A friend once told me that the true test of a movie’s greatness was whether or not you could turn it off when you ran across it incidentally while channel surfing. Since it is physically impossible to change the channel or turn off the television while Die Hard is playing, that movie is therefore a classic. But what about those movies that tantalize and transfix you, suck you in with unrelenting visual stimulation and then spit you out sour, shriveled, depressed, disturbed or disgusted to the point that you take an oath of abstinence from that film forever more? You know the types of which I speak. You can’t take your eyes off them despite the fact that they will make you feel like less of a human being later on. If your inner masochist is looking for such a list of movies, then Hans, booby, I’m your white knight.
10. Saw (2004)
The Saw series—currently six movies and counting—is the highest grossing horror franchise in film history. That’s not a misprint, Messrs. Krueger and Voorhees. So what does this tell you? Mainly that people clearly aren’t averse to re-experiencing these simple, bloody, torture-infused morality plays… over and over and over again. But despite the thoroughly entertaining and imaginative way the Jigsaw killer disassembles human lives, has anyone ever bothered to watch the first one (or any of the others) more than once? Is there any real reason to? A second viewing is the visual equivalent of an intentional, self-inflicted paper cut.
9. Life is Beautiful (1997)
Truthfully, any number of WWII movies could have made this list, namely Schindler’s List and The Pianist. But I chose Roberto Benigni’s study of Holocaust tragedy because of its ingenious premise, which takes it a step past “hard to watch” territory and clear into “fucking brutal.” Watching the protagonist convince his son that a Nazi concentration camp is a fun, elaborate game, often to comic effect, is just too difficult to even think about a second time, much less watch it play out to its predictably horrifying outcome. Speaking of, watching this short YouTube clip just reminded me of how much I hate myself.
8. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
I only wanted to mention one WWII themed movie, but this little anime flick technically makes two, albeit by portraying the very different Japanese experience. There are two primary reasons you will never want to watch this movie again after your first screening (spoiler alert). First, it depicts a long, slow descent from child abuse to sickness to starvation and finally to death for its two children protagonists. And second, it unravels its depressing yarn in the form of a lush, beautiful animated picture, cruelly luring in unsuspecting adults who make the silly error of thinking cartoons are for kids. This makes The Fox and the Hound look like Happy Gilmore.
7. The Terminal (2004)
This one is a little different from the others on this list. It has all the makings of a big winner. A fine story, an all-star cast led by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Oscar decorated Tom Hanks, and Hollywood titan Steven Spielberg behind the camera. The performances are solid and the ending is enjoyable and cathartic. So why does just about every person who has ever seen this movie fail to remember almost anything about it? Maybe it’s because nothing actually happens. Just watch the following scene, a somewhat important one toward the overall plot. Trust me, nothing happens!
6. Very Bad Things (1997)
Judging solely from the trailer, Very Bad Things is a dark comedy about a bachelor party gone awry and the spiral of disaster that follows. The reality is far more barbarous and unsettling to watch. Even through the more incredible and outwardly sardonic moments, you can’t help but feel disturbed by the actions of the central characters and their failure to do a single thing right for even a single second. And yet, it’s extremely satisfying to watch… at least once.
5. Bully (2001)
In the vein of Kids and Gummo, Bully is a disturbing picture of dysfunctional teenage life (the former two don’t make the cut because they have enough one-liner material to make them “cult” classics). While some of the dialogue initially seems silly and the plot feels weak at times, the movie perfectly captures a sort of fringe, ne'er-do-well sect of youth so common to American suburbs. Maybe most kids aren't going to the extremes shown here (murder), but part of what's so utterly depressing and uncomfortable is that when Brad Renfro’s character makes a baffling, uneducated, misinformed, brash, vulgar, immature and generally disgraceful decision, it suddenly dawns on you that there are scores of people who actually walk, talk, think, act and live this way. Truly a low grade cross section of subverted social roles—leaders, followers and helpless fat kids trying to fit in—all simultaneously scared shitless of themselves and everyone around them. I mean, fuck, I won't see this one again.
4. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Because it feels like a documentary… no actually, because it feels entirely real, Henry qualifies as one of the hardest to watch movies in history. The characters are so raw and nihilistic, and the action so disquieting that you cannot help but feel like a filthy sinner after watching it. It’s not scary in the traditional sense. Nor is the story particularly compelling. But the carefree nature in which Henry and his Neanderthal buddy Otis rape, torment and murder makes it both horrific and deeply captivating at the same time. But trust me, this is definitely a one-shot deal.
3. The Crying Game (1992)
Even if you haven’t seen this one, you probably understand the primary reason for it meeting the criteria here. In fact, The Crying Game should qualify for a separate list of great movies you’ve never seen and deliberately never will, due to its infamous reveal scene (and, be honest, your extreme transphobia). Granted, it’s probably more unpalatable for heterosexual male viewers than anyone else, but even in spite of its deeply moving story of political intrigue, which won an Academy Award for best screenplay, it’s hard to think of a compelling reason anyone would want to put themselves through the “ringer” like this more than once. Shame on Director Neil Jordan for fooling me like that.
2. The Road (2009)
The Road is that rare adaptation that honors its powerful source material—which many said could not be filmed—while simultaneously inspiring in viewers an urge to carve out their eyes with a butter knife. Viggo Mortensen’s turn as a father protecting his son in a post-apocalyptic world of cannibalism and fire is worthy of the highest praise. The cinematography, direction and editing are top notch; the film itself, difficult to look away from. But the emotional strain—expertly culled from Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel—is the kind of thing that can turn a day at the movies into a genuflection before the porcelain god.
1. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Perhaps no movie in modern history has so thoroughly explored the slow and suffocating deconstruction of a group of characters. In fact, when it was originally released, there were widespread reports of theater goers committing mass suicide in the parking lot after the movie. From drug abuse to insanity to self prostitution, the protagonists in Requiem defile themselves to no end, and you are left watching every painful, graphic, twisted, despicable minute of it. And no, I’m not lying about the suicides… seriously.
Boys Don’t Cry, Happiness, Solaris, Million Dollar Baby, Arlington Road, Misery, House of Sand and Fog, The Woodsman, The Assassination of Jesse James, The Seventh Seal
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