I start with a film I cannot recommend just based on moral grounds, and there are not many films that I have seen that I immediately regretted watching, but this is one of them. There are scenes in this movie I do not even want to talk about. Happiness is a contrast to the “perfect American families” portrayed on sitcoms, overlaid with the dark undertones of pedophilia, incest, revenge, jealousy, you name it. It is an examination of what we force ourselves not to see, or think about, and makes us question the morals of ourselves, and those around us. I find it is the tonal contrast makes this movie simply disturbing.Written and directed by Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Todd Solondz, this is a grim ensemble piece with a lot of great performances, and little moments of brilliance shine through but are overshadowed, at least in my opinion, by just how unflinching it is, especially in its explorations of sexuality. This is not an easy film to watch, because as characters arcs start to reach their shudder-inducing conclusions, all of the things we feared would happen finally do, and then we see the final act wraps up all of the acts committed with their respective consequences, one realizes that the things we do not want to see are not only all around us, but could be right next door.
14- Precious (2009)-
This stunning Oscar-winner follows the virtually hopeless life of an African American teenager growing up in the bleakness of an American ghetto. The lead character suffers from every type of abuse possible from virtually every angle, and this account, as told in autobiographical form is far too real, and leaves one forced to sit and reflect on everything we have been shown. The story centers on Precious, a teenager, pregnant for the second time, who enrolls in a new school and tries to take the first steps to escape the prison-like conditions in her life.
Many parts of this movie are very hard to watch, or even hear. The stories of Precious’ past, the emotional abuse, the gritty cinematography, the brutal reality; it all just hits so hard. This is one of the best films of recent years, and it has a strong emotional truth behind it. Seeing this character as she spends her entire life unloved and in destitute is a sorrowful tragedy.
13- Vera Drake (2004)-
This is a controversial film about a woman who performs abortions outside of the law in England in the 1950’s, that paints a picture of morality and consequences. Everything falls apart when the authorities discover her actions. No matter where you stand on the abortion issue, this is a powerful drama that tells a brutal truth: Whether something is legal or not in the eyes of the state does not eliminate the demand and the will to fill that demand. Brutal, graphic and ultimately tragic, this film will definitely make you think.
Vera Drake is a film about desperate acts, and the lengths some people will go for closure, as well as a look at loss and fear, and the things we do to overcome them. Everything comes to a head when Drake is found out by the British police and then we find even more tragedy in her life, compounding the great burden she already carries with her.
12- Hotel Rwanda (2004)-
During the height of an era plagued by Central African genocide, a respected hotel owner houses refugees in his establishment, in hopes of saving as many lives as possible. We see as he tries to protect these few lives, and struggles with his inability to do more. This mostly-ignored period in recent history is shown to us in this film that is a blend of tragedy and heroism.
This film depicts a truly dark and tragic period in recent history, and for many, the horrors have not ended. This is a powerful drama and is probably, due to the protagonist’s heroic nature, the least depressing film on this list, and that is definitely saying something.
I jokingly called Clint Eastwood’s grim answer to the typical sports film the “Anti-Rocky”... I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to thought this... and then immediately felt bad about it. This film follows a girl who wants more than anything to be a championship fighter and eventually gets a broken man named Frankie to train her. During a prize fight, a cheap shot from her opponent causes the lead, Maggie, to fall back and break her neck on a stool. Rendered paralyzed from the neck down, Maggie slowly deteriorates until she begins asking Frankie to end her life.
Million Dollar Baby quickly morphs from a fairly typical sports movie into a very deep and grief-filled examination of the morality and legitimacy of euthanasia in those who cannot survive without life support. The last act of this film is so dismal and the performances of all involved are so good that I just cannot finish this film. I saw it in theaters when it launched, and have not finished it since. It is a testament to the film’s impact, and how well done it is, but the subject it addresses is far too important for casual viewing, at least for me.
10- Requiem for a Dream (2000)-
Requiem for a Dream is a chilling exploration into the effects of drug use and dependency. The four focal characters are Harry and Tyrone, two overly-ambitious and heavily addicted drug dealers, Marion, Harry’s girlfriend, and Sara, Harry’s mother. The stories intersect as each character is dragged deeper into a depressing and brutal series of events. Harry’s heroin abuse worsens as he and Tyrone get a hold of a stash of drugs they intend to sling for a great profit, and the money rolls in, but after Tyrone is arrested put on a prison work crew, Harry hits rock-bottom, and begins to lean on Marion for drugs and money to keep his fledgling enterprise afloat. Marion, also an addict and falling deeper into desperation resorts to prostituting herself to help her lover. These stories intersect with the story of Sara. An elderly woman who shares her days with her friends and her nights watching the same infomercial seemingly on a loop. She gets weight loss pills from her doctor, obsessed with her size, and promptly becomes addicted. Sara’s story is easily the most disturbing, filled with hallucinations brought on by a lack of sleep, a lack of food and the euphoric effects of the drugs.
Darren Aronofsky’s stunning cinematography and brutal honesty in the depiction of the darkest depths of chemical dependency will leave you feeling crushed, battered and bruised. The contrast of the early scenes’ almost blissfulness as the characters experience an escape from the harsh reality that is shown to us in increasingly graphic detail creates an inescapable mood and an air of chilling sadness. Seeing the lovable Sara fall to pieces, become a beanpole and then get institutionalized where she received electroshock therapy because she still refuses food, it is just so gut-wrenching.
9- We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)-
Told in the aftermath of a brutal school massacre committed by a disturbed teenager, the shooter’s mother is forced to recount and examine what just went wrong all the while piecing her life together amidst a climate of blame, anger and fear. A psychological horror film of sorts, this movie attempts to explore the mindset of a person who would execute such an atrocity, and forces the viewers to become part of that child’s mind.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a movie about a topic that most people just don’t want to think about. School shootings are a rare, but horrifying reality and this movie looks at why these things happen. The realism of this movie makes it just that much more powerful, and Tilda Swinton’s performance as the mother of a lost soul is a heartbreaking scene-stealer. This is a movie about how a single horrifying act has long-lasting repercussions that affect not only the shooter and victims, but the family of the very killer.
8- A Serbian Film (2010)-
This is easily the most controversial, and visually disturbing, film on the list. A Serbian Film is a graphic, dark, ultra-violent shock-exploitation film about a man who is forced to perform truly horrifying acts on camera. The story follows man named Milos, a retired porn actor who is pulled into a ghastly world of underground pornography; tricked by a corrupt and detestable filmmaker.. For Milos, there is no escape; the only option seems to be to embrace the evil that is thrust upon him. Almost every scene after Milos starts filming is filled with gruesome hideousness, and we see Milos crumble and weaken as his resolve is shattered, and he begins to become what can only be described as a monster.
I have not seen the uncut version of this movie and even with that I cannot emphasize enough that I will not recommend this film to ANYONE, I regret watching the version I did, let alone the unedited version. This one has been out for a while but if this happens to be your first time hearing of it, DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE. This is a cruel, vile, disturbed film and that is exactly what it is supposed to be, but that does not make it good? No. This movie is more gruesome and disturbing than any horror movie I have ever seen, and the acts committed will turn any sane person’s stomach and make them cringe. This movie is virtually unwatchable, and though it does have some artistic merit as it is well-made and superbly-acted, it is almost entirely unbearable.
7- Grave of the Fireflies (1988)-
If you thought that Japanese animation was all magical girls and giant robots, you should watch this truly harrowing film. Grave of the Fireflies is a truly grim depiction of the lives of two orphaned children in Japan during World War II. Many of Studio Ghibli’s films are allegorical, but this film is almost too literal at times. After Sieta’s sister, Setsuko, dies at the age of five from starvation, he is forced to cremate his own sister in a crude fashion, and he carries her ashes around with him in a small can. This is arguably one of the single best anti-war films ever created, and is one of the most tragic films ever put to celluloid.
Every piece of imagery in this movie is deliberate and focused. It is tragic, moody and beautifully-animated. This is one of the few movies on this list that I would actually recommend to casual viewers because it is easily among the better animated films created in the last thirty years.
6- Dancer in the Dark (2000)-
This is a real downer of a movie. It follows the woman named Selma who suffers from a congenital disease that causes blindness, who travels from Czechoslovakia to America with her son who also suffers from the disease. She works to get him the money needed for an operation, only to have it stolen by the man with which she was having an affair, who stole the money to help with his own family debts. Things escalate and he ultimately dies, leaving Selma to take the fall for his death, for which she bears some responsibility. The film ends with her on death row, and with her ultimate execution.
The thing that adds to Dancer in the Dark’s disturbing nature are the strangely out-of-place musical numbers that highlight the darker scenes. They come in the form of Selma’s fantasies, which are a sort of defense mechanism that she uses when things become rough. Two come to mind, one where she dances with the man she’s convicted of killing’s corpse, and one where she sings right as she is about to be executed. This is one disturbing movie.
5- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)-
The son of a Nazi concentration camp officer begins a friendship with a jewish prisoner, with only a fence separating them, and as the movie progresses, their bond becomes stronger. The film is most known for it’s extremely tragic ending, which I will not spoil, but given the premise, you can probably at least sort of guess it.
This is among the grimmest movies about the Holocaust I’ve ever seen (not that there are really any movies on the subject that are not depressing as all hell), the Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an exploration of childhood innocence set against the backdrop of one of the most horrific periods in human history. The entire movie has a feeling of melancholy, even as we see these two children live with limited understanding of what is really going on around them. From the time the two boys meet until the movies crushing conclusion, this is a movie that will never be able to forget.
Anytime a movie opens with the character contemplating suicide, you know you’re in for a downer. This film, told in flashback, is a painful depiction of the desperate life of a teenager in an Estonian slum who is left behind by her mother who emigrates to America. Out of desperation, Lilja falls into a life of prostitution and just as she thinks she has found her escape, a man who offers to take her with him to Sweden, she finds herself dragged deeper into an even more painful and brutal life.
This is a film where we see no escape for the protagonist, and everything she suffers from is palpable, conceivable, and it feels all too real. The grim nature of this movie is essential to the story it is trying to tell. This is a horrific and crushing depiction of the sexual exploitation of women, and it is very hard to watch, as the film is very well made, adding to its brutality.
3- Melancholia (2011)-
In Lars von Trier’s winning drama, Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a bride-to-be who, on her wedding night is filled with terror as a massive, mysterious planet named Melancholia appears and the events of the film lead up to the end of the world. Throughout the film, Justine is depressed and pain is in the air, while her sister Claire tries to keep things together. The ending is a contrast between the two characters, with Dunst accepting her fate and her sister in a far more emotional state.
The name really says it all here. This is a movie where the deaths of every person on the planet are inevitable. This is not some Roland Emerich disaster porn where we are supposed to enjoy watching a catastrophic disaster, this is a bleak and sorrowful experience. On top of the powerful emotional aura this film exudes, there is also the sheer beauty of von Trier’s direction which adds to the mood significantly. I would actually argue that this is one of the most beautiful films ever made, it is a shame it is so damn hard to enjoy.
I stand by the statement that this is, hands down, one of the greatest films of all time. It is also one of the most tragic. Sophie is a Holocaust survivor haunted by the past that finds solace in the a man who is captivated by the atrocity. Grim and painful images of German concentration camps and harsh reality is the norm in this harrowing movie.
All the while, as if the Holocaust references were not grim enough, we are brought into a love triangle with three flawed characters. The story ends as tragically as it began and maintains a level of sadness throughout. Still, this is a fantastic movie and is, arguably, the single best film on this list.
1- Angela’s Ashes (1999)-
How did anyone not see this coming? Seriously? This true account of a poor Irish boy named Frank’s life as he travels from Brooklyn to Limerick, Ireland. It is a story centered on family tragedy and the very real effects of poverty. The catalyst of the story is the death of Frank’s newborn sister, and from here it is one dark, and very real moment after another. The family suffers in Ireland due to his father’s IRA ties, rendering him unemployable by most. Add to that his abusive alcoholism and things just seem that much bleaker. Their home is best described as squalor and the world seems stacked against the young Frank.
Angela’s Ashes has become a legend among depressing films due to its bleak depiction of poverty in Ireland. It is a hard film to sit through because it is just so grim and the reality of the movie is a testament to its quality, but this is not a film you watch for pleasure as it is far too dismal.