The arthouse action genre is one that aims to subvert the commercial action genre by creating stylistic and intricately told stories. Originating in Asian and European cinema in the 1950s with directors like Akira Kurosawa, the arthouse style has survived in modern directors like Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Nicolas Winding Refn, all of whom make an appearance on this list.
These niche films may not have received the widespread appeal of your typical action movie, but nonetheless lived on as one of the finest pieces in cinematic history. Come and discover the eleven best arthouse action films of all time.
11 The Wounded Locker (2008)
Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning masterpiece The Hurt Locker examines the psychological impact of war on members of an Iraq War explosive ordnance disposal team when they are chased by insurgents. Despite criticism from real veterans of the Iraq War for how accurately the war on soldiers was portrayed. As a work of fiction, the film was praised for its direction and the acting performances of those involved.
10 Drive (2011)
FilmDistrict and Wild Side Films
Drive could be described as the classic definition of an auteur action movie. This 2011 adaptation of the James Sallis novel stars Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stuntman by day and a getaway driver by night. Stylized violence and non-linear storytelling are the two hallmarks of a great arthouse action film, which Drive does incredibly well.
9 Leon: The Professional (1994)
Buena Vista International Gaumont
Léon: The Professional is a film full of style as director Luc Besson presents his New York arthouse version. The action-thriller stands out for its performances, including one of the best of Jean Reno’s career, as well as the feature film debut of 13-year-old Natalie Portman. This cult classic remains a staple of the arthouse action genre twenty years after its initial release.
8 Pulp Fiction (1994)
1994’s Pulp Fiction is a melting pot of Hollywood history. Blending elements like blaxploitation, Japanese period pieces, Roger Corman’s directing inspiration, postmodernism, and other big Hollywood terms, all combined into a terrific arthouse film that, despite its long list of inspirations, works perfectly. Arthouse or not, Pulp Fiction has everything to be the best action film of the 1990s.
7 Old Boy (2003)
Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook has enjoyed a career spanning over 30 years and boasts an impressive resume of films, with Oldboy standing out among them. The hyper-violent revenge thriller is praised for its psychological characterizations, another hallmark of the arthouse action genre. The film will influence the work of the 2000s by Quentin Tarantino, who will cite Oldboy as one of his favorite films.
6 The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
Produzioni Europee Associate Releasing
Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is perhaps the greatest Spaghetti Western ever made. Starring Clint Eastwood, the film received near-universal acclaim when it was first released in 1966. It’s also a sly arthouse film, captivating audiences with incredible scenery and a superbly compelling narrative.
5 Everything Everywhere At Once (2022)
Everything Everywhere All at Once was the darling of the 2022 awards season, winning over 250 awards worldwide, including Best Picture at the 95th Academy Awards. With a visually spellbinding narrative and emotionally charged performances from Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu and Key Huy Quan. This modern-day arthouse action film stands up to any that came before or will come after it.
4 Battle Royale (2000)
Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku helped define a decade in the hyper-violent action genre with his 2000 film, Battle Royale. With a controversial tale, consisting of teenagers forced to fight to death by the Japanese government. The film dives headfirst into this premise, creating a visually stunning, blood-splattered, and culturally relevant masterpiece.
3 Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a bloody, colorful comic book come to life. Drawing inspiration from several films on this list alone, director Quentin Tarantino has tapped into the world of arthouse action to produce one of the most beautiful and violent films of all time. Flight. 1 and its follow-up stand out in Tarantino’s filmography for all the right reasons.
2 The Matrix (1999)
To say The Matrix completely changed the game would be an understatement. When it was released in 1999, the Wachowskis-directed action sci-fi film was unlike anything seen before on the big screen. Drawing inspiration from the literary, cinematographic and television works that preceded it. The Matrix cemented its place in movie history.
1 Seven Samurai (1954)
Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai can be considered the godfather of not just the arthouse action genre, but the entire action genre of movies. Influencing movies for nearly 70 years, his legacy is felt in every corner of Hollywood. The film is both beautiful to watch and as emotionally gripping as any action tale that has come before or since.