5. Audition (1999)
All the other films on this list pertain to either the nature of violence or attempt to make lofty societal commentaries, but what makes Audition truly unique is its horrific take on romantic relationships and human emotions.
One way a film can be engaging is by explaining the reasons why people on both sides of the story want what they want. In this case, all Aoyama, a widower, wants is love again, but the way he goes about it is somewhat unconventional. A fake audition casting couch is probably not the best way, especially considering it’s very well known that actors and actresses have a certain level of crazy.
The word “crazy” is an understatement for Asami, the woman he falls in love with. Despite repeated warnings by Aoyama’s friends, including fake references on a resume, and even a report of grisly murders at her previous job, he refuses to feel anything but love for her. Asami herself wants to be in love, but has developed a false sense of it, and reveals what she probably genuinely feels is her most intimate, dark secret of her past. To Ayoama, this feels like they’re drawing ever closer, which, assumedly, it would in real relationships.
Then we get to the end of the film, which is at once disturbing and heartbreaking. Horror films can have underlying real feelings and motivations, which might not be far from our own. They can operate similarly to fairy tales, in that the suspension of disbelief puts us in the mindset to judge the characters’ motivations, as well as ourselves, with minimal real world repercussions. Asami genuinely felt jealous, just as we all have, but her way of acting on her emotions was certainly ill-advised, just as we’ve all done, albeit most of us don’t torture our loved ones with needles.
The film serves as a cautionary tale about how love makes us crazy. We can be blinded by it. We can get jealous of it. We can go about getting it all wrong. We can kill for it. We can die for it. We can find out our lovers are not what they seem and love them just the same. Some might argue that true love can be looked at as a fairy tale, that it’s unrealistic and creates false expectations. If it’s anything like Audition, it’s probably wise to tread lightly.
4. Triumph of the Will (1935)
It is said that the most terrifying parts of horror films are what isn’t shown, and historical context has made this film both ironic and utterly terrifying. If one were to describe the film as “a documentary tribute to Hitler, his emerging political prowess, and his adoring fans,” the person listening would no doubt think it’s a joke.
Hitler was the figurehead of destruction, hatred, racism, and everything generally wrong with humanity. His ideology can be looked at as unfathomable in hindsight. So how did this man capture the hearts of an entire nation and convince them to wage war on basically the entire world? It’s a complex question with no easy answer, but this film illuminates one quality he undoubtedly had: charisma. It frames him in every way imaginable, from wide shots of his speeches towering over his subordinates, to intimate extreme close-ups, which highlight the fact he was nothing if not a passionate man.
The Nazi symbol is so universally reviled that it’s astonishing it could be photographed so extensively in the context of beauty and poetry. The working class people who were apparently Nazi radicals are shown so stylistically and with such gentle embrace that it firmly moves into the realm of the uncanny. We can’t fathom such support, but knowing that it existed is such a fascinating historical quandary. Did this film genuinely manipulate people into believing in this man or did they choose to believe him out of their own free will? The truth is probably somewhere in between.
Many of the techniques in the film were revolutionary at the time. This film was actually an early notable example of the power of non-diagetic sound and its ability to control the viewers’ emotions. The tracking shots were very difficult and used in a context that added beauty to something so conventionally sterile.
The wide shots of the rallies gave the viewers perspective of the sheer scale of support Hitler had. Perhaps the most important innovation, though, was the use of aerial photography and its use as a way to depict Hitler as a messiah descending down from the heavens.
Film was, and still is, dominated by men, and for the political party associated with so much persecution and ignorance to commission a woman to make the movie about it’s central figure, it’s just a wonder of history. On the one hand, it could be seen as a glimmer of goodness in an otherwise savage system, on the other hand it could highlight Hitler’s underlying vanity in choosing a woman to create elaborate images of worship devoted entirely to himself.
Nonetheless, women had only gained the right to vote 15 years prior in the US, and Leni Riefenstahl not only directed one of the most sophisticated documentaries of all time, but innovated a number of techniques still used today.
3. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Genre films such as exploitation or horror films generally come with distinct prerequisite expectations such as violence, gore, or suspense. This viscera acts as a sort of fast track to the audience’s unconscious, creating the opportunity to bring bigger ideas and themes to the forefront. A select few films go even further, and shatter the notion of what constitutes film as a medium itself. They question why we even watch movies in the first place.
Enter Cannibal Holocaust, a film so notorious that the director himself was arrested in the first few days of its release for making it, and is still banned in many countries to this day. The major point of contention is the extreme violence, a large majority of which is real animal mutilation. The violence is undoubtedly savage and sensationalized, but there’s something to be said about the sheer audacity of rising to the top of a genre known for such elements.
Where the genius really lies is in the social commentary, particularly the question of societal prejudice, and the ambiguous line between the good and bad aspects of society. The film could be seen as an argument for tolerance and refraining from the judgment of a culture just because, on the surface, they’re different. The modern society’s people have a diplomatic anthropologist, who works toward a level of peace with the seemingly primitive tribe, but the tribe also has a number of priests and women who seem warm themselves, open to peaceful trysts, even if they happen to eat people regularly.
It’s fitting that the movie takes place in both the concrete jungle of New York City and the real jungle, because cruelty and savagery exist in both worlds. The documentarians could be seen as more evil, however, because they commit horrible acts on the villagers out of their own personal interest, and even go out of their way to travel to the jungle to do so. The villagers, on the other hand, just operate within their societal construct; they don’t know any better.
The aspect of the film that elevates beyond just the thematic, is the notion of witnessing cruelty on screen. The film, to many audiences, is seen as just repugnant and nothing else, and it raises the question of why the movie should be viewed at all.
Films happen to be cathartic and entertaining because we, as a society, have decided they should be, but why can’t some people watch movies for no other reason than to be disgusted? If we all decided tomorrow that films should be disgusting and not entertaining, would we not then judge entertaining films in the same manner? Any film that challenges the systemic notion of viewership and its intention, has to be brilliant, at least in its own way.
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
It is said that all stories have sex and violence, in one form or another. A Clockwork Orange obviously takes this literally, but the film delves deeply into the psychology behind why we, as humans, are so drawn to sex and violence, and the conundrum of our efforts to stop violence being inherently violent.
It’s a lofty theme, and presumably part of the reason that Kubrick wouldn’t tone the film down and lose its X-rating is due to the principle of “go big or go home.” This film asks many big questions, and elicits big responses. Alex begins the film doing copious amounts of drugs and gleefully raping and torturing victims just for fun. Actual sex, with two women, no less, is mechanical for him; he sees it as merely an excursion, a prelude to the real carnal pleasures.
However, the law doesn’t really understand him. They see him as disobedient, even though his behavior suggests he’s just misunderstood. The guy has to be a genius at something, just merely by how articulate he is. Punishing him might enact justice for society, but can they really change him and ensure he’ll never do it again? One person suggests an experimental approach, in that they literally turn him into a human science experiment.
Consider the ethics involved in this. They may not be putting him into solitary confinement and torturing him on a daily basis, but the word “violence” is defined as “the intentional use of physical force or power;” are they not physically strapping the guy to a chair and forcing images into his brain? Society’s relationship to crime entails a sentence agreed upon as retribution for enacting violence on another human being, and while Alex certainly deserves some form of sentence, is rearranging his brain chemistry against his will, and turning him into a completely different person really fair?
Most of the criticism of this movie came from its stylized violence, but the style adds a large amount of complexity. Most of the shots are technically pure and perfectly composed, and the camera movements are excruciatingly precise. This adds a feeling a sterility to the story, as if we’re supposed to watch the film for a clinical psychology class. The entertainment value in the story also makes a statement aimed at the viewer: if you’re entertained by the film, what really separates you from Alex anyway? Some people call the film “distant” or “cold,” but isn’t that a good thing?
1. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Never mind that it’s arguably the most repulsive film on this entire list, Salo deserves its status as an “art film” for many reasons. Just the fact that a film could contain elements of Marquis de Sade, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and copious amounts of feces makes it, at the very least, an interesting viewing.
Delve a little deeper for a moment, and one can recognize its noble intentions. Power and corruption go hand in hand, and entangled in the constant flow of such is the masses’ willingness to accept the ruling class. Throughout history, there have been many ideas on how to speak out against, and even limit, power. The American government has its complex system of checks and balances, and the French had their guillotine. One thing’s for sure, it’s a very important subject that generates radical responses, and the more radical, the more people are generally willing to listen.
Everyone would surely agree that extreme obscenity would be considered radical, and that’s where Pasolini undoubtedly succeeds. The Libertines in the film have become so greatly corrupted with power that pleasure itself has become an addiction, to the point where complete and utter depravity is the only way to satisfy their urges. What makes this universal is it applies to both the powerful and powerless, and speaks to a sort of sexual impulse inherent in the human condition. Even the victims in the film start relationships amongst themselves, despite being captive and regularly subjected to torture.
There’s also a control of mise-en-scene that accentuates the idea of seeking pleasure to a fault, and the feeling of numbness until that impulse is fulfilled. Nothing is ever sensationalized with bold colors or dramatic sweeping camera movement, but it’s never shown as grimy or disgusting either. The actions of the Libertines just simply occur, which makes it all the more indicative of their sickness caused by power. It’s as if someone standing in proximity just committed a horrible atrocity, people would no doubt judge him or her as sick by their actions, and not the context of the space they occupy
The ending of the film exemplifies the power of one single moment changing the context of the entire whole. The ebb and flow of events give us context, and hindsight is 20/20. For example, wars are fought, people are killed, but soldiers still come home and take their jobs back, which were occupied by their wives; the wives get mad, campaign to keep their jobs, domestic roles become the new issue, and life presses on ever forward. Soon the war becomes just a memory. The final scene of Salo is perhaps the most exemplary instance of the notion “life goes on,” and that makes it brilliant.
Author Bio: Anthony Gagnon is a graduate of the American Film Institute in Screenwriting. He is currently a writer/director in development with his second feature, which is slated to shoot in the spring of 2015. He’s also a guitarist in the metal band Of The Earth. facebook.com/oftheearthband.