10 3D Movies Actually Worth Your Time

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Your Flavorwire has made no secret, over the past couple of years, that we’re not exactly charter members in the 3D Fan Club. Most of the time, we’ve argued, it’s a gimmick—an irritating distraction that muddies up the frame, darkens the image, and gives you a headache, yet allows theaters to charge you a couple more bucks a ticket. And over the past few months, it’s started to seem that audiences agree; revenues from 3D movies dropped 20 percent between 2010 and 2011, and when the Clash of the Titans sequel Wrath of the Titans failed to deliver big box office last weekend (its $35 million opening weekend was far short of its predecessor’s $61 million), many commentators blamed lingering resentment over the original film’s shoddy, retro-fitted 3D presentation. (Of course, this week’s release of Titanic 3D may very well throw all of these arguments into the toilet — nobody gets people to pony up for for the glasses like Mr. Cameron.)

The unfortunate thing, if we may be just a touch contrarian, is that just as audiences are beginning to (slowly) back away from 3D, it’s starting to get into the hands of filmmakers who are actually doing interesting things with it, rather than merely slap in a few “look out!” gags and call it a day. And to clarify the position: it’s not that 3D can never work — just that it’s not a catch-all solution, and is more often than not ill-used. After the jump, we’ve collected ten films (in chronological order) from 3D’s 50-plus year history that were actually good films—and that put the technology to worthwhile use.

House of Wax

This horror classic with Vincent Price got a fair share of attention last year, when Martin Scorsese pinpointed it in countless interviews (while promoting his 3D debut, Hugo) as his first encounter with 3D; he even included it in his list of 85 films “you need to see to know anything about film” earlier this year. André de Toth’s 1953 film was one of the first big 3D hits, marrying the technology with energetic camerawork. According to Scorsese, this was the advantage of 3D over other ’50s theatrical incentives like CinemaScope, “because in the first use of Cinemascope, it was rather static, but the 3D was not for some reason, particularly in House of Wax.”

Kiss Me Kate

When we think of 3D, we tend to think of genre picture: action, horror, sci-fi. But one of the finest films of the first, 1950s wave of 3D was George Sidney’s 1953 film version of the popular Broadway musical comedy. It sounds like a strange fit — but as Wim Wenders discovered last year, the depth and dimension of the 3D image can create big group dancers numbers that are enveloping and enthralling. (Not sure why there’s no audio in the clip above, but you’ll get the general idea.)

Dial “M” For Murder

Few filmmakers enjoyed playing with the “toys” of moviemaking more than Alfred Hitchcock, so it should come as no surprise that he wanted to take a crack at making a 3D movie. He chose to make his film adaptation of Frederick Knott’s stage thriller Dial “M” for Murder in 3D, but by the time it hit theaters in 1954, the craze was already dying out, and most of its playdates were in regular 2D. But the 3D version was brought out of the vaults during the format’s brief revival in the 1980s, and has screened at some revival houses recently as well (your author saw it during a ’50s 3D festival at New York’s Film Forum). Some of it’s a touch goofy, but for the most part, it’s an entertaining experiment for the Master of Suspense, who uses the format to tinker with composition and depth of field, creating some marvelous, inventive images.

Comin’ at Ya!

The 3D revival of the early 1980s was essentially kicked off by this 1981 Italian-American co-production, which combined the storytelling style of the spaghetti Western with every cheap, easy, silly excuse to throw things at the audience they could come up with. Look, the ’80s 3D boom gave us some pretty lousy movies — most of them horror sequels that used up all of their clever juice by realizing that their third film could be in 3D (Jaws 3D, Amityville 3D, Friday the 13th Part III in 3D). So we say, if that era was just about the gimmick, let’s embrace the movie that knew that a gimmick was all it was.

U2 3D

Full disclosure: your author is a giant U2 fan, so your mileage on this one may vary. But however you feel about that band, this terrific 2007 concert film (also presented in IMAX) is a thrilling, immersive moviegoing experience; no music movie has ever replicated the experience of being at a big rock show as well as this one. Scratch that — it’s better than being at a show, because directors Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington get their cameras far closer to the action than the cheap seats most of us are usually stuck in.

Coraline

In 2009, 3D was still predominately a tool of for cheap horror thrills — My Bloody Valentine, anyone? — but director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) used the technology to compliment his knockout stop-motion animation for this creepy, masterful effort (adapted from Neil Gaiman’s book). The film’s 150 sets were all created by hand in a giant Oregon warehouse, and the 3D photography and exhibition allowed viewers to fully take in the depth and detail of Coraline’s (and Selick’s) world.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The idea that 3D was just for exploitation directors and gearheads like James Cameron was all but exploded by word that no less a serious filmmaker than Werner Herzog was making a movie in the format. That movie was Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a hypnotic 2010 documentary, in which the iconic German filmmaker took custom-built 3D cameras into the Chauvet Cave in southern France — a setting untouched by man for thousands of years and containing the earliest known cave paintings. Herzog uses 3D to bring his virtual tour of the cave to vivid life for moviegoers, the sharp edges and hanging stalactites in his foregrounds serving as a vivid reminder of the environment surrounding these ancient works of art.

How to Train Your Dragon

The virtual worlds created in computer-animated feature films are a natural for impressive 3D work, and Pixar consistently makes the best computer-animated films. So it’s a bit of a surprise that the best 3D cartoon came not from that studio, but from Dreamworks Animation. This 2010 family comedy was a bright, bouncy treat — and its flying sequences (particularly the first flight of the titular trainer and dragon) are breathtaking.

Hugo

Early in the Martin Scorsese’s 2011 Oscar winner, Ben Kingsley’s Georges sits sadly at the counter of his magic shop, absently playing with a windup toy. Scorsese, always among our most visually intricate filmmakers, uses the 3D technology as his windup toy — he’s clearly having a ball working out these multi-layered compositions, throwing in unexpected foregrounds and backgrounds, imagining the possibilities of tearing his distinctive environmental tracking shots through another dimension. (He seems to get a particular thrill out of the way a Doberman’s snout looms out at us.) Scorsese’s film is obsessed with the history of cinema, even including a reenactment of the famous old story about the first audiences to see the motion picture of a train entering a station — which they leapt away from, afraid that the train was coming for them. Scorsese longs for that level of engagement; he uses his 3D here to try and achieve the same effect.

Pina

With his 2011 performance film/documentary on German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, director Wim Wenders proves — as Scorsese, Herzog, and Hitchcock did — that it is not about the technology, but who wields it. His big, wide shots of Bausch’s full-company dance numbers take advantage of the multiple dimensions; his use of subjective point-of-view is sparse but effective, combining with the technology to place the viewer in the midst of the action. In fact, this is not a recording or even documentation of these dances — Wenders’s camera is an active participant, the delicacy and nimbleness of his tracking shots rendering the pieces vibrantly alive, the cameraman becoming as much a dancer as those in Bausch’s company, and the 3D exhibition pulls us into those numbers in a way unique within the canon of cinema.