(Graphic: Nick Wanserski)

Now, then, and probably forever, 3-D is a gimmick: Whether you’re talking about the first major wave of stereoscopic movies in the 1950s (which employed the now defunct dual-strip system), the brief revival of the ’80s, or the current dominance of “true” or post-converted 3-D blockbusters, the technology exists mainly to jack up ticket prices or attract moviegoers away from the siren call of television. Which would be fine, if 3-D typically delivered on its promise of an enhanced viewing experience; most of the time, however, slipping on the plastic glasses guarantees little more than a couple bodies bulging off the screen, a few objects flying cheaply at the viewer, or a headache.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and in the right hands, a gimmick can become more of a tool, or even an invitation to innovate. Below, we’ve singled out 21 films that not only put their third dimension to good use, but are dramatically improved by the format. These are the movies that practically demand to be seen in 3-D—although with stereoscopic televisions no longer really a thing, you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for a retrospective screening.

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1. The Walk (2015)

One of 3-D’s most effective functions is its ability to artificially expand the depth of field, exaggerating the distance between the foreground and the background of a shot. Never has this been made more astonishingly, nauseatingly clear than in Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, about the French aerialist who performed on a wire connecting the two summits of the World Trade Center. Zemeckis, never one to let a technology go to waste, finds plenty of playful applications for the third dimension, matching the whimsicality of his material with imagery straight out of a pop-up book. But it’s when Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finally steps onto that wire, a hundred stories above Manhattan, that this corny dramatization justifies not only its existence but also any viewers’ decision to shell out a few extra bucks for the full stereoscopic experience: 3-D makes that gaping abyss beneath Petit look nearly as staggering as it must have looked to him; you really feel like you’re standing at the top of the world, squinting to see the ground far below. [A.A. Dowd]

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2. Hugo (2011)

Even 3-D skeptic James Cameron has argued that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo represents the best-ever use of the technology (at least as of five years ago). So what does Scorsese do that’s so special? It all goes back to how he and screenwriter John Logan adapted Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel. Scorsese and Logan don’t just focus on Selznick’s “orphan boy survives by his wits in a Paris train station” retro-kidflick plot, but also on the grumpy old toy-maker their 12-year-old hero befriends: a man who just happens to be Georges Méliès, the director whose turn-of-the-century films helped introduce the concept of “special effects.” Whenever Scorsese’s following Hugo’s adventures, he moves the camera a lot, pushing forward to create a sense of depth and kinetic excitement. But when he shifts to Georges, the frame is more static, with Scorsese using 3-D the way Méliès might’ve: as the ultimate tool for a stage magician always in search of a good illusion. [Noel Murray]

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3. Dial M For Murder (1954)

Dial M For Murder seems like an odd addition to the 3-D catalog, but it’s really a testament to director Alfred Hitchcock’s love of film and film technology more than anything else. As Hitch himself put it, “It’s a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day.” An adaptation of a popular stage play/murder mystery made for an unlikely 3-D candidate, but leave it to Hitchcock to try to make the 3-D element worthwhile, as well as experimental: crafting a giant finger to dial a phone, for example. The tour de force is the attempted murder scene, as Grace Kelly stays on a mysterious phone call for far too long (“Hello… Hello? Hello!”), giving her hopeful killer ample time to strangle her from behind. In the resulting fight, the 3-D makes a pair of usually benign scissors seem like the most terrifying type of murder weapon. Too bad Hitch was so disillusioned with the technology afterward, because a 3-D version of 1960’s Psycho would have been amazing. Instead, the movie essentially shut down the first 3-D era. [Gwen Ihnat]

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4. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

3-D is usually employed in the service of spectacle. And while that word could potentially be applied to Werner Herzog’s unlikely foray into the format, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, you won’t see any punches being thrown or shrapnel flying toward the camera. Instead, Herzog used 3-D as the ingenious solution to a serious problem: Chauvet Cave, in southern France, is home to cave paintings created more than 30,000 years ago, the oldest known visual art ever made by human beings. Seeing them is a profound experience, and a powerful affirmation of what it means to be human. But due to all the people hoping to have such an experience who have tromped through it over the years, the French government has been forced to close Chauvet Cave to the general public. Herzog and his team received special permission to film inside Chauvet Cave with 3-D cameras, allowing viewers to virtually immerse themselves in the environment and see the artwork as its creators intended it to be seen. (The paintings incorporate the contours of the cave itself into their images, creating the illusion of movement.) So now everyone can experience what it’s like to be inside Chauvet Cave, while the cave itself can be preserved for future generations. And we get to have Werner Herzog as a tour guide. Everyone wins. [Katie Rife]

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5. Avatar (2009)

If it weren’t fashionable enough to dismiss James Cameron’s most recent biggest movie ever as the ultimate mega-blockbuster that nobody likes, it could also be blamed for re-igniting the 3-D craze in Hollywood. But Avatar plays fair with its technology. Though its success inspired dozens of rushed 3-D conversions, Cameron’s immersive use of the format has a transporting grandeur lacking from most Hollywood spectacles. The story itself is by turns poky and clichéd, but Cameron knows how to enliven cornball material with showmanship, and with Avatar, 3-D becomes a key component in his ever-updated toolbox. A lot of effects-driven movies construct their worlds largely on a computer; indeed, much of Avatar is essentially an animated movie. But the 3-D rendering of the lush, surreal planet Pandora, with its elaborate foliage and floating islands, makes the cartoon imagery more vivid and otherworldly. By the time Cameron unleashes one of his signature super-sized climactic action sequences, the environment has developed surprising weight. In 3-D, Sam Worthington seems almost lifelike. [Jesse Hassenger]

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6. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)

There’s nothing very sophisticated about the use of 3-D in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. But that’s the joke, really. The third and best installment of the stoner buddy-comedy franchise pokes fun at the price-inflating gimmickry of the format early and often, beginning with Harold asking “Hasn’t the whole 3-D thing jumped the shark by now?” and his assistant giving a stereoscopic thumbs up to the audience, which is immediately remarked upon. Not every gag is so meta: Christmas parodies the primitive projectile function of 3-D, sending eggs, ornaments, ping pong balls, and other objects careening toward the screen. It also includes several fantasy sequences designed to exploit the more cartoonish qualities of the technology. Satirizing how most films utilize their third dimension while also constantly finding its own goofy uses for it, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is basically a feature-length tribute to what dumb fun 3-D can be. Extra points for giving a whole new meaning to coming-right-at-you. [A.A. Dowd]

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7. Coraline (2009)

Animator Henry Selick’s visual style meshes well with 3-D, given that his little stop-motion creations already look like dioramas—or like something from an old View-Master reel. Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s young adult novel Coraline has the added advantage of telling a story that sends its preteen heroine on a journey through a portal into another reality. As Coraline travels back and forth via a gnarly tunnel—from her bland small town to a place where her perpetually distracted parents have been replaced by super-affectionate button-eyed doll-creatures—Selick takes full advantage of the extra dimension to make the trip itself look dark and magical. The look of Coraline captures its sense of being pulled through a secret gateway to someplace too good to be true. [Noel Murray]

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8. Dredd (2012)

The creative team behind Dredd, the 2012 adaptation of the famed comic, was so confident about the use of 3-D in its film that early marketing—including the movie’s official website—listed the title as Dredd 3D. Even when seen now, on a home theater scale, it’s clear why the angle was trumpeted: Dredd’s use of 3-D pushed the format forward, in noteworthy but subtle ways. While numerous action scenes take full advantage of the technology, allowing the viewer to pass by falling shards of glass or appreciate the depth of field in rigorously choreographed fight sequences, the true innovation came through pairing the 3-D technique with the slow-motion sequences, which visualize the effects of a new drug called “slo-mo.” Alex Garland and VFX supervisor Jon Thum spent years developing these sequences, using the kind of high-speed photography one finds in nature docs like Planet Earth to render distinct plumes of smoke, a blinking eye, and a drop of blood. Things gruesome in normal representation become abstracted and beautiful. It’s awfully ambitious and idiosyncratic for a shoot-’em-up action movie. [Alex McCown]

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9. Goodbye To Language (2014)

New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard reportedly screened every 3-D movie ever made in preparation for his own foray into the format, the wildly creative, brain-scrambling Goodbye To Language. Shot with a wide array of cameras—including a custom-built stereoscopic rig that allowed the two cameras to move independently of each other—the Franco-Swiss filmmaker’s paean to communication is a “not for everyone” movie that just about everyone should see in its intended format. Filled with quotations, jarring breaks, and, oddly enough, poop jokes, Goodbye To Language pushes 3-D to the breaking point, and ends up discovering new, inspired uses for it; instead of trying to create the illusion of binocular vision, it offers an aggressive collage of pop-outs and impossible perspectives, and at least one truly visionary camera movement, in which one of the viewer’s eyes appears to migrate to the side of their head. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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10-12. Step Up 3D (2010), Step Up Revolution (2012), Step Up All In (2014)

In the Step Up franchise, plot was pushed to the sidelines long ago, left to twiddle its thumbs while choreography hogged the spotlight. It only took a few sub-par entries for the street-dancing series to realize that the real draw—the only draw—was its parade of tightly constructed dance sequences. They’re a succession of madcap music videos, each more jaw-dropping than the last. The turning point: Step Up 3D, the first of the films to (you guessed it) incorporate the third dimension, most memorably during its invigorating “water dance,” in which a ruptured pipe on the dance floor leads to soaked B-boys kicking buckets of H2O right off the screen. Suddenly, the stakes were raised—the added depth pushed the filmmakers to new levels; the artistry of the camerawork was finally on par with the insanely talented casts of dancers and choreographers. As they’ve progressed, Step Up movies haven’t held back, gleefully throwing gimmick after gimmick at its audience, to great effect. And though we applaud these movies’ embrace of showmanship, it’s pretty safe to say Step Up 6 does not need to be in Smell-O-Vision. [Cameron Scheetz]

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13. Pina (2011)

Avant-garde choreographer Philippina Bausch was working on a 3-D performance film with her German countryman Wim Wenders when she died in 2009. In the wake of her death, Wenders’ Pina became partly a documentary about Bausch’s legacy, and partly an innovative record of her work. Working in collaboration with Bausch’s troupe—all trained to endure her predilection for presenting dancers with extreme physical challenges—Wenders makes at-times-visionary use of 3-D, by treating the frame like a stage with multiple planes of action. Whether the dancers are moving through a stage cluttered with chairs or performing outdoors in beautiful open spaces, the viewer feels surrounded by the same obstacles the artists faced. [Noel Murray]

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14. Treasure Of The Four Crowns (1983)

As much as some directors claim to be expanding the narrative possibilities of cinema with the use of 3-D, the fact that the format has come (and then quickly gone) in a more-or-less regular 30-year cycle points to the idea that 3-D is little more than an easily exhausted novelty. Which isn’t to say that it’s not a fun novelty, as the cheerfully disreputable second 3-D craze of the ’80s occasionally demonstrated—especially in the low-rent spectacles of producer, writer, and actor Tony Anthony. His first outing, the largely plotless Western Comin’ At Ya!, wore its shameless appeal to 3-D thrill-seekers right there in its title. At least his follow-up, the Raiders Of The Lost Ark-aping Treasure Of The Four Crowns, made an effort to couch its non-stop barrage of fireballs, snakes, poison darts, swords, and flaming swords in something like an adventure plot. However, while the delightfully cheesy trailer touts the cut-rate exploits of the singularly wooden Anthony as the logical heir to Raiders, Star Wars, Aliens, and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the film itself exists purely to make its target audience of jittery teenagers jump and squeal. It’s a modest goal, well suited to the gimmick that is 3-D, but, on its own dippy terms, the movie meets it. [Dennis Perkins]

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15. Gravity (2013)

One pitfall of 3-D, even in its most advanced forms, is that plenty of eyeballs can adjust to it pretty quickly. As a result, many 3-D effects aren’t all that noticeable after a half-hour or so (comforting, perhaps, if the 3-D isn’t done well anyway; less so in terms of money spent or attempted wow factor). Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity actually takes advantage of that invisibility; the starkness of its stranded-in-space visuals is so perfect for 3-D that, after a time, they simply look correct—especially on the biggest possible screen. Cuarón uses 3-D in conjunction with his similar use of long takes: At first, the uncut 3-D-enhanced scenes of astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating through space and encountering a terrible disaster are breathlessly showy and impressive. But as the movie goes on, both the lack of heavy cutting and the convincing simulation of depth integrate themselves into Gravity’s simple but effective narrative. The filmmaking tricks are absorbed into a new, convincing reality. [Jesse Hassenger]

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16. How To Train Your Dragon (2010)

Many of the films in the Dreamworks Animation stable are overstuffed with characters and unnecessary pop-culture references, but How To Train Your Dragon remains its golden horse by simply giving things a little breathing room. 3-D’s role is vital here, adding new depths to the dragon-addled land of Berk. Early on, when the Viking village comes under attack, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders use the expanded palette to fully immerse their audience in cartoonish mayhem. With dragons darting across the foreground and background of the frame, the scale of How To Train Your Dragon feels appropriately epic. But where 3-D becomes essential is in the movie’s “test drive” sequence, which sees heroes Hiccup and Toothless working in tandem to fly for the first time. Coupled with John Powell’s rousing score, the scene leaves viewers breathless as they zip through the clouds alongside Toothless. The extra dimension conjures real feelings of weightlessness—a rare occurrence for film, animated or otherwise. [Cameron Scheetz]

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17. Tron: Legacy (2010)

Tron: Legacy may suffer for being a too somber, too serious sequel to a movie about a totally radical arcade owner who gets sucked into a computer for deadly games of glow Frisbee, but the art direction succeeds where the story falters. The contrasting warm and cool color accents and microchip patterning of the original are heightened, and Legacy’s stylized landscapes of bright neon against a perpetually cloudy night sky border on non-representational. The effect is especially pronounced in 3-D—and never more so than during the gladiator battles, a series of duels set in transparent, enclosed arenas. Characters hurl chakram-shaped data discs toward each other, cutting long paths that recede and advance in hypnotic rhythm. Opponents leap and spin in slow motion and the whole experience starts to resemble watching the contents of a lava lamp bubble and split. It’s representative of how Tron: Legacy’s visuals tell a far more interesting story than the movie itself. [Nick Wanserski]

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18-21. Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), The Three Musketeers (2011), Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), and Pompeii (2014)

Obsessed with dungeons, corridors, and massive subterranean environments, English genre director Paul W.S. Anderson makes movies in which archetypal B-movie badassess either get trapped in spaces, or deliberately venture into them; love or hate it, his style is tailor-made for 3-D. He’s shot exclusively in 3-D since Resident Evil: Afterlife, truly coming into his own in the format with the entertaining, under-appreciated The Three Musketeers, which reimagined Alexandre Dumas’ classic as a sail-punk live-action video game, full of click-clacky gadgets and spring-loaded traps. Few directors have made more consistently fun use of the format. From Afterlife’s slow-motion tableaux of throwing stars to Pompeii’s rendering of large-scale disaster—as claustrophobic as a collapsing mine—Anderson’s 3-D movies pop with shattering foregrounds and eyeball-homing projectiles. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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