Movies give us a window into the world of creativity and art. They transport us to different times, places, and stories that are unique and inspiring. Over the years, there have been some truly daring films released in theaters that pushed artistic boundaries as far as possible. These movies go beyond typical filmmaking techniques by tackling complex plots with intricate scenes that leave viewers wholly entranced. To celebrate these visionary works of art, here’s our list of the 20 most ambitious movies created in all cinematic history. Read on to find out which titles take the top spot!
1. Apocalypse Now
The OP of the thread said, “I was just wondering! Nowadays, it feels like movie epics are mostly shot with lots of CGI and green screens. Still, there used to be a time when movie production was pure insanity. The amount of work put into building sets and creating worlds resulted in production stories that are almost more exciting than the movie itself. Some examples I can think of:
“Apocalypse Now: An epic yet problematic production from start to finish, with Coppola going insane during it. The documentary ‘The Heart of Darkness’ gives a deep insight into that.
“The Abyss: Probably the most ambitious Cameron movie and maybe even the most ambitious movie in general, building giant underwater sets and making cast and crew endure the most complicated job in their lifetime.
“Fitzcarraldo: One of the infamous movies of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. The film production was an incredible ordeal and famously involved moving a 320-ton steamship over a hill. The production was ridden with accidents that resulted in injuries or even death.
“These are just some examples; excited to see what you come up with!”
One user shared, “Francis Ford Coppola has spent 40 years and $100 million of his own money trying to make Megalopolis. We will see what the end result ends up being, but the amount of time and personal money invested makes me think it will be something to behold.”
Another user asked, “100 million of his own money? Is he really that wealthy?”
One Redditor answered, “Yes, from his wine, I think.”
“Looks like he’s worth between $250 million and $400 million. He’s also nearing the end of his life, and his family seems to be doing pretty well on their own. So spending a quarter (or more) of his money for a film he’s passionate about doesn’t seem too crazy,” another commenter added.
3. Red Cliff
One user posted, “John Woo’s Red Cliff is a behemoth of insane proportions, especially the extended version. It’s like six hours of megalomaniacal battles, every damn scene is scaled up to ‘gigantic’.”
Another user added, “US armed forces: ‘Okay you can film on and use our hardware.’
Chinese armed forces: ‘How many thousands of army extras do you need?'”
One commenter added, “That was the version of War and Peace made in the Soviet Union. ‘Hey, the Red Army isn’t busy this week. You want a couple of thousand soldiers for battle scenes?'”
4. The Lord of The Rings Trilogy
One user shared, “The Lord of The Rings trilogy. Over three years of pre-production created a living Middle Earth on film. The greatest modern cinematic achievement.”
Another user replied, “Also a masterclass on adaptation and streamlining elements to make it more cinematically paced and plotted. The fanbase, who takes it very seriously, was mostly ok with the edits and combinations of events/characters required, which is no easy task either. I love Tom Bombadil, truly, but in 12 hours of this dense story, there’s no time to devote to a character who exists completely outside the events of the plot. The history of all the swords and horses is an indelible part of the world-building of the novels, but visual media can build that kind of realism into sets, costumes, effects, and such.”
“The line ‘A Wizard is never late, nor is he early…’ is like the quintessential Gandalf line, and it’s not even in the books. It was written for the movie,” one Redditor added.
5. Cleopatra (1963)
“I recall Cleopatra from the 60’s and Superman from the 80’s being big deals to get done. Also, Waterworld, Titanic, and Spartacus were huge undertakings,” one user posted.
Another user replied, “‘Cleopatra’ almost destroyed 20th Century Fox.”
“I believe you are correct. I’m hazy on details, but I recall they tried to use sets/props as much as possible in future productions to recoup their costs, but these sets/props were pretty specific, and it was easier said than done,” another Redditor added.
One user explained, “5 years to make. Two different productions and scripts with other directors—London with Rouben Mamoulian, then Rome with Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Filmed in Rome, Egypt, Spain, England, and America. Thousands of extras for the TWO times they had to film Cleopatra’s procession into Rome. $44 million budget for the entire debacle. This led to the ousting of the studio’s executive leadership in a semi-hostile takeover by studio founder Darryl F. Zanuck. It truly is a wonder the final cut (which is about 90 minutes shorter than the version Mankiewicz originally intended as a two-part film series) is as good as it is.
“As Mankiewicz once said, ‘It was the toughest three pictures I made in my life.’
“One thing to note is Cleopatra was not the reason Fox had to sell off their backlot to create the future Century City… but it didn’t help. Fox was in dire financial straits during the late 1950s, so the sale of acres of land was what the studio brass thought would stave off bankruptcy. This was in progress long before Cleopatra even began production in London.”
6. Apollo 13
One user mentioned, “Apollo 13 zero g scenes look so good because they were filmed on a vomit comet.”
One user replied, “How can we film so the zero-g scenes look good?”
“We could just film in zero-g.”
7. Boyhood (2014)
One Redditor posted, “Boyhood (2014)—Linklater took 11 years to make this, allowing Ellar Coltrane to age from childhood to adolescence over the course of the film. And made for a mere $4M.”
Another user replied, “I feel like the concept of Boyhood is much more interesting and impressive than the final product, mostly because it ultimately hinges on Ellar Coltrane’s performance, which was a big gamble that I don’t feel like really paid off. I’m very excited to see how Linklater’s Merrily We Roll Along turns out. 20 years of production and a cast of established actors.”
One commenter agreed, “I agree with the assessment. Great concept, mediocre execution.”
Another Redditor responded, “I’m not even sure it’s a great concept. More of a novelty, maybe. Not an interesting novelty either. The movie was just meandering. Taking so long to make a movie seems to have detracted more than helped.”
8. Russian Ark
One user shared, “Russian Ark.
“87-minute one-shot throughout 33 rooms of the Russian Hermitage Museum featuring 2,000 actors and three orchestras. The first three takes failed, and they only had enough daylight and battery power for one more, and they got it. Everyone should watch it once.”
Another user responded, “There was an insanely bad episode of revisionist history about this where he noticed at the end one of the orchestra members looked at the camera. He chased down everyone involved in the movie to find out how they felt about that… They all basically told him to f- off. In the end, he realizes he is an obsessive [jerk]. This realization caused me to stop listening to that podcast because it painted everything in a completely different light.”
“This was back when a one-shot movie or scene was actually one shot (although the movie isn’t that old, maybe they could’ve used computers if they wanted). Now they just use CGI to stitch it together. Still often cool, not quite as special though,” commented one user.
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey
One Redditor also posted, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Another user commented, “I like the jesting theory that NASA did hire Kubrick to fake the moon landing. But Kubrick, his perfectionist, insisted that they shoot on location.”
One commenter added, “I love this, even though he made Vietnam sets in England because he hated flying. :D”
“Yeah, the joke doesn’t hold up to analysis. But it’s a fun counter to conspiracy theory, folks,” another user said.
One Redditor explained, “My favorite counter was a pretty in-depth analysis by a light technician. He approached the idea that it was fake purely based on the shadows in the video. He concluded that it would have taken something like 4x the amount of power available on the earth and 28x the money on the earth (I’m making up the figures, but that was the general point) to get a lighting rig that would cast the shadows seen in the video back then.”
10. The Ten Commandments (1956)
One Redditor shared, “‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956).”
Another user added, “That and several other classic epics are what come to mind for me as well. Ben Hur, Cleopatra, Spartacus, etc. Even more mind-blowing considering the limitations they were working with at the time compared to today.”
One commenter replied, “Yep. Huge sets, tons of people, and while it looks janky now, I bet the parting of the seas blew some people’s minds.”
11. Lawrence of Arabia
“Lawrence of Arabia. But if you limit it to the modern era, I agree with the LOTR trilogy,” one Redditor added to the thread.
Another user replied, “I look at that Movie on my TV screen, and my jaw drops. I can only wonder what it’d look like on a big screen.”
One user responded, “It’s epic. Sometimes theaters show it. I saw it on the big screen in the 80s. Mind blown.”
One online user commented, “Jacques Tati’s ‘Playtime’ They built a city and massive background stage, which was difficult for the hundreds of workers to maintain, required its own power plant, and was susceptible to the forces of nature; this pushed the shooting schedule to three years. Tati had to take out personal loans to make sure the picture could be finished. All this for a film with no main characters, little dialogue, and no real plot. Despite all of this, it is an amazing film, brilliantly shot, and considered one of Tati’s best.”
Another user responded, “It’s an amazing film. I own it and watched it once. It’s spectacular but also seriously boring. If I had to describe the plot, the only word I can think of is ‘geometric.'”
13. Four Lions
“It may be recency bias as I watched it this week, but Four Lions. Having the balls to make a black comedy focusing on a group of aspiring Islamic terrorists who attack the London Marathon and featuring scenes from an Al-Qaeeda training camp was incredibly ambitious in 2010,” one user said.
Another user exclaimed, “And it turned out to be a great movie!”
“It was absolutely wild that they made terrorists sympathetic and funny without ever excusing what they did or giving them a change-of-heart moment,” one Redditor responded.
14. The Thief and the Cobbler
One user posted, “The Thief and the Cobbler.
“Yes, it’s animation, but this movie took three decades to ‘complete’ because the original animation work was insane. It was extremely smooth work because they went ham on everything—24 fps all drawn, and scenes were so detailed and epic that there would be sequences that depicted scenes now known for CGI-type animation.
“The movie was ‘finished’ with contemporary techniques, but it was $28 million worth and three decades of work missing deadlines to sell under $700k.
“Cuts of the movie with ‘all original’ animation would include unfinished test or draft animation as even storyboard stills. It puts the obviously budget-cut last episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion to shame in terms of incompleteness.”
One user commented, “It’s horrible. Horribly mismanaged project. By its release, the animators had already stolen ideas for Aladdin. The version I own had a narrative track of Jonathan Winters just mumbling jokes. I’m not kidding.”
Another Redditor asked, “Whoa, I’d love to see that cut. Is it an official one or one of those leaked stuff?”
One commenter replied, “Put out by Miramax and Weinstein. I think they called it Arabian Knight.”
“And the sad thing is that it’s not just the fact that it was hard to animate in the first place; they kept changing the story and had to waste so much footage. Add to that the fact they barely storyboarded. They literally had to slave to miss the deadlines by less than a year,” one user added.
15. Cloud Atlas
“Cloud Atlas is a good one from more recent times,” one Redditor commented.
“I was hoping someone would say this. It’s not just the production. It’s also the enormous emotional and narrative scope and the attempt to adapt an infamously ‘unadaptable’ novel (largely successfully),” another user responded.
One user concluded, “Movie doesn’t even begin to compare to the book, unfortunately. Great movie, but the book is just too good. So much is lost in translation.”
“Never seen it but having heard stories of its production, Waterworld def bit off more than it could chew, it seems,” one user speculated.
Another user replied, “The giant floating settlement was a real set floating in a real harbor. The ocean was in the background on one side. To film a shot that included the other side, they had to rotate the entire set.”
Another user added, “If they had to rotate the entire set, they also probably had to make sure they were only shooting the scene between about 10 am and 2 pm. Anything with the sun at an angle would have made the lighting and shadows noticeably inconsistent.”
Another Redditor answered, “Yep. It was apparently a nightmare.”
17. Matrix Reloaded
One user shared, “They built a freeway to shoot that chase scene in Matrix Reloaded. It would’ve been a completely green screen, CGI, or the volume nowadays.”
Another user added a list, “The Matrix has a ton of impressive filmmaking achievements for its time:
“Pioneering the development of ‘Bullet Time Photography’ with a synchronized array of DSLRs shooting images that are interpolated into slow-motion.
“Most polygons in a computer-generated shot (the harvesting fields of the real world.)
“The largest ever photo backdrop (cityscape out the window of Agent Smith/Morpheus interrogation.)
“Many amazing examples of blending CGI, humans, and models/practical effects: Neo waking up in the Pod, the helicopter explosion, Neo becoming the one and seeing The Matrix…”
“Funny how impressive all of that is for its time and how easy it is to take it all for granted now. Then: THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING THING ON-SCREEN EVER! Now: Ho hum,” one Redditor replied.
18. Heaven’s Gate
One user posted, “Not a great film, really, but probably Heaven’s Gate. They built an entire town and, at one point, realized the streets weren’t wide enough, so instead of just moving one side over, they moved both sides over to widen it. Meaning they had to break it down and reassemble it again.
“So many super long shots that had to be reshot over and over again to be perfect. Huge cast. Huge budget (at the time.) Apparently, there was a buffet and, next to it, a table piled with [drugs]. The ambition to make an epic western was real. Did it succeed? Most say no, but, I mean, it is indeed epic and sometimes incredible…”
Another user replied, “The 149-minute theatrical cut is an absolute mess. The 219-minute director’s cut is a very good film that often bumps up against greatness (many of the shots are gorgeous, especially with that weird sepia tint removed).”
One Redditor commented, “The original cut was apparently over 5 hours long before the studio told Cimino that there was no way it could be released at that length.”
One user added, “I’d say Titanic.”
Another user replied, “Titanic’s ambition is really exemplified in the 90% scale exterior set they built next to the sea for the movie, which was also capable of tilting into the water tank for the sinking scenes. The level of attention to detail was fantastic.”
20. Mad Max: Fury Road
“Mad Max: Fury Road,” one Redditor posted.
One user elaborated, “To elaborate—They filmed in the Namibian desert for SIX MONTHS (a conventional big-budget feature is three).
“George Miller labored over the script and tried to get it made for over a decade. They ACTUALLY BUILT all the cars we see and then hire Cirque du Soleil performers to do the ‘hanging from poles’ stunts on them.
“And most of the mind-blowing spectacle was practical—they blew up cars, crashed others, and had people fighting on top of speeding vehicles. Most of the CGI was just for augmenting existing shots or adding scenery. It took a long time to make, but it is a Peter Jackson-esque triumph of vision and dedication from everyone in the cast and crew.”
Another user added, “I recommend reading ‘Blood, Sweat, and Chrome’ by Kyle Buchanan. The movie was literally a decade in the making.”
Have you seen the films listed here? Do you agree that they are the ambitious ones? Let us know your thoughts!
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