In many ways this is a frustrating figure for a film which has been almost universally praised by critics, but it’s perhaps unsurprising why it hasn’t made that breakthrough to a huge mainstream crowd. It isn’t the action-heavy delight fans of the Fast & Furious series may have been expecting, and its bursts of ultra violence, coupled with a sometimes languid, studied pace, means it clearly sits outside of that traditional Hollywood model.
Similar cineaste-friendly fare has often stumbled at the box office (last year’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a recent example) but sometimes a film comes along which manages to appease both camps and against all odds, rakes in the big bucks whilst satisfying those who have ventured to experience the more obvious esoteric delights on offer. Below is a small selection of those films:
It’s safe to say that no one could have predicted the huge financial success and audience love attributed to Darren Aronofsky’s twisted psychosexual thriller earlier this year. It was a film which the director struggled to scrape the money together for (leaving plenty of time for star Natalie Portman to train like crazy) and watching the beautiful young star’s decent into a Polanski-esque spiral of madness and schizophrenia (all framed within the rather cold and austere world of ballet) hardly screams “audience-friendly” either. But ultimately the film did find a rather substantial crowd, and which went on to gross an unprecedented $329 million worldwide.
Part of this must be attributed to Portman’s riveting, nervy performance snagging her an Oscar nod and ultimate win, added to that all-important (in the studio’s eyes, at least) prestige to the project. This was also the director behind the resurrection of Micky Rourke the previous year, giving audiences a refreshingly open and ego-free glimpse at a seasoned performer who had struggled to make any real impact on screen for a while (which to a certain extent, mirrored Portman’s own career trajectory prior to Black Swan).
For a film entirely constructed of a narrative told in reverse chronological order, the challenges faced in initially winning over a cinema-savvy audience must have proved pretty high, let alone eliciting the interests of the traditional popcorn crowd. It’s to Memento’s great success that many fans of the film hailed from both ends of the cinematic spectrum, and even if some were initially confounded by the material, a great many were unanimous in their praise of it (the film sits at 31 in the independent, fan-led IMDb Top 250).
The film opened the Hollywood floodgates for director Chris Nolan, and like his huge hit from last year, Inception (another film which has a rightful place on this list), the many themes and ideas which the director explored in his sophomore feature were every bit as prevalent in that slice of big-budget action-tinged escapism.
Ostensibly, Napoleon Dynamite may have looked like another quirky, coming-of-age teen comedy, but its kitsch, DayGlo aesthetic and deliciously off-kilter humour wasn’t necessarily appealing to the types of cinemagoers who were flocking to the latest American Pie incarnation at the time. Nevertheless, the film found a healthy-sized audience (it earned over $40 million in the US) which is all the more impressive when compared against its initial production budget of just $400,000.
A large part of it’s success was certainly derived from the outstanding performance by lead Jon Heder as the socially-awkward, perpetually perplexed-looking protagonist, but a strong supporting cast of comic characters and eminently quotable dialogue helped to propel the film into the big league, causing vast numbers of fans across the land to purchase ginger perm-like wigs for fancy dress parties and sport the now iconic ‘Vote for Pedro’ t-shirts. Produced by MTV Films (it’s hard to imagine the company taking a punt on similar material nowadays), news that an animated TV series in now in the works from Fox, featuring many of the original cast members (including Heder, Efren Ramirez as Pedro and Jon Gries as the wonderful Uncle Rico) is a testament to the enduring charm of the film.
A post-Spanish civil war, fairytale-infused adult fantasy yarn probably doesn’t sound like an easy sell, but Pan’s Labyrinth became that rare beast – the foreign art-house genre crossover hit. Critics positively gushed (Mark Kermode hailed it “the Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema”) and both fans of foreign language cinema and fantasy film enthusiasts came together to sample the wondrous meshing of a real-world political struggle with a gothic fable (perfected, arguably to a greater degree, in director Guillermo del Toro’s earlier work, The Devil’s Backbone.) It says everything about the currently financial state of Hollywood when a master like del Toro is forced to abandon his James Cameron-backed dream project (an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness) due to budgetary concerns, while this modest Spanish creature feature went on to gross $80 million worldwide.
Nowadays it’s easy to forget the success and influence Pulp Fiction had over the industry following it’s release, but the fact is, this was a low-budget crime flick ($8.5 million) which went on to make over $200 million at the world-wide box office and singlehandedly enabled the Weinstein Brothers to establish their powerhouse indie-centric studio, Miramax (or as eldest sibling Harvey would put it, “the house that Quentin built”).
Again, Pulp was another film which refused to play by the traditions of the genre, and made audiences put a little work in between being thrilled and entertained by the lovingly-crafted dialogue and career-defining performances on offer. Its convoluted narrative jumps and unconventional approach to storytelling proved to be a huge draw, even building to a ‘Gimp Vs Gump’ stand-off during the 1995 Oscars, when the film was up against the more obviously appealing mainstream Forrest Gump. It was the perfect example of audiences being able to embrace a film outside of the norm and celebrate that fact.