What’s “The Most Cinematic Movie” Ever Made?

What’s “The Most Cinematic Movie” Ever Made? October 31, 2013

A popular voice in Christian media recently described Alfonso Cuarón’s movie Gravity by saying “If only because it is the most purely cinematic non-animated movie ever made, Gravity deserves to go down in history.”

I’m not quite sure what to make of that statement. I suspect that the moviegoer was expressing a sense that Gravity offers something only cinema can accomplish — an experience possible only through immersive imagery — and I can agree with that.

But the most purely cinematic movie ever made?

Can such a claim be persuasively made? By anybody?

I doubt it. It’s difficult to make absolute statements about something as mysterious and subjective as a work of art. We’d have to agree on the definition of “cinematic.” Further, we’d have to determine our frame of reference, with a capacity for sifting through all of international cinema history. To make such a statement, one would have to be extremely familiar with film history, and with the wild array of cinematic offerings from around the world year by year.

This year alone, I can think of other films that feel every bit as “cinematic” as Gravity… perhaps even more so. But again, I’m not in the position to make that call.

What would you nominate as “the most purely cinematic movie ever”? You’re invited to share your favorites in the Comments below. (Remember this blog’s Comments Policy.)

I suspect that those with the patience and the willingness to endure and explore Leviathan may find it to be just as immersive at Gravity, just as intense, just as pregnant with implications and questions and challenges and ideas… if not more so. (Personally, I found it far more interesting, more enthralling, and much stranger than Gravity. It didn’t just take me into environments quite foreign to me, where the laws of physics test the capacity for human beings to adjust and survive. It took me there through perspectives foreign to a human being’s point of view. It expanded the stock of vicarious experience available to the audience in ways no other experience could. Moreover, Leviathan is an experience that operates untethered from a narrative, whereas Gravity, for all of its overwhelming imagery, is pretty much a formulaic “This Happened, and Then This Happened” survival story.

I would also argue that two more 2013 releases — Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder — are just as “cinematic” as Gravity, because they make meaning by asking us to attend to the composition of images and to the poetic implications established by editing. Their questions and implications can only be perceived by a studious attention to how the images are made.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call Leviathan, Upstream Color, or To the Wonder “the most cinematic movie ever made.” What could such a statement possibly mean? How would we verify it? What does “cinematic” really mean?

Cinema is, by the definitions that make sense to me, not fundamentally about narrative. It is about imagery — about the composition and sequencing of images (moving images or otherwise) — that encourages us to consider associations, tensions, juxtapositions, and correlations between them.

You can take away a traditional narrative and still have a movie.

You can take away sound and still have a movie.

But if you take away a juxtaposition of images, you can’t have a movie.

Cinema can be plot-driven or poetic. It can be didactic or abstract. It can be feature-length or fleeting. It can be silent or a “talkie.” But it must engage the eyes with images — no exceptions.

(To this end, Matt Zoller Seitz has provocatively argued that an animated GIF is, actually, cinema.)

In view of these distinctions, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — a movie to which many film critics are comparing Gravity — strikes me as even more “cinematic.” In that film, much is suggested by the alignment of contrasting and correlating imagery.

When it comes to movies about space travel and lossAndrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 science fiction film Solaris is probably going to rate higher on the “cinematic” scale with most film scholars than Gravity. 

The groundbreaking 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera seems to me to be an important landmark in the history of cinema, in that it’s one of the earliest films I’ve encountered that giddily explores, discovers, demonstrates, and celebrates what is possible in a “musical” assemblage of images. By “musical” I’m not referring to its soundtrack, but to the rhythms and rushes of its myriad images.

And, along the same lines, the slideshow qualities of Chris Marker’s 1962 short called La Jetée seem to me more “cinematic” than Terry Gilliam’s thoroughly enjoyable (and far more accessible) version of the same story — 12 Monkeys. The meaning of La Jetée is conveyed by its unique form… in how the succession of still pictures specifically challenge our understanding of lived experience and memory, and in how they set us up for a moment in which one image is fundamentally different in form from the rest. By contrast, the imagery in 12 Monkeys enhances its narrative, but the narrative is the film’s raison d’être and foundation.

To this end, the great director Raul Ruiz, who made Mysteries of Lisbon and Night Across the Street, wrote this in his second volume in his Poetics of Cinema:

What we have seen is something new, something the art of memory could not have foreseen: images striving for their independence. They aim to make themselves noticeable, to have greater worth than that of being a mere sign. As they say in my country: ‘They are telling themselves their own story.’ Well, that and not much else is what happens in a film, when we shift our attention from the course that the narration proposes, and allow ourselves to be carried away by the involuntary associations that proliferate among images.

(Thanks to Ryan Holt for sharing this quote on Facebook.)

Along the same lines, director Peter Greenaway has said,

I suppose, my general sense of anxiety and disquiet about the cinema we’ve got after 100 years — a cinema which is predicated on text. So whether your name is Spielberg or Scorsese or Godard, there’s always a necessity to start with text and finish with image. I don’t think that’s particularly where we should organize an autonomous art form. That’s why I think that, in a way, we haven’t seen the cinema yet, all we’ve seen is 100 years of illustrated text.

This resonates with what I have begun to suspect about most of the movies I have seen in my life: They have entertained me, dazzled me, distracted me, and occasionally caused me to feel something or think about something. But rarely have they startled me into an aggressive and involving participation. Rarely have they made me think about what I am seeing.

And that is something that cinema can do. Uniquely.

This line of thinking has helped me understand my diminishing interest in so much commercial filmmaking. In American big-screen entertainment, the big screen is used primarily as a space to fill with pictures that merely illustrate what is happening in the storytelling. The pictures themselves are there to entertain the senses rather than to intrigue us. We’re not often invited to think about why an image looks the way it does, or why the director set one kind of image in sequence with another kind of image. We’re not inspired to consider the possibility that there is something more to realize than what the characters are talking about, or than what the script suggests will happen next in the story.

By contrast, I am falling in love with films that are teaching me to look closer, to discover a foreign language that can convey truths, create experiences, and evoke emotions that the derivative, shallow, unimaginative, and (yes) abusive imagery of so much American media cannot begin to accomplish.

I like what director Wim Wenders has said:

… I think of films the same way I looked at stories in books, when I was little. I realized very early on that the story was not in the written words, but in the space between the lines. That’s where the real reading took place: In my imagination, and that happened in all the white between the letters and the lines. And when I started to see films, I approached them the same way. In fact those films allowed me to perceive them like that, they were asking me to dream myself into them. The classic American cinema has that same specific quality, and this is also the great tradition of European Cinema. I did not invent that “method”. It is an endangered process, though, these days. More and more films come as “wall to wall” entertainment. What you see (and hear!) is what you get. No more space between the frames, so to speak. No chance to sneak in with your imagination, to dream on and to project your innermost hopes or fears or desires into what you see and thereby pushing it further. You come out of the theatre and feel strangely empty. For two hours you were prevented from participating. You were obliged to “witness” instead.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I love storytelling as much as the next moviegoer. There’s nothing wrong with a well-illustrated text.

I’ve just seen director Steve McQueen’s new film 12 Years a Slave, and it uses imagery and dialogue to powerfully illustrate a narrative in a very prose-y fashion (although there are moments in which the imagery draws attention to itself — or rather, into itself — in a way that can only be described as “poetic”). This story has been told in writing for many years, but the big screen adaptation is very impressive.

But I think that the hyperventilation I’m witnessing among so many moviegoers who have just seen Gravity is evidence of the fact that moviegoers have become conditioned to accept a very tepid form of filmmaking. I’m not saying Gravity is “tepid,” but the superlatives used to describe it suggest that moviegoers just haven’t seen much evidence of what cinema can be and do. When they see something that is “cinematic” — and yes, as American blockbusters go, Gravity is quite cinematic — they feel things they haven’t ever felt before, and they sense that they’ve experienced something unique.

This is promising.

Perhaps it means that moviegoers will begin to realize what is uniquely possible in cinema. And they’ll start to notice that a lot of filmmakers, around the world and throughout history, have been making a kind of art that goes generally misunderstood, misinterpreted, and unappreciated.

They’ll make a leap equivalent to the radio listener who discovers that music is actually a much larger and more powerful world than just Top 40 songs. They may even come to see that Top 40 pop songs are actually a rather limited, even feeble, demonstration of what music is capable of achieving.

Or, put it this way: Having tasted an “Spicy Thai Salad” at a diner like Denny’s, they may learn that while they enjoyed this unconventional meal, they should not immediately conclude that this was the best representation of Thai food. They might actually become curious enough, and courageous enough, to venture into Thai restaurants and enjoy new worlds of cuisine that others have been attentively enjoying for ages.

American cineplexes usually invite us to wading pools. Those who broaden their horizons will find much larger bodies of water waiting for them. Those lakes, those seas, those oceans go by exotic names — like Denis, and Malick, and Hou, and Kiarostami, and Kieslowski, and Godard, and Tarkovsky, and Bresson, and Ozu, and Dreyer. And oceans are not a new innovation. Some of them have been out there, welcoming explorers, for a long, long time.

In view of this, what strikes you as the “most cinematic” movies you have seen?

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16 responses to “What’s “The Most Cinematic Movie” Ever Made?”

  1. One movie stood out in my mind right from the get go, and it was further cemented by reading the rest of the article: Natural Born Killers. Not only does it use different images and an extraordinary number of shots to convey its meaning, it uses multiple different film stocks and video, cuts between black and white and color (and a lot of extreme color), projecting images into shots, and even a little bit of animation. It is tethered to a strong narrative, of course, but it is extremely intentional about its use of visuals to convey and enhance meaning.

  2. I will agree with you that most cinema is strapped to its function as a “visualized text.” In this way, a director’s creativity is hindered by his or her adherence to banal representation. This is a great point, and I do think there is a deficit of cinematographic vision in modern cinema. After all, narrative was something that cinema only truly adopted to appeal to “higher class” viewers; as film scholar Tom Gunning famously points out, narrative isn’t inherent to the medium (although neither is critical thinking, something you clearly value highly).

    But: A. I think great directors can find ways to expressively demonstrate the emotions lying dormant in the text they’re given. They’re not necessarily transcending or subverting the material (as auteur theory would suggest), but aiding it and adding to it with their precise vision. Sometimes a visual director can make his or her best poetry BECAUSE of the opportunities and limitations they’re given with a specific text. Take Hitchcock. It’s impossible to imagine his brilliant use of cinematic language without specific textual limitations.

    And, B. I don’t entirely agree with the analogy that Gravity is like a “Spicy Thai Salad” at Dennys, only foreshadowing greater Thai Salads awaiting in a non-corporatized land of cinema. Yes, I have seen films by Brakhage, Malick, Maya Deren, Leger, Hollis Frampton, Carolee Schneemann, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Nemec, Bunel, ect. ect. And all of them are visually astounding. To answer your question, I would say that these sorts of experimental films created some of the greatest cinematic experiences I’ve had. But Gravity gains its particular visual pleasures from the specific tools available to a studio sponsored, big-budget, special effects oriented Hollywood film. All of these particular tools are propelled toward a fantastic cinematic vision that stands apart from any of the filmmakers I have mentioned. Cuaron has made a visual art film using the same materials that are so commonly mishandled in mainstream entertainment. Is Gravity better than films by the experimental filmmakers I have previously mentioned? Well, that depends on aesthetic taste. But to suggest that it is a “lesser” version of the visceral experiences one can gain from “misunderstood, misinterpreted” art films is to imply an ontological connection that simply doesn’t exist, I think. Gravity may suggest “wading” into a cinematic pool, but it also stands distinct from all sorts of experimental films made prior to its existence. And, to me at least, this is rather astonishing.

    Then again, like you said, it’s difficult to categorize with a word as open as “cinematic.”

  3. I’ve got some ideas of “purely cinematic” films, but first your post, which I think is very good, got me thinking…

    Perhaps the “purely cinematic” has to do with its relationship to time (rather than trickeries of verisimilitude). That may be the source of its power, the locus of its mystery.

    Jeffrey – Hyperventilation is correct as far as I can tell. And when I first read that quote with which you began this post, I also thought it was rather silly. As a verbal and emotional reaction between friends in the immediate afterglow of leaving the theater, perhaps it’s an acceptable ejaculation. I can’t help but think that it’s actually the kind of statement that cannot be made or taken seriously, nor is it a statement that can be defended in terms of the film GRAVITY (and perhaps not with any film).

    When it comes to film I not that smart, but I can imagine the exclamation of a film being “purely cinematic” largely arises from a sense that no other art form than cinema could have been employed to create the work of art being praised. But how many tens of thousands of films fall into that category? And how can we possibly even begin to rank them in terms of their being more or less cinematic except in the broadest terms? What scale should we use? What particular qualities? What quantities? I am sure this is not a new debate. What makes cinema cinema has been asked since it’s discovery as an art form.

    For what it is GRAVITY is rather good. It is cinematic, true, but even so I somewhat disagree with your statement that with GRAVITY audiences “feel things they haven’t ever felt before.” I’m inclined to think there’s nothing in this film, in terms of feelings induced in the audience, that is so new or strange that audiences actually and truly experience feelings that are genuinely new – even in terms of “cinematic” feelings, whatever they may be. I think the success of GRAVITY is due, in part, to inducing exactly the kinds of feelings that American mainstream culture expects to feel from watching blockbuster films: big, simple feelings of life, death, loss, survival, will to power, and new beginnings (all good feelings btw). What I gather the unfortunate phrase “the most purely cinematic non-animated movie ever made” means is more of an overly excited praise of the technological virtuosity of the film’s combination of live action and animation (which ironically nullifies the phrase) to create a powerful thrill – a set of emotions that are closer to our baser animal instincts than the deeper and complex emotions of spiritual beings lit with an eternal image and working out their salvation with fear and trembling. None of this diminishes the technologically cinematic achievements of GRAVITY, which are considerable. What will diminish those achievements are the next film, and the next, that push the technology further down the road.

    But humans have never improved art, not in terms of what makes art that uniquely human expression of who we are. The caves paintings in Lascaux are as wonderfully human and excellent as any work of art today. In that light GRAVITY is nothing particularly or singularly special. It lacks the necessary profundity to rise above the mere “wow” factor and glow with that inner glow which is the mystery of all great art. I would argue that GRAVITY suffers from sentimentality.

    But what is the “purely cinematic?” It must be that (or those things) which make cinema uniquely different than other art forms, whether by its ability to combine what cannot otherwise be combined, or by its inventing a wholly new language in the world. I would argue that cinema’s greatest strength lies with its unique abilities to manipulate the image in time and space (and GRAVITY does do that, though for all its “wow” it’s debatable just how well it does that). But it is important to realize that there are so many connections with other arts and with the varieties of human experience that strict demarcations are impossible. Regardless, the cinematic image is an image that moves and that exists in time. One could add montage to the list, but one can find montage in all the arts – even Eisenstein argued for that. Although I tend to agree with you when you say that cinema is “about the composition and sequencing of images (moving images or otherwise) — that encourages us to consider associations, tensions, juxtapositions, and correlations between them.” Although it is hard to disagree that even when there is great power in the combination of film images “[t]he dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame.” (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time) And this rhythm may be that locus of the mystery.

    We must not fall into the trap of assuming some Platonic form of cinema, rather cinema has been moving along from invention (technological and artistic) to invention. Thus THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (d. Edwin S. Porter, 1903) is more cinematic than ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT (d. Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895). And CITIZEN KANE (d. Orson Welles, 1941) is probably more cinematic than IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (d. Frank Capra, 1934). But this is debatable, and one might argue they are all genuinely cinematic. Still: “It is perhaps not a surprise that photography developed as a technological medium in the industrial age, when reality started to disappear. It is even perhaps the disappearance of reality that triggered this technical form. Reality found a way to mutate into an image.” (Jean Baudrillard, Photography, or the Writing of Light) Can we not say that the development of cinema follows a similar impulse? And thus can we also not say that in terms of verisimilitude, GRAVITY achieved something at least? (Even though experts have lined up to point out its failings in adhering to truth.) That, I suppose, is not the same thing as saying GRAVITY is purely cinematic.

    I predict GRAVITY will stand as a a particular historical instance of a certain kind of technical brilliance used to tell a rather simple and largely unbelievable story, and thus will eventually fade in the popular consciousness to a somewhat mundane memory. This is not to deride GRAVITY as a film, but to wonder why all the hyperbole.

    And if we do compare, GRAVITY is certainly not more “cinematic” than the films you mention above or such notable films as:
    KOYAANISQATSI (d. Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
    LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (d. Alain Resnais, 1961)
    MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON (d. Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, 1943)
    DOG STAR MAN (d. Stan Brakhage, 1961-1964)
    BREATHLESS (d. Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
    APOCALYPSE NOW (d. Francis Ford Coppola. 1979)
    AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (d. Robert Bresson, 1966)
    STALKER (d. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
    HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A. (d. Barbara Kopple, 1976)
    MIRROR (d. Andrei Tarkovsky , 1975)
    STREET OF CROCODILES (d. Brothers Quay, 1986)
    WEEK END (d. Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
    RUSSIAN ARK (d. Alexander Sokurov, 2002)

    And I love your last remarks about cineplex wading pools. Reminds me of some words Christ spoke to Peter once upon a time: ‘When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”’ (Luke 5:4)

  4. The only way I can answer that is by listing my favorite film experiences which struck me as accomplishing something that only cinema could.
    2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Kubrick)
    PIERROT LE FOU (Godard)
    RAN (Kurosawa)

    THE SEVENTH SEAL (Bergman) – the cinematography underscores the action in a way that really made me think about what a director chooses to do with the camera.

    VERTIGO (Hitchcock) – Hitchcock uses the camera angles, zooms, edits, etc. to build the suspense and tension; I think the camera work is every bit as responsible for the suspense as the story itself

    WAY DOWN EAST (Griffith) – I did see this on a HUGE screen, so it seemed extremely “cinematic,” but Griffith made the story look beautiful and his carefully placed edits again made me think about how a talented director’s camera use influences our perception of a film.

  5. When on the status I read “cinema”, the first movie that came to mind was Hugo. Australia too, but after reading this, it’s harder to think of a movie that has done that. I don’t watch R rated movies much because I’m only 16. Japanese animation seems to be taking the art of storytelling with animation much more seriously than, say, Disney. I’ve been finding Japanese animated films and even anime can be much deeper than the average American cartoon that’s only made to keep toddlers quiet and staring at the screen.
    Rise of the Guardians (based on the children’s book series Guardians of Childhood that has a sweet nostalgic feel to it) was a pleasant surprise with a deeper plot than expected… I guess I’m still trying to find a good movie that makes me think/participate.

  6. The very first film that comes to mind is DAYS OF HEAVEN, which I saw at a special presentation at the Dryden Theatre of the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. It’s definitely about context: the film’s cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, was there to discuss the film and answer questions after the screening. That’s when I was in college, taking a film class, and just starting the journey of thinking about words like “cinematic.” It was a powerful evening.

    After that, I think of Bresson’s A MAN ESCAPED, which I also saw at the Dryden, and then Kurasawa’s DREAMS. Not sure why; they just spring to mind when I hear the word.

  7. Some Wong Kar Wai must be in the list, perhaps “Chungking Express” due to its remarkable use of color. Malick is the other director that has come closest to making the most cinematic of films with “The New World” and “Tree of Life” which are films that show his frustration with language and a need to communicate his messages visually.

  8. Lawrence of Arabia. To me, that’s the king of “movies that absolutely have to been seen in a theater to be fully appreciated”.

  9. Most movies I have ever seen were at home, on a Television set, often of dubious image and sound quality, so that colors my vantage point.

    The most overpowering cinematic experience I ever had though has to be when I saw Koyaanisqatsi with live accompaniment by Philip Glass and ensemble.

    That experience was truly overwhelming to the senses. Truly cinematic, in the sense that it was all images and music, and no drama, plot, etc.

    My heart rate was racing in some points, and I was emotionally moved, though there was obviously no story or characters.

    Nothing else I have ever experienced was quite like that.

  10. For me, two of the most cinematic movies I’ve seen are Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Disney’s Fantasia. Although fair point to the original quote that inspired the post, that Fantasia is animated. Although with the amount of CGI in Gravity, where does one draw the line?

  11. I like many of the choices listed above- my mind immediately goes to particular directors that tend (or tended) to churn out movies that I would pay $10 or more to watch on a big screen (rather than simply watch them for free at home). Kubrick, Malick, PTA, Leone, Kurasawa, and Tarkovsky have to top the list. Wes Anderson, Scorsese, Miyazaki, Hitchcock, Fellini, and Spielberg are not far behind. (And while I love all of these directors, I’m not just spitting out my favorites. The Coens, for example, are alongside PTA and Malick as my personal favs, but I wouldn’t necessarily think of them as among the *most cinematic- more cinematic than most other directors? Sure. But could I never watch one of their movies in a theater without feelin’ like the good Lord gypped me? Probably). Wong Kar Wai, Wenders, Bergman, Tarantino (how’s that for a segue), Tati, M. Mann, Ford, and Welles all have movies that have to be in the conversation.

    I can’t speak to Gravity- finally seeing it tomorrow night (yes, shelling out for the big screen based on what I’ve heard)- but I guess I would push back a little on: “I’m not saying Gravity is ‘tepid,’ but the superlatives used to describe it suggest that moviegoers just haven’t seen much evidence of what cinema can be and do.” I think that would make sense if the general audience is flocking to the theaters while most critics are tempering expectations… but those superlatives are being offered by folks like Matt Zoller Seitz, Matt Singer, AO Scott, Wesley Morris, and many others. In fact, if Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed- and I know that’s a risky intro- its the folks who unquestionably HAVE ‘seen much evidence of what cinema can be and do’ (the critics) who are even especially excited about Gravity (97%… even with your rotten contribution :) ), and it appears to be slightly less appreciated (87%) by the generally-less-discerning public audience.

    I guess your description and reflection sounds a little like you think the people who think this movie is something special are surely folks who just need a little more experience with good movies, and I’m wondering how that jives with the overwhelming praise being heaped on it by most of the folks considered to be the greatest critics and appreciators of film in the world.. ??

  12. I’m not sure about categorically removing narrative from the “cinematic” definition. Does that kind of thinking apply to other art forms? Do people ask if a particular painting is especially “painterly,” reducing it to an “illustrated text” if it happens to tell a story? Shakespeare works whether on stage or page (and sometimes on film!). Movies are still a little timid, questioning their place at the table of the Arts, feeling like they try too hard to imitate their big brothers and sisters. Anyway, I like your thoughts, and the directors you name certainly know how to communicate with images. This being Halloween, the first movie that came to mind for me is…HALLOWEEN (1978). The movie’s effects are attained through composition and editing — effects that would be lost if it were adapted to another medium. But, yeah, most cinematic of all time? That’s as futile as “greatest of all time.”

  13. I also am not even really sure what “cinematic” means but I nominate Wong Kar Wai’s *In the Mood for Love* as the most cinematic film I’ve experienced by a fair margin.

    After that somewhere:
    • Touch of Evil
    • Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and… Spring
    • Amelie
    • Trois Coleurs: Bleu
    • Citizen Kane
    • The Good, the Bag, and the Ugly
    • Snow Falling on Cedars

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