I have always loved movies. It’s something about the fact that so many people have to get so many things right at once for them to work. Think about it, writing a good book only requires one person to succeed, painting a beautiful painting or sculpting a statue only takes one artist. Even a great band only needs a few people to be good at their job. Films, on the other hand, have casts of tens of people and crews of hundreds, or more. It’s astounding that so many people can manage to come together on the same page for long enough to make a few beautiful hours of cinema. With that in mind, I present to you a list of eight movies that will change your perspective on life. Each film on the list is visually and thematically unlike most that you have probably seen, and each offers a unique perspective on their respective themes. I’ll note what the particular theme of each film is, but it will be up to you to watch them and discover how the filmmakers have chosen to express that theme yourself.
We’ll start with the darkest film on the list to get it out of the way. Brad Anderson’s The Machinist, starring Christian Bale (The Dark Knight trilogy, American Psycho) depicts a factory machinist named Trevor Reznik who is extremely underweight and struggles with insomnia. After being blamed for an accident at work, Trevor questions his sanity as his relationships decline and strange events begin to happen around him.
(Fun Fact: Bale went from the 130 lbs he was in the film to 230 lbs in six months to prepare for Batman Begins.)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus:
Theme: Good vs. Evil
This is the first of two films on this list directed by original Monty Python member Terry Gilliam (Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the last movie that Heath Ledger (who played the Joker in The Dark Knight,) made before he died. In fact, Ledger died during the filming, and was replaced in certain parts with Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law. Despite the star-studded cast (which also includes Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Waits,) this is anything but a traditional Hollywood blockbuster.
The film depicts the contest between Doctor Parnassus (played by Plummer) and the devil, Mr. Nick (Waits.) The doctor, a former monk, made a deal with Mr. Nick for immortality, but when he met the love of his life, he made another bargain for youth. For this, he pays a heavy price, and as part of the bargain, he competes with Mr. Nick for the souls of those who enter his incredible ‘Imaginarium,’ a bizzare roadside attraction. Things take a turn when Parnassus and his troupe save a hanged man, Tony, who tries to modernize the old-fashioned Imaginarium’s traveling show.
If you’re a fan of Terry Gilliam, Heath Ledger, Dante’s Inferno, or the story of Dr. Faust, then this morality tale is the movie for you. Both whimsical and dark, this visually-innovative movie is unlike any other.
Bonus: After you’ve seen the movie (WARNING: SPOILERS,) click here for an interesting (and strange) essay about the symbolism in the film.
Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael’s breakthrough English work, Mr. Nobody, tells the confusing and often contradictory life story of Nemo Nobody, the last mortal man on Earth. Jared Leto (Fight Club, American Psycho, 30 Seconds to Mars,) plays the 118 year-old Nemo, who is interviewed for a world that has become essentially immortal, to tell the story of the final person to die. Nemo is unique in that he has the ability to ‘remember’ all of his possible futures, and the story swerves between the many ways his life may have gone.
The Zero Theorem
Now for the second Gilliam film on this list. The Zero Theorem, starring the incredible Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained) in what must certainly be his strangest role, tells the dystopian story of the hairless coder-hermit Qohen Leth (Waltz). Qohen lives alone in a repurposed cathedral, waiting for a phone call that will change his life. In the meantime, he works for Mancom, a company that “crunches entities.” After a series of interesting events, he is ultimately tasked to solve the supposedly impossible “Zero Theorum,” a task that will push him to the brink.
If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, the weirder parts of Wes Anderson movies, or just plain quirky absurdness, this is a movie for you. (Absolutely the strangest movie on this list, but a very fun watch if you don’t take it too seriously.)
Now we get to the more pleasant half of this list. In the only animated feature listed, The Prophet, directed by Roger Allers (The Lion King) is an adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s world famous book of the same name. This movie stars Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Taken, The Phantom Menace,) alongside Salma Hayek (Frida,), John Krasinski (The Office,) Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon,) and Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2.)
This movie is incredible, and a fantastic adaptation of the source material- which I also recommend highly. In the film, the titular Prophet, Mustafa (Neeson,) is a foreign political prisoner being held under house arrest. He is released, under the condition that he will leave the country by the end of the day, and on his way to depart, he has a number of captivating conversations with the townspeople he encounters. These soliloquies include such topics as freedom, love, and more, and each is illustrated or animated by a different person. The result is a visually stunning, emotionally gripping experience that will most certainly touch your heart and mind.
Tim Burton’s adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel of the same name is a lighthearted story of a father and the stories he told to his son. Starring Ewan McGregor (Star Wars, Moulin Rouge!,) Helena Bonham Carter (the Harry Potter series, probably every Tim Burton movie ever made,) Albert Finney (Annie, Skyfall,) Billy Crudup (Watchmen, Princess Mononoke,) Jessica Lange (American Horror Story, Grey Gardens,) Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, The Big Lebowski,) and Danny DeVito (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Batman Returns.)
This movie blends the reality of a dying father with the fantasy of his version of his life. Along the way, truth and fiction blur as Will (Crudup) tries to get to the bottom of the tales his dad (McGregor/Finney) told him as a kid.
Fans of Tim Burton’s films or the show Pushing Daisies will love this fantastic treat.
Theme: Cause and Effect
My second favorite movie of all time, Cloud Atlas, is directed by the amazing combination of The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Sense8) and Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run, Sense8.) Based on the novel of the same name by David Mitchell, the massive story covers six timelines ranging from 1849 to 2311.
The film stars Tom Hanks (if you haven’t seen a Tom Hanks movie what have you done with your life?) Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball, X-Men,) Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Lord of the Rings,) Doona Bae (Sense8, Jupiter Ascending,), Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe, 21,) Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,) Keith David (They Live, Rick and Morty,) James D’Arcy (Agent Carter, Dunkirk,) David Gyasi (Interstellar, Containment,) Susan Sarandon (Thelma and Louise, The Rocky Horror Picture Show,) and last but not least, Hugh Grant (Notting Hill, Love Actually.)
This movie is immense, both in cast and in scope. Through a variety of individual stories, it winds a tale of interconnectedness, violence, and love across the centuries. It also features one of the finest examples (second only to the last movie on the list) of repetition with a simple musical score- it becomes epic and beautiful as the story builds. Best summed up with a quote I’ve used in several articles and will likely use again,
“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
For fans of the directors or any of the actors listed, The Butterfly Effect, movies that require multiple watches, or complex narratives in general.
Theme: Love, Loss, and Grief
Darren Aronofsky’s (Noah, Pi,) transcendent epic The Fountain, is absolutely my favorite film ever made, and quite possibly the greatest movie ever produced. It stars Hugh Jackman (Logan, The Prestige) and Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardner, Constantine) as Tom, a doctor, and Izzi, a writer who is dying of cancer in the year 2000. Tom is frantically researching a cure, while Izzi writes a book called The Fountain. The book depicts a Spanish conquistador , Tomás, who is sent by Queen Isabella in the year 1500 to the New World to find the Tree of Life. At the same time, a monk named Tommy is flying through space on a tree in the year 2500, towards the dying nebula, Xibalba.
If that sounds strange, it is. However, behind the three timelines, set 500 years apart from each other, is the most beautifully filmed and intensely symbolic film that I know of. On top of all that, it also has a compelling score that synchronizes perfectly with the film to birth an incomparable, breathtaking crescendo in any media.
I recommend watching Cloud Atlas first, as the films have some sort of interesting similarity.
For fans of symphonic music, cinematography, romanticism, and just movies in general. Absolutely a must-watch- and every time I see it, I discover more intricate details or subtle motifs that I didn’t see before.
P.S.- The trailer does not do it justice.
That list should keep you busy for now. What movies changed your perspective? Let us know in the comments!