Six Unforgettable Film Journeys

All movies offer some sort of narrative journey, but the most sublime films re-focus the viewer's lens on the world. Some films try to accomplish this by sending the viewer on an unexpected, unpredictable journey. Unconventional narrative structures eschew popular expectation. I can think of dozens of movies that do this, but here are six standouts that pull it off with subtle and effortless confidence.

My Dinner With Andre

Two real-life New York playwrights, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, agree to meet at a restaurant to catch up after a long estrangement. Most of the film - aside from two bookmarked sequences - is their real-time conversation. The result is an unforgettable journey, marked by striking, compelling dialogue and an unbelievable depth. The film avoids the haughty traps of lesser, more pedantic, less humane films by giving these two (very different) men entirely relate-able personalities and dilemmas. It asks some very basic questions: do we owe ourselves a deeper exploration of existence by constantly pushing envelopes and boundaries, or are there myriad approaches to living a fulfilled, meaningful life? Every bit of meaning and drama in the film is expressed through words, so each time a new course is brought out for the two men to consume, it feels like a milestone and an entr'acte.


Unappreciated at the time (and responsible for bankrupting Jacques Tati), Playtime is, without reservation, Tati's masterpiece. Like My Dinner With Andre, Playtime unfurls in what feels like real-time, only, unlike the other film, it relies on visuals and sound cues rather than dialogue to propel its narrative. Far from a series of mere sight gags, Playtime is a breezy, sophisticated trip through a fictitious futurist metropolis, populated by a wide range of colorful characters and locations. Each sequence is meant to build on the one preceding it, and subsequently makes way for the next. It's an exercise in deft directorial control, in a fixed, exacting portrayal of heart and chaos breaking through the stark edifice of modern living. The centerpiece sequence - a long night inside a raucous dinner club - is astounding in its complexity. When when the sun finally rises and the club goers spill out into the street, consorting over their shared experiences at breakfast, you discover the core of Tati's worldview affixed to your hand like a club stamp: the warmth and chaos of human connection may find itself at odds with the stolidity of technological advance, but it will always ultimately prevail. For a film with almost no dialogue, that is a marvelous achievement.

The Diving Bell and Butterfly

This is based on Jean-Dominique Bauby's experiences living with locked-in syndrome following a stroke that completely paralyzed him. Amazingly, he wrote a memoir about his struggles by communicating an alphabet using only his eyelids. That memoir, in movie form, is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. While a deeply sad subject, it's given treatment here that elevates the material to the sublime. It's profound and intimate journey through Bauby's experiences. It's also devastating, and difficult to watch at times, but never betrays the spirit and tone of the late Bauby's words. You often see movie posters pasted with blurbs like 're-affirms the human spirit,' but this one actually does that.

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allens' breezy edification of an artist's life is also, at it's core, a meticulous examination of how nostalgia often prevents us from appreciating the present. Those with an appreciation for art culture of 1920s Paris are treated with a parade of unforgettable tributes to Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and more! It may be technically a 'time travel' movie, but fittingly, it takes a surrealist bent, and does not bother the viewer with explanations. Midnight in Paris seems content to send the viewer on a nocturnal journey through the bars and artists' lofts of that time, and numerous daytime strolls through the unforgettable sights of modern day Paris and Versailles.


I could probably list each of Mike Leigh's movies as an example of what happens when weeks (or months) of actors' workshops precede the actual shooting of a film, but Naked stands out from most of them for its darkness and brutality, it's stunning naturalism, and its poignancy. While most mainstream viewers know David Thewlis from his turn as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter franchise, his Johnny is a brutal, tortured, brilliant, evil man, beset by too many demons to ever shake off. Johnny sets out on a collision course with East London's lost and lonely, both enlightening and pummeling people with his devastating wit. Like all of the other movies I've listed here, Naked is a journey that leaves you rattled, unsettled, and yes - transformed.

Mulholland Drive

Have you ever woken up from a particularly unsettling or devastating dream overwhelmed by emotion, even as the details of the dream siphon away? As that day continues, your feeling - unsubstantiated by any detail of the dream itself - lingers inside of you, saturating your consciousness. Mulholland Drive is David Lynch's most accomplished major film and the perfect embodiment of that lingering dream sensation. It translates his artistic vision to the screen a way that is effective for the viewer without pandering. It does what all art strives to do - give us a compelling, irresistible surface, and infuses it with numerous layers of meaning.  It's a tribute and cautionary tale about old Hollywood, a tragic tale of unmet expectations, a wild noir fantasy, a horror film, a romance, and a love letter to dreams. It is all of these things, and on top of all that, it's compelling and confusing and stays with you for a long time.


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