Hollywood loves to tell big stories on the big screen, but not everything needs to be epic. Modern film history is dotted with works that pull together a series of smaller tales to create an outsized emotional impact. With a focus on character and an emphasis on stories that more closely echo the rhythms of day-to-day life, successful anthology films and fragmentary ensemble dramas create the feeling that we’re exploring the many facets of a narrative world, immersing us in the sensibilities of the director. These six movies all brought a series of short stories together such that the whole added up to more than the sum of its parts.
This post is sponsored by Wiener-Dog, which hits theaters June 24. A new film by Welcome To The Dollhouse director Todd Solondz, Wiener-Dog is a dark, starkly funny story of a single dog and the many different people she touches over her short lifetime. Man’s best friend starts out teaching a young boy some contorted life lessons before being taken in by a compassionate vet tech named Dawn Wiener. Dawn reunites with someone from her past and sets off on a road trip. After leaving Dawn, Wiener-Dog encounters a floundering film professor, as well as an embittered elderly woman and her needy granddaughter—all longing for something more. For more, visit the official Wiener-Dog website.
If director Paul Thomas Anderson established his approach to ensemble drama with the 1997 film Boogie Nights, he perfected it with Magnolia two years later. Combining themes of death, estrangement, and despair with a whimsical flair for coincidence—not many films would combine suicide and a hailstorm of live frogs in the same scene, but Magnolia does, and in a way that connects its disparate threads of plot. Tom Cruise received an Oscar nomination for his turn as a misogynist motivational speaker, and the cast is packed with talent otherwise, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, and Jason Robards in his last feature role.
It’s strange that there haven’t been dozens of films that follow a single inanimate object throughout its adventures—it seems like a concept that’s just grabby enough to work every few years. In 1993’s Twenty Bucks, a single $20 bill twists and floats through the hands of a series of interesting characters—naturally, nobody in the film just shoves it in a pocket and leaves it there. It’s a bit too magical and twee for its own good, but one story stands out: Christopher Lloyd plays a seasoned stick-up man who enlists a young Steve Buscemi to be his partner in crime for the day. Naturally, they come into possession of a certain bill.
François Girard settled on the anthology approach to his biopic about Canadian concert pianist Glenn Gould because, as he told The Film Journal shortly after 32 Short Films’ release, Gould was a “complex character” whose diverse ideas and idiosyncrasies demanded a complex approach. The movie combines dramatizations of moments from Gould’s life with documentary interviews and artistic interpretations of his music. What emerges is a full-bodied and distinctive portrait of an enigmatic 20th-century classical music icon. The “32 short films” approach became iconic, too: Both The Simpsons and Animaniacs would later create their own homages that aped the structure of Girard’s work.
For his follow-up to 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, director François Girard settled on an even more ambitious plan: Tell a story about about a violin that traverses five countries and more than three hundred years. Bookended by narratives involving an auction in Canada at the end of the 20th century and a Tarot card reading in 17th-century Italy, the movie follows the instrument as it passes through the hands of individuals throughout the years. Tracking love, loss, and death, it highlights the odd and surprising connections that bind us all—musically talented or not—and the ways the human experience transcends politics, geography, and even mortality. Plus, you get Samuel L. Jackson as a violin appraiser.
A sprawling, lengthy meditation on the effects of the drug trade was never going to be an easy sell, but director Steven Soderbergh held fast to his vision. After he balked at the demands of other studios, USA Films gave Soderbergh the money and time to make the ambitious project in the manner he had hoped, and the results speak for themselves. Four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, over $200 million in worldwide box office, and critical acclaim all testify to the success of the filmmaker’s vision. Whether it was narcotics’ toll on the home life of America’s drug czar or the fraught pursuit of justice for the men and women who combat drug traffickers, Traffic made the country’s failed War On Drugs personal.
When critics describe movies as “Altmanesque,” they’re talking about Short Cuts, Robert Altman’s massive 1993 film, which features more than 20 lead actors and nearly as many plot lines. (Also, the characters act “movie natural” and talk over each other.) Altman wove a bunch of Raymond Carver short stories into one long film in which an array of Angelenos experience joy and heartache (mostly the latter) while occasionally crossing paths with each other. Short Cuts was undoubtedly influential on a lot of other films, most specifically another that made this list, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, which is practically an homage.