Some people rave about movies they were captivated by because of how it made them feel, rather than having an engaging story. This could be because of the tone set by the music, the cinematography, the lighting, and the intensity of the performances, and many other factors where the screenwriter may not have had much input.
Movies can enamor people, and make them experience all sorts of feelings, from heartache, anger, relief, joy, and even boredom if the film in question is dull. Often these feelings are what viewers take away from films.
These films are like songs where the lyrics make absolutely no sense, but the tune and melody is so captivating that listeners simply do not care about the lyrical content. When films like this finish, viewers will leave still feeling its effect on them.
Below are 10 films that may not necessarily tell a story, but they certainly take viewers on a journey of emotions, mind blowing visuals, and a movie-going experience unlike any other. Spoilers ahead!
10. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
There was a 30 year gap between this film and the series’ previous entry, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Unlike the previous three Mad Max films, Mad Max: Fury Road almost has no plot at all. It is almost like a grueling feature-length car chase. While the film does become monotonous at times because of this, the film is more about the general sense of living in a horrible, post-apocalyptic world and having to do anything to survive.
The long car chase is not just about action and explosions. It is ultimately about the characters, from both sides, refusing to give up their goal and keep on going no matter the cost. The film is as much about the characters’ suffering as it is an action blockbuster.
However, the experience of Mad Max: Fury Road does not stop when the cars stop moving. It merely slows down and displays, along with the visually stunning shots of the empty desert, that there is no hope for these characters at a better life in such a place.
9. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
The influence of religion has a strong impact on people, sometimes with dangerous results, and The Master shows how cults can affect people. The lack of plot is substituted for the eerie feeling that the film gives regarding how The Cause, the cult in question, influences its followers and makes them do radical things.
The subtlety of the way The Cause gains followers is unsettling as it is not that blatant, but it is very clearly present. The processing scene, which shows how Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is becoming dehumanised and broken down to be controlled by both The Cause and its leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is strong.
The scene toward the end of the film where Hoffman sings “Sailboat to China” to Phoenix to say his final goodbye and to show how betrayed he feels, with Phoenix crying, is so powerful, yet it is a quiet scene at the same time. This is more effective than a brasher and dramatic scene would have been.
The final scene with Phoenix is with a girl, and he repeats the questions he was asked in the aforementioned processing scene; it ends the film on an eerie note, that although he has left The Cause, he is still affected by it and their views of the world.
The constant foreboding feeling throughout The Master perhaps speaks more than its criticism of cults. The cinematography is fantastic, fully capturing the barren landscapes it’s set in that are just as barren as the void in Freddie’s heart after fighting in World War II; the music and the film’s slow pace are very effective in conveying that sadness as well. The plot is dense and makes you think about what is happening to fully take it all in.
8. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)
To say Lars von Trier is a pessimistic filmmaker is a huge understatement. He is known for channeling his depression through filmmaking, and it really does show through his 2009 horror film Antichrist.
The plot is very simple in that a couple, simply called He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), are grieving over the death of their son Nic, and they travel to a cabin in the woods as part of She’s healing process. What happens then is both their surroundings and She’s dark thoughts get the better of her, resulting in brutal violence.
Although the above plot description may look a bit thin, the experience of watching Antichrist is a harrowing one. The bleak tone, the dark lighting, the creepy woods, and the graphic violence in Antichrist represent the grief He and She face over their dead son, and that death is everywhere.
The grim and disturbing visuals, like the deformed talking animals and the tree with human bodies hanging out of it when He and She have sex in front of it, create an atmosphere of pure dread for the audience. In fact, there are no light moments in the film.
Antichrist is a dark version of the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible and how they were led astray to betray God in the Garden of Eden, which created all the evil temptations in the world, especially lust. She actually says that “nature is Satan’s church,” and in this version of Eden, it is easy to believe that.
7. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
The theme of living forever and cheating death has been used in stories for many, many years, but The Fountain shows how three different men in different time periods, all played by Hugh Jackman, are seeking the Tree of Life to achieve this goal.
Tomas the conquistador is fighting Mayans in the year 1500 to help his beloved queen bring peace; Tom is a scientist trying to cure the cancer that is killing his wife in the year 2000; and Tommy the space traveler in the year 2500 seeks to be with the love of his life for eternity.
There is barely a plot, and the three different plots have no real connection to one another and their tales are told nonlinearly. The only connection they have is their quest to save the woman they love from death. The fact that these men do not live in one another’s lifetime gives the film a weird feel, going back and forth from the past, the present, and the future.
The Fountain is visually great and each time period is a great visual contrast for viewers, giving them not one but three distinct experiences in one film. All of that happens while maintaining its constant themes of eternal love and trying to defeat death, making all three stories in The Fountain tragedies that viewers can relate to on some level.
6. Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991)
William S. Burroughs was known for his strange novels, and David Cronenberg is known for his surreal films. It makes sense that there would be some type of collaboration between them, and the result of combining their strange intricacies is the 1991 film Naked Lunch.
The film sees bug exterminator William Lee (Peter Weller) using insecticide to get high, which results in him accidentally shooting his wife and imagining giant insects are speaking to him. Worst of all, he listens to these bugs and starts believing he is a spy working for an organization based in Interzone in North Africa. That is as much plot as Naked Lunch has.
The rest of it is about the viewer absorbing the grotesque imagery of both the bugs and the settings of both 1950s New York and Africa. The theme of the film is the negative effects drug addiction has on both the user’s life and those around them, something the novel’s author lived through. The bugs clearly represent his addiction to bug spray.
The weird feel of the unusual Arab-like culture in Interzone was juxtaposed against the strong homosexual undertones hinting at repressed homosexuality, considering homosexuality was highly taboo in the 1950s, and especially in the Arab world. The two big bugs with men’s faces being connected is them having homosexual sex, but William is too high to see it for what it really is and imagines they are bugs.
What “plot” the film does have does not make much sense and reflects the drug-induced haze the protagonist is experiencing, which is what viewers experience as well when watching Naked Lunch.
5. Pink Floyd: The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982)
Pink Floyd: The Wall is not the only film to be based around the music of a specific band, but it certainly is the most unique. The closest thing The Wall has to a plot is how a disillusioned rock star named Pink (Bob Geldof) is constantly strung out on drugs, and reflects on his crummy childhood in post-World War II London and the breakdown of his marriage. As a result of Pink’s issues, the film is a visual and musical depiction of the protagonist’s descent into madness.
Although the thin plot is based on Pink Floyd singer and songwriter Roger Waters’ life, The Wall is more about the music, the weird visuals, the vibe, and the experience the film gives viewers rather than its plot.
The great combination of Alan Parker’s visual flair, the freaky animation depicting strange creatures and warfare, and Pink Floyd’s trippy music is a sublime experience. The feel and the lyrics of the songs played in the film correlate perfectly with what is happening on screen. The Wall is almost like a movie-length music video, but more immersive and thought provoking.
The Wall is clearly a film that is against war and racism as well, with the neo-Nazi rallies and frequent images of soldiers being brutally killed in battle. While “The Wall” would, of course, be a treat for Pink Floyd fans, but it is also a great visual and absorbing experience for film enthusiasts.
4. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
Drug use can alter the mind and make the world seem really crazy. When you add director Terry Gilliam’s distinct in-your-face visual style and the overtly 1970s setting, especially in a city as crazy as Las Vegas, and the result is going to be cinematic madness. That, in a nutshell, is Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
The only part of the film resembling a plot is when wacky journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) is assigned to go to Las Vegas to cover a dirt bike race in the desert with his dodgy lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro). After that, the film is purely about the two protagonists using various drugs and raising havoc around America’s Sin City.
The film is like a two hour drug trip. The fast and abrupt edits add to the paranoid drug feel, and the brightness and vividness of Las Vegas and the surrounding desert emphasizes the visual side of drug use. The tilted camera angles are like how the characters are not seeing the world clearly.
Gilliam was the perfect director to adapt Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy book. From the weird visuals, like the flooded motel room and everyone becoming lizards in the bar, to the serious philosophizing of the Vietnam War and the failed hippie movement, Gilliam perfectly handled both aspects of the story, while applying his own Gilliam-esque touches. The film is a crazy drug-fueled ride and an unforgettable one at that.
3. Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)
David Lynch is notorious for making dark and elusive films, and has more than earned his acclaim as a director. His latter films became less and less about a three act plot and more about the messed up nightmare in which the characters are stuck. Although his first film without a plot in the conventional sense was Eraserhead in 1977, his 1997 masterpiece Lost Highway is his first film to go in this direction after breaking into mainstream cinema.
Jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) are sent creepy videotapes of their house; shortly after, Renee is murdered and Fred is the lead suspect and is subsequently arrested. Fred miraculously transforms into another man, a mechanic named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who starts leading his life instead. Pete deals with local gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), which connects Pete back to Fred’s life. All of this happens without any explanation or meaning.
The music is a powerful tool in conveying feeling. Marilyn Manson’s cover of “I Put A Spell On You”, which plays when Alice undresses in front of the mobsters, is quite disturbing and sleazy.
David Bowie’s song “I’m Deranged” gives an unsettling feel during both the opening and end credits, and the Smashing Pumpkins song “Eye” that plays when Pete and his girlfriend Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner) dance gives a sense of young love, but also maintaining the film’s creepy tone. In fact, the film’s soundtrack is a great collection of dark 1990’s industrial and goth rock.
The constant dark lighting and shadows create an eerie feel, especially with the stoic feeling in the Madison household, showing lack of love in their relationship. This is aided by the stark visuals of sex, violence, and other creepy imagery.
The “plot” does not make much sense and the lack of exposition leaves most of the questions the film raises unanswered, but that’s not the point of the film. Much like its title suggests, Lost Highway is a wild and fast ride down a dark, forbidding road that is surreal and eerie, but you do not want to get off.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Stanley Kubrick has for many years been called one of the greatest directors who ever lived, even long after his death. All of his films are unique in their own right, but his science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey is truly something to behold. This is especially noteworthy, considering the film was made in the 1960s, in how well the special effects have dated.
The closest thing 2001 has to a plot is when a space crew checks out the mysterious black monolith on the moon, and later on when another space crew has to deal with a homicidal computer program called the HAL 9000. Otherwise, there is no plot; the film jumps from the days before man evolved from apes millions of years ago, to the year 2001 where technology and man is advanced.
On the surface, this film is a random collection of events that do not make sense that jumps from characters and settings, giving very little character arc or plot. It’s never explained what the mysterious black monoliths are that cause evolution to happen, or what the trippy color visual sequence is about and the room astronaut Dave (Keir Dullea) ends up in, or why he becomes a baby in space.
The wonderful visuals of space and technology, aided by the iconic music, are marvelous. On that note, the quietness, vastness, and emptiness of spaces show what it’s like to be in space; there is no noise when Dave goes into the red room in the spaceship until he closes the emergency door.
The film’s co-writer Arthur C. Clarke said of the film’s ambiguity: “If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we’ve failed in our intention.” Some viewers may dismiss the film as “boring”, but 2001 is a visual experience like no other and the famous musical score is simply delightful.
1. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
No one knows what the meaning of life is and what our purpose in the world is, and what our dreams really mean. Waking Life is a rare film that is entirely about discussing philosophy like this, and both the dreamlike feel and the ever-changing animation make it a film that truly is an experience upon itself.
In the car boat scene at the start of the film, the passenger gives random directions and the protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) asks where that is, and the driver says: “I don’t know, but it’s somewhere, and it’s gonna determine the course of the rest of your life.” That quote sums up the film that oversees various people discussing differing philosophies on human nature, and good and evil.
The line between reality and dreams is literally blurred as a lot of the dream scenes have blurry animation, and the locations the protagonist goes to become more abstract. The animated visuals with a wavy feel are amazing and capture the feel of the film that keeps the lucid dream feel the film seeks to achieve. This is not only a great visual experience, but also one that makes you ponder the course of our lives.
Originally published here at tasteofcinema.com on Wednesday 9 November 2016