MY ENGLISH TEACHER once told me that good short stories were the ones that spoke to universal truths.
These were the stories that go beyond mere characters and their antics through an imaginary universe. They offer an insight into the human condition: what is life? what is truth? what is reality?
The same could be said for memorable films. Only films convey their meaning in a more sensory way – using both audio and visual elements to enter the mind of the viewer.
And perhaps even shift your perspective.
The following 10 films are chosen because they shed light on the forces at work within our lives, this very moment. They use satire and metaphor to approach the truths that would otherwise be too difficult to understand, or too terrifying to comprehend.
Most of all, these films challenge you to wake up.
The Truman Show (1998)
Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, the first child ever legally adopted by a corporation. His entire life is constructed inside a gigantic set, encompassing the picturesque town of SeaHaven. Everything is artificial — from the buildings, to the people, to the very sun above his head.
It’s too easy to call the film a satirical extension of “reality television.” Instead, Peter Weir deftly uses the motif of reality TV to present the “un-realities” of our own world. How the majority of us are psychologically controlled, through fear and comfort to, as Cristof says, “accept the reality of the world that we’re given.”
Read more: The Meaning Of The Truman Show
I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Imagine you were experiencing an existential crisis. But rather than work through it yourself, you hire existential detectives to help you track down the source of your suffering. Imagine one of those detectives is Dustin Hoffman with a bad haircut.
I Heart Huckabees is a quirky, rabbit hole of a film. Many of the characters, from the smarmy marketing executive (Jude Law), to the angry nihlistic firefighter (Mark Walberg) act out the various philosophies of the past thousand years.
Read more: Essay on I Heart Huckabees
Waking Life (2001)
What if you were chained in a dimly-lit cave your whole life where you saw only shadows of real things reflected on its back wall?
Suddenly you’re free and come into the sunlight. Would you recognize this new world as more real than your cave world? Would you be able to wake up?
Talk about a mind trip. Richard Linklater’s film Waking Life, is both visually beautiful and intellectually stimulating. The filmmakers use a ground-breaking technique (at the time) called ‘rotoscoping’ to colour over the images to create a dream-like animation.
Just a few of the ideas covered in unbroken dialogues: dreaming versus reality, existentialism, buddhism, situationism, post-modernism, the list goes on.
Read more: Essay on Waking Life
The Matrix (1999)
For obvious reasons, this was a paradigm-shifting film in the world of movies. But it also introduced a whole generation (myself included) to question the nature of reality. What is real? And how do you know it’s real?
The film’s other great contribution to mass society was the possibility that an unseen force is controlling our destiny. Morpheus reveals the ultimate truth that Neo’s mind can barely process: the Matrix is control. And the only way to break free? Open your mind.
Read more: Collection of essays on The Matrix
Dark City (1998)
Do you ever feel like you’re playing a role? Released 1 year before The Matrix, another film introduced the concept of a hidden beings controlling the destiny of humanity.
Dark City follows Rufus Sewell, a man framed for murder, as he’s pursued by faceless super beings that can manipulate time. Unfortunately for the beings, the protagonist is unwittingly gifted with their own powers of psychokinesis, and a challenge for domination ensues.
Read more: Dark City on Wikipedia
American Beauty (1999)
Horny suburban dad obsesses over his daughter’s friend, a vapid cheerleader. But there’s much more to this dark tale of the American dream gone awry.
Notable elements of this award-winning film include the dehumanizing effects of consumerism, the repressed sexuality of a gay military man, and the pot smoking defiance of Ricky Fitts, who sees the beauty of the entire universe in a single, swaying plastic bag.
Read more: American Beauty and the Idea Of Freedom
Fight Club (1999)
“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.”
Tyler Durden’s words ring true in this dark, angry look at young people’s failures to interact with the value system they’re expected to uphold. Far from being a manifesto for violence, the film is rumination on the lengths we will go to experience real emotion, even if it means (metaphorically) bashing someone’s head in.
Donnie Darko (2001)
The film seamlessly weaves together notions of God, the non-linear nature of time, mind-control, and the freakiest bunny mask you’ve ever seen. It may take multiple viewings to discern a few messages from this multi-layered flick, but each time around will be just as rewarding.
Read more: Essay on Donnie Darko
A dystopian, black comedy, Brazil reveals the terrifying indifference of bureaucracy in a totalitarian state. Although director Terry Gilliam claims never to have read 1984, the themes are too similar to dismiss.
Sam Lowry, a government cog in their machine, habitually escapes his dead-end job by imagining a fantasy world of romantic struggles.
Unfortunately, the system roots out dissidents with fervour. The villains in the film are neither malicious nor sadistic, they are merely doing their jobs.
Read more: Analysis of Brazil
The news stopped being about enlightening the masses a long time ago.
Instead, news attempts to portray a world view that allows those in power to stay in power. This is never more true than 30 years after the film Network was released, when Howard Beale proclaimed “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
He called for viewers everywhere to stand up, and demand democratic control over their lives once again. The irony is even more biting when it’s revealed democracy, along with nations, peoples, and countries, no longer exists. The only thing left: the global system of finance.
Read more: The Rise of the Superclass
What do you think of the films in the list? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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Ian MacKenzie is the founder and former editor of Brave New Traveler. He is Head of Video at Matador Network. Ian is also an independent filmmaker, with his first feature (One Week Job) released in 2010. His more recent projects include Sacred Economics and Occupy Love.
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