Art House Films You Should Probably Watch

There are so many great Art films, and many things that separate an Art House film from typical corporate media. For example, Art films don’t always follow a three (four or five) act structure, or have a decided beginning, middle, climax, and/or epilogue. Sometimes there is no recognizable plot, and characters simply walk through a landscape interacting with each other, or experience events. Sometimes those events are presented with no explanation, or the film is a character or philosophical study.

Art movies can sometimes have a more documentary feel, often with experimental lighting (natural) and camera (hand held) techniques. They are a lot more likely to have narration, but sometimes they don’t, and the viewer is expected to determine for themselves the movie’s point. Many of them are from countries without a large, or formal, movie studio system, so filmmakers are free to make films without corporate interference, as long as they can procure funds.

Art House films are notable for not playing in large theaters for mainstream audiences, (although this is beginning to change), because the subject matter is sometimes controversial, or taboo, or the film is too long to play in mainstream theaters, which are more concerned with the volume of seating, rather than the quality of the movies.

I know this makes Art House films seem intimidating to some people. There’s the idea that you won’t understand what the filmmaker is trying to say, or that the film will be boring, or you may have to read subtitles. But that’s okay. Sometimes you’re not meant to understand what the movie means. Sometimes you’re just meant to simply feel the imagery, or identify with the characters.

Here are eleven Art House movies that are easily accessible to the casual film goer. I tried to pick movies that I found interesting, entertaining, and easily accessed in some streaming form.

Border by Ali Abassi

Border is a Swedish film from 2018, that is based on a short story from the book, Let the Old Dreams Die by John Lindqvist, who is famous for the vampire novel, Let the Right One In. Tina works as a Customs Inspector, where she meets another person who seems to be a lot like her, while she is investigating a child sex trafficking ring. She soon discovers some new and interesting things about both herself, and her new lover, as a result

At first glance the movie seems very strange. Why do some of the characters look like neanderthals, and why are they working such boring regular jobs? Trust me, these questions do get answered, and there is a plot, but ultimately the movie is about one young woman’s journey of self discovery. This is one of those films that is more like a character study, and you’re meant to identify with the lead character, as she has these experiences.

Border is currently available for streaming on Hulu.

Nomadland by Chloe Zhao

This is Chloe Zhao’s adaptation of the 2017 book of the same name by Jessica Bruder. It won 2020 Oscars for best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress, Frances McDormand. McDormand plays Fern, a woman who travels, nomad-like, in a van, after the loss of her husband and home. This is one of those movies that seemingly has no plot. Its more like a documentary, than the fictional film it actually is, but with real world elements. Its also somewhat melancholy, with few moments of hope or cheer, so be prepared for that.

We are given little backstory for Fern, and the other characters , as we follow her from pointless job to pointless job, or meets other elderly travelers like herself, and they all try to make the best of the lives they have left to them. This is a movie that’s meant to be felt more than understood in a plot sense. As you watch, pay close attention to the environment, settings, and times of day, as these are metaphors echoing the lives of the characters.

Nomadland is available to watch on Hulu.

The Fall by Tarsem Singh

This movie is from the director of The Cell, Tarsem Singh, stars Lee Pace, and is quite possibly one of the most beautiful fantasy films ever made. It’s nearest cousin, from a plot standpoint, is Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Here, a young girl named Alexandra, who has broken her arm, meets a lonely injured stuntman, in a 1915 Los Angeles hospital, who tells her a fantasy story, based on her namesake, Alexander the Great, all while attempting to manipulate her into helping him commit suicide.

Okay, trust me, its not as awful as it sounds, and actually ends on a moment of hope. But it is definitely the kind of movie that would have had a difficult time finding a widespread audience, because the rather convoluted story within a story structure makes it hard to follow. It is, however, well worth the watch, just for the beauty of Lee Pace, and the costumes from Eiko Ishioka, the costumer of 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula!

The Fall is one of the few films on this list that isnt available for streaming anywhere, and is only available on DVD.

Samsara by Ron Fricke

If you like The Fall, and want to watch something else similar to it, but without all the pesky plot points and dialogue, then you should try these modern day silent films. The closest relations to movies like this are the 80’s and 90’s films, Powwaquatsi, and Koyyanisquatsi. This was released in 2012, from the director the similar film, Baraka, and takes place across 25 different countries. Samsara is the Buddhist belief in the cycle of death and rebirth to which all humanity is tied.

These movies are basically extended music videos, and are the very definition of Art House film. There are no real characters, plots, or dialogue, just images, and music. This movie, (and others like it), are created to promote mindfulness and contemplation, as you derive meaning from the images. Also it’s simply a breathtakingly beautiful piece of work, absolutely stunning in its scope, and should be watched just for that alone.

Samsara is available for streaming on Tubi for free, and on Amazon Prime for rent.

Hero by Zhang Yimou

There is a reason why Zhang Yimou is on this list multiple times. Because he is, hands down, one of the greatest filmmakers to come out of China. Hero is his 13th film, starring Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung, about a nameless man, commissioned by three assassins, to kill a warlord who is attempting to unite the different territories of China into one nation. This takes the form of several stories within stories, with each iteration of the story told by Nameless, as the warlord challenges each interpretation, each story is represented by the colors, red, green, white, and blue.

Most of Zhang’s films focus on domestic dramas, and this film does contain some elements of that, but this is largely known as a great martial arts showpiece for Jet Li. It is definitely a movie that you have to pay close attention to, as the plot is not necessarily about what you think it is, and because Nameless is an unreliable narrator, (called out for it multiple times by the warlord), many of the characters are not who they seem, either.

Hero is available on Amazon Prime.

Tree Of Life by Terence Malick

Tree of Life is a classic Art House movie. its long, with enigmatic narration, some experimental camerawork, and a plotless plot, that doesn’t work in acts. It’s a gorgeous looking movie, where the viewer has to piece together the meaning and themes for themselves. Its about life, death, birth, and the relationships between parents and children, and siblings, and how those relationships take place in a universe that is so much wider (and yet, smaller) than all of that.

This is one of those movies you either love or hate. Not because the movie is bad, but because of how you, personally, watch movies, what you bring to a movie, and how you feel about the director’s point of view. Viewers who like a certain type of film, and want it to be resolved in a certain way, will probably have some trouble with this, because it is not a film with a concrete plot. Nothing gets resolved. Nothing is quite finished. Its a film with a message, but the message depends on what you see, and how you interpret that.

Tree of Life is Available on Amazon Prime, and ITunes.

Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou

This movie is can be very frustrating. It’s another beautiful looking film ,and definitely has a point to make. It has a more coherent plot than the above Tree of Life, but it still ends on an somewhat unresolved note. The lead character is a young woman who was taken out of school by her stepmother, to be married off to a man she doesn’t know. Her life is deeply constrained, and many of the choices of her life have been made for her, and she goes along with some of them with malicious compliance, but in her new husband’s home, she finds some agency with which to make decisions. Well, she tries because…

Unfortunately, all of the decisions she makes are either bad, or thwarted by the husband’s other wives, who have agendas that are at odds with her own. She exists within several systems that are designed to make it impossible for her to make good or even ethical decisions, if she wants to experience any happiness. We want to root for her but as she is often as petty and meanspirited as everyone in the environment. There is also a system of favoritism in place, that seems carefully designed to keep the wives at odds with each other. The title refers to the red lanterns that are lit, in the homes of the wives, when the husband decides to spend the night with one of them.

Raise the Red Lantern is available on Youtube.

Paprika by Satoshi Kon

There are a surprising number of animated Art House movies, and this is one of my favorites. I have heard form some people that they find this movie very nightmarish, but I didn’t see it that way. I found it strange and delightful. Its an absolutely bonkers movie, that requires multiple viewings to fully understand the plot, but I didn’t mind, because I like visiting a world where people’s dreams get to run wild. The lead character is a dream therapist, whose dream identity is named Paprika. When the experimental dream device she uses for her job gets stolen, she has to try to find out who stole it, by following the dream logic that person has been imposing on the real world.

For me, this movie was a delight, but since so many people reported being disturbed by it, I guess your mileage may vary.

Paprika is available for rent on Youtube and Amazon Prime.

Valhalla Rising by Nicolas Wending Refn

Viking movies rarely get to go mainstream, and I really like Viking movies, so I feel like this subject is getting short shrift. Well, Vikings or not, this particular movie was never going to get play in mainstream theaters. Nicolas Wending Refn is known for his rather inexplicable films, which take multiple viewing in order to get their meaning. There’s almost no dialogue in this film, and the lead character, a nameless enslaved man who is forced to fight other prisoners, doesn’t speak at all. He falls into the company of a group of misplaced Vikings who are in America, but believe they have found some sort of Holy Land (they’re actually in America). His presence among them takes on an almost mystical importance, as they decide whether or not they are actually in the Holy Land, or perhaps dead, and in some kind of Hellish afterlife.

There are a number of very graphic fight scenes in this movie, along with some graphic death scenes, so take that into account, when suggesting this movie to your friends. It’s also a very quiet film, with long periods where there is no music, and the narration that exists, feels cryptic. Your takeaway from this movie depends on your mindset. You’ll get out of it what you bring to it. For me, this is as close as Refn could get to making a Viking Horror movie.

Valhalla Rising is available for rent on Youtube.

City of Lost Children by  Jean-Pierre Jeunet

I would also like to recommend Jeunet’s earlier film Delicatessen as this is the second film of his I’d ever seen, and its a little bit difficult to put into words. A mad scientist’s creation is stealing the dreams of children ,because he can’t produce his own dreams. The creature makes the mistake of kidnapping the little brother of a circus strongman, named One, played by Ron Perlman, in one of his little known roles. One has several close calls and mini-adventures, while trying to find his little brother, and put a stop to the monster’s schemes.

This movie looks very strange. Although the plot seems perfectly accessible to most viewers, it is shot in an unconventional way, with a faded color palette, and featuring, the very French Jeaunet’s, penchant for unconventional makeup and odd facial features. The movie itself is very dream-like with octopus orphans, a man who uses trained fleas, a brain in a vat, and a diver with amnesia who lives under the lake. its aceptable for children to watch it, although they may not understand the intricacies of the plot. They will perhaps be delighted by the imagery, though.

City of Lost Children is available for rent on Youtube.

Honorable Mentions:

*Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. by Leslie Harris – This is one of the few films directed by an African American woman.

Rize by Davis LaChappelle

*One False Move by Carl Franklin

Angelheart by Alan Parker

Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, and Oldboy by Spike Lee

*Parasite and Snow Piercer by Bong Joon Ho

Hollywood Shuffle by Robert Townsend

*The Triplets of Bellville and The Illusionist by Sylvain Chomet

*Marie Antoinette by Sophia Coppola

Aguirre The Wrath of God by Werner Herzog

*The Duellists by Ridley Scott

(*Personal Favorites)

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