10 Seriously Messed Up Movies
Spring may seem an unlikely time to crave a messed-up movie marathon, but the trippy films on this list are worth a screening any time of the year. Full of iconic (read: extremely bizarre) scenes and surprising performances from many now “mainstream” actors, these are movies that will get under your skin and stay there. Of course, it’s hard to get too bummed out by a well-told story or a stylishly made film (then again: Dancer in the Dark), but here’s a final warning: these are 10 seriously messed-up stories.
1. Grizzly Man (2005)
Like much of Werner Herzog’s work, Grizzly Man has moments of poetry as well as dark humor. But Timothy Treadwell, the central figure of this documentary, suffers a fate so horrific that it’s shown in the film only via Herzog himself listening to audio of the incident and advising that it be destroyed and never played for anyone ever again. The audio exists because Treadwell documented his life among the bears in Alaskan wilderness; some of the astonishing footage appears in the movie, as Herzog ruminates on the “chaos and murder” he sees in the natural world Treadwell so adores. You may want to chase this experience — or this entire list — with Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, another nature-related doc with less grisly results.
2. Hard Candy (2005)
Before she was Juno or fulfilling her Woody Allen movie destiny, Ellen Page played a cunning teenager in Hard Candy, which manages to toy with its viewers so much that it appears to tell about five different totally messed up stories before it’s over. It begins queasily enough with Patrick Wilson meeting Page in a public place and bonding over the band Goldfrapp, then gets queasier as he invites her back to her place. But Page, playing on her mini-person physicality as well as her natural ability to seem smarter than her young-looking years, is not who she appears to be. This isn’t a gory horror movie, but your stomach will probably still churn with each plot twist.
3. Blue Velvet (1986)
Without indie movies of the past few decades, the message that weird, creepy stuff happens beneath happy suburban surfaces might be dangerously underreported. Before David Lynch went past disturbing into straight up inexplicable, he made this surreal, noir-ish riff on that very subject, and with more distinction than many who followed him. The movie’s patchwork of voyeurism, sadomasochism, and just plain ol’ regular violence is made creepier when juxtaposed with the innocence of young amateur sleuth Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan; yes, this is a movie where Kyle MacLachlan plays the normal guy). Co-star Dennis Hopper got his comeback Oscar nomination for the more uplifting Hoosiers the same year as Blue Velvet, but it was arguably his performance as the gas-huffing foulmouthed, abusive mystery psychotic Frank Booth that brought him back from the brink, career-wise.
4. Brokedown Palace (1999)
A young Kate Beckinsale and a younger Claire Danes star as besties who get framed and arrested for smuggling drugs in Thailand; suffice to say this isn’t the thrilling prison-break story or even one about the triumph of the human spirit. American ex-pat Bill Pullman takes the case; reflect on the fact that between this movie and Zero Effect, apparently in the late nineties, if you need a case solved, you went to Pullman. Maybe that thought will cheer you up as you inevitably put yourself in Danes’ and Beckinsale’s shoes and shudder with horror at the prospect of decades in prison for a crime you didn’t commit.
5. Fish Tank (2009)
Before he explored space in Prometheus or led the mutant uprising in X-Men: First Class, Michael Fassbender broke the human hearts of parents and teenagers alike in this gritty coming-of-age story. Fassbender actually plays second fiddle to young actress Katie Jarvis, who was discovered having a row with her boyfriend at a rail station in what was surely the most working-class English audition of all time. Jarvis plays Mia, a teenage girl who longs to escape her poor surroundings through hip-hop dancing — and grows attached to her mother’s new boyfriend (Fassbender). So yeah, it’s not as much fun as Step Up 2 The Streets, but Andrea Arnold’s second feature is terrific, and terrifically disturbing as it explores a deeply inappropriate attraction. Disturbing bonus: it’s not like Fassbender isn’t attractive in this movie.
6. Enter the Void (2009)
Consider this: even if the story of an American drug dealer living in Tokyo who gets killed and then watches over his life via a floating out-of-body experience sounds more trippy than flat-out messed up, (a.) Gaspar Noe made the deeply disturbing Irreversible and (b.) Ryan Gosling specifically recommended Enter the Void in Entertainment Weekly’s recent Best Movies You Haven’t Seen feature. Bothersome presumptuousness of said feature aside, you probably want to stay on Gosling’s good side to make sure he continues to patrol the streets, saving people from fights and traffic accidents. Please also consider that it might have the most amazingly assaultive opening credits ever.
7. Septien (2011)
Michael Tully, the writer/director/star of Septien, has a history with a specific hotbed of Southern-bred indie-movie talent, having worked and/or lived with the likes of David Gordon Green (All The Real Girls) and Craig Zoebel (Compliance). Tully explains this in greater detail in his unconventional set visit report for Green’s fantasy-comedy Your Highness — it’s a remarkable account of why Green’s move from Sundance-friendly indies to stoner comedies makes more sense than meets the eye. But Tully’s own film stays tense and regionally specific; Septien isn’t a Green movie, but it has a similar sort of poetic menace in telling the story of a man who disappears for almost two decades, then reappears to his family, mum about where he’s been.
8. Wendy & Lucy (2008)
The sadness of Wendy & Lucy comes from its simplicity. Michelle Williams plays Wendy. A dog named Lucy plays a dog named Lucy. Wendy is traveling with Lucy by car to the promise of a summer job. Wendy’s car breaks down, Lucy runs away, and economic fragility gets an unwilling poster girl in Kelly Reichardt’s naturalistic, quietly devastating drama. Nothing truly shocking happens in the movie; indeed, it’s disturbing because how easy economic ruin can be.
9. Big Fan (2009)
Sadness and dark comedy permeates Big Fan, but one particular detail encapsulates. Early in the movie, we see Paul (Patton Oswalt) call in to his favorite sports radio show to discuss the New York Giants — and consulting from a notepad of observations we saw him writing down with great intensity in previous scenes. Not only does he call into this radio show (from his childhood bedroom, no less) like it’s his job; he does it working from a script. Like a lot of the movie, this realization is tragic, funny, and heartbreaking all at once. If you’ve ever been obsessive about anything — movies, say? — certain notes of Big Fan may ring uncomfortably true.
10. Secretary (2002)
Honestly, about eighty percent of what’s messed up about this story is Maggie Gyllenhaal falling in love with James Spader. I mean, yes, the sadomasochistic dynamic of this sex-slash-romance between a domineering boss (Spader) and his new assistant (Gyllenhaal) will be off-putting to some. But the movie’s deadpan-comic overtones and engaging Gyllenhaal performance make it more of an intelligent rom-com than a searing psychodrama. And yet: there’s just something unwholesome about Spader being in a rom-com at all. For that matter, there’s just something unwholesome about Spader being someone’s boss; just ask anyone at Dunder-Mifflin.
Click here for a full on-air schedule for Blue Velvet on SundanceTV.