10 Art House Films to Watch After You See ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’

By  · Published on August 8th, 2014

Wellspring Media

As our review has already pointed out, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is a disaster. Even for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. Don’t get me wrong, I have a soft spot for the first one, released in 1990. But even though it has a certain goofy charm, it’s not a good movie. That’s a shame for someone like me, who actually enjoyed the cartoon quite a bit and before that grew up on the old, slightly more mature Eastman and Laird comics.

This time both the Turtles and their movie are ugly and utterly unlikeable, but the worst part is probably in how ridiculously unoriginal the plot is. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is awfully similar to the story running through the first two Amazing Spider-Man movies, but it makes them look like Nolan’s Dark Knight films by comparison. The TMNT movie also reminds us of Tim Burton’s Batman, xXx, Howard the Duck and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And very slyly of the TV series Arrested Development.

But this week I don’t want to just recommend mainstream movies you should know, even bad ones to make a point that even Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Howard the Duck are better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A movie this bad requires a real cleansing afterward. Therefore, I’ve selected 10 films you’d likely find in an art house theater, all docs, foreign films and classics to help wash away the filth staining your soul following the latest adventures of Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael.


Why are these mutant ninja turtles also labeled teenagers? Characteristically it’s to indicate their immature and goofball behavior when not exhibiting martial arts talents. But where does the word “teenage” even come from? Find out in this origin story for a term that’s so common we never would have given it much thought without director Matt Wolf exploring the history of the teenager in the first half of the 20th century via archival footage, well-integrated “reenactments” and performed voice-over from such stars as The Hunger Games’s Jena Malone and Skyfall’s Ben Whishaw. Learn more about in my post from March when I called it the best teen movie of the year.

The Mutants (Os Mutantes)

This 1998 film might have been a documentary reminiscent of the classics Streetwise and Bus 174 had the Portuguese government not disapproved and refused to cooperate. Instead director Teresa Villaverde wound up making a dramatic depiction of street kids in Lisbon who have been rejected by the system and, for some, their own families. I know what you’re thinking, this sounds more like the lost youths of the 1990 TMNT movie. Yeah, except what happens to the kids here, as based on Villaverde’s research for the nonfiction film, is much worse than joining the Pleasure Island-like comfort of that version’s Foot Clan. This Cannes selection could use an American release finally.

Ninja, A Band of Assassins (Shinobi no Mono)

Satsuo Yamamoto’s 1962 martial arts action film is considered one of the most influential in terms of how Ninjas are portrayed in movies and thought of in pop culture in general. Part of the reason is famously thanks to author Roald Dahl, who saw the film, an adaptation of Tomoyoshi Murayama’s novels, while in Japan. Years later, Dahl wrote the screenplay for the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, for which he lifted a few ideas, including all the Ninja stuff (though probably not including the cat-stroking bit, as we saw Blofeld do this iconically in previous 007 installments). One of this film’s advisors on Ninja authenticity, Masaaka Hatsumi, also was brought in as an authority and stunt extra.

Turtles Can Fly

This 2004 film is not about turtles and is an even more heart-wrenching drama about homeless kids than The Mutants. Iranian writer-director Bahman Ghobadi uses actual Kurdish refugees in the roles of the kids, three of whom form the central story of a young, enterprising minesweeper who befriends a teenage girl, her armless brother and her blind infant son, the product of a gang rape by Iraqi soldiers. Set in a Kurdish camp near the border of Turkey on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Turtles Can Fly is a powerfully bleak look at a different side to the country than we were and still are used to before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the American occupation. I haven’t seen it in a while, but when released, it was so soon after we arrived in Iraq and the film had a certain relevance to audiences here. That shouldn’t be any lessened a decade later.

Crimson Gold

Another selection by Iranian filmmakers, this 2003 drama was scripted by Abbas Kiarostami and directed by Jafar Panahi, who is more well-known in the US today than a decade ago, unfortunately due to the circumstance of his house arrest. How is Crimson Gold, a dark crime film about class difference in Iran, relevant to the Ninja Turtles? Because of pizza, of course. The main character, who we immediately see take his own life during a failed robbery, is a pizza delivery man by profession, and he sees a lot of the class imbalance in his job because of course everyone loves pizza, rich and poor. And turtle.

Level Five

Chris Marker’s 1997 documentary, which involves fictional characters, is about to finally make its North America premiere with a new restoration. While it doesn’t entirely relate to the Okinawa-set back story of William Fichtner’s character in TMNT, it does concern the Battle of Okinawa during World War II, which a woman is researching for a video game. The battle led to the US occupation of Okinawa, which of course would lead to the character growing up there and eventually becoming mentored by (the) Shredder. Marker also focuses some of his more famous doc Sans Soleil on the battle, as well.

The Young Poisoner’s Handbook

Shredder and his minions attempt to poison the whole city of New York as part of their big nefarious plot, and of course they fail. Maybe they should have gone smaller first, and taken some tips from a certain handbook on poisoning people. Not that real-life English chemist-turned-serial killer Graham Young fared a whole lot better in the end, but he did manage to poison more than 70 people, three of whom died as a result. This little remembered 1995 black comedy is loosely based on his story with Hugh O’Connor delivering a devilishly delightful performance somewhat reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

The Rape of Europa

The new TMNT movie might be one of the worst things to ever happen to the legacy of artists Leonardo Da Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael. However, it’s nothing compared to the theft and/or near destruction of a lot of their masterpieces, maybe (probably not) even including Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” during World War II. There was also the threat to Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” mural and the looting of Michelangelo’s “Madonna of Bruges” sculpture and some of Donatello’s works, too. Meanwhile, Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man” was stolen by the Nazis and has been missing ever since and is thought to have been destroyed. Find out more of the stories of the lost and almost lost art and the Monuments Men, who saved a lot of it, in this 2006 documentary.

Series 7: The Contenders

I included this dark reality TV spoof on one of these lists before (for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), but I’ll never pass up an excuse. And somehow I never knew until this week that the narrator of the fake deadly competition show within the movie is Will Arnett. The comedic actor is now much better known thanks to Arrested Development, but he sure isn’t any better off. Not that he’s had the luxury of appearing in a lot of great movies. In fact, he’s mostly in or doing voice work for terrible features, and yet he’s hit a new low with TMNT. Outside some of the animated movies he’s worked on, namely Ratatouille and The Lego Movie, Series 7: The Contenders is very likely the best film he’s ever been a part of.


This 1984 horror movie might not seem to fit in with the rest of these titles (damn you Criterion Collection and your April Fool’s prank!), but it was technically an independent film and could potentially qualify as an art house release. And it’s one of the great ’80s New York films mocking the city’s crime rate. Like the Ninja Turtles, the creatures in C.H.U.D., which is a label affixed to them standing for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, live in the sewers and mainly only come out at night. They’re also mutants created by toxic ooze (the original canonical source of the Ninja Turtles’ transformation). Interestingly enough, the C.H.U.D.s, as ugly as they are, still aren’t as ugly as the Ninja Turtles as depicted in the new movie.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.