Art films are aimed at small niche market audiences, which means they can rarely get the financial backing which will permit large production budgets, expensive special effects, costly celebrity actors, and huge advertising campaigns, as are used in widely-released mainstream blockbuster films. Art film directors make up for these constraints by creating a different type of film, which typically uses lesser-known film actors (or even amateur actors) and modest sets to make films which focus on reflective dialogue sequences. For promotion, art films rely on the publicity generated from film critics' reviews, discussion of their film by arts columnists, commentators, and bloggers, and "word-of-mouth" promotion by audience members. Since art films have small initial investment costs, they only need to appeal to a small portion of the mainstream viewing audiences to become financially viable.
The antecedents of art films included D. W. Griffith's film Intolerance (1916) and Sergei Eisenstein's films. Art films were also influenced by films by Spanish avant-garde creators such as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (e.g., L'Age d'Or from 1930) and Jean Cocteau (e.g., The Blood of a Poet, also from 1930). In the 1920s, film societies began advocating the notion that films could be divided into an "...entertainment cinema directed towards a mass audience and a serious art cinema aimed at an intellectual audience". In England, Alfred Hitchcock and Ivor Montagu formed a Film Society and imported films that they thought were "artistic achievements," such as "Soviet films of dialectical montage, and the expressionist films of the Universum Film A. G. (UFA) studios in Germany."
Cinéma Pur, a 1920s and 1930s French avant-garde film movement also influenced the development of the idea of "art film." The cinema pur film movement included Dada artists, such as Man Ray (Emak-Bakia, Return to Reason), Rene Clair (Entr'acte), and Marcel Duchamp (Anemic Cinema). The Dadaists used film to overturn traditional narrative techniques and bourgeois conventions, and conventional Aristotelian notions of time and space by creating a flexible montage of time and space. Pure Cinema was influenced by such German "absolute" filmmakers as Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, and Viking Eggeling.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood films could be divided into the artistic aspirations of literary adaptations like Sean O'Casey's The Informer (1935) and Eugene O'Neill's The Long Voyage Home (1940), and the money-making "popular genre films" such as gangster thrillers. William Siska argues that Italian neorealist films from the mid- to late-1940s, such as Open City (1945), Paisa (1946), and The Bicycle Thief can be deemed as another "conscious art film movement".
In the late 1940s, the US public's perception that Italian neorealist films and other serious European fare were different from mainstream Hollywood films was reinforced by the development of "arthouse cinemas" in major US cities and college towns. After the Second World War, "...a growing segment of the American filmgoing public was wearying of mainstream Hollywood films," and they went to the newly-created art film theaters to see "...alternatives to the films playing in main-street movie palaces". Films shown in these art cinemas included "... British, foreign-language, and independent American films, as well as documentaries and revivals of Hollywood classics." Films such as Rossellini's Open City and Mackendrick's Tight Little Island, The Bicycle Thief and The Red Shoes were shown to substantial US audiences.
The term "art film" is much more widely used in the United States than in Europe. In the US, the term is often defined very broadly, to include foreign-language (non-English) "auteur" films, independent films, experimental films, documentaries and short films. In the 1960s "art film" became a euphemism in the US for racy Italian and French B-movies. By the 1970s, the term was used to describe sexually explicit European films with artistic structure such as I Am Curious (Yellow). In the US, the term "art film" is sometimes used very loosely to refer to the broad range of films shown in repertory theaters or "arthouse cinemas." With this approach, a broad range of films, such as a 1960s Hitchcock movie, a 1970s experimental underground film, a 1980s European auteur film, and a 1990s US "Independent" film all fall under the rubric of "art film."
By the 1980s and 1990s, the term became conflated with "independent film" in the US, which shares many of the same stylistic traits with "art film." Companies such as Miramax Films distributed independent films which were deemed commercially unviable at the major studios. When major motion picture studios noted the niche appeal of independent films, they created special divisions dedicated to non-mainstream fare, such as the Fox Searchlight division of Twentieth Century Fox, the Focus Features division of Universal, and the Sony Pictures Classics division of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Film critics have debated whether the films from these special divisions can truly be considered to be "independent films", given that they have financial backing from major studios.
In contrast, Bordwell states that "...the art cinema motivates its narrative by two principles: realism and authorial expressivity." Art films deviate from the mainstream, "classical" norms of filmmaking in that they typically deal with more episodic narrative structures with a "...loosening of the chain of cause and effect". As well, art films often deal with an inner drama that takes place in a character's psyche, such as psychological issues dealing with individual identity, transgressive sexual or social issues, moral dilemmas, or personal crises.
Mainstream films also deal with moral dilemmas or identity crises, but these issues are usually resolved by the end of the film. In art films, the dilemmas are probed and investigated in a pensive fashion, but usually without a clear resolution at the end of the movie. The protagonists in art films are often facing doubt, anomie or alienation, and the art film often depicts their internal dialogue of thoughts, dream sequences, and fantasies. In some art films, the director uses a depiction of absurd or seemingly meaningless actions to express a philosophical viewpoint such as existentialism.
The story in an art film often has a secondary role to character development and an exploration of ideas through lengthy sequences of dialogue. If an art film has a story, it is usually a drifting sequence of vaguely defined or ambiguous episodes. There may be unexplained gaps in the film, deliberately unclear sequences, or extraneous sequences that are not related to previous scenes, which force the viewer to subjectively make their own interpretation of the film's message. Art films often "...bear the marks of a distinctive visual style" and authorial approach of the director. An art cinema film often refuses to provide a "...readily answered conclusion," instead putting to the cinema viewer the task of thinking about "...how is the story being told? Why tell the story in this way?
Bordwell claims that "art cinema itself is a [film] genre, with its own distinct conventions." Film theorist Robert Stam also argues that “art film” is a film genre. He claims that a film is considered to be an art film based on artistic status, in the same way that film genres can be based on aspects of films such as their budgets (blockbuster movies or B-movies) or their star performers (Fred Astaire movies).
Some films in this list have most of these characteristics; other films are commercially-made films produced by mainstream studios that nevertheless bear the hallmarks of a director's "auteur" style, or which have an experimental character. The films in this list are notable either because they won major awards or critical praise from influential film critics or because they introduced an innovative narrative or filmmaking technique. For example, Kurosawa's Rashomon used an innovative narrative technique of showing the same events as witnessed by four different people.
In the 1950s, some of the well-known films with artistic sensibilities include Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957), which deals with a prostitute’s failed attempts to find love, and her suffering and rejections, and Wild Strawberries (1957), by Ingmar Bergman, a film about an old medical doctor and professor whose nightmares make him reevaluate his life, and The 400 Blows (1959) by François Truffaut. As well, less well-known films such as A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds, Lotna (1954-1959), by Andrzej Wajda showed the Polish Film School style.
In Asia, Indian director Satyajit Ray's The Apu Trilogy (1955–1960) tells the story of a poor country boy's growth to adulthood. Japanese directors produced a number of films that broke with convention. Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), depicts four witnesses' contradictory accounts of a rape and murder. In 1952, Kurosawa directed Ikiru, a film about a Tokyo bureaucrat struggling to find a meaning for life. Other Japanese films from this era include Tokyo Story (1953) by Yasujiro Ozu, Fires on the Plain (1959), by Kon Ichikawa, Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), both by Kenji Mizoguchi.
Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita(1960) depicts a succession of nights and dawns in Rome as witnessed by a cynical journalist. In 1963, he made 8½, an exploration of creative, marital and spiritual difficulties shot in sumptuous black-and-white by cinematographer Gianni de Venanzo. The 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad by director Alain Resnais examines perception and reality, using grand tracking shots that influenced directors such as Ingmar Bergman (particularly The Silence) and Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey).
Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is notable for its naturalistic, elliptical style. Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967) shocked audiences with its masochistic fantasies about floggings and bondage. At the end of the decade, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) wowed audiences with its scientific realism, pioneering use of special effects, and unusual visual imagery. In Soviet Armenia, Sergei Parajanov's The Color of Pomegranates, which was banned by Soviet authorities, was praised by critic Mikhail Vartanov as "revolutionary" and in the early 1980s, Les Cahiers du Cinéma placed the film in its top 10 list. In Iran, Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow (1969), about a man who becomes insane after the death of his beloved cow, sparked the new wave of Iranian cinema.
Another feature of 1970s art films was the prominence of bizarre characters and imagery, which abound in the tormented, obsessed title character in German New Wave director Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973), and in cult films such as Alejandro Jodorowsky's psychedelic The Holy Mountain (1973) about a footless, handless dwarf and an alchemist seeking the mythical Lotus Island The film Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese continues the themes that Clockwork Orange explored: an alienated population living in a violent, decaying society. The gritty violence and seething rage of Scorsese's film contrasts with David Lynch's dreamlike, surreal Eraserhead (1977).
Other directors in the 1980s chose a more intellectual path, exploring philosophical issues. Andrzej Wajda's Man of Iron (1981) is a critique of the Polish communist government which won the 1981 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Another Polish director, Krzysztof Kieślowski released The Decalogue in 1988, a meditative and melancholy film series that explores ethical issues and moral puzzles. The cult film Pink Floyd The Wall (1982) explored political issues such as fascism and totalitarianism using the progressive rock band Pink Floyd's music and metaphorical images to spin a non-linear storyline.
Another approach used by directors in the 1980s was to create bizarre, surreal alternate worlds. Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985) is a comedy thriller that depicts a man's baffling adventures in a surreal nighttime world of chance encounters with mysterious characters. David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), is a film noir-style thriller mystery filled with symbolism and metaphors about polarized worlds and distorted characters that are hidden in the seamy underworld of a small town. Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) is an outlandish fantasy/black comedy about cannibalism and extreme violence with an intellectual theme: a critique of elite culture in Thatcherian Britain.
Other directors in the 1990s explored philosophical issues and themes such as identity, chance, death, and existentialism. The 1990s films My Own Private Idaho and Chungking Express explored the theme of identity. Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) is an independent road movie/buddy movie about two young street hustlers which explores the theme of the search for home and identity. It was called a "high-water mark in '90s independent film", a "stark, poetic rumination", and an "exercise in film experimentation of "high artistic quality". Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express (1994) explores the themes of identity, disconnection, loneliness, and isolation in the "metaphoric concrete jungle" of modern Hong Kong. The film uses a visual style that could be seen as music video-influenced, and also bares similarities to the French New Wave. While the British Film Institute called it one of the best Asian films of contemporary cinema, it is considered to be a film for cineophiles, because it is "largely a cerebral experience" which you enjoy "because of what you know about film."
Several 1990s films explored existentialist-oriented themes related to life, chance, and death. Robert Altman's 1993 film Short Cuts (1993) explore themes of chance, death, and infidelity by tracing ten parallel and interwoven stories. The film, which won the Golden Lion and the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, was called a "many-sided, many mooded, dazzlingly structured eclectic jazz mural" by Chicago Tribune critc Michael Wilmington. Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy (1993-1994), which was co-written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz, was called an exploration of "...unabashedly spiritual and existential issues that created a "truly transcendent experience".
Matthew Barney's The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) is a cycle of five symbolic, allegorical films that create a self-enclosed aesthetic system that aims to explore the process of creation. The films are filled with allusions to reproductive organs and sexual development, and they use narrative models drawn from biography, mythology, and geology. Abbas Kiarostami's film Taste of Cherry (1997) about a man trying to hire a person to bury him after he commits suicide. The film, which was shot in a minimalist style, with long takes, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Some 1990s films mixed an ethereal or surreal visual atmosphere with the exploration of philosophical issues. Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Véronique (1991) is a drama about the theme of identity and a political allegory about the East/West split in Europe which features stylized cinematography, an ethereal atmosphere, and unexplained supernatural elements. Darren Aronofsky's film "Pi" (1998) is a dream-like "...incredibly complex and ambiguous film filled with both incredible style and substance" about a paranoid math genius' "search for peace. The film creates a David Lynch-inspired,"... eerie "Eraserhead"-like world shot in "black-and-white, which lends a dream-like atmosphere to all of the proceedings", which explore issues such as "metaphysics and spirituality
Timecode (2000), a film directed by Mike Figgis, uses a split screen to show four continuous 90 minute takes that follow four storylines. Russian Ark (2002), a film directed by Alexander Sokurov took Figgis' use of extended takes even further; it is notable for being the first feature film shot in a single, unedited take.
Several 2000s-era films explored the theme of amnesia or memory, but unlike Memento, they did so using narrative techniques rather than filmmaking and editing methods. Mulholland Drive (2001), directed by David Lynch is about a young woman who moves to Hollywood and discovers that an amnesiac is living in her house. Oldboy (2003), directed by Park Chan-wook, is about a man imprisoned by a mysterious and brutal captor for 15 years who must then chase his old memories when he is abruptly released. Peppermint Candy (2000), directed by Lee Chang-dong, starts with the suicide of the male protagonist, and then uses reverse chronology (like Memento) to depict the events of the last 20 years which led the man to want to kill himself.
Waking Life (2001), an animated film directed by Richard Linklater uses an innovative digital rotoscope technique to depict a young man stuck in a dream. Five years later, Linklater released the science fiction film A Scanner Darkly (2006), which was also animated with Rotoscope.
Some of the notable films from the 2000s that have been considered to have art film-qualities differed from mainstream films in controversial subject matter or in narrative form. Elephant (2003), a film directed by Gus Van Sant, for example, depicting mass murder at a high school that echoed the Columbine High School massacre, won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Other of his films include Gerry, Last Days, and his most recent film; Paranoid Park. More recently, Todd Haynes' complex deconstruction of Bob Dylan's persona, I'm Not There (2007), was favored by film critics, while the less well-received Southland Tales earned comparisons to Godard in its bizarre political focus and departure from narrative conventions.