The Ten Best Films With No Plot

As Steve Coogan meanders lovably through this week's The Trip, we survey ten classics where nothing happens.

By Andrew Osborne

In this week's The Trip, two middle-aged British actors (Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan) banter over gourmet cuisine, do some Michael Caine impressions and... well, that's about it, really. And yet, despite a near total lack of plot, drama, or character arcs, the film is deeply satisfying. Coogan and Brydon bumble along, bantering and griping and doing their best to get by in a way that feels reassuringly familiar. And so, in the midst of all the bombastic, death-defying mutants, pirates, wizards, cowboys, and aliens of summer, we'd like to salute The Trip by listing (in no particular order, appropriately enough) our favorite films where, to quote David Byrne's description of heaven, nothing ever happens.

1. Lost in Translation (2003)

When a film doesn't have much of a plot, the characters need to be engaging or the whole thing quickly becomes a boring slog (like, for instance, Sofia Coppola's recent Somewhere). But Coppola got it right with this beloved Oscar-nominated Tokyo travelogue, because who wouldn't want to hang out singing karaoke all night with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson?

 

2. Barcelona (1994)

There are too many meandering, plotless foreign films to mention, but even American directors tend to get distracted by the local scenery once they hit the Old World. To be fair, Whit Stillman's 1990 debut Metropolitan would never be mistaken for a tightly-plotted thriller, but (despite a little sex and a moment of violence) his Americans-abroad follow-up is as pleasantly aimless as an afternoon sipping sangria in the shade.

 

3. Head (1968)

Artsy experimental films are pretty much plotless by definition. But unlike, say, Andy Warhol's Empire (an eight-hour study of Manhattan's most iconic building), this psychedelic attempt by the Monkees to break out of their pre-fab TV image is packed with catchy songs and nonsensical vignettes that are funny in both senses of the word (as when the band is menaced by an oversized Victor Mature). Pointless? Sure, but still a head trip worth taking.

 

4. The Thin Red Line (1998)

Some critics say Terrence Malick's controversial new movie, The Tree of Life, has too much plot (i.e. the entire history of the universe). But the iconoclastic director won more favorable notices for his episodic tone poem about the chaos of war, the beauty of nature, the meaning of life, and... stuff like that. After nearly three hours, the point of the whole exercise may be debatable, but the film's gorgeous cinematography and haunting mood are not.

 

5. My Dinner With Andre (1981)

Louis Malle's arthouse hit about a long conversation between friends essentially divided viewers into two camps: those (like eccentric bon vivant Andre Gregory) who seek answers to the Big Questions, believing life is only meaningful with senses and emotions fully engaged; and the rest of us (like homely, down-to-earth Wallace Shawn) who are more concerned with everyday challenges and simple pleasures like a nice warm electric blanket in winter.

Commentarium (63 Comments)

Jun 08 11 - 3:29am
@

this is a sweet collection

Jun 08 11 - 9:53am
faulknersaysrelax

Teresa Nervosa!

Jun 08 11 - 12:00pm
Vivienne Prems

What, no Withnail and I?

Jun 08 11 - 12:18pm
and I

seriously, that movie is no-plot gold

Jun 08 11 - 12:37pm
PeterSmith

Ooh, I love that one.

Jun 08 11 - 2:29pm
AndyL

Withnail and I meanders beautifully but it does have a plot.

Jun 08 11 - 12:35pm
VoR

Before Sunrise/Sunset?

Jun 08 11 - 4:11pm
Yuri Goytacaz

I swear I went to the next page thinking that Before Sunrise would be on the top of that list.
Not fair. They don't even list it.

Jun 08 11 - 12:56pm
Arghlefargle

M.A.S.H.?

Jun 08 11 - 1:05pm
KigKoo

lol, I figured "Fight Club" would lead the pack.

Jun 08 11 - 1:06pm
BlOb

Deathly hallows: part 1 anyone?

Jun 08 11 - 4:31pm
Crash13

I can't agree more! They should have called it "The Movie About Sitting in a Tent in the Forest That Will Make The Audience Fall Asleep"

Jun 09 11 - 1:09am
N3rdy_Art

I disagree

Jun 10 11 - 5:17pm
Yes. It was awful.

Datrappert

Jun 08 11 - 1:16pm
jieyin

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset should definitely be in top 10.

Jun 08 11 - 4:12pm
Yuri Goytacaz

indeed.

Jun 08 11 - 1:18pm
Leo

I know it's divisive, but Napoleon Dynamite springs to mind.

Jun 13 11 - 8:36pm
Rachel

Absolutely.

Jun 08 11 - 2:00pm
Bob Yeo

Beautiful Girls

Jun 08 11 - 2:08pm
YourFriend

Gummo, duh

Jun 10 11 - 4:26pm
adrienne

seriously! and what a sweet ass soundtrack!

Jun 08 11 - 2:24pm
huh

The Empire Strikes Back should lead this list.

Jun 08 11 - 2:37pm
PeterSmith

A film that opens with a minute and a half of narrative text and includes training sequences, betrayals, shocking revelations of parentage, and major characters getting frozen by bounty hunters... is pretty much the opposite of what we're talking about here.

Jun 08 11 - 3:13pm
huh

Wrong. It absolutely belongs on this list. As a stand alone film, it has absolutely no beginning or resolution and, therefore, no plot. Everything in this movie was just a lead in to the third movie. Think if The Thin Red Line had had a prequel showing Pearl Harbor and a sequel showing Hiroshima and the USS Missouri; would it still make the list? Yes, but as a stand alone and not when taken in the context of the other films.

Jun 08 11 - 3:22pm
@

u r dumb

Jun 08 11 - 3:40pm
huh

At least we can spell.

Jun 13 11 - 8:37pm
Rachel

But it's not a stand-alone film, twit.

Jun 08 11 - 3:26pm
Yanqui

Actually, "The Empire Strikes Back" does have resolution, as opposed to the first "Lord of the Rings" movie which just...stops, and assumes you're coming back for #2.

Jun 08 11 - 3:41pm
huh

If by resolution you mean a ton of unanswered questions, then I agree with you. ;-) However, I still contend that there was no plot; it was all a set up for the third movie.

Jun 08 11 - 3:28pm
Vinegar Bend

I'm not so sure "My Dinner With Andrew" belongs on this list.
But since you mentioned Steve Coogan, his "Tristram Shandy : A Cock and Bull Story" perhaps does.

Jun 08 11 - 3:54pm
anon

Last of the Mohegans

Jun 13 11 - 8:37pm
Rachel

Mohicans*

Jun 08 11 - 4:16pm
JT

What about Ferris Buellers Day Off?

Jun 08 11 - 4:37pm
eva

Royal Tennenbaums? Stuff happens, but no plot.

Jun 09 11 - 8:56am
AB

I was reading through the list expecting to see The Royal Tennenbaums or anything by Wes Anderson for that matter. The man is an absolute genius when it comes to creating moderately plotless movies with immensely engaging characters.

Steve Zissou anyone?

Jun 08 11 - 6:20pm
greg

I was fully expecting 'The Brown Bunny' to show up at number one. I think I need to be convinced that it shouldn't have.

Jun 08 11 - 9:20pm
Claudia

I miss "Somewhere" in this list.

Jun 08 11 - 9:26pm
Finn

Kicking and Screaming comes to mind...

Jun 08 11 - 10:58pm
Shelley

I really liked The Station Agent as well. Very cool to see The Thin Red Line on here. Love that movie.

Jun 09 11 - 12:15am
Carrie

Burn After Reading

Jun 12 11 - 3:25am
Bret

Definitely.

Jun 09 11 - 12:56am
LA

I'm also going to jump in there and insist that Before Sunrise should have made the cut.

Jun 09 11 - 1:10am
ChrisRamses

Koyaanisqatsi is missing here.

Jun 09 11 - 3:24am
sum1

Pulp Fiction?

Jun 12 11 - 3:25am
Bret

Did you forget about the plot in that movie?

Jun 09 11 - 9:15am
Moops

Backdoor Bangers IV

Jun 09 11 - 2:56pm
gump

+ Backdoor Bangers V

Jun 09 11 - 4:52pm
ThomasEarlham

All the films on the list that I've seen (with the possible exception of "My Dinner with Andre") and nearly all of the suggestions in the comments, are films that have plot. The plots may be more or less meandering, or take a back seat to characterization, but there's narrative form there.

("Pulp Fiction," really, sum1? That movie is not only heavy on plot, it represents of one of the greatest narrative schemes in the history of movies).

You want plotless?

Koyaanisqatsi (as ChrisRamses mentioned).
Goodbye Dragon Inn
Sans Soleil
Mirror
2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
Film Socialisme
The Man with the Movie Camera
The Tree of Life probably belongs here too.

Jun 09 11 - 5:01pm
shadowman

2001: A Space Odyssey

Jun 12 11 - 3:27am
Bret

lol. That movie had plot, it was just overshadowed by two hours of spaceship stills mixed in with the twenty-five minutes of character interaction.

Jun 09 11 - 5:06pm
Show

Yeah, as much as I loved Before Sunrise, there is a definiteive plot revolving around two travelers coming into contact with each other and trying to live out a life's worth of love in one evening. The resolution being that the fairy tale ends when the sun actually comes up and they have to go back to their regular lives. Before Sunset is even more story driven since it hinges on all of the set up of the first movie and leaves hoping for some romantic resolution. Simple, but it's definitely there.

Jun 10 11 - 5:10pm
Xolodnyj

What about "Fast Times At Ridgemont High"? If American Graffiti is on this list, so should Fast Times. It has no plot, just a serious of some very funny stuff. It is one of the most iconic plotless comedies of all time.

Jun 10 11 - 5:18pm
Datrappert

La Dolce Vita, definitely.

Jun 10 11 - 7:04pm
TFT

Ugetsu

Jun 10 11 - 8:31pm
Decameron Knight

I'd add Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes," (or pretty much any of his other films, now that I think of it) to the list.

Jun 12 11 - 3:27am
Bret

Ghost Dog? I'd guess that has plot. I saw it, but I don't remember it. Haha.

Jun 11 11 - 4:06pm
jmh

Last Picture Show

Jun 11 11 - 11:48pm
bdog

Eraserhead
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Corndog Man

Jun 13 11 - 12:05am
ETDWeasel

Napolean Dynamite. 'nuff said.

Jun 17 11 - 3:10am
Josh

Was expecting La Dolce Vita to make an appearance.

Jun 24 11 - 11:04pm
Henry

No Country For Old Men?

Is the plot of that movie a bad guy, who lost his money, getting his money back?

Jun 30 11 - 11:50pm
Skegebook

Hello. Interesting site you have.

Aug 31 12 - 10:03pm
derek

Rubber?