Top 7 Experimental Movies of All Time
By Dmitriy Usov | 19-Jul-2021
Have you ever seen a film that makes you feel certain things you couldn't even imagine existed? Have you felt incredibly confused and then suddenly relieved for the next 2 minutes? These films are meant to be perceived as serious artistic work rather than a piece of entertainment; they subvert your expectations and introduce a new approach to filmmaking as a whole. Welcome to the world of experimental cinema.
What is experimental cinema?
Before analysing the top 7 experimental films of all time, it is appropriate to try and at least define what experimental cinema is.
The concept of experimental film is vast and multifaceted. Since we are dealing with a term that defies conventions and standards, it is hard to pinpoint its definition. Some define experimental films as those that deviate from a traditional entertainment intention and present a set of more complex ideas. Others say that experimental films are the ones that test new forms and introduce new conventions to the cinema.
The best way to put experimental cinema is as a mode of filmmaking that rigorously re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores non-narrative forms or alternatives of filmmaking.
The pioneers of this cinematic mode have introduced new techniques, form, structure, style and completely changed the perception of how a film can be seen. Experimental cinema provides a new kind of experience and challenges the moviegoing experience as a whole.
Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Un Chien Andalou is the first experimental film ever made. In fact, it is one of the first independent films that was financed immediately by its creators without the involvement of any major studios and is often said to be the most well-known short film of all time.
Directed by Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, and co-written with Salvador Dali, "Un Chien Andalou" (translated from French as "An Andalusian Dog") was unlike anything the world has seen before.
The film does not follow a particular plot structure in its classical sense. Rather, its narrative tries to express the events in a disjointed dream-logic flow. Full of evocative and graphic visuals, "Un Chien Andalou" was made to evoke a revolutionary shock to society.
An iconic scene of a man slicing through a woman's eye, which is later match-cut to an image of a sliced moon, imprints a disturbing yet definitely surreal memory in the audience's minds.
Development for "Un Chien Andalou" has started with Brunel discussing his dreams with fellow artist Dali. As a result, the two have decided to capture the dreamlike state through a newly emerging medium called film.
There is no coherent logic that connects the visuals throughout the film; it is bizarre, provocative, and garbled. On the one hand, the filmmakers alienate the viewers, yet on another, draw them in through the labyrinth of the Freudian free-association thinking method.
This film is an absolute must-watch for every lover of experimental cinema and filmmaking as a whole. Renowned American film critic Roger Ebert said that "Un Chien Andalou" "... assaulted old and unconscious habits of moviegoing," and as a result has birthed indie filmmaking and arthouse movement into being.
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
This is another groundbreaking film from 1929 comes from Soviet director and cinema theorist Dziga Vertov. Vertov was a leader of a cinematic movement called "Kinoki," in which he created and proclaimed a manifesto that urged his colleagues to abandon screenplay and all the "phoniness" of filmmaking. As he saw it, films should be made without actors and without a script.
Vertov shot The Man with the Camera in this manner, without a script, trusting only his inner understanding of the film's structure. They shot everything that came across them, not giving much thought to the sequencing of events. Vertov wanted to break the linear structure of the plot that everyone was already used to seeing in films.
"Man with a Movie Camera" is often referred to as the first documentary film ever made. When we think of documentary films now, there is nothing ground-breaking or unusual about the way they capture reality. But back at the end of the 1920s, this was not how the audience perceived films; for the viewers in the past, the concept of the film revolved around a story that tends to either entertain, scare or make the audience laugh. In contrast, Man with a Movie Camera serves more of an informative purpose (some even argue that it is somewhat propagandistic).
The film is exactly what you think it is. It follows a man with a movie camera, shooting the mundane elements of Soviet cities in one day. Vertov celebrated the town's modernity, its busy streets, and innovative technology. While "Man with a Movie Camera" does not possess any linear narrative, it does present the filmmaker's subjective viewpoint and demonstrates elements of self-reflexivity.
La Jetée (1962)
Chris Marker's La Jetée is a 28-minute black & white featurette film, constructed almost entirely from still photos, that has laid the foundation for arthouse science fiction for years to come.
"La Jetée" takes place in a post-apocalyptic Paris, where a group of scientists researches time-travel in order to prevent World War III. They stumble upon the film's narrator, whose obsessive attitude to his childhood memory becomes a key to solving a time-travel paradox.
"La Jetée", translated from French as "The Jetty" (or a plane viewing platform), refers to the narrator's memory itself. A vision of a woman (an epitome of life and beauty) and a man dying nearby (manifestation of destruction and doom) creates a contrasting memory, which is what, in Maker's words, "saves the humanity."
All the film's stills were shot on Pentax Spotmatic, and the motion-picture segment was shot on 35mm Arriflex. In contrast to the two previous films on this list, all the stills are edited in a cohesive narrative pattern, although the time travel segments of the film confound the structure.
The film is mainly poetic and pictorial. Muffled imagery of an oracular future combined with cross-cutting editing and fade-ins establishes a powerful contrast between a desolate world that the protagonist finds himself in and an idyllic memory of the past.
The film has a truly unique legacy. Blockbusters such as Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys" (1995) and Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" (2014), and "Tenet" (2020) are said to be inspired by "La Jetée".
It is virtually impossible to talk about experimental cinema, and not to mention David Lynch, one of the most influential filmmakers of our time. Lynch's work has revisited an interest with a dreamlike state and logic in films that earlier surrealists previously used.
Lynch's first feature film Eraserhead (1977), did not fit into the conventions of any established genre. The film premiered at the Filmex festival in Los Angeles and left the early audiences disturbed, inspired, and genuinely confused about what they have seen. This cinematic experiment, funded mainly through friends' & family contribution
On the one hand, the film is an experimental body horror; on another, "Eraserhead" is an existential piece of philosophical commentary on our society as a whole. Lynch feeds his viewers with a cohesive narrative. Its alienating yet immersive sound design, harrowing special effects make-up, and
Shot in black and white, this uncomfortable-to-watch classic has influenced a generation of directors to come.
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) is a documentary film directed by Godfrey Reggio and shot by Ron Fricke. The film contains many fragments shot in slow motion and is completely devoid of narration and acting.
The majority of storytelling is achieved through the use of experimental editing of sequences of subliminal nature that are eventually subdued and destroyed by human interference. But, it is the musical design of the film, composed by Phillip Glass, that drives the story, creates a particular atmosphere, and makes "Koyanisqatsi" one of the most important experimental films ever made.
"Koyaanisqatsi" in the Hopi Indian language means multiple things: a life of disorder, life out of balance, the destruction of life, and a state of life that dictates new conditions of existence. This word tends to describe the condition of our planet and all the repercussions of extractivist policies, crony capitalism, and a climate crisis that we are all faced with.
"Koyaanisqatsi" is the first trilogy of Katsi films, showing from different angles the interaction between man, nature, and technology. The other two films of the trilogy are "Povakkatsi" and "Nakoykatsi". "Koyaanisqatsi" was not released for more than a decade because of licensing restrictions, as Philip Glass and his ensemble toured with it, performing the music live right in front of the movie screen during screenings.
The Beaches of Agnes (2008)
Agnes Varda was a Belgian-French film director, photographer, and artist. Her experimental approach to films, distinct subjective realism style, and extensive involvement in a feminist film wave has established her as one of the most important filmmakers of the French New Wave movement.
Martin Scorsese described Varda as "one of the Gods of cinema"; she is also often referred to as a "Godmother of the French New Wave."
While all of Varda's films are somewhat distinct and experimental in their approach, The Beaches of Agnes (2008) is a great introduction to her artistry, life, and style as a whole. In this autobiographical experimental film, Varda looks back at her life as she associates every segment of it with a particular beach. "If we opened people up, we'd find landscapes. If you opened me up, we'd find beaches," states Varda in her film.
The cinematic approach to every single segment of her life changes as she introduces new elements, characters, and styles.
Full of poetic imagery reflecting the waves, conventions borrowed from different genres, and Varda's intimate revelations, "The Beaches of Agnes" is the director's attempt to capture her own identity in cinematic terms; the moving image translates the director's character effectively and effortlessly. The film is largely self-reflexive and investigational in a way it revisits Varda's earlier works.
In 2014, Richard Linklater, an independent film director, released an experimental drama that took him about 11 years to work on. What could have been created in such a long period?
Boyhood is a way to look at the process of growing up and coming of age in cinematic terms. Throughout the film, we watch the boy called Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) grow and change along with his family. He has an annoying sister, a divorced mother, and a father that constantly comes and goes. A typical American family, yet presented through a passage of time that we have never seen before.
"Boyhood", at first glance, is a complete opposite of the previously released from the director's trilogy "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset," "Before Midnight," but still, in our view, a certain part of the concept was preserved. Linklater experiments with a concept of time and realism, making his films.
The production of "Boyhood" took place several days a year, and thanks to advanced editing, we can watch the characters change, grow up. We witness teenage rebellion, hormonal outbursts, first love, and realizations of what an adult world brings. The film is an ode to the transient childhood, to a desire that pushes children to grow up.
As you saw, experimental cinema does not have a unifying categorization. It is rather an approach to the filmmaking itself than a particular genre or style.
All of our top 7 listed experimental films have brought something ground-breaking and revolutionary to film history. The names of these directors have gone down in history, and they will inspire many more filmmakers to come.
Understanding what experimental cinema is and getting familiar with different approaches to the arthouse is an integral part of learning moviemaking. When you comprehend how other artists have taken cinematic conventions and shattered them, it is easier to develop your own stylistic and technical approaches to filmmaking.
But perhaps, the most important lesson that all of these arthouse filmmakers teach us is that there is nothing impossible, and rules are meant to be broken. Comprehension and recontextualization of these rules enable creative nourishment, and that is why we highly encourage you to watch all of the films on this list. If you want even more inspiration to feed your creativity, we invite you to check this list of the top 6 short films to study as well.