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7 movies every graphic designer can relate to

Illustration of movies for graphic designers

Cinema is a whole art form in itself. But movies that address the joys and pains of the creative process really strike a special chord. Plus, when is it not the right time for popcorn?

From fine arts to website design, to how to make a website, movies are a go-to source of inspiration no matter your creative discipline. There are countless films that influence, touch and fascinate our minds. Starting with documentaries that survey the field of graphic design, such as Helvetica, to movies with breathtaking cinematography whose every freeze-frame is an inspiration on its own.

7 movies for graphic designers

The list below features seven films that have creativity itself in the leading role. These classics are about the role art plays in our lives, about creative ambition and, at times, the failure that follows. Maybe just maybe they'll help you draw inspiration for your own graphic design portfolio.

1. Synecdoche, New York, 2008, Charlie Kaufman

Synecdoche, New York is a thought-provoking, melancholic film that deals with art, sexuality and death. Its epic scope follows theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he stages a play that’s as big and vast as life itself. Caden’s actors reside on set, rehearsing their improv performance nonstop, in front of no audience, over the course of many, many years. The title of the film is a wordplay on the town in which the characters live – Schenectady, New York – and alludes to the literary term ‘synecdoche’, meaning a part of something that refers to the whole (or vice versa). In line with this concept, this cinematic masterpiece seems to be referring to art as a symbol for life, but not in the motivational, “what-good-is-living-without-creating” kind of way. Rather, Synecdoche, New York is an inspection of the human drive for artistic greatness and its inevitable failure, that is interlinked with our imminent end.

2. Jodorowsky’s Dune, 2014, Frank Pavich

This documentary looks back at the creative process behind a 1970s movie that was never produced or filmed. Director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) had every intention of adapting Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, Dune, into the “greatest movie ever made”. For Alejandro, it was about to become nothing less of a cinematographic masterpiece, an enlightening spiritual prophecy, a consciousness-expanding hallucination. And his view has not altered even four decades after the failed attempt. It’s easy to see why: Alejandro had already recruited giants such as Mike Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Orson Welles to star in the movie, and had music geniuses the likes of Pink Floyd on board for the soundtrack. The elaborate art and storyboard that were created for the film have influenced many Hollywood productions to come, including Star Wars and The Fifth Element. But while it retraces the steps of a never-made film, Jodorowsky’s Dune is not bitter with failure. Instead, it tells the story of dreaming big and giving it your best, of ambition and the mesmerizing power of artistic potential. It’s this potential, Alejandro Jodorowsky claims, that’s still out there. “Dune is in the world like a dream,” he says, “but dreams change the world also.”

3. Kiki’s Delivery Service, 1989, Hayao Miyazaki

While arguably not Miyazaki’s best known piece, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a beautiful allegory for the struggles of making it as a creative in the real world. Kiki is a young witch who enjoys magical powers such as the ability of flight, and speaking cat language to her black feline companion. We follow Kiki as she moves into a new town for a year of witch-training. But making it in the big city is something that not even witchcraft can fix with a spell. Being the only witch in town, Kiki stands out from the crowd of her non-magic peers, who don’t necessarily find her talent to be of much interest. She toils over finding a job that will deem her skill financially valuable, and ends up starting a delivery service. But shipping parcels on a broom is not what her magic is really about, and Kiki quickly becomes drained and uninspired – a feeling that even those of us who’ve never ridden a broom can identify with all too well. With its hand-drawn fantasy world, this movie deals with the joys and self-expression that come with a creative talent, side-by-side with the social and economical difficulties that sometimes follow.

4. Paterson, 2016, Jim Jarmusch

This Jim Jarmusch film is a love letter to the poetry of the everyday. It brings to our attention life’s small ways of making us smile, with details that can easily make their way into the lines of a poem. One such lucky coincidence: actor Adam Driver stars in the film as a bus driver. And yet another: his character’s name is Paterson, and he lives in the town of Paterson, New Jersey. This lyrical view of the world is akin to Paterson’s own outlook on life, one that notes all those small glimpses of beauty that come across his prosaic, down-to-earth routine. A bus driver by trade, Paterson devotes his spare time to writing poetry. He keeps his poems in a notebook, which he shares with no one. Neither does he intend on publishing them in the future. His wife, Laura, is also the creative type. She explores different artistic outlets wholeheartedly and with unwavering passion, until moving on to the next endeavor – from-black and-white pattern painting, to country music, to cupcake baking. With grace, realism and candor, Paterson applauds the pursuit of creative passion. Not necessarily in search of fame or success – but just because.

5. Frances Ha, 2013, Noah Baumbach

Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an aspiring New York dancer who, at the age of 27, is going through an uneasy period with her career and personal life. Despite having no job, no apartment, and hardly any friends, Frances keeps her spirits up. She believes she holds great artistic promise, and that big and beautiful things are waiting for her on the horizon – even if all evidence points to the contrary. Frances is an awkward-yet-graceful kind of heroine. She feels somewhat entitled when it comes to her artistic success, which can be off-putting, but she’s also charming and sparkling with creative playfulness. The film follows her as her big dreams are confronted with the reality of adult life. With its black-and-white monochrome and mostly French soundtrack, the movie pays a tribute to the French New Wave and its depiction of youth. One notable scene, which depicts Frances dancing through the streets of New York, is a direct homage to Leos Carax’s Bad Blood.

6. Manifesto, 2015, Julian Rosefeldt

Don’t expect a movie that started out as an art installation to have much of a plot, but you can rely on Manifesto to serve as a brilliant intellectual exercise. The film features Cate Blanchett alternating between 13 different personas. Placed in commonplace scenarios such as a cocktail party or a TV news broadcast, the characters she plays deliver the text of several artists’ manifestos. The movie detaches the words from their predominantly male writers and their 20th century art-world context. Instead, they are put in the mouth of a contemporary female movie star – creating a sharp shift in mindset. The movie places artistic and philosophical pathos in moments of our everyday lives that are infused with a bit of extravagance on their own. A teacher that passes knowledge onto her class, or a mother saying grace at the family dinner with heartfelt intent, can suddenly seem pompous and overly passionate when repeating, verbatim, the words Karl Marx or Wassily Kandinsky.

Watch scenes from the movie on the director’s personal website.

7. Pina, 2011, Wim Wenders

Pina started as a collaborative project between director Wim Wenders and choreographer and performer Pina Bausch. As Pina passed away just days before shooting was scheduled to begin, the movie changed its course. It became a testimonial in her honor, and an attempt to preserve her body of work. This 3D documentary stages her dancers as they perform Pina’s repertoire on stage as well as out in the world – on hilltops, in the streets, in glass-walled buildings. Between the segments of their exquisite dancing, we see interviews with the dancers as well. Or better yet, we see shots of their silent faces and only hear their memories of Pina, played as a voice over. Wim Wenders succeeds in showing dance on film in a way that is more than a documentation of several live performances. The movie Pina creates a visual experience of movement and art.

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