6. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)
There’s an important distinction to be made between one’s quest for stardom and one’s quest for import. Like most of the characters you’ll find on this list, Miles Teller’s Andrew is decidedly in the latter camp. More Fitzcarraldo than Aguirre, he has devoted himself to the drums. He studies under the tutelage of the almost comically stern taskmaster Fletcher (J.K. Simmons in an Oscar-winning turn) at a prestigious New York City music academy.
When he’s not working his hands raw (literally) in an effort to please Fletcher and himself, Andrew is going through the motions of everyday life, doing the things that he feels he’s supposed to do. This notion is subtly and masterfully captured in his relationship with the gorgeous and charming Nicole (Melissa Benoist).
In the midst of a romance that, by all accounts, seems to be going swimmingly, Andrew submarines things, causing Nicole great frustration. Not even Andrew’s immediate family is immune from the eccentricities that go along with his ambitions, having to endure a self-righteous outburst in which he equates himself to late late Jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker, a man who Andrew reverentially notes died drunk and broke but with notoriety that would live on forever.
Despite these obnoxious character flaws, it’s Andrew’s tenaciousness that resonates throughout Whiplash, not his pretentiousness; a character trait that bubbles to the surface and bursts off the screen in a rousing climactic sequence.
7. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
David Cronenberg has always had a knack for burrowing into the psyches of his central characters, revealing their deep-seated desires, many of which manifest themselves in fantastically morbid physiological ways. Videodrome’s Max Renn developed a decidedly vaginal wound in his chest during his quest for harder and harder programming for his soft-core porn station, for example.
However, nothing was quite as grotesque (and fun!) as Seth Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum) slow and graphically rendered transformation from mad scientist to winged insect. Inspired to do something completely groundbreaking, Brundle devises a teleportation device that, after some trial and error that should turn just about anyone off from the project (a baboon is a little worse for wear after Brundle is done with him), is able to successfully transport living creatures from one “Telepod” to the other.
In one such instance, Brundle’s genetic material becomes mixed with that of a fly that became trapped in the pod with him. In true Cronenberg fashion, Brundle’s human body begins to deteriorate, giving way to the features of the fly: he vomits digestive enzymes on his food to dissolve it; his fingernails fall off; he learns that he now has the ability to climb walls. Never one to shy away from visualizing the possible repercussions of obsessive behavior, Cronenberg pulls out all the stops with The Fly.
8. Tim’s Vermeer (Teller, 2013)
It’s important to note that while many of the most riveting on-screen portrayals of human obsession deal directly with dangerous or harmful desires – desires that often bring characters to ruin – there is also a wealth of portrayals of healthy obsessions. In Teller’s (of Penn & Teller) 2013 documentary Tim’s Vermeer we follow inventor and tech company founder Tim Jenison on his quest to replicate a painting by by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer.
What could easily come off as dry quickly becomes compelling once it is made apparent just how incredibly taxing an undertaking Jenison has committed himself to. See, what makes Vermeer’s pieces interesting in the first place is the fact that they are nearly photo-realistic, much more so than those of any other artist of his day.
The particular painting that Jenison works with in the film is an intricate, detailed piece called “Music Lessons.” Of course, Jenison doesn’t simply work off of a print or photo of the original piece, he rents out a warehouse space and recreates the contents of the painting, even going so far as to handmake an exact scale replica of a chair from “Music Lessons.”
Much of the film is devoted to Jenison trying to discover and recreate the means by which Vermeer achieved such striking realism. In a sequence of incredible ingenuity, Jenison finally cracks the code. Then, the real fun begins.
9. Tracks (John Curran, 2014)
Fortunately, not every obsessive on this list sees things spiral out of control. At least one of them is able to channel her unique compulsions into a legitimately life-affirming experience. This is the case for Mia Wasikowska’s Robyn Davidson, the restless soul at the heart of John Curran’s transcendentally beautiful Tracks.
After losing her mother at a young age, Robyn (based on the real-life woman of the same name) began a life on the run. Not from anything in particular – she always came back home – but more from the ennui that she’s developed from a life in the Outback. So, what does one do in that environment when one feels an overwhelming sense of malaise? Well, one could do as Robyn does and eschew all practical advice and embark on a trek that will finally instill some meaning into one’s life.
With only the clothes on her back, a few modest supplies, four camels and her trusted dog, Robyn set out on a 1,700 mile journey across the harsh Australian desert terrain. Exquisitely shot in 35 mm by cinematographer Mandy Walker, Tracks offers one of the truly great juxtapositions of outer beauty and inner turmoil.
As Wasikowska works out Robyn’s demons in compelling, typically understated fashion, we are treated to sweeping landscape shots of every inch of her journey. Ass the stakes increase Wasikowska rises to meet them, delivering a terrifically nuanced performance that captures Robyn’s eccentricities and renewed passion for existence in equal measure.
10. Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)
Many would argue that the cinema of Brian De Palma isn’t exactly rich with complex, layered characters. As a filmmaker he has a tendency to lean more towards showy (and undeniably impressive) set pieces than interesting heroes and villains. One striking exception to that notion is his 1981 spiritual successor to Micaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
John Travolta is Jack Terry, as sound effects specialist for schlocky horror movies. He’s talented, far too talented to be working on such drivel, and he seems to aspire for more. Long term, we can presume it’s bigger movies; short term, it’s a great piece of sound: the perfect scream.
It’s on that assignment that Jack becomes intertwined with Nancy Allen’s Sally, a late night companion of a Presidential candidate whom Jack saves from a submerged car. Thus, Jack’s quest for the perfect scream and his amateur investigation into what went wrong that night become one and the same.
Travolta is casually cool, the perfect protagonist for De Palma and his slick formalism (the split-screen action is in full effect). Yet, beneath his easygoing exterior there lies a subtle, nearly imperceptible callousness, an unwavering willingness to put others in harms way in order to fulfill his wishes. Wishes that on their face seem reasonable, perhaps even noble, but when followed to their conclusion are revealed to be quite cruel. That ending still chills to the bone.
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.