6. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Forman, 1975)
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest stars Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy, a new member of a mental institution who is convinced that he can change its lethargic culture. He meets his nemesis in Nurse Ratchet, a terrifying woman played with lethal precision by Louise Fletcher. Throughout the movie, the audience is tricked into thinking that this will be a classic feel good tale, with McMurphy able to bring a little life back to this institution.
Yet Miloš Forman, who adapted the film from the novel by Ken Kesey, stays true to the bleakness of the original story, meticulously depicting the ways in which McMurphy’s spirit is broken. It all leads up to a devastating conclusion that sealed One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as one of the boldest films of the Hollywood new wave.
7. Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)
The concept of Ringu is simple: if you watch a cursed videotape, you will be killed seven days later. Its central character, Reiko, is a journalist investigating mysterious murders who ends up seeing the tape. Together with her ex-husband Ryüji she races against time to try and figure out the legend of the video in the hope that the curse can be broken.
It’s a truly chilling horror film, the kind that sends shivers right down your spine. This is largely down to the ending, with Rjüji being killed despite them both believing that the curse is broken. Faced with no other chance of saving her son, Reiko passes its curse on to her father. Here not only does evil persist, but it is passed on from one person to the other, each showing the tape to someone else as a means to break their own curse. Reiko may have survived, but the implications are hardly cheery, with the girl behind the video free to roam another day.
8. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil is a horrifying vision of a society gone wrong. Yet right until the very end we are conditioned to thinking that our protagonist has what it takes to overcome this broken society. Jonathan Pryce stars as Jack, a bureaucratically oppressed man trying to find a woman haunting his dreams. It functions like a steampunk version of 1984, with Jack trying to break out of a dense, labyrinthian society with seemingly no end.
Nonetheless, with a truly anarchic spirit courtesy of director Terry Gilliam, there is wildness and abandonment in every scene, making one suggest that this will eventually coalesce into a great story about finding freedom against all the odds. Unluckily for our hero, however, the villainous world has the last laugh, with him unable to succeed. It’s truly surprising, making Brazil one of Gilliam’s most memorable films.
9. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Memento has a uniquely gripping structure. Moving in reverse, the start of each episode immediately makes us ask: how did we get here? Our experience watching is twined with the fate of our protagonist, who suffers from anterograde amnesia and cannot store recent memories. Searching for the killer of his dead wife, he uses polaroids and tattoos to store vital clues.
It plays a great trick on us, its final scene revealing that our hero has in fact killed the wrong person who had nothing to do with his wife’s murder whatsoever. But thanks to his condition, he will never learn, writing himself a lie that means he will still fruitlessly search for his wife even though he’s already killed the man who murdered her. Therefore, instead of being the hero of his own tale, he has been manipulated all along, giving Memento a sly twist for the ages.
10. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
With downer thriller ending to beat them all, Chinatown, containing the classic line “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” provides evidence that nobody can craft an ending quite like Roman Polanski.
A silky neo-noir tale, it stands up with the best classic era noirs as a uniquely dark portrayal of one man up against something he barely understands. The second Jack Nicholson-starring film on this list, it sees him play a detective hired to investigate infidelity who suddenly finds himself embroiled in a vast conspiracy.
Based upon the real water wars in Southern California, Chinatown knows no depths to human greed and corruption. The great sadness at the heart of the tale is found in Jack Nicholson’s layered, nuanced and deeply human performance. He carries the story, encapsulating an entire lost generation when it becomes evident that he has been effortlessly played by forces stronger than himself.