8. Au Hasard Balthazar
Is there anything Robert Bresson can’t do? Apparently not. This movie is one heartbreakingly beautiful ode to life. The movie simply follows the life of a donkey from birth to death. Balthasar knows that he has no control over his life. To all eyes that can see, he is a beast in the service of humans.
Through Balthasar’s eyes, we see a world where cruelty comes easily and kindness is nowhere to be found. This is the cinema of empathy. We see on our own and come to conclusions on our own about the lives that we regard on screen.
Bresson famously was known to forbid his actors to act. That’s how he managed to get performances drained from acting. The actors portray lives without giving us a clue about how to feel. Feeling forced to empathize, we get to have stronger feelings than if the actors acted as if they felt them for us. With this movie, Bresson remarkably makes us understand the life journey of a donkey.
7. The Herd
Shot by Zeki Ökten under instruction from the movie’s writer Yılmaz Güney, the movie follows the journey of a nomadic family of shepherds as they herd their sheep from the Anatolian pastures to the modern Ankara.
During their long train ride, bribes must be paid, sheep die in the airless, contaminated wagons, and the wife of our main character Hamo falls deadly ill. He desperately takes her with him to find a cure for her illness. The railroad journey from the eastern Turkey to the capital becomes the center of the story. It is used as a vehicle to show the corruption and injustice in Turkish Society in mid 70’s.
Even though, you don’t have a lot of reasons to identify with these lives that seem so different from yours, you find yourself feeling their pain and wishing for Berivan to heal. Beautiful Anatolian pastures give the movie cinematic beauty that cannot be matched. Meanwhile, the tragic love story of Hamo and Berivan tugs at your heartstrings.
6. Lilya 4-ever
This Swedish-Danish drama right here is responsible for one of my childhood traumas. I was 14, when I first watched it and I vividly remember how much it broke my heart. There I was, watching the story of a girl who was my age. But instead of the life I led, thanks to my parents, this girl Lilya had to deal with cruelty, abusers and all sorts of terrible people. Just because she was dealt a bad hand by the fate. That made me think about how lucky I was and what life meant in general. That’s what true Cinema does. It makes you think long and hard about things you normally wouldn’t even think about for a second.
Known for his feel-good movies Show Me Love and Together, Lukas Moodysson certainly doesn’t pull his punches for this one. Even when we have a little bit of hope, he kicks it out of us. This is a movie about immigrants and asylum seekers. We see how tough their lives are. In the end, you want this poverty-stricken Russian girl who was abandoned by her mother to be just okay. Is that too much to ask?
5. The Captain
This 2017 Robert Schwentke movie has made a lot of viewers leave the movie theater in the middle of the screening. The director who made some Hollywood blockbusters, returns to his homeland Germany with this one. What a return that is! Black and White and set in the last days of the Third Reich, the movie focuses on a deserter. He finds an abandoned official car, along with a captain’s coat, uniform and shoes, all of which fit.
This is the story of a conversion from victim to judge and jury who can exercise authority over life or death however he pleases. Herold settles into his new role in life quickly, knowing fully well someone might expose him as an imposter anytime. The things he does using his authority is outrageous. Downright cruel, to be frank. The rot of Nazism is seen as having contaminated the German soul. Shot in crisp black and White, The Captain is a story which has contemporary and universal resonance.
4. Requiem for a Dream
At this point, it is clear that Darren Aronofsky was sent to this world to shock us, using grim cinematography and scandalously weird screenplays. Hello, mother! Even before the infamous movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, Aronofsky was known for his interesting choices to unnerve the audience.
Requiem for a Dream -starring Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Ellen Burstyn- is a dark and cruel movie that pulls you into the minds of addicts so perfectly that you end up wondering if a movie can do this, what a real drug would do to you. Aronofsky is amazed by the way in which the camera can be used to suggest how his characters see things. He uses extreme closeups to show drugs acting on his characters.
These sequences are in fast-motion, to show how quickly the drugs take effect and how soon they fade. The movie is inspired by Hubert Selby, Jr.’s novel of the same name. Whether you watched it or not, you have heard of this movie in your lifetime. That has a reason. It resonates with you, although you may have never had an experience with drugs. Watching this movie, I guarantee that you never will.
You can never go wrong with Javier Bardem. The man just oozes charisma and talent. Director Iñárritu knows this. He plays on the actor’s strengths. This movie focuses on the misery of life. Everyone and everything in it seems suspended on a cloud of unhappiness.
Uxbal is a man in Barcelona whose life is coming to pieces: he is separated from his wife who has alcohol issues and bipolar disorder, and the responsibility for looking after their two children rests with him. He has an untreatable illness, and his business is unravelling which includes mafia, bribing cops and immigrants. Nothing short of a Scorsese flick.
On top of all this, Uxbal has the ability of seeing dead people. Cue The Sixth Sense jokes. The director’s very own brand of magic naturalism is here to see. The living conditions of the factory’s illegal immigrants, the life of Uxbal and his children and the life in Barcelona in general –the Barcelona that we as tourists cannot see- is just inhumane. Cruelty of life is at its peak in this movie. But it’s biutiful none-the-less. See what I did there?
Zama is one of the newest releases on this list. Directed by Lucrecia Martel, the movie is a must-see. It’s an absurd, ruthlessly funny take on empire and colonialism. It focuses on a Spanish officer stuck at a remote South American outpost who numbs his burgeoning panic with erotic fantasies.
Zama must participate in the official duties of state violence and racism: the enslavement of the indigenous peoples. This is where the movie’s cruelty comes out. It twists your heart to the point you can hardly bear. This fabulous film is full of many odd scenes and some of these scenes are very funny as well.
For instance, the governor explains that Zama’s appeal for a transfer has once again been turned down. When things can’t get any worse, a llama comes into the room and jumps on Zama’s back. It’s a humiliating moment, but funny in a Yorgos Lanthimos way. Don’t get me started on the Latin American settings. They look like paintings. Something out of an art museum and Martel makes us aware of it.
You know what they say: all good things must come to an end. On the top of this cruel and beautiful list sits a favorite of mine. The Academy Award nominated Loveless is the latest directorial effort of Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev. He is just… underrated. He makes movies that stay with you after you leave the movie theater. The Return, The Banishment, Leviathan are all masterpieces and Loveless doesn’t fall short. Time will come when we realize that he is one of the greatest directors to ever grace this planet.
The movie focuses on the search for a lost boy. One of the cruelest scenes in it is this: A couple in the process of a messy separation are arguing about which of them will have to care for their young son. No one wants him.
As they argue, the door is pulled shut and the camera sees the child, unseen by his parents, standing in the shadows, his face contorted in a silent scream of unloved anguish. This, my friends, is just cruel and it makes you want to cry as well. You feel empathy towards this child whom you do not see on screen for the rest of the movie.
The movie is a metaphor for the unloved, forsaken future of Russia. The shots in the movie are undeniably beautiful. Russia covered in snow, graceful nature, it seems like Heaven but then humanity… They tend to complicate things. Then again, what is life without a little complication?