FILM SPECIAL: 10 Most Upsetting Films of the Past 10 Years

With the recent release of controversial lady-baiter Antichrist and refusal of release for Japanese torture flick Grotesque (ah, the BBFC doth giveth and doth taketh away), cinematic misery is on the agenda once again. Sometimes we watch films to laugh, sometimes to scream and sometimes to cry. And other times, we like to be put through the ringer. And it is these films to which I pay tribute today – the ones that are genuinely upsetting but also genuinely earn the grief they land in your lap (so no Norbit then). So here are, in my opinion and in order of miserability, the 10 most upsetting films of the past 10 years (plus one that absolutely isn’t)…


10. Out of the Blue (2006)
More often than not, when Hollywood gets hold of a true story, it soon becomes ‘based upon a true story’, then eventually ‘inspired by true events’ and then loses all impact (though Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, which just missed the list, is a fine exception). What makes Out of the Blue’s telling of the Aramoana massacre in New Zealand in 1990 is it’s upfront, matter-of-fact presentation and it’s all the more powerful for that. Though the story that unfolds is tragic, it’s ultimately uplifting in its depiction of the townsfolk trying to survive through a terrifying situation. An understated look at humanity at both it’s darkest and brightest, it’s a fine film indeed.


9. Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
Plot-wise, Shane Meadows’ film is ostensibly a revenge slasher flick, but few of those pictures are so down-to-earth, impeccably performed and mature. It’s gritty and grim, but there is a disturbing levity to be found amongst the frankly likeable and daft small-town drug dealers gasmask-clad Richard (Paddy Considine) is out to dispatch. It’s not perfect (the grainy black-and-white flashbacks are a tad student film) and arguably Meadows’ follow-up This Is England is a stronger piece of work, but it still delivers a powerful blow.


8. The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
I was in Manchester with a couple of friends and we had a choice of films at the cinema: this or Downfall. Figuring Nixon would be the less depressing option, we opted for him over Hitler. Now, I’ve still yet to see Downfall, but suffice to say, I’m not sure our criterion was strictly accurate. Still, we were rewarded with a superb film, with exceptional performances from Sean Penn and Naomi Watts (also both to be found in 21 Grams, another narrow miss on the upset stakes). Furthermore, the 70s setting gives it that ‘Golden Age of US Cinema’ feel. A must-see film for anyone who’s ever felt there life is insignificant and secretly knows it’ll never get better. God, that’s depressing.


7. All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)
Shunji Iwai’s study of the fall-out between two schoolfriends told largely in flashback and through internet chatspeak is two-and-a-half hours of depression, suicide, angst, bullying, prostitution, humiliation and generally very bad things. Not exactly the most tantalising way to spend a night at the cinema, but what is one of the most emotionally draining films I’ve ever seen is also one of the most unshakeable films I’ve ever seen. A lo-fi digital shooting style keeps everything believable, every scene’s charged with a sense of impending dread, and the music of the eponymous (and fictitious) singer lead role Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) obsesses over is so wonderful, you can see why it’s of such importance to the character. It’s as perfect of portrayal of teen loneliness you’re ever likely to see and 100% emo wank free.


6. Funny Games U.S. (2007)
A strange choice for this list perhaps, being as it is virtually a shot-for-shot remake by Michael Haneke of his own 1997 original work (which I haven’t actually seen), but then again it was also a strange choice for my birthday trip to the cinema two years ago. It has been much criticised for it’s pointlessness, senselessness and condescendingness (actual word!), but it’s still an important film and one that I was quite taken by. A family (Tim Roth, Naomi Watts – seemingly a glutton for punishment – and Devon Gearhart) are taken hostage in their holiday home by a disarmingly charming but sadistic duo (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) who break the fourth wall as much as they do toy with their victim’s lives. Unpleasant and uncomfortable but unconventional too.


5. Audition (1999)
The ever-prolific but endlessly interesting Takashi Miike commanded international attention with this slow-burning shocker. Ryo Ishibashi plays a widower who is encouraged by his son to find a new companion. His producer friend sets up a mock casting call as a way to meet potential girlfriends, and he becomes enamoured by a young former ballerina (Eihi Shiina). What starts as a sweet romantic drama takes a turn for the worst as her true nature and deadly past are revealed, building to a horrific climax. A precursor to the ‘torture porn’ trend of recent years through the Saw and Hostel films (as evidenced by Eli Roth giving the Japanese director a cameo in the first Hostel).


4. Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (2002)
The past decade has seen the Koreans become the go-to guys for exhilirating grown-up cinema, and Park Chan-Wook is one of it’s key luminaries. This, the first in his ‘Vengeance’ trilogy, may not be as energetic as Oldboy or artful as Lady Vengeance, but it packs a mean punch in which no-one, be they innocent or criminal, gets off lightly and happy endings are a rare luxury. Its brutality still sends ripples through the Korean film industry (most recently with The Chaser) and marked lead Song Kang-ho (later to feature in the equally excellent Memories of Murder, The Host, and The Good, The Bad, The Weird) as one of the most watchable actors in the world today.


3. Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Not a film for everyone and one I do have a few my misgivings about – it certainly piles on the misery in such an unremitting fashion it veers dangerously close to my choice of absolutely not-upsetting film below. However, if you don’t want to crack a smile all day, watch it over breakfast. It’s probably the best-directed anti-drugs PSA you’re ever likely to see. But mainly it’s a bit like Jam without the laughs. And if you didn’t laugh watching Jam, then steer well away of Requiem For A Dream.


2. Eden Lake (2008)
Okay, so it’s not that easy to justify the middle class heroes vs working class bad’uns angle of what was billed as the first ‘hoodie horror’ (despite there being no hoodies in it – and Ils got their first), but whichever way you cut it, Eden Lake is gruelling stuff. Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender are a couple out for a weekend away by the titular body of water when they encounter a group of teenage delinquents (featuring This Is England‘s Thomas Turgoose). Tensions rise, arguments flare, pranks go too far and soon the kids take increasingly grim measures to make sure they don’t leave alive. It’s a raw, uncompromising example of the best of modern British horror with a simple but chilling final shot that gives you the goosebumps.


1. Irréversible (2002)
The only film I’ve been to see at the cinema which advised no refunds after the film started because of the graphic content contained within, but also one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had. A film so brilliantly filmed, acted and constructed it wholly justifies the terrible terrible things that take place within (despite the understandable tales of walk-outs and pass-outs). An unflinching tale told in reverse chunks a la Memento (but taking that idea to its inevitable conclusion by running the credits at the start), real-life couple Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci are joined by friend Albert Dupontel (see Bernie, see Bernie, see Bernie) on a night out that turns impossibly sour. But being that it’s revealed backwards, we are greeted with the film’s climax: a nightmarish descent into gay S&M club The Rectum, filled with stomach-churning spinning camerawork and low-frequency soundtrack. If that doesn’t unsettle the mind as much as the body, brace yourself for the violent outburst that follows. And then there’s the question of why the lead characters are there in the first place – the film’s deeply disturbing and painfully real centrepiece. At least it’s one of the few films on the list with a happy ending, but when that’s only because we are seeing events prior to the ones we’ve already witnessed, it just makes it all the more upsetting.

And one film that genuinely isn’t upsetting as much as it tries to be…


The Butterfly Effect (2004)

A-ha-ha-ha! Idiot’s masterpiece The Butterfly Effect has become one of those cult films that I found hilarious but a surprising majority find truly deep and profound as if the concept of cause-and-effect had never ocurred to them before Ashton Kutcher went weepy and discovered the ability to change his childhood. Unfortunately, such is the list of horrors his character endures, that it piles on despair after despair, becoming ever more ludicrous. Isolated, they’d be depressing but together, it’s hysterical, and include:

…visiting his dad for the first time in the mental hospital only for pater to attempt to strangle him and then die in front of him; being filmed by the local paedo for a kiddie porn home movie; accidentally blowing up a baby with a hidden firecracker; watching his dog get burnt alive…

and then when he returns home to see his school sweetheart, she flips and kills herself that evening. That’s a bit of a downer, right? So for reasons barely explained (or perhaps I could barely care about), he reads his journals, he travels to the past and tries to undo the mess of his life. But in true ‘be careful what you wish for fashion’, nothing’s perfect, his “what if?” alternate lives get worse and worse, and he ends up with no limbs! Actually, that’s not the ‘ending’ ending but nor is it the alternate ending in which he decides to rid the world of his existence by, no kidding, warping back to when he was a foetus, then strangle himself with his umbilical cord in his mother’s womb!

“Oh my gawd! Like, y’know, when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world!”. Yes, but when that concept is better demonstrated in The Simpsonswith Homer’s time-travelling toaster, you know your film’s going to be as deep as a puddle and just as interesting. Not even Ian Malcolm would care about this tosh.

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