Are you feeling under the weather? Stuck in a rut, or perhaps working a crappy job, flipping burgers just to pay for your astronomical monthly rent for a crumbling urban shithole you’re living in? How about feeling disappointed with everything in life – a monster for a boss, a clutch of superficial friends, student loans you can’t pay back – the accumulation of which slowly crushes you with the burden of empty dreams, the mind-numbingly trivial daily routine and the futility of it all?
Well – worry not! There are lives worse than you have. At least in films, that is. OK, these people are completely imaginary, but there’s no denying that whatever clusterfuck you’re going through right now can’t even hold a finger to the pure, absolute misery some people undergo on screen.
And just when you thought cinema is all about escapism. Hell, no. You may, once in a while, indulge in some flights and fancy, watching Gene Kelly tap-dance joyfully in the rain or seeing Julie Andrews run on top of Bavarian hills in sheer delight, but let’s face it: this is all fairy-tale, Hollywood bullshit. It has nothing to do with your life, and wouldn’t hold a mirror to your personal strife.
So wake yourself up to the shock of reality, douse the lights and splash your face with a figurative bucket-load of freezing cold water, as I enlist here the ten (10) films that serve as true cinematic treatises of life. All of which are basically saying that human existence is fucking futile and that the world is really a ruthless, brutal place to live in. These are films which are so inherently bleak that you won’t be able to pull a grin for days (or weeks). And no – I’m not talking about shamelessly soppy tear-jerkers such Beaches or Titanic rubbish here.
I’m talking about human tragedy of Sisyphean proportions. Films that expose the incontrovertible frailties of man, the darkness of the human soul and the pointlessness of mankind’s toil. Because nothing lasts and every one won’t really live happily ever after, as we’ve all been told.
Now, stay away from sharp, pointed objects, ropes and chemical weapons if you haven’t seen these films. Lock them up all up in a cupboard somewhere, and flush the key on your toilet. I advise not to climb up on high buildings, too. Stay on the ground. AT ALL TIMES.
Or if you’re feeling too cheerful all of a sudden and needing to slap yourself back to Earth, these are the perfect antidotes to give you the reality check. If otherwise gloomy, watch these and you’d think your life is not the worst case scenario. You’ll feel better afterwards, believe me.
Three desperate human beings seeking redemption – but barely get any. Sean Penn’s character faces mortality with his heart-transplant, Benicio del Toro’s ex-convict discovers religion from being a drug-addict and alcoholic (I don’t know which is worse), and Naomi Watt’s mother suffers from grief and uses drug for consolation. This is Alejandro Gonzales-Innaritu’s dissertation on misery, mortality and the worthlessness of the human body. He claims that approximately 21 grams leaves the body when a person dies. That’s the entire substantiation of a life lost. Everything else is dead weight.
Meryl Streep’s Polish immigrant in America, burdened with a past torment, overshadowing every present relationship she makes. SPOILER: she unwittingly gives up a child to be killed in a Nazi concentration camp. She lives with her lover, Kevin Kline’s Nathan, but even he is suffering an acute mental instability. So in the end, they’re better of drinking cyanide and sleep towards oblivion without ever waking up again. Makes Romeo and Juliet seem childish.
OK, there’s a tinge of hope and compassion in this story of one man who knew he could make a difference and save the lives of 1,100 Jews. But let’s not forget the 6 million who perished during the Holocaust. In Steven Spielberg’s uncompromising, uncommonly bleak portrayal of the indescribable genocide, we witness few of cinema’s most heartwrenching moments, people being put on a conveyor belt to be killed like chickens in a factory. There’s also Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth remorselessly shooting people from his terrace to rack up the body count. Even the shower scene alone, despite devoid of graphic depiction, has enough terror and misery to make our skin crawl.
This grim Swedish piece of miserablism is more despairing than the harshest of Swedish winters. Young Lilya is abandoned by a selfish mother, living off in a hole and forced to descend into prostitution. There’s a silver lining in the dark cloud, however, as she is swept by a hunky stranger who promises her a better future, only to be sent to a sex-market with wretched, craggy old men for clients who will defile her flesh. And you think your job is hopeless? Think again.
Nicholas Cage’s failed writer faces failed marriage and escapes to Las Vegas. And no, he’s not there for the casino. He aims to drink himself to death. Meanwhile, he meets Elizabeth Shue’s good-hearted prostitute who wants to save him. He says no, and that nothing could ever change his intentions. They have sex while he is dying – and that is perhaps one of the most anguishing acts a person can ever do. To perform the last act of pleasure with a dying lover.
Frenchman Gaspar Noé tells this revenge tale backwards, Memento-like, showcasing a grim depiction of the doomed fates of his characters. The violence portrayed here is almost unwatchable, as are the lives involved, with an initially given knowledge that they all suffer tragic consequences in the end. If that’s not enough, the camera sits down for the entire 20-minutes with Monica Bellucci being raped and beaten to death without any remorse. The conclusion is the film’s prologue with Bellucci discovering she’s pregnant – but we, the audience, know that nothing will ever be the same for the lives of these people. “Time destroys everything.”
Crafted by the Japanese animation studio that gave us Spirited Away, one could assume that this is another Studio Ghibli childrens’ fairy tale. How very wrong. Perhaps the most depressing animated film ever made, Grave of the Fireflies tells the suffering of two war-ravaged Japanese children, whose parents perished during the war and were left to fend themselves to hunt for food and solace. SPOILER: the button-cute younger sister dies first, and then the older brother follows suit by becoming a beggar, who eventually dies of starvation. This is one of most powerful testaments against war – and this will have you shaking uncontrollably with angry tears streaming down your face.
Set during the Great American Depression, there’s not a more suitable era to be glum than this period of skint existence and desperation that humans who badly need to survive enlist themselves in a marathon dance that could cost their health, or worse their lives. The contestants dance endlessly while the showmaster ensures the audience are entertained. Each one begins to deteriorate and slowly slips into near-death. But Jane Fonda’s cynical Gloria Beatty fights to survive in the contest, even harrowingly outlasting the film’s most shocking scene, the “Derby” run, yet only to discover the cold-blooded ethos of the entire showbusiness. So she ends her suffering once and for all. Sounds like the appropriate response to all pointless reality shows out there.
The title says it all. Darren Aronofsky’s bitter, black-hearted cinematic experience will leave a vitriolic aftertaste at the back of your mouth. The characters’ personal agonies here are all self-inflicted, it makes it all the more disturbing. Ellen Burstyn’s elderly mother Sara aspires to be on television and hopes to fit in her red dress, so she takes slimming pills. Turns out they’re slowly embalming her from within. On the other strand of the narrative is the deterioration of Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly’s relationship, leading them both to a downward spiral to drug hell, with Leto’s arm rotting off and Connelly ending up in an underground sex orgy – told with a climactic, diabolical musical score. If there’s one positive thing that comes out of this film, it’s that you’d never want to touch drugs in your entire life. Ever.
Think about the happiest Hollywood musical ever made. Envisage it clearly in your mind. Good, because you’ll need that when you finish watching Lars von Trier’s gruelling anti-musical Dancer in the Dark. You’ll need much lighter musicals to serenade you to sleep after this. For this is not just a film – it’s an experience to brave through, and Von Trier does not push easy buttons here. The Danish provocateur slams an indictment to the corruption of society, the American legal system and the fallibility of humanity. Icelandic pop queen Björk squeals her lungs out as she’s being tormented into a personal hell in this tale of a woman going blind. She’s a Czech immigrant, a factory worker in America, suffering a rare genetic disease that slowly claims her sight. She saves up her stash of earnings for the operation of her young boy who inherits her sickly genes, but only to be stolen by a local policeman. All of this happens while she pretends that everything is a Hollywood musical, a fantastical projection of a world where nothing can go wrong. However, in the real world, everything can go wrong. She unintentionally kills the corrupt policeman and gets sentenced to death. You’ll never see a more devastating interpretation of Sound of Music’s My Favourite Things given the film’s context, with the doomed heroine singing this repertoire as a diversion from the ghastly circumstance she’s in. You will find yourself unable to smile after viewing this grim masterpiece. No joke.
You still think your life is terrible? Come and think of it – you’re having it waaay to easy compared to these miserable, poor things. Chin up. Your life ain’t THAT bad.