Movies

The Ten Best Films With No Plot

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

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.

6. Clerks (1994)

Famously, Kevin Smith worked in the very mini-mall where he shot this raunchy, meandering film about two New Jersey goofs. Like young, minimum wage versions of Andre and Wallace, Jeff Anderson's Randal and Brian O'Halloran's Dante spend most of the film's running time debating their two different approaches to life. Randal is relatively content with his job at the neighboring video store, while Dante's unhappiness with his convenience-store job is matched only by his inability to do anything about it. By the end of the day, little has changed — but the characters' clever banter has at least given them (and us) new perspectives on the moral responsibilities of contractors working on the Death Star and the significance of a girlfriend showing up with homemade lasagna.

 

7. Funny Ha Ha (2005)

Arguably the first "mumblecore" film, Andrew Bujalski's ultra-low budget feature helped to launch a whole twenty-first century mini-genre of plotlessness. Like Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture and Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes The Stairs, the aimless twentysomethings in Bujalski's world hang out, work, and occasionally have sex as they wait for their lives to start — unaware that they already have. The deadpan humor and low stakes of mumblecore may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the cinema verité approach (and frequent, casual nudity) often appeals to filmgoers seeking a break from CGI and rom-com fantasies that bear little relation to actual life.

 

8. American Graffiti (1973)

Decades before mumblecore launched, Hollywood laughed at George Lucas when he sought funding and distribution for this autobiographical ode to bored teenagers cruising the streets of small-town America on the wings of rock & roll. "Who'd want to see that?" the suits sneered — at least until Lucas' runaway smash demonstrated both the power of baby-boomer nostalgia for "simpler" times, and how eager teenagers were to see their mundane lives mirrored realistically on movie screens. Eager to keep milking the unexpected cash cow, Hollywood tried again with More American Graffiti in 1979, although the true spiritual sequel would come a few years later with Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill, another ensemble snapshot of boomers hanging out, hooking up, and grooving to overplayed oldies.

 

9. Dazed & Confused (1993)

Generation X (along with their slightly older brothers and sisters and stoners of all ages) got their very own American Graffiti with Richard Linklater's beloved cult classic about a bunch of teenagers hanging out in a Texas suburb on the first day (and night) of summer vacation, 1976. A bully gets pranked, a party gets planned, and a few people lock lips, but once again, nothing very dramatic happens — yet the kick-ass soundtrack, Linklater's smart dialogue, and a talented cast combine to make this "boring" town one of the most entertaining places we've ever been.

 

10. Slacker (1991)

And speaking of slackers and Texas, though the films on this list are unranked, it's hard to think of a better film about nothing than Linklater's groundbreaking directorial debut, which barely has characters, let alone a plot. Or, to be more specific, the film has dozens of "characters" (in the "what a character" sense of the term) — everything from gun-toting anarchists and paranoid oddballs spouting outlandish conspiracy theories to a woman allegedly selling one of Madonna's pap smears. But hardly any of them appear onscreen for more than a few minutes, as the film wanders from person to person in a laconic study of late-twentieth-century bohemia. And while some feel Slacker helped to ruin the subculture it lovingly documented (by making Austin too trendy and expensive for actual slackers to live there), the nice thing about nothing is that it never really goes away.