5. Django Unchained (2012)
Matter-of-course for Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained is a miscellany of cinematic genres, dressed in blood-soaked Western regalia. Sure, it’s spaghetti Western, it’s also blaxploitation, action-comedy, coolly calculated satire, and ultra-satisfying revenge-thriller.
Jamie Foxx is Django, an African-American ex-slave, who, with the assistance of German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, in an Oscar-winning performance), set out to free Django’s bride, Hildi (Kerry Washington) from the plantation where she’s still a slave, owned by the villainous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
By creating a sardonic, at times burlesque narrative that plainly confronts the racist underpinnings of American history, the film offers catharsis, reexamination, and wish-fulfilment restitution. As stylish as anything in Tarantino’s oeuvre, Django Unchained is a showy, violent, and ferocious tour de force.
4. I Saw the Devil (2010)
South Korean director Kim Jee-woon and writer Park Hoon-jung know a thing or two about crafting an alternately shocking, knee-slapping, and viscerally engaging revenge-addled odyssey, and their audacious 2010 genre mashup, I Saw the Devil illustrates this with ghoulish glee.
After pieces of his missing fiancé, Jang Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) are found strewn near a local river and environs, trained secret agent for the National Intelligence Service Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) becomes obsessed with tracking down her killer. And it’s not long before he does just that, and he lays one hell of a smack down on the sick shit sack (Choi Min-sik), too. But Kim has bigger designs for the killer, and after he brutally beats the snot out of him (complete with some upsetting Achilles tendon slashing action) he maliciously lets him go “free” so that a twisted cat and mouse game will ensue.
You’d think that I Saw the Devil’s cottoning to trendy torture porn, OTT violence (cannibalism features prominently), depraved sexual violence, and extreme gore would render the film unwatchable and yet it’s a shockingly effective, artfully and even gorgeously photographed affair (mad props to cinematographer Lee Mo-gae and editor Nam Na-yeong for their exemplary efforts), complete with characters that are utterly emotionally compelling.
For all its awful, stomach-churning content and nightmare fuel, I Saw the Devil is never less than compelling, and near impossible to look away from. This is an unrelenting genre picture that will have you dazed for days. Don’t miss it.
3. The Revenant (2015)
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has always been a visually arresting filmmaker and with 2015’s The Revenant he’s crafted a compelling study of obsession and revenge on a monstrously mammoth scale. Using only natural light––mostly during magic hour––Iñárritu and his seemingly supernatural DP Emmanuel Lubezki capture the rhythms of nature, the sweeping vast stillness of the frontier, and the bleeding black heart of Manifest Destiny-crazed colonialists in 1800s North America.
The Revenant erupts with violence and upset, as Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks revenge on the scruples-free trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who left him for dead after a vicious (and I mean VICIOUS) bear attack and the brutal slaying of his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck).
The film also gambols with languid long takes, quiet calm, and a naturalistic beauty that renders elegance and symmetry seemingly from the firmament. The clash of cultures between Native Americans and European settlers hasn’t seen this kind of sumptuous camerawork and compassion since Terrence Malick’s The New World (also lensed by Lubezki).
Iñárritu should be considered cinema’s transcendental poet laureate of the wide-framed moving image; his devotion and veneration for the natural world is contained in every second of The Revenant, easily one of the most precious gems of modern movie making, its beauty and presence is boundless.
2. Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
English writer-director Shane Meadows carefully constructs one of the most compelling, harrowing, and utterly convincing revenge-thrillers you’re likely to ever see with the staggeringly impressive and occasionally gut-wrenching Dead Man’s Shoes.
Paddy Considine, who rightly won “Best British Actor” at the 2005 Empire Awards for his shocking turn, is alternately terrifying and terrific as Richard, a soldier who returns home to the small town of Matlock, in Derbyshire. It is here that his mentally-impaired little brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell), suffered the terrible abuse and torment that cut his life short, and Richard is out for blood. And blood is just what he’ll get as one by one the riff raff responsible will get a reckoning.
Meadows’ film is an economic 86 minutes that powerfully and precisely builds to a crescendo that may seem lo-fi, but is all the better for it; a high-minded, inexorable, utterly raw, and frequently frightening tour de force.
“God will forgive them,” Richard says in an alarming and urgent voiceover, adding: “He’ll forgive them and allow them into Heaven. I can’t live with that.” And if revenge films are your favorite cinematic flavor, you can’t live without enduring and experiencing Dead Man’s Shoes.
1. Oldboy (2003)
Park Chan-wook’s dizzying, macabre, and devilishly humorous neo-noir takes Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya’s 1990s Japanese manga and fashions one of the most violent and shocking thrillers you’ll ever bear witness to.
The second installment of The Vengeance Trilogy (preceded by 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and followed by 2005’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), the unforgettable Oldboy gives us the obnoxious and initially unlikeable Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), a belligerent drunk, freshly released from the clink and then promptly snatched from the street, only to awaken in a cell, where he mysteriously remains for the next 15 years.
Drugged to unconsciousness when human contact is unavoidable, Dae-Su otherwise has only a TV set as company. And then, as sudden as his abduction, he’s released, and is invited to track down his jailer, hammer in hand. Oh man, get out of the way!
There’s an infamous sequence with an octopus but surely it’s the film’s WTF brutal denouement that will linger with the viewer evermore. If you can stomach it, Oldboy is excellent and unshakable entertainment.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.