Every so often, a film comes along that breaks the rules. It turns the structure and the traditional concept of filmmaking upside down. Sometimes, it’s sheer and utter brilliance (Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction). Other times, it fails spectacularly.
Then, there are gimmicks; some that worked—often prematurely hailed as “brilliant”—and others that didn’t. Either way, they will likely not be repeated anytime soon. Here are five examples I’ve culled for your reading pleasure. As always, in no particular order. Feel free to agree, disagree and/or offer examples of your own in the comments.
Hank and Asha
You never saw it. It’s a small, independent romance film with only two characters who share a long-distance crush via SnapChat-type videos. Credit director James E. Duff for making the viewer feel the connection between two characters who never actually share the same space for the duration of the film.
I’d give Hank and Asha three out of five stars. It’s clever, kinda charming and had characters for whom you could root. Using internet video letters (of sorts) as a device was an interesting way to move the story along, but it also left a sense of longing for more. It’s a decent gimmick, but let’s not do that again.
I know. They’re remaking this film for some inexplicable reason. Seems unnecessary to mess with Memento since they nailed it the first time. It’s a great story with fascinating characters, peculiar twists and a plot that feels like a puzzle. Oh yeah the story is told in reverse. We’re not talking about nonlinear storytelling here. We’re talking a completely backwards movie.
Memento starts at the end and leads you back to the beginning so as to understand how and why we ended where we ended. It was great, but I don’t see how another filmmaker could borrow that storytelling device and make it seem unique. Memento ruined it for everyone else.
A black-and-white, silent picture in the 21st century. It was fun and interesting, but in my mind, it was NOT the best film of 2011. It won its Oscar on the back of its hype and its anachronistic feel. Don’t get me wrong. I liked The Artist when I first saw it, but I immediately recognized this was a gimmick movie. That’s okay, but slow down with your finger snaps and orgasmic praise, art school, hipster nerds! You glommed onto The Artist as though Michel Hazanavicius re-invented the entire medium in a manner that became an oracle into the human condition. No. He didn’t.
In fact, he did the exact opposite. He aped a pre-talkies film technique nearly a century later and people went nuts sort of the same way they went nuts for Dane Cook when he first got famous. Pretty soon, people realized Dane Cook wasn’t funny. Or interesting. I’ll say The Artist was entertaining, but a pure gimmick.
The Tree of Life
Perhaps not so much a gimmick, unless you consider a steaming pile of shit a gimmick. For the sake of my list (where I make all the rules), I shall call it a gimmick in the hopes that no one ever tries to repeat the mistakes of this pretentious twaddle. No, art school, hipster nerds, I’m not “too American” to understand it. I completely understand The Tree of Life. I understand it sucks.
Perhaps I’m saying Terence Malick should never be allowed to direct another film. There. I said it. I seriously hated this movie and Malick owes me $10.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Right out of the gate, I must admit I truly love this film. It was my favorite movie of 2014. I love everything about it. I love the performances, the visuals, the set…everything. I also love that it was shot as a single-camera, one-take sequence.
Sure, it’s a total gimmick, but it fit perfectly in telling a story about producing a Broadway play. Unlike movies and (most) TV shows, stage productions are performed live, in one take. There are no do-overs. Perfect or not, the audience takes it all in from one, single perspective. Using a single camera in one, long take goes hand-in-hand with the theme and was truly a joy to watch unfold. I suppose it could work again in another film, but why bother trying? Birdman perfected it.*
* Full disclosure: I wrote this Friday Five more than two years ago. Around the same time Birdman was being produced, independent film director Dennis Hauck was shooting Too Late, which employs a similar, single-take concept. And it worked very well here, too. Too Late stars John Hawkes and is worth checking out.