|By Matt Fowler In the this movie era of assembly line blockbusters, recycled ideas, and aversion to originality, it’s easy to forget that some of the greatest achievements in moviemaking have come from grand impossible ideas, risky unique premises, and unconventional execution.
Gambling visionaries like Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Christopher
Nolan, James Cameron, and more have put it all on the line, laid it all out there, and pushed to take films to new levels of storytelling and technology. By ramping up the quality of special effects, breaking down
the typical conventions of screenwriting and editing, and overall just being unequalled badasses, these creative geniuses have given us some truly impressive work. Some projects soared, some stumbled, but all were insanely ambitious for a system not known for going out on a limb.
Here are 13 of the most ambitious movies ever made…
Director/perfectionist William Wyler swept the 1959 Oscars with his sweeping, pricey Charlton Heston adventure epic Ben-Hur. Which was, at that point, the most expensive and elaborate movie ever made, complete with a record-setting run time and score. The chariot race sequence still stands as one of the most thrilling and impressive moments in cinema.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Endlessly fascinating in both concept and scope, Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey took audiences through a series of episodic stories – from the prehistoric “Dawn of Man” to a trippy, meditative collision into the heart of spacetime. It changed the entire landscape of science fiction, showing the world that the genre could be infused with loftier themes about existence, evolution, artificial intelligence, mortality, and inevitability.
Not impressive from a budget standpoint but rather premise and execution, Christopher Nolan’s Memento took us into the brain of a lead
character (Guy Pearce) who was incapable of making and maintaining new
memories. Therefore the entire film gets dosed out to us backwards, starting at the end and then working its way back to the start based on
the particulars of protagonist’s fragmented mind.
Breaking new ground in the field of motion capture and stereoscopic 3D technology, James Cameron’s massively expensive trek to the alien world of Pandora, which was being ruthlessly mined for its precious “unobtanium,” quickly became the highest grossing movie of all time. Not too shabby for a movie with no big names, and that wasn’t based on an existing popular property. An aspect of production (along with the cost) that had many predicting the project would fail.
Toy Story (1995)
As the first ever full-length movie that used all CGI, Toy Story was a bold move. One that paid off many times over and helped change the entire landscape of animation. Sure, CGI now allows the market to sometimes get flooded with cheap sub-par kid flicks, but the triumphant rise of Pixar was worth it in the end. And the Toy Story franchise only managed to get better as it went on. You know, if you enjoy openly weeping in the middle of a theater packed with strangers.
Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Rashomon dove deep into the heart of the “unreliable narrator” while also introducing most of the western world to Japanese cinema. An incident involving a dead samurai and his raped wife lay at the center of this tale of contradictory accounts and self-serving eye witnesses. While directing this unique movie involving paradoxical points of view, Kurosawa lived in close quarters with his cast during production while also collaborating very closely with cinematographer Kazuo Miyazawa. The editing of this film is still studied today.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Based on David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s complicatedly layered Cloud Atlas had a hell of a time getting fully financed for its $100 million dollar budget (Warner Bros only contributed $20 million, The Wachowskis had to scrape for the rest). Utilizing a company of actors – like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, and more – to play multiple roles in thematically connected stories that span centuries, Cloud Atlas was frighteningly ambitious on almost every level. The end result was a divisive box office flop that was, in the very least, applauded for its daring efforts.
Filmed over a 12-year period, Richard Linklater’s award-winning coming of age indie tracked Ellar Coltrane’s Mason using real time as he aged from six to eighteen. All while Linklater wrote and developed the story during production, using previously shot footage and performances to inspire the next part of the script. This patient, long-game style of filmmaking allowed the director to keep the same actors throughout filming without having to recast or use aging makeup/effects.
Fritz Lang’s silent, freaky German expressionist future fest involved paradigm-changing visuals and an important story about class warfare in a dystopian city. Painstakingly shot and meticulously crafted, Metropolis stands as one of the first ever full-length science fiction films, filled with style influences ranging from Art Deco to Gothic to Bauhaus.
The Fountain (1999)
At one point, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain had a huge budget and megastar Brad Pitt in the lead role. Then, things being as they are in Hollywood, the project fell apart. Getting pieced back together years later with Hugh Jackman at the top of the bill and a budget that was half of the original, The Fountain would deliver an impressively budget-sensitive mind-bending trio of storylines, set in different timelines/states of being, dealing with immortality.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Some creative properties are so beloved and so elaborate that they’re considered to be almost unfilmable. Unadaptable. Such was the case with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels. But you know what? Kiwi upstart Peter Jackson took the reins on a huge daunting project that involved shooting three movies consecutively over 438 days down in New Zealand. Overall, this groundbreaking challenge of camera tricks and special effects took eight years to complete, giving us some of the greatest fantasy films of all time.
The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowskis’ anime-come-to-life head trip actioner, The Matrix, thrilled audiences with its notion of virtual reality enslavement and its combination of John Woo/kung-fu aesthetics. It’s greatest claim to fame though, still to this day, is the “Bullet Time” effect achieved using panoramic slo-mo filming. A new look for action movies of the time and one that allowed us to believe that Neo and his cohorts truly had mental control over their surroundings.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Combining the sleek space station style of Kubrick’s 2001 with Old West “lived in” aspects of dusty smugglers (and a hefty amount of WWII dogfighting thrown in, to boot), George Lucas changed the world with his uber-personal science-fantasy adventure, Star Wars. This 1977 phenomenon was Lucas’ inventive, go-for-broke space opera answer to not originally being sold the rights to Flash Gordon, which was the film he
originally wanted to make.