How often do you see a film that overwhelms you, or stays with you for a long time after viewing? Probably not that often. Here are a list of ten powerful films that have had that effect on me.
Café de Flore (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2011)
Two parallel stories are presented in this French film: one is about a single mother (Vanessa Paradis) and her Down Syndrome son (Marin Gerrier) in 1960s Paris; the other is about a recent divorcé (Kevin Parent) who works as a DJ in present day Montreal. It is unclear for much of the film exactly what the link is between the two, and some might find the answer somewhat far-fetched, but even the cynic in me was blown away. It certainly had a powerful message.
King of Devil’s Island (Marius Holst, 2010)
Norwegian film. Depressing as hell true story about a group of juvenile delinquents imprisoned on an island during the early twentieth century. A new boy arrives (for some stupid reason like stealing some food – Valjean anyone?) and dares to plan his escape. The men entrusted with their care are horrible human beings. Brilliant performance by Stellan Skarsgård as the dodgy principal. Despite being depressing, it is also quite inspiring. But when it ends you just wonder what is wrong with the world.
The Black Balloon (Elissa Down, 2008)
This is the only film that has ever made me openly sob in a cinema. It is an Australian film about a teenage boy (Rhys Wakefield) who has an autistic brother (Luke Ford). Having an autistic brother myself, I could whole-heartedly relate to this, most notably the feelings of frustration and guilt. Great look at the effect of the disorder upon the whole family, with particular focus on siblings. Also co-stars Toni Collette, Erik Thomson, and Gemma Ford.
2:37 (Murali L. Thalluri, 2006)
There was a debate about whether or not this Australian film about teen suicide should be shown in schools. It had an R18+ rating and although the possibility of an edited version was raised, unfortunately I don’t think it ended up happening. (That may also have to do with the reluctance of many schools who seem to think that the best option for dealing with suicide is just not talking about it). 2:37 is the time at which a student takes their own life in the school toilets, and the film details the events of this one day in the lives of six students who present with the following issues: pressure to succeed academically, incest/rape, enuresis, closet homosexuality, eating disorder, and drug abuse. Who ends their life? It may surprise you. Such an important film, but difficult to watch in some scenes.
Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
I saw this because it got a 5 star rating in a magazine but I still didn’t expect to love it so much! Grizzly Man is a documentary about Grizzly Bear expert and activist, Timothy Treadwell, who along with his girlfriend was tragically killed by one of the beasts that he admired and so fiercely tried to protect. The film includes interviews with various people from Treadwell’s life, as well as plenty of footage that Treadwell shot himself on his many expeditions. He is a fascinating character, who may have very likely suffered significant mental health problems judging by the footage shown. He reportedly shot over a hundred hours of footage – in one instance he is shown reshooting the same comment to camera over and over again until it is perfect. He is hilarious in parts, though it makes you feel somewhat uneasy to laugh when these comedic moments are possibly related to his questionable mental state. Audio was captured of Treadwell’s death (the lens cap was on so audio only) but Herzog rightfully chose not to include this in the final film. I’ve tried hunting this film down for a re-watch but have not had much luck. If you manage to get your hands on it, it is definitely worth a look.
Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2004)
DEPRESSING. If you want absolutely no spoilers read no further, but be warned that the film contains abortion and paedophilia so you may not want to go there anyway. Palindromes is about thirteen year old Aviva who more than anything in life wants to be a mother. She gets her wish after having sex with a family friend, but is forced by her parents to get an abortion. Unbeknownst to her, she has internal bleeding during the procedure and an emergency hysterectomy is performed leaving her unable to ever conceive children. Her parents decide she has been through enough and choose to keep this fact to themselves for the time being. However, Aviva runs away from home with the aim of getting pregnant again. CLEARLY IT’S DEPRESSING. But it is a fascinating film and most interestingly, the role of Aviva is played by eight different actors who all look nothing alike (they differ in age, size, race, and even sex at one point). I’m not even sure what the point of this was but it was an interesting choice. This film has a few disturbing scenes so please be warned before viewing.
Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004)
Another disturbing film, Mysterious Skin is about two teenagers (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbett) who were both sexually abused by their Little League baseball coach and were affected in different ways. JGL is a hustler who has convinced himself that he loves his former coach, while Corbett has blocked the entire experience from his memory and thinks his regular black-outs and nose bleeds are a sign of alien abduction. They meet up and discover the truth about what happened to them. Clearly this is disturbing subject matter, but it is a powerful film with solid performances and some terrific scenes in particular. One that stays with me is when JGL goes to meet a client with lesions all over his body… and it doesn’t end up the way you expect. There are also a couple of brutally violent scenes so be warned.
Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004)
A LOT of people were hella pissed that Crash beat Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) for the Best Picture Oscar. I think I was one of the few who was rooting for it, although I haven’t seen either film since they were released so I think I need a re-watch of both. I know at the time I was certainly impressed with Crash, which dealt with racism in Los Angeles and depicted multiple connecting stories. The big take home message for me was that whatever attitude you present to the world regarding your views on race, sometimes this is all talk, and deep down even the most seemingly noble person can have implicit prejudices which can result in dire consequences. Powerful stuff.
Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999)
True story about Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank in an incredible Oscar-winning performance), who was born as female Teena Brandon. The film follows the last year of his life during which he moved to Nebraska, and was raped and then murdered by ex-convicts John Lotter and Marvin Thomas Nissen. Again this was incredibly disturbing, but it succeeded in shining a light on hate crimes and homophobia. I can’t even believe how sick some people can be. Be warned that one scene in particular (you can probably guess which) is extremely hard to watch. Lotter received the death penalty (but currently still remains in prison) and Nissen received a life sentence. Sickos.
Kids (Larry Clark, 1995)
Unlike the rest of the films listed, I can honestly say that I HATE this film. While some of the other films listed here were disturbing, they were well-made and/or contained an important message. Maybe you could argue this has an important message too, but it was just so disgusting. Kids begins with Jennié (Chloë Sevigny) finding out that she has contracted HIV from her one and only sexual experience with teenage low life, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick). She spends the film trying to track him down to tell him, meanwhile we are exposed to the absolute bastard that he is and his sexual conquests of girls that he doesn’t really give a shit about. The whole film is disturbing, precisely because the very adult themes all relate to teens. Don’t see this if you can help it. I was only about nineteen when I saw it so who knows, maybe I would appreciate it more now, but I doubt it. I can think of one other film, however, that disturbed me more than this one, and I am not dignifying it with its own sub-heading. In undergrad cinema studies in my ‘Feminist Film Theory’ subject we had to watch a horrible film called Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001). The tag line is “I love you so much I could eat you” if that gives you a hint to the storyline (read: sex + cannibalism). Multiple students walked out and I was horrified to hear the lecturer say afterwards with a big smile on her face “This is one of my favourite films”. Are you ****ed in the head?! That is all kinds of messed up. After viewing I went to the toilets and cried. NEVER SEE IT.
So is there a common theme across all these films? There is one, and that is that they are all pretty depressing. I know some people refuse to see any movies which might be depressing simply because they don’t want to feel depressed. This is fair enough, although you should know that you are missing out on some amazing films. I should also mention that these are by no means the only films that have ever had an emotional effect on me, and positive uplifting films can have that effect too.
Half of the films listed here do deal with difficult subject material and hence have R18+ ratings (2:37, Palindromes, Mysterious Skin, Boys Don’t Cry, Kids, and the horrible Trouble Every Day). I know there are some of you that will never see these movies and I am more than accepting of this choice. However for those of you who think you can handle it, be aware that there are some amazing R18+ rated films out there, and they are sometimes rated so due to their taboo topics which can provoke HEAPS of thoughtful discussion. I don’t think I dared watch any films with this rating until I studied cinema at uni and it was actually a requirement – MOST of the R rated films we studied were good films. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure most R18+ films are revolting, but there are a few gems in the midst.
Which films have you been affected by?