6. Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
There may not be a filmmaker more adept at extracting compelling, nuanced performances out of his actors than Mike Leigh. His famed technique of bringing his principal actors together, sans screenplay, and working with them through a series of role playing and improvisation until a full story is fleshed out almost always results in magic.
Perhaps his greatest achievement comes in the form of 1993’s Naked, a grim existential exploration of Johnny, a London drifter, played to perfection by David Thewlis, and the chaos he injects in to the world of everyone he come in to contact with. Louise (Lesley Sharp) and Sophie (Katlin Cartlidge) are flatmates simply trying to live in peace when Johnny brusquely re-enters their lives.
The fact that his mere presence throws their little world in to a tailspin indicates that Johnny I not a very pleasant person to be around. Indeed, his behavior over the course of the film will hammer that point home. While someone like Five Easy Pieces’ Robert Dupea’s apathy manifests itself in an almost carefree, good-natured demeanor, Johnny is a whirlwind of nervous energy; when he’s not haranguing Louise and Sophie, he’s bouncing around London picking fights or spreading his caustic worldview to anyone that will listen.
Does it uninviting? It’s really not. In fact Naked is one of the most biting critiques of Margaret Thatcher’s England and the societal values that were brought to the fore during her time as Prime Minister. Above all else, however, is Thewlis’s masterful performance. Johnny is simultaneously frightening and vulnerable, sadistic and hilarious.
7. The Seventh Continent (Michael Haneke, 1989)
Michael Haneke has been accused of being “cold” or “clinical” in his dealing with morose subject matter. His directorial style often creates a bit of a distance between the viewer and the unsettling on-screen action. Well, that style works perfectly in his feature length debut, The Seventh Continent, an exquisitely constructed glimpse in to the daily lives and ultimate destruction of a seemingly unremarkable middle-class Austrian family.
Told over the period of several years, the film expertly lulls the audience to a point of comfort throughout the first act, simply showing Georg, an engineer, and his wife Anna, an optician, moving through the mundanity of their lives. They go to work, they spend time with their daughter, Eva, they do some shopping. Just when the viewer may conclude that Haneke created a simple slice of life drama, things take a gradual turn towards the macabre.
Through a letter to Georg’s parents, we learn that he and his family intend to leave their old lives behind and start anew in Australia (a reference to the film’s title). That is not at all what transpires over the remainder of the film. To continue through the narrative would be to spoil the numerous jolts that Haneke has in store. What needs to be said, however, is that The Seventh Continent remains one of the most crushing pieces of work on middle-class malaise taken to its most extreme end ever filmed.
8. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Elio Petri, 1970)
Does boredom breed apathy or does apathy breed boredom? Either way, Il Dottore (Gian Maria Volonte), the former head of the Homicide Division of the local police department, has both in spades. It’s a general boredom that sends him down his dark path and it’s an extreme apathy that allows him to murder his mistress and intentionally leave a series of clues that should incriminate him.
Simultaneously an engrossing character study, a riveting procedural, and a jet black corruption satire, Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a true gem of the criminally underrated 70’s Italian crime genre. Volonte delivers a commanding, thrilling performance as he continuously pushes and pushes the envelope in regards to the bread crumbs he leaves for his fellow investigators.
He’s a preening, contemptuous bastard who seems to get off on the professional power that he wields; a far cry from the lack of control and malaise Il Dottore gets out of his personal life. Exactly why he’s carrying out such a nefarious scheme is thankfully left up to interpretation.
Is he purely a power hungry maniac that wants to see ho far he push things? Is he a psychopath? Is it some sort of social experiment? Petri doesn’t make it completely clear. What he does make clear, however, is that Il Dottore is just a little bit off.
9. L’Avventura (Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1960)
It’s almost surprising that middle-class malaise has found such an enduring place in cinema considering that what many would argue is the apex for the sub-genre was reached way back in 1960. When a film of this caliber comes along, one that explores such profound themes in new and invigorating ways, there are bound to be a number of imitators of varying degrees of quality (think crime films post-Reservoir Dogs).
Indeed, there have been some great successors to L’Avventura’s throne – Antonioni even churned out a couple – but there has yet to be a work that can match not only the film’s overarching impact but also the sheer technical and narrative wizardry that the Italian master put forth in his 1960 classic.
During an afternoon trip on the Mediterranean, Anna (Lea Massari) goes missing. What directly follows is a sequence that would be the focal point of any other movie: a search for her led by her friend Claudia and Anna’s lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). The spend the rest of the day scouring the rocky island where Anna was last seen. She doesn’t turn up. Claudia and Sandro return home, and the search is soon abandoned. It doesn’t matter.
L’Avventura isn’t about a disappearance. It’s partly about how a disappearance affects two people that are so absorbed in their meandering way of life that they can’t help but indulge the vacant side of themselves. What should be insufferable becomes magnificent, due in large part to Antonioni’s and cinematographer Aldo Scavarda’s breathtaking deep focus and 1.75:1 aspect ratio that lays bare not only Claudia and Sandro’s souls.
But more importantly, and what has truly allowed the film to stand the test of time, is the shockingly poignant and accurate future of middle-class discontent that Antonioni predicted.
10. Brother (Aleksey Balabanov, 1997)
There’s a certain light-heartedness that flows through Aleksey Balabanov’s underseen Russian gangster film Brother. As Danila (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) bums around St. Petersburg carrying out his dirty deeds it’s not uncommon to hear the bouncy pop rock stylings of Nautilus Pompilius playing over the action.
It’s an injection of much needed humor that is all too uncommon in the self-serious world of European crime movies. It’s a good thing, too, because this is a dreary, albeit compelling, piece of work, otherwise.
The film opens with Danila wandering on to a film set and attempting to strike up conversation with people while they work. He is immediately escorted away for a sit down with a local policeman who happens to be a family friend. He’s convinced that, since his return home from the military, this town has nothing to offer him. He travels to St. Petersburg to reconnect ad work with his brother.
What kind of work? The kind that caters perfectly to Danila’s self-destructive side: organized crime. Yet, as we saw when he walked on to the movie set in the opening scene, there is an almost child-like curiosity that works to balance out the apathy in Danila. He falls in love (easily), he befriends the homeless, and he can’t get enough of Nautilus.
The whole spectrum of Danila’s life is a refreshing bit of characterization from writer/director Balabanov. Make no mistake, a huge portion of Danila is unaffected and careless, but it might be the carefree aspect of his personality that elevates Brother above genre level to a truly great film.
Author Bio: Dustin recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a BA in Journalism and Media Production. He enjoys basketball, craft beer, and everything from Jodorowsky to Jarmusch.