Movies that Don’t Move
Most movies like to take advantage of the fact that through the lie that is twenty-four frames per second, you can be convinced that something is happening. Not only is George Clooney in the same room with you, he also just did something exciting and unexpected like test-fire a sniper rifle, and will continue to do stuff like that for the next couple hours.
In other words, we assume that filmmakers want to use visually engaging events and action in order to produce the powerful emotional experiences that cause us to keep giving them our money.
And most of the time that is the case. And even most-er of the time, we want that to be the case, or at least our lizard brains do. Complex evolutionary forces draw us to kinetic, loud, nudity-filled sensory experiences, and it only makes sense for our art (and craft) to leverage those mechanisms to tell our stories.
But that kind of storytelling can be limiting. Believe it or not, some aspects of the human experience cannot be articulated through cross-cutting, walk-and-talks, and hallway handgun disarms. In fact, I would go so far as to say most aspects of the human experience. I know, I’m going out on a bit of a limb here.
Certain films, by adopting a style that favors stillness over action and silence over noise seem to be made almost in rebellion against the audience’s default assumptions. These films intentionally use the wrong end of the paintbrush, first, to show us that the paintbrush does in fact have two ends (i.e. movies needn’t necessarily be the way we’re used to seeing them), and second, to be able to tell a different kind of story.
I’m not saying that a style limits what plots you can film; I’m saying that the story (which I define as plot + the point you’re making about the characters) changes when you change the style. (This is the whole principle behind remakes.)
So to choose an extremely quiet, non-kinetic, low-edited style means you are now able to tell stories about new facets of life. The turning of eyes inward. The act of waiting. The act of wondering why you are waiting. The spaces between life. The spaces between people.
Most movies have occasional moments or even whole scenes which deal with this sort of thing, and such moments can be crucial moments in the story. But I want to call special attention to five films which seem to embrace stillness as its own medium and which employ it heavily throughout.
First, some ground rules. I am limiting the discussion to movies-as-entertainment. I am intentionally excluding films like Sleep and Empire which go beyond artful filmmaking into what used to be called “video art,” but surely that term is obsolete by now. They exist on the same spectrum as the films below, but their audiences are assumed to have come with different expectations.
I am also excluding films which sit flat and still on the screen due to poor workmanship instead of an intentional style choice. (I’m looking at you, Manos: The Hands of Fate.)
We can discuss some borderline cases in the comments below (along with any egregious oversights), but for now, here are the five best non-“move-y” movies, as ranked by the Flickchart global rankings.
- Global ranking: 53250
- Wins 38% of matchups
- 30 users have ranked it 289 times
- 0 users have it at #1
- 1 users have it in their top 20
Gregg Turkington’s alter ego, nightclub sleaze-jokester “Neil Hamburger”, has been around for many years, lurking goblin-like on the fringes of the alt-alt-alt-alt-alt-comedy scene. Entertainment is one particular lens-refraction of the character (though he’s never explicitly named in the credits), and it showcases the complete completeness of the character in the Turkington’s performance. How does a film accomplish something so subtle and internal? Through stillness and silence.
“The Comedian” (as he is credited) is mainly shown to us, both in and out of costume, against the beautyblank spaces of the Mojave Desert. We also see him do his act in clubs and bars, against blank brick walls and overlit plaster, in vacuums of apathy and hostility, for audiences that he either perceives as alien or who actually are.
The point being made is (i.e. the story is) that those blank backgrounds are not (only) aspects of the world in which he works but something that he carries about inside him. If the film constantly showed him having conversations with people, or played jangly pop music over him gazing into distances, or cut back and forth between him and other subjects, we would get no sense of the stillness that exists inside his head, no sense of the pain that he feels when he looks out and sees the same blank slate that he feels within.
No, to drive that point home requires that the camera just stay running and stay fucking put. When properly wielded, the lens can be a spiritual electromagnet, drawing out through molecular inevitability the inner layers of a character’s personality, layers which are only there if the actor has done their work. In this case, he has, and the film, despite its (probably intentional) meanness, ugliness, and emptiness, is filled with an intense and pulpy emotional texture that works in beautiful irony to its title.
#4 La Jetée
- Global ranking: 428
- Wins 57% of matchups
- 872 users have ranked it 16092 times
- 2 users have it at #1
- 42 users have it in their top 20
No discussion of movie stillness would be complete without the most famous example of a film story told entirely except for that one part! with still images.
What’s interesting is how not-still-at-all this little film feels. This is a taut post-apocalyptic science fiction thriller which just so happens to eschew the moving image as one of its storytelling tools. And as such, perhaps according to a certain perspective it does not deserve a place on this list. There certainly is no inner sense of stillness, no attempt to draw out character through long takes and unblinking eyes.
But there is an internal excavation that is accomplished through the application of this technique. Because this film is about memory. These frozen images are how our hero remembers the past of his planet, which under certain circumstances is actually how memory works. It may even have been our hero’s eideticism that enabled the time-travel experiment to work on him when it failed for so many others.
By constructing the story in this way, the film shows bold dedication to showing a character’s “point of view”, elevating the concept beyond that simple phrase and forcing us to find new terminology: “point of thought”, “memory of view”, “point of mind”.
I stand by my inclusion of La Jetée in this list because it is neither metaphorical nor literal non-motion that I’m actually concerned with, but rather with what can be achieved by sacrificing what we assume is a central tenet of filmmaking but is actually just another rule to be broken by the right kind of genius
#3 Blue Velvet
- Global ranking: 349
- Wins 51% of matchups
- 12964 users have ranked it 164215 times
- 67 users have it at #1
- 821 users have it in their top 20
David Lynch loves silence. Well, maybe not silence, but certainly stillness and low throbbing subaural sounds. Usually he uses these tools to induce a state of breath-abated tension, as in Mulholland Drive, and we get that here as well.
But in Blue Velvet, at this early stage in Lynch’s art-rocket-boosted arc of weird into the popular stratosphere, he seems to have had more patience to just lean into those static profile shots and slow pans across Not-Quite-Normal, U.S.A.. His later films show a certain infection by restlessness, no doubt internalized from the experience of working in television.
When you finally understand the plot of Blue Velvet (deep in the third act), it is so big and heavy and cinematic that it almost displaces it from this list. A truly still film wouldn’t have earthquakes of tragedy and violence sprinkled throughout.
But it is the patience at work here, in the awkward silences and the blank stares that maybe have some hidden meaning? no they don’t but do they? no they’re just blank and empty and motionless that demonstrates Lynch’s willingness to discard the conventions of the moving image and to play games with our expectations.
So it deserves mention here because Lynch’s stillness is more than just the absence of movement. It is an operative component of each scene, almost its own character, which he brings to bear with intention and vicious effectiveness. Things stay still when we expect them to move and that upsets us in ways we don’t realize until three days later, and that makes it so much worse when things aren’t supposed to move and suddenly they do, and great now we’re insane.
- Global ranking: 188
- Wins 62% of matchups
- 995 users have ranked it 22023 times
- 26 users have it at #1
- 141 users have it in their top 20
This film should be considered a placeholder for pretty much all of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s catalog. The man loves stillness and he has absolutely no fear when it comes to a long take. None at all. He must be brutal in a staring contest. As long as a scene has something left to be wrung out of it, that camera will be there and running. Tarkovsky is the Anti-Mamet.
I’ve chosen Stalker as Tarkovsky’s avatar here because it is his least arty and most plot-y film (in a very arty and unplotful C.V.) and as such provides the most for a Hollywood-minded normal to latch onto. But even in this context, with a fairly-hard sci-fi narrative as its spine, the real story, about the death of hope and the outer edges of human desperation, is only attainable by having the movie move as little as possible.
Don’t get too “director-y”. Don’t try to over-movie the movie. Just let those jangle-wired 70s synthesizers rattle around, and concentrate on keeping your characters in the frame. Let the celluloid do its job and sponge up that Slavic bleakpunk marvelousness.
- Global ranking: 83
- Wins 56% of matchups
- 57461 users have ranked it 594597 times
- 1000 users have it at #1
- 10672 users have it in their top 20
In telling the story of that distant year 2001, Kubrick twists the medium and the message into an exquisite irony. We will have a tale that moves through hundreds of millennia and hundreds of millions of kilometers and across the bounds of consciousness and through the membranes of evolution, and yet in any given moment except for one! we will feel that the entire universe is completely still. Not always (or predictably) quiet, and not always at rest; we will take a tour through a museum of barriers and human entrapments, both literal and otherwise, and we will see characters rail against a panoply of walls that hold them.
But throughout we will be still, and the camera will be still. The cartwheel of satellites will be stripped of the emotional “whoosh” that any other director would be compelled to provide through sheer duration. A battle of beasts to the death will be captured with two cameras at a great distance and languid multi-second cuts, and the results immediately obviated by the harshest jump cut ever.
Spaceships flying through the stars will resemble Erie barges and Rent-a-Center Bobcats. There will be no streamlining or nacelles to evoke our nautical souls. We will hear no engines. Pilots will not emote. No one will scream. No one will laugh. Happy children will only be available via Skype. The villain will have no face but will instead be a zero-dimensional yellow dot. He will only ever be shown at the exact center of a static shot. He will never be panned across.
How is this even a “movie”? Every physical, visual, and emotional aspect is absolutely calcified.
And yet we are moved. We are moved because of its stillness, and because of how the drama has to push through it, like a fist through a garbage bag, stretching and deforming at the container that Kubrick has put it into. The stillness gives the film a bottom-weight, so that at the end when it wants to spin off the outer tip of science fiction into fantasy (and/or psychedelia), we are ready,and grounded.
We welcome this sudden influx of light and color and speed, because the exhilarating relief that it represents to Dave Bowman and the human species we feel as well. All of human life up until that point has been dull and static by comparison. And then the stars pour in, and we are reborn.