In our day and age, it is easy to pick the next movie you are going to watch on the silver screen. There are so many out there, the publicity for some of them mimics tsunamis and the Internet inherently creates an unprecedented global hype. But if you pause to take stock and think things through, don’t you feel like there is little innovation and originality left to be displayed? Aren’t you a bit dismayed by the same good old Hollywood tried-and-tested recipes? When was the last time you actually saw a groundbreaking movie that seemed to break and defy everything you knew about cinema?

In truth, no matter how spectacular the special effects are and no matter how well the scripts are written, there are indeed few modern masterpieces that can be deemed as groundbreaking. Films that break the rules of cinematography, be it in the script, in the filming technique or the very idea, are rare gemstones that raise the bar high and change the very way we position ourselves to the cinema. Today we will take a look at five blockbusters, iconic movies that did not only break some rule or another of cinematography but went down in our collective memory as history makers.

1. Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock is still one of the most celebrated filmmakers of all times and for the right reasons: he was gutsy, thinking ahead of his times and passionate about what he was doing. Hitchcock was a praised artist by the time he made Psycho, but this movie, in particular, broke cinema all the way through by coming up with ideas and scenes that left everybody in awe. Psycho distinguishes itself from everything ever made until its debut and everything that came after from at least three points of view:

  • The death of the main character at the end of the first act of the movie – the idea took the world by the storm and cinema was never the same again.
  • The tapping into the concept of multiple personality disorder – it wasn’t the first movie to focus on the problem, but it was one that gave filmmakers everywhere a clear idea of its potential.
  • Psycho is presumably the first American movie (and the first fictional film) that showed a toilet flushing on screen – screenplay writer Joseph Stephano was adamant to introduce such a scene in the movie to make it more realistic, and he succeeded.

Add the haunting music of the shower scene – and the shower scene in and out of itself – and you can understand why Psycho broke the rules and how glad everybody is it did.

2. The Matrix (1999)

Pushing the boundaries of technology, The Matrix changed the way we look at action movies forever. The Wachowskis literally reinvented filming techniques and special effects when it came to shooting angles, the bullet-time photography (known as the Flow-Mo filming technique at shooting around 12,000 frames per second), the martial arts moves, the green filters and, of course, the main plot.

The Matrix won four Oscars and left behind a veritable legacy, as today, whenever you see the bullet-time technique you think about this movie and none other. With an unprecedented visual impact and a thrilling story (many are still trying to wrap their minds around), The Matrix is perhaps one of the most groundbreaking movies ever made, both conceptually and technically. Click here if you want to refresh your memory.

3. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino and the non-linear movie structure is the first thing everyone is thinking about when it comes to the rules of screenwriting. However, while this technique is certainly unconventional – and quite used and reused ever since – there is more to Pulp Fiction than the eye can see. When it comes to cinematography, Pulp Fiction broke another rule: the extensive use of dialogue. Pages upon pages of just dialogue – considered a huge mistake in screenwriting. However, Tarantino didn’t just get away with it, he managed to create one of the most quotable movies of all times.

Moreover, when we think about the dialogue in Pulp Fiction, we can’t but notice the elevated speech, the eclectic use of words and the power of words over people – brilliantly manifested through the acting of Samuel L. Jackson. Dialogue became on of Tarantino’s landmarks, and Pulp Fiction deemed as one of the most influential movies ever made – counting on both non-linear structure and the unprecedented use of dialogue.

4. Memento (2000)

Grossing over $40 million and earning one nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards together with winning 13 awards at various film festivals for best screenplay, Memento broke the rules of the common linear storytelling technique, breaking the rules of cinematography one by one. To add even more uniqueness to the pool of originality, Christopher Nolan used different colors to depict the two different narratives: color was used for the scenes conveying the story in reverse chronological sequencing and black and white was used for the other narrative.

This technique made the viewers as confused as the main character, making the film one of the most appreciated of its time. There are few movies that tried to pull off such a scheme, and it is probably for the best – presenting a story in reverse needs a screenplay writer and a director perfectly in control of their skills.

5. Shrek (2001)

Before Shrek, animated movies emphasized on moral messages to children, chock full of naivety and beauty for beauty’s sake. In a world dominated by Disney, the Ogre literally erupted with his crude humor, cheeky attitude and adult-oriented jokes and issues. It was politically incorrect, irreverent, imprudent, clearly not dedicated to small children but mostly to their parents.

However, while being a risking bet, Shrek managed to bring the best of both worlds: give children the necessary moral-wrapped adventure and adults plenty of edgy humor to keep them glued to the cinema seats. Since then, we witness the rise of a subculture in animation movie making - those films appealing equally to children and adults.

What movies do you think that broke the rules of cinematography? Which are your favorites?