It’s not the ‘art’ of a film that makes it ‘arthouse’. That quality can be found as readily in many other, less feted genres, as any passionate champion of zombie-horror gore or Dwayne Johnson’s acting will tell you. The difference is that arthouse is art, and knows it.
These are films which proudly aim beyond mere money-making for multinational media conglomerates. They push at the boundaries of the form, explore its edges and insist that film-going isn’t just for entertainment, it should be an experience, too.
Is ‘arthouse’ a genre, then? Like the western or the rom-com? If so, it’s one that often overlaps with others. Many of these films could also be categorised as ‘independent’ or ‘slow cinema’ or ‘experimental’ – and for a brief period in the 1970s, ‘arthouse’ was also a serviceable euphemism for European porn flicks.
Elsewhere, English-language Hollywood product still dominates, but here it is the foreign-language film which comes out on top. Because foreigners are always arty, aren’t they? Especially the French, who have no direct translation for ‘arthouse’, referring instead to “film d’auteur”. Indeed these auteurs – or filmmakers – are particularly important in arthouse, because more than any other kind, these films are a direct, soul-to-screen expression of one individual’s artistry.
Yet all still share an underlying approach which sets them apart from the usual multiplex fare. Arthouse has looser narratives, morally ambivalent characters, more ambiguous resolutions, and definitely fewer car chases. These films ask more of you as a viewer, but it’s worth it. For the price of a cinema ticket, they’ll take you out of yourself and into the world, then deposit you back in the foyer some few hours later, as a person forever changed.
The directorial debut of this Nineties New York club kid was critically derided, but loved by all the right people, including director Werner Herzog who was so impressed, he agreed to appear in Korine’s next movie. It’s here that art cinema meets the exploitation flick and – fair warning – it’s highly likely that the most exploited people are us; the pretentious, arthouse-viewing elite.
In the Senegalese port city of Dakar, a young woman (Mame Bineta Sane), prepares for her marriage to an older wealthier man, while pining for the lover (Ibrahima Traoré) who left abruptly in search of work overseas. What has become of him? What will become of her? The mysteries of this film roll in and envelop its characters like a sea mist.
48. Enter The Void (2009)
Every arthouse director worthy of that name gets called ‘pretentious’ on at least one occasion, but few court the accusation as assiduously as Gasper Noe. This hallucinogenic melodrama stars Nathaniel Brown and Paz de la Huerta as druggy American sibling eking out a criminal living on the margins of Tokyo’s nightlife. It’s mostly just provocative, but also, occasionally, quite profound.
47. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
Even hardcore arthouse aficionados may baulk at Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, a seven-and-a-half hour, black-and-white Hungarian-language drama about the deteriorating social fabric of a desolate rural village. Happily for those who believe endurance tests have no place in serious cinema appreciation, there’s also this equally masterful, equally gloomy Bela Tarr film, clocking in at a comparatively merciful 145 mins.
Director: debbie tucker green
The latest from capital-letter-eschewing debbie tucker green is, like all her work, formally innovative and dense with meaning in a way that defies easy summary. What we can say is it’s a dramatic triptych about racial injustice, in which some great Black British actors (Lashana Lynch, Tosin Cole) do justice to her distinctive, rhythmic dialogue. The cumulative effect is confrontational and lingering.
45. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
The collaboration between the Swedish enfant terrible director and the Icelandic pop pixie Björk was reportedly unhappy, but the work itself is enchanting, combining Von Trier’s severe, stripped-back, Dogme ’95 aesthetic with the whimsy of a Hollywood musical. And the art didn’t end there: the famous swan dress Björk wore to perform at the 2001 Academy Awards surely also qualifies.
Teen vampire franchise Twilight must have been a breeding ground for the avant grade, judging by the subsequent careers of its stars. Here, Robert Pattinson plays an ex-con astronaut sent on a multi-generational space mission to harness the energy of a distant black hole. Juliette Binoche is the sexy scientist who experiments on the crew, creating the film’s strange, seductive, itchy mood.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
The Greek director of 2024’s Poor Things is Academy Award-nominated for The Lobster (2015) and The Favourite (2019), but this is the film which announced his uncompromising oddness to the world. It’s about a couple who keep their three adult children in a fenced-in compound, secluded from the outside world, and things just get stranger from thereon in.
42. Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
Zbigniew Cybulski comes off like an Eastern European James Dean in this legendary Polish war thriller. He plays Maciek, a mixed-up young man ordered by his right-wing Nationalist Army bosses to assassinate the incoming communist district secretary, but conflicted by his sense of self-preservation. Where is the diamond of victory to be found amidst the ashes of a war-torn nation?
41. Three Colours: Blue (1993)
Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
There was a time when French actress Juliette Binoche was the face of art cinema among the multiplex masses. It was this film which established that reputation, the first of Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, all themed on the French Revolutionary ideas. Binoche plays Julie, a bereaved woman living in Paris who haltingly embraces a kind of liberty in the wake of tragedy.
40. Being John Malkovich (1999)
A sweaty, resentful puppeteer gets a boring filing job to pay the bills, then discovers his cramped office has a secret door leading – where else? – directly into the head of noted actor John Malkovich. It’s a surreal premise, but more surreal still is the fact that the real John Malkovich agreed to appear in this film by first-timers Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze.
39. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Do you believe in ghosts or reincarnation? To watch any movie is to open yourself to the possibility of another plane of existence and it’s through that ajar door that this Palme D’Or-winner enters your consciousness. The plot is straight forward – a dying Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) reflects on his life (lives?) as a farmer in Thailand – though it may take several viewings to appreciate that simplicity.
Was this the moment arthouse irreversibly entered the mainstream? Barry Jenkins’s beautifully shot, lit and acted coming-of-age drama has the dubious honour of being the second lowest-grossing Academy Award Best Picture Winner domestically (after The Hurt Locker). But that only demonstrates that American audiences have some catching up to do.
37. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
With its use of time-lapse photography, Koyaanisqatsi could easily be mistaken for a David Attenborough nature documentary, minus the avuncular narration. In fact, it’s better categorised as a visual poem, building on the title, a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”. All of this makes more sense when you discover that Godfrey Reggio spent 14 years as a silent monk before becoming a filmmaker.
36. Samson & Delilah (2009)
Director: Warwick Thornton
In a remote Aboriginal community, two solvent-sniffing teens steal a car and go on a joy-ride. The excitement of glimpsing this rarely-screened worldview is heightened by heart-rending performances from young stars, Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson and, throughout, Warwick Thornton’s camera finds beauty and tender connection in this most brutally harsh version of human existence.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
The arthouse directors’ favourite arthouse director has many works, but this is the one which most insistently resists a single interpretation. A guide – or stalker – leads a writer and a professor into a forbidden area called the Zone. It’s tempting to see this an allegory for real-life nuclear exclusion zones, except the Chernobyl disaster wouldn’t happen for another seven years.
34. Pather Panchali (1955)
Bombastic Bollywood musicals now dominate the international image of Indian cinema, but before Shah Rukh Khan ever shimmied a shoulder across the screen, this Bengali-language story of a rural boyhood was a hit at home and abroad. A sitar soundtrack by Ravi Shankar and an affecting performance from young Subir Banerjee as Apu are among its many treasures.
33. Taste of Cherry (1997)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
In Tehran, a middle-aged man drives around contemplating suicide. It’s not whether he should end his own life that concerns him, but who he should hire to bury him after the deed is done. Kiarostami’s minimalist long takes and lack of background score were memorably dismissed as “excruciatingly boring” by one prominent critic, and yet it’s these same qualities secured that year’s Palme D’Or.
32. Killer of Sheep (1978)
Director: Charles Burnett
Charles Burnett brings Italian neo-realism to 1970s LA with these loosely connected vignettes from the life of a slaughterhouse worker. It adds up to an impressive mosaic of Black working class life in America that had never before been seen on screen. Rights issues with the soundtrack music kept the film from wide distribution for decades, but in the interim its reputation has only grown.
31. L’Atalante (1934)
L’Atalante is the canal where captain Jean (Jean Dasté) lives with his new wife Juliette (Dita Parlo), their salty sea-dog crew-mate (Michel Simon) and a cabin boy but, alas the course of true love runs a lot less smoothly than the canals. The story surrounding the film’s production adds to its tragi-romantic mythology: just a month after L’Atalante’s release the director died, aged 29.
When you are an artist, you must make art, even if the philistines call for commerce. That was the fate of playwright-turned-filmmaker Bill Gunn, who produced this masterpiece of moody symbolism, after being approached by a production company looking to churn out a Blaxploitation vampire flick on the cheap. Night of The Living Dead’s Duane Jones is a mysterious, beguiling presence throughout.
29. Daughters of The Dust (1991)
Beyonce’s favourite arthouse film – it was a huge influence on 2016’s Lemonade – is about three generations of Gullah women in a remote South Carolina community, preparing to migrate North. Dash intentionally implemented a non-linear narrative as a way to mimic the traditional Gullah storytelling practice, but Daughters also made history, as the first film by an African-American woman to go on US-wide theatrical release.
28. The White Ribbon (2009)
Multiple films in this list speak to the rise of 20th century fascism, but few explore the phenomenon’s tangled cultural roots as dextrously as the Austrian auteur of alienation. A puritanical pastor terrorises his young charges. A farmer’s son destroys the baron’s crop. A grieving husband takes his own life. All shot in warm monochrome, yet withholding the easy resolution we expect from mystery drama.
Director: François Truffaut
In this three-way romantic drama, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) is the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who doesn’t even warrant her name in the title. The plot is ostensibly more concerned with the two men who love her, First World War soldiers fighting on opposing sides. Yet Truffaut’s follow-up to The 400 Blows transcends its dubiously dated gender politics with a true understanding of human nature and briefly glimpsed happiness.
26. Mullholland Drive (2001)
There’s a reason why ‘Lynchian’ is an overused adjective in the description of arthouse cinema. No other filmmaker has managed to bring their art to the screen so successfully and so apparently without compromise. Mullholland Drive isn’t Lynch’s weirdest, but it might be his best. A surrealist mystery about an actress and an amnesiac, starring Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Justin Theroux.
25. Morvern Callar (2002)
There’s a filmmaker-star symbiosis at work in this film that’s as powerful – and much less violent – than anything Herzog/Kinski or Scorsese/DeNiro did together. First in the Scottish snow, then in the Spanish sun, Samantha Morton stars as the enigmatic, hugely vital Morvern, a young woman who responds to a bereavement in a startling, self-preserving and ultimately life-affirming way.
24. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Silent cinema can be very loud. In this classic film about the trial of the French national heroine and martyr, Danish director Dreyer uses close-ups on faces, especially that of Joan of Arc (French stage actress Renee Maria Falconetti in her only on-screen performance) to thunderously proclaim her courage, in contrast with the cruel hypocrisy of her tormentors.
23. Days of Heaven (1978)
Director: Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick’s 1978 follow-up to Badlands is another story of lovers on the run, but this time set in 1916 and widely considered among the most beautiful films ever made. After leaving Chicago in a hurry, steel worker Bill (Richard Gere) finds – then loses – an eden in the Texas prairie, all of it bathed in Malick’s trademark magic-hour glow.
22. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973)
How many mad men does it take to shoot an arthouse classic? This is the first of five collaborations between the eccentric German director and his best frenemy Klaus Kinski, in which Kinski plays Lope de Aguirre, the 16th century Spanish conquistador who led an expedition down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado. The city was a myth, but the film is pure gold.
21. The Color of Pomegranates (1969)
Director: Sergei Parajanov
Back when the Kardashian dynasty was just a twinkle in Chris Jenner’s eye, Armenia had another hugely influential cultural export. Parajanov’s film is an unconventional biopic of the 18th century poet Sayat-Nova, woven from a series of vivid, mostly dialogue-free tableaux vivants, featuring Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli playing five different characters. So naturally, Lady Gaga is a huge fan.
20. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
What must the world have made of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic when it first touched down in cinemas, a full year before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon? The kaleidoscopic star-gate, the grand Strauss theme music, the prehistoric apes and the mysterious alien monolith? Bafflement, perhaps, but 2001 has stayed in our collective consciousness ever since, exerting evident influence over both Barbie and Oppenheimer.
19. The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
If it’s the secular search for religious experience that brings you to the cinema, then viewer, you’ve arrived in heaven. Pasolini applied the Italian neorealist style to the story of Jesus from Nativity to Resurrection, utilising non-professional actors and shooting in dusty southern Italy with sublime results. The closing sequence, with its unexpected soundtrack of Congolese gospel, is particularly transcendent.
Director: Federico Fellini
Federico Fellini is one of those directors who could easily have appeared several times over in this list, but 8 1/2 may be the most self-consciously arty of his masterpieces. It’s about a famous Italian film director (Marcello Mastroianni) who is creatively stalled during the production of a new film featuring thinly veiled autobiographical allusions – you see what he did there?
17. La règle du jeu / The Rules of The Game (1939)
This French forbear to every country house drama, from Saltburn to Downton, is miraculous in its summary of Europe on the brink of World War Two. Over the course of a shooting weekend, Renoir satirises the bad behaviour that results from enmeshed desire, power and privilege. But then, to borrow the film’s famous refrain, “Everyone has their reasons.”
16. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1963)
This French New Wave triumph offers two hours in the company of girl-about-town Cleo (Corinne Marchand), as she befriends a young soldier, visits the cinema (Breathless director Jean-Luc Godard appears in this film-within-a-film), and awaits the results of her cancer tests. In France, 5pm to 7pm is traditionally the time allotted for extramarital trysts, but Cleo’s situation makes for a more meaningful interlude.
15. Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
Britain’s foremost screen poet moved away from his native Liverpool as a young man, but returned several times on screen, including in this visually gorgeous, emotionally evocative portrait of a working-class, 1950s childhood. As in Of Time and The City (2008), Davies’ sublime documentary made twenty years later, music, poetry – and, of course, cinema – are central to everything.
Harry Dean Stanton’s magnificently weather-beaten face is – after the Texas desert, and the LA suburbs – a third landscape for German director Wim Wenders to explore in this dreamy road-movie-western. A reunited father and son go in search of their missing wife/mother, inspiring Americana devotees at every diner and motel stop along the way.
13. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Director: Vittoria De Sica
The best-known work of the Italian neo-realist era portrays post-war Europe in all its desperate poignancy. Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola star as a forlorn father and son, criss-crossing Rome in search of the stolen bicycle that the father, Antonio, needs to keep his job and feed his family. Everywhere they go they encounter thievery and dishonesty, but will Antonio himself finally succumb?
12. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Propaganda should be the opposite of art cinema, carefully calibrated as it is to evoke politically useful emotion, but we make an exception for Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. His experimental interest image juxtaposition – known as ‘montage’ – created the basic grammar of the cinema language, without which the epic screen poetry of Kubrick and Kurosawa might never have existed.
11. A bout de souffle/ Breathless (1960)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Fashions may fade, but true cool is timeless. You can tell this from the tilt of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s hat and cigarette (modelled on his Hollywood idol Humphrey Bogart). Or the skip in Jean Seberg’s step. Or the jump-cuts of Godard’s ground-breaking edit. These things are all as fresh and vital now as the day they were first committed to celluloid.
10. Zone of Interest (2023)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer’s late father disapproved of his plan to make this film about the domestic life of Nazi Auschwitz commandant Rodolf Hess, believing that the horrors of the Holocaust should be left in the past. But this is Glazer’s masterpiece, precisely because it illustrates how the cognitive dissonance which allows us to exist in close proximity to others’ suffering is not in the past at all.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Saul Bass’s spiral motifs and the ‘Vertigo effect’ dolly-zoom are the stuff of cinema legend, but it’s obsession which lands this film in every best-of list going: Scottie’s (James Stewart) obsession with the mysterious blonde (Kim Novak); Hitchcock’s obsessive attitude towards his leading ladies; plus the obsessive urge to re-watch Vertigo over and over, which eventually sends us all headlong into the vortex.
8. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
That image of the knight playing chess with Death is so parodied and homaged – from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey to Iron Maiden album covers – that it’s become a short-hand for serious cinema the world over. Yet get beyond the dour reputation, and you’ll find a film that confronts the profound matters of faith, doubt and meaning with thrilling immediacy.
No one does sadness like Ozu, the Japanese director of delicate family dramas, long thought “too Japanese” to connect with Western audiences. In fact, his concerns are universal, most obviously in this word-class story of an elderly couple visiting their grown-up children, while accepting parenthood as a slow, painful, inevitable goodbye. It’s Zen Buddhism in filmic form.
Director: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell
Colour never looked so vivid as in Powell and Pressburger’s much-loved take on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Moira Shearer stars as Vicky Page, an aspiring ballet dancer forced to choose between her lover and her art, culminating in an innovatively shot 17-minute ballet sequence. Or maybe it’s those red ballet shoes that really make all Vicky’s decisions?
Other Kurosawa films are more famous, like the perspective-shifting crime drama Rashomon (1950), or the action-packed adventure Seven Samurai (1954), but Ikiru (“to live”) is the most soulful. Frequent Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura stars as a terminally ill Tokyo bureaucrat who attempts to discover what makes life worth living. He finds the answer too; on a playground swing in the snow.
The audacity is astounding: Aged just 25, Orson Wells marched into Hollywood, directed and starred in a film which boldly satirised the most powerful media baron of the day, and entirely revolutionised the cinema art-form in the process. If Citizen Kane seems less bracingly new to a contemporary viewer, it’s only because many of his innovations have since been so widely adopted.
3. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
David Lynch and many others have Un Chien Andalou to thank for introducing dream logic to cinema narratives. More impressively still, this collaboration with the renowned Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali is responsible for the most purely shocking image in cinema history. See that razor meet that eyeball and you will never ‘see’ anything else in quite the same way again.
2. In The Mood For Love (2000)
The most lushly romantic film of all time takes place in 1960s Hong Kong, when neighbours Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) discover their spouses have been having an affair. From there develops a story of missed connections, repressed feelings, whispered secrets and unconsummated desire, which is heart-breaking in any language.
1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Director: Chantal Akerman
The current holder of Sight & Sound’s “greatest film of all-time” accolade is a deceptively uneventful 3 hours, 21 minutes, during which time filmmaker Chantal Akerman introduces us to the mundane routine of the titular Belgian housewife and sometime sex worker.
The full effect though is magnificent. This is filmmaking which achieves both a transcendent, meditative experience and – sorry, Barbie – feminism’s fullest on-screen expression.