Insanity is a common subject in film, and can be difficult to address clearly. Insane persons have a very unique and twisted worldview, and a director would need to know a lot about the subject to portray that view accurately. The following list is the ten films which, in my opinion, deal with the subject best. Note that there are dozens of others that could’ve made the list, and if you’d like to name some please leave a comment below.
10: The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining addresses insanity as a product of alcohol, and it is the only film on this list to do so. The book by Stephen King addresses it in a much clearer, more startling manner, but there is no denying Kubrick’s glorious cinematography and creepy vibes are just as effective. Jack Nicholson gives one of the best performances of his career as the mentally unhinged Jack Torrance, whose alcohol addiction and short temper invite the demonic forces of the Overlook Hotel into his head, and convince him to kill his family. Still as haunting as ever over thirty years after its initial release, The Shining remains a film which is a study more on things that lead to insanity, than insanity itself.
9: Rejected (2000)
Rejected, in case you have not seen it or even heard of it, is a 9-minute short film directed by Don Hertzfeldt detailing an animator’s descent into insanity through his short cartoons, which increasingly grow more disturbing and disgusting. I completely love the change of pace in this movie. The first few minutes are absolutely hilarious and completely random, but as the film goes on we begin to realize how sick and saddening it really is. The film’s visceral conclusion is poetically brilliant, an amazing representation of mental instability finally kicking into overdrive. The film isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly worth a watch:
8: Inland Empire (2006)
Even if you’ve seen this, which surprisingly few people I know have, you wouldn’t expect to see it on the list. Sure, it’s easy to label any of David Lynch’s movies “insane” but you’d expect to see Mulholland Dr. on a list of insane movies, not Inland Empire, right? Well after hours and days of studying the film, I’ve determined that it has a much more effective and memorable stance on insanity than its more well-known predecessor. It’s about a woman, an actress (Laura Dern) who sinks into the role of a boozed ex-prostitute reflecting on her demented past with a spiteful attitude yet with no particular impulse to change. I’ve always thought it’s one of the best movies ever made (except for the whole DV-shooting thing, which I still don’t get), and I’m probably one of very few people who think that, but the reason it’s so difficult to understand is because insanity is difficult to understand. Lynch goes straight for the gut, heaving disturbing images at us and forcing us to confront them. I’m praying for the day when he makes another film, but if he doesn’t, this would be a fitting conclusion.
7: Citizen Kane (1941)
While labeling any one film ‘the greatest movie of all time’ is an incredible overstatement (though Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog comes closest), one can’t deny that Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is pretty damn close. He plays the eponymous Kane, the ruthless patriarch of a newspaper empire (a character based on William Randolph Hearst, but who seems eerily similar to the Rupert Murdoch of today) whose greed and power are ultimately his downfall. In the end, as we all know, he dies, and on his deathbed all the regrets of his life flash before his eyes in an instant, and all he wishes for is the simplicity of his childhood (*wipes tear*). I don’t believe Kane was really insane, but for a few, fleeting, manic moments we see insanity in his eyes, in his attitude, and for Welles to display that so calmly, so cooly, is the artwork of a cinematic God itself.
6: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)
Werner Herzog’s astonishing breakthrough is one of many tales of maniacality fuelled by greed. Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) at first accepts his place as a secondary character before suddenly, shockingly and mercilessly usurping the position of leader. He leads his men on a lethal journey into the jungle in search of the mythological city of El Dorado, a place as incredibly difficult to find as any logic or reason in the film’s protagonist: very difficult. He’ll let his men die so long as he gets to his destination, and as they are ruthlessly picked off by natives and eaten by monkeys, he stands triumphantly, as if their rotting corpses are the fruits of his discoveries, the gold of El Dorado, and as if the long trek into the jungle will last forever, until ultimately his own life is taken by his second-hand desires and unstable tendencies.
5: American Psycho (2000)
Can you remember the expression on your face when Patrick Bateman said, “I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” Or how about: “Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you fucking stupid bastard!” Or most memorably: “It’s even got a watermark!” They’re all lines representing the typicality and tiredness of his insanity, how it is so fully developed and fleshed out that it is not his soul that has been taken over, but his entire physical form. There is not one iota of sanity from Bateman in the entire film; strange, since usually all films about insanity have at least one moment when the insane protagonist looks momentarily normal. This is the beauty of Mary Harron’s representation of the character. He is insane to the point where acting sane would be insane, to him. This is very difficult to represent on screen, but Harron does it with ease, style, and a helpful handful of pop culture references. Bale embodies Bateman, to the point where it is difficult not to be reminded of Bateman every time we see him. Bateman is one of those characters that was probably always insane, but what makes it especially shocking is how physically similar he is to the film’s other characters, which suggests subtly that his insanity is normal, that he is not alone, and that it is typical of the rough, threatening shark-in-a-suit attitude which has become so stereotypical.
4: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Randal Patrick McMurphy is not insane. He is as normal as apple pie or cinnamon buns, and there is no reason for us to think any different? So why is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on this list? Because this is a list of films about insanity; dealing with it as a subject, not necessarily as characterisation. McMurphy is isolated in a world of supposedly crazy (“Creeps! Lunatics! Mental Defectives!”) people, but as the film passes by, we realize how we have completely overestimated the meaning of the word insane. Insanity does not necessarily mean dropping a chainsaw from fifty feet and hitting a prostitute splat on the head (see #5), it can mean something as simple as basic paranoia or just thinking in a different manner to what we would consider ‘normal.’ Insane is a stupid word. Literally, it would mean ‘the opposite of sane,’ but what is sane? Normal? What is normal? How can you factually define these words without using opinion? There is no way. Definition is supposedly fact, but opinion is a part of almost everything we say and mean, rendering the words ‘insane’ or ‘sane’ moot. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest deals with insanity as normality, determined by a group of probing doctors and physicians, taking notes and giving pills that have no effect other than to render the person in an almost catatonic state of ignorance. The film screams out against the system of imprisonment and the definition of insanity, and this is how it is a film which deals with the subject.
3: There Will Be Blood (2007)
Sure, milkshake metaphors and bowling-pin beatings warrant us to issue an insanity warning, but the film is so much deeper than that. Daniel Plainview, like Charles Foster Kane and Don Lope de Aguirre, is driven by greed. At first he is represented as a normal man, but his descent into insanity is shocking and unnerving. While not the best film to deal with the subject, it is definitely one of the most effective. Paul Thomas Anderson confidently directs his masterpiece, and Robert Elswit’s Oscar-winning cinematography perfectly captures the madness in his mind. The film’s harrowing final half hour is a poetically stunning final message about greed and insanity. I think it is brilliant that Anderson can so amazingly capture that insanity in 30 minutes, let alone two and a half hours. The final confrontation between religious faith and atheistic disbelief is like God and Satan bickering, except this time Satan wins. Seeing Plainview in a ragged, drunken state in the film’s finale, screaming lines like “DRAAIIIINNNNAAGGEEE!” and “I told you I would eat you!” is the embodiment of a loss of soul, dignity and care. At this point, it’s not even about his greed for oil anymore. All he wants now is to hate, to kill. Compassion takes effort, and he is lazy. Looking into Plainview’s maniacal eyes we realize that anything that is not hate and selfishness will never exist in there, and it is a sombre and haunting moment indeed. Gordon Gekko once said “Greed is good.” He was NOT referring to Daniel Plainview.
2: Taxi Driver (1976)
Some would argue that Travis Bickle’s attitude was not insanity, but just tiredness. Then again, would you go and do what he did? No, you wouldn’t. Most would consider it sane not to go to such drastic measures, am I correct? Then that means what Bickle did was, by public definition, insane. But this is no time for argument. The image of Bickle with his fingers pointed at his head (“Boom! Boom! Boom!”) is him at the height of his insanity, breaking through all walls to rid his city of scum. The path to insanity is paved by Scorsese slowly, as an eventual downward spiral. This seems to be the most common way to track insanity (see #10, #9, #7, #6 and #3 on this list), and it works. Bickle’s character is a man we can all relate to; many of us can easily see ourselves doing what he does, but most of us just don’t have the insanity and conviction in our heads to actually proceed with the acts. Sure, if you saw a sadistic madman like Sport (Harvey Keitel) pimping and abusing the underage Iris (Jodie Foster), you’d want to do something, you’d want to stop it, right? Well this is where Bickle differs from everyone else; he actually does something, and it quite something indeed. He doesn’t report him to the police, he just goes right ahead and kills him because that is his mindset, the wasy he thinks, and what he considers the rational thing to do. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?
1: The Hour of the Wolf (1968)
I don’t think there’s a single person who would ever read this article who will agree with me on #1. I am bracing myself for the “Hey, how can you put that ahead of Citizen Kane or Taxi Driver?” Well, as we all know, lists like these are opinionated so this is simply my opinion. Ingmar Bergman’s delve into the realm of horror film proved deeply influential (watch it back to back with Scorsese’s Shutter Island and you’ll see what I mean) and starkly terrifying. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann (Bergman’s two most talented collaborators, if I may say so) are a married couple living on an island whose lives are changed by the island’s strange inhabitants. They draw in von Sydow, humiliate him, trick him, and convince him he is losing his sanity. As the film goes on, this is exactly what happens. Any film can track an eventual loss of sanity, but Bergman punctuates it with a mixture of both subtle scenes of sanity loss and outright obvious moments of von Sydow losing it. The film is sporadic and shocking, unpredictable and unforgettable, and portrays the subject of insanity in a manner that is impossible to replicate, making the film not only powerful but unique and special, impossible to remake, fun to homage and incredible to watch.
Well, that’s my list. Anything you’d like to add? Leave a comment below.
I love writing reviews. I love it a lot. And I like it when reviews turn people onto movies they wouldn’t normally watch, as they have for me on many occasions. But sometimes people don’t have the time to read a full review, and just want people to get to the point. To satisfy these impatient but forgivable men and women, here is a list of twenty-five films, reviewed within one paragraph. They range from the completely terrible to the utterly brilliant. This of course, is all based on opinion, which is what makes the process of leaving a comment so integral. So make sure you do that. Anywhere, here they are, in a completely random order:
1: Freeway (1996)
It’s hardcore dark humor that is difficult to appreciate combined with the complete impossibility to sympathise with either of its main characters might normally make this a bad movie. But in some strange way, it has a charm, which obviously appealed to Executive Producer Oliver Stone. 7/10.
2: Short Cuts (1993)
Robert Altman knows a lot about people, as this mammoth 3-hour film proves. Back in ’75, he did it with Nashville, and retaining some of the jazzy musical flair, he returns to weave a complex web of a range of emotions that was a nice follow-up to The Player and a major influence on Paul Thomas Anderson. 9/10.
3: Fear and Desire (1955)
Stanley Kubrick’s first feature film was a disappointing one; so much so that he went as far as to withdraw all copies from distribution. It can still be found on the internet, but Kubrick was right when he said it was his worst film. 4/10.
4: Wild at Heart (1991)
My least favourite David Lynch film (and I LOOOOOOOOOOOVE Lynch) is a twisted romantic thriller with all the familiar Lynchian character types and plenty of Lynch’s snazzy retro styles but seemingly devoid of emotion. The highlight is easily the ugly Willem Dafoe character, but he only barely manages to save this wreck. 5/10.
5: The Green Mile (1999)
Seeing this at age 14, I felt a poignant sense of love for a film in a manner which was new to me. If, at that age, I had compiled a list of my favourite films, it would probably be number one. Growing up, I realized my fickle naivety at loving this Darabont gem so much, but it still retains power. 8/10.
6: Somewhere (2010)
Though Coppola’s take on an age-old plot is rather inaccessible, it is undoubtedly original, and her solid directing and some very touching cinematography make this so wickedly awesome to look at. Plus, the boozy relativity of Stephen Dorff and the contrasting charm of Elle Fanning make this an underrated treasure. 8/10.
7: See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1987)
Of the Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor pairings, this is certainly not the most well-received, glamorous or best, but seeing it at age twelve I could NOT stop laughing. They play the respective roles of a deaf and blind man in such a hilarious manner that it’s impossible not to. But at the end of the day, this is them doing what they’ve already done, in many ways. 6/10.
8: Liar, Liar (1997)
I saw this in theatres with my Dad when it came out and we had such fun. Turning ever slightly into a more bearable personality with each film, Carrey seems to hold up the role of a flabbergastingly talkative lawyer with ease, slipping in dozens of clever, witty one liners and winning the audience one chuckle at a time, despite its flaws. 7/10.
9: A Serious Man (2009)
It took more than one viewing to fully appreciate what Joel and Ethan Coen were trying to convey with this deceivingly simple story of a Jewish man’s struggle in middle-class society as everything he touches breaks (metaphorically) and he is subject to blackmail, deceit and countless unlucky circumstance. Honest about life and a real eye opener, it proves that the Coens will perhaps forever retain that undeniable charm. 9/10.
10: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
With a bit of a mind flip, you’re into the time slip, and nothing will ever be the same. Though I certainly never went as far as to dress up and gather props, watching this cult classic gives you an appreciation for its intelligence about comedy and its beautiful tributes to science fiction and exploitation hits alike. 7/10.
11: Casino (1998)
I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but watching Scorsese’s Casino felt like a three hour trip around a rollercoaster of emotions that encircle the pretty-on-the-outside city. De Niro’s stony appearance and Pesci’s familiar disturbing intolerance as well as general greed and sin are an unattractive portrait of a moment in time where no one was safe from corruption. 8/10.
12: Gigli (2003)
I had suspected something stinky early on, but when Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez started their pathetic argument about penises and vaginas, I began to feel really sick. What makes it even worse is the presence of Martin Brest as director and screenwriter. How can a person so quickly move from things like Midnight Run and Scent of a Woman to this? 3/10.
13: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
For a fleeting second in this superb adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, whilst watching the DVD, I grabbed for the remote to pause it but found myself unable to. I realized when it had finished that that flash of a second was me deciding this was the best film I’d ever seen, but within moments, that exaggeration was gone. It isn’t the best one. But it’s a f*cking good one. 10/10.
14: The Brown Bunny (2003)
From its famed disastrous Cannes screening to the nightmarish controversy which followed, Vincent Gallo’s second directorial film was always going to garner the wrong sort of attention, but I think it is vastly underrated. It took me more than one viewing to even begin to like this movie, but now that I’ve had time to think about it, I realize what Gallo was trying to achieve and I respect him even more. Read my full review here. 7/10.
15: The Killing (1956)
Probably the first “great” film Kubrick released, this tense, pacing heist flick is full of brilliant scenes and the early stages of what would soon famously become the “Kubrick” cinematography style, and a final end scene completely coated in excellence. Impossible to hate, it is a must-see for all heist movie fans. 8/10.
16: Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
When compared with the films that preceded it, Paul Thomas Anderson’s quiet little drama might seem a little disappointing, but it’s arguably an excellent work of art, full of Anderson and the emotion he’s so talented at conveying. It also features cinematography and a use of light that is, in a word, stunning, and quite unexpected, much like the notable performance from a frustrated Adam Sandler. 8/10.
17: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
A beautiful movie that makes you feel quite triumphant, this magnificent true story about a paralysed man who communicated and “typed” his entire autobiography to a typist by blinking (and doing only that) is not a frightening vision of a rare but dangerous affliction but rather, a tale of succeeding, when the rest of your body was telling you to fail. 8/10.
18: Rain Man (1988)
Dustin Hoffman’s remarkable performance as the Autistic Raymond would be enough to turn any self-indulgent prick like Tom Cruise’s character into a more emotionally respectable person, and as if that weren’t enough, his love for K-Mart, fresh underwear and Who’s On First make him instantly likeable. 7/10.
19: City of Ember (2008)
While babysitting my sister’s kids, we (meaning they) decided it would be awesome to watch this futuristic drama. Though the presence of Tim Robbins and Bill Murray is enough to stir the eyes of any adult in bland interest, neither of them are trying anything comedic here and while the premise is interesting, it is ultimately disappointing. 5/10.
20: October Sky (1997)
I feel sorry for a lot of people for this movie, Chris Cooper most of all, because when accepting this role he probably thought it would be the only time he would have to play a self-indulgent prick of a father. Then along came American Beauty, and self-indulgent prick was an instant typecast. Anyway, this movie is a bland but fair true story about some kids who build rockets, but it’s more for kids. 6/10.
21: Being John Malkovich (1999)
Hello, Kaufman. Hello, Jonze. Hello again, instantly despicable but strangely appealing John Malkovich. Hello, good movie. The interesting premise of this comic drama follows through nicely, retaining a lot of originality and pacing itself neatly enough. The only disappointing scene is one that also seems to be strangely witty, involving a chimpanzee flashback. 8/10.
22: Dogville (2003)
Lars von Trier is a director who I don’t think has ever (or will ever) make a really accessible movie. Dogville is no exception to this rule, but it is also Trier’s best. The use of setting the whole thing as a stage play makes it seem smaller, down to Earth, and a whole lot easier to follow, and the acting performances by a collective group of great actors playing members of a small town is equally impressive. 8/10. Heck, maybe 9 considering the fantastic ending.
23: A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Revealing some unpleasant truths about relations between Brits and Americans, this absolutely f*cking HILARIOUS movie is flat out funny, all the way through, with Pythonesque jokes, and a thought-provoking analysis of the system of slapstick crime movies, this continues to delight and impress with each viewing. Sooo funny! 8/10.
24: Bruno (2008)
What may be so appealing about Sacha Baron Cohen is his disregard for social convention and love of all things outrageous. His follow-up to Borat, goes further than its predecessor, into the realms of homophobia and stereotypes, but still managing to come up clean on the other side, though some scenes might be excessive. 7/10.
25: Amores Perros (2000)
Spanish (or Mexican, whichever you consider to be most applicable) cinema is one of the most intriguingly relevant of foreign cinemas today. Celebrated director Alejandro Gonzales Iñàrritu creates tense sequences and stories of life in Mexico that are full of raw, uncensored emotion, particularly some heartbreaking sequences in the last half. Surprisingly brilliant. 9/10.
That’s my opinion, now what’s yours? You know the drill. Do you agree/disagree with what I’ve said about movies above? Leave a comment with some very short reviews of your own. It can be from any movie at all.
Thanks for reading.
I’ve been thinking about what to post next, how to keep the ideas entertaining, and I’ve got a few notes down for future posts, but for today, I’m going to stick to a subject many have attempted to tackle and often, succeeded in getting laughs. That’s right, the movie title mash-up. You know, where you combine the titles of two movies to make one super-movie and keep the laughs rolling in. If you know your cinema, its not a hard thing to do. Here’s my attempt at some movie title mash ups:
Lost Highway in Space
Star Wars of the Roses
Dead Silence of the Lambs
2001: Homer’s Odyssey
The Princess Bride Wars
Boogie Nights in Cabiria
A Clockwork Orange County
After the Sunset Blvd.
The Lost Weekend at Bernie’s
Shaun of the Dead Snow
The Man with the Naked Gun
An Andalusian Dogtooth
I Am Legend of the Falls
Inland Empire of the Sun
The Elephant Man with the Iron Mask
The Basketball Diaries of a Wimpy Kid
Mao’s Last Dancer in the Dark
Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Age of Innocence
Last Tango in Paris, Texas
The Wild One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Groundhog Day the Earth Stood Still
Let me know what you think of these in the comments, and as usual…
Thanks for reading.