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It all got a bit dismal post-recession, with moviemakers utilizing the pervading atmosphere of gloom as a cue to unashamedly explore their darker emotions on film.
They didn’t hold back, either: here are five films from the first half of the decade that plunder the depths of despair while developing fresh cinematic voices that give us movie-goers a bit of hope in the darkness. ~ GJ Cole
Why so gloomy, filmmakers? Well, Lars von Trier’s reasoning is that ‘Melancholia’ testifies to his own long-term experiences of depression. It’s his ability to blow this up to a cinematic scale with a tale equal parts melodrama and science-fiction that makes him one of the masters of the art today.
‘Black Swan’ and ‘Margaret’ work as a twin set of movies on the trials of coming-of-age in modern society, pitching their young heroines into wildly different perils but exploring a similar emotional arch in each film.
The blues of ‘Blue Valentine’ are more timeless: while the pressures of economy weigh on our characters’ shoulders, that’s not a uniquely modern issue. Rather, director Derek Cianfrance locates in his doomed lovers an incompatibility of character that manifests as a fissure that can only be driven wider by the particular circumstances of living in a community.
Love may be fleeting and out of our control, but romance is the process of trying to make life more beautiful.
“I’m so out of love with you. I’ve got nothing left for you, nothing, nothing.”
Evoking intense swathes of pathos by skipping between scenes from the beginning and the end of a passionate relationship, Cianfrance crafts a fine three-Kleenex tear-fest with a very modern feel.
Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are big stars in their way, but they are also two of the finest actors of their generation, and their awkward click here perfectly encapsulates the growing disharmony between jaded nurse, Cindy, and hot-blooded good guy, Dean.
A combination of pitch-perfect moments and carefully developed scenes make for a pulpy melodrama with just a touch of class.
“This isn’t an opera! And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life!”
Warning! If you watch ‘Margaret’ directly after ‘Black Swan’, I cannot be held responsible for your nervous breakdown!
Echoing Aronofky’s film in its portrait of a young woman maturing through a period of intense personal chaos, Lonergan’s movie takes a more ‘realistic’ route but is every bit as torturous with its plot twists and turns.
17-year-old Lisa (Anna Paquin) is traumatized after witnessing (and arguably having some responsibility for) a violent road accident. As she seeks to make sense of the situation, her emotions and decisions fluctuate wildly, to the point when she even appears to become a (metaphorical) monster to the audience.
Finely tuned dialogue and heart-wrenching turns from Jeannie Berlin and Matt Damon complete an epic drama of uncompromising honesty and insight.
“It is a planet that has been hiding behind the Sun. Now it passes by us. It’s called flyby.”
Trier’s diptych on depression pairs the tale of Justine’s short-lived (i.e. until the end of the wedding night) marriage against the scene several months later, when she lives with her sister Claire and family – and all are bracing themselves for the potential impact of a world-destroying meteor.
So if you’re familiar with the Danish director’s work, you’ll have some idea of the high melodrama and mischievy to expect. Here he does it on an almost Hollywood scale, with Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland joining a cast of European stars and Trier regulars.
Funny, troubling, and just a bit ridiculous, there is enough truth and nuance in this movie to place it way above his terrible follow-up, ‘Nymphomaniac’.
“The only person standing in your way is you.”
Aronofsky’s work veers from the sublime to the banal, but ‘Black Swan’ is an absolute masterpiece of cinema, wielding light, illusion and movement to create a treacherous reality for characters and audience alike.
Natalie Portman plays an ambitious ballerina for whom the coveted roles of the white and black swans of Swan Lake are almost in reach. Already somewhat neurotic, pressure from her controlling mother and bullying from within the company threaten to undermine her potential, with strange scratches on her back hinting at a kind of pathological expressionism that lurches towards body horror.
It makes for a highly wrought couple of hours that’ll keep you thinking for days.
“I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun.”
We may be veering into sci-fi territory here, but Carruth’s second feature has its feet firmly enough on the ground that it can assert itself as a drama in its own right.
It takes a while to twig what’s going on, as the ‘Primer’ director pioneers an observational yet elliptical editing style that gives the storytelling a fresh edge.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is kidnapped and wakes up at home days later with no idea what has happened to her – or why she has roundworms wriggling about under her skin. Her life descends into chaos and depression while even the viewer only has a vague idea what has happened to her.
Meeting Jeff (Carruth himself) a year later, they immediately sense an affinity and indeed it turns out that Jeff has been through the same ordeal. The pair support each other, but there is still a lot of weirdness awaiting them around the corner.
Exploring their darkest feelings turned out to be a positive experience for these directors – or at least for us in the audience, who can be satisfied with five modern masterpieces of despair.
Are there any other modern misery movies we’ve overlooked?
Be sure to let us know in the comments!