On my couch after watching Uncut Gems for the first time, I stared blankly up at the ceiling and asked aloud, “Why did I do that to myself?”
For over two hours I watched Adam Sandler scamming and screaming, risking everything he had to recover a precious stone from Kevin Garnett, as debts piled high and angry loan sharks closed in. It was the most anxiety-provoking experience I’d had since I was diagnosed with anxiety. Yet I couldn’t look away from the screen. It was entrancing, even cathartic, to witness these characters work themselves into a panic every two seconds. To heave a sigh of relief as the credits rolled, as if to say, Well, if I thought my life was hard…
Movies like Uncut Gems are integral to what I like to call the Unhinged Cinematic Universe (UCU for short). Movies where the narrative goes completely off the rails, where the characters drive themselves to nervous breakdowns. Where dreams and reality are interchangeable, where possessed women fling themselves around subway stations, where your doppelganger (who you may also want to sleep with) might be lurking around every corner. No plot twist is too outlandish, no meltdown too hysterical. To share the wealth, I’ve compiled a short list of UCU movies—films, if you’re pretentious like me—that I love dearly, precisely because of how absolutely fucking bonkers they all are. Films that will leave you visibly shaken; masterclasses in building tension that make you feel at once exhilarated and anxious for what’s to come. Happy watching!
Black Swan (2009) dir. Darren Aronofsky
CW: body horror, psychosis, drug abuse, self-harm, attempted sexual assault
This movie has everything: body horror, ballet, doppelgangers, lesbians, controlling mothers, existential crises, a Winona Ryder cameo…I should not have watched this at age 11, is all I’m saying. The New York City Ballet company is putting on a production of Swan Lake, which requires a ballerina to play the innocent and fragile Odette, as well as her villainous, sensual counterpart Odile. Perfectionist dancer Nina—Natalie Portman’s best role, maybe ever—yearns for the part of both swans, but her new rival Lily (who looks a lot like her) seems to be a better fit for Odile. As they compete for the part, Nina starts to crack under the pressure, utterly losing her grip on reality.
10/10 Unhinged points. If you watch this, please make sure to be gentle with yourself.
Perfect Blue (1997) dir. Satoshi Kon
CW: sexual assault, graphic gore & violence, psychosis
Another doppelganger film! This one, an animated thriller from the brilliant Satoshi Kon, follows Mima Kirigoe, a member of a Japanese idol group, who retires from music to become a full-time actress. As Mima struggles with a terrifying stalker and emotionally taxing roles, gruesome murders occur around her and she starts to—say it with me!—lose her grip on reality. One of the most chilling movie endings I’ve ever seen.
10/10 Unhinged points. I would recommend watching this once and then never again.
Sorry to Bother You (2018) dir. Boots Riley
CW: body horror, drug abuse
In this surreal satire, a young Black telemarketer struggles with a moral dilemma, as he learns that he can earn massive wealth, fame, and privilege—if he betrays his striking coworkers and uses his “white voice” on the phone. When he’s promoted to Power Caller and sent to the mysterious upper floor, things get weird. Colourful, absurd, and set at a breakneck pace, Sorry to Bother You offers a scathing critique of capitalism—and its ties to white supremacy—while remaining hilarious and endlessly inventive. Also, at one point, Tessa Thompson wears a shirt that says THE FUTURE IS FEMALE EJACULATION.
8/10 Unhinged points. Includes probably the hottest ensemble cast of the decade.
Her Smell (2018) dir. Alex Ross Perry
CW: drug abuse
Six months after watching this I still can’t decide whether I love it or hate it. Unhinged QUEEN Elisabeth Moss stars as a Courtney Love-type riot grrl singer whose band briefly becomes famous but breaks up due to her self-destructive behaviour. This movie is viciously anxiety-inducing, right down to the shaky camera, but it’s ultimately a compelling and nuanced portrait of a woman struggling with mental health issues. Would recommend to anyone who has memorized the lyrics to “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette.
8/10 Unhinged points. Women be yelling!
Magnolia (1997) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
CW: drug abuse
Set over the course of one day in the San Fernando Valley, this odyssey of a film follows an ensemble of eccentric and desperately unhappy people trying to find redemption and meaning in their lives. Nearly every character gets a prolonged breakdown scene! This is one of my favourite movies, but I’d only recommend it if you’re willing to sit through three very panicky hours. Features frogs, a nerve-wracking game show, and a phenomenal scene where the characters all coincidentally start singing the same Aimee Mann song.
9/10 Unhinged points. Julianne Moore and Tom Cruise are particularly wilding here.
Respire (2014) dir. Melanie Laurent
If you had a toxic friendship in middle school—the kind where you weren’t sure if you hated her, wanted to be her, or had a crush on her—this one’s for you. Shy Charlie feels neglected by her dysfunctional parents, and jumps at the chance for human connection by befriending Sarah, the new girl. The rebellious Sarah sweeps Charlie into a world where rules are made to be broken. Their friendship is intense, obsessive—and ultimately toxic. This film builds up tension so skilfully, bit by bit, you won’t even realize you’ve been holding your breath.
7/10 Unhinged points. Really goes off the rails in the final act.
Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch
It’s difficult to explain what exactly happens in Mulholland Drive, but it’s definitely unhinged. After a car crash on the titular road leaves a woman amnesiac, she wanders the streets of Los Angeles before being discovered by an aspiring actress. Together, they attempt to uncover her true identity as the world around them falters between dreams and reality. This movie is beautiful but utterly mind-bending, at times terrifying. It’ll leave you haunted, or confused, or probably both.
8/10 Unhinged points. 10/10 romance.
Possession (1981) dir. Andrzej Żuławski
CW: self-harm, psychosis, miscarriage, abuse
This one, y’all. This is the epitome of unhinged cinema. Absolutely bone-chilling. A spy returns home from a mission, only to learn that his wife wants a divorce. He concedes, but is unable to stop obsessing over her and makes frequent attempts to reconcile, to the point that he hires a private detective to stalk her. Every subsequent encounter between them results in her exhibiting increasingly disturbing behaviour. Possession is often classified as horror, but it’s also a powerful drama about abusive relationships and the destructive power of love. Basically a breakup movie, but with doppelgangers, demonic activity, lots of blood, and a tentacled creature.
10/10 Unhinged points. I cried out of pure fear watching this.
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