Making a “feel-bad” movie is not always as easy as some people think; it’s easy to ladle on the misery purely for it’s own sake but this rarely works, eventually your audience will get bored, or worse, laugh. It’s all about context, and with that in mind, let me introduce my picks of those films that it may hard to like, but you have to admire, even if you’re in no hurry for a repeat viewing.
Lilya 4EVER (2002) - You can tell a lot by a movie when you see that one of the extras is a UNICEF documentary, and so it goes with Lukas Moodysson’s third feature, possibly the most upfront account of human trafficking in the modern former Eastern Bloc, and how forgotten some of its young people have become. Featuring an astonishing central performance by Oksana Akinshina, it is a deceptively simple tale of how many little trials and travails in a young life can lead to some deeply disturbing places. Lilya, 16 and recently deserted by her mother and left in the “care” of her aunt, falls foul of local gangs, some dubious friends, and ultimately finds herself on a trip to Sweden to escape her aimless existence, only to find that homelessness at home would have been the least of her worries. As unapologetically grim as it is, it never once gives into self-pity, and with Lilya’s sole friend, the equally erratic Volodya, gives the film real heart, and at the end, a chilling reminder of the pitfalls of complacency in “modern” Europe.
Punishment Park (1971) - I really could have picked anything by Peter Watkins, the king of the faux-documentary, be it “Culloden” showing the eponymous battle as a Brian Hanrahan-style frontline report to devastating effect, or “the War Game” daring to tell the truth about nuclear war at a time when official government advice amounted to little more than “duck and cover”, but it has to be this altogether more ferocious beast, all the more potent for being made at the time of the conflict it satirises, the Vietnam War. Watkins has us follow a camera crew in an undefined near-future, as they document the fate of a group of mostly students with liberal views, held for being deemed a “risk to internal security”. After being tried by a jury of their “peers” they are given the option of serving time in a federal prison or risk three days in “Punishment Park”, 53 miles of scorching California desert, without food or water, and they will be freed. That is as much of the plot as it is safe to give, but Watkins’ genius lies in his casting of non-professional, real people in the roles, firstly in the trial scenes, which give a frightening view of the human condition as it is quite apparent that many of those playing the “authority” figures actually held these abhorrent views, and most specifically in the chase scenes across the park, where the “officers” giving chase are eerily reminiscent of those from the infamous “Stanford Experiment”. Factor in the fate of the poor film crew, and you have possibly the best political treatise on film.
Pretty Woman (1990) - No, this isn’t a joke, I genuinely find this film astonishingly depressing for many reasons; the only positive to come from it is that Julia Roberts somehow managed to forge a career and inexplicably used this as a springboard. The story is a simple one, lonely businessman Richard Gere can’t face going to function alone, so hires hot hooker Roberts for a few days to pose as his girlfriend, which would have made for an interesting morality tale, especially at turn of the 1990’s. Instead what we get is Gary Marshall’s grotesquely offensive take on “Cinderella”, right down to the ugly sisters in the clothing store. The irony is that both central characters are essentially rather likeable, but the story arc is so ludicrous, and the villains of the piece so caricaturish, that by the “happy” ending, all you can really do is either laugh or shake your head at the crassness of the stereotypes and the dubious message the film sends. How this monstrosity has become a chick-flick classic is beyond me.
Dancer In The Dark (2000) - OK, so I shamelessly admit to being a worshiper of both Lars Von Trier and Bjork as artists in their own right, and it is not a secret to anyone who knows me how much I adore this film, but even taking an objective view, I really believe it is a masterpiece, and also has the distinction of being the world’s foremost feel-shit musical. Bjork plays Czech immigrant worker Selma, working for a pittance in a sink factory in backwoods 60’s America, living in a trailer park, and saving for an operation for her young son to stop him succumbing to the hereditary degenerative condition which is slowly but surely blinding her. Not exactly the happiest of settings and, this being a Von Trier movie, needless to say further misery is never far away. But where in the hands of lessor mortals this could have been a Dogme take on “Madam X”, Lars’ assembled cast, including Daivd Morse, Jean-Marc Barr, Catherine Deneuve and of course a devastating Bjork in the lead, give this real clout.
Even for those not particularly familiar with, or fond of, Bjork’s music cannot deny the power of the musical sequences, as Selma becomes overcome in her circumstances, she begins to “see” the world around her as one of her beloved Hollywood musicals, complete with melodies and rhythms made from everyday surroundings, from the clatter of sinks in the factory to even simply footsteps. And with her landlord the local police Chief having a wife with an unfortunate spending habit, it’s not long before Selma’s money is going missing and her life starts to spiral. Bjork’s performance is the glue holding all this together, and gives one of the most unforgettable performances ever in film, and the ending is one of the bravest in cinema history.
Requiem For A Dream (2000) - And so we come to what may now be one of the most infamous “feel-bads” around, Darren Aronofsky’s brutally literal adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr,’s hymn to addiction and loss featuring arguably two of the finest ever female performances in film, courtesy of the wonderful Ellen Burstyn and Jennifer Connelly. The story of a mother her son, his girlfriend and his best friend, this is a stark portrayal of four people dealing in their own way with the shit life has thrown at them, and how they try to block ignore these scenarios, be it through television, prescription medication or drugs and prostitution. It is a film that is given little justice by giving a plot synopsis, but is better to be experienced, featuring as it does career-best performances from all involved, particularly from Damon Wayans showing what he dramatic potential he really has, and Connelly starring the world’s least erotic sex scene ever, but most of all Burstyn, proving why she is really the only person on the planet who can outdo Meryl Streep in terms of sheer believability and characterisation. Truly unforgettable.
Threads (1984) - Notorious among children of the early-80’s as the BBC docudrama that terrified a nation, this must sit as the pinnacle of grim film-making but also as the best piece of television ever produced in Britain, possibly anywhere. Made at a time when the pressing of the “big red button” was still very real, this takes the microcosmic view of a nuclear holocaust as seen through only the eyes of two families in Sheffield, starting before the attack with the courtship of Ruth and Jimmy, to thirteen years later, when Britain has almost reverted to a Year Zero scenario. A minuscule budget meant that writer Barry Hines (of “Kes” fame) and director Mick Jackson (who would later direct the rather more commercial “Volcano”) had to be inventive, but by God do they make you believe. Every eventuality of the aftermath is played out in excruciating but never gratuitous detail, from the failure of local government in the immediate weeks after the bombs drop, to the nuclear winters that follow. Add to this is the semi-documentary feel complete with voice-over by Paul Vaughn and on-screen factoids informing us of the increasing death toll, and you have what to my mind is the most important piece of broadcasting of any era.
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