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Mind At War: Nate’s Top Ten Films on Mental Illness

The subject of mental illness is one that’s close and important to me as I myself am one of the afflicted, and it’s impossible to ignore that the treatment of it by Hollywood, particularly in formative years, hasn’t been so apt. Don’t get me wrong, I love stuff like Me, Myself & Irene or Split as entertainment but in terms of accurately representing the conditions that beset human beings, they haven’t been so hot. There are those films and filmmakers out there that strive to educate and enlighten or even just to craft an effective thriller or comedy and still stay true to real life, doing important work for the collective awareness and making terrific art/entertainment in one shot. Here are my personal top ten favourites!

10. Geoffrey Sax’s Frankie & Alice

Multiple personality disorders are popular in Hollywood but there’s a tendency to mock, sensationalize or tell a ‘real life’ story that’s later proved as fraud. This one showcases Halle Berry in a galvanizing dual performance as a go-go dancer afflicted by two very different internal identities and finding her life in splinters as a result. When a kind, compassionate psychiatrist (Stellan Skarsgard) makes it his mission to help her get back on track it becomes apparent just how challenging and horrific it must be to endure such a thing.

9. Dito Montiel’s Man Down

I heard this one sold one single theatrical ticket in the UK and didn’t fare much better here, getting squeaked into a quiet streaming release. It’s too bad because it is one haunting drama about PTSD featuring an implosive, incredibly intense performance from Shia LaBeouf as an ex marine who can’t psychologically reconcile his experience and is lost amongst his own trauma. Terrific work from Kate Mara as his wife and Gary Oldman as an army counsellor too.

8. James Mangold’s Girl Interrupted

Likely the most accessible and mainstream story on this list, Mangold’s look at a mental care facility for girls in the 60’s gets a superficial rep in some circles but I find it to be every bit the rewarding drama, ensemble piece and explorative journey that those who champion it say. Winona Ryder plays a wayward girl whose self destructive behaviour lands her there but it’s Angelina Jolie as a fellow patient diagnosed with borderline personality disorder that both anchors the film and provides it with a wildly unpredictable streak.

7. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island

This is of course a big old elaborate mystery film with a gigantic cast, many red herrings, tons of subplots and all kinds of stylistic fanfare. But if you look past all that there’s a harrowing and very realistic portrait of minds irreparably damaged, between Leo Dicaprio’s PTSD afflicted ex soldier and Michelle Williams in a haunting turn as his deeply sick wife. The film overall is a tantalizing guessing game and broadly covers the thriller board but the final act brings it right down to earth for a grounded, grim finale showcasing the brutal honesty of these illnesses and the heart wrenching tragedy they beget.

6. Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King

Robin Williams gives one of his best performances as Parry, a once successful professor of medieval history who lost his mind following the death of his wife and now wanders the streets of NYC, homeless. Jeff Bridges is the radio DJ who befriends and tries to understand him and their relationship carries the film. So to does Gilliam’s knack for surreal visual storytelling, letting these fantastical creations run wild and giving us a glimpse into Parry’s damaged but fascinating mind.

5. Brad Anderson’s The Machinist

Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznik hasn’t slept in a year. Guilt, extreme weight loss and delusions are just the start of his problems. This is billed as and feels like a thriller but I think that’s deliberate on director Anderson’s part to put us in the hot seat next to Trevor, to make us feel the same paranoia and delusions of persecution he does. The atmosphere here is almost suffocating, the score a muted tangle of busted nerves and Bale’s performance something just this side of unearthly. When it all comes together and we see why he is the way he is it’s deeply sad but makes a kind of terrible sense and gives the film a final stab of emotional weight.

4. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace

PTSD is only vaguely hinted at in this beautiful father daughter drama but it’s there in every frame, in every mannerism of Ben Fosters masterful performance. Him and newcomer Thomasin Mackenzie achingly display a family dynamic that has been set off balance by his illness, and the wedge it has driven both between them and between him and ever living a normal life again. This is a restrained yet heartbreaking film that gently unpacks its themes with kindness and compassion, letting a devastating final scene bring the whole point home heavily but somehow lightly in the same note.

3. David Cronenberg’s Spider

Ralph Fiennes give a focused, intense turn as the titular individual, a man released from a mental care facility and relegated to a London halfway house where all the scrambled and tumultuous memories of his past come tumbling down through the scattered web of his broken mind and into the present. Recollections of his parents (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson) are somehow shrouded from himself, by himself and as he tirelessly works to regain his sanity, he slips further away from it. Cronenberg uses shadows, dimly lit alleys and creaky, barren rooms to show how this character has been cast away from his own perception and wanders about like a lost soul.

2. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy

The life and times of Beach Boys pioneer Brian Wilson are explored here, namely at two important junctures in his life. Paul Dano plays him younger, at the height of fame and success but poised on the cusp of a psychotic breakdown after stress and an unhealthy relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) reach a fever pitch. Decades later John Cusack embodies a much older Wilson, stuck under the tyrannical yoke of an evil, manipulative psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) until he meets the love of his life (Elizabeth Banks) and a chance at a fresh start along with her. The scene of Dano putting recording headphones over his ears and closing his eyes in horror as he hears voices is one of the most brutally honest and realistic depictions of auditory hallucinations you can find in film. Wilson had a rough life and the film makes that very clear but it’s never ever sensationalist or exploitive and overall has a message about love, light and working endlessly to overcome any demons or struggles thrown into your path.

1. Kasi Lemmons’ The Caveman’s Valentine

Samuel L. Jackson gives a career best as schizophrenic former musician Romulus, a man afflicted by terrible hallucinations and delusions to the point that when he discovers a genuine murder conspiracy no one, including his police officer daughter (Aunjanue Ellis) believes him. This film is driven by a fascinating mystery narrative that takes Romulus from his cave in Central Park into the pretentious New York art world and beyond to find a killer. At heart though director Lemmons let’s it m be a serious minded exploration of what it must be like to live like that, to be constantly sabotaged by your own mind. Jackson’s brilliant performance and Lemmons effective use of surreal, mesmerizing imagery give us a compassionate, dynamic window into this man’s mind and in turn a unique, thought provoking piece of cinema.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more content!

-Nate Hill

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Ridley Scott’s The Martian

You know those Sci-Fi movies where someone has a near miss, narrow escape or heroic encounter up in space and everyone down in the NASA control room leaps up, cheers and claps in collective catharsis? It’s a well worn narrative beat and can sometimes be an eye roll moment. Ridley Scott’s The Martian has several of these but because the characters and plot are so well drawn they feel earned, appropriate and exciting. That goes for the film itself as well, it’s a two and a half hour space epic that feels as breezy as a ninety minute quickie, an optimistic, human story of one man’s ultimate quest for survival and everyone else’s daring attempts to rescue him.

Scott is no stranger to darker, more austere stuff particularly in his Sci-Fi exploits, but he shines a bright light on the proceedings here, making a super complicated, science based story with many moving parts somehow seem light and carefree while also making a big emotional landing. Matt Damon is Mark Watney, astronaut, botanist, space pirate and celestial castaway, marooned on the red planet following a mission gone wrong and presumed dead by NASA and his crew, until he’s able to communicate. He grows potatoes using… homemade fertilizer, repairs a satellite and awaits rescue while everyone else faces moral and technical quandaries in their struggle to bring him home. NASA’s director (Jeff Daniels, smarmy but never an outright baddie) is reluctant to go all out and send another mission, the crew’s handler (Sean Bean, fantastically low key and against his usual tough guy image) wants to do right by them and inform their commander (Jessica Chastain). The earthbound commotion is nicely interlaced with Damon’s solo outings up there and somehow they edit the thing to both realistically depict the passing of time but also fly through the proceedings breathlessly. Scott casts his film with ridiculous talent including Kate Mara, Donald Glover, Michael Pena, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristin Wiig and Mackenzie Davis.

Many people wrote this off as a good film but simply fluff, like an enjoyable but kind of inconsequential ride, or at least that’s the vibe I got from some reviews. I couldn’t disagree more. This type of story is exactly the kind of thing we need more of in this day and age. One could remark on the vast amount of effort, overtime hours and expenditure NASA puts in simply to bring one astronaut home, and whether or not it’s worth it (Jeff Daniels certainly has that thought cross his mind), but the truth is that it’s not about just Mark Watney, or just any one person stranded up there, it’s about what the actions and efforts signify, and how important that is, as well as the notable and extreme resilience on his part. This is a film that shows the best in human beings who are put in impossible situations, and how we might make ourselves, and those around us into better people. It’s a rollicking space flick speckled with incredible talent, hilarious comedy, scientific knowledge and has already aged splendidly since it’s release four years ago. Top tier Ridley Scott for me, and one of the best Sci-Fi films in decades.

-Nate Hill

Deadfall

Deadfall is a dangerously sexy, offbeat snowbound thriller with a gorgeous cast, wintry photography and a hard boiled noir edge that feels almost mythical at times. Despite an ending that doesn’t come close to wrapping up its multifaceted, emotionally dense story (someone shit the bed in the editing room), I still love it, it’s wonderfully atmospheric, using character and story to transport you into the narrative, while violence and action comes second but with no less of an impact. Eric Bana gives one scary knockout performance as Addison, a charismatic sociopath on the run with his sultry, damaged goods sister (Olivia Wilde) following a casino robbery that ended in bloodshed and a statewide manhunt. After their car gets spectacularly destroyed, they’re forced through the wilderness to a small county and try to evade encroaching law enforcement. At the same time, a troubled ex-prizefighter (Charlie Hunnam) is en route to the same county to spend the holidays with his estranged parents (Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson), and the paths of these ill fated characters inevitably collide in a blood soaked blizzard of cat and mouse games. Kate Mara is also fantastic as the daughter of an asshole local sheriff (Treat Williams) who thinks that women have no business carrying a badge. There’s a lot of plot threads and elements at play, most of which the film handles with adept fluidity, except for the very end where it seems like a scene or two is missing, I could have used a bit more resoluteness in Hunnam’s arc. The film overall is too good to nitpick, especially Eric Bana’s work, the dialogue written for him has a poetic, ponderous cadence. He really sinks into the role, casting a freaky, incestuous eye towards his sister and calmly, deliberately terrorizing anyone who gets in his way, including a mysterious First Nations man (Tom Jackson) who serves to represent the esoteric nature of the landscape clashing with the materialistic, hard edged criminal element trespassing on it, or at least that’s how I saw it. A near excellent film with more going on under the surface than the mounting blanket of snow suggests (I can’t resist the winter metaphors), plenty of thrills and conflict as well as a fine cast all doing great work.

-Nate Hill

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Megan Leavey


Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Megan Leavey shows us that with a little discipline, a lot of love and no shortage of persistence, wayward souls can be shaped into something with purpose and make something of themselves, as well as find kindred spirits via intense struggle. Based on one hell of a true story, Kate Mara lives, breathes and emotes Leavey wonderfully, a small town girl with a warrior’s heart who fights tooth and nail to adopt Rex, the canine bomb sniffing champion she has served with through thick and thin during a tour in the Iraqi war. Fresh off the heels of personal tragedy and burdened with an uncaring mother (Edie Falco) and a goof of a stepdad (Will Patton), Megan undergoes the notoriously gruelling marine corps training, and eventually makes her way to combat with her furry friend, an antisocial, violent mutt who she tames through compassion and patience. Coached by a stern, kindly drill sergeant (Common, who is actually a terrific actor), Megan finds romance with a fellow canine unit (Ramon Rodriguez) and mentorship from a veteran of the program (Draco Malfoy), but the strongest bond she makes is with Rex, the intuition of explosive hunting forming a link between them that goes deeper than anything you can see with your eyes alone. Megan seems to be a girl who hasn’t had all that much success in connecting with anyone in her life, but it’s Rex who ultimately reaches out to her, and when the time comes for her to desperately fight a callous bureaucracy for adoption, the film has honestly earned our emotions and not manipulated is a bit, which is a great quality for dramas like this to aspire to. Bradley Whitford has a brief but memorable bit as her birth father as well, giving her advice that cuts deep and goes a long way. Mara is an interesting actress, particularly in her choices of work. She often chooses scrappy misfires that don’t quite deserve her talent, but she never goes the conventional route, always trying new things and, at least in my opinion, outshining her sister every step of the way. The only issues I have with this is the title, which could have been given a bit more thought than just slapping her name above the poster, as well as a certain limitation on raw, organic emoting due to the classic pg-13 gloss one often finds in true story drama. Other than that, she’s a winner.

-Nate Hill

Man Down 


I’ll say this right off the bat: do not watch Man Down if you’re already in a mood, because it will emotionally lay you the fuck out. I learned that the hard way the other night. Billed as a war film, marketed as such and discreetly snuck onto iTunes without so much as a hint of theatrical release, its easy to see why they’ve tried to bury this one, it’s the bleakest film I’ve seen so far this year, and possibly the previous one. If there’s any doubt still surrounding Shia Labeouf’s acting talent (there shouldn’t be at this point), his work here should solidify greatness. All publicity antics and oddball muckery aside, he’s proven time and again that he’s one hell of a performer, and this is the best work he’s ever done, by a long shot. As Afghan war vet Gabriel Drummer, he’s put through an emotional wringer, sent back to an America ravaged by some vague pandemic, on a hopeless mission to locate his wife (Kate Mara) and young son (Charlie Shotwell). Joined by his best friend and fellow soldier Devin (Jai Courtney), Gabriel’s mission seems hazy and desperate, his family always just out of reach, tormented by the psychological wounds of combat but determined not to give up. This is interspersed with an extended dialogue scene between him and General Peyton (Gary Oldman, restrained, patient and careful), in which he heartbreakingly opens up about the horrors he has seen. This is where Labeouf shines, his tears uncannily genuine, his work visibly shaking up Oldman and tearing at the edges of the screen in it’s implosive intensity. Trust me, this is not the film you are expecting, not even close. By the time the third act rolls around and you see what’s really going on, you’re emotionally sucker punched when least expecting it, and the film’s quiet, devastating anti-war message is hit home with the force of a sledgehammer. I can’t say too much more without ruining it, but it’s one of the most thoughtful, understanding war films I’ve seen, one that gets the reality of what it’s like to have seen such atrocities, and come out of it a different person. Strong, stinging stuff that takes a while to shake off. 

-Nate Hill

Morgan: A Review by Nate Hill


Morgan is one of the slickest genre flicks I’ve seen in recent years, finely tuned like a barbed wire tightrope, full of nasty surprises, throat ripping action and that ever present ethical turmoil that hangs about in any films that deal with artificial humanoid beings. It’s only weakness is exactly that stylistic strength: it’s so tight and streamlined that one occasionally feels like the scales tip in the favour of style over substance, but it’s a minor quibble when you take a step back and look at just how entertaining and fired up this piece is. The filmmakers are minimally concerned with the moral grey areas that cloning wades into, and subsequent philosophical pondering, but more than anything they just want to pull the ripcord and blast full throttle into an adrenaline soaked, R-rated sci-if tale with vague aspects of a character study. The title refers to Morgan (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy in a performance both terrifying and heartbreaking), a genetically engineered humanoid girl held at a secluded facility alongside researchers, one of which she has just had a violent incident with. The corporate honcho (Brian Cox in a sly, all too brief honcho) dispatches a cold, clinical asset in the form of Kate Mara, sent to assess the situation and implement any measures necessary. She is an outsider, a callous bicep who flexes at the whims of the company. The researchers and handlers, however, are not. They have grown up around Morgan, invested time and, somewhat unwisely, emotion into her and will stop at nothing to ensure her survival. Paternal Toby Jones, opinionated Jennifer Jason Leigh and compassionate Rose Leslie prove to be a formidable armada against Mara’s evaluation, and tensions arise. Morgan has her own cloudy agenda though, and whether by flawed design, ghost in the shell syndrome or pure survival instinct, proves to be the greatest danger of all. She experiences people at their best, worst and most enigmatic, and her startling behaviour is a reflection of all of it, and a sobering example of humanity’s pitiful inability to perfect the creation of artificial life, at least in this film’s universe anyway. From Mara’s threatening presence, to an intense evaluation from a particularly nasty psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti overacting so hard he almost sucks the set dec up into his orbit), it’s no wonder Morgan snaps. Now when she snaps, the film more or less whips all its chips on the table, flips said table and hulk slams it two floors down. All subtlety and thought provocation kind of get left in the dust as everything careens towards an especially visceral climax, and that’s okay, as long as it doesn’t leave you feeling underwhelmed. I kind of had the intuition it was going to take the rambunctious root overall, and took comfort in the fact that it at least somewhat focused on the delicate aspects earlier on. It’s a well oiled machine, impeccably casted, given just enough pathos to keep our sentimental sides invested, and more than enough visceral hullabaloo to get our pulses dancing, all set to a score both thundering and graceful. Great stuff.