The Most Ambitious Films Ever Made

What makes a film ambitious isn’t whether it performs well at the box office or is acclaimed by critics, it’s all about pushing the boundaries in terms of scale, depth, and overall impressiveness. Of course, some movies miss their mark while others go on to be established as some of the most groundbreaking and daring films of all time. These types of film are always a gamble, but the risk can pay off generously. Check out these films that are considered to be the most ambitious ever made, what made them notable, and how they were received by viewers.

Avatar Set The Bar For Visual Effects

Sam Worthington in Avatar
Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

Directed, produced, and written by James Cameron, Avatar is an epic science fiction film, taking place in the mid-22nd century when humans are colonizing the alien planet of Pandora. Released in 2009, development for the film began in 1994 with plans to be released in 1999, although Cameron didn’t believe the technology was advanced enough at the time to do justice to his vision.

With an official budget of $237 million, it’s regarded for its use of groundbreaking visual effects, motion capture techniques, and being released in 3D. Today, it’s still considered to be a breakthrough in cinematic technology. Upon its release, it became the highest-grossing film of all time until being overtaken by Avengers: Endgame in 2019.

Toy Story Was The First Full-Length CGI Film

Woody and Buzz on bed
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

Although entirely CGI films are ubiquitous today, released in 1995, Toy Story was the first entirely computer-animated film of its time as well as the first feature film from Pixar. Starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as Woody and Buzz Lightyear, the film features anthropomorphic toys who come to life when humans aren’t present.

Upon its release, the film was the highest-grossing film during its opening weekend, eventually earning $373 million worldwide against its $30 million budget. The film was also a critical success, hailed for its innovations in animation, and paving the way for a new kind of movie experience.

Cloud Atlas Delivered A Highly Existential Concept In Just A Few Hours

Cloud Atlas cover
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas is a science fiction film directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. The film follows six different nonlinear plotlines that take place over six different points of time, creating an intriguing although terribly complicated story.

With a budget of $128.5 million from independent sources, it is one of the most expensive independent films ever produced. Unfortunately, the film failed at the box office, making just $103 million internationally. It also received polarized reviews from both critics and audiences, although Roger Ebert described it as “one of the most ambitious films ever made.”

Boyhood Was Shot Over A Period Of 12 Years

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood
IFC Films
IFC Films

A coming-of-age drama film written and directed by Richard Linklater, Boyhood was filmed periodically from 2006 to 2013, using the same actors throughout. It follows the childhood and adolescence of Mason Evans Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane, as he ages from six to eighteen growing up in Texas with divorced parents.

The script was constantly changing throughout the production as the actors aged in real-time, allowing them to add in some of their own life experiences throughout the years. The film was praised by critics for the film’s ambition, originality, and depth, taking home Golden Globes, BAFTA, and Academy Awards.

The Fountain Takes Concepts Like Love And Faith To A Cosmic Level

Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in The Fountain
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, 2006’s The Fountain features a non-linear storyline about two characters whose love transcends space and time. The film takes audiences to the past, present, and future, and deals with heavy themes of immortality, loss, and fate.

The film was initially set to have a budget of $70 million and star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. However, Pitt left the project and the script was rewritten, with its budget reduced to $35 million. The film made a total of almost $16 million worldwide, with its concept dividing viewers. It has since gained a cult following.

The Matrix Makes You Question Your Reality

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Released in 1999, The Matrix is a science fiction action film written and directed by the Wachowskis. It tells the story of a dystopian future in which all of humanity is trapped inside a simulated reality, while intelligent machines use their bodies as a power source. The film is revered for its philosophical depth as well as its action sequences. It also popularized many visual effects, such as “bullet time,” that are common today.

With a budget of $65 million, the film made over $460 million worldwide, taking home four Academy Awards. Although it’s considered to be of the greatest science fiction films of all time, some critics believe that the action sequences weaken the deeper themes of the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey Changed Movies Forever

Walking on a spaceship
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Influenced by Arthur C. Clarke’s short Story “The Sentinel,” 2001: A Space Odyssey is a science fiction film written and directed by Stanley Kubrick. It tells the story of a space voyage to Jupiter with a sentient computer named HAL, after discovering an alien power that is affecting human evolution.

The film is noted for its scientific accuracy regarding space flight, its pioneering visual effects, music, and more. It’s also commended for its exploration of thought-provoking subjects involving existentialism, extraterrestrial life, and artificial intelligence. Named one of the most influential movies ever made, it changed the genre of science fiction and the movie-viewing experience forever.

Memento Will Have You Thinking In Circles

Guy Pearce in Memento
Summit Entertainment
Summit Entertainment

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, 2000’s Memento stars Guy Pearce as a man who can no longer make new memories and experiences short term memory loss every fifteen minutes. To find the man who attacked him and took his wife’s life, he relies on a complex system of tattoos and Polaroid pictures to solve the mystery.

The film is shown ambitiously in two sequences, with the black-and-white scenes in chronological order and the color scenes in reverse. The film has been hailed for its concept and story structure, also making $39.7 million over a $4.5 million budget. Furthermore, it has been named one of the best films of the 21st century.

Rashomon Was A Game Changer For Japanese Films

Rashomon characters
Daiel Films
Daiel Films

Released in 1950, Rashomon is a Japanese period drama based on Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s 1922 short story “In a Grove.” Directed by Akira Kurosawa, the film takes place in the 8th century and is revered for its plot style of using subjective, alternate, and unreliable versions of the same event.

Rashomon put Japanese films on the map, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an Honorary Academy Award. Described as one of the best films ever name, the title of the film also led to the naming of a psychological phenomenon called the “Rashomon Effect.”

Ben-Hur Is Epic In Every Sense Of The Word

Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

A remake of the 1925 silent film of a similar name, the 1959 version was directed by William Wyler and starred Charlton Heston. At the time of its release, it had the largest budget ever for a film ($15.175 million) as well as the most massive set ever built. The film included some 10,000 extras, 200 camels, and over 2,500 horses. Filming lasted eight months for 12-16 hours a day, six days a week.

Its nine-minute chariot race is regarded as one of cinema’s most memorable action sequences, and the film’s score is the longest ever composed for a movie. It took home a recording-breaking eleven Academy Awards and is considered one of the most impressive films ever made.

The Tree Of Life Asks Big Questions

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Regarded as an experimental epic drama, The Tree of Life was written and directed by Terrence Malick. It explores the meaning of life through a middle-aged man’s childhood memories growing up in the 1950s.

What makes it so unique and groundbreaking beside its message is the impactful visual depictions of the origins of the universe and life on Earth sprinkled throughout. Released in 2011, the film appeared in over 70 top-ten end-of-the-year lists and received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.

The Filming Of Apocalypse Now Was Worse Than It Looked

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now
United Artists
United Artists

Apocalypse Now is a 1979 epic war film set in the Vietnam War that was directed, produced, and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, it follows a group of soldiers on a secret mission to assassinate the presumably insane Colonel Kurtz.

For the sake of realism, filming took place in the Philippines, which proved to be disastrous. What was supposed to be a five-month shoot turned out to take over a year with a seemingly endless set of problems. The film grossed over $150 million worldwide, took home two Academy Awards, and is now considered one of the best films of all time.

Metropolis Was Ahead Of Its Time

Robot from Metropolis
Parufamet
Parufamet

Released in 1927, Metropolis is a German expressionist science-fiction film directed by Fritz Lang and co-written by Lang and Thea von Harbou. One of the first feature-length films of the science-fiction genre, it took over 17 months to make and more than 5 million Reichsmarks.

Although the film had mixed reviews, it was agreed that the film was visually powerful in its use of advanced special effects. In 2001, the film was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, making it the first film to do so.

The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy Is The King Of High Fantasy Films

Elija Wood in the Fellowship of the Ring
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

The Lord of the Rings is a high fantasy trilogy directed by Peter Jackson and based on the fantastical and incredibly complex books written by J. R. R. Tolkien. An international crossover between New Zealand and the United States, the series takes place in the fictional world of Middle Earth with a Fellowship of individuals attempting to destroy the One Ring.

The Lord of the Rings is considered one of the most ambitious film series and adaptations of a novel. All three films were shot simultaneously with a budget of $281 million. It is also one of the highest-grossing series of all time with over $2.9 billion in sales, winning 17 of its 30 Academy Award nominations.

Waterworld Was Overly Ambitious

Kevin Costner in Waterworld
Universal Studios
Universal Studios

Released in 1995, Waterworld is a post-apocalyptic film taking place in a future where all the polar ice caps have melted, covering nearly all the Earth in water. Considering that almost the entire movie was shot in giant pools and even some scenes in the Pacific Ocean, at the time, it was the most expensive film ever made with a budget of around $175 million.

However, upon release, the film received mixed reviews and didn’t meet expectations at the box office. Although people were dazzled with the film’s scale and the size of its sets, the story and acting failed to hit the mark.

Avengers: Endgame Is The Highest-Grossing Film Of All Time

Robert Downey Jr. in Endgame
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

The culmination of a 22-film story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 2019’s Avengers: Endgame featured an ensemble cast of some of the biggest names in Hollywood. The film follows the surviving members of the Avengers as they try to reverse what Thanos did in Infinity War.

With a budget of $356 million, it was one of the most expensive films ever made, as well as Marvel’s most extensive marketing campaign. The film grossed $2.8 billion worldwide and was hailed for its visual effects, storytelling, and successfully wrapping up such a successful series.

Titanic Was The First Movie To Make Over $1 Billion

DiCaprio and Winslet in Titanic
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Directed and written by James Cameron, Titanic is based on the historical accounts of the sinking of the HMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, with a fictionalized storyline. The film was impressive for its use of scale models, computer-generated imagery, soundtrack, and themes of love and loss.

At the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made with a production budget of $200 million. Released on December 19, 1997, the film was a massive success being the first movie to reach the billion-dollar mark at the box office and was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and winning 11.

Interstellar Explores The Mystery Of Space, Time, And Our Place In The Universe

Spaceship in Interstellar
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Interstellar tells the story of Earth in the near future in which humanity is struggling to survive, and follows a group of astronauts who travel through a black hole to find a new habitable planet.

The film was hailed for its scientific accuracy regarding space travel and relativity, along with its emotional depth, acting, and mind-boggling visual effects. Made with a production budget of $165 million, the film took in $677.5 million at the box office and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects at the 87th Academy Awards.

Jurassic Park Opened The Doors For What Was Possible With CGI

Jeff Goldbloom in Jurassic Park
Universal Studios
Universal Studios

An adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel of the same name, Jurassic Park was the first installment in the Jurassic Park franchise and was directed by Steven Spielberg. The film follows a group of people stranded on an island of de-extinct dinosaurs who are released as the result of sabotage.

The film was groundbreaking in the sense that it used unparalleled CGI as well as impressive life-sized animatronic dinosaurs. The film was released in 1993 and grossed over $914 million off a $63 million budget. Today, it’s considered a landmark in the history of computer-generated imagery and was preserved by the National Film Registry.

Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope Gave Borth To One Of The Biggest Franchises Ever

Obi Wan and Darth Vader
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Star Wars IV- A New Hope is an epic space film written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It is the first installment of the franchise and was incredibly impressive for its time due to its groundbreaking visual effects and compelling story.

With a budget of $11 million, it earned a whopping $775.5 million at the box office, making it the fourth highest-grossing film in the world. Along with winning seven Academy Awards, it also became one of the first films to be selected as part of the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.