13 inaction movies that will stop you in your tracks

Entertainment Weekly recently issued a list of the 25 best action movies. I skimmed it so fast, I almost sprained something, because very few of the movies appealed to me. I’m just not big on big exploding things. There are exceptions, of course (like The Matrix and the original Star Wars trilogy), but I tend to prefer films in which character development prevails over plot development — or at least doesn’t disappear entirely in a flaming fireball or a rain of bullets.

So here’s my list of inaction movies. In these films, the fireworks occur inside the characters’ heads.

Maybe the characters talk a lot; or maybe they think a lot but say very little; or maybe they actually do a lot, but the doing is less important than how they feel about what they’ve done. Or maybe it’s not so much about a lack of action as an abundance of brain activity. Or maybe I’m overthinking it. Nah! Anyway, here they are. (The quintessential inaction movie is, of course, My Dinner With Andre (1981), but I’m not including it here because, hello? No women.)

13. Clockwatchers (1998)
It’s right there in the title: In this movie about temporary office workers, all the characters do is watch the clock and plan to prepare to get ready to change their lives. It’s like 9 to 5 on quaaludes. But I can’t think of four people I’d rather watch do nothing than Toni Collette, Parker Posey, Lisa Kudrow and Alanna Ubach (she also happens to be my favorite part of Legally Blonde). Don’t miss Debra Jo Rupp (the mom from That ’70s Show) as the paranoid, pernicious head of personnel.

The trailer even crows, “In a world where nothing ever happens …”


12. Female Perversions (1996)
This movie makes me feel insane. But with Tilda Swinton to look at — she even makes out with a woman — who needs mental health? This is a good movie to give to anyone who’s thinking about going to law school.



11. Wit (2001)
You could create a whole subcategory of Inaction Movies Starring Emma Thompson (Howards End, The Winter’s Guest and Stranger Than Fiction also come to mind), but in this one, she talks to the camera and turns every internal monologue into a moving soliloquy. Sounds heavy, right? Especially when you know that she plays a cancer patient. But it’s the kind of heavy that makes you glad to be alive and glad to be part of Emma’s rapt audience.

10. Broken Flowers (2005)
This Bill Murray vehicle is quirky and charming — nobody can bemusedly (and amusingly) ponder his own fate as well as Murray can. It even offers a glimpse of Chloe Sevigny as a geeky assistant in love with her boss, played by Jessica Lange. No, nothing much happens between them, even though the love is apparently requited. Did you forget that these are inaction movies?

9. Lost in Translation (2003)
Look, another Bill Murray movie! This one made me fall in love with Scarlett Johansson, and it also made me sob. I was embarrassed. But so, so happy.



8. Persona (1966)
I still don’t quite understand this movie. But it’s Ingmar Bergman directing Liv Ullmann, and it’s very lesbionic. I think maybe this is the film version of staring in the mirror for hours and eventually failing to recognize your own face. Two metaphysical thumbs up and reflecting each other!

7. Lianna (1983)
Hmm, this list seems to have taken a turn for the lesbian. Is that really a surprise? We do kinda like to process. Anyway, this unsung John Sayles film is winsome if occasionally giggle-inducing. When the title character (Linda Griffiths) sits around her apartment and wonders what to do with herself, you’ll marvel at pre-Internet life in America. (And what does she decide to do? Head to the local lesbian bar and boogie down, of course!)

6. High Art (1998)
Long stretches of silence, the camera’s eye, Radha Mitchell‘s luminosity and Ally Sheedy‘s angularity all make this downer of a smackfest worth watching. But what makes it true art is Patricia Clarkson‘s performance. Hitting rock bottom doesn’t sound so bad if Clarkson’s going to be there too, murmuring without moving her mouth and doing that weird fluttery thing with her eyes.

5. The Hours (2002)
You could argue that a lot happens in this movie (after all, people die), but ultimately it’s all about words — the beautiful, brilliant words of Michael Cunningham. And Clockwatchers’ Toni Collette is in this one too, along with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Allison Janney (she and Meryl play lovers!), Julianne Moore and Claire Danes. This also happens to be one of the only films I’ve ever seen that is just as good as the book it’s based on (see also Housekeeping below). Unfortunately, another film inspired by Mrs. Dalloway (that would be the 1997 adaptation of Woolf’s novel, starring Vanessa Redgrave) didn’t quite work for me. To me, Clarissa buying the flowers herself will always look like Meryl.

4. Waking Life
This is an animated movie about dreams. You were expecting thrills a minute? But I was completely entranced, and occasionally freaked out.



3. Blue (1993)
I feel like I shouldn’t have a favorite in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors series, but I do like Blue best (the others are White and Red). Juliette Binoche grapples with grief by diving into it. I’ll bet a lot of people have said they could stare at Binoche for hours — here’s your chance. (And if you can watch this movie without feeling fundamentally changed, I’m going to worry about you.)

2. Housekeeping (1987)
This little-known gem features Christine Lahti as an itinerant in the ’50s and is based on the quietly feminist Marilynne Robinson novel of the same name. If you didn’t love Lahti already, you will after seeing this, and you’ll also want to vacation in British Columbia. This film’s stunning landscapes really ought to be on DVD by now — why does the universe hate me so?

1. Harold and Maude
Staged suicides, May-December romances and tree-napping aside, this movie is not about what you do but about who you are and how you see life. It doesn’t get much more internal — or more gleeful — than this. And Ruth Gordon is sublime.



Honorable mentions: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are beloved by many (but not me, despite the presence of Julie Delpy). About Schmidt is worth a look for Kathy Bates‘ bathtub scene, and worth more than a look for Jack Nicholson‘s lovable fecklessness. Another Nicholson movie, Five Easy Pieces, gets my vote for a great way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon in a small town (not that you should ever find yourself in that unfortunate position). The Business of Strangers features Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles in a weirdly feminist mood. Patricia Rozema‘s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing is full of whimsy, art and women (some of them lesbians) and features the best Japanese restaurant scene ever committed to film. Speaking of things with tentacles, The Squid and the Whale will make you fond of Laura Linney, as will You Can Count On Me. And Pi will just make you want to avoid math.

Finally, a quick list of inaction movies that suck, albeit quietly:

Evening (2007)
Yes, the performances are stellar for the most part. But I’ve never felt so little empathy for so many emotional outbursts. It should have been like The Hours, but it was more like The Endless Excruciating Minutes.

Away From Her (2006)
I really wanted to like this. Sarah Polley and Julie Christie are very good in it, and Alzheimer’s is a compelling subject. But the ending feels like a cheat, and I think Olympia Dukakis agrees — she seems to lose interest in her own performance. (This one doesn’t suck, exactly, but it’s easily forgotten. Pardon the pun.)

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
I thought it was great when it was first released, but have you seen this movie recently? It doesn’t exactly hold up. Laura San Giacomo is probably glad people have stopped talking about it. At least it proves that James Spader has always been creepy.

Shortbus (2006)
Quick, find your navel and gaze into it. No, wait: First, get undressed. Then have sex with someone. Or several someones. But make sure you’re gazing into your navel the entire time, preferably with a camera trained on every flutter of your eyelash. Make sure you’re the only thing that ever means anything to you, and force others to agree that you’re the most incredible thing they’ve ever seen — even when you’re not gazing into your navel. Also? Have some more sex.

Salmonberries (1991)
k.d. lang naked is not really enough to build a whole movie around, even if it is the reason I saw this in the first place. I don’t even remember what the title refers to. The song over the closing credits is nice though. And I like snow. Again, not enough for an entire movie or even a music video.

Breaking the Waves (1996)
Unfettered and utterly loathsome misogyny.

Mindwalk (1990)
I know, let’s get Sam Waterston, John Heard and Liv Ullmann to play a politician, a poet and a physicist. They’ll just walk around and talk about the universe for fourteen thousand hours. Won’t that be great? I think Ullmann must have been thinking, “Who is this Waterston insect and why won’t he stop buzzing in my ear?” A great waste of her talent.

The Addiction (1995)
Edie Falco and Lili Taylor in a vampire movie?! Imagine my excitement. Then imagine my retching disappointment when it turned into a pretentious philosophy-fest devoid of seduction scenes.