2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Plodding Plot: A sprawling odyssey through time and space, making room for an extensive meditation on the dawn of man, before embarking down a more sinister road thanks to a malevolent artificial intelligence system. The dialogue-free opening should tip you off that patience is the name of the game here…
Rewarding Pay-Off: The spectacular light show that greets Bowman’s journey in the escape pad. As several subversive magazines helpfully pointed out at the time, this was the precise moment to drop that acid tab you’d smuggled into the theatre.
Action-Packed Alternative: Are you familiar with a film called Star Wars ?
Plodding Plot: Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the finest auteurs of “slow cinema”, this space-set mood piece follows a psychologist’s attempts to come to terms with the loss of his wife in the unfriendly environs of the cosmic void.
Rewarding Pay-Off: Okay, so there are no alien encounters, or malfunctioning engines to provide an action-based interlude, but where Tarkovsky succeeds is in wringing a pervading sense of isolation and eeriness from his minimalist set-up. Whether or not you pick up on the allegorical parallels with Communism, the film works beautifully as a study of man’s ability (or otherwise) to live with himself.
Action-Packed Alternative: For another look at family crisis amid the stars, check out Lost In Space , just to remind yourself that that film actually happened.
Plodding Plot: Not only does David Fincher’s lengthy thriller offer no promise of a satisfactory resolution (we know from the outset that the Zodiac Killer was never caught), but most of the action surrounds itself with the minutiae of a painstaking investigation we know is doomed from the start.
Rewarding Pay-Off: The pay-off lies in the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Jake Gyllenhaal makes for a believably driven leading man, whilst Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Junior provide excellently charismatic foils.
Action-Packed Alternative: Fincher’s other serial killer movie Se7en is a more conventionally pulse-quickening affair. That one ends on a downer too, mind.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Plodding Plot: An examination of faith and mortality from the master of controlled pacing, Ingmar Bergman. The story follows a disillusioned knight through a series of encounters with Death, but really, this one is about mood and theme more than what happens next.
Rewarding Pay-Off: It’s not what you’d call a happy ending, but Death does indeed claim his man at the close. As the man said, “noone escapes me”.
Action-Packed Alternative: Meet Joe Black , in which Death takes on a more cuddly appearance in the shape of dashing Brad Pitt.
The Straight Story (1999)
Plodding Plot: The story of an elderly man crossing the country on a motorised lawnmower in order to visit his sickly brother… Easy Rider it ain’t.
Rewarding Pay-Off: It’s arguably David Lynch’s most heartfelt work, and it would be a hard heart indeed that didn’t end up rooting for the old buffer on his improbable journey.
Action-Packed Alternative: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is an altogether more colourful take on the road movie. But it isn’t half as sweet-natured.
Plodding Plot: The story of Che Guevara’s toppling of the Cuban dictatorship, followed by his attempt to bring about revolution in Bolivia, with a lot of jungle-based trekking in between. It should come as no surprise that the unsmiling second instalment was adapted from an existing script by Terrence Malick.
Rewarding Pay-Off: Not only is Del Toro’s performance utterly mesmerising, the battle for Santa Clara set-piece at the end of Part One is an action sequence to savour. Meanwhile, the ending of Part Two might be downbeat, but there’s no denying it’s effective.
Action-Packed Alternative: There’s a fair bit of action involved, but for a more lighthearted, less bum-numbing account of the great revolutionary, The Motorcycle Diaries is a good alternative.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Plodding Plot: Villainous oil man Daniel Plainview sets about bending a community to his will, sweeping aside anyone who gets in his way, family or otherwise. There are plenty of fireworks along the way, but this is a film that simply will not be rushed. Twenty minutes passes before the first word is spoken!
Rewarding Pay-Off: Not only do you get Daniel Day-Lewis turning it up to eleven, but at the film’s shocking payoff, the title finally fulfils its promise…
Action-Packed Alternative: Mad Max touches upon the same need for hording fossil fuels. What do you mean, tenuous?
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
The Plodding Plot: Yes, it’s an undisputed Christmas classic, but it doesn’t half take its sweet time in getting to the feelgood finale. George Bailey’s journey from childhood to middle-age is presented in laborious detail, with several business ventures, a marriage and a war to get through before Clarence the angel makes his bow.
Rewarding Pay-Off: “Merry Christmas Bedford Falls” and the rewarding sense of festive fuzziness that follows.
Action-Packed Alternative: Like your Christmas movies with a bit more machinegun fire? Die Hard might be a better bet.
The Plodding Plot: Serial audience-tester Lars Von Trier dispenses with such fripperies as locations and stage-dressing for this stripped back, three-hour yarn about a morally dubious township tucked away in the Rocky mountains.
Rewarding Pay-Off: Pushed to her limits, leading lady Nicole Kidman has never been better, and though initially disconcerting, the film’s unique look invites the viewer to concentrate upon the performances of its excellent cast. Oh, and for those craving a bit of action, James Caan turns up at the end to tick that box with gusto…
Action-Packed Alternative: A Michael Bay-helmed reimagining in which the townsfolk are revealed to be jive-talking robots with a penchant for heavy weaponry. Yee-ha!
Diary Of A Country Priest (1951)
The Plodding Plot: Robert Bresson’s resolutely un-showy drama deals with the mundane life of a young priest making his way in rural France. A ponderous search for spiritual salvation is not exactly manna to the multiplex crowd…
Rewarding Pay-Off: The cinematography is beautiful, and Bresson’s painfully human story is remarkably affecting. It’s just extremely low-key.
Action-Packed Alternative: Try Priest , to see Paul Bettany’s man of the cloth giving both barrels to hordes of toothy bloodsuckers. Or on second thoughts, don’t.