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An Abridged Initiation to the World of ‘Artstream’ Films

12 June 2020

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An Abridged Initiation to the World of ‘Artstream’ Films

Now that we have taken a brief look at mainhouse films, it’s time to take a step up into the slightly more intimidating world of artstream films. 

It wasn’t easy to come up with this list given the admittedly ambiguous nature of our classifications and the subjective breadth it implies. As a general rule of thumb, these are films by your favourite director’s favourite directors; films that pushed the boundaries of what is possible in visual storytelling while remaining entertaining and accessible enough to be more than just film curios.

As such, these films might not be appealing to those without an interest in films beyond its entertainment value. However, if you get a kick out of tracing the source of inspiration for many household names, or want films that unapologetically tells its story on its own terms, or want movies that explore themes most fear to tread, artstream is the place for you.

Below are just 15 from the group that are either unmistakably influential or are shining examples of how filmmakers continue to push the medium.


Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Director: Charlie Kaufman
A theatre director gets increasingly obsessed with recreating life through a stage play.

Why it’s beloved:
– Despite a spectacular career, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Synecdoche, New York might be what cements him as a once-in-a-generation actor.
– The soundtrack, co-written by Kaufman, is hauntingly beautiful.
– The film pushes visual boundaries of the medium to explore and attempt to understand time, love, loss, and life.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– The film is Kaufman at his most eclectic with a wide range of sometimes confusing and absurd symbolism.
– The plot is not easy to follow either, with years sometimes passing by in the span of transitional shots.
– Practically spanning the final half of its lead’s life, Synecdoche is an incredibly heavy and bittersweet story about the essence of life.

Check out this film if:
– You are willing to decipher the convoluted imagery that Kaufman conjures, and want to be rewarded with a film that is somehow both achingly sad and life-affirming.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Director: Orson Welles
Through investigations and interviews, a reporter looks to catalogue the life of a deceased newspaper magnate.

Why it’s beloved:
– The film has become so synonymous with excellence that its title has grown to become an adjective to describe greatness i.e The Room is the Citizen Kane of bad movies.
– Its non-linear story, shot compositions, and use of lighting shattered the expectations and standards of its contemporaries. Filmmakers today continue to draw visual inspiration from Citizen Kane. 
– Orson Welles performance as the titular newspaper publisher is memorable and underappreciated.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– Watching the film today, Citizen Kane might feel too familiar and not too unique – but perhaps that’s the point.

Check out this film if:
– You want to check out why critics have considered Citizen Kane to be one of the most influential films ever released.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Seven samurais are hired for protection by farmers terrorised by bandits.

Why it’s beloved:
– Its cinematography and editing style set a cinematic standard that some would argue still hasn’t been toppled.
– Its plot and beats feel surprisingly familiar given how it has influenced entire generations of filmmakers. It remains one of the most remade films in cinema.
– Its incredible action scenes still stand the test of time.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– Split between two parts, its mammoth runtime would be testing for most who are more familiar with Hollywood fares.
– Kurosawa’s use of Noh theatre techniques in his films – with emphasised movements and overemoting – might be jarring for some.

Check out this film if:
– You want to experience an epic that practically laid the groundwork for the countless action films that followed.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.

Nostalghia (1983) 

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
A homesick Russian writer travels to Italy to research a 18th-century Russian composer. On his travels, he meets an interpreter struggling with her faith, and befriends a madman who believes that the end of the world is approaching.

Why it’s beloved:
– Tarkovsky’s ability to allow audiences to almost physically feel his films through the use of sound and textures remains unparalleled.
– Tarkovsky’s own longing for home is passionately and achingly rendered in Nostalghia.
– The film is somehow able to make a nine-minute long continuous shot of a man walking from one end of a pool to the other incredibly engaging and poignant.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– Much like most of Tarkovsky’s other works, Nostalghia’s bleakness, glacial pace, sparse cuts can be unwelcoming for many.
– The film has a plot that is rather convoluted that isn’t helped by the Italian language.

Check out this film if:
– You want a film that is intimidating with its handling of themes, but one that pushes the medium with how and what kind of stories can be told.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.

Melancholia (2011)

Director: Lars Von Trier
The film is divided into two parts. The first follows a young woman incapacitated by depression and the last few hours before her marriage. The second sees a planet threatening to crash into Earth. Both stories are somehow connected.

Why it’s beloved:
– Director Lars Von Trier is notorious for being unafraid in using explicit imagery to tell his stories – albeit through a filmmaking process that borders on lunacy and abuse. This leads to his films either being troublesome trainwrecks, or unduplicatable masterpieces.
– Tapping on his and lead actress Kirsten Dunst’s own struggles with depression, Melancholia is one of cinema’s most potent explorations of the mental illness.
– Despite the incredibly heavy themes, Melancholia is perhaps Lars Von Trier’s most accessible film.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– Kirsten Dunst’s performance and the film’s visceral imagery might be triggering for those with depression.
– Being a Von Trier film, there are still head scratching moments present that feel bold just for the sake of it.

Check out this film if:
– You want a film that rips you out of your comfort zone to attempt to drown the viewer in the hopelessness and unmatchable pain of living with depression.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.

If you’re intrigued by Lars Von Trier’s eccentric style, do give his latest film The House That Jack Built a try as well. The film is available for rental streaming and purchase through Anticipate Pictures.

Climax (2018)

Director: Gaspar Noé
Someone spikes a punch bowl with LSD during a dance troupe’s after-party, leading to the dancers to grow increasingly delirious.

Why it’s beloved:
– It’s a Step Up film on drugs.
This amazing poster, with Noé practically taunting the film world, encapsulates his in-your-face style.
– Inspired by his own drug use, Gaspar Noé conjures haunting and disturbing cinematography that is dazzlingly unique.
– Mainly consisting of non-actors, the madness expressed in both the cast’s dance sequences and their incendiary relations are helplessly raw and engaging.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– With its arresting visuals, to describe the film as “abrasive” is an understatement.
– It unabashedly presents the horrifying side of drug use.

Check out this film if:
– You want a film that is pure sensory overload.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase through Anticipate Pictures.

M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang
A police inspector and a gang of criminals each look to pin-down and bring a child-murderer to justice.

Why it’s beloved:
– Despite being one of the first films to do so, Fritz Lang’s use of sound as a storytelling device in M is masterful and remains one of the best films to do so.
– Made a few years before the Nazi’s complete takeover of Germany, M effortlessly captures the zeitgeist of its time as a haunting prophecy on the conditions that led to their rise. 
– Peter Lorre’s performance as the troubled child-murderer is masterful.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– Being an early film, there are some teething issues here in terms of its narrative being hard to follow along.

Check out this film if:
– You want an intense crime thriller that questions the morality of mob justice.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Sailors on the battleship Potemkin start a revolt that eventually spills over as a revolution against the Tsar.

Why it’s beloved:
– “Beloved” might not necessarily apply here as Battleship Potemkin is seen as more of an important touchstone in film history than anyone’s favourite film per se.
– Eisenstein’s theory of montage – or the way images can take on new meanings with the way they are juxtaposed – is powerfully displayed here.
– The film’s rousing symphonies brings the tension and drama to operatic heights.
Battleship Potemkin was considered so potent and dangerous in riling up a revolutionary spirit that it was banned in the West for decades after its release.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– It’s a film curio that has aged remarkably well but might still be intimidating as a silent film.

Check out this film if:
– You want to check out one of the landmark films that laid the important groundwork for the medium to follow.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.

Breathless (1960)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
While on the run from the police, a criminal tries to get back with an ex-lover.

Why it’s beloved:
– It’s emblematic of the French New Wave film movement of the 1950s and 1960s; a film that is unabashed about revealing its plot on its own storytelling terms.
Breathless was shot with techniques that challenged the traditional rules of filmmaking, creating a film that feels surprisingly fresh even by today’s standards.
– What it lacked in its budget was made up in spades by attitude and personality.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– As with most French New Wave films, characters are engaged in almost nonsensical dialogue that could be frustrating.

Check out this film if:
– You want to watch a timelessly stylish movie which some would argue pioneered a movement that all low-budget indie films today can draw their roots from.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Director: Agnès Varda
The film follows the afternoon of a French singer awaiting a possible diagnosis of cancer.

Why it’s beloved:
– Following in real-time, the film places its lead’s struggle with mortality in a unique and innovative way.
– Hailed as the grandmother of the French New Wave, films such as Cleo echoed much of the same characteristics of the movement, while inserting her own stylistic leanings such as with heavy use of still images.
– It’s an exploration of how women were viewed in French society, with frequent use of mirrors as symbolism. 

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– With its format, the film is paced like a documentary, with its ideas not necessarily clear in the forefront. 

Check out this film if:
– You want a film that innovatively critiques the hollowness of how society values women only for their outward beauty.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.

It’s Such A Beautiful Day (2013)

Director: Don Hertzfeldt
A young man sees his mundane life complicated by an unknown brain condition.

Why it’s beloved:
– The film’s simple visual style of stick figures drawings betrays its stinging exploration of the human condition.
– It’s unbearably sad at times yet quietly humorous at others.
– It was produced entirely without computers.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– Its questions, posed through the main character’s observations and dialogues, might be too airy and disjointed for some. 

Check out this film if:
– You want to watch a film that almost effortlessly showcases how complicated visuals don’t necessarily have to be the medium to transmit grand, important ideas.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase through Hertzfeldt’s Vimeo page.

Taste of Cherry (1997)

Director:  Abbas Kiarostami
A middle-aged man drives around the Iranian suburb looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide.

Why it’s beloved:
– Despite already having a celebrated film scene, Taste of Cherry is arguably what introduced most international audiences to the dynamism of Iranian cinema with its Palme d’Or win in 1997.
– Through mundane conversations framed with the simplest of compositions, Taste of Cherry is a poetic journey through a man’s continued search for any reason to live.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– There is seemingly not much going on other than the film’s three main conversations.
– Celebrated film critic Roger Ebert listed Taste of Cherry as one of his most hated movies, calling it “excruciatingly boring” and criticised the film’s lack of character development.

Check out this film if:
– You want a challenging film that is incredibly minimalistic – almost to a fault – but remains influential for world cinema in its unique and tender approach. Just be prepared for a head scratching ending.

The film is available for streaming on Amazon.

Chungking Express (1994)

Director: Wong Kar Wai
Two heartbroken cops each find unlikely companionship under the neon lights of Hong Kong.

Why it’s beloved:
– It’s widely considered to be auteur Wong Kar Wai’s breakout hit, showcasing to the world his unique visual sensibilities and quirky storytelling style.
– It’s a charming and bewitching look at getting over a failed relationship.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– The director is often compared to French New Wave directors such as Godard and Truffaut, and suffers from the same pitfalls in terms of accessibility i.e the abrupt cuts and convoluted dialogue.
– You might be sick of the song “California Dreamin” by the end of the film with how often it’s played.

Check out this film if:
– You want to watch a film that – for better or worse – oozes with personality with spectacular visuals.

Unfortunately, Chungking Express is rather elusive without any streaming services offering rental or purchase. Old-fashioned DVD sales would probably be the way to go.

Pather Panchali (1955) 

Director: Satyajit Ray
A moving tale of how a poverty-stricken family struggles to make ends meet.

Why it’s beloved:
– It’s Indian cultural icon Satyajit Ray’s debut and arguably the film that put India on the world cinema map.
– It’s a film that endeavours to find beauty in every facet of life, with a heavy focus on nature and the quieter moments of childhood.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– The film is incredibly slow-paced that isn’t helped by its razor-thin plot.

Check out this film if:
– The term “meditative” gets thrown around a lot but Pather Panchali is probably a prime example of the description.

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.

Paris Is Burning (1990)

Director: Jennie Livingston
Paris Is Burning is a landmark documentary spotlighting the drag culture of New York in the 1980s.

Why it’s beloved:
– While it’s not the first to do so, Paris Is Burning is an expertly crafted documentary that humanised the community for generations to follow.
Paris is Burning is especially poignant with how most of those featured would pass on just a few years after the film’s release.
– The documentary pushed the boundaries of documentary filmmaking to be more than just static observations, allowing the humanity of those spotlighted invariably shine through in every frame.

What might hold you back from giving the film a shot:
– Its themes might be too controversial and disturbing for those more conservative.

Check out this film if:
– You want to experience a documentary that allows the humanity of those spotlighted to invariably shine through in every frame.
– You want to learn more about drag culture that has been popularised by modern hits such as RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose. 

The film is available for rental streaming and purchase on Amazon.


Read more:
An Abridged Initiation to the World of ‘Mainhouse’ Films
An Abridged Initiation to Modern South Korean Cinema

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.