Many films make you ask questions. Many films make you wonder what you would do in a similar situation. But few leave you wondering “What if…?” “What if life worked like that?” “What if I had the power to do that?” Et cetera, et cetera…
Here are thirty films that just might leave you sitting in the theatre after the credits, rethinking what your reality would be like if only…
1. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
The questions: What if I could jump into the head of someone who isn’t me, and see, hear, and feel what they experience? Specifically, what if I could inhabit revered character actor John Malkovich?
Many storytellers have attempted to explore what it would be like to literally walk in someone else’s shoes, from the plausible (Prince and the Pauper) to the more fantastical (Freaky Friday), but no one has taken it to it’s obvious conclusion: taking anyone with enough coin into the head of John Malkovich for fifteen minutes before being spit out at New Jersey turnpike. It’s surprising it hasn’t been made before!
2. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012)
Questions: What if you were stuck in a clichéd horror movie? What if there was a reason for the clichés?
Described by one of the films creators a “loving hate-letter” to the genre, Cabin in the Woods is perhaps the most honest and comprehensive of all the genre parodies. Few films work so well with equal parts horror, comedy, and satire.
3. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
The questions: What if there was a zombie apocalypse? What would you do? Where would you go?
Before this movie people were not asking these VERY IMPORTANT QUESTIONS. This movie gives you one reasonably good answer: GO TO THE MALL! Though this film will leave you with endless debate among friends and family of what are truly the best zombie survival strategies, everyone must admit the mall does have a certain appeal.
4. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009)
The questions: What if you were kept outside of society to be raised however your parents saw fit? And what if your parents were totally insane?
Life as designed by a psychotic B.F. Skinner. The young adults in this film believe in nothing exist beyond the walls of their house and compound. The planes flying in the air aren’t giant things carrying people through the air seen from far away, they are, in fact, just as tiny as they appear and are ready to fall gently in the yard as something to play with.
When mom is pregnant she will have one baby and one dog. And when you naturally lose your second set of dog-teeth, you will be ready to leave home. You accept these things because that is what your parents have told you. Why would they lie?
5. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
The question: What if the world would be better off without you?
This movie could almost be seen as an anti-It’s a Wonderful Life, with the protagonist seeing what life would be like with him in it instead of without. And the ultimate conclusion he comes to is that, yes, the world (or at least his family and loved ones) would be better off without him. Maybe not the best film to show someone with suicidal tendencies.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
The questions: What if you could erase a painful memory or break up from your brain? A whole relationship? What if you decided against it when it was already too late?
Everyone has had that painful memory they all think they might be better off without. But are you really? Yes, the characters in this film have an incredibly flawed relationship, but what is a relationship if not flawed? Isn’t one better off for if not for the sheer experience? The questions this presents are endless, but at the end of the day what is left is a story of the sheer endurance love can have.
7. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñel, 1962)
The question: What if you sat down at a dinner party and couldn’t leave?
While the question presented here may not be as universal, it still sticks with you. The way the question is presented here might be the answer. You see this bourgeois social group revert back to a positively primeval state. When they entered they were well-to-do bourgeois socialites who take amusement in keeping a pet lamb under the table, but before their ordeal is over they’re not above personally slaughtering and eating it.
8. Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997)
The question: What if your family was mercilessly held captive by two men who couldn’t be stopped, even by the laws of film?
This is a film that knows you are watching it and isn’t above supremely fucking with your head for DARING to presume anything about it. A fairly common rule in films is not to kill the dog. They do and… did he just look in the camera? Did he just TALK to the camera? Did they just KILL THE FUCKING KID?! Wait, she just kill one of them? How the fuck did he just rewind the film HE IS IN?! Wait, now they killed them all? HOW?! WHAT WAS LEARNED?! SEND HELP!!!
9. The Game (David Fincher, 1997)
The question: What if your life was a massive game you couldn’t escape?
It’s a paranoid conceit that would make Hitchcock blush. Nothing anyone tells you is trustworthy, not even if it’s someone you know or love. You can’t even be sure it’s over until the credits tell you so. At some point you’ll try to fight The Game, maybe you’ll try to go along with it. It doesn’t matter. It’s The Game that’s playing you.
10. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
The question: What if you were stuck living the same day over and over again?
While there has been a fair amount of fiction where a character has been able to time travel in a way that they were able to redo things they wanted to do differently, no film had captured the sheer existential crisis someone might have if they were stuck reliving the same day with no discernible cause.
The film relies more on Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” than common fantasy or science fiction with their need for such trivialities as exposition. People have imprinted many interpretations on the film over the years, from Catholicism to Buddhism, what remains are those lingering questions of what you would do in a world without any lasting consequence.