avant-garde movies

Experimental movies – The least known cinematic avant-garde

There are so many film genres to keep virtually every movie buff happy, although sometimes directors and screenwriters like to reinvent the wheel by launching themselves into the void with something experimental, or “avant-garde,” that ever-fertile and rich ground of possibilities for innovation and artistic research.

Admittedly, not every foray into avant-garde cinema is a resounding success. Yet, we can’t help but admire those who, amidst the clamor of the profit-driven entertainment industry, dare to venture into unexplored narrative, visual, and sonic territories. Their audacity to push the boundaries of cinematic expression is a testament to their creative spirit and resilience.

From the Dadaist Movement of the 1920s to German Expressionism, the seventh art has been a relentless journey of evolution. Avant-garde cinema, with its innovative and ingenious directors like Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone, Orson Welles, Pedro Almodóvar, and James Cameron, has not only captivated arthouse film fans but also left an indelible mark on popular entertainment cinema, shaping the very language of film.

You will notice that I have mentioned some of these masters who are extremely different from each other in terms of style and themes covered in their works, but each of them contributed to redefining the language of film and stimulating new forms of visual and narrative perception through the innovative use of filming and editing techniques to manipulate our imagination.

In this article, we will explore five experimental movies that embody precisely this kind of innovation and creativity peculiar to the avant-garde of this genre, offering audiences an out-of-the-box cinematic experience full of the strange suggestions that perhaps few know and many, many more might discover and love.

Mad God (2021)

Mad God 2021 movie
Amazon Prime Video

Let’s start with one of the greatest artists in cinema history, especially commercial, perhaps unknown to the mass audience, but whose work behind the scenes helped make unique and magical some of the most beloved and idolized movies by the very masses.

We are talking about Phil Tippett, pioneer, and master special effects craftsman of such big hits as the Star Wars saga, Robocop or Jurassic Park; later moving on to directing with some fantasy/horror shorts and the entertaining sequel to the famous Starship Troopers.

In this case, Tippett returns to his primordial love by shooting a story almost entirely in stop motion, that is, manually moving characters and sets, frame by frame, to tell us about the senseless and aimless delirium of a future post-apocalyptic world dominated by the most complete and uncontrollable madness.

Opening the dances with a few rage-laden pages from Leviticus, we then follow the unique mission of some soldiers sent (down from heaven? by God himself? we don’t know) on a suicide mission into the darkest depths of this nightmarish scenario, populated by vast machines of cruel and bloody precision and strange creatures that roam around guardedly in terror of being killed or devoured at any moment.

In fact, an impossible mission that ends with the capture of the first of these soldiers, “operated on” by a mad doctor who extracts from his body a “newborn larva” that is then sacrificed to perpetuate what seems to be an endless cycle of birth and death, destruction and creation.

Phil Tippett bewitches the audience with the fleshly and bloody imagery of his creative vein, telling his story through images and almost zero dialogue in an experience as destabilizing as it is fascinating, building an incredible universe from which the viewer literally cannot take his eyes off.

Last and First Men (2020)

Last and First Men 2020 movie
Amazon Prime Video

From images so charged with Phil Tippett’s devastating energy, we now move entirely to the opposite with a story where the narrative is through hearing and, not surprisingly, such a unique and rare work directed by the late Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson.

While images of sculptures, vistas, and monuments of old Yugoslavia follow nonstop on the screen, the splendid voice of renowned actress Tilda Swinton comes as a warning from the future, warning all humanity of an impending catastrophe.

As the Sun teeters on the brink of death, our race faces a profound choice. Will we be the diehards, accepting our fate and refusing to leave Earth? Or will we be the pioneers, venturing into the vastness of space to colonize new planets?

Perhaps it is impossible to escape enough from the deadly radiation of our beloved star in agony, and there is no safe place to find shelter while our species splits into different evolutionary branches differentiating in the body or mind development.

Humanity, century after century, can do nothing but accept the inevitable conclusion of its history, some with hysterical cowardice and others celebrating the farewell to our species. Swinton’s sweet and sad voice tries to convince us to believe her even though she already knows it will all be in vain.

Starting from a novel by Olaf Stapledon, a literary pioneer of the science fiction genre, Jóhann Jóhannsson temporally compresses the plot by carefully choosing the most poignant and dramatic chapters he wants to tell us.

Like all of today’s movies, this is an experimental, cutting-edge experience, standing out for a unique fusion of words, music, and cold, twisted images as a backdrop for the poignant narrative being a far cry from a simple audio/book on the big screen.

Perfect (2018)

Perfect 2018 movie

We now return to the realm of elegance and visual cleanliness of a (despite its title) narratively flawed and rarefied movie that thrives on the refined yet disturbing style of its images.

A strange story born from the mind of Eddie Alcazar, screenwriter and director propelled by the fame of his colleague Steven Soderbergh, brushes an evocative portrait of the “privileged class” of young scions of wealthy families of the future.

Despite the premise, it all begins with a brutal murder by the confused and angry teenager Vessel, who wakes up next to the battered body of his girlfriend, which is not an isolated case for him.

To help him out of the state of unconsciousness that occasionally leads him to these violent outbursts, his mother invites him to be “corrected” in a secluded cottage/hotel in the mountains.

A place for a select few that doubles as a genetic laboratory/clinic and where, day after day, the boy’s personality and violent disposition will be reprogrammed by replacing (literally) pieces of his mind and body.

The boy resents the isolation, and things get even worse when he falls in love with the charming Sarah, a troubled girl who is already ahead in treatment and thus will not stay long in his company.

Despite being increasingly alienated from reality, Vessel desires to change and achieve the aesthetic and moral “perfection” that is supposedly part of his DNA and superior status.

Eddie Alcazar handles with disturbing aesthetic perfection the growth of the progeny of the powerful elite, obsessed with vacuous aesthetic perfection and an incomprehensible and grotesque cultural philosophy.

In short, it is a movie that is a journey into the human mind that does not guarantee joy or satisfaction but still deserves to experience as the avant-garde of a coming future.

Russian Ark (2002)

Russian Ark 2002 movie

With the next movie, we come to what is undoubtedly the best-known of these little-known avant-garde experiments.

The great director Aleksandr Sokurov brings forth his unique visual style and his reflections on Russian traditions with an entire one-and-a-half-hour sequence plan inside the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg, where the camera swirls around with over-the-top skill recounting at dance pace more than two centuries of Old Mother Russia’s history.

Acting as a cicerone for the camera operator (and thus for us viewers as well) is the snobbish and talkative Marquis De Custine, who takes us by the hand from room to room in this great museum of power above the people, that facade of luxury that has always risen above the dramas of the ordinary people.

From Emperor Alexander to Tsar Peter the Great, we reread the cultural and moral legacy of the immense Russian empire in an (perhaps even overly) aristocratic key as our gaze wanders through this continuous stream of hundreds of extras, musicians, and dancers who contributed to making this work so titanic and inimitable.

It is impossible not to adore the succession of monarchs behind the lavish costumes and stylistic precision in the splendid interiors of the Hermitage, isolated in the cold emptiness of the aristocracy who obviously feared the revolution that blew unstoppably like the wind from the steppes.

Sokurov proves again that he is an experimental filmmaker who continues to explore new techniques in his movies, inviting the viewer to reflect on social/political topics with a critical and avant-garde view of the past and present.

It is probably the best-known work among the finer palates of the seventh art, but again, re-watching it is a must to find those little details or historical characters that might escape a first viewing.

The Trial (1962)

The Trial 1962 movie
Amazon Prime Video

As always, I want to end with fireworks, and I couldn’t leave you in better hands than those of such a giant of cinema as Orson Welles, whose technique and inimitable imaginative flair take the already shining novel by the brilliant Franz Kafka to the stars.

A movie I loved even more than the idolized (rightly so) Citizen Kane, where Welles indulges in narrating the metaphorical/judicial epic of Josef K, an ordinary man who ends up in the bottomless abyss of bureaucracy that puts him on trial for no apparent reason.

Unable to understand what has put him at the center of the stage, Josef relies on the creepy lawyer Hastler (played by Welles himself) to try to figure it out, only to find that he has ended up in an even worse dead-end cage where his clients become practically pleading slaves at the foot of his bed.

Welles uses a variety of visual techniques to create a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere that permeates the sets of the intricate and labyrinthine offices of the court system, as well as almost “ecclesiastical” choices of costumes and lighting that are as surreal as they are oppressive.

Choices that do not come by accident accentuate the great Anthony Perkins‘s sense of confusion and paranoia, suspended in chaos and uncertain of his fate, moreover with a morbid relationship with Hastler’s nurse/assistant, the disturbing and sexy Romy Schneider.

Of course, in his work, Franz Kafka not only wants to explore the depths of the human psyche when it is crushed over the edge, but it is also a scathing critique of the faceless cruelty of bureaucracy and the infamy of corrupt justice, going to the extreme that even the policemen who arrest poor Joseph end up on trial.

As with all the movies I have recommended today, we go in and out of the myriad rooms of this story as if it were a dream, following the typical non-logic of nightmares, where we run all the more slowly, the more the dark threat is now implacable. As for you, however, are these experimental and avant-garde movies a dream to enjoy or a nightmare of boredom to endure? Let me know what you think in the comments and if you have any titles to suggest to add to this list.

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