20 Movies Where Every Little Detail Matters

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20 Movies Where Every Little Detail Matters

Movie-watching has been a dominant pastime of the general public for the past century. But how many audiences actually watch movies closely enough to notice all the details and finer nuances of the narrative? Commercial cinema has never really been about paying great attention to detail.



The general understanding in Hollywood is that a commercially successful film needs to be something so broad in scope that casual audiences can follow the plot while only paying half attention to the screen. But some filmmakers are not satisfied with making big, broad films. Over the years there have been a number of movies made that reward paying close attention. Let us take a look at some of the best movies that Hollywood has to offer where the devil is in the details.

20 Predestination

Stage 6 Films

Time travel stories have long been notorious for being narratively confusing. Amidst time loops and temporal paradoxes and questions about free will, it is almost impossible to make a narratively coherent time travel movie that holds up in the face of scrutiny. The makers of 2014’s Predestination took this as a personal challenge when they set out to make the time and mind-bending film.

In the 1970s, a series of conversations between a male secret agent and a female writer uncovers a convoluted story involving their shared past and possible futures. As the agent involves himself deeper in the writer’s life, his mission to stop a terrorist from exploding a bomb also comes into question. Predestination is the kind of movie where you might need to keep track of the plot with a pen and notebook. Noticing all the finer details in the narrative allows viewers to fully appreciate possibly the most bizarre ending to a time travel movie Hollywood has ever shown.

19 Fight Club

Fight Club by David Fincher
20th Century Fox

When people talk about cult favorite movies, Fight Club is the kind of film they are talking about. Originally a failure at the box-office, Fight Club became a sleeper hit in later years as audiences had to watch the movie again and again to appreciate the finer details of the story that make it so compelling. On the surface, the film is about unhappy middle-class men finding an outlet for their frustrations by beating the tar out of each other.

But this setup is simply the first act in a deeply personal psychological thriller that has important things to say about the emptiness of consumerism and and dangers of group-think. Fight Club also famously has one of the biggest twist endings in the history of Hollywood which is made all the better by the series of clues hidden in the movie leading up to the twist.

18 American Psycho

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman holding an axe in American Psycho (2000)
Lions Gate Films

Before he played an unhinged rich guy who likes to go out at night and beat up strangers in The Dark Knight trilogy, Christian Bale played an even more unhinged version of the character in the black comedy cult classic American Psycho. Bale plays Patrick Bateman, a wall street yuppie with the perfect body, perfect life, and an unquenchable thirst to hurt and destroy the people around him.

American Psycho walks a fine line between realism and satire, and the only way to determine the film’s true intentions is by paying close attention to details regarding Patrick’s behavior and the attitude of the people around him towards his crimes. Unfortunately, the movie has been repeatedly misunderstood by certain sections of the audience who believe it promotes violent fantasies instead of holding them up to mockery, as was the film’s true intention.

17 The Sixth Sense

the sixth sense
Hollywood Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment

When it comes to movies with twist endings, The Sixth Sense has come to define the genre more than any other movie in the past two decades. Released in 1999, the film heralded the arrival of a bold new voice in cinema in writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. Malcolm is a child psychologist with a troubled marriage who is called in to attempt to help with the special case of 9-year-old Cole.

The quiet and withdrawn child seems to suffer from a condition that makes him believe he can communicate with deceased people. As the audience along with Malcolm are drawn deeper into Cole’s world, it becomes clear that there is more to the story than seemed evident at first. Aside from its compelling horror and dramatic narrative, The Sixth Sense is a prime example of a script where every little detail matters when looking at the reality of the relationship between Malcolm and Cole.

16 Primer

Shane Carruth as Aaron and David Sullivan as Abe in Primer 2004
THINKFilm / IFC Films

There was a time when newbie filmmaker Shane Carruth was drawing comparisons to the likes of Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, and James Cameron, all on the back of Carrruth’s debut movie itself, the micro-budget time travel thriller Primer. Aaron and Abe are a couple of engineer friends who discover a method of moving backwards in time thanks to a machine they built.

Eager to test out out the capabilities of the machine, the two friends conduct a series of tests that center around moving backward and forward through time a few hours at a time. Unfortunately, the duo soon start experiencing alarming side effects of their time spent in the machine, and events begin to spiral out of control. A lot of the organic hype surrounding Primer had to do with fans digging deeper into the film’s finer details to make sense of the topsy-turvy narrative, even making detailed timeline charts to explain how the plot moves forward. Then backwards. Then forward again.

15 Shutter Island

Shutter Island Cast in white.
Paramount Pictures

Master filmmaker of the gangster genre Martin Scorsese has a much more diverse filmography than audiences might be familiar with, including children’s film Hugo and the biblical drama The Last Temptation of Christ. In 2010 Scorsese teamed up with his long time muse Leonardo DiCaprio to make the psychological thriller Shutter Island.

RELATED: Every Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese Movie Collaboration, Ranke

On a remote island dedicated to the rehabilitation of the mentally ill, US Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule are sent by the government to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a woman who was being treated at the island’s Ashecliff Hospital. As Teddy and Chuck dig deeper into the matter, they run into all sorts of strange and deadly obstacles. With Teddy pressing resolutely on with his investigations, matters threaten to overwhelm him with the hidden truth of his presence on the island.

14 The Royal Tenenbaums

Royal Tenenbaums - Hackman
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Wes Anderson has become the poster child for movies that prize painstaking attention to visual detail. Even if Anderson is making a simple family comedy drama, you can be sure that everything that appears on the screen has serious thought behind it to cater to a certain aesthetic. No Wes Anderson movie does this better than The Royal Tenenbaums.

The film tells the story of three siblings of the Tenenbaums family who are re-united as adults at their father’s house following news that the latter is suffering from stomach cancer. As the adults once again pick up the threads of their childhood connections, hurt feelings and past trauma bubble to the surface. The Royal Tenenbaums is a stirring example of Wes Anderson’s trademark aesthetic flair, while also providing a strong enough narrative backdrop to support the visual feast the filmmaker offers to audiences.

13 Inception

Leonadro DiCaprio in a scene from Christopher Nolan's Inception
Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan is offer considered the thinking man’s blockbuster filmmaker. And no one movie solidified that reputation more than Inception. Working with an all-star cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Cillian Murphy, Inception weaves a twisted yet compelling tale of dream walking and a man’s desperate desire to reunite with his children.

The film deals with different layers of the dream world, separate from but entirely dependent on the real world. Visual clues are littered throughout the movie for those willing to pay attention, to explain the true meaning of particular scenes and dialogs. All of this culminates in the final scene of the film showing a spinning top, which led to years of heated debate on the internet regarding the true nature of the climax of the story.

12 Glass Onion

Benoit reveals Miles's

The original Knives Out was a straightforward homage by filmmaker Rian Johnson to the classic form of an Agatha Christie mystery novel. With the sequel, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Johnson joyfully rips apart the pattern established by his own previous movie to provide a satire on mystery novels that rely on red herrings, misdirections and other forms of fooling the audience.

On a private island owned by a tech billionaire, a group of friends from the billionaire’s past come together to celebrate their years of partnership. The arrival of gentleman detective Benoit Blanc signals that the party is about to turn into something much stranger. Inevitably, one of the guests gets murdered, and it is up to Blanc to shed light on the mystery. Johnson keeps the audience entertained as he peppers the narrative with clues and motifs to keep viewers guessing, leading up to a hilarious and subversive ending.

11 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

Before filmmakers like Wes Anderson and David Fincher became well known for their attention to detail while making movies, legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was showing them how it’s done throughout his career. And no movie takes better advantage of Kubrick’s zeal for detail than 2001: A Space Odyssey, widely considered the greatest sci-fi movie ever made.

Telling a sprawling epic dating all the way back to the dawn of human civilization, 2001: A Space Odyssey charts the history of man’s quest to conquer the universe and become an intergalactic species. There are breathtaking scenes set in space that still hold up to scrutiny decades later despite not having the benefit of modern VFX. 2001 is so compelling and realistic in its details that it led to an undying conspiracy theory that Kubrick had secretly orchestrated the footage of the real-life moon landing.

10 Seven

New Line Cinema

David Fincher is a famously nitpicky director who insists on absolute perfection in every shot he directs, often to the detriment of the film crew and actors. While Fincher’s methods can be questionable, what is unquestionable is that the filmmaker has given Hollywood some of its greatest thrillers ever. Case in point, 1995’s Seven, which continues to inspire generations of filmmakers, including Matt Reeves when he was making The Batman.

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman co-star as an impulsive detective and a jaded police officer who are increasingly horrified by the brutality of the serial killer they are investigating. Simply named John Doe, the killer believes he is doing God’s work by removing people from the world who practise the seven deadly sins. As the officers race from one crime scene to the next, John Doe leads them on a not-so-merry chase that forces them to confront the worst excesses of human nature.

9 The Usual Suspects

Kevin Spacey and the cast of The Usual Suspects (1995)
Gramercy Pictures

Before Bryan Singer burst onto the blockbuster scene with the original X-Men movies, the filmmaker had an electrifying start to his career with his debut film The Usual Suspects in 1995. The mysterious burning of a ship operated by the mob leads to a far-reaching fallout for the criminal underworld and the Los Angeles police department.

The only person who seems to know what happened on the ship is Roger “Verbal” Kint, who agrees to tell the police what he knows. Thus begins Verbal’s long and complex tale of a coterie of criminals trying to pull off the ultimate heist, all while the shadow of a legendary criminal known as Keyser Soze hangs over the proceedings. The famous twist ending of the film hinges on the audience paying attention to the details, but more importantly the officer taking Verbal’s confession finally being able to do so himself.

8 Blade Runner

Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard in Blade Runner
Warner Bros.

When it comes to cyberpunk movies, The Matrix stands tall as Hollywood’s most popular film in the genre. But another movie that managed to gain just as much of a cult following, granted in a much more understated manner, is 1982’s Blade Runner. Ridley Scott concocts a stunning sci-fi world that is a homage to noir movies about grizzled detectives investigating crimes in a city’s seedy underbelly.

In the distant future, former police officer Rick Deckard is in charge of hunting down human clones called “Replicants” and retiring them before they become a threat to naturally born human beings. Deckard’s new target is a group of replicants who have gained human-like sentience and want to continue living as regular people. Thus begins a harrowing chase as Deckard sets off in pursuit of the replicants, while being forced to consider the morality of his job, and what it truly means to be human.

7 Metropolis

A scene from Metropolis (1927)

General audiences tend to think of the sci-fi genre as a relatively modern addition to the cinematic landscape. But one of the most influential sci-fi dystopia movies was released in 1927 named Metropolis. Directed by famed German expressionist Fritz Lang, the silent feature has been acknowledged as a major influence by many directors from Stanley Kubrick to Christopher Nolan.

RELATED: Here Are 9 of the Best Silent Movies of All Time

The city of Metropolis depicted in the film is a sprawling, shiny nightmare where the elites reign over the world from their castles in the sky, while most of humanity toils away in the depths of the skyscrapers to keep the city running. In this class divide their arises an unusual connection between a son of an elite, Freder, and a lower-class worker named Maria. The connection eventually threatens to tear the city apart and expose the grim reality of the Metropolis for all to see.

6 Scream

Drew Barrymore Scream
Dimension Films

Slasher films as a genre are not known for their intelligent scripts. After the guy in the mask shows up wielding a knife or any other slashing tool, the films basically devolve into a countdown of how many members of the main cast the slasher villain can kill before the climax. But 1996’s Scream manages to actually be rather clever with this simple premise by adding in lots of meta-commentary about the well-worn tropes used in slasher movies.

This conceit makes the film feel like a puzzle that the main characters are solving along with the audience. The viewer is encouraged to pay close attention to the details, and then those details (and the viewers’ expectations) get subverted in entertaining ways. Later installments in the franchise often fell prey to the same “secret killer” tropes that the first Scream mocked, but the original still stands as an entertainingly original and clever riff on slasher movies.

5 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Paramount Pictures

Willy Wonka has become an enduring part of modern pop culture despite not having a successful franchise in decades. This popularity is mainly due to 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Gene Wilder gives the performance of a lifetime as the quirky and mysterious Mr. Wonka, the owner of the most successful chocolate business in the world, who is in search of an heir.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory stands apart from other run-of-the-mill children’s films due to the care and attention to detail afforded to the movie by everyone involved. Like Wonka faking an injury the first time he appears onscreen, which Wilder included in his performance to keep audiences guessing as to whether or not Wonka can be trusted. Or a bizarre song sequence that includes some brief but shocking moments to instill a genuine feeling of fear in the audience.

4 Heat

Warner Bros.

Michael Mann has established himself as an auteur of the crime drama genre without peer, and one of the best movies from Mann’s filmography is the 1995 crime thriller Heat. Featuring industry stalwarts like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Val Kilmer, Heat tells the story of a career criminal, played by De Niro, and the LAPD detective (Pacino) who is tasked with stopping him.

RELATED: Heat 2: Michael Mann Reveals Work is Underway on Adapting Novel Into a Movie

While the movie could have devolved into typical cops-and-robbers shenanigans, Mann’s script elevates the entire proceedings with a sense of realism and pathos rarely found in the genre. In fact, the film’s sense of realism and grounded nature had an unexpected side effect when Heatbecame a source of inspiration for real-life criminals.

3 The Others

The Others

Nicole Kidman had already established herself as a powerhouse dramatic actress when she choose to lead the 2001 horror feature The Others. The movie gives Kidman more than enough scope to flex her acting muscles in the role of Grace, a woman trying to keep her two children safe in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

An increasingly paranoid Grace does not allow her children to venture out of their house or interact with anyone not belonging to their household. Soon the little family’s problems get even more complicated as they become aware of the presence of the “Others,” incorporeal entities that stalk their every move and threaten to expose a horrifying secret about the true nature of Grace’s abode.

2 Citizen Kane

citizen kane 4 3 ratio
RKO Radio Pictures
Mercury Productions

Often considered the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane was a landmark film for Hollywood and world cinema in general. Co-writer, director, and lead actor Orson Welles pulled off an unrivaled feat of creativity when he made the film as his debut project in 1941, signaling the arrival of one of the most influential filmmakers that Hollywood has ever produced.

In his last moments before death, publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane utters a single word, “Rosebud.” In a quest to understand the meaning of the word, reporter Jerry Thompson embarks on a quest to uncover the meaning of the word by exploring Kane’s colorful and troubled past, and the events that lead up to his immense wealth and isolation. This allows the film to add different layers of meaning to the same events across its narrative, encouraging audiences to look closer and sift through the details to gain a full appreciation of the triumphant, tragic life of Charles Foster Kane.

1 To Kill a Mockingbird

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Universal Pictures

Possibly the greatest courtroom drama ever made is technically a children’s story, aimed at adults. To Kill a Mockingbird was already declared an American classic novel when it was adapted for the big screen in 1962. Just like the book, the movie tells its story through the point of view of Scout, a little girl living a contented life with her older brother Jem and father Atticus.

Scout’s peaceful existence is shattered when a case involving assault by an African-American man lands in her father’s lap. Thus begin a series of events that change Scout’s life forever, and force her to grow up before her time. Given the youthful nature of its protagonist, To Kill a Mockingbird often uses minor details and unspoken interactions to make cutting observations about society, feminism, and race that viewers need to pay close attention to in order to get a full grasp of the complex socio-political milieu that Scout, Jem and Atticus are caught up in.

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