Firstly, there are many opinions on what a minimalist film is. Some people would consider a minimalist storyline makes it a minimalist film, while others may have other criteria. As a designer, I am much more interested in the visual aspect of films.
So the following is a list of what I consider to be among best minimalist films in terms of visuals and aesthetics in general.
Things like cinematography, color choices and set designs play an important role for this list. I personally just love a visually minimalist film. The minimalist visuals for a film can really compliment the story telling aspect and create a great experience for the audience.
So without wasting any more time, here are the 9 best minimalist films (of recent times) in my opinion and in no particular order.
9 Must See Minimalist Films that can Inspire You
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Directed by the great Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a recounting from a writer’s perspective of the experiences of Gustave H, a concierge at a Eastern European hotel, and the lobby boy who becomes his close and most trusted friend, Zero Moustafa.
The story involves a Renaissance painting that got stolen and it’s recovery. The story also includes the battle for a huge family fortune. All of it happens against the back-drop of a dramatically changing Continent.
The visual aspect of it is just really stunning. Any still you can take from the movie is framed-picture worthy. You can clearly see that Wes Anderson put in a lot of effort on the visual style.
Just like his previous films, he incorporates a lot of symmetry in his shots. This gives it a beautiful minimalist visual. Symmetries has also being well known scientifically to be visually pleasing to humans.
Other than that, the color choices and the color grading also plays a huge part. The film is drowned in beautiful pastel colors, which gives the film a soft minimal look. The color choices make the film look vintage, while having simplicity.
Furthermore, the costume choices adds to the whole minimalist look of the film. Like these quirky vintage prison outfit.
Interestingly, the majority of the film was shot in 1.37:1 aspect ratio which is closer to a square. This is very much out of the norm compared to other contemporary films. Perhaps, a more square-ish aspect ratio helps with the symmetry aspect of the cinematography.
The film is a great watch and has universal critical acclaim. It has won plenty of accolades including the Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design and Best Original Score.
2. Her (2013)
Her is a great movie written and directed by Spike Jonze. It is set in the near future, and is about a lonely man named Theodore who works as a letter writer and in the final stages of his divorce with his wife Catherine. In his free time he plays video games and usually recalls the good times he had with his wife.
Theodore decides to purchase the new OS1, which is being marketed as the first artificially intelligent operating system. He quickly develops feelings with the computer system named Samantha. Soon they grow closer and closer and eventually find themselves in love. Theodore feels conflicted as he is in love with a computer system.
The visual styles are very well thought and executed without looking overly tailored. The color grading seems colorful but really clean at the same time which gives a beautiful minimalist feel. However the main color for the whole film is red, and you can see the warm color palette throughout the movie.
The poster is red, and all of Theodore’s sweaters seem to be red. The production team even as far as to avoid the color blue which most movies that are set in the future usually relies heavily on.
Having this emphasis on one color gives the whole film a nice minimalist look. Having most of the set be super clean and futuristic also helps. Additionally, the simple background score compliments the visuals of the film perfectly.
I just love the whole tone of the movie. Spike Jonez previously directed film Where The Wild Thing Are also has a lot of minimalist elements.
Her was nominated in 5 categories at the 86th Academy Awards including Best Picture. It has gone on winning many awards internationally.
3. Submarine (2010)
Directed by the comedic actor Richard Ayoade, Submarine tells the story of a 15-year-old Welsh teen by the name of Oliver who has two objectives: To lose his virginity before his 16th birthday and to keep his parents together. He then ends up being in a relationship with his feisty classmate Jordana, and determines to become the best boyfriend in the world.
Most of the film visual style takes inspiration from 1970s French cinema. Ayoade and the film’s cinematographer Erik Wilson, watched a lot of the French films as reference. Besides that, the cinematography of Nestor Almendros is also an inspiration for the visual style of the film.
Interestingly, the movie relies mostly on natural light. Furthermore, the film uses different kinds of cameras and recording media including Super 8, Video8 and VHS-C to give the film a range of visual styles.
Like Wes Anderson’s style, a good amount of the film is shot in symmetry which gives a clean and minimal look. And just like Spike Jonze’s Her, the film’s stand out color is red. You can see this with Jordana’s duffel coat which you can see her wearing throughout the film. However, the main characters color is blue, which creates a contrast between Oliver and his love interest.
The film received a lot of positive reviews from critics and went on to be screened at many major film festivals. The soundtrack was beautifully written and performed by Arctic Monkeys front-man Alex Turner.
4. Lady Bird (2017)
Lady Bird is a beautiful coming-of-age film directed by Greta Gerwig about a final year high school student Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson, who longs to leave Sacramento and go to college on the East Coast. However, she is being held back by her over protective mother who prefers her to stay in California and ideally be close to home.
The story follows Lady Bird in her journey through her first romance, her participation in the school play and her applying for college.
For the visual and look of “Lady Bird”, the director Gerwig who also wrote the film started working about a year earlier with the film’s cinematographer Sam Levy to achieve her visual style. Levy through his colorist Alex Bickel who also worked on Moonlight developed a unique technical process during the pre-production to achieve Gerwig’s vision.
Because the film is set in 2002, and somewhat inspired by Gerwig’s own youth, she wanted the film to “look like a memory”. The film’s visuals is inspired by the French photographer Lise Sarfati’s who has a lot of photos of young women from the 2000s.
Through the photos, they finally come to the idea of “plain and luscious.” without having too much visuals. This approach gives the film a minimalist and clean look.
The film went on to be on most top 10 lists of 2017. Lady Bird was also nominated for many accolades including 5 categories in the 90th Academy Awards. Definitely a good watch.
5. Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a New Zealand comedy-adventure film directed by Taika Waititi. The story is about a problem child from the city, Ricky becoming the foster child to two reclusive country folk, Bela and Hector. After some time, the relationship between them goes reasonably well. In an unlucky turn of events, Bella suddenly dies. Hector now has to look after Ricky.
However, things are not going too well. Furthermore, Bella’s death causes Child Services to decide to return Ricky to the orphanage. Ricky refuses and decides to run away. As a result, a national manhunt is ordered for Ricky and his foster uncle.
I love that the film has a lot of static and wide shots, which creates spaces for the scenes to breathe. A lot of the film is set in nature which makes the visuals very calming. The straight forward shots gives the scenes a minimalist look while complimenting the whole storytelling beautifully.
The film went on to become the highest grossing New Zealand film, making over NZ$12 million. It has also received universal critical acclaim. Empire Magazine
6. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Moonrise Kingdom is another film that was directed by Wes Anderson. The film is set in 1965 and is about a 12 year old Khaki Scout at an island camp that has fallen in love with his pen pal, Suzy, and decides to run away together.
His by-the-book scoutmaster, Ward, put together a search party after calling Captain Sharp, the local police. They are trying to find them as quickly as possible as there is a violent storm approaching the island.
Just like most Wes Anderson films, this charming piece of work features a lot of symmetry shots, static shots, and wide shots. These shot creates that beautiful minimalist feel that you get with most of his films.
Although the film looks colorful at first glance, you can easily see that the dominant color is yellow. You can see the things like tents, backpacks, scarves and other objects deliberately in the color yellow to achieve the visual tone that it has.
The focus on a single main color rather than an array of different colors gives the film a clean look. Furthermore, the yellow tone gives a nice vintage feel which perfectly fits a film that is set in the 1960s.
Moonrise Kingdom was nominated in many award ceremonies including the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and many other film festivals. It was also voted to be in the BBC 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century.
7. 500 Days Of Summer (2009)
500 Days of Summer is a romantic-comedy directed by Marc Webb. It is about Tom Hansen who is an aspiring architect who unhappily works as a greeting card writer. One day, he encounters his boss’ new secretary, Summer, who he discovers that they have a lot of common interests.
Tom quickly falls in love with Summer, and thinks about her constantly. However, Summer do not believe in love or soul mates. She sees true love as the stuff of fairy tales and is not looking for anything romantic. Tom, being deeply in love with Summer, tries to convince her otherwise.
The story-telling style of the whole film is unique as it jumps forward and back in that 500 days period making it non-linear. It shows all the different emotions that Tom goes through. One scene being really happy, and the next being really miserable.
The color palette for the whole film was carefully selected. If you pay attention, Tom usually wears earthy colors like brown or beige and even his apartment and surroundings. In contrast, Summer often dons the color blue, which is also the color of her apartment. This gives each character a subtle minimal aesthetic, which goes well with the whole feel of the movie.
Besides that, the overall color grading and the fact that the whole movie was shot in film gives it a soft, minimal look.
The film went on to be featured in many critics top 10 lists in 2009 and won many awards for the screenplay and editing.
8. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Directed by Jared Hess, Napoleon Dynamite is a comedy film about a young teenager, Napoleon, who just wants to find his place in the world. He lives with his grandmother and his 32-year-old brother who keeps searching for love.
The story also includes his jock uncle, Rico who just seems to want to mess up Napoleon’s life. He goes on to help his Mexican best friend Pedro campaign for class president.
The film features a lot of wide static shots, which gives simplicity to the shots. The long-duration shots also gives much space for the scenes to breathe, which creates that subtle minimalist feel.
Another thing that I really love about the movie is the color palette. The retro-pastel color choices also gives the whole film a super clean look. A good amount of the shots have very simple backgrounds which reduces the visual clutter of the scenes.
Interestingly, the whole film was shot in 22 days. Napoleon Dynamite won many awards for comedy. Furthermore, the film has grown quite a large cult-following throughout the years.
9. The Lobster (2015)
The Lobster is a dystopian black comedy film directed by the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. The film is a love story set in a dystopian near future where single people are arrested and sent to a hotel. They must find a partner in 45 days. If they fail to do so, they get turned into a wild animal of their choice.
The story focuses on David whose wife has just left him after an 11-year marriage. He chose a lobster as the animal that he will be transformed into if he fails to find a partner.
Most of the film uses natural lighting which gives the film a natural look and feel. Most of the shots were taken far away using long lenses to give the perspective of a distant observer. The whole film was shot on location and did not use any studios. As a result, the film achieves a very minimal visual style because of the lack of artifice and special effects.
The Lobster was released to critical acclaim and won multiple awards at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It was also nominated at many international film festivals.
Minimalist aesthetics in films doesn’t just help make the visuals look great, but also reduce the visual clutter. As a result, enables the viewers to focus on the story more. More and more films are using these kinds of visual style to tell their story. I can’t wait to see more minimalist visuals in future movies.