10. The Wolf Of Wall Street (2014)
This is the movie Martin Scorsese had to wait to be an orphan to make. It’s a curious effort from the refined and brilliant auteur, especially so late in his life and in his career. It is a dangerous, irresponsible, and downright thrilling film that needs to be the bloated celebration of excess, debauchery, and cocaine it is in order to have any sort of comment on it.
What that comment actually is stating is both simple and complicated. It’s not telling us that events of the film are horrible, it’s actually showing them as being quite fun, enthralling, and as a natural part of the reward system of success in America.
All the power, money, sex, and drugs (namely cocaine) that fuel the maddened, hungry energy of the film are the true goals and destinations our amoral stockbroker protagonists (Leonardo DiCaprio chief amongst them) reach by screwing anyone and everyone over as much as they possibly can. Oh, and in case it hasn’t been mentioned, yet, they also do a lot of cocaine in the process.
The Wolf of Wall Street goes to every length it can (from endless depictions of unprotected sex with prostitutes to an almost fetishized depiction of drug use to the sport of midget tossing) to saturate us in the machismo-laden, misogyny-drenched, and material-obsessed lifestyle of it’s “heroes”. It is the ultimate “pump you up to knock you down” movie.
If you’re not careful, you can get actually buzzed off its hyper-real depiction of excess, so much so that the film’s true intention and identity is revealed once you do: The Wolf of Wall Street is not just a movie about cocaine, it’s a movie that, unquestionably, unapologetically, and with all the same seductive powers, IS cocaine.
9. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997)
Speaking of movies that aren’t just about dugs but actually ARE drugs, there couldn’t be a better way of segueing into Terry Gilliam’s schizoid adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo journalism” classic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. By bending reality through the perspective of highly potent and often-psychedelic drugs, the view of the American Dream in the heart of Las Vegas is an equally hilarious and terrifying one…
Especially when you’re considering that view belongs to Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo (Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro in career-highlight performances for them both), two of the most out-of-control and sloppy antiheroes ever to be given their own movie.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas gives us American excess in droves. It revels in the grotesque and disgusting realties behind the shiniest and most appealing of America’s surfaces. It is a film about the madness behind many Americans’ expectations, and the ultimate hallucination that masks the sad, greedy, and lost reality behind their most coveted dreams.
8., 7 South Park, Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), and Team America: World Police (2004)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are to modern day satire what Jesus Christ is to modern day Christianity. You can’t have one without bringing up the other. Their satirical observations, perfectly exemplified in both the South Park feature film and in Team America, are so intelligent, so spot-on, and so no-holds-barred that they are unmatched in style, hilarity, and relevance.
In the eyes of Parker and Stone, no one is innocent and everyone is given the same consideration for ridicule and scorn. Nothing is sacred in their work, yet their intelligence always makes them rise above being completely silly by making us aware of the fact that they have a very clear moral and point.
In both South Park and Team America, American values are put through the grinder, exposing the bullying, narrow-minded, destructive, and reactive mindset that is often synonymous with it’s population… Not that anyone else, especially when viewed through the eyes of Parker and Stone, is really that much better.
6. American Psycho (2000)
Christian Bale gave his first of many great onscreen adult performances with his portrayal of Patrick Bateman: the 80’s-living and loving Wall Street businessman/yuppie who also happens to be a brutal and out of control serial murderer. Co-writer/director Mary Harron did the unthinkable when she adapted Bret Easton Ellis’ seemingly-unfilmable satirical literature masterwork, American Psycho: she made it into a cinematic masterpiece in her own right.
The book, which went into the most sickening events with the most absurd and hilarious detail, could never have worked as a movie if it was filmed in the same, graphic nature. The film’s success can be attributed to the fact it exists on its own and is in its own universe separate from the book. It captures the same sense of dry, pitch-black humor, but in the softer details needed to work onscreen instead of in one’s mind.
The results are no less edgier, just slightly more accessible than the polarizing novel. As a film, American Psycho strikingly and maturely manages to rise just above drowning level from it’s depictions and criticisms of American materialism at its worst to become it’s own, personal brand of intelligent and cutting satire.
5. Natural Born Killers (1994)
Oliver Stone’s haywire adaptation of an early Quentin Tarantino script was one of the most divisive and controversial films of the 1990’s. Centering around two serial killers (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) who become media heroes, the film is told in a violent, expressionistic style which creates an energy for it’s audience that is both insanely thrilling and dangerously, irresponsibly unchecked.
Make no mistake, Natural Born Killers, while undeniably bold and innovative, is a heavily flawed and downright confused film. Like many of the strongest films on this list, the film falls victim to the very thing it is satirizing/examining/criticizing: media glorification of violence.
Natural Born Killers, without question, is guilty of fetishizing its own satirical targets, but it doesn’t exactly pretend not to. For admirers of the film, it’s own hypocrisy is part of what gives it the psychotic energy it needs to achieve it’s greatness. For it’s detractors, it’s part of the film’s piggish, exploitative, and immature nature that keeps it from being great.
Regardless of your own conclusion, Natural Born Killers is a film that undeniably eats itself to prove its own point… And the results are a beautiful, insane, vile, and revolutionary mess that vomits itself right back up with all the exuberance, artistry, and satirical insanity it can muster.
4. Spring Breakers (2013)
If there is any film on this list that has suffered for succeeding at its own satirical intentions, it is Harmony Korine’s misunderstood and far-too-easily-written-off twenty first century masterpiece, Spring Breakers.
The story, about four college girls (Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, and Rachel Korine) who rob a restaurant to go on spring break in Florida only to become accomplices and girlfriends to a terrifying rapper/gangster played by James Franco, is something Russ Meyer would write if he were alive today and trying to rip off Quentin Tarantino.
The style, a loopy and trippy pastiche of moments clipped together to a dream-like and hyper-stylized whole, is something Terrence Malick would conjure up if he were collaborating with Gaspar Noe while also enjoying a yearlong acid trip.
Spring Breakers is a satirical masterwork because it has a clear and self-aware point. It views the world exactly as it’s lost, ADD, Youtube-cultured, and sociopathic protagonists do. There is a purpose to every single line of dialogue repeated in a drug-induced loop, every nonlinear edit, every silly “girls gone wild” shout of glee, every moment of seeming stupidity, and to the vapid appearance and nature of the film’s own fabric.
While it’s not overtly stated, Spring Breakers knows it’s a movie, and it knows it’s a movie seen through the eyes of it’s characters. It carelessly wanders through the underworld of American youth’s current American Dream, it causes destruction and mayhem, but does so with a beauty and grace that is mesmerizing and hypnotic, unaware and uncaring of the damage it leaves behind. It is ultimately a profound examination of the real dangers rising in our society today.
Spring Breakers reminds us that it’s not the drug pushers, the gangsters, or the thugs supplying America with it’s own seedy desires in the shadows who are the true threat to it’s future. It’s the lucky and spoiled ones who keep it all running, represented by the girls of Spring Breakers.
They have the luxury to choose whether or not to follow the path of Franco’s character, and who are drawn to it merely because it resembles a movie they once saw or a video game they once played. When they inevitably glide through that path and treat it with the same abandon with which they would a DVD, the impurity of their lifestyle and the strange (though perverse) purity of Franco’s character becomes clear.
Spring Breakers is a movie filled and saturated with noise and style. It’s intentional youthfulness is created by a rising maturity and assurance in Korine as a filmmaker. It’s a colorful ride that is a disturbing and dark reminder of the daydream and haze that our most precious and seemingly innocent youths are living under today.
Spring Breakers is an exploitation and examination of a point of view that has to be as eye-popping and transcending as it is in order to be fully understood, experienced, and commented upon.
3. Heathers (1989)
The story of a high-school Bonnie and Clyde (Christian Slater and Winona Ryder) who start killing off the popular kids in their class while staging their deaths to appear like suicides is one that most of us know very, very well. There is very little to say about Heathers that has not been said before.
Michael Lehmann’s near-perfect direction of Daniel Waters’ masterful and one-of-a-kind screenplay created an undeniably classic film that is very close to leaving, if it hasn’t already, it’s “cult” status behind. Over twenty-five years after it’s initial release, it still remains one of the strongest, most original, and accomplished films on this list.
Strangely enough, even though it’s heavily themed in the eighties and as a partial reaction to many of the teenage films of its time, Heathers doesn’t feel dated. Tonally, the film is timeless and still holds up as an original and enormous risk with a huge pay-off.
Echoing A Clockwork Orange, it is almost always bright and quirky, even at its darkest moments. Murder, suicide, eating disorders, date rape, creepy parental relationships, depictions of detached and painfully misinformed educators, gross mob mentality…
It’s all reflected and distorted through the lens of satire in Heathers, a hilariously unsettling masterwork that uses its own sense of humor and absurdity both for and against itself to make statements that are just as relevant to us today as they were the day the film was released. Luckily for those who made Heathers and quite sadly for the rest of us, some things never change.
2. Fight Club (1999)
Director David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s debut novel is another such obvious classic that there is very little left to say about it. That doesn’t mean it still isn’t one of the most wickedly funny, intricately designed, and precisely made films and satires of all time, it simply means it’s almost boring to talk about it being so at this point
. It’s just too perfect of a film to watch, so why spoil it by examining to death it’s fractured, poignant, and resonating takes on commercialism, emasculation, corporate America, generational displacement, world disillusionment, and the theme of self-realization only being obtainable in modern society through the dumbest forms of self-destruction…? Besides, what’s the first rule of Fight Club?
1. Happiness (1998)
Todd Solondz’s epic, multi-character masterwork of sprawling depravity and perversion is about as dark and nasty as it can get while still being labeled as anything remotely satirical or comical. It may not have the exuberance or the obvious stance on specific social topics that many of the films on this list have, Happiness’ downright shocking portrayal of hidden American suburban lives is what makes it number one on this list.
Reflected through just the right amount of sarcasm and irony that will make you laugh as many times as you want to suppress vomiting while watching it, Happiness is an unforgettable experience. When you manage to find it amusing, you will also find yourself questioning your sanity five seconds later.
Happiness, the most twisted vision of American suburbia since David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, takes aim at the end of the road of many Americans’ dreams. It presents people safe and secure in their suburban neighborhoods, living seemingly good and simple lives in large homes bought with large paychecks from great careers. We soon find out, however, that their only sources of happiness left are the darkest desires found at the darkest recesses of human emotion.
From pedophilia to rape fantasies to sexual phone harassment to infidelity, Happiness finds nothing but cynicism and perversion at the end of the American Dream. It subsequently trivializes and takes aim at all its values, essentially reminding us that all American roads, with all their glamour, hopes, excesses, and ambitions, lead us to… well, Happiness.
Author Bio: Matt Hendricks is an independent filmmaker with several projects currently in development.