The word unique has to be one of the most overused descriptors in show business; if every movie that got touted as one-of-a-kind by its marketing team actually was, there’d be no further complaints about Hollywood creativity. But every once in a while, I’ll have a cinematic experience that feels genuinely unprecedented, when a work plays with the medium and its modes of storytelling in ways I didn’t think possible. The 30 movies I’ve gathered below—all of which are available to watch online—are singular, whether they’re experimental documentaries, visionary works of animation, or labyrinthine epics. Each is unforgettable, and a reminder of cinema’s potential to flout narrative convention, subvert visual traditions, and find new ways to express timeless themes.
The Act of Killing (2012, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer)
Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary focuses on Anwar Congo, an Indonesian gangster believed to have presided over the deaths of thousands during the country’s horrifying anti-Communist purge in the 1960s. But within the film itself are more films—bizarre and mesmerizing ones. That’s because the director encourages Congo and his friends to make their own movies about their experiences, which they render as warped Westerns and musicals, surreal admissions of guilt filtered through their own memories and cultural obsessions. It’s an emotional, sometimes beguiling, and more often horrifying watch, and a way of interrogating unimaginable subjects that I had never seen attempted in a documentary before.
Kirsten Johnson is the most exciting nonfiction filmmaker alive, and Cameraperson is perhaps her magnum opus—a patchwork composed of footage both from her own life and from the many movies she has shot over the years. She takes idiosyncratic scenes and searing moments she’s captured with her lens in the past two decades and shapes them into a kind of nonlinear poem. Though Johnson is rarely seen or heard in her film, her presence is felt throughout, and she finds clever thematic links between her own experiences (including the death of her mother) and footage she has collected. At one point in the movie, a quantum physicist explains the notion of entanglement to Johnson, and that functions as the thesis of this strange collage—that in simply viewing and recording events, a filmmaker is tied up with them forever.
Daughters of the Dust (1991, directed by Julie Dash)
The first feature film by an African American woman to be theatrically distributed in the United States, Julie Dash’s astonishing debut is a portrait of a multigenerational South Carolina Gullah family as they prepare to migrate north in 1902. Dash delves into the clashes between Nana Peazant (played by Cora Lee Day), the elderly matriarch preserving a rich and distinct tradition, and her descendants urging for the drastic change of moving to big, far-off cities. But the film works best as a representation of a broader culture, examining the terrible history of slavery from the perspectives of the families and people who were transformed by it. As The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote of Daughters of the Dust, “It’s a movie that runs less than two hours and feels like three or four—not in sitting time but in substance.”
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005, directed by Michel Gondry)
There is no better document of mid-2000s pop culture than Michel Gondry’s wonderfully loose concert film. It captures the comedian Dave Chappelle (at the peak of his powers) organizing a block party in Brooklyn featuring performances by Kanye West, Mos Def, Jill Scott, the Roots, and the Fugees, among others, as well as stand-up from Chappelle himself. But the most compelling material is in the lead-up to the show: Chappelle walks around the neighborhood and discusses how rapidly time and gentrification have changed the Clinton Hill corner he’s picked for the concert—and how vibrant and spontaneous events like this might be a thing of the past. The immediacy of Gondry’s filmmaking, and the casual glee with which über-famous figures such as West drop in, amplifies the sense of something special slipping away. Maybe unintentionally, it’s a compelling look at the way celebrity has morphed in the intervening 15 years.
Contemporary comic-book movies are notorious for their bland visual palette, necessitated by budget and timing demands to keep a stream of superheroes flooding into theaters every few months. If only these films could all look like Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty’s jaw-dropping translation of the yellow-jacketed, gangster-fighting pulp hero. The sets are bold and sparse, the lighting is all bright primary colors, and every actor in the stacked cast (including Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Madonna) looks like a living cartoon, embellished with makeup and dazzling costumes. The film, which cost a fortune, includes the kinds of practical effects that studios today would eschew for easier CGI solutions; they’re all the more staggering to behold in retrospect.
The breakout film by the Greek director who went on to create Oscar-nominated cult hits such as The Lobsterand The Favourite is, even by his standards, pretty darn weird. It’s the surreal tale of a microcosmic fascist dystopia: One family has kept their children confined to their home for their entire lives, teaching them that the outside world is filled with monsters. Yorgos Lanthimos’s unique sense of world building and style of flat, emotionless dialogue are an ideal fit for such an odd environment, one where the now-adult children are growing restless (and sexually curious) in their hermetic existence. That a film this perverse launched a successful Hollywood filmmaking career for Lanthimos illustrates how undeniable his talent is.
Sure, the premise of Enemy is a recurrent one in cinema—what if you encountered your exact double, an identical twin who exists without any explanation? But Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a detached college professor who sees a movie starring an actor who looks just like him, is an underrated gem of the genre, a creepy, Freudian nightmare drama that makes little effort to elucidate itself to viewers. Though it was released right before Villeneuve became an A-list Hollywood filmmaker (his follow-ups were Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, and the forthcoming Dune), it’s of a piece with those efforts, a grounded fantasy work that injects humor and dread (and big spiders) into an otherwise-intimate human drama.
Girl Walk // All Day (2011, directed by Jacob Krupnick)
You can watch this incredibly special work online right now—I guarantee it will brighten your day. A feature-length, plot-light dance film that follows an unnamed woman (Anne Marsen) as she navigates the busy environments of New York City, Girl Walk // All Day is a joyous expression of happiness amid urban hustle and bustle. Upon release, it felt like a necessary tonic against cynicism and a new way of celebrating a city that’s been filmed countless times. Now, because it shows Marsen wiggling her way through crowds on the High Line and leading an ensemble across the Williamsburg Bridge, it feels like a snapshot of life waiting to be reclaimed.
The first Happy Feet—an animated, Oscar-winning box-office smash about a dancing penguin (Elijah Wood) that embraces his individuality despite his clan’s emphasis on singing—never did much for me. Though George Miller, the auteur behind the Mad Max series, used the freedom of animation to do all kinds of sweeping camerawork that would’ve been impossible in real life, the cutesy plotting was pat and unoriginal. Not so for his largely unheralded sequel, a mournful tale of Antarctica’s crumbling environment and the necessity of ecological unity to beat back the coming apocalypse. There are still penguins, yes, but also a guru puffin, an ideologically intractable walrus, and a pair of krill (voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt) that break free from their swarm of millions in search of a new life together.
The Safdie brothers have broken out in the past couple of years with their stressful New York epics Good Timeand Uncut Gems. But if you’re really looking to have your brain rattled by a movie, check out Heaven Knows What, the film that got the attention of big stars such as Robert Pattinson and Adam Sandler. Conceived with the lead actor Arielle Holmes and based on her life as a homeless heroin addict in Manhattan, the movie begins with a visceral suicide attempt and only becomes more harrowing. Holmes bounces from place to place and score to score, struggling to disentangle herself from her bewitching ex-boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). It’s not a film for the faint of heart, but if you can steel yourself through it, Heaven Knows What is unforgettable.
Seeing Holy Motors in theaters was a genuine thunderbolt moment for me, an all-time top-10 cinema experience that reminded me how boundless the medium still is, more than a century after its inception. The plot, such as it is, can’t be summarized. Suffice it to say that Holy Motors follows a man (Denis Lavant) as he drives around Paris performing various roles, slipping into different lives and skins, causing chaos, singing songs, bouncing from violent showdowns to romantic interludes. I can guarantee only one thing: that the movie is one you’ll mull long after viewing.
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992, directed by Leslie Harris)
This electrifying debut film (sadly, Leslie Harris has yet to make another) plugs the viewer into early ’90s New York and captures the vital perspective of Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson), a 17-year-old black girl from Flatbush struggling to balance her tempestuous school and home lives. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. was made on a tiny budget (about $130,000) and delves into timeless domestic dramas. But when it came out, there had been nothing like it in American film. It set a template for others to follow, even as Harris herself struggled to break into an industry that still bars entry to so many female directors of color.
Leviathan (2012, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel)
I was shuffling out of the art-house theater where I saw Leviathan when a fellow audience member turned to me and asked, “Was that even a movie?” I answered in the affirmative, but I understood what he meant—I had literally never seen anything like Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s documentary, which is set aboard a fishing boat. The directors equipped themselves with GoPro cameras and scattered many more around the ship, encouraging workers to film themselves and their experiences. The resulting montage is wordless, sometimes punishing, and often hypnotic, offering glimpses of unexpected beauty amid the brutal monotony.
When Steven Soderbergh filmed this lean crime drama starring Terence Stamp, he originally presented it in a straightforward manner, but quickly realized that something was wrong when testing the first cut. So he and the editor Sarah Flack restructured it as a memory play of sorts, folding in flashbacks (using footage of a young Stamp in the 1967 film Poor Cow) and layering dialogue from past or future scenes onto those playing out on-screen. It’s a revenge story told as a cubist art film, powered by Stamp’s incredible lead performance. Almost as good is the commentary (available on the Criterion Channel) from Soderbergh and the screenwriter Lem Dobbs—the pair bicker throughout about artistic choices, with Dobbs complaining about almost everything the director did to his screenplay.
Madeline’s Madeline (2018, directed by Josephine Decker)
So many films try to delve into the tortured process of creating art, but it’s difficult to keep them from coming off as myopic or self-involved. This makes Josephine Decker’s film all the more impressive in the way it wrestles with how making something can feel invigorating and addictive but draining. The relationship between the drama teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) and her bright young student Madeline (Helena Howard) is initially empowering and eventually vampiric. Decker thrusts the viewer as deep as she can into the dizzying highs and lows of Madeline’s lived experience, and the characters’ power struggle leads to an explosive climax that remains one of the best movie endings I’ve ever seen.
All of Lynne Ramsay’s movies are worth checking out—her latest effort, You Were Never Really Here, caused a significant stir in 2017—but my absolute favorite is this acidly funny yet mordantly sad drama based on Alan Warner’s novel. Or is it a black comedy? A fantasy adventure? An extended drug trip? Morvern Callar rewards almost every reading, and indulges almost every genre. The film follows its eponymous heroine (Samantha Morton) as she finds her partner dead from a suicide, chops up his body and buries it on a mountain, and embarks on her own adventure to Spain with her best friend to escape her mundane life in Scotland. Ramsay knows exactly how to plunge viewers into an alien perspective, and Morvern’s point of view is rattling and bracing, powered by one of the best movie soundtracks of all time.
Adapting the dense and challenging novels of Virginia Woolf to film might seem like an impossible task, but Sally Potter succeeded by ruthlessly excising any part of Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography that wouldn’t fit into this lean, propulsive, giddily surreal cinematic version. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as the Elizabethan lord who finds himself transformed twice—first he’s made immortal, then he turns into a woman, one who travels the world and lives an exhilarating, bizarre series of lives. Potter’s film is remarkable to behold; the costuming and production design are staggering given its limited budget. For all its strangeness, it’s piquant and bewitchingly sad, a precise match of filmmaker, lead actor, and source material.
All of Satoshi Kon’s films are worth delving into (the Japanese animator made only four features before dying of cancer at the age of 46), but his debut work still delivers the most intense shock to the system. Perfect Blue is a contemporary drama with all the darkness and surrealism of sci-fi fantasy; in meta fashion, it portrays the pressures of fame as a nightmarish mania from which there’s no escape. Kon’s film follows Mima Kirigoe, a teen pop star trying to break into serious acting, who undergoes a psychotic break as she struggles to distinguish between real life and the roles she’s playing. Kon wants to give the viewer the same experience—you can spend the whole movie wondering what’s real and what isn’t, without feeling the frustration of trying to unravel a tawdry mystery. Kon excelled at creating those kinds of cinematic headspaces, and Perfect Blue is exceptionally emotionally shattering as a result.
The Portrait of a Lady (1996, directed by Jane Campion)
Coming off of her Oscar-winning success with The Piano, Jane Campion tackled a staggeringly difficult novelist to adapt—Henry James. In doing so, she created an alienating and warped costume drama that fails to reward the viewer with any of the conventional story arcs expected of the genre. There’s no traditional happy ending, no swooning romantic leads for the heroine, Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), to choose between, no expectation that marriage will lead to happiness or fulfillment—instead, it’s a story of a woman who’s besieged by society for daring to be different, and then manipulated into miserable circumstances when she finally tries to walk the moralistic path expected of her.
Post Tenebras Lux (2012, directed by Carlos Reygadas)
The Mexican director Carlos Reygadas is one of the finest purveyors of dream logic in moviemaking today, and Post Tenebras Lux (or Light After Darkness) is his masterpiece: a peculiar tale of a family moving to the countryside and encountering both mundane drama and majestic, incomprehensible sorcery. While the emotional through line of the movie is a couple’s marriage collapsing, that narrative is bolstered by stunning expressionist photography of the natural world, a brightly glowing devil figure that stalks around the frame, and a truly entrancing rugby game; the entire project seems to unfold directly from Reygadas’s brain, an artistic process as enviable as it is baffling.
Theo Anthony’s Rat Film is a journalistic work that doubles as a dreamy collage, a story of a city that incorporates tragedy, comedy, and grim legacy. After a late-night encounter with a rodent stuck in his trash can, Anthony finds himself exploring Baltimore’s history of rat infestations, which ties into housing segregation, redlining, urban neglect, and the city’s long-lasting problems with systemic racism. Incorporating the perspectives of city officials, community activists, and neighbors, Anthony turns a nonfiction project into a portrait of the home he loves, full of praise and regret.
Right Now, Wrong Then (2015, directed by Hong Sang-soo)
Your first encounter with the Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo is likely to be your most profound, since nobody makes movies like him. Each of his works is characterized by stripped-down visuals and naturalistic dialogue. My personal favorite, and one of Hong’s most quietly idiosyncratic efforts, is Right Now, Wrong Then, a romantic comedy that follows an art-house film director (Jung Jae-young) as he visits a new city, meets a woman (Kim Min-hee), and strikes up a conversation with her. The viewer sees things play out badly between them, but then the film stops, resets, and tells the same story again—with a different conclusion. There’s no explanation, no supernatural intervention; Hong’s just inviting the viewer to treat every interaction with care and fascination, and to see how the littlest moments can tip reality in unexpected directions.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010, directed by Edgar Wright)
The idea of a comic-book adaptation was hardly novel in 2010, but the energetic Edgar Wright invented whole new visual palettes in translating Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series, a masterpiece of postadolescent folly. The jokey concept of the books is that Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) boils every human conflict in his life down into a simplistic video game, a cartoon battle he can fight in lieu of having actual, mature conversations. So Wright makes every set piece a dizzying blur of neon streaks, pixelated graphics, and dramatic music; it’s the perfect lancing of every self-involved 20-something’s inflated opinion of their own problems. Plenty of modern action movies can do eye-popping work with CGI; Wright used that technology better than anyone to illustrate the inner workings of his protagonist.
No single movie had more influence than this one on the brightly colored, computer-generated action fantasies of the 2010s, which were dominated by superhero movies told on an unprecedented scale. And yet nothing has managed to ape the look of the Wachowskis’ living cartoon—a spine-tingling rendition of a classic piece of Japanese animation that cheerfully flouts every convention of visual storytelling. The best way to experience the movie is on the biggest screen possible, with a screaming audience that can barely process what they’re seeing, but the radical sincerity of the Wachowskis’ storytelling shines through even when Speed Racer is being viewed at home.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, directed by Isao Takahata)
The most expensive Japanese film ever made, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was Isao Takahata’s final masterpiece, a project that reportedly took eight years to produce because of the immense delicacy of its watercolor animation. The sheer cost and amount of time devoted to it certainly pay off—the film looks like an old painting come to life, at once intricate and coarse, beautiful when the characters are still and chaotic when they’re in motion. But the quiet devastation of the film’s fairy-tale story, one rooted in a centuries-old folk tale, is just as profound as the once-in-a-lifetime visuals.
Taste of Cherry (1997, directed by Abbas Kiarostami)
Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), a middle-aged man in Tehran, has decided that he wants to commit suicide, but he needs someone to help bury him. So he drives around the city, picking up strangers on the side of the road, explaining his predicament and then philosophically discussing the choice he’s made and its wider implications. Abbas Kiarostami, one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, tells this tale with arresting simplicity, letting audiences bring what they want to the story before surprising them with an unusual and self-reflexive ending. Though all of Kiarostami’s work is worth grappling with, this is both a good entry point and litmus test—you might think it the most boring movie ever made, or something to be obsessed over. Either way, you won’t be able to find anything else like it.
All of Jia Zhangke’s films are about contemporary China, usually focused on parts of the country that might be especially unfamiliar to foreign viewers. Some are more fantastical than others; he’s made gangster movies, historical dramas, and even future-set science fiction. But A Touch of Sin combines all his influences, telling four disconnected stories loosely inspired by sordid events (revolving around murders, suicide, and prostitution) and turning them into mini genre movies. Jia can make real-life narratives feel like soaring adventures or gritty tragedies, honoring the truths he’s trying to depict while making them larger than life.
The title is not a misdirect—this film is three romantic stories, set in three different time periods (1966, 1911, and 2005), told in three different languages. The same leads (Shu Qi and Chang Chen) recur throughout, as do many of the themes that Hou Hsiao-Hsien is exploring: the shifting political circumstances of his home country of Taiwan, the seismic cultural changes it has undergone in the past century, and the social mores that have evolved (or not) in the intervening years. The 1911 section is presented as a silent film, while the modern one is told mostly via cellphone communication; the contrasts among the stories are visually astonishing, and Hou’s depiction of each couple’s approach to intimacy is just as impressive and delicate.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The plot of this bewitching Thai film, which became the first from its nation to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is strange in itself. Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying of a failing kidney, and in his last days he communes with relatives and discusses the karmic implications of the life he’s led. Some of these figures are already dead, and many of them appear in nonhuman forms—there’s a hairy creature he dubs “monkey ghost” and a talking catfish. On top of these peculiarities, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film incorporates a different style for each of its six sections, from stiff and classical to documentary to weird, dreamy art cinema. The story is difficult to pin down, told in an ever-shifting format that rewards countless re-viewings. While all of Weerasethakul’s work is worth experiencing, this is his most profound.
Lucrecia Martel’s film is a colonial satire, a bumbling comedy, a graphic horror movie, and a challenging bit of art-house poeticism. An adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s existential novel of the same name, it follows a foolish Spanish nobleman stranded in remote Argentina who is desperately trying to climb the social ladder. His foppish sense of self-importance transforms into something more bloodthirsty as he’s barred from more important assignments; Martel depicts her preening hero as the ultimate empty suit, robbing him of the internal monologue he has in the novel, and instead turning his misadventures into a mood piece that eventually swerves toward tragedy. There are many comedies about bumbling oafs, but none as nightmarish and strange as this one.