Monday, May 5, 2008

13 Rule-Breaking Films

written by Clarence Ewing

For all the creativity and innovation that goes into making Hollywood films, there are also a lot of ideas that get recycled time and time again. I’m not referring to stock characters or the case of "sequalitis" that hits multiplexes every summer. I’m talking about the basic building blocks of storytelling that are ingrained in the movie-going experience.

Every once in a while, though, a film will come along that takes a technical or thematic assumption about how movies are supposed to be made and changes it, sometimes resulting in a truly memorable cinematic experience.

Producers who want to make a film that breaks one of the unwritten rules of mass-market entertainment take on a lot of risk - studios might not want to fund the film, theaters might not show it, and audiences might not respond to it. The reward for taking the chance, though, could be recognition for being a really interesting experiment or, in some cases, taking your place among the greatest films ever made.

The following list is a sample of some of the more well-known rule-breaking films. It is by no means definitive. A dedicated film fan could spend a lifetime finding worthy examples to add to this list. Also, many of the items listed here are American films released in the last half of the 20th century. This is the unconscious result of this article's author having been born and become a movie fan in America in the last half of the 20th century.

Timecode (2000)
Time Code (2000)
Rule Breaking Idea: Show four frames simultaneously on the screen

When I go to a movie theater, I assume that I will sit in a chair. I assume everyone in the theater will face the same direction, the lights will be turned off (or at least down), and I will look at a large rectangular screen onto which I will see one series of moving photographs at a time.

Mike Figgis’ work, in which he shows the audience four scenes running at the same time, changes one of the basic expectations of watching a movie. Keeping track of different lines of action is an interesting experience, like being a building security guard who must keep tabs on a group of cameras, mentally sorting out the important bits from the mundane.

I finished my viewing wondering how much I missed, or if maybe my brain could eventually get used to this kind of viewing, the same way all film viewers use persistence of vision to watch any film.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Rule Breaking Idea: The good guys lose

In most mass-marketed science fiction and fantasy films, from Flash Gordon to Superman to The Lord of the Rings, it’s assumed that before the end credits roll the heroes will pull out some kind of victory by vanquishing the evil-doers, even if only temporarily. Perhaps that is a necessary assumption in a universe where a few deranged people can do a lot of damage with the firepower science and magic provide.

The idea of the conquering hero has been around since humans became capable of telling stories, and in most of them, even if the hero falls, it’s not without accomplishing something worthwhile or going out with a noble flourish.

There would be no such victory for the heroes in George Lucas’ second installment of the Star Wars saga. In the previous episode, the scrappy Rebels scored a major victory against Darth Vader and his minions. In the sequel, the Rebels get their collective backsides handed to them by the Empire militarily (the “battle” on Hoth wasn’t so much a fight as a delay action to allow the Rebels to run away), personally (Han Solo is betrayed by his friend and becomes a frozen dinner right after acknowledging his love for Leia) and emotionally (Luke Skywalker learns the biggest mass-murderer in the galaxy is his dad).

At the end of the film, there’s nothing left to do but pick up the pieces, get a new hand attached, and move on. By striking this cinematic minor chord, the franchise achieved a degree of resonance and depth it would not have had if it just presented a new way for the Rebels to stick it to the Empire. This kind of pathos was not achieved again until Episode III (Revenge of the Sith) when young Anakin Skywalker finally crosses over to the Dark Side.

Russian Ark (2002)
Rule Breaking Idea: Instead of making a film with 20-30 scenes, make a film with one 90-minute scene, shot in a continuous take.

Like Time Code, this film changes a fundamental part of movie-watching. Shot at the Russian State Hermitage Museum, the film is a triumph if only because it managed to pull off a logistical nightmare. Hundreds of cast and crew have to get everything right at one time, or it’s back to square one.
As a viewing experience, I found the film a bit exhausting. I guess I’m just used to breaks in the narrative that cutting from scene to scene provides. Since it’s not possible to jump from one place or time period to another using this technique, the storytelling range is automatically restricted as well. It’s a beautiful film and well worth the time to see, but I’m not sure this technique would work on a regular basis.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Rule Breaking Idea: Make a heist film that shows everything except the heist

There’s nothing quite like watching a detailed, well-planned caper unfold on film. Criminal acts form the centerpieces of a lot of entertaining movies (see: Heist, The Killing, Ocean’s Eleven, Rififi, Sexy Beast, The Score, The Sting).
In Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s adapted story of a bank robbery gone very wrong, things proceed from a different angle. The audience gets to see the planning, the botched getaway, and the brutal, bloody aftermath as the crooks try to figure out what to do next. The one part of the story that’s missing is a depiction of the heist. And that’s okay, since a well-written film can go anywhere, and Tarantino’s writing talent, combined with a top-notch cast, is such that two people talking to each other can be as entertaining as an action sequence.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Rule Breaking Idea: Make a truly anti-drug film

Drug and alcohol abuse have been subjects for films for years. Movies like The Days of Wine and Roses, Leaving Las Vegas, The Lost Weekend, The Man with the Golden Arm, and Trainspotting provide ample opportunities for actors to exercise their dramatic chops with scenes of decadence and ecstasy followed by anguish and regret. Drinking and drugging, while destructive, are also often presented as poignant, dramatic, and even humorous and cool in certain aspects.

Much more than these films, Darren Aronofsky’s movie presents drug use as first and foremost scary, depressing, and gross. The main characters are young and pretty the way most young people are pretty. What they are not, though, is smart, interesting, lucky, or headed anywhere. Their experiences with drug use are sad, brutal, and not fun in any reasonable way.
The only joy they seem to get from the drugs they use comes from temporarily not having to look at their crappy lives, which also holds for one character’s mother, who is falling apart from abusing diet pills. In this film, the audience gets to watch four people destroy their lives without a hip soundtrack, snappy one-liners, or a happy ending to cushion the blow. I still have a hard time watching this harrowing film, but it’s worth the effort.

Psycho (1960)
Rule Breaking Idea: Kill off the main character halfway through the film

This is a film that probably would not have gotten made if not for the fact that it’s Hitchcock. I heard on Turner Movie Classics that when the movie first premiered the director encouraged exhibitors to not let late-coming moviegoers in to see the film after a certain point. He wanted the audience to develop an attachment to the ostensible heroine before removing her from the narrative via the most famous murder ever put on film.

If this film were made today, Norman Bates would have gotten to kill off a few minor characters to show how evil he is, but Marion Crane would have found a way to survive, probably after a few close calls and some kind of one-on-one struggle with Bates before he’s dispatched at the last second. To try to do anything different shows just how radical Hitchcock’s idea was, and still is.

Memento (2000)
Rule Breaking Idea: Show the entire film in reverse scene order
This is a very effective film noir with a great cast. The premise, centered on a man who has lost his ability to remember what just happened to him, lends itself to the technique Christopher Nolan used.

Unlike a lot of films, the audience has to concentrate to understand what’s going on and keep track of how the last scene, which they saw first, fits into the first scene, shown last. Other than one of the lesser episodes of Seinfeld, I’m not aware of any other recent films or TV shows that have tried the same thing, which is probably for the best.

High Noon (1952), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Rule Breaking Idea: Take one of America’s most sacred myths, the Western, and turn it on its head

Every country has its national myths. In America, The West represents freedom, adventure, and progress. The bad guys are swarthy, desperate, relatively easy to spot, and more or less easy to defeat. The good guys ride in on white horses and clean up towns and settlements from violent desperados or greedy corporate land barons, to the eternal gratitude of the town folk. The landscapes are boundless and beautiful, and there’s plenty of room for anyone with courage and gumption.

Some films, though, cast a different light on the Old West. In High Noon, a movie that was made partly in response to McCarthyism, everyone in the western town where the movie takes place is basically a coward, wholly dependent on the sheriff (played by Gary Cooper) to save them.

When it’s the sheriff who needs help defending the town from a group of bad guys, the townspeople present any excuse not to put themselves in harm’s way, much to the chagrin and ultimate disgust of the main character.

In the Ox-Bow Incident, the mob is not just passively hiding from danger, but actively seeking out ways to punish people who are innocent of a murder. “Frontier Justice” is portrayed as antithetical to the American ideal.

In Bad Day at Black Rock, the frontiersmen are violent, ignorant, racist thugs. The film’s hero (played by Spencer Tracy) doesn’t come in on a horse form the dusty plain, but on a train from the city. The urban places that are often portrayed as something to escape from now become the source of justice for the innocents who live in the Wild West.

Goodfellas (1990)
Rule Breaking Idea: Dramatize the inner workings of organized crime from the bottom up

Another of America’s myths is the gangster picture. Ever since films were invented Hollywood has cranked out stories of criminal syndicates and the people who run them (see Little Ceasar, The Public Enemy, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, White Heat). In these movies, gangsters are high-livin’, charismatic, and exciting. Francis Ford Coppola’s epic The Godfather trilogy is perhaps the ultimate portrayal of the Mafia in all its operatic glory.

With Scorsese’s masterpiece, he focuses on organized crime’s middle-management, the guys who aren’t the kingpins but have to get up in the morning and hustle just like any other 9-to-5er. Other than the obvious risk of getting killed if you get out of line, the problems faced by gangsters and regular corporate citizens very much overlap – how to keep the boss happy, how to move up the org chart, how to keep it all going day in and day out.

David Chase would extend this theme with his portrayal of Tony Soprano and his family business. It’s not the larger-than-life figures that make these films interesting, but the details and dynamics of living in a wholly unique society and economic system.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Paths of Glory (1957)
Rule Breaking Idea: Make a truly anti-war film

Motion pictures use the theme of war in a lot of ways: War is an outward expression of inner struggle between our good and evil natures (Platoon). It’s a surreal journey that transforms mens’ psyches (Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter). It’s a sick joke (Dr. Strangelove, The Great Dictator). It’s a thrill ride/videogame (Pearl Harbor). It’s a testament to the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers everywhere (The Big Red One, The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, Das Boot, Letters from Iwo Jima, and hundreds of other war films over the years).

These films don't necessarily glamorize or celebrate war, but there are only a few films that leave out the metaphors and symbolism and take the position that, in the end, war is nothing but people killing each other and destroying civilizations. There is nothing to be learned from it or gained by it. And there are no heroes, only survivors.

Ever since All Quiet on the Western Front was released it has been censored by countries going to war. At some point in history the film has been banned in Germany, Poland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, New Zealand, and Australia, and has been re-cut in the U.S. to give it a happier ending.

The movie is a straightforward story of young men who go off to war with their hearts full of bravado and theory (provided by a rhetoric-spouting school professor) until they experience the horror and misery of combat.

Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory shows what happens when soldiers are caught up in a bureaucracy that values maintaining order even if it means killing its own innocent soldiers. The film’s main character, Colonel Dax, is a front-line infantry officer who sees the process of death both from his enemy’s guns and from his own outfit's brutal code of discipline.

Kubrick was not only critiquing war itself, but also the way high-ranking officers, represented by General Broulard, treat their own soldiers like chess pieces, throwing them into the meat grinder while those with power remain comfortably behind the lines.

These two films are based in World War I, one of the least popular wars from an American movie-making perspective. The most well-received films concerning America’s current military conflict, the war in Iraq, tend to be documentaries. For reasons that have yet to be definitively determined, fictional portrayals of the Iraq war have not done well in theaters.


  1. great analysis! just makes me wanna go out there and break some rules!

  2. You are wrong with "Star Wars: Episode V". This wasn't the first one where the good guys lose. One of the first is the legendary Italian Western "Il grande Silencio" aka "The Great Silence", that Sergio Corbucci shot in 1968 where Bad guy Klaus Kinski triumphes over the good Jean Louis Trintignant.


    Wolfgang Hell

  3. Night of the Living Dead broke many rules: 1) Bypass Hollywood 2) Have a black male in the lead (not done at the time it was made. 3) Kill lead of at the end

  4. This was a great article. I haven't seen all the movies on the list, but the ones that I did I completely agree with. It's films like these that enhance my love and respect for the art of filmmaking. I love a good action packed blockbuster like anyone else, but when a director or writer takes a concept and puts a new twist on it, I'm in awe. Not because they're "breaking the rules" but because they're making a movie that has more quality than the typical cliches they could have pumped out.

  5. When you talk about The Empire Strikes Back, I think it's important to note the critical thing that made the movie work, despite the fact that the heroes don't win the day: You never felt like they were defeated.

    Certainly they suffered setbacks, but the strength of the story and the characters makes it clear that redemption is coming in the third and final act. It could have come off as a bummer, but instead of feeling like "Man, that's sucks", you instead thought, "I can't wait to see what happens next." That's the reason, in my opinion, why Empire works so well and is so well regarded.

  6. Rida M. SabassiMay 9, 2008 at 7:06 AM

    thx a lot for a really well-written article.
    I really enjoyed reading it, it's really true, and in lot of the movies u've mentioned i noticed that they were in a way special and introduced something new to the art of cinema when i first saw them. of course there are few which i haven't seen yet, that i'm sure now i'm gonna buy.

  7. Didn't the Hitchcock film "Rope" do an entire movie as a 90 minute scene with 1 camera 40 or 50 years earlier?

  8. I navigated here via the IMDd Hit List at the bottom of IMDb's front page, and I really enjoyed your observations. Incidentally, this post is a lot less riddled with errors and mindless adjectives than a lot of other blog posts that end up in the Hit List.

    I'd like to suggest Pennies From Heaven as another film that breaks a rule: It's a musical about sexual perversion, rape, and capital punishment (if I remember correctly). Also, I'm sure Mike Nichols' Wolf must've broken some rules.

  9. "Betrayal" (1983) directed by David Hugh Jones and adapted by Harold Pinter from his own play - the story is told in reverse chronological order.

  10. There's a Hitchcock film called Rope that was 'seemingly' shot in one take, over 50 years before Russian Ark. (That is, if the technology would have permitted, it would have been shot in one take.) The cuts between reels of film are pretty clever though to make it seem like the camera never stops.

  11. Regarding "Memento": The "lesser episode of Seinfeld", called "The Betrayal", was actually a parody of the Harold Pinter-penned play and 1983 movie "Betrayal", which also played out in reverse order. In fact, Sue Ellen Mischke's fiance in the episode is known by both the names Pinter and Peter.

  12. Fun article! Enjoyed reading it! I especially liked the part about The Empire Strikes Back; all too often that film, the best in the entire series, is unfairly overshadowed by it's predecessor. However, in the Western category, you missed The Wild Bunch. That film REALLY turned the Western on its head, mainly because Sam Peckinpah made us root for the bad guys, who were pretty vile. Also, Memento did indeed run backwards but I thought it was more like William Burroughs' literary-bending habit of chopping a manuscript in half and letting the pieces fall randomly. Thanks!

  13. I would argue that the first director to at least attempt to create a film in one continuous take was Hitchcock with Rope. Even though the technology didn't exist to actually do so, he comes as close as anyone possibly could have. He broke that rule long before Russian Ark came out. Not to belittle the logistical achievement of Russian Ark, but let's give credit where credit is due. The idea wasn't a new one.ii

  14. I'd like to point out that Ikiru, by Akira Kurosawa, predates Psycho by 8 years, and actually tells you the protagonist is going to die at the very beginning, and he dies about half-way through the film.

  15. I'll go back further on the good guys losing. How about "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" from the very beginning? There are many others that predate ESB.

    Thank you for a better movie blog list than most out three.

  16. Good list. I would also add A Fistful of Dollars to the westerns listed. I could be wrong, but I think that it was the first western whose main character was an anti-hero. Like was stated earlier, the western was the epitome of black/white, good/evil storytelling. That movie would blur that line for every western that came after it, especially westerns that casted Clint Eastwood.

  17. Not only did Rope do the continuous shot first, but Running Time also did it in 1997.

  18. Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible" was also shot in reverse chronological order. It's a brutal film to sit through, not because it's bad, but because of the subject matter and of the intense realism. Still, a worthwhile film and worth viewing.

  19. #1 - I'm waiting for the right time to present "Requiem for a Dream" to my teenage children to discuss drugs. no sermons, no preachy grown up moralizing, just straightfoward "this is what happens". it is an indespensible tool of education that should be required viewing in all high schools.

    #2 - I was surprised to catch the beginning of "Goodfellas" on TNT, with a "disclaimer" by Martin Scorsese informing the viewer that the edited for TV version of the film takes out a lot of the language and violence, and might portend to glamorize the mob lifestyle, which was not his intent. Again, a very "real" film that neither glorifies nor condemns its characters.

    #3 - there is a french film "Irreversable"(?) with Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci which starts with a brutal beating of a wrong man as revenge for a rape, then works its way backwards through the events that led up to it. It was very shocking because the end of the film is "happy" in the sense it portrays a loving couple, while we have already witnessed the horror of the day to come for them.

  20. "Memento" came first, and is a great film, but I think 2002's French film "Irreversible" is better. Hard to watch, with two of the most gut-wrenching scenes I've ever witnessed on film, but absolutely riveting. You will never forget this film. Never.

  21. Regarding Momento, a great and original movie: there was an episode of China Beach that was done in the same reverse manner. The entire story line involved one of the nurses having an abortion. It started with the emotional consequences, went throught the process and decision making, and ended with the nurse having sex with a troubled soldier.

  22. SPOILERS AHEAD-I thought of a few movies where the main character(s), the ones we have followed through thick and thin, are either killed, caught, or tripped up by their own mistakes. Of course, some of them are war movies and the lead character(s) are ususally killed. And some of them had what was coming to them but that doesn't dampen the surprise. Did they break the rules? Not really, but what an ending!

    -Bridge on the River Kwai
    -Breaker Morant
    -Taking of Pelham,One,Two,Three
    -Heavenly Creatures-main characters commit a brutal murder.
    -The Killing-not killed just tripped up.
    -The Prestige-didn't Tesla warn you enough?

  23. Excellent article! Reservoir Dogs is definately more rule-breaking than Pulp Fiction...even though PF is a better film as a whole. But the idea of watching this small society of criminals destroy each other and the graphic violence not being shyed away from make it important. Memento was unlike any film before it. Watching it over and over again make you appreciate it even more. Saving Private Ryan was rule breaking in the fact that Spielberg didn't just create the most realistic battle ever, but you were on that beach, or in that destroyed French town, or on that bridge at the end. You didn't watch that movie, you experienced and felt it.

  24. Although you may not have seen it because it is a French film, the ironically named 'Irreversible' is told in reverse from a sordid and violent beginning/ending to a calm and blissful ending/beginning. Through the progress (regression?) of the film one's surface level disgust and confusion is changed into a deep horror and sadness as one comes to realize exactly what we witnessed being destroyed in the opening scenes.


  25. Irreversible , like Memento, is told in reverse order (with much more disturbing yet effective results)

  26. Great Blog. Another movie (besides the Seinfeld episode) that attempted the reverse scene order schtick after Memento was “Irréversible”, directed by Gaspar Noé and staring Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel. But I think that fact was overshadowed by the 20 minute long one take rape scene.

  27. An earlier example of the Memento technique is 'Following', also directed by Nolan. You can almost see the lightbulb go off in his head.

    Renoir made a war film without any actual war; La Grande Illusion, back in 1937. That, and using deep-focus a full four years before Orson Welles, makes it far more deserving.

  28. The film called "IRREVERSIBLE"(2002) ,its frech, and is also told in reverse chronological order.If you haven`t watched yet, do it.This is my all time favour!!!

  29. Regarding why fictional portrayals of the Iraq War have not done well: we're still in the bowels of the conflict. While it's not the sole factor, it's the most prominent factor at the moment. Other factors include potential difficulties in researching for developing plausible stories and scripts that take too many chances in regards to execution (resulting in a movie most Americans lack the attention span for). You can tell who actually attempted to answer that question.

  30. the thing about memento is that, despite popular belief, it does not truly move in straight reverse chronology. the scenes in color are in reverse order, while the black and white scenes that alternate with them move forward. an example of true reverse chronology would be gaspar noe's irreversible.

  31. Regarding "Rope" mentioned earlier: Hitchcock would have made it a continuous 90-minute feature, but he was held back by the technology of the day. Since cameras could only hold about 15 minutes of film, he had to carefully edit about 6 times to swap out film canisters. The whole movie does play out as one continuous scene, though.

  32. For those of you saying Rope was done in one take 50 years prior to Russian Ark, you are mostly correct (someone clarified the points of how they cut the film to switch the reels earlier). However - one very important point - you really need to see both films. Rope was done with about 5 actors (or maybe a few more? I forget) in one set. Russian Ark was filmed with 1000 actors in a massive, sprawling museum. They had only a few days to prepare for the film. You really can't compare the two at all. Rope was clever, Russian Ark was landmark.

  33. I like the fact that Hitchcock wanted the audience to be in the theatre from the start, but Psycho is originally a novel and Mary is still killed off half way through.

  34. Good list and good points. In addition to Memento, the french film Irreversible is also told in reverse order, and is like Requiem for a Dream impossibly hard to watch.

  35. 'Rocky' (1977) also pre-dates 'Empire Strikes Back' for the good guy losing... duh!

  36. Very nice article, but memento isn't backwards as you claim. the scene of the movie (wich is the last in the story) is followed by the second scene of the movie (obviously) but that second scene is the first of the story and so on... until the last scene of the movie wich the middle part of the story.

  37. Irreversible does use the same narrative construction of Memento. The difference is that Memento is simply great and Irreversible simply sucks big time.

  38. to everyone who said 'rope' was shot in one take
    whilst it is true that 'rope' is edited so as to appear as a single continuous shot, taking place in real time, it does in fact have 9 edit cuts.

  39. I would add 2001 simply because there was so little dialogue....

  40. regarding Rope since it has been brought up in other comments, while it is true that most of the cuts in the film are masked to appear as continuous shot. There are several standard cuts in the movie.

    The standard cuts are harder to spot though because we are so used to seeing them that we don't look for them, while the masked cuts are actually the easiest to spot because we are not used to them. This is probably the opposite effect that Hitchcock had in mind though.

  41. And anonymous. Glad to see the Gaspar Noe fans are out there. I heard his new film is being shot right now in Japan. Anyone got any info on that?

  42. I think another one that can be included on the list is Wes Craven's Scream. For a horror/slasher movie it broke several rules: the music, the nod to psycho and having a famous person die in the beginning, the continuous guessing and mystery of the killer's identity, and the two biggest ones... the heavy amount of comedy, and acknowledging the "horror movie survival rules" and yet still falling victim to those said rules.

    Scream broke the standard rules of what a horror movie typically is, and in my opinion became one the greatest horror movies of all time. Thoughts?

  43. I enjoyed the Johnny Depp movie "Nick of Time" (1995) where the movie was told in real time (years before the TV show "24"). I don't know if it was the first or only to be done in real time. But I think the concept is also "rule breaking".

  44. It appears from most posts that everyone agrees that Memento was told in reverse order. That is in fact not true. The movie is told both in reverse and forward directions in alternating scenes. One direction is told in color while the other is told in black and white. They ultimately meet at movie's end in the form of a polaroid photo coming into color. Absolutely brilliant and a MUCH, MUCH grander feat than simply portraying a movie in reverse order.

  45. This was a clever list, and most of the "mistakes" already mentioned, such as Betrayel beating Memento to the punch or Irreversible being the most dramatic and emotionally challenging of the three reverse-order films, can be chalked up to cinematic cannibalism. The concept of Betrayel was used by both Irreversible & Memento with much more impact. The concept of Rope was heightened and taken further with both modern technology and a larger scope. I'm thrilled you mentioned Time Code, one of the most audacious and clever films of the past twenty years.

    I'd like to add Richard Linklater's Slacker to the roster of formula-bucking movies. There is no plot, merely socio-political vignettes connected by characters crossing each others' paths. A character talking on the street could go into a diner and the attention will shift to two people sitting at the counter. As their "point" finishes, another patron leaving will carry the "story" elsewhere. The usage of such fluid segue has not been used before, to my knowledge.

  46. Regarding Time Code and the four scenes, I think the original Thomas Crown Affair in 1968 did it first.
    It is one of my favorite movies and I really recommend it.

  47. There's a short film called 'REWIND' by an Indian director Atul Taishete. It takes the concept of reverse narrative to the next level... the action happens in reverse, as if watching a DVD with the RR buton pressed.
    The plot is about a heist and IMO done quite well. It's on imdb.

  48. Great post. I'll definitely have to check some of these out.

    While reading the Goodfellas rule ("show bottom-up view of organized crime"), I couldn't help but be reminded of Eno's Oblique Strategies. For those unfamiliar:

    I mention it because it seems that many of these rules could be abstracted or generalized or made more broad... for example, the Goodfellas Rule could be applied to any genre that typically takes a top-down approach, not just organized crime.

    Often, the simplest twists are the most effective and powerful.

  49. Here's another convention: the good guy underdogs struggle against both adversity and the unfair tactics of their opponents, who are given many advantages over them which they have done nothing to deserve, but ultimately the underdogs triumph. That's the plot of scores, maybe hundreds of movies. At some level I feel foolish proposing a cheerleader movie for this list, but "Bring It On" plays with that convention nicely. In fact, the whole plot of the film - team from a poor inner-city school is excluded from competition for years and has its routines stolen by spoiled rich kids, but pulls itself up by its bootstraps and wins the all-important title - is mundane and conventional. What is interesting is that the story is told from the perspective of the spoiled rich kids, who do not want to be (and other than from the point of view of the conventional plot are not) villains. And since we follow the rich kids throughout the movie, and we like them, and they might take a moment to realise that the "right" people have won.

    To add a movie widely regarded as a failure to this list, I also propose Troy, for similar "reversing the convention" reasons. It too is a war film, but it twists that convention in a different way. We follow one side, they are presented to us as heroes, we hear all the demonizing rhetoric about the villains on the other side, and ultimately "we" win. But if you've been paying any attention at all, "we" were on the wrong side all along. Perhaps the inability of the mass market to catch subtext explains the film's financial failure.

  50. much as i didn't like this award-winning movie (blech), "my dinner with andre" with wallace shawn, 1983, was one continuous scene

  51. Great post!

    About the continuous take, I'm gonna side with everyone here and say credit should go to Hitchcock more than anyone else.

    About Memento's reverse order, I agree with everyone who said that Irreversible is also done that way, but I prefer a movie in which the order is all over the place, with no subtitle telling us which point in the story we're seeing. That movie is Two For the Road, starring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn. It did amazing things with temporality that would not be attempted again until Tarrantino.

    As for the Western. The genre is very interesting b/c it follows a pretty direct course of estabilishing the myth, followed by deconstruction of it. Ford obviously helped establish it in films like My Darling Clementine, but he also subverted it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a film that tells us that the West was nothing more than a myth.

  52. What about Rocky?? Good guy loses in that long before Empire strikes back, and Star Wars was a trilogy, therefore ep V was more of an Act 2

  53. Regarding "good guys losing", "The 300 Spartans" (the predecessor to "300") naturally had the heroes lose as well

  54. Evil Dead 2.

    The only movie I had ever seen with a truly a NOT happy Hollywood ending. The main character looses everyone (including his hand), and is sent to another evil dimension. Hero fails - the end.

    Of course Raimi is making up for this w/all his happy movies. The sequel to Evil Dead 2 – Army of Darkness – is an excellent movie – but it had a happy ending.

    Dead Ringers – also not a happy ending.

  55. Great list. Not just groundbreaking films, but all very entertaining, and some quite thought-provoking.

    The film convention that says the hero doesn't die was broken several notable times by the films of the noir genre. (D.O.A., in which a man seeks vengence for his own poisoning with only 24 hours to live, and Sunset Boulevard, which famously begins with the main character face-down in a fountain in Bel Air, are just two examples, but further ones abound.

  56. Good point on "Night of the Living Dead". That movie definitely deserves to be on this list.

    1. Black male not only being the lead character, but the strongest, most ethical, most well-put together character in the cast.

    2. The main character dies a vacuous death.

  57. Nice article.
    You want a rule-breaking movie? The Nutty Professor. Jerry Lewis made a comedy based on Dr. Jekyll amd Mr. Hyde. He also got to play Jerry Lewis AND Dean Martin in the same movie.

  58. Don't forget 'Run Lola Run'....

    same story told 3 times with 3 different outcomes...

  59. I think some of you guys are missing the point entirely! The article isn't trying to list every movie to have ever broken the rules. Nor is it trying to tell "who did it first?". I also think, based those I've already seen from this article, this is a very well put together compilation of must-see films and have nearly completed my list!

  60. Requiem for a Dream is predated by 'truly anti drug' films such as Reefer Madness. Also it was not originally a film, but a book, so I'm not sure if it deserves to take the credit. The same goes for All Quiet on The Western Front.

    The film version of Requiem was a comedy romp in comparison to the power the book contained. I'd recommend reading it.

  61. High Plains Drifter is another example of a Western that paints the townsfolk in a less-than-stellar light.

  62. I was wondering if Rashomon or Courage under Fire could have made it to this list.

  63. Great list! You really know your stuff.

    --For another heist that you never get to see, check out Aki Kaurismaki's Ariel (1986). The film isn't centered around heist but it has a similar kind of effect that's really cool.

    --You could definitely include No
    Country for Old Men in the list of Westerns that get flipped on their heads. Although it's not as obvious, it's a modern spin on this theme.

    --I agree with you on Russian Ark. I shut it off after a half hour.

  64. "Time Code" was also shot in one continuous shot (or rather 4 of them, which sometimes intersected).

  65. I nominate Kurosawa's 1950 "Rashomon" as a rule-breaking film. The same story is told four times from four different characters' points of view. This idea has been imitated many times but never done better.

  66. When I saw the title mentioning "rule-breaking films," I immediately thought of Breathless. Probably the first film to utilize jump cuts, and definitely not the last.

  67. About Hitchcock's movie Rope, from Wiki:

    "Rope (1948) is an Alfred Hitchcock classic film notable for its single location, edited so as to appear as a single continuous shot, taking place in real time."

    Great list. A few years back, my Communications major friend mentioned how there were no continuously shot movies. I just texted her about Russian Ark.

  68. A minor correction in the Time Code paragraph.

    Persistence of motion would be inertia.

    Perhaps you meant... persistence of vision.

  69. Instead of Russian Ark I would have mentioned Rope as the first film to be shot in one continuous take...and much more difficult because it was shot on film not digitally. Istill enjoyed the list very mucg

  70. I don't think you can fairly include Star Wars Episode V on this list since it was (then) the second part of a trilogy, obviously setting up a greater conflict to be resolved in the concluding part.

  71. "Resevoir Dogs" was actually a jewelry store heist, not a bank robbery, as I recall. And how about "Life is Beautiful" as a rule breaker for being an effective and heartfelt comedy set during the holocaust? Add "No Country for Old Men" to list of westerns re-invented and good guys lose.

  72. Sunset Boulevard, narrated by a dead guy!

    A Study in Choreography for Camera, first film to be organized around gesture rather than narrative or theme!

  73. "Unforgiven" is the most rule-breaking of Westerns. In all other Westerns, the arc of the main character is "redemption" - moving away from violence towards a kinder, gentler existence. Even at the end of "High Noon," after the gunfight, he throws away his badge and joins his Quaker wife.

    In "Unforgiven," the main character begins as being "redeemed" (his dead wife "Saved him from drink and wickedness") and moves steadily back towards damnation - and the film presents this as necessary, even heroic. In his early "redeemed" state, he is weak. He can't shoot straight. He keeps denying his aggressive tendencies ("I ain't like that no more"), but in the end, to right the wrong, he must fully return to "evil," fully return to aggression, to being a killer ("I've killed everything that's walked or crawled, and I'm here to kill you, Little Bill"), to serve justice.

    He is also weakest when he is NOT drinking, but when he takes the bottle from The Kid and begins drinking again, it's as if his old dark power is returning to him - he is becoming the evil William Munny again. Because in the world of that film, such a figure - a figure of dark justice, what used to be called "The Scourge of God" - is necessary.

  74. Jarhead is a really good anti-war film. People say "oh I don't like Jarhead, it's too boring" and I ask why they think it's boring and they say there isn't enough action. That's the point! The main characters don't kill anyone, and people got pissed at this fact. The characters were conditioned and brainwashed to want to kill so badly, and we see the mental breakdown when they miss the action. It shows that it's not just the action in war that drives men crazy, it's the preparation and setting itself. This movie also said a lot about the current public. More people prefer to see action packed Black Hawk Down over this, which goes to show media and government promotion of combat in the middle east is going very, very well when the public is willing to be entertained by it.

  75. How about pleasantville for stating that danger and chaos is better then the clean, happy "old times" we enjoy reflecting on with classic television shows. It may also be the first popular american movie to mix color and black and white in the same shot for almost the entire picture. I'm not talking about the wizard of oz kind of black and white turns to color, but complete mixture in the same shot. beautiful movie filled with far more intelligence and thought then the plot would let on.

    i love the list though. great job. people keep disputing whether some of these movies were the first. but for the most part, the movies mentioned in the article are the first to do it with such popularity or notoriaty.

    loved that you mentioned requiem for a dream. i dare someone to not cry while watching the scene where the speed addicted mother explains her motives to her son at the kitchen table. "I'm old. I'm alone." just heartbreaking.

  76. *****SPOILER*******
    "Stage Fright" (1950)

    Another Hitchcock film, "Stage Fright" (1950), used an unreliable-flashback sequence. In other words, what we the audience saw take place in the flashback didn't actually happen the way that the flashback's narrator said it did. We -- along with the main character -- were lied to! I'd argue that that was a definite breaking of the rules.

  77. Another rule-breaking movie: The 400 Blows. No previous film had ended on a freeze-frame.

    A comment on some movies already covered here. Rope did have a handful of edits (I think I counted five), so it wasn't shot in one "take." Back then, a roll of 35mm film was 1000', about ten usable minutes of film stock. Therefore, no shot of the movie could last longer than ten minutes. Time Code and Russian Ark are more novelty pieces than actual movies. Both of them would have been infinitely better (and more interesting) had they been edited in a conventional manner.

  78. First off, I would like to say THANK YOU to the writer for not naming this the "definitive" list; you never ruled out the possibility that you may be wrong or that they're may be other films you didn't list

    As for the other people posting comments, give the writer a break, they never said these were the "13 BEST rule-breaking films"

    Even if they weren't the first to break that rule, they still broke a rule, so the writer is correct.

    Also, I'm pretty sure all of these are American films (not 100% sure, so don't kill me if I'm wrong) so that may be why some other titles were left out

    A good column, thanks!

  79. Excellent article, but I feel I have to specify something that seems obvious. The reason Empire was mentioned is because it is a recognizable example of the good guy losing; not that it was the first. The Star Wars trilogy rarely did anything first, but did things well...

    Plus, Rocky is NOT an example is this as there is no true hero or villain. Rocky is a protagonist; not a hero. On the other hand,the rebels in star Wars are the heroes with distinct villainous opposition in the form of Darth Vader and the Empire.

  80. Regarding Rope again... it appears that Wikipedia incorrect in this instance. It is a widely held misconception that the film is edited together to appear as a single shot. There are just as many "standard" cuts in the film as there are "masked" cuts.

    The standard cuts become harder to spot because we are so used to seeing them that our brain does not notice them. They are there however.

    here is a list of each cut and whether it is standard or masked.

    00:02:30 - standard - after credits, from outside of apartment to inside

    00:12:05 - masked - back of Brandon's jacket when he grabs the book

    00:19:55 - standard - on the line "chances are better than you think"

    00:27:15 - masked - back of Kenneth as he is taking a glass to Janet

    00:34:22 - standard - on the line "that's a lie"

    00:44:20 - masked - Brandon's back while he is talking to Rupert

    00:51:56 - standard - cut to Mrs. Wilson

    00:59:40 - masked - Brandon's back while he is calling the garage after Mrs. Wilson leaves.

    01:09:48 - standard - Cut from gun in Brandon's Pocket to Rupert

    01:14:26 - masked - lid of the chest when it is open.

  81. Very interesting post, one I greatly enjoyed reading.

    With regard to the comments, I am staggered by the amount of people who have repeated exactly the same points (especially regarding Rope and Irreversible) over and over again. Often the exact same point was made in the preceding post!

    Anyway, as I said, very enjoyable blog.

  82. As far as the "Truly Anti-Drug film"...I think that was already done before Requiem with the movie "The Basketball Diaries" in 1995. Anyone who watches the main character's sprial down from star basketball player with a bright future to a pathetic low-life whose own mother calls the police to take him to jail will not want a narcotic to come within two states of them. Although Diaries is unfortunately most well known for one 30 second scene showing a kid shooting up his classroom. The scene is absolutely irrelevant to the storyline and Im sure the makers of the movie regret putting it in now.

  83. I saw that No Country for Old Men had already been mentioned but I wanted to add that I think it has really been a huge change in terms of how Hollywood does stories.

    The whole movie leads up to the final conflict which in the end is treated as unimportant. I just think that it makes the movie truly be about the overarching themes than who wins in the end.

  84. IRREVERSIBLE, a French film by Gaspar Noe, is I believe the first to use the end-to-beginning scene format made famous by Memento. You should check it out. Beautifully tragic film.

    And Rope was merely Hitchcock's attempt at making a 90-minute continuous film. The technology at the time prevented him from shooting 90 min continuously w/o the magazine running out, so Hitchcock was forced to mask the cuts by stopping on the back of a character's head and then pulling out once the cut was complete.

    And for a much earlier use of spatial montage and multiple scenes going on at once, see Warhol's THE CHELSEA GIRLS.

  85. Another movie that could be on the list is Fritz Lang's M. It was the first movie about a serial killer. I recently saw the Criterion Collection version and was so into it. It was very well made and well told. The only downside was Peter Lorre role in this movie led to him being typecasted for his acting career. Check it out!

  86. A good list, I agree with the ones that I have seen and so I'd hopefully watch the other movies too. A few movies I can think of that could have made the list
    1. Rashomon - one incident, various angles
    2. 2001 - the kind of visual effects and narrative style that was early for it's age
    3. Usual Suspects - where everything you saw never happened
    4. Rear Window - where there are a whole bunch of supporting characters, but you always see them from the narrator's perspective

    Very good list overall.

  87. I would like to add Chris Marker's La Jetee to the is a series of still photographs with only one moment of true movement. It's beautiful.

  88. 14: RiFiFi (1955)
    Rule Breaking Idea: 30 minute scene with no music or dialog.

    So often, especially with older films, a dramatic scene is accompanied by over-the-top music. In "Du rififi chez les hommes" to give it its full title, there's a scene where the gangsters are breaking into a bank, tunnelling through the roof (!) for 30 minutes, all you can hear is the slow, rythmic chipping of the digger, and the occasional sharp intake of breath as something nearly goes wrong. For me, it's one of the most gripping scenes in cinema. ever.

  89. Another great Anti-War film was the movie "Johnny Got His Gun"

    It's about as anti-war as you get, given the main character is immobile, mute, blind and limbless for most of the film.

  90. Regarding subversive Westerns, I'd definitely add Ray's "Johnny Guitar" and Jarmusch's "Dead Man" to the list. Check 'em both out, if you haven't already...

  91. Great article! I would like to point out that Steven Spielberg's Dual (1971) was very original for its time. It's a simple concept, with only the main character versus the bad guy chasing him throughout with practically no other characters. What made that film suspenseful is we never saw the bad guy; the truck became the bad guy, and we wondered all along, who is this bad guy and why is this truck after him?

  92. A few more rule breaking films...

    Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run shows the same basic events unfold 3 times. Only, the main character does things slightly differently in the beginning changing the exact time at which she encounters the events. I can't think of any other film that does this.

    Another one could be, Four Rooms. The story is tied together by the bellboy character, but it's about his experience in each of four rooms of the hotel he is working at. Each room has a complete story unfold, and each story, has a different writer, director, and cast. (I don't know about the rest of the details on that, such as film crew or editors)

  93. You forgot to mention that Timecode is a terrible, terrible movie. Please don't waste your time watching it as I did.

    Glad to see Psycho on this list.

    *spoilers* In the "good guys lose" I would like to throw into the ring the seventies musical "Sweet Charity." It is the only romantic musical I have seen where the girl doesn't get the guy at the end and I found this betrayal of my expectations more heartbreaking than any Andrew Lloyd Webber melodrama. Equally surprising was "My Best Friend's Wedding", a romantic comedy where---surprise! the girl doesn't win her guy at the end.

  94. I would include 2001: A Space Odyssey in that list. Instead of having hyperspace jumps that last roughly seconds, 2001 gave space travel a more realistic experience: Slow and tiresome, even at the ship's highest possible speeds.

  95. I think that you could also add Phone booth to the list
    With the entire film shot in basically one location their is much more tension than action

  96. Very nice analysis! I'd probably add 'Sliding Doors' to this list. This is a movie that shows the two paths that the life of the protagonist(Gwyneth Paltrow) takes when she a) misses a train, and b) catches the train. The two stories run in parallel, and blend in beautifully towards the end! A very well made, offbeat movie!

  97. SE7EN was a nice murder thriller in which the acts violence are never seen. The aftermath and the bitter ending was a triumph.

    There is also American Psycho, which had a rough time making to the screen. Not exactly a rule breaker, but worth a look as it combines black comedy with savage violence. Similar to Tarantino, the film references pop culture, but not over coffee. Rather, the character is more like a wanna be song critic.

    There are many others I could add, but I love film as much as you apparently do.

    You could expand this article into an essay. Hmmmm....


  98. Requiem For A Dream will keep me off drugs forever. They should show it in high school health, I swear to god. I still sort of wish i could forget about it...

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