An art film (also known as “art movie”, “art house film”, or in the collective sense as art cinema) is typically a serious, noncommercial, independently made film aimed at a niche audience rather than a mass audience. Film critics and film studies scholars typically define an “art film” using a “...canon of films and those formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films”, which includes, among other elements: a social realism style; an emphasis on the authorial expressivity of the director; and a focus on the thoughts and dreams of characters, rather than presenting a clear, goal-driven story. Film scholar David Bordwell claims that "art cinema itself is a [film] genre, with its own distinct conventions."
Art film producers usually present their films at specialty theatres (repertory cinemas, or in the US "arthouse cinemas") and film festivals. The term "art film" is much more widely used in the United States than in Europe, where the term "art film" is more associated with "auteur" films and "national cinema" (e.g., German national cinema). Art films are aimed at small niche market audiences, which means they can rarely get the financial backing which will permit large production budgets, expensive special effects, costly celebrity actors, or huge advertising campaigns, as are used in widely-released mainstream blockbuster films. Art film directors make up for these constraints by creating a different type of film, which typically uses lesser-known film actors (or even amateur actors) and modest sets to make films which focus much more on developing ideas or exploring new narrative techniques or filmmaking conventions.
Furthermore, a certain degree of experience and intellect are required to understand or appreciate such films; one late 1990s art film was called "largely a cerebral experience" which you enjoy "because of what you know about film" . This contrasts sharply with mainstream "blockbuster" movies, which are geared more towards escapism and pure entertainment. For promotion, art films rely on the publicity generated from film critics' reviews, discussion of their film by arts columnists, commentators, and bloggers, and "word-of-mouth" promotion by audience members. Since art films have small initial investment costs, they only need to appeal to a small portion of the mainstream viewing audiences to become financially viable.
The antecedents of art films included D. W. Griffith's film Intolerance (1916) and the works of Sergei Eisenstein. Art films were also influenced by films by Spanish avant-garde creators such as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (e.g., L'Age d'Or from 1930) and Jean Cocteau (e.g., The Blood of a Poet, also from 1930). In the 1920s, film societies began advocating the notion that films could be divided into an "...entertainment cinema directed towards a mass audience and a serious art cinema aimed at an intellectual audience". In England, Alfred Hitchcock and Ivor Montagu formed a Film Society and imported films that they thought were "artistic achievements," such as "Soviet films of dialectical montage, and the expressionist films of the Universum Film A. G. (UFA) studios in Germany."
Cinéma Pur, a 1920s and 1930s French avant-garde film movement also influenced the development of the idea of "art film." The cinema pur film movement included Dada artists, such as Man Ray (Emak-Bakia, Return to Reason), Rene Clair (Entr'acte), and Marcel Duchamp (Anemic Cinema). The Dadaists used film to transcend narrative (storytelling) conventions, bourgeois traditions, and conventional Aristotelian notions of time and space by creating a flexible montage of time and space. Pure Cinema was influenced by such German "absolute" filmmakers as Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, and Viking Eggeling.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood films could be divided into the artistic aspirations of literary adaptations like John Ford's The Informer (1935) and Eugene O'Neill's The Long Voyage Home (1940), and the money-making "popular genre films" such as gangster thrillers. William Siska argues that Italian neorealist films from the mid- to late-1940s, such as Open City (1945), Paisa (1946), and The Bicycle Thief can be deemed as another "conscious art film movement".
In the late 1940s, the US public's perception that Italian neorealist films and other serious European fare were different from mainstream Hollywood films was reinforced by the development of "arthouse cinemas" in major US cities and college towns. After the Second World War, "...a growing segment of the American filmgoing public was wearying of mainstream Hollywood films," and they went to the newly-created art film theaters to see "...alternatives to the films playing in main-street movie palaces". Films shown in these art cinemas included "... British, foreign-language, and independent American films, as well as documentaries and revivals of Hollywood classics." Films such as Rossellini's Open City and Mackendrick's Tight Little Island (Whisky Galore!), The Bicycle Thief and The Red Shoes were shown to substantial US audiences.
In the late 1950s, French filmmakers of the late 1950s began to produce films that were influenced by Italian Neorealism and classical Hollywood cinema, a style that critics called the French New Wave(French: La Nouvelle Vague). Although never a formally organized movement, the New Wave filmmakers were linked by their self-conscious rejection of classical cinematic form and their spirit of youthful iconoclasm and is an example of European art cinema. Many also engaged in their work with the social and political upheavals of the era, making their radical experiments with editing, visual style and narrative part of a general break with the conservative paradigm. Some of the most prominent pioneers among the group, including François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, began as critics for the famous film magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Auteur theory holds that the director is the "author" of his movies, with a personal signature visible from film to film.
The French New Wave movement continued into the 1960s. During the 1960s, the term "art film" began to be much more widely used in the United States than in Europe. In the US, the term is often defined very broadly, to include foreign-language (non-English) "auteur" films, independent films, experimental films, documentaries and short films. In the 1960s "art film" became a euphemism in the US for racy Italian and French B-movies. By the 1970s, the term was used to describe sexually explicit European films with artistic structure such as I Am Curious (Yellow). In the US, the term "art film" is sometimes used very loosely to refer to the broad range of films shown in repertory theaters or "arthouse cinemas." With this approach, a broad range of films, such as a 1960s Hitchcock movie, a 1970s experimental underground film, a European auteur film, a US "Independent" film , and even a mainstream foreign-language film (with subtitles) might all fall under the rubric of "art house films."
By the 1980s and 1990s, the term became conflated with "independent film" in the US, which shares many of the same stylistic traits with "art film." Companies such as Miramax Films distributed independent films which were deemed commercially unviable at the major studios. When major motion picture studios noted the niche appeal of independent films, they created special divisions dedicated to non-mainstream fare, such as the Fox Searchlight division of Twentieth Century Fox, the Focus Features division of Universal, and the Sony Pictures Classics division of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Film critics have debated whether the films from these special divisions can truly be considered to be "independent films", given that they have financial backing from major studios.
In 2007, Professor Camille Paglia argued in her article "Art movies: R.I.P." that "[l]ong before Bergman and Antonioni died, the mystical art-house film experience faded to black". Paglia claims that "[a]side from Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather series, with its deft flashbacks and gritty social realism, ...[there is not]...a single film produced over the past 35 years that is arguably of equal philosophical weight or virtuosity of execution to Bergman's The Seventh Seal or Persona ". Paglia states that young people from the 2000s have become accustomed to "hyperactive" special effect-filled films, which means that "very few" of them "...have patience for the long, slow take that deep-think European directors once specialized in", an approach which gave "...luxurious scrutiny of the tiniest facial expressions or the chilly sweep of a sterile room or bleak landscape". Paglia explains that "Art film as a genre has waned with the high modernism that produced it" in the broader cultural sphere, among whom she includes "James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf to Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Martha Graham". She argues that instead of producing art films, 2000s era filmakers are producing films that depict a "grim" and "...narrow mental world" that will be "fatal to future art".
Film scholar David Bordwell outlined the academic definition of "art film" in a 1979 article entitled The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice, which contrasts art films against the mainstream films of classical Hollywood cinema. Mainstream Hollywood-style films use a clear narrative form to organize the film into a series of "...causally related events taking place in space and time," with every scene driving towards a goal. The plot for mainstream movies is driven by a well-defined protagonist, fleshed out with clear characters, and strengthened with "...question-and-answer logic, problem-solving routines, (and) deadline plot structures." The film is then tied together with fast pacing, musical soundtracks to cue the appropriate audience emotions, and tight, seamless editing. Mainstream films tend to use a small palette of familiar, generic images, plots, verbal expressions, and archetypal "stock" characters.
In contrast, Bordwell states that "...the art cinema motivates its narrative by two principles: realism and authorial expressivity." Art films deviate from the mainstream, "classical" norms of filmmaking in that they typically deal with more episodic narrative structures with a "...loosening of the chain of cause and effect". As well, art films often deal with an inner drama that takes place in a character's psyche, such as psychological issues dealing with individual identity, transgressive sexual or social issues, moral dilemmas, or personal crises.
Mainstream films also deal with moral dilemmas or identity crises, but these issues are usually resolved by the end of the film. In art films, the dilemmas are probed and investigated in a pensive fashion, but usually without a clear resolution at the end of the movie. The protagonists in art films are often facing doubt, anomie or alienation, and the art film often depicts their internal dialogue of thoughts, dream sequences, and fantasies. In some art films, the director uses a depiction of absurd or seemingly meaningless actions to express a philosophical viewpoint such as existentialism.
The story in an art film often has a secondary role to character development and an exploration of ideas through lengthy sequences of dialogue. If an art film has a story, it is usually a drifting sequence of vaguely defined or ambiguous episodes. There may be unexplained gaps in the film, deliberately unclear sequences, or extraneous sequences that are not related to previous scenes, which force the viewer to subjectively make their own interpretation of the film's message. Art films often "...bear the marks of a distinctive visual style" and authorial approach of the director. An art cinema film often refuses to provide a "...readily answered conclusion," instead putting to the cinema viewer the task of thinking about "...how is the story being told? Why tell the story in this way?"
Bordwell claims that "art cinema itself is a [film] genre, with its own distinct conventions." Film theorist Robert Stam also argues that “art film” is a film genre. He claims that a film is considered to be an art film based on artistic status, in the same way that film genres can be based on aspects of films such as their budgets (blockbuster movies or B-movies) or their star performers (Fred Astaire movies).
The following list is a small, partial sample of films with "art film" qualities, compiled to give a general sense of what directors and films are considered to have "art film" characteristics. The films in this list demonstrate one or more of the characteristics of art films: a serious, noncommercial, or independently made film that is not aimed at a mass audience. Some of the films on this list are also considered to be "auteur" films, independent films, or experimental films. In some cases, critics disagree over whether a film is mainstream or not. For example, while some critics called Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) an "exercise in film experimentation" of "high artistic quality", the Washington Post called it an ambitious mainstream film
Some films in this list have most of these characteristics; other films are commercially-made films produced by mainstream studios that nevertheless bear the hallmarks of a director's "auteur" style, or which have an experimental character. The films in this list are notable either because they won major awards or critical praise from influential film critics or because they introduced an innovative narrative or filmmaking technique.
In the 1920s and 1930s, filmmakers did not set out to make "art films", and film critics did not use the term "art film". However, there were films that had more sophisticated aesthetic objectives, such as Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), surrealist film such as Luis Buñuel's Un chien andalou (1929) and L'Âge d'Or (1930), or even films dealing with political and current-event relevance such as Sergei Eisenstein's famed and influential masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. The US film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) by German Expressionist director F. W. Murnau uses distorted art design and groundbreaking cinematography to create an exaggerated, fairy-tale-like world that was rich with symbolism and imagery. Jean Renoir's film The Rules of the Game (1939) was a comedy of manners that transcended the conventions of the "comedy of manners" genre by creating a biting and tragic satire of French upper class society in the years before WW II; a poll of critics from the British Film Institute ranked it as the third greatest film ever, placing behind Citizen Kane and Vertigo.. Some of these early artistically-oriented films were financed by wealthy individuals rather than film companies, particularly in cases where the content of the film was controversial or unlikely to attract an audience. In the late 1940s, UK director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made The Red Shoes (1948), a film about ballet that stood out from mainstream genre films of the era. In 1945, David Lean would direct Brief Encounter, an adaptation of Noël Coward's play Still Life, which observes a passionate love affair between an upper class man and a middle class woman amidst the social and economical issues that Britain faced at the time.
In the 1950s, some of the well-known films with artistic sensibilities include La Strada (1954), a film about a young woman who is forced to go to work for a cruel and inhumane circus performer in order to support her family and eventually coming to terms with her situation, Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (1956), centering around family with a lack of faith amongst it but with a son who believes that he is Jesus Christ and convinced that he is capable of performing miracles, Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957), which deals with a prostitute’s failed attempts to find love, and her suffering and rejections, and Wild Strawberries (1957), by Ingmar Bergman, whose narrative concerns an elderly medical doctor and professor whose nightmares lead him to re-evaluate his life, and The 400 Blows (1959) by François Truffaut, whose main character is a young man trying to come of age despite the abuse from his parents, schoolteachers, and society in general. In Poland, the Khrushchev Thaw permitted some relaxation of the regime's cultural policies, and productions such as A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds, Lotna (1954–1959), all directed by Andrzej Wajda, showed the Polish Film School style.
In India, there was an art film movement in Bengali cinema known as "Parallel Cinema" or the "Indian New Wave". It was an alternative to the mainstream commercial cinema known for its serious content, realism and naturalism, with a keen eye on the social-political climate of the times. This movement is distinct from mainstream Bollywood cinema and began around the same time as the French New Wave and Japanese New Wave. The most influential filmmaker involved in this movement was Satyajit Ray. His most famous films were the The Apu Trilogy (1955–1959), which tells the story of a poor country boy's growth to adulthood. Bimal Roy's Two Acres of Land (1953) tells the story of a farmer during a famine in Bengal. Other acclaimed Bengali filmmakers involved in this movement include Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak.
Japanese filmmakers produced a number of films that broke with convention. Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), the first Japanese film to be widely screened in the west, depicts four witnesses' contradictory accounts of a rape and murder. In 1952, Kurosawa directed Ikiru, a film about a Tokyo bureaucrat struggling to find a meaning for life. Other Japanese films from this era include Tokyo Story (1953) by Yasujiro Ozu, Seven Samurai (1954) by Kurosawa, Fires on the Plain (1959) by Kon Ichikawa, and Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) by Kenji Mizoguchi.
The 1960s was a important period in art film, giving rise to the European art cinema. The early 1960s saw the release of a number of groundbreaking films. Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960) used innovative visual and editing techniques such as jump cuts and hand-held camera work. Jules et Jim by François Truffaut would deconstruct a complex relationship of three individuals over the course of their eventful lives through innovative screenwriting, editing, and camera techniques. In Italy, Michelangelo Antonioni helped revolutionize the art films, with such films as La Notte (1961), a complex examination of a failed marriage that dealt with issues such as anomie and sterility; L'Eclisse (1962), about a young woman who is unable to form a solid relationship with her boyfriend because of his materialistic nature; The Red Desert (1964), his first color film, which deals with the need to adapt to the modern world; and Blowup (1966), Antonioni's first English language film, which examines issues of perception and reality as it follows a young photographer’s attempt to discover whether he had photographed a murder.
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman started off the 1960s with chamber pieces like Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963) dealing with such themes as emotional isolation and a lack of communication. His films from the later half of the decade, such as Persona (1966), Shame (1968), and A Passion (1969), deal with the idea of film as an artifice. Intellectual and visually expressive films of Tadeusz Konwicki, such as All Souls' Day (Zaduszki, 1961), and especially Salto (1962) inspired discussions about war and raised existential questions on behalf of their everyman protagonists.
Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) depicts a succession of nights and dawns in Rome as witnessed by a cynical journalist. In 1963, he made 8½, an exploration of creative, marital and spiritual difficulties shot in sumptuous black-and-white by cinematographer Gianni de Venanzo. The 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad by director Alain Resnais examines perception and reality, using grand tracking shots that became widely influential. Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is notable for its naturalistic, elliptical style. Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967) shocked audiences with its masochistic fantasies about floggings and bondage.
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's film Andrei Rublev (1966) is a portrait of the medieval Russian icon painter of the same name. The film is also about artistic freedom and the possibility and necessity of making art for, and in the face of, a repressive authority. A cut version of the film was shown at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI prize. The book The Top 100 Films states that the film is a masterpiece and one of Tarkovsky's best works. At the end of the decade, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) wowed audiences with its scientific realism, pioneering use of special effects, and unusual visual imagery. In Soviet Armenia, Sergei Parajanov's The Color of Pomegranates, which was banned by Soviet authorities, and also long unavailable in the west, was praised by critic Mikhail Vartanov as "revolutionary"  and in the early 1980s, Les Cahiers du Cinéma placed the film in its top 10 list . In Iran, Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow (1969), about a man who becomes insane after the death of his beloved cow, sparked the new wave of Iranian cinema.
In the early 1970s, directors shocked audiences with violent films such as A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick's brutal exploration of futuristic youth gangs Last Tango in Paris (1972), Bernardo Bertolucci's taboo-breaking, sexually-explicit and controversial film. Nevertheless, other directors did more introspective films, such as Andrei Tarkovsky's meditative science fiction film Solaris (1972), supposedly intended as a Soviet riposte to 2001. In 1975, Tarkovsky directed another film which garnered critical acclaim overseas, The Mirror. Terrence Malick, who directed Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) shared many traits with Tarkovsky, such as his long, lingering shots of natural beauty, evocative imagery, and poetic narrative style.
Another feature of 1970s art films was the return to prominence of bizarre characters and imagery, which abound in the tormented, obsessed title character in German New Wave director Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973), and in cult films such as Alejandro Jodorowsky's psychedelic The Holy Mountain (1973) about a footless, handless dwarf and an alchemist seeking the mythical Lotus Island The film Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese continues the themes that Clockwork Orange explored: an alienated population living in a violent, decaying society. The gritty violence and seething rage of Scorsese's film contrasts other films released in the same period, such as David Lynch's dreamlike, surreal Eraserhead (1977). In 1974 John Cassavetes would offer a sharp commentary on American blue-collar life in A Woman Under the Influence, which features an eccentric housewife slowly descending into madness.
In 1980, director Martin Scorsese shocked audiences who had become used to the escapist blockbuster adventures of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas with the gritty, harsh realism of his film Raging Bull. In this film, actor Robert De Niro took method acting to an extreme to portray a boxer's decline from a prizewinning young fighter to an overweight, "has-been" nightclub owner. In the middle of the decade, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa used realism to portray the brutal, bloody violence of Japanese samurai warfare of the 1500s in Ran (1985). Ran followed the plot of King Lear, in which an elderly king is betrayed by his children. Sergio Leone also contrasted brutal violence with emotional substance in his epic tale of a mobster's life in Once Upon a Time in America.
Other directors in the 1980s chose a more intellectual path, exploring philosophical and ethical issues. Andrzej Wajda's Man of Iron (1981) is a critique of the Polish communist government which won the 1981 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Another Polish director, Krzysztof Kieślowski made The Decalogue for television in 1988, a largely melancholic film series that explores ethical issues and moral puzzles. Two of these films were released theatrically as A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing. In 1989 Woody Allen would make, in the words of The New York Times critic Vincent Canby his most "securely serious and funny film to date" in Crimes and Misdemeanors, which deals with multiple stories of people trying to find a moral and spiritual simplicity in life facing dire issues and thoughts surrounding the choices they make. French director Louis Malle chose another moral path to explore with the dramatization of his real-life childhood experiences in Au revoir, les enfants, which depicts the Nazi occupation government's deportation of French Jews to concentration camps during WWII.
Kieślowski was not the only director to transcend the distinction between the cinema and television: Ingmar Bergman made Fanny and Alexander (1982) which was shown on television in an extended five-hour version. In the UK, Channel 4, a new television channel, financed in whole or part many films released theatrically via its Film 4 subsidiary. Wim Wenders offered another approach on life from a spiritual standpoint in his 1987 film Wings of Desire, a depiction of a "fallen angel" who lives among men which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1982, experimental director Godfrey Reggio released Koyaanisqatsi, a film without dialogue which emphasizes cinematography and philosophical ideology. It consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse photography of cities and natural landscapes which creates a visual tone poem.
Another approach used by directors in the 1980s was to create bizarre, surreal alternate worlds. Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985) is a comedy-thriller that depicts a man's baffling adventures in a surreal nighttime world of chance encounters with mysterious characters. David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), is a film noir-style thriller mystery filled with symbolism and metaphors about polarized worlds and inhabited by distorted characters that are hidden in the seamy underworld of a small town. Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) is an outlandish fantasy/black comedy about cannibalism and extreme violence with an intellectual theme: a critique of 'elite culture' in Thatcherian Britain.
In the 1990s, some directors created bizarre, surreal alternate worlds, as was done in the 1980s with Blue Velvet and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. In 1990, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's Dreams depicted his imaginative reveries in a series of vignettes that range from idyllic pastoral country landscapes to horrific visions of tormented demons and a blighted post-nuclear war landscape. In 1991, director Joel Coen's Barton Fink, which won the Palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival, told an enigmatic story about a writer who encounters a range of bizarre characters including an alcoholic, abusive novelist and a serial killer. David Lynch's 1997 film Lost Highway is a psychological thriller that explores fantasy worlds, bizarre time-space transformations, and mental breakdowns using surreal imagery.
Other directors in the 1990s explored philosophical issues and themes such as identity, chance, death, and existentialism. The 1990s films My Own Private Idaho and Chungking Express explored the theme of identity. Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) is an independent road movie/buddy movie about two young street hustlers which explores the theme of the search for home and identity. It was called a "high-water mark in '90s independent film", a "stark, poetic rumination", and an "exercise in film experimentation" of "high artistic quality". Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express (1994) explores the themes of identity, disconnection, loneliness, and isolation in the "metaphoric concrete jungle" of modern Hong Kong. The film uses a visual style that could be seen as music video-influenced, and also bears similarities to the French New Wave. While the British Film Institute called it one of the best Asian films of contemporary cinema, it is considered to be a film for cineophiles, because it is "largely a cerebral experience" which you enjoy "because of what you know about film.
Abbas Kiarostami's film Taste of Cherry (1997), which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of a man trying to hire a person to bury him after he commits suicide. The film was shot in a minimalist style, with long takes, a leisurely pace, and long periods of silence. The film was also notable for its use of long shots and overhead shots which creates a sense of distance between the audience and the characters. Zhang Yimou's early 1990s works such as Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) and To Live (1994) explore human emotions through a poignant narrative. To Live won the Grand Jury Prize.
Several 1990s films explored existentialist-oriented themes related to life, chance, and death. Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993) explored themes of chance, death, and infidelity by tracing ten parallel and interwoven stories. The film, which won the Golden Lion and the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, was called a "many-sided, many mooded, dazzlingly structured eclectic jazz mural" by Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington. Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Véronique (1991) is a drama about the theme of identity and a political allegory about the East/West split in Europe which features stylized cinematography, an ethereal atmosphere, and unexplained supernatural elements. Abbas Kiarostami's film Taste of Cherry (1997) about a man trying to hire a person to bury him after he commits suicide. The film, which was shot in a minimalist style, with long takes, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Darren Aronofsky's film Pi (1998) is a dream-like "...incredibly complex and ambiguous film filled with both incredible style and substance" about a paranoid math genius' "search for peace." The film creates a David Lynch-inspired,"... eerie Eraserhead-like world" shot in "black-and-white, which lends a dream-like atmosphere to all of the proceedings", which explore issues such as "metaphysics and spirituality" Matthew Barney's The Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002) is a cycle of five symbolic, allegorical films that create a self-enclosed aesthetic system that aims to explore the process of creation. The films are filled with allusions to reproductive organs and sexual development, and they use narrative models drawn from biography, mythology, and geology.
Some 1990s films mixed an ethereal or surreal visual atmosphere with the exploration of philosophical issues. Satantango (1994), by the Hungarian director Bela Tarr is a 7½ hour long film, shot in black and white, that deals with Tarr’s favorite theme, that of inadequacy, as con man Irimias comes back to a village at an unspecified location in Hungary, setting himself up as leader and as a Messiah figure to the gullible villagers. Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy (1993-4), particularly Blue (1993) and Red (1994) deal with human relationships, and how people cope with them alongside their day-to-day lives. The trilogy was called an exploration of "...unabashedly spiritual and existential issues" that created a "truly transcendent experience".
A number of films from the 2000s with art film qualities were notable due to their use of innovative filmmaking or editing techniques. Memento (2001), a psychological thriller directed by Christopher Nolan is about a man suffering from short-term memory loss. The film is edited so that the plot is revealed backwards in ten-minute chunks, simulating the condition of memory loss. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is a romance film directed by Michel Gondry about a man who hires a company to erase the memory of a bad relationship. The film used a range of special effect techniques and camera work to depict the destruction of the man's memories and his transitions from one memory to another.
Timecode (2000), a film directed by Mike Figgis, uses a split screen to show four continuous 90 minute takes that follow four storylines. Russian Ark (2002), a film directed by Alexander Sokurov took Figgis' use of extended takes even further; it is notable for being the first feature film shot in a single, unedited take. Waking Life (2001), an animated film directed by Richard Linklater uses an innovative digital rotoscope technique to depict a young man stuck in a dream.
Several 2000s-era films explored the theme of amnesia or memory, but unlike Memento, they did so using narrative techniques rather than filmmaking and editing methods. Mulholland Drive (2001), directed by David Lynch is about a young woman who moves to Hollywood and discovers that an amnesiac is living in her house. Oldboy (2003), directed by Park Chan-wook, is about a man imprisoned by a mysterious and brutal captor for 15 years who must then chase his old memories when he is abruptly released. Peppermint Candy (2000), directed by Lee Chang-dong, starts with the suicide of the male protagonist, and then uses reverse chronology (like Memento) to depict the events of the last 20 years which led the man to want to kill himself.
Some of the notable films from the 2000s that have been considered to have art film-qualities differed from mainstream films in controversial subject matter or in narrative form. Elephant (2003), a film directed by Gus Van Sant, for example, depicting mass murder at a high school that echoed the Columbine High School massacre, won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Other of his films include Gerry, Last Days, and Paranoid Park. Todd Haynes' complex deconstruction of Bob Dylan's persona, I'm Not There (2007), tells its story using non-traditional narrative techniques, intercutting the story-lines of the six different Dylan-inspired characters. Other notable films include Harsh Times, a story about an ex-soldier who is tormented by the horrors of war and Hard Candy, a psychological thriller focusing on a confrontation between a sexual predator and a 14-year-old girl he attempts to ensnare. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's film Pan's Labyrinth uses Computer-generated imagery (CGI) technology to create a fantastical world that a ten year-old girl imagines to block out the horror of the Spanish Civil War. Encyclopedia Britannica calls del Toro's film "...a wonderful marriage of Hollywood genre [film] and European art film".
Lewis Beale of Film Journal International stated that Australian director Andrew Dominik's western film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is "a fascinating, literary-based work that succeeds as both art and genre film." Unlike the more action-oriented Jesse James movies of the past, Dominik's unconventional epic, perhaps more accurately, details the outlaw's relinquishing psyche during the final months of his life as he finds himself succumbing to the paranoia of being captured and developing a rather precarious friendship with his eventual assassin, Robert Ford. In 2009, director Paul Thomas Anderson claimed that his film Punch Drunk Love, about a shy, repressed rageaholic was "an art house Adam Sandler film", a reference to the unlikely inclusion of "frat boy" comic Sandler in the film; critic Roger Ebert claims that Punch Drunk Love "...may be the key to all of the Adam Sandler films, and may liberate Sandler for a new direction in his work. He can't go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he? Who would have guessed he had such uncharted depths?".
A genre or style of "art television" (or "quality television") has been identified, which shares some of the same traits of art films. Television shows such as David Lynch's Twin Peaks series and BBC's The Singing Detective also have "...a loosening of causality, a greater emphasis on psychological or anecdotal realism, violations of classical clarity of space and time, explicit authorial comment, and ambiguity." Other television shows that have been called "art television," such as The Simpsons, use a "...flurry of cultural references, intentionally inconsistent characterization, and considerable self-reflexivity about television conventions and the status of the programme as a television show." HBO's The Wire might also be qualified as "art television" as it has garnered a larger amount of critical attention from academics than most television shows. For example, the film theory journal Film Quarterly has featured the show on its cover.
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Art films are a type of movie that is very different from the popular Hollywood blockbuster movies. Art films have many other names. Some people call them art movies, independent films, indie films, arthouse films, auteur films ("auteur" is a French word which means "author") or experimental films.
Art films are usually made by smaller movie companies. These companies do not have much money compared to the large movie studios, for example, Paramount Pictures or Walt Disney Pictures. Art films usually have different plots (stories) than blockbuster movies. They usually tell more creative or unusual stories than blockbuster movies.
Art films often show controversial or sad stories. These types of movies may have sad endings. They are sometimes hard to understand, because the movie may be about people's feelings, thoughts, or dreams.
For these reasons, art films are not shown in many cinemas or theaters. This means that art films do not have large audiences and do not make a lot of money. They are generally promoted by people who see the movie and then tell their friends to go see it.
To understand why movie directors make art movies, one has to know about blockbuster movies. Blockbuster movies are part of the reason why people make art films. Movie directors making art films try to make them very different from blockbuster movies. The movie is a more personal statement by the director. Blockbusters are made for commercial reasons and art films are made for personal reasons.
Blockbuster movies often have very large budgets. This money is used to pay large salaries for the actors. It pays for special effects and for advertisements. Art movies have small budgets. They usually have unknown or little-known actors. Some even use amateur actors. Some art films will even use regular people with no experience as actors to work as the actors. It is not uncommon for Art film directors to use friends and family members as actors.
Blockbusters often use simple stories and characters that have been used before in other movies. Art movies usually use strange or unusual stories and characters that the audience may not have seen before.
In blockbuster movies, there is usually a happy ending. All of the problems in the story are figured out or fixed by the end of the movie. In art movies, there is often a sad ending. They can also have endings which are either hard to understand or could mean many different things. These endings are used so that the audience will have to think about what might have happened in the story.
Blockbuster movies are very popular. This causes more movies to be made using the same story and characters. For example, the James Bond movies all tell stories about the British spy named James Bond. The Star Wars science fiction movies all tell stories about spaceships and outer space wars. Art films are very rarely made into franchises with sequels. This is because directors of art films are often trying to create a new movie with new ideas for each movie they make. Some art films do have sequels. This will most often happen when the movie was very well liked and the director wanted to tell more stories using some of the same characters.
Rarely, an art film can be so well liked that a franchise is created because of it. The View Askew universe is an example of this. Kevin Smith wrote and directed the movie Clerks. He produced the movie himself with a friend, Scott Mosier. They named their production company, View Askew Productions. This movie was an art film. It had a small budget, dealt with personal issues and its actors were mainly Smith's friends and family. Smith even played one of the characters himself. The movie was very popular and sold well when it was released on DVD. Universal Pictures, a large Hollywood studio, asked him to make a movie for them. He used two of his characters from Clerks, Jay and Silent Bob, as part of the new movie. He later used Jay (played by Jason Mewes and Silent Bob (played by Smith) is three other movies he wrote: Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks 2, a sequel to Clerks.
David Bordwell is a professor from the United States. He studies movies at a university. He thought of a way of explaining what an "art film" is in 1979. He wrote that art films are different from regular Hollywood movies. Regular Hollywood movies have a clear story and plot. Art film often have much stranger stories. In an art film, the stories may be hard to understand. As well, in an art film, the audience may have a hard time understanding what is going on. Art movies are often about people's feelings and thoughts. Art movies are often about big questions that a person has to answer about who they are or what they should do in a situation.