivating and eye-catching, especially the scenes in the woods, with all the natural elements overhanging on the two main characters. The influence of Andrej Tarkovskij in the cinema of von Trier is explicit and – not by chance – the movie is dedicated to the late Soviet director.
Once again, psychoanalysis is the main presence in von Trier’s thematic agenda. At the same time, there’s the theme of depression – depicted by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character – that makes an appearance in the first of the so-called “Depression Trilogy,” composed also of “Melancholia” (2011) and “Nymphomaniac” (2013).
When you think that you’ve seen everything from Lars von Trier, he’s always able to surprise you. In the case of “Antichrist,” there isn’t just surprise, but also shock and fear. It’s not an easy movie to watch, both for the complexity of the themes and some heavy moments of violence; however, watching the movie up until the last frame pays it all off. Cinema still proves to be thought-provoking and rebellious in the 21st century.
7. A Separation (2011)
Iran. Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are husband and wife; Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) is their daughter. They live together with Nader’s dad (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s disease.
Simin wants to leave the country in order to provide a better future for her family, while Nader wants to stay in his country to look after his dad. This quarrel compromises the unity of the family and Simin decides to leave the house and go living in her parents’ house, as a gesture of protest.
Because of Simin’s departure, Nader is forced to hire a caregiver to look after his ill dad while he’s working. Something bad will happen that will worsen the already critical situation.
“A Separation” is a wonderful and complex drama about a family; at the same time, the intimate portrait of this family is also an opportunity to reflect on Iranian society. Sometimes emotional and heartbreaking – especially the sequences with Nader’s dad – the film gives us an in-depth depiction of the religious garb and way of life of Iranians. Furthermore, it is shown – in a gentle and subtle way – the women’s role in a male-dominated society.
Talking about the technical specifics, the movie is set in very few environments – almost entirely in the house of Nader and Simin and in a police station – and it’s directed in a solid and bare way, without any kind of virtuosity.
Director Asghar Farhadi wanted to focus the movie on the evolution of the story, following the characters in a documentary-style tone. This picture show us that a simple story can be a great medium for an analysis on multiple themes. An unpretentious masterpiece.
6. Yi Yi (2000)
A heartfelt and bittersweet portrayal of a middle-class Taiwanese family, living in Taipei.
We experience the vicissitudes of Nj and Min-Min – husband and wife, respectively – and their sons Ting-Ting and Yang-Yang. During the wedding ceremony of Min-Min’s brother A-Di, Nj meets, after many years, his old flame Sherry; this event and the health problems of Min-Min’s mother will threaten the well being of the family.
What a great portrayal of human existence, full of gentleness and warmth. “Yi Yi” tells you the straightforward truth about life: it’s always a constant flow of joy and pain. Something bad can happen, but there’s always a time for change.
Technically speaking, the movie is flawless; the sweetness of the story and the characters is perfectly matched with composed and slow directing: the camera follows the characters without rushing in, the editing takes its time, and the picture flows steadily.
At the same time, we have to praise the way director Edward Yang depicts the urban environment of Taipei. Sometimes it feels like the city is another character in the story and not just the background for the movie.
If you’re looking for a poetic and touching depiction of the beautiful complexity of life, you should watch “Yi Yi” right away. Lastly, don’t get discouraged by the length of the movie – 173 minutes – because at the end, the movie is so great that it’ll feel like 10 minutes.