We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
I see a lot of movies. My fandom has a dark side too, I've seen so many plots play out that I can usually guess how things are going to go. When I sound glib while reviewing a trailer, it's because I've seen the story play out before and I know where it's going to go. So I love a movie that can shock me, whether in laughter, horror, sadness or empathy. This year I've had an abundance of these moments. These scenes knocked the complacency right out of me.
Be warned, this list is rife with SPOILERS. If you don't want to know key plot twists from the movies below, skip over them.
7. Shame (2011)
Recap: Brandon's (Michael Fassbender) sexual addiction controls his life. Whether he's calling a prostitute, looking at so much porn at work he almost destroys his hard drive, or unable to carry on a relationship with a woman he genuinely likes, his addiction is is taking a toll. Scene: At the beginning of the film, the camera sits stationary in the hallway as Brandon walks naked, from his bedroom to the kitchen, then back into the bathroom, where he urinates. He's naked the whole time, and the camera is focused at crotch level. The scene isn't sexual, but it's so personal. It's clear that Fassbender is actually urinating on camera and the effect is intensely uncomfortable. More than watching sex, this feels like a transgression. But the scene also sets up Fassbender's relationship to the camera for the rest of the film, as Brandon, we'll be uncomfortably close to the actor's body in very intimate moments. Consider this scene a warning.
6. 13 Assassins (2011)
Recap: Director Takeahi Miike is no stranger to shocking moments, by the end of Audition I was very nauseous. I also wanted to take a Silkwood shower. By contrast, 13 Assassins is almost tame, a traditional samurai film with more blood and some awesome battle scenes. Twelve samurai, and one dude who claims to be s samurai, band together to kill an evil warlord. This dude really is crazy evil. Scene: At the beginning of the film, a senior government official is trying to convince a samurai to assassinate Lord Naritsugu Matsudaria by saying some of the horrible things he's done. He then introduces a sobbing, slobbering woman whose robe is removed, and revealed to have all her limbs amputated, as well as her tongue. She grunts in impotent frustration and cries bloody tears while begging him to kill this evil Lord. Her plea is backed up when in the next scene, we see the Lord in question shooting arrows into a family while they're hog tied. Including children. It's not just that what he shows is horrible, but Miike has a way of using sound to highlight the horror that makes my stomach churn.
5. Drive (2011)
Recap: The Driver (Ryan Gosling) works as a mechanic/stunt driver by day and a getaway car driver by night. When he develops a relationship with a neighbor and her young son, he lets himself mix up his personal life and professional life in a way that leads to trouble. Scene: I found this movie to be very romantic, I was ready to forgive the Driver for all his crimes because I thought he was noble, almost courtly. Until the scene where he starts to hit Blanche (Christina Hendricks). When a man beats up a woman in a film, it tends to go one of two ways, either he's a villain who will get his comeuppance, or she'll turn around and kick his ass. This scene has a romantic, handsome (though violent) man beating a beautiful woman who clearly isn't his physical equal. It doesn't help that the scene is disturbingly sexual. Her wide eyes look very similar to a face during orgasm, only perverted by fear. I found it to be a deeply uncomfortable moment, because I realized how my feelings about Gosling had allowed me to color his character in a way that was inaccurate. I was attracted to the idea of this man being dangerous, but appalled when I saw him act on it.
4. Melancholia (2011)
Recap: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) has just gotten married, but her debilitating depression leads her husband to leave her before the end of their first night together. While staying with her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her family, she learns that a planet called Melancholia is heading toward Earth. As it becomes more likely that the planets will collide, Claire becomes increasingly agitated while Justine remains composed. Scene: Anxiety disorders are debilitating, but you wouldn't know it from movies/TV. They're either played up for laughs (every Woody Allen movie) or dealt with as a one-time thing (Tony Soprano's panic attack in The Sopranos, which lasts only moments). Claire's increasing panic is both horrifying and surprisingly real. But it isn't all in her mind, she is going to die, the world will end and she's entirely powerless to stop it. Her despair coupled with Justine's annoyed pragmatism is one of the scariest things I saw in a theater this year.
3. The Last Circus (2011)
Recap: In Franco's Spain, a sad clown named Javier joins a circus and falls in love with an acrobat, who is the wife of the happy clown, Sergio. The two feud over Natalia as she leads on Javier while staying with the violent Sergio. When Sergio beats Javier so badly he ends up in the hospital. Javier then escapes and goes back to the circus and beats Sergio, destroying his face. The other circus performers take him to a veterinarian to fix him up, leaving his face permanently scarred. Yeah, it's complicated. Scene: In a nutshell, Sergio and Javier chase one another on top of this huge cross. Natalia is there too. By this point, Javier has gone totally nuts and scarred himself with acid to give himself permanent clown make up and is wearing a weird costume. The effect is jaw-droppingly crazy. These two maimed men are fighting with machine guns on top of a giant cross. If you ever had a fear of clowns as a child, it's pretty much your worst nightmare come to life. It's ridiculous and wonderful. If this doesn't make you want to see the movie, I don't know what else I could possibly say.
2. The Skin I Live In (2011)
Recap: Well-respected surgeon Robert (Antonio Banderas) loses his wife and daughter and decides to take it out on the guy who attempted to (did?) rape his daughter, Vicente (Jan Cornet). By turning him into a woman with his wife's face. Scene: The art of Pedro Almodovar's film is the way he draws out this story, so it takes awhile to realize this handsome surgeon isn't saving a beautiful woman with damaged skin, he's unwillingly taken his identity, body and face. Not to mention his penis. The movie's most horrifying moment occurs when Vicente awakens from anesthesia, still groggy. The camera looks up and sees a blurry Robert explaining that he's just given him a vaginoplasty. It's so crazy and horrifying, it's also the moment when you realize you're watching a horror film. I challenge the Saw films to come up with something that creepy.
1. Bellflower (2011)
Recap: Woodrow and Tyler spend their time building weapons for a post-apocalyptic world. Then Woodrow falls in love with cool girl Milly, who sleeps with someone else. Then he gets a head injury. After leaving the hospital, things get interesting. The film moves between a war of revenge between Tyler/Aiden and Milly/her new boyfriend that quickly spirals way out of control and a dull existence where Woodrow can barely get out of bed and life otherwise continues as normal. Scene: Not to say the film's that good, but the way it turns from mumblecore romance to ultra-violence is bizarrely arresting. The most unsettling scene has Woodrow confronting Milly after she and a friend have tattooed a beard and mustache on his face against his will. The vitriol and anger are probably the most intense I've ever seen on film. I felt physically nauseous and wished I had never turned on the movie to begin with. It was one of the most intense things I've ever seen on film.