6 Films That Brilliantly Redefined Themselves
The fine folks over at Cinema Guild have recently released Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, one of our Must See Indie picks, in theatres, and we’re not the only ones throwing high praise around. Jauja stars Viggo Mortensen as Captain Gunnar Dinesen, who travels to the Argentinian desert with his teenage daughter Ingeborg to work for the army. Dinesen is extremely protective of Ingeborg due to his coworkers not hiding their attraction towards her, but his attempts to shield her fail; she runs off with a young soldier in the desert, and Dinesen heads into the vast landscape to find her.
It sounds like a standard set-up for a mystery/drama, but what makes Jauja so wonderful is where it ends up. Without getting into too much detail, Dinesen’s search in the desert brings him to a time and place that comes out of nowhere, and suddenly the tale of a man trying to reunite with his daughter becomes something more magical and transcendental. It’s one of the boldest cinematic moves I’ve seen in recent years.
Just don’t call what happens in Jauja a plot twist, though. A better term might be plot explosion. Everything changes in the last act of Alonso’s film, to the point where it seems like a completely different movie has come out of nowhere. It’s a risky move, but when it works it can defy expectations in the best way possible. It’s natural to settle into a one track mindset while watching a film, implicitly trusting that a movie will stay within the boundaries it establishes from the start. So when something successfully shatters a viewer’s expectations, it can provide a jolt of adrenaline that elevates the experience to another level.
Jauja, along with the movies listed below, are films that successfully redefine themselves into something else entirely. Through the element of surprise, they transform from one kind of film into a completely different one, and in doing so create an unforgettable experience. To varying degrees, they all serve as reminders that the cinematic possibilities are truly endless.
Warning: There will be SPOILERS for the films mentioned throughout. You’ve been warned.
It’s hard to understate the importance of Michelangelo Antonioni’s feature, considering how influential it’s been since its 1960 premiere at Cannes. At the time, audiences did not take kindly to the film; there was booing throughout, with people yelling ‘Cut!” at the screen if a scene felt especially long. The volatility of the screening made Antonioni and star Monica Vitti leave the theatre, but an impassioned response by the film’s defenders after the premiere turned the tides in L’Avventura’s favour, and at the end of the festival Antonioni wound up walking away with a prize. Today, L’Avventura is considered one of the greatest films of all time.
Why did people react to the film with such hostility? Because Antonioni deliberately used cinematic conventions and expectations to trick viewers. L’Avventura starts out as a mystery, when a woman’s disappearance during a boating trip causes her friend (Vitti) to start searching for her. But Antonioni has no interest in explaining the whereabouts of the missing woman. Slowly but surely—with an emphasis on slowly—the film drifts away from the mystery, instead focusing on the decadent, bored lifestyles of Vitti and her friends. Watch almost any film that Cannes lauds now, and you can see Antonioni’s ghost lingering somewhere in the frame (Jauja premiered at Cannes, and its similarities to L’Avventura are easy to notice). L’Avventura starts this list because it was the first film to defiantly change itself into something far deeper and more impacting than its initial plot would suggest. With L’Avventura, Antonioni kicked open the door that the rest of the films on this list wound up going through.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Everyone knows how influential and brilliant Kubrick was, and 2001 has rightfully earned its place as one of the best films ever made. Most films on here redefine themselves once, but 2001 slams its fist on the reset button multiple times as it goes from the dawn of man to humankind’s next stage of evolution. But the key turning point for Kubrick’s masterpiece would obviously be “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” the final section of the film, where astronaut David (Keir Dullea) takes a psychedelic journey across the universe, ending up in a room where he sees himself age over a matter of minutes. Only Kubrick could make such a vast, large-scale film and insert what was essentially an avant-garde short in the middle of it, and get audiences to eat it up. Kubrick didn’t just redefine his own film; he managed to redefine cinema itself.
Bigas Luna’s 80s cult horror film certainly doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of L’Avventura or 2001, but this deceptive little movie is brilliant in its own right. Luna’s film starts off as an ultra-silly, yet highly entertaining piece of cheese, with an optometrist (Michael Lerner) telepathically commanded by his mother (Zelda Rubenstein) to murder people and keep their eyeballs as souvenirs. It comes across as a fun throwback to B-movies, until Luna throws in a complete curveball: it turns out the film is actually “The Mommy,” a movie that the real main characters are watching inside a theatre. From then on, Luna cuts between the film and the film-within-a-film until a crazed theatregoer begins slaughtering everyone in the screening.
It’s a hell of an audacious choice by Luna’s part, and it amazingly pays off because of the way he juxtaposes the two films. In “The Mommy,” Luna throws plenty of style and over the top camera tricks, but the theatre massacre is filmed in a realistic, straightforward manner. The combination of both styles makes the violence far more disturbing, especially when the two films start showing parallels between each other. It’s a fascinating look at the way horror films and reality mutually influence each other, and a brilliant transition from popcorn cheese to the something truly unnerving.
For those brave enough to get through Takashi Miike’s mortifying film, this selection shouldn’t come as a surprise. Audition’s switch between the mundane and the horrific isn’t exactly a shock, but only because Miike throws one scene in early on hinting at what’s to come. Even then, it’s impossible to get prepared for the stomach churning final act. Audition starts off as a bit of a romantic dramedy; Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) hasn’t gotten over his wife’s death, which triggers his friend to come up with the brilliant idea of holding an audition for a new wife. Aoyama finds himself stricken with the quiet Asami (Eihi Shiina), even though everyone warns him not to bother with her.
Since this is a horror film in disguise, Aoyama finds out the hard way that people were right about his new love. Audition isn’t too bold in its switch from drama to horror given its foreshadowing, but it makes up for it by going full-blown batshit crazy; druggings, needles, pedophilia, decaptiations, flapping severed tongues, piano wire and vomit eating are just a few things Miike throws on-screen within the final half hour. The fact that everything leading up to this is a gentle, human story about a man trying to find true love only makes the graphic content hit even harder. If you know it’s a horror film going in it’s easy to get prepared; Miike prefers to let viewers figure it out while watching, which makes the switcheroo hit like a bag of hammers. Miike’s shift from romance to nauseous horror is so jarring, it can feel like a betrayal.
The Loneliest Planet
Last year, Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure became an arthouse hit, but Julia Loktev beat that film to the punch 3 years earlier. And while Ostlund quickly starts his film with the main character’s selfish act during a life-threatening crisis, Loktev takes her sweet time. The film starts with engaged couple Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) taking a backpacking trip through the country of Georgia. For the first half of The Loneliest Planet, nothing really seems to happen. Alex and Nica travel around the Caucasus Mountains with their travel guide, and Loktev lets the absolutely stunning location carry her film along.
But then Alex and Nica bump into a man with a loaded rifle, and in a miscommunication the man points his gun directly at Alex. Alex immediately grabs Nica, putting her in front of him as a shield, and with that single act everything changes. Once the scene ends, Loktev goes back to the quiet, slow-moving style from the first half, except now every moment of silence sounds deafening. There’s little communication between Alex and Nica for the rest of the trip, and Loktev lets every wordless moment between them linger with a thin layer of tension and discomfort. It’s astounding to see how one tiny action can have such a pronounced influence over an entire film.
Romancing in Thin Air
Every film on this list has made a bold, defiant and risky change, but this film, which is slowly becoming one of my favourite Johnnie To movies, changes itself so gracefully it almost feels natural. To, a master of efficiency, quickly sets the story through an opening montage: A-list movie star Michael Lau (Louis Koo) gets dumped at the altar by his fiancée, and after a drunken bender winds up at an old resort high up in the mountains. Sau (Sammi Cheng), the resort’s owner, finds Michael, and decides to let him stay so he can get over his breakup.
It starts off as an absurd setup for a romantic comedy, with Michael awkwardly adjusting to the high altitude as he falls in love with Sau. But then To slowly reveals Sau’s tragic history—her husband went missing several years ago—and throws in several clever twists to the story. By the halfway point, Romancing in Thin Air has gone from a quirky romcom to a graceful, moving meditation on loss. But that switch doesn’t even begin to prepare for the emotional final act, where Michael finds a way to give Sau the exact thing she needs to move on with her life. Romancing in Thin Air opens up in the most beautifully unexpected of ways, as it slowly turns itself into a celebration of the power of film. Many movies have celebrated the way films can move us, but To takes it a step further; he suggests that film can be therapeutic, and a tool to help people better their own lives. It sounds a bit schmaltzy, but in To’s hands it’s impossible for any film lover to not get choked up by the time the credits roll.