We all love a good talky, a film that has a brilliant script full of witty one-liners, illuminating voice-overs, and an iconic “You can’t handle the truth” catchphrase. But that’s not all that cinema has to offer, so let’s look at a selection of some great movies with little to no dialogue, films that place the importance of visual story-telling above all else. We’ve had enough talkies, let’s watch some showies.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter
We begin with Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar winning follow-up to the super-hero/Hollywood satire: The Revenant. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who finally won his first Academy Award, The Revenant is about frontiersman Hugh Glass as he battles to stay alive in the American West in order to avenge the death of his son. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film couldn’t be more different than Birdman, which was hyper stylized and crammed to the gills with snappy dialogue. The Revenant feels like a reaction to Birdman’s success, with the director pushing himself, and his crew, into making a Hollywood film that doesn’t play by normal narrative rules, including dialogue. The Revenant is a film of vision rather than sound.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Matt Malloy, Alex Frost, John Robinson, Carrie Finklea
Gus Van Sant’s Sundance shocker, and the middle part of his death trilogy, is one of the most visceral movie-watching experiences you’re likely to put yourself through. Based in part on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, Elephant follows a few high school kids on the day a school shooting is about to occur. The dialogue is almost non-existent, what’s there is mostly mumbled by the teenage actors who don’t want to be in the high school spotlight. It’s the film’s quiet first half that lulls the audience into a false sense of security: we’ve seen movie violence before, how bad can it be? Trust us, it’s brutal, and it’s loud.
The Tree of Life
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw, Tye Sheridan
When it comes to great movies with little to no dialogue and visual story-telling there’s only one master: Terrence Malick. The director, who’s still most famous for the lyrical war movie The Thin Red Line, made his true masterpiece with Tree of Life. In its bare bones, Tree of Life is a family drama as a man, played by Sean Penn, tries to come to terms with the event that splintered his family: the sudden death of his brother. It’s a film about looking back and trying to make sense of your past, but Malick is no slouch. He goes way back to the beginning of the universe as major chunks of the film are given to dialogue free symphonies of creation that are as wondrous as the central performances of Brad Pit and Jessica Chastain as the man’s parents.
All Is Lost
Director: J. C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
A sure-fire way to strip your film of needless dialogue is to make it a one man show. Which is exactly what director J. C. Chandor (Margin Call, A Most Violent Year) did for his second feature film, the Oscar nominated All Is Lost. The plot of the film is fairly simple: Robert Redford, who was also nominated for Best Actor, plays a sailor who finds himself caught in the middle of a huge storm with only his wits and years of experience to help him get back to land. All Is Lost is an incredible film to experience, at once both huge and claustrophobic and proof that Redford isn’t ready to give up interesting performances any time soon.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman
Drive is both the film that sent Ryan Gosling speeding to the A-list and the film that director Nicholas Winding Refn will be trying to top for the rest of his career. Gosling plays an unnamed stuntman who works on movies by day and is a highly skilled getaway driver at night. His isolation is broken by Carey Mulligan, who does a lot with a little, as Gosling tries to help her husband with one last job. Of course it doesn’t go according to plan and the fury of Albert Brook’s mobster has to be faced head on. Drive isn’t your typical action thriller. It's light on violence, but when it comes prepare to feel sick, and the first of Gosling’s quiet man roles presents a new kind of anti-hero.
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Emilio Estevez, Terrence Malick
Another appearance from Terrence Malick on a list of films with little to no dialogue really shouldn’t surprise anyone. Badlands, his feature film debut, is the seed in which all of his best moves and tricks started to grow. Starring the brilliant Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a couple who take a Bonnie and Clyde style murder tour of the American South, Badlands is more of a tone poem of the nature of American infamy. The locations are sparse, the dialogue too, but Malick is only concerned with the savage beauty of America’s legacy of violence, and through Sheen, how the nation still celebrates infamous gunslingers.
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, James Cromwell, Bérénice Bejo, Penelope Ann Miller
Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Artist is a modern silent film about the end of the silent film era in 1920s Hollywood. The film is perhaps more famous for its breakout canine character but it’s a magnificent achievement in visual story-telling, using all the techniques of the silent era to chart its downfall. While the film was a critical darling and received a multitude of awards, to some audience members it was seen as too much of a throwback, as the film features no spoken dialogue at all until the final minutes. So while celebrating silent film, The Artist also reminded us why the era died off in the first place.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Leonard Rossiter, Ed Bishop, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood,
We end with a masterful film from a masterful director. Each film and filmmaker on this list owes something to director Stanley Kubrick and his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without it Terrence Malick wouldn’t even have gotten Tree of Life funded. Space Odyssey is the director’s collaboration with legendary science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, and together they crafted a film about humanity’s leaps forward in evolution and how they may have happened. The film has little to no dialogue, preferring to startle the audience with perfectly composed image after perfectly composed image. 2001 was the monolith that pushed the evolution of cinema forward.