Movies have a way of playing us like pianos. They can have us wrapped in laughter one minute while the next we’re wiping away tears of sorrow. Films should evoke some kind of response from their audiences.
In today’s world of super hero franchises and endless sequels, it has become increasingly rare to find stories that serve as more than just empty candy for the masses. The following are 15 movies that provide full-course meals. They’re so good they just might change your perspective on life.
1. Cast Away – Robert Zemeckis
Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) plays a Fed-Ex employee whose entire life revolves around punctuality. When Chuck’s plane crashes en route to the United States, he finds himself the lone survivor, washed ashore a deserted island. After 4 years on the island with no one but his volleyball friend “Wilson” to keep him company, Chuck makes a last effort to return to civilization on a makeshift raft. He is finally rescued, but upon returning home he finds nothing is the way he left it.
Carrying the entire second act on his solitary shoulders, Hanks turns in one of the best performances of his career. Helen Hunt is also effective in her role as Kelly, Chuck’s fiancée who finds herself settling for a different kind of life after his 4 year hiatus. What sets this film apart from most Hollywood fare is the Zen-like tone established throughout the second half of the story.
Cast Away explores the fleeting decisions we make every day that sometimes have life-long ramifications. The movie is a modern-day classic and if you let it, Cast Away just might touch your soul.
2. Stroszek – Werner Herzog
Stroszek is the story of Bruno, a recently released ex-con who finds himself in a different kind of prison when his once girlfriend’s thuggish pimps begin mercilessly terrorizing him. His elderly neighbor “Herr” suggests they all three immigrate to America, hook up with his mechanic cousin in Wisconsin and make a better life for themselves.
Bruno Stroszek is played by real-life street musician/savant Bruno S. The performance is perfect, and solidifies Bruno as one of the weirdest characters in cinema history. Stroszek’s episodic structure works in strumming up the bizarre and ruthlessly bleak tone of the film. Herzog once said this movie was his reaction to American culture, and some of the scenes come from real experiences he had while visiting Wisconsin.
Ultimately, Stroszek is an exploration of the human condition, and the general pointlessness of our actions and existence. The theme is solidified in the iconic last shot of the film, where a caged chicken repeatedly pulls a lever and starts to “dance” for no apparent reason other than for its own futile machinations.
3. Apocalypse Now – Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola’s harrowing Vietnam War epic is widely considered one of the most seminal films in history. Martin Sheen plays Ben Willard, a battle-hardened Army Major tasked with finding and killing a once renowned officer who has gone insane, and built a compound deep within the jungle with his native followers that worship him as a god.
Upon taking the mission, Willard and a ragtag assortment of navy personnel man a PBR patrol boat and drift down a Vietnamese river deep into enemy territory. The story is based on Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness.”
Apocalypse Now is bleak exploration into human nature and war. Everything about this movie lends itself to the feeling of being “pulled-in” to the ultimate all-encompassing darkness at the heart of humanity. The performances are all phenomenal, including Marlon Brando’s classic portrayal of Walter Kurtz, the psychotic but eloquent target of Willard’s mission.
The movie is very philosophical, culminated in the hypnotic monologues of Brando during the film’s final act. Apocalypse Now remains not only a great war movie, but one of the most disturbing, thought-provoking films of all time.
4. Stalker – Andrei Tarkovsky
Loosely based on the novel “Roadside Picnic” the film follows three men called Writer, Scientist, and Stalker as they make their way out of their industrial wasteland home and into a place called The Zone, where legend has it a person’s innermost desires will be granted.
Stalker might be not only be the most cryptic movie of Tarkovsky’s cannon, but one the most mysterious films ever made. Anyone familiar with Tarkovsky’s work will recognize the trademark gorgeous cinematography, excruciatingly long takes and subtle camera movements. One can extrapolate much from the loaded imagery throughout the nearly 3 hour runtime, but generally the film investigates the nature of belief, the nature of desire, and how these drives are mitigated in our subconscious.
Poetic and beautiful, Stalker works best when viewed in a contemplative frame of mind that won’t be put off by its glacial pacing. It’s a truly extraordinary work of art that can bore into one’s thoughts and haunt for months thereafter.
5. The Arrangement – Elia Kazan
Kirk Douglas plays Eddie, an advertising executive for a cigarette company who suffers a mental breakdown during his drive to work. Recovering at home, he slowly realizes the banality of his opulent existence and decides to destroy everything he had built in his life in an effort to find his true self. The supporting cast includes Faye Dunaway as Eddie’s mistress, and Richard Boone in a memorable performance as Eddie’s ailing father.
Widely panned by critics as one of Kazan’s worst films, The Arrangement is a hidden gem in the annals of classic cinema. The Arrangement portrays its characters as Freudian archetypes, as they serve to explain Eddie’s maddening descent into himself and his search for a more authentic life.
The Arrangement is based on a novel of the same name which Kazan also wrote. Thematically, the film could be compared to a Hermann Hesse novel, exploring the existential quandary of “can we ever become our true selves?”
6. Naked – Mike Leigh
A highly educated but troubled young man aimlessly wanders the streets of London and talks to random people. Such is the synopsis for Leigh’s fascinating film starring David Thewlis as Johnny, the ruthlessly smart yet disturbed protagonist. Naked really doesn’t have a traditional story arc. The film is presented mostly as episodic scenes where Johnny discusses high minded philosophical topics with other lost souls he encounters on the streets.
Mike Leigh and his crew of actors supposedly rehearsed for months, employing improvisation to come up with almost all of the film’s dialog. While Naked is untraditional, Thewlis’ portrayal as Johnny is truly one for the ages. He absolutely commands every scene. Katrin Cartlidge and Lesley Sharp also turn in impressive performances as two women vying for Johnny’s affection.
Though Leigh himself describes the film as a kind of rumination on anarchy, Naked is worth watching if just for David Thewlis’ captivating monologues amidst the incessantly depressing backdrop of modern day London.
7. The Fountain – Darren Aronofsky
A story that spans 1000 years starring Hugh Jackman as Spanish Conquistador, modern day neurosurgeon, and snow globe dwelling space explorer en route to a dying star. Aronofsky employs his signature visual flare, interweaving the 3 narratives into one story about a man coming to terms with the death of his wife.
“The Fountain” refers to the book Jackman’s wife is writing as she falls ill. The conquistador thread is her story in the book, the modern day is what actually happens, and the space explorer thread is how Jackman finishes “The Fountain” after her untimely death.
While theatrically it was considered a box-office failure, The Fountain has amassed a cult following in the years since its release. The film is a meditation on death and rebirth, using the metaphor of a “dying star” to illustrate that while we’re destined for physical death, we ultimately live forever within an endless recycling plant called the universe. Check out The Fountain if you like your science fiction with a dash of Zen and a heaping glob of emotional heft.