Today marks Blue Monday, the day devised by mathematicians to be the saddest day of the year. So I figured today would be a good day to tackle a subject I’ve been thinking about for a while. Typically when we evaluate a movie, we factor in enjoyment and rewatchability in relation to quality. But there are some movies that you might consider good, great even, and yet they are so depressing or discomforting that you never want to visit them again, or at least not very often. There’s a good chance you might even own a couple movies like that, ones that sit on your shelf, daring you to watch them until you eventually look away and choose something else. There are some films that you might even know going in that you’re in for an unpleasant ride. But because there’s a bit of a masochistic quality to many cinephiles (including me), it’s nearly impossible not to watch when those films come your way, even if it stirs up something unpleasant. In honor of the films that induce chills and heavy hearts, here’s a list of ten, ranked for your discomfort and disquiet.
The film’s tagline is “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The question I ask isn’t “how,” but “why?” I consider Stanley Kubrick to be the greatest director of all time, but there’s something that just doesn’t sit right about his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Like the book, Kubrick’s film is impeccably constructed, but the central premise of middle-aged Humbert Humbert falling desperately, destructively in love with a 12-year-old girl wasn’t enjoyable to read and it’s even less so to watch. Nothing sexual happens between the two, but the film dances around the edges of pedophilia. Kubrick takes the “male gaze” theory into a territory you never wanted to go. All the more unsettling is that Kubrick takes the uncomfortable humor of the book and turns it into full-fledged comedy with the help of Peter Sellars. Kubrick invites viewers to laughter and disgust, and fails at neither, though I ultimately wish he had.
9. Angel Heart
I love horror movies, and I have no problem delving deep into the genre, but Angel Heart was something different. Alan Parker’s southern-noir takes psychological horror to a nauseating level, filling you with expectations and then snatching them away, shattering your faith in what you can trust and what human beings are capable of. The result is dizzying. Detective Harry Angel’s search for the shell-shocked WWII veteran, Johnny Favorite, leads to a twist (one I won’t spoil) that haunted me for days. The twist alone isn’t what makes the movie so disorienting but rather how effective Parker is at creating a mood of unease throughout. It’s not the best twist ever conceived, but it may be one of the best build-ups and executions.
8. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Yes, Oldboy was twisted, but Park Chan-wook’s final installment in his Vengeance Trilogy is the hardest to watch. There is a pleasurable element to revenge movies, in watching justice be delivered to those who thought they had escaped it. The need for vengeance in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a righteous one, but watching it carried out is grueling. Even if you’re a gorehound, the brutality that a group of parents commit against the murderer of their children in this film will give you no pleasure. I won’t lie, during the film’s climax I looked away a couple of times, because unlike most horror movies, Chan-wook makes both the victims and the killer painfully human and the tears of both sides feel genuine.
7. Requiem For A Dream
Darren Aronofsky’s examination of addiction, based on Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel, is painful to watch because of how focused it is on the pain and degradation of others. It’s an anti-drug film that doesn’t feel like an afterschool special, because it doesn’t pull its punches. Its message isn’t that drugs kill, but that they destroy your dreams, turn innocence into something unrecognizable, and leave you curled up in fetal position. Aronofsky shoots the film like a fevered nightmare, set to Clint Mansell’s hauntingly beautiful and unforgettable score. I realized recently that I consider it one of my favorite films and yet I haven’t watched it again since the first time. Part of my discomfort surely comes from the fact that when I watched it in high school, my dad walked in during the infamous scene with Jennifer Connelly near the end of the movie. “What are you watching?” he asked. “Just a movie,” I said. And it’s true, it is just a movie, but it feels like a lot more than that.
Steve McQueen has clearly proven to be a director who refuses to shy away from that which makes us uncomfortable. I think he would agree that there are certain human conditions that comfort has no business being a part of. In Shame, McQueen tackles sex addiction. There’s a pervading feeling of loneliness to the film, Brandon’s constant desire for sexual connection creates isolation. The film isn’t story heavy, which allows McQueen and Michael Fassbender to explore every facet of Brandon’s destructive addiction and how it affects those around him. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the film is how hopeless Brandon’s case seems, and even when there is a flicker of hope, the film’s final moments snatch it away.
Lars von Triers probably makes the most upsetting and depressing films anyone could possibly create. It would even be fair to debate as to whether or not his films are actually “good.” As someone who still feels nauseous, six years later, when I think of Antichrist, I can safely say I’ve never enjoyed one of his films, and yet I always leave glad to have experienced it from a critical standpoint. I never forget his films, and that fact has got to stand for some kind of quality. Melancholia is infinitely more watchable and discernible than Antichrist, but it’s ultimately a more draining experience. The film explores newlywed Justine’s severe depression as the planet Melancholia moves closer to the Earth. Washed in a gray palate and clocking in at 136 minutes, Melancholia is an exhausting film, yet it quantifies unipolar disorder so acutely that it’s difficult not to be impressed by von Triers’ ambition.
4, Revolutionary Road
Sam Mendes’ film, based on Richard Yates’ novel, takes a look at the collapse of the American Dream in everything from housing, finance, mental health, marriage, and career. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet give crushing performances that take the notions of 1940s suburban, white middle-class, happiness and completely demolish them. Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography works in stark contrast to the ugliness of the Wheelers’ lives. While the film’s marketing suggested a romantic storyline, the film is anything but. Revolutionary Road is ultimately about entrapment and the devastating results of attempting to free oneself from the constraints of American perseverance.
3. Leaving Las Vegas
If you ever needed proof that Nicholas Cage can turn out a tremendous performance when he’s not being forced to play at normalcy, then Leaving Las Vegas is it. Mike Figgis’ film, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by John O’Brien, follows failed screenwriter Ben Sanderson as he intentionally drinks himself to death in Las Vegas. The film, billed as a romantic drama, provides you with hope that Ben’s romance with Sera with ultimately save him. But Ben ultimately accomplishes what he set out to do, and the viewer must bear witness to his entire, drunken, gagging, choking death rattle. Because of the honest emotional tenderness of Cage and Elisabeth Shue’s performances, this is a film that weighs heavy in your chest afterwards.
2. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
This is the most recent addition on my list. It is a traumatic portrait of how the life of one man affected so many people and the traumatic aftermath of his murder. There are some who have described it as emotionally manipulative, but I don’t think that’s the intention. It’s clearly a documentary made with love, and the turn of events are affecting whether you know the events going in or not. It’s not manipulative because you’re supposed to feel sad, grief-stricken, and angry. You’re supposed to care a whole lot about people you’ve never met. It’s beautiful, chilling, and a testament to how screwed up court systems are when they care nothing about the people they claim to represent. I can’t remember the last time I got chills from a movie like I did with this one. It’s emotionally shattering, and yet because it came from a place of love, it’s also a beautiful memorial.
1. Johnny Got His Gun
No film (or book for that matter) has terrified me more than this one. I think about it at least once a week and as much as I’d like to shake it, I can’t. Dalton Trumbo’s film, based on his novel, is the greatest detriment against war ever written. The film centers on a young soldier who has lost his arms, legs, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth to an artillery shell. His mind is trapped inside a living hell and all he has are his memories. The military hospital he’s housed at won’t even euthanize him, instead keeping him around as a freak show demonstration of the horrors of war. The viewer comes to know this solider intimately through his memories, and his voiced-over thoughts which express all of his feelings and hopes. By the end of the film you feel as if you know him, and you desperately want to aid this fictional man. There’s nothing but deeply affecting hopelessness in this film.
Here are a number of the responses I received. Thanks to everyone who contributed!
@RICHARDLNEWBY Shame. One of my favorites since 2010 but a tough watch.
— Travis Losh (@Travvylo) January 18, 2015
— Linus (@SunilRao101) January 18, 2015
— Pittsburgh Proud (@PburghProud) January 18, 2015
— Victor LaValle (@victorlavalle) January 18, 2015
@RICHARDLNEWBY any movie by Steve McQueen. He’s 3 for 3 but those are not easy watches
— Diego Crespo (@deggowaffles) January 18, 2015
— David S. (@David_Shreve2) January 18, 2015
— Aaron Hammond (@Aaron_Hammond88) January 18, 2015
— Avery Chasten (@AveryChasten) January 18, 2015
— Ethan (@ethanwilliams) January 18, 2015
— TheRealMattC (@TheRealMattC) January 18, 2015
@RICHARDLNEWBY 12 Years a Slave is the one that comes most readily to mind.
— Whit’s Movie Reviews (@WhitsMovies) January 18, 2015
@RICHARDLNEWBY the Pianist, Requiem for a Dream, Blue Valentine
— Lo (@sherry_mints) January 18, 2015
— Grace (@graceporta) January 19, 2015
And my final recommendation: If you take it upon yourself to watch these (especially the ones on the lower half of the list), please do yourself a favor by spacing them out and watching them with someone else. And just so you know, the happiest day of the year falls between June 21st and 24th so you have something to look forward to.