From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
An art film (also called an “art cinema”, “art movie”, or in the US, an "independent film" or “art house film”) is a typically a serious, noncommercial, independently made film that is 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.” 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. 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. The term has been used loosely in the US since the 1960s and 1970s, when "art film" was a euphemism for racy Italian and French B-movies and sexually explicit European films such as I Am Curious (Yellow). In contrast, in Europe, the term "art film" is more associated with "auteur" films and "national cinema" (e.g., German national cinema).
The term "art film" is used in its loosest sense when the location of exhibition, the repertory theater or "arthouse cinema," is used to define which films are "art films." With this approach, a broad range of films, such as a 1960s Hitchcock movie, a 1970s experimental underground film, a 1980s European auteur film, and a 1990s US "Independent" film all fall under the rubric of "art film." In 2000, film theorist Robert Stam argued that “art film” was a film genre 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).
History of "art film"
The first essays that treated film as a medium worth of serious considerations were by Ricciotto Canudo (The Birth of the Sixth Art (1911) and Reflections on the Seventh Art, 1923), Hugo Münsterberg (The Photoplay, 1916) and Béla Balázs (The Visible Man, 1924).
The antecedents of art films included experimental films and theatrical cinema. Art films were 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). Theatrical cinema antecedents include art film genre include D. W. Griffith's film Intolerance (1916) and Sergei Eisenstein's films.
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." In the 1920s, French dadaist and surrealist artists in Paris such as Luis Buñuel, René Clair, and Jean Renoir began experimenting with short films. In the 1930s and 1940s, John Ford argued that Hollywood films could be divided into the "...artistic aspirations of literary adaptations like Sean O'Casey'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, The Bicycle Thief and The Red Shoes were shown to substantial US audiences.
Deviations from mainstream film norms
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 characters 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, dreams, 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 interpret 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 films often refuse to provide a "...readily answered conclusion," instead putting the audience member the task of thinking about "...how is the story being told? Why tell the story in this way?"
Production and distribution
Since art films are aimed at small niche market audiences, they can rarely get the financial backing which will permit large production budgets. Art film producers with small budgets cannot make films with lavish production values, expensive special effects, costly celebrity actors, and huge advertising campaigns, as are used in widely-released mainstream blockbuster films. However, art films make up for these constraints by creating a different type of film; art films often use lesser-known film actors (or even amateur actors) and modest sets to create a loose montage of pensive, reflective dialogue sequences. 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 achieve huge financial success. Many major motion picture studios have special divisions dedicated to art films, 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.
Miramax Films is a successful American producer and distributor of art films is. Mirimax began in 1979 as a studio for the distribution of independent films which were deemed commercially unviable at the major studios. In 1993, Miramax was purchased by Disney and subsequently expanded its library to include more commercial films such as She's All That, A View from the Top, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Miramax continued to emphasize less mainstream films, and produced more genre-oriented films like Scream and Spy Kids through its Dimension Films label. When Miramax founders Harvey Weinstein and Bob Weinstein left Miramax in September 2005 to form The Weinstein Company, they took the Dimension label with them.
Timeline of notable films with "art film" qualities
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.
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 (e.g., Rashomon shows the same events as witnessed by four different people).
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), and surrealist film such as Luis Buñuel's Un chien andalou (1929) and L'Âge d'Or (1930). In the late 1940s, UK director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger made The Red Shoes (1948), a film about ballet that stood out from mainstream genre films.
- Rashomon (1950), a Japanese film by director Akira Kurosawa that depicts four witnesses' contradictory accounts of a rape and murder.
- Tokyo Story (1953), a Japanese film by director Yasujiro Ozu about two elderly parents who are neglected by their adult children in Tokyo.
- Ugetsu (1953), a film by Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi that tells a ghost story about the theme of greed, set in Medieval Japan.
- A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds, Lotna (1954-1959), first films directed by Andrzej Wajda, one of the most prominent members of the Polish Film School.
- The Apu Trilogy (1955-1960) a series of three Indian films directed by Satyajit Ray that tell the story of a poor country boy's growth to adulthood.
- The Seventh Seal (1957) a Swedish film directed by Ingmar Bergman about the journey of a medieval knight across a plague-ridden landscape.
- Vertigo (1958) a film by Alfred Hitchcock about a retired detective hired to follow a friend's wife apparently possessed by an insane ancestor.
- The 400 Blows (1959) a French film directed by François Truffaut about an impoverished Parisian teen who is sent to a juvenile detention work camp after he steals a typewriter.
- Breathless (1960) a French film by director Jean-Luc Godard about a young thug who shoots a policeman. The film used innovative visual and editing techniques such as jump cuts and hand-held camera work.
- L'Avventura (1960) an Italian film written and directed by Michelangelo Antonioni which is notable for its slow pacing and unusual narrative structure.
- La Jetée (1962), a 28-minute science fiction film by Chris Marker about a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. The film is composed almost entirely of still photographs save for a single and almost unnoticeable moving shot of a person breathing.
- Knife in the Water (1962), Roman Polanski's first feature film.
- Persona (1966), a Swedish film by director Ingmar Bergman about a successful actress who has become mute and the nurse who takes care of her.
- 8½ (1963) an Italian film written and directed by Federico Fellini. Shot in black and while, the film is about a director suffering from creative and marital difficulties.
- Andrei Rublev (1966) a Russian film by director Andrei Tarkovsky about a 1400s Russian icon painter.
- Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), a French film by director Robert Bresson about the life and death of a donkey. It is notable for its religious imagery, spiritual allegories, and naturalistic, minimalist style.
- Belle de Jour (1967), a French film by director Luis Buñuel about a young, beautiful Paris housewife whose masochistic fantasies about floggings and bondage become reality when she begins secretly working at a high-class brothel.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a science fiction film directed by Stanley Kubrick, which deals with themes of human evolution and technology, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrial life. The film is notable for its scientific realism, pioneering use of special effects, and visual imagery.
- The Cow (1969) a Persian film by director Dariush Mehrjui about a man who becomes insane after the death of his beloved cow. The new wave of Iranian cinema emerged after this film.
- A Clockwork Orange (1971), a dystopian, futuristic film which follows a murderer-rapist-robber's life from criminal to brainwashed citizen, directed by Stanley Kubrick.
- Last tango in Paris (1972), a cult film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.
- Solaris (1972), a science fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
- Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1973), a cult film directed by Werner Herzog which was a landmark of the German New Wave movement.
- The Holy Mountain (1973), a cult film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
- The Promised Land (1974), a Polish film directed by Andrzej Wajda.
- Taxi Driver (1976), an American film drama directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader, is about an alienated young taxi driver who becomes obsessed with using violence to stop what he sees as the moral decay of society.
- Man of Marble (1976), a film directed by Andrzej Wajda.
- Eraserhead (1977), a film written and directed by David Lynch, is a dreamlike, surreal movie with an unusual soundtrack.
- Days of Heaven (1978), a film written and directed by Terrence Malick
- Raging Bull (1980), a film directed by Martin Scorsese.
- Man of Iron (1981), the film is a continuation of Andrzej Wajda's earlier film, Man of Marble.
- Pink Floyd The Wall (1982), a cult film directed by Alan Parker based on the 1979 Pink Floyd album The Wall.
- After Hours (1985), a comedy thriller directed by Martin Scorsese.
- Ran (1985), a historical war drama written and directed Akira Kurosawa.
- Betty Blue (1986), a drama film directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix.
- Blue Velvet (1986), a thriller mystery written and directed by David Lynch.
- The Decalogue (1988), a film series directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski and co-written by Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
- A Short Film About Killing (1988), a drama directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski.
- A Short Film About Love (1989), by Kieslowski.
- The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), a film written and directed by Peter Greenaway.
- Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990), a film directed by Akira Kurosawa
- Henry & June (1990), a film directed by Philip Kaufman.
- The Double Life of Véronique (1991), a film directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski.
- Barton Fink (1991), a film directed by Joel Coen
- Europa, Europa (1991), a film directed by Agnieszka Holland.
- My Own Private Idaho (1991), an independent film written and directed by Gus Van Sant
- Short Cuts (1993), a film directed by Robert Altman, with a screenplay by Altman and Frank Barhydt.
- Three Colors trilogy (1993-1994) co-written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
- Pulp Fiction (1994), a film directed by Quentin Tarantino, who co-wrote the screenplay with Roger Avary.
- Chungking Express (1994), a film directed by Wong Kar-wai
- Heavenly Creatures (1994), a film directed by Peter Jackson.
- The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002), a cycle of five films by Matthew Barney.
- The Pillow Book (1996) film directed by Peter Greenaway.
- Hurricane Streets (1997), a film written and directed by Morgan J. Freeman (first narrative film to win three awards at the Sundance Film Festival).
- The Ice Storm (1997), a film directed by Ang Lee.
- Lost Highway (1997), a film directed by David Lynch.
- Taste of Cherry (1997), a film directed by Abbas Kiarostami.
- American Beauty (1999), a film directed by Sam Mendes.
- Magnolia (1999), written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
- "Pi" (1998), written and directed by Darren Aronofksy
- The Circle (2000), a drama film directed by Jafar Panahi.
- Peppermint Candy (2000), a film directed by Lee Chang-dong
- Requiem for a Dream (2000), directed by Darren Aronofsky, about the toll heroin takes on a wayward son and his desperate-for-stardom mother.
- In the Mood for Love (2000), a film written and directed by Wong Kar-wai.
- Waking Life (2001), a digitally rotoscoped and animated film directed by Richard Linklater about a young man stuck in a dream.
- Memento (2001), a psychological thriller directed by Christopher Nolan about murder at the hands of a man suffering from long-term memory loss--hence the plot is reveal backwards and in ten-minute chunks
- Amelie (2001), a French romantic comedy directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet about a painfully shy waitress who secretly does good deeds for people.
- Mulholland Dr. (2001), a film directed by David Lynch spinning a tale about a freshly-moved girl in Hollywood who discovers an amnesiac in her house.
- Russian Ark (2002), a film directed by Alexander Sokurov, notable for being the first feature film shot in a single, unedited take.
- Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), a film directed by Park Chan-wook
- Oldboy (2003), a film directed by Park Chan-wook.
- Suite Habana (2003), a documentary film by Fernando Pérez, filmed with fictional cinema techniques.
- Elephant (film) (2003), a film directed by Gus Van Sant
- The Company(2003), a film directed by Robert Altman.
- Before Sunset (2004), the sequel to Before Sunrise, filmed in real time
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), a romance film directed by Michel Gondry about a man who hires a company to erase the memory of a relationship gone bad.
- Tropical Malady (2004), a Thai romance and psychological drama film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
- 2046 (2004), a drama film written and directed by Wong Kar-wai.
- Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), a film directed by Park Chan-wook
- Drawing Restraint 9 (2005), part of a nine-part series directed by Matthew Barney.
- Brokeback Mountain (2005), a film about two male ranch hands between whom an illicit romance blooms. Directed by Ang Lee (Academy Award-winning film)
- Babel (2006), a film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu about four different people whose tragic lives (and themes of their stories) intertwine.
- Just Like the Son (2006), a film written and directed by Morgan J. Freeman, starring Mark Webber, Brendan Sexton III, and Rosie Perez.
- Pan's Labyrinth (2006), a fantasy/war film directed by Guillermo del Toro about a girl of modest nobility who discovers a magical labyrinth behind the mansion in which she hides during the Spanish civil war.
- The Science of Sleep (2006), a fantasy film, written and directed by Michel Gondry, along the lines of Waking Life.
- Vanaja (2006), an Indian film directed by Rajnesh Domalpalli
- Imagination (2007), a fantasy film about "twin girls who overcome physical limitations to learn the secrets of heaven and nature", written and directed by Eric Leiser.
Directors associated with "art film"
The directors in this list have made films that were deemed to be notable by prominent critics, film festivals, and/or by authors of books on the history of cinema.
- Wes Anderson (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Fatih Akin (Audience Award at the European Film Awards)
- Pedro Almodovar (Academy award and Goya award winner).
- Robert Altman (Academy Award winner or Nominee) is a major influence on the development of the hyperlink movie.
- Paul Thomas Anderson (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Michelangelo Antonioni (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Darren Aronofsky (Independent Spirit Award Winner)
- Tim Burton
- Tom Tykwer
- Park Chan-Wook (Cannes Film Festival Winner)
- Ingmar Bergman (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Bernardo Bertolucci (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Luis Buñuel (Won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival)
- Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Grand Jury Prize at Cannes)
- The Coen brothers
- Francis Ford Coppola (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- David Cronenberg
- The Dardenne brothers
- Bruno Dumont
- Atom Egoyan
- Sergei Eisenstein Russian Award Stalin Prizewinner
- Federico Fellini (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Morgan J. Freeman (Sundance Film Festival winner)
- Vincent Gallo
- Jean Luc Godard
- Peter Greenaway
- Paul Greengrass (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Michael Haneke
- Werner Herzog (Alfred P. Sloan Prize: Sundance Film Festival)
- Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Nominee at Cannes Film Festival)
- Agnieszka Holland (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Peter Jackson (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Lodge Kerrigan
- Abbas Kiarostami (Palme d'Or, Cannes Festival)
- Krzysztof Kieslowski (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Takeshi Kitano (Takeshi's Castle)
- Eric Leiser
- Harmony Korine
- Akira Kurosawa (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Stanley Kubrick (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Emir Kusturica (Cannes Film Festival Winner)
- Fritz Lang
- David Lynch (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Majid Majidi (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Cannes Film Festival Winner)
- F.W. Murnau
- Christopher Nolan (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Nagisa Oshima (Best Director winner at the Cannes Film Festival)
- Roman Polanski (Academy Award winner, Palme d'Or winner)
- Alain Resnais
- Martin Scorsese (Academy Award winner, Palme d'Or winner)
- Mrinal Sen (Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters) the highest honor conferred by France
- Gus Van Sant (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- Steven Soderbergh (Academy Award winner or Nominee) systematically defined and applied the basic rules of hyperlink cinema
- Alexander Sokurov, Russian Academy of Cinema Arts and Sciences Nika Award
- Andrei Tarkovsky is an influential Russian filmmaker of the post-war Soviet era. 
- Quentin Tarantino (Academy Award winner or Nominee)
- André Téchiné (Best Director winner at the Cannes Film Festival)
- François Truffaut
- Tsai Ming-liang (Venice Film Festival winner)
- Andrzej Wajda (Academy Award winner, Palme d'Or winner)
- Wong Kar-wai, (Best Director at Cannes Film Festival and Hong Kong Film Awards)
- Krzysztof Zanussi (Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival)
A genre or style of "art 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."
- European art cinema
- Experimental film
- Auteur theory
- Film genres
- Sundance Film Festival
- Documentary films
- Art et Essai, a French denomination to indicate art films