Hypothetical Film Festival #7 – Not Happy Endings

There are “crowd pleaser” films, meant to deliver an upbeat tone to the audience and make sure everyone leaves the theater smiling. And then there are films like the ones on this list. These movies are pretty bleak from the start and any one in the audience can tell things will not end up alright for the protagonist. But as “down” as their endings might be, they are worth watching and will stay with you for days.

A bout de souffle/Breathless (1960, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

The film follow Michel, a young man modeling himself after the images of Hollywood gangsters he’s grown up seeing. Michel shoots a policeman in Marseille and goes on the run to his American girlfriend, Patricia’s flat in Paris. The plot is non-existent at this point and wanders aimlessly, following Michel and Patricia play house and wander the streets of Paris. Breathless is considered one of the films that birthed the French New Wave of the 1960s and was the first feature from Jean-Luc Godard with screenplay by Francois Truffat. Both men were major players on the film criticism scene who turned their cinephilia into a historic movement in film. As Breathless moves closer to its finale, it becomes more and more apparent that the aimless Michel will atone for his crimes in a tragic way.

12 Monkeys (1995, dir. Terry Gilliam)

Based on the heart-breaking French short film La Jetee (1962), 12 Monkeys is a schizophrenic and ever metamorphosizing film. James Cole is a criminal living in a future where humanity has been forced underground because of a super virus. A group of scientists offer Cole a pardon if he will travel back to 1996 where it is believed the virus was released by a terrorist organization known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Once in the past, Cole is thrown into a mental asylum where he befriends a female doctor and meets fellow inmate Jeffery Goines. Goines is completely insane and Cole believes he is a key component of the viral outbreak. As Cole’s consciousness leaps back and forth between past and present he is plagued by strange memories from his childhood. All of these elements begin to interweave until the ultimate tragedy of James Cole is revealed.

Dancer in the Dark (2000, dir. Lars von Trier)

Pretty much any von Trier film could be put on this list as he is a filmmaker not known for feel good flicks. This particular film is his reinvention of the musical film genre. The picture stars Bjork as Selma, a factory worker in the Pacific Northwest who struggles to raise her son while her vision is becoming increasingly worse. Selma’s mode of escape from the pressures of life by pretending she her life is a musical. The film frames these two tones by filming the “real life” moments in a very loose documentarian style and the musical interludes being very tightly planned and storyboarded sequences. Selma is eventually forced to commit an act that put her in a terrible position and causes her to make a decision about who she will save. The final ten minutes of this film are an emotional hell; there is nothing gory about them, instead it is pure devastation on the viewer. I have literally never cried harder watching a film than the this one.

The Pledge (2001, dir. Sean Penn)

It begins with a man alone mumbling to himself and then travels back in time. Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is retiring from the force but at the last minute is pulled into the murder of a little girl. Black swears on a the cross to the girl’s mother that he will find whomever killed her and this begins his descent into madness. Black loses himself in the mountain, eventually buying a gas station and beginning a budding relationship with single mom Lori. Eventually, Black learns Lori’s daughter is possibly being stalked by the killer and attempts to keep her safe no matter the cost. As the opening of the film foreshadows, Black ends up in a place of despair. The irony of the film is that justice is served, yet only the audience knows and Black is left to believe he has failed the woman he loves, the mother he pledged himself to, and the profession that defined him for most of his life.

The Mist (2007, dir. Frank Darabont)

My first suggestion is watch the Black and White version of the film on the DVD, as this is how Darabont intended the film to be released. The picture is based on a Stephen King novella and focuses on the customers of a grocery store who become trapped inside after a mysterious mist fills their small town. Out of the mist come horrific creatures, inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. I admit, when I first saw the film I was feeling very negative towards it. A lot of the character interactions feel like they come from the same Stephen King hackneyed toolbox. However, the last 20 minutes of the film completely turned my opinion around and presented an otherworld that is rich with details and glimpses of macabre things. The finale of the film serves as a metaphor for human reactions to tragedy and as a cautionary tale about never letting go of the hope that darkness can be overcome.

Funny Games (2008, dir. Michael Haneke)

A shot by shot remake of Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film and, as with most of Haneke’s work is meant to directly address the voyeuristic and sadistic nature of the audience. A happy family arrives at their lake house and soon after are met by two strange young men asking for help. The two young men are nicely dressed in tennis whites but it is obvious there is an unsettling air about them. The moment one of the young men breaks the husband’s leg with golf club we know things are getting bad. Haneke fools us into believing this will follow the traditional revenge film with the villains winning for the majority of the film and then being overcome by the family. However, the moment one of the the young men steps outside the walls of the film’s reality we know the rulebook has been thrown out and this will only end badly.

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