Arthouse Films Vs. Sundance-y Movies

Arthouse Film:

Unconcerned with quick story pace, big action-suspense sequences, or endings likely to please mainstream viewers who anticipate a conventional dramatic payoff…but with immense consideration and care given to the film’s visual flourishes– cinematography, editing, costume design, set design, use of locations, etc.

Examples I can think of: 

Nosferatu (1979)

Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)

Blow Up (1966)

Eureka (1983)

Irreversible (2002)

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Dead Man (1996)

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985)

Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972)


…and at the other end of the critically adored spectrum, we have the–

Sundance-y Movie:

Similar to the Arthouse Film with regard to storytelling style, but told on a smaller scale, from a smaller perspective, with an unpolished feeling to its script, which is frequently dialogue-heavy. Its visuals are usually underwhelming, with little regard given to shot compositions, offering a de-saturated (drab) color palette, and/or a gratuitous amount of hand-held camerawork (*). Often has the appearance of a hastily assembled student film.

Examples I can think of:


It’s difficult, because I don’t seek these movies out and when I do encounter them, it’s usually because I walk in on my wife killing time with one on Netflix. These are the kinds of movies we seldom watch together.

Oh, wait. Here’s one I suffered through recently:


With an Arthouse Film, I can almost always find something about it to admire, even if only on a superficial level.

For instance, I disliked Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, finding it a grim and repulsive exercise in aesthetics I never cared to watch again, but I had to admire the skill with which it was made. I still wish I’d never seen it, though.

To this day, I feel that watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was a monumental waste of my time. However, I could tell that an ungodly amount of meticulous care went into the film’s look and design…

…so I couldn’t quite bring myself to resent it. The problem I had with the film was that its style was so overwhelming that its seams were constantly on display, thus never allowing me the chance to forget I was watching a movie. I never believed what I was seeing.

Sometimes an undeniably Arthouse Film can go horribly wrong. Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life, for example. Some beautiful shots in that one, but, man, was it torture to get through.

I’ve avoided Malick’s work ever since. His first three films, Badlands, Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, bought him a lot of goodwill with me, but Tree Of Life burned it all up.

A solid Arthouse Film doesn’t have to satisfy me on a gut level, like, say, an escapist Action or Horror film would, provided the filmmakers have delivered a satisfying piece of cinematic art, a motion picture that I’ll look forward to revisiting in the future.

If they’ve created a unique, thought-provoking cinematic experience that not just anyone could pick up a camera and make, that’s something worth admiring.

Sundance-y Movies, on the other hand, I seldom admire, precisely because they don’t feel artistic to me in the least.

Battery FinaleWM

When a filmmaker can’t even be bothered to create compelling visuals, that’s carelessness on a level that’s near criminal, a likely indicator of a crushing lack of talent.

The overriding vibe of a Sundance-y Movie is one of self-indulgence. Too many nowadays seem to be made by and for undiscerning hipsters afflicted with a rather dubious sense of taste. 

(*) Hand-held camerawork is like movie gore: A little goes a long way, while too much negates its effectiveness as a storytelling tool, due to audiences becoming inured to it or immediately annoyed, at which point they shut the movie off or walk out of the theater.