Films Smart People Think Are Clever

By  · Published on October 27th, 2014

Warner Bros.

You’ve probably already spotted the Esquire UK post called “Films Stupid People Think Are Clever” where the likes of Christopher Nolan and David Fincher are given the shortest end of the stick. It’s a worthless article that represents the easiest kind of contrarianism: People like these things? Let’s say we don’t like them, but not really explain why.

Now, I’m a reasonable un-stupid person by all the traditional rubrics. My IQ is three digits, my SAT score was four, and I’m probably one (maybe two) practice sessions away from being able to walk and chew gum simultaneously. I’ve read books like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Love in the Time of Cholera,” and I think I’ve understood them. They’re about girls, right? Just kidding.

I’m also smart enough to recognize that Esquire’s trolling traffic-magnet doesn’t deserve a response. Or at least not an angry one. The thing is, I’m dumb enough to take any opportunity to rethink why I see films like The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty as fantastically intelligent (even clever). Contrarianism, even the lazy kind, can be good if we use it to challenge ourselves in the right way.

If it’s a chance to examine why I’m stupid enough to appreciate these movies, count me in.

Fight Club

Twentieth Century Fox

To a great extent, the cleverness of Fincher’s movie comes directly from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, but the movie succeeds in translating that beautiful minimalism into something that uses slap-in-the-face pacing to watch an everyman become all powerful. Like all great satire since Swift, it has been (and will be) misinterpreted as the genuine argument even as Tyler Durden’s life falls around him, but so what? At least no babies were eaten.

(Plus,even if you accept the non-satirical read, it’s still a furiously entertaining story of a man taking so much control over his own life that he loses control of it. And almost his testicles. )

It does all of this by using the language of aggression – bolstered by Fincher’s music video expertise – against itself. It’s a wolf in wolf’s clothing (obligatory shout out to Josie and the Pussycats, which any day now will be widely recognized as the subversive masterpiece it is), that uses heightened elements to expose the absurdity of Tyler’s rise to prominence.

Tyler is grounded by specifics (white collar, male, middle aged, etc.), but if you’re stupid enough to see it, he’s also representational of anyone who has played by all the rules, followed the directions and wound up profoundly unhappy. Regardless of how dangerous he becomes, there’s a piece of that aimless cog in all of us that wonders what would happen if we dramatically altered the way we live. Making us empathize with someone who does the unthinkable is no easy task.

Most films that deal with this kind of middle management, midlife crisis (and they are legion) typically show the unhappy pleb what it’s like to have power in a pattern that sees him/her enjoy it, learn its destructive powers and retreat back to the real world as a mildly changed person. They are also normally comedies (think Bruce Almighty). The lesson is to do what you love, but to also re-align your perception of what you should love, and Fight Club pushes hard against that formula.

All of it is cloaked in a relationship that proved years ago how well Fincher could rock a romantic comedy. Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham-Carter make meals of everything, and, of course, the film is famous for layering its story elements into its structure and the medium in a way that still has cinephiles digging for clues. Leave it to Fincher to understand and tap into Palahniuk’s wry appreciation of incongruous imagery.

It’s also a movie that evolves. I saw it as an angry young man terrified of working in a cubicle and responded by pumping my fist in the air. Now, it plays almost exactly the opposite, a cautionary tale about finding balance instead of rebelling for rebellion’s sake. Shifting perception may be external to the movie, but it’s another nice sign that it’s fairly smart.

What gets me most of all is something from both Palahniuk and Fincher – the inclusion of so many khaki-colored zen koans that are exposed as empty (as all tautologies are) by the end of the film.


Most of the movies on this list are elevated forms of genre storytelling, but Inception might be the best modern example of cribbing from tropes and finding ways to bend them. Here are a few reasons to consider the film clever:

  1. Its world-building that shows us our reality with essentially only one new invention that has altered life greatly. It’s science fiction in our backyard.
  2. The script is a master class in delivering exposition in an engaging way – particularly because all the details have sexy elements like death, insanity and grief looming overhead. Nolan loves explaining how things work while bullets are flying.
  3. It’s also fantastically shrewd about revealing information at times when it alters/raises the stakes. Consider the timeline of Ariadne/the audience learning about Mal. First Mal stabs her (great meet-cute), she learns she’s Cobb’s wife, then that Mal’s dead, then that Cobb and Mal were in limbo together, that she killed herself, and that Cobb was responsible for her suicide. Now imagine all of that as an information dump near the beginning of the film. How would it alter, if at all, your opinion of the hero?
  4. If you’re dead set on not finding this movie smart, at least take a moment to appreciate the practical spinning hallway they built for that fight scene. That’s cinematic problem solving at its finest.

American Beauty


The creepy guy with the camcorder and the plastic bag in Not Another Teen Movie is an excellent gag, and it works because Wes Bentley’s character Ricky in American Beauty was completely mockable.

He was a pretentious teenager who thought he was the next Bergman because he hit up Radio Shack, but his character was also meant to be exactly as he’s presented in the film. The only reason he isn’t insufferable is because he’s genuinely broken – he’s a character with real pain (caused by another character with real pain) who compensates in the way that some dumb teenagers sometimes do. If you weren’t mockable at 17, raise your hand.

He’s also an excellent mirror for Kevin Spacey’s Lester as both are attempting to present the appearance of control where they have none. Both are trying to grope toward the boundaries of what they can do with freedom, but only Lester is pathetic because of his age. Here’s a guy who should have it all figured out, but doesn’t. Consider it Fight Club in Suburbia.

What’s really clever about the “beautiful” bag blowing randomly in the wind is that, in another movie it would probably slam the characters right on the nose. Instead of the obvious, Alan Ball chose an image that 1) doesn’t speak to this group of characters – they are not in any way free-floating or random and 2) fits exactly with what a kid who can’t legally vote might consider poetic.

Sam Mendes weaves that airiness into a story about murder and places it in the house down the block from ours. It’s dark stuff with the porch light on, and while that’s not abstractly ingenious, it’s at least clever. What’s brilliant is that the film plays on different levels and changes every time you see it. Is it a commentary on diminishing male power? On homophobia? On the bankruptcy of corporate culture? On youth learning good from bad examples?

It can be all of them and still not be so totally open to interpretation that it becomes meaningless.

The Departed

Warner Bros.

Like Fight Club, much of what makes The Departed smart can be found in what it’s based on – in this case it’s Infernal Affairs.

What’s especially clever about Martin Scorsese’s take is the energy he brings to it. Consider for a second that a massive percentage of the film is spent between two warring factions trying to introduce game theory into a street brawl as duos or sets of people talk. Just talk. It ratchets tension expertly, although – no offense to Scorsese – a lot of that is due to Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing technique which uses patience (followed by quick cuts) to blur the lines between Leo DiCaprio and Matt Damon’s characters as we get closer to where things fall apart.

What’s really great about this movie (yet another elevated genre exercise) is a performance delivered with a side of ham from Jack Nicholson which showcases an unbelievably powerful man who is at least 20% bluster. He’s puffed out enough to handle his business, but scared enough inside to foreshadow a surprising death by his closest lieutenant once its revealed that, instead of a schemer, he’s always been a coward. He’s overly loud and overly brash because his library voice doesn’t part the Red Sea anymore.

If The Departed hadn’t been directed by Scorsese, everyone would have been beating a path to the door of whoever did. Probably before anointing him or her the Next Scorsese.


The Dark Knight

There are a lot of problems with this Batman outing, and they’ve been excruciatingly well documented, but if you’re looking for clever, look no further than the first scene. The above video shows off the brains of the bank operation, but the sequence also 1) introduces us to a new villain in the fullest way possible 2) proves his ability to dismantle a group of strong, motivated people 3) explains the true stakes of the robbery in an interesting way (the silent alarm dialing a private number instead of 911) and 4) drives home that this new villain is going to take on the mob, not Batman. Even though we can safely assume he’ll be in the mix shortly. Scenes which achieve multiple goals are a hallmark of smart filmmaking.

Nolan’s film (his second on this list!) also does a strong job of creating a Gotham that has realistically been transformed by the appearance of a popular, yet divisive, vigilante. Batman’s appearance creates not only the Joker, but also dudes in hockey pads, a police force on edge and a city blinded by their first taste of hope.

If nothing else, perhaps the smartest thing about the film is its molding of Batman into a villain before he even takes the fall for the cops Harvey murdered. We watch a dozen characters change profoundly because one corrosive, scarred element is introduced. We’re distracted by the prisoner’s dilemma playing out on two boats, but by the time Batman turns on his people-powered sonar, he’s already proven how far he’s willing to go to tackle the bad guy.

The easy path, and it’s been taken with this character before, was to use Batman as an enduring solution. Instead, Nolan wanted to dissect the most human superhero by showing just how weak he really is.

The Matrix

Warner Bros.

This movie blew my sophomoric mind in high school with its bold ideas injected into a slick sci-fi casing, but after getting a degree in philosophy with a focus on metaphysics (which I say proudly even as the rotten veggies fly toward my junk), my appreciation of how the Wachowskis handled those concepts has only intensified. Like Inception, it’s not a movie content with only one good concept. Instead, it features a few dozen, including several that are outstanding fight sequences.

In a pejorative sense, The Matrix echoes a philosophy 101 course without adding anything to the conversation. In another sense, the concepts taught in first-year philosophy courses are ones that mankind has wrestled with for centuries and not come up for air yet. Plus, there’s kung fu.

It shoved David Hume and Bishop Berkeley into a virtual dojo and managed to speak to the burgeoning digital age at the same time, all with cutting edge camera and CGI work. Its potency as intelligently crafted pop entertainment simply can’t be overstated.

The Life Aquatic

It’s easy to bag on Wes Anderson for the same reason it’s easy to bag on the kid with the plastic bag from American Beauty – recognizable iconography is easy to parody. And there have been some great parodies of Anderson’s work, as well as some thoughtful explorations of his style.

For Life Aquatic, the key to its intelligence lies within a refusal to make it easy for a terrible human being to make amends with the people closest to him. More than almost anyone else (maybe Julie Taymor or Rob Marshall?), Anderson has imbued cinema with theatricality. The results are narratives that divert in order to break the fourth wall or change the way we see something. They’re almost never done frivolously, and they are always entertaining to see. Along the way, even the colorful sequences are in service of a schlub who doesn’t have the tools to be the person he wants to be.

If horror comedy is the toughest genre to get right, then bittersweet is the toughest tone (meaning that a bittersweet horror comedy would be near impossible), yet bittersweet is where Anderson breathes deepest. He’s also literate and thoroughly engaged with museum and musical arts. It seeps into his characters’ hobbies and personalities, but the cultural callbacks don’t even account for 1% of the movie here.

If you think that Anderson’s characters are smug, listen to their pontifications…and then watch what they do next. Life Aquatic is maybe the best example of this phenomenon.

After faux-intellectual monologues, characters usually wear a silly outfit, make a dumb face, or break into a rival’s submarine base like a cartoon character. If these figures don’t take themselves seriously, why should you?

Sometimes, only sometimes, after they bloviate, they do something unimaginably kind or heroic. Act like a blowhard, but let the shark live.

The Shawshank Redemption

Columbia Pictures

There are ton of reasons why Shawshank is a smart movie, but my favorite is Frank Darabont’s ability to craft something epic within a space meant to confine.

It’s probably safe to say that the film is allegorical. The Warden is corruption, the prison is any system of oppression, and Andy is righteousness. Or maybe a completely different combination. Who knows.

Either way, Andy’s journey is a grueling one, anchored emotionally by the question it naturally bounces back to us about our own power being taken away against our will. We know he’s innocent (like us), but he’s smart, and he survives because he recognizes that helping other people is the best way to avoid being stabbed to death as well as the best way to feel a sense of normalcy. Even though his escape is presented in hindsight, when he crawls through that tunnel of shit, we’re right there with him.

Plus, “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’” is the jailhouse wisdom version of Hamlet’s most famous speech. Darabont gives us the sunny side of it for the most part, but it’s also a desperate and often depressed story that thankfully ends with us flying away, out over the ocean.

Conclusion Time

To be fair, the Esquire article wasn’t called “Films Only Stupid People Think Are Clever,” and there’s no denying that certain types of movies invite posers to pretend to love them (or to have seen them at all). But indicting audiences for the movies they deem intellectually curious is a hobby about as worthwhile as sticking your thumb in your ear and eating what you find.

There’s an old cultural theory that we like art that makes us feel smart. If it’s too simple, we dismiss it. If it’s too abstract or technical, we question it. If it challenges but ultimately unfolds before us, we fall in love.

When it comes to movies like these, the similarities are pretty obvious. All of them are pieces of pop entertainment that sought to infuse a sense of smarts. We’re also all still talking about them years later (for what that’s worth for some of the more recent ones).

I love a solid intellectual exercise as much as the next guy (pouring one out for Bergman, Kurosawa and Buñuel), but if mainstream movies want to add some math problems to my popcorn, I say let’s celebrate that. Some will succeed, some will fail, and we’ll all find things to question along the way.

If that ending is too schmaltzy for you, you know where to find me. You remember the name of the town, don’t you?

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