10 Beautifully Disturbing Movies You’ll Only (Need To) Watch Once
Sometimes we go to the movies for a bit of escapism. An action/comedy or lightweight romance. Other times we watch a movie and when it’s done, get another ticket and watch it again. Some movies get under your skin and stay with you long after they are over. To be sure, there are a lot of truly disturbing movies out there, and not just horror films. But this list isn’t about those films. You won’t find the Japanese torture story Audition here, nor the German necrophilic Nekromantik (1987) or the controversial Italian Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975). This is about more mainstream films that are beautifully made but also a little disturbing. Here are 10 Beautifully Disturbing Movies You’ll Only (Need To) Watch Once.
DIRECTRO: Gus Van Sant STARS: Matt Damon, Casey Affleck
Gus Van Sant‘s epically slow and plodding film about two young men lost in an unnamed desert is a unique viewing experience, punctuated by long, unbroken shots of the actors simply walking, dialog free as they edge ever closer to a jarring conclusion. Starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, the two start as best friends, entering a remote hiking location marked “Wilderness Trail”. They have few provisions, apparently planning on a short excursion. When they realize they are lost, they simply keep moving. Van Sant cited the video game Tomb Raider as an influence, not for its action but for the player’s inability to cut away from it as the character traveled between action, something films often skip over. A Box Office failure, it is nonetheless, a well made film that begs discussion. It’s a test of one’s patience but at the same time is a kind of challenge that should be taken, only once.
Donnie Darko (2001)
DIRECTOR: Richard Kelly STARS: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone
A time paradox film hiding a larger theme of connected universes in a struggle for existence is a gloriously confusing tale that is greatly debated over its meaning and interpretation. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is awoken by a man in a grotesque rabbit costume and led out of his house where he is told the world with end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. Then a jumbo jet engine crashes into his bedroom. What follows is a journey of discovery as Donnie tries to piece together the “hallucinations” and understand his role in the doomsday prediction. As he draws others into the drama, he comes to learn the importance of his place in this universe (and others), even at great cost. The ambiguity of the premise, mixed with evocative dialog and stylish direction make this a chilling experience, and while it would be tempting to replay and replay the film, combing over hints and clues to try and form a concrete solution for what it’s about, the truth is, once is the best, leaving the viewer swimming in the questions that need no answer.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
DIRECTOR: Wolfgang Peterson STARS: Barrett Oliver, Noah Hathaway
Loosely based on the first part of Michael Ende‘s book of the same name, this children’s tale is a dark, disturbing, but richly realized fantasy about the consequences of a world with no imagination. A young boy named Bastian (Barrett Oliver), bullied by schoolmates, takes a special book from a bookstore and hides in the attic of his school, taken in by the colorful story. He reads about a land called Fantasia, populated by strange and interesting creatures that are slowly being consumed by the Nothing, an absolute void that is destroying the world. A young warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) is tasked with finding the Nothing and stopping it. Little does Bastian know that he will play a key role in saving Fantasia. A West German film (titled: Die unendliche Geschichte)(spoken in English), it’s filled with often amazing sights but also some harrowing imagery that is decidedly not in the Disney-esque mode of children’s movie. A curious film, it deserves a look, but only once. You’ll have your fill by its end.
DIRECTOR: John Boorman STARS: Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight
Rape of any kind is one of the most horrific things to watch as an audience. The squeal like a pig moment in Deliverance is one of the most harrowing and notorious moments ever seen in mainstream movies, and earns a place on this list, though there is a lot about this movie that makes it a single-viewing movie. The story follows four men taking a canoe adventure in the deep back country of Georgia. What they find is a nightmare for survival as the men become separated and two of them run afoul of two archetypical hillbillies who hold one man at gun point while the other is raped. It’s the start of a number of jarring moments that made this one of the most celebrated films of the decade. The actors famously performed all the stunts as the film worked with no insurance and the gritty, realism makes it a truly memorable experience. Yet once is all it takes. It’s terrifying imagery, mixed with breathtaking cinematography lingers.
DIRECTOR: Andrei Tarkovsky STARS: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk
This science fiction Russian/German language film, adapted from the novel of the same name, centers on a man (Donatas Banionis) who travels to a space station orbiting the distant Earth-like planet of Solaris to investigate the slow progress of a ten-year mission. When he arrives, the place is in disarray, one man is dead, and not long after, his wife (Natalya Bondarchuk) appears in this compartment, despite having committed suicide well before. A stunning, visually arresting work that explores devastating grief, human consciousness, morality and the unreliability of reality, this is not for everyone but is must for fans who crave a challenge. Disturbing, shocking, alluring, thought-provoking and endlessly imaginative, it will haunt you for days after. Best to see it once. (There is an American remake with George Clooney that is competent but watered-down and misses the mark).
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
DIRECTOR: Lars Von Trier STARS: Björk, Catherine Deneuve
This won’t be the only time this controversial director makes this list. His work is purposefully shocking and Dancer in the Dark is no exception. It stars Icelandic pop singer Björk in her film debut as a daydreaming factory worker with a degenerative eye condition saving money to pay for an operation to prevent her young son from suffering the same fate. When she is betrayed by someone she trusts, things become explosive. With a number of musical fantasy interludes where her imagination comes to life, the film harkens back to the classic films of the 1940 and 50s (where its title is a derivative of the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse duet “Dancing in the Dark”). But all comparisons end there. A deeply personal performance by Björk is like no other, where she is wholly lost in the role. The heavy, painfully emotional ending (and song) are absolutely draining and polarizing, often splitting audiences into expressing contempt or praise. Either way, it’s a genuinely moving film that needs only one look.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
DIRECTOR: Stanley Kubrick STARS: Malcolm McDowell
This might be a controversial pick as is it often considered a masterpiece and one to be studied. Certainly, there is a case for such as Kubrick (and any one of Kubrick’s films could make the list) pushes the limits with heavily satirical themes on behavioral psychology and modern morality. The story follows a particularly violent young thug who is betrayed by his cronies and sent to prison where he undergoes an experimental new aversion therapy that soon makes him unable to fight back when taunted and physically ill at the sight of a nude girl. Considered rehabilitated, he is freed and made to make a new life for himself. It’s not so easy. A highly disturbing film with scenes of rape and torture, the therapy sessions are equally hard to watch as he is forced to watch endless films of violence and sex with is eyes pried open. That said, this is a highly-acclaimed masterpiece and always near the top of the greatest films of all time, yet a single viewing is enough for those not interested in gleaning the numerous technical and thematic nuances Kubrick layered into the production. The searing, visually spectacular experience is affecting long after it’s over.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg STARS: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon
This epic World War II story is often cited as the greatest war film ever made, with the opening scenes of the Normandy invasion the most graphic and authentic portrayal of that historical event recorded. The story of Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) and his small company of soldiers tasked with finding and securing Private Ryan (Matt Damon), the last of four sons, now missing in action, is a traumatic, nerve-rattling experience. With unrelenting realism and one chaotic, emotionally-draining scene after another, this towering cinematic achievement is impossible to shake after it’s over. What Spielberg does so magnificently, is take the grand-mind numbing scale of the opening assault and by the end, narrow it down to two people in a bell tower. The horror of war. One time is plenty.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky STARS: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly
The spiraling downfall of four individuals battling different forms of drug addiction is both a stunning visual experience and a nightmare of self-abuse and despair. Ellen Burstyn plays Sara, an older woman obsessed with obtaining her former beauty through drugs while her son Harry (Jared Leto) and his two friends Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) sink into petty crime to support their heroine use. Aronofsky, who creates a savage, hallucinogenic aura to the film, relentlessly paints a desperate, inescapable vision of self-imprisonment that is exhausting to watch. A magnificent achievement by any standard, it is one a return trip to is unneeded. When it’s over, you almost feel like you earned your own freedom.
DIRECTOR: Lars Von Trier STARS: Willem DeFoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
This 2009 psychological horror film centers on a couple mourning the loss of their young son and how each finds different ways to confront their acceptance (or not) of the tragedy. While the theme is nothing new in movies, the approach is pure Von Trier who starts with a simple message and bleeds it to one of misogyny, theology, and body mutilation. It stars Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg who admittedly deserve praise beyond the conventional ‘fearless’ performances as they go to a place few have ever gone in movies. It’s a harrowing experience to watch. From the chilling, heartbreaking opening death of a small boy who tumbles out a window in achingly slow speed, to the brutal blunt force trauma on a man’s genitals, this is a film that may repulse but is one of the most courageous movies ever made. But once is enough.
What are some beautifully disturbing films on your list?