This article was originally written for Taste of Cinema! A link to the original piece is here – http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2019/10-recent-divisive-films-that-were-actually-brilliant/
Divisive films are wonderful – always a lot of fun to try out. They can be some of the absolute best or some of the very worst films ever made, so running the risk is always quite fun and, when rewarding, quite the experience. They can also just be bland, but thankfully that isn’t too often, with the majority falling into either extreme – a terrible film you can only wish to forget as soon as your brain permits you to, or a masterpiece you can never get out of your head.
So, here are ten films that will hopefully stop the need to try to forget some of these riskier ones and only give you the greats… but, they’re divisive for good reason. This one might ruffle some feathers.
1. Despite the Night (Philippe Grandrieux, 2015)
Grandrieux certainly makes some… discomforting films, to say the least. One can easily suggest that this is the main reason for his entire film catalogue being so divisive among audiences, but his style would also suggest that there is much more to it than that.
Not only do his films focus on truly deranged situations and characters, but the way that they are told is set to match, his camera and editing collaborating to make some of the most consistently dizzyingly uneasy moments in 21st century cinema.
Sombre was certainly a strong start to a career, and it would seem that he only gained more control over his audiences with time, with his most recent film Despite the Night being his masterpiece, one of the most inexplicably unsettling films of the century so far.
With a focus on the deranged, the dangerous and erotic all rolled into one, Grandrieux takes the work of someone like Cronenberg and suddenly makes it a whole lot more serious, to the point that it all becomes a little too real.
It’s completely understandable that people would be made so uncomfortable by this film that they dislike it, but it’s a damn shame that the film (along with Grandrieux’s other works) have a poor reputation among the majority of those who have seen his films. A real shame, as his work is some of the most bold and assured of the century so far, and it really demands to be seen by any serious film fan. They’re incredible.
2. Glass (M. Night Shyamalan, 2019)
The most recent film included on the list is M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass. Working as a culmination to a trilogy nineteen years in the making, tail-ending Shyamalan’s other films Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016), Glass is admittedly a film that seems to take some pleasure in consistently worming its way out of the grip of the audience and then faintly chuckling at them because it feels smarter.
This isn’t too much of a problem, though, as the film presented is so carefully, and so beautifully constructed because of the nineteen years behind these characters that it all runs unimaginably smoothly. It’s a film most aptly analogised as seeing a great puzzle put itself together.
The performances across the board are fantastic, with Bruce Willis giving one of the greatest performances of his career and McAvoy improving on the physicality of his character in a truly shocking way at times.
It is one of Shyamalan’s most depressing, but also most hopeful films yet, and it is also one of his best. It’s reassuring that someone as cinematically lost as Shyamalan was in the late 2000s and early 2010s could come back so strongly, with his last three films all delivering wonderfully. It’s good to have Shyamalan back.
3. Unsane (Steven Soderbergh, 2018)
Okay – one has to be admit that this film simply isn’t the most controversial or the most divisive, but the way that some hold this in their mind as at least one of the greatest films of 2018, and of Soderbergh’s career, and others simply find it dry and uninteresting is kind of captivating.
With some of the boldest editing of the decade so far, and Soderbergh’s phone aesthetic working wonders to add to the claustrophobia induced by the tight framing, Unsane is a thriller if ever there was.
It’s amazing just to see a film as mainstream as this one to try so many new things with so much confidence, mainly with the use of a phone (likely only allowed because of the growing success behind Sean Baker’s Tangerine from a few years prior) as the camera, but more importantly, the way that this film consistently puts the story in the background and focuses on using different cinematic techniques to focus on the feeling of the situation that the story creates.
Soderbergh cares very little for the nuances of the story, allowing them to simply pass by in the background whilst the incredible editing and wonderfully jarring cinematography take the forefront and make the audience feel dizzy and nauseated.
It’s just brilliant to see a director like Soderbergh shake off the shackles that come with mainstream success and go crazy as he used to, and it’s also re-assuring that now films this good can be made on devices so small and so accessible. Certainly an important film for any low or no budget filmmakers to see, just for the inspiration of it. It’s a shame that High Flying Bird wasn’t quite so good.
4. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013)
Harmony Korine must simply enjoy creating controversy through his films by now, or he must at least be so used to it that it no longer has any effect, as with Spring Breakers – puzzlingly his most commercially successful film to date, other than maybe The Beach Bum (2019) – Korine takes his typically controversial and aggressive cinematic style and applies it to this much more mainstream narrative of good girls gone bad in the name of finding popularity, sleazy sex and money during the time of America’s most… passionate(?) holiday, Spring Break.
Starring the lovable oddball James Franco in what must be his strangest role to date, as a stoner who almost constantly is mumbling, or slurring, ‘Spring break… spring break forever…’ under his smoky breath, Korine manages to find a strange meeting point between the underground cinema he has worked in for so much of his career and the mainstream cinema he clearly has quite a love for. Korine seems to becoming more popular, and his style seems to be experiencing quite a change, and it’s definitely fun to watch even if he doesn’t always hit a home run.
5. It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Schultz, 2017)
Horror is one of the most subjective genres of all, maybe next to comedy the single most subjective, mainly because all of us are simply scared by very different things, something that can’t be helped. However, It Comes At Night also decided to be a slow-burning and extremely enigmatic horror, more dependent on whatever the audience members individually add to the film rather than telling a clear-cut story, and using cinematic form in a way to certainly create a specific atmosphere and mood, but never to really divulge anything of importance to the audience in terms of what it is that they should really be afraid of.
It Comes At Night much prefers basking in its eerily enigmatic and quiet state, refusing to show its hand and instead playing on a ruthless level of the fear of the unknown, until the anxiety eventually bubbles over and becomes absolutely unbearable.
Largely focusing on dream sequences, and how paranoia can influence the mind (specifically depending on the world someone is surrounded by), and essentially binge-written following the death of a loved one by writer/director Trey Edward Schultz (also known for the excellent Krisha), It Comes At Night is simultaneously a film to be prescribed to the horror fan in need of the jolt of adrenaline from a fix of some of the darkest chills in horror history… but also to an insomniac looking to be bored, due to the plain and simple subjectivity of all of its scares. A very strange case, aptly applied to a very strange film.
6. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
Soderbergh is really a master of cinematic efficiency. The consistency of his output does leave something to be desired sometimes, but it is very impressive just how often he manages to hit a home run, especially seeing as he works in so many different genres, with so many different actors and in so many different styles. His career is truly captivating, and towards the late 2000s he seemed to have a strong, sudden switch in his style from the fluffier, more friendly features he threw out in the early 2000s with the Oceans films giving way to these more disgruntled, even angry films that we are still getting now.
It all really started with The Girlfriend Experience, which received very little attention when it was released despite the quality of the film (one of his finest achievements! See it if you haven’t!), but Contagion was where it really dug its nails into modern mainstream cinema.
Contagion is a tension-based thriller surrounding an epidemic, like Outbreak but far more disturbing. Following the outbreak in a surprisingly convincing way, and showing a dynamic range of storylines – from everyday people trying to figure out how to survive with very little information on the illness starting to end the lives of all of those they love to the scientists working desperately on trying to find a way to slow down, and eventually stop the disease from spreading any further – in such a stunning way.
It’s a wonderful changing point in the style of one of the most radical directors currently working, a real stroke of magic, and yet many seemed to be quite against it – most likely because it was the establishment of a totally new direction for Steven Soderbergh, away from the smooth-gliding fun of Ocean’s 11 and into some truly dark and dingy subject matter presented in a frightening realistic way.
7. Pain and Gain (Michael Bay, 2013)
Okay, this is probably where a lot of you violently disagree, throw your computer across the room and swear never to read a Taste of Cinema list again… but hear this out: this film is totally fascinating, and the quality of the direction (and the morals… because, yikes) becomes entirely separate compared to just seeing how this turned out, and knowing that it comes from one of the most commercial directors of ALL time.
It’s just brilliant to be aware that in the same mind as the man who gives huge audiences the Transformers films and rakes in literal billions with each new release is this deranged degenerate who finds up-skirt shots of dead women (based on real people, no less!) funny… it’s just baffling, and this kind of intrigue comes around so rarely that, when it finally does rear its rather ugly head, it’s the kind of thing where you don’t want to look, but something inside you forces your head to look straight at the beast.
It’s a film with such pacing, such meat-headed performances from some… surprisingly talented slapstick performances from The Rock (yes, really!) and Mark Wahlberg, such extreme cinematography that it could only be made by a capitalist juggernaut… but also with such a brutally undercutting satirical edge (even if, at times, it treads the line between being satire and being outright terrible a little too closely, and stumbles over) that it could only come from some incredibly anger underground director.
As has been said above… it’s baffling to say the least, but absolutely worth the time it takes as it is ferociously entertaining even if far from infallible. Few films this interesting exist right now.
8. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)
It’s really not a great surprise that a film adaptation of a Don DeLillo book has started to become a cult favourite, and even less surprisingly when you take into account that this film was helmed by one of the masters of cult movies, David Cronenberg, however, Cosmopolis has taken seven years to flourish, and even now it remains one of the more controversial films of recent memory, with audiences mostly falling on either side of adoring the film and finding it a fascinating, intelligent work and other people genuinely saying that they couldn’t finish it, or that they wish they could have died in the middle so that they could avoid seeing the rest.
Any film able to conjure up thoughts so extreme have to be worth seeing, right? And so, in this case Cosmopolis’ notoriety in cult film circles has actually helped it quite a bit in finding an audience, as so many people are willing to give it a try, and who wouldn’t with a cast featuring Robert Pattinson, Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche and Paul Giamatti (just to name a few) with David Cronenberg instructing all of them? It sounds like a dream, right?
But the intentionally rigid acting and incredibly dry humour in the dialogue were bound to put some people off, as is this unhinged portrayal of the future that is just hopeless, as is Pattinson’s smarmy, despicable billionaire character, and this is where Cosmopolis starts to fall apart, or come together depending on which side of the film you land on.
It’s a gorgeously shot film, undeniably, and one with… impressive performances, and committed ones whether you like it or not, but the rest of the film is such an exercise in a specific, particularly alienating style that watching the film is much like tossing a coin when playing heads or tails. It’s a total gamble of a film, and this is likely why a lot of people are so excited to give it a go. The cult following is gradually picking up, but it is yet to become an established cult favourite.
9. Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010)
Surprisingly, this list has largely avoided the polarising cases when a director tries out something entirely different to the rest of their work, or at least, they try something entirely different to what is typically associated with how they work, so here is one just to get the balance right.
Clint Eastwood is a man obviously known for his infamous political opinions, for talking to an empty chair once and mostly for his grizzled Man with No Name character from Sergio Leone’s classic 60s western trilogy… or as the racist from Gran Torino, but in 2010 with Hereafter, he decided to leave his consistently Oscar winning dramas and make, wait for it, a sprawling drama about the afterlife. This is not a joke.
And the bigger surprise is that… it’s kind of amazing! As a fan of these kinds of strange films wherein multiple stories at first detached gradually come together through some butterfly effect wizardry, it’s a real blast, helped along by this free-wheeling, guileless direction from Clint (a complete change of pace for Eastwood – his camera usually has a certain weight to it, but here it simply floats around, it really is stunning) and Matt Damon’s shockingly grounded performance as a man with the ability to see the future… or more, his mind forcing him to see the future whether he wants to or not. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, ludicrous even, but somehow it works so well, and creates such a beautiful, gentle hug of a movie.
Even as writing, it’s a struggle to type out that Eastwood actually helmed this without an instinctive need to change it. And yet, it slipped under the radar, and those who did see it were completely split on it. It’s not difficult to see why – not only is it a strange film, but coming from Eastwood it is utterly bizarre – but it’s still a real shame that such a bold and wondrous film couldn’t spread its wings in the way that it really deserves to.
10. Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)
Michael Mann has been changing the face of digital cinema since first blasting onto the scene in 2006 with what may be his masterpiece, Miami Vice, and in 2009, he decided to take his digital antics to another fascinating level by taking the modernism placed on a film by the use of these digital cameras and then juxtaposing it directly with the placement of a period crime drama.
This isn’t the only incredibly bold move made though – he also cast Johnny Depp of all people in the leading role as John Dillinger, and then proceeded to make him the heart and soul of the film, somehow managing to squeeze out a truly tragic performance from… not exactly the greatest or most beloved actor when it comes to more serious roles.
Miraculously managing to balance the film out by casting a talent as strong as Marion Cotillard to star alongside Depp, Mann is able to develop one of the most memorable depictions of a gangster in any film, especially compared to the often limp and totally lacking in any kind of bite gangster films of recent memory, by using the same kind of flip he did in Miami Vice.
Mann is a master of characterisation – a complete genius on the subject – and here he takes the typically vilified gangster and turns the tables completely, turning Depp’s Dillinger into one of the most sorrowful and piteous of all of crime cinemas’ characters, a man so desperate to be loved (in his giving away of so many things, he is a Robin Hood if ever there was… in this portrayal, at least) and accepted, but having to constantly face the idea that he doesn’t deserve to be so much as liked in the eyes of almost everyone who has heard his name.
It’s a heartbreaking film, and one that was clearly doomed when it was confined in the eyes of so many audience members to the box of typical gangster crime drama, as so many assumed the worst and therefore missed the best.