19. Funny Games (Original Version) (1997) 8/6
Michael Haneke is making a run at being the foreign-soil David Lynch with a series of unnerving films that explore the relation between movie voyeurism, real-life voyeurism, and violence. This Austrian shocker about two preppy teenagers who subject a family to mind games and murder was recently remade, virtually shot for shot, for American audiences, with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, but it is the 1997 original that still retains the most power.
Two clean-cut boys show up at the vacation home of a wealthy couple and their son, and slowly it becomes evident they are sociopaths bent on playing with the anxieties of the family like cats batting around mice. Haneke implicates, attempts to ridicule, and challenges the traditional disturbing crowd mindset by cheating on traditional narrative and depriving reality of cause and effect that might otherwise have brought relief and justice. Haneke is merciless; the acting is top notch, and the trademark lengthy one-shot scenes (especially an astounding sequence in which a shotgun blast is reversed) are excruciating.
As with many important directors, Haneke has managed to invent his own recognizable and unique filmmaking fingerprint: the “Haneke-style” that is now beginning to influence a whole new generation of Disturbing auteurs (see the brand new prep-school shocker Afterschool) consists of camera shots protracted way beyond what is usually cinematically acceptable or morally comfortable; still compositions hiding details right in front of our face; and the unwillingness of the artist to intercede on the audience's behalf. For some other high-achieving disturbing Haneke moments, check out a nasty surprise halfway through his terrific puzzler “Caché (Hidden); and a self-mutilating, incestuous Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher.
18. For #18 on the list, go here.
17. Bad Lieutenant (1994) 9/6
In Abel Ferrara's serious, sobering and spiritual Bad Lieutenant, a nun is raped during a vicious attack in the sanctuary of the church. She knows the two teenagers who committed the act, but in an almost transcendent act of forgiveness, in imitation of Christ, she refuses to give their identities to the police. Determined to show her attackers the compassion they denied her, she wants to, “turn bitter semen into fertile sperm.” Enter the title character, a cop who gives new meaning to the word corrupt, portrayed by Harvey Keitel in a boundary-shattering performance. The Lieutenant is on a fierce and frightening fast track of self-destruction, and Keitel revived his career by playing the character with amazing commitment and abandon. The Lieutenant indulges a crack and heroin habit, steals from the criminals he should be capturing, and, perhaps most dangerously to his welfare, is on an escalating losing streak of reckless bets placed with a mobster bookie.
Ferrara captures the heightened pulse and tension of a hot summer in New York, tracking the Lieutenant in his growing desperation, as he hangs out with drug dealers who look like vampiric ex-models, stumbles through the vacant halls of tenements and dark passages of dance clubs, and drives in his car screaming at Daryl Strawberry for ruining his latest wager. Keitel brings to life a man so tortured, so bent on self-annihilation, that some scenes verge on black humor in their wild nihilism. In a memorable moment, Keitel - like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet - distills male libido into a numb, automated force of lust that is scary to behold: the Lieutenant makes two teenage girls goad him on as he masturbates in front of them, and they comply for fear of being caught taking a joy ride in Daddy's car. Another scene has a thickly-muscled Keitel standing naked in a stupor, high on crack and swigging down a bottle of liquor; one minute he prances grotesquely in a mock child's dance, and in the next wails with an animal moan of existential exasperation.
It is a performance of primal urges and frustrations, difficult to watch. If this movie has a signature sound, it is that wail. The Lieutenant's swath of destruction is interrupted only by the case of the raped nun, to which he is assigned. He questions her about the crime, and is befuddled and disturbed by her resistance to take revenge, but also affected by the purity and religious devotion of her refusal.
This is the rare Disturbing movie that ostensibly offers cheap thrills and vicarious hellraising, but does a neat switcheroo in the final minutes: The Lieutenant finds one last desperate chance at forgiveness and redemption before fate finally closes in. He takes it. And we, the beffudled audience, are somehow left with a story that is actually about the ability of the spiritual and The Good to penetrate even the darkest souls and places. Sometimes shit happens.
16. Night of The Living Dead (1968) 8/8
The elder statesman of the list is George Romero's foundational masterpiece about a mysterious plague transforming the dead into zombies on the hunt for flesh.
Atmospherics are the key here: the director shoots in stark B+W, in his dreary and stark hometown of Pittsburgh, on a shoestring budget, packing all the fear and dread of impending social apocalypse and heartbreaking turmoil of the year in which it was released into a tale of supernatural terror. Half the population turned to zombies is an eerie allegory for 1968: an America cannibalizing itself and trying to determine who is “zombified” and who is alive and awake to the changes occurring in the culture. (It could even be considered a kind of leftist reverse of the paranoia of the previous decade's Invasion of the Body Snatchers; instead of loved ones turned into Communist machines, they are like a legion of Dylan's Mr, Jones, from “Ballad of a Thin Man,” sleepwalking through life, old-timers who “don't know what is happening.”)
From the ominous opening scene in which a young woman is spooked her teasing brother in a graveyard (“they're coming to get you, Barbara…”), to the harrowing scenes in which she joins a group of survivors barricaded in a house, watching the lawn outside fill with ghostly figures fighting over the intestines of victims, to a young girl who dies in the house's basement only to be revived as a zombie who murders her father with a spade, the tone of despair and seclusion is relentless. There are some terrific moments of dark humor, too, as when posses of rednecks (forefathers of the Tea Party?) band together with shotguns to save the county from the zombie movement, and a good ole boy sheriff tells the media regarding the zombies: “yeah, they're dead; they're real messed up.”
The closing twist, one of the most profound and effective endings to a horror film, leaves no doubt that the “Judgment Day” Romero had in mind was not only a biblical kind of wrath-of-God catastrophe but a racial and cultural one, too. As a statement that still rings true in today's heated racial arena, it is devastating and powerful. Of course, this film went on to spawn numerous sequels, variations, homages, and imitations, including Romero's terrific Dawn of the Dead, Lucio Fulci's Zombie, 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later (by that time the zombies were not lumbering oafs but rabid speedsters).
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