Wanted: 5 best examples of voice-over narration

February 20th, 2013 by

Yesterday I presented this conundrum: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with – hopefully – guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today let’s see if we can lock down five movies that are great examples of voice-over narration.

I would think we’d have to include The Shawshank Redemption seeing as it is the #1 movie on IMDB’s Top 250 list, however Red’s V.O. is there by necessity, simply no other effective way to stitch together a story that takes place over 19 years with all those time ellipses. Still that points to one of the strengths of voice-over narration, the ability to smooth over time jumps. Plus since in my view, this is a story with Dual Protagonists — Andy and Red — the voice-over narration allows us to experience what transpires in a deeply personal way by entering into Red’s take on things. Thus all things considered, I think we should probably include Shawshank as one of the five.

By the way, here are Siskel and Ebert reviewing the movie in 1994, both with two thumbs way up:

How about four more movies? Here are some of the suggestions made yesterday. Which ones of these excite you the most?

Gattaca
Stand By Me
Saw
The Descendants
Badlands
The Debt
Days of Heaven
Beginners

And don’t forget these:

Fight Club
Goodfellas
Apocalypse Now
A Clockwork Orange
To Kill a Mockingbird

And if we wanted to go at this head-on, why not Blade Runner which famously added V.O. narration to the original version, then stripped it away years later for a director’s cut.

In addition to the suggestions from yesterday, what great examples of voice-over narration can you think of? See you in comments for your thoughts.

16 thoughts on “Wanted: 5 best examples of voice-over narration

  1. churnage says:

    Trainspotting, especially the opening.

  2. Forrest Gump.
    American Beauty.
    Taxi Driver.
    Raising Arizona.
    Kind Hearts and Coronets.
    Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

  3. achamings says:

    Apocalypse Now, immortal opening lines, delivered in VO by Willard (Martin Sheen) under a ceiling fan/napalm/helicopter blades… “Saigon… shit; I’m still only in Saigon… Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle.”

  4. Christmas Story uses VO over well.

  5. rgiamatteo says:

    Double Indemnity
    The Royal Tenenbaums
    Memento
    The Usual Suspects
    A Christmas Story

  6. Mark Walker says:

    Following on from yesterday I would mention Dogville again. I think the narration in that film (and Manderlay) really add to the feel of a filmed play and set up each scene nicely without being too “obvious”. They don’t just tell us what we are about to see, but give us further insight into the thoughts and behaviour of the characters, almost putting us in a god-like position, watching the experiment unfold below us. They way the set is laid out almost feels like a lab experiment and the narrator is providing us with his findings.

    In another sense they kind of act like the old cue cards that you would get in the old days of silent movies, helping you move from one scene to the next, just with a little more info.

    I think they are used well to give us just enough information without doing what would be a cardinal sin…just telling us what we are about to see.

  7. mk says:

    “Notes on a Scandal” starring Judi Dench, is a terrific example of the unreliable narrator. Using an unreliable narrator is one of the best reasons to add v.o. narration. In this film, there’s a wealth of dark humor to be found in the difference between the way she describes herself and the events happening around her, and what we actually learn about her from observing her actions ourselves.

  8. Alan D. says:

    I agree with the multiple mentions of “A Christmas Story.” The adult telling his childhood story brought a unique perspective and several jokes were based off the voice overs transitioning into the scene. Plus, Jean Shepard’s voice is iconic. One snippet and I am instantly transported into the movie.

  9. jwindh says:

    DEFINITELY: “Y tu mamá también” – even though it’s in Spanish and sub-titled in English.

    This is one of the few films where I thought the VO is really effective – and it’s because the narration basically has nothing to do (on the surface, at least) with what the images being shown under it are. It’s a real example of film being a visual medium, and that you shouldn’t have to tell, you should show.

    So what they tell basically enriches what they show (both in that VO segment and in the film as a whole), because it does not duplicate what they are showing. I think it’s brilliant.

  10. Oh man! Cookie in Stalag 17 for me!

    Second only to Morgan and Andy Dufresne.

  11. In case you kids haven’t seen it…on my Top 100 of all time!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hExHLM2raJA

    Cookie: I don’t know about you, but it always makes me sore when I see those war pictures… all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is that there never w-was a movie about POWs – about prisoners of war. Now, my name is Clarence Harvey Cook: they call me Cookie. I was shot down over Magdeborg, Germany, back in ’43; that’s why I stammer a little once in a while, ‘specially when I get excited. I spent two and a half years in Stalag 17. “Stalag” is the German word for prison camp, and number 17 was somewhere on the Danube. There were about 40,000 POWs there, if you bothered to count the Russians, and the Poles, and the Czechs. In our compound there were about 630 of us, all American airmen: radio operators, gunners, and engineers. All sergeants. Now you put 630 sergeants together and, oh mother, you’ve got yourself a situation. There was more fireworks shooting off around that joint… take for instance the story about the spy we had in our barracks…

  12. metasant says:

    Trainspotting

  13. Scot Boyd says:

    The Princess Bride deserves a spot in the top 5.

  14. surlaroute says:

    Christina Ricci in The Opposite of Sex… “What’d you think, *I’d* be the dead one? I’m the f-ing narrator, guys! Keep up!”

  15. Paul Sitzman says:

    The Virgin Suicides. Delivers a nice undercurrent, but never seems repetitive to the action going on onscreen. Sometimes tragic, sometimes poetic.

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