6. There Will Be Blood
Unlike most of the films on this list, this movie features not one but two manipulative personalities at the centre of its cast. Released in 2007 to universal acclaim, “There Will Be Blood” is the story of Daniel Plainview, a silver-miner-turned-oil-man who stakes a claim for an empire in Southern California during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The character is a quintessential antihero and malevolent manipulator, parting small town rubes from their valuable land with his phony everyman charm and resorting to threats – and acts – of violence whenever the need presents itself.
Daniel Day-Lewis is spectacular in the role, demonstrating the kind of singular intensity and focus that has become his professional trademark, and as the plot develops this energy only becomes compounded by the harsh interplay between Plainview and his principle antagonist, the megalomaniacal church pastor Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).
Sunday is, the movie’s subtext reveals, simply Daniel by another name; a fellow wolf operating among the sheep of the world whose desire for dominance happens to occupy the spiritual realm rather than the financial one. The result is a heated conflict that raises sobering questions about religion, capitalism, and the ability of the few to control the many.
7. To Die For
Though it didn’t perform exceptionally at the box office, “To Die For” may be one of the artistic high-points of Nicole Kidman’s career. Directed by Gus Van Sant in his fifth feature film, it sees her cast as Suzanne Stone, a pathological narcissist and would-be news anchor who becomes an overnight celebrity after being implicated in the murder of her husband.
Hers’ is an utterly believable character, whose callous and self-serving mindset is tacitly revealed through a number of engrossing monologues delivered directly to camera at key points throughout the storyline’s progression: to Suzanne, appearances are everything, and must be preserved at all costs in the pursuit of personal achievement.
The film’s mockumentary style and ironically upbeat soundtrack (provided by Danny Elfman) help to crystallize the sordid, sickly reality of our leading woman’s world, and its underlying social commentary is delivered subtly enough that it feels like a cool extra feature rather than something you must consider in order to properly appreciate what you’re experiencing.
Though there are a number of exceptional performances here – particularly from Joaquin Phoenix, who seems achingly vulnerable in his turn as lovesick teenager Jimmy Emmett – it is Nicole Kidman who leaves the most lasting impression, making being completely despicable look like terrific fun in the way that only a truly great actor can.
8. A Clockwork Orange
If there’s one movie which has inspired more underwhelming Halloween costume attempts than any other, it is surely this one. “A Clockwork Orange” has left a bigger mark on pop culture than most filmmakers manage with their entire oeuvre, and understandably so: its aesthetic, score and cinematography were all revolutionary for their time, each executed with a level of visionary confidence that even today makes pastiche seem irresistible (and direct imitation impossible).
Telling the now-ubiquitous story of Alex DeLarge, a brutally violent teenage gang leader with a penchant for Beethoven, it explores themes of free will, state power and morality by subjecting its protagonist to a series of dehumanizing behavioral control experiments intended to curb his antisocial tendencies in return for a commuted prison term.
The film is outstanding for a number of reasons – Alex and co.’s use of ‘Nadsat’, Anthony Burgess’s made-up language which combines Russian and cockney rhyming slang along with other various dialects, chief among them – but for the purposes of this list, it impresses largely through its decision to place a charming, vindictive manipulator in the driver’s seat, allowing him to narrate his experiences in a way that forces the viewer to try and understand his worldview.
Alex is, the film suggests, kind of a monster, but he’s also a victim of circumstance, and more poetic and sensitive than popular understandings of sociopathy typically allow for.
9. Gone Girl
While “the guy from Nine Inch Nails soundtracks a Ben Affleck movie” might not exactly seem like a compelling prospect on paper, the reality – “Gone Girl”, David Fincher’s 2014 smash-hit psychological thriller based on a Gillian Flynn novel of the same name – is far more enticing.
A controversial film for its use of false rape allegations as a plot device, it sees Rosemund Pike portray the titular female whose sudden disappearance drags her husband into the center of a murder investigation, and explores such pressing themes as traditional gender roles, marital decline and the frenzied nature of the contemporary news media.
Rendered in the kind of lush digital video that gives celluloid purists a run for their money, it both looks and feels like an elegant, dangerous adventure; it’s that envious breed of modern movie which, by being both artistically bold enough to seem genuinely groundbreaking as well as broadly appealing enough that mainstream audiences can enjoy it, manages to truly have it all.
Much like Nicole Kidman in the aforementioned “To Die For”, Pike seems to have an absolute blast whilst heartlessly using the people around her, and Ben Affleck succeeds in managing the task of frequently coming cross as unsympathetic in his role while at the same time having the viewer care about his character’s fate. “Gone Girl” is clever, sexy, and cynical, with a finale explosive enough to give even the most jaded of audience members a thrill.
There’s a clever little piece of symbolism in this movie which not everybody spots the first time around: near the end, when Lou Bloom looks into the surveillance camera of the police interview room he has found himself detained in, he smiles, and we see a cold, unfeeling machine looking directly into another one, a terrifying feedback loop of bloodless inhumanity momentarily sustained between them.
If you like watching movies about manipulative personalities then “Nightcrawler” is an experience you owe to yourself. In it Jake Gyllenhaal – in what may be his finest performance to date – plays a ‘stinger’, industry lingo for a freelance photojournalist who makes their living selling footage of crimes and car wrecks to local news stations.
Prowling the streets of Los Angeles with a glassy-eyed intensity that makes Munch’s “The Scream” look positively Zen, he takes to what is unsubtly depicted as a predatory industry with vocational zeal, mocking the very concept of journalistic ethics with his conduct while using charm, intimidation and sabotage to dominate and destroy anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path.
Visually stunning, perfectly paced and superbly written and acted, it’s the kind of film that reminds you that movies, even in this post-everything era, still possess the power to shock us to our core.
Author Bio: Maxwell Reid is a hypnotherapist and freelance writer currently based in Essex, England. When he isn’t busy putting people in trance, he can usually be found watching, analyzing or writing about movies. If heaven exists, he only hopes it has a cinema.