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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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Hidden Gems: Tarik Saleh’s Metropia

Who loves dystopian SciFi in the tradition of George Orwell? Who also loves fresh, innovative animation styles that bring worlds to life in new ways for the eyes to savour and absorb? Tarik Saleh’s Metropia has both of the above boxes checked and more, it’s a relatively star studded futuristic hidden gem that came and went with no fanfare whatsoever but definitely deserves another look.

Set in a drab, grey saturated Europe of the not too distant future, giant mega corporations rule industry and infrastructure while a vast, sprawling subway system interconnects the entire continent and heralds in a new age of depressingly humdrum office drone jobs and stifling urban monotony. Roger (cult favourite Vincent Gallo) is one of these nine to fivers trapped by the system, stuck in a daily rotunda of riding this mammoth transport system to and from a dead end job, until one day he hears voices inside his head, particularly that of Stefan (Alexander Skarsgard) a mysterious whistleblower and fellow office drone who may or may not be real. Then he’s entranced by Nina (Juliette Lewis) a sultry fellow passenger who seems to know something about what he’s experiencing. This leads him down a spooky rabbit hole of global corruption, conspiracy theories and some of the most dryly hilarious social satire this side of Terry Gilliam.

If you look at posters and promo stills of this you’ll see the intensely specific level of work put into the animation of these characters, a slightly uncanny valley esque devotion to hyper realism that both leaps off the screen and blends in perfectly with the CGI cities, offices and tunnels they exist in. The filmmakers *could* have easily made these people look like their famous and uniformly eccentric voice actor counterparts but instead only threw in the odd glance, mannerism or slight characteristic, letting these talented folks bring entirely unique performances to life. Gallo is a strange dude and always picks off the beaten path projects so he fits right in. Lewis has slinky fun as the sort of femme fatale sort of love interest with her own snaky agenda. Udo Kier, another beloved cult icon, has a ball in a scenery chewing turn as the evil megalomaniac CEO of a company that uses everyday household products for fiendish mind control, and Stellan Skarsgard makes droll, dangerous work of his head of security. There’s oh so sublime and subtle dark humour, a real sense of place and a decidedly European flavour to it all despite the varied cast. If you enjoy unique outings in the animation genre, cerebral SciFi or just a great corporate espionage yarn you’ll dig this, I really want to get it more exposure and eventually the cult pedestal status it rightly deserves.

-Nate Hill

Bob Rafelson’s No Good Deed

It’s kind of rare for rambunctious actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Milla Jovovich to sit still for something as dramatic and dialogue heavy as Bob Rafelson’s No Good Deed, but it’s nice to see. This is a thriller of sorts, but it’s more low key than that and ends up being a chamber piece about two characters getting to know each other that just happens to take place against a criminal backdrop. Jackson plays a police detective on a routine investigation who turns up at the wrong place at the wrong time and gets drawn into a weird bunch of felons all hiding out and planning a bank job. Stellan Skarsgard is Tyrone, their volatile, violent leader, Jovovich is his quiet but intuitive and underestimated girlfriend, left alone to watch Jackson, now their hostage. This leaves acres of script space for Milla and Samuel to play, manipulate each other, bicker, banter, become close and twist the situation to both their ends while gradually catching feels for each other. It’s interesting that Rafelson casts these two because they’re usually to be found in action heavy stuff, shooting guns, swinging swords and tasked with stylized dialogue. Here they are laid back, oddly but nicely paired and the most quiet I’ve ever seen them, and it… kind of works. Skarsgard is mean and nasty, which he’s always been great at, journeyman oddball Doug Hutchison plays another lowlife in their gang, while Joss Ackland and Grace ‘Sarah Palmer’ Zabriskie play the senior faction of the crew, a strange husband wife duo who can still wield a shotgun when the situation calls for it. This is based on a Dashiell Hammett story which probably means it was sitting in someone’s desk drawer for decades before being found and reworked for this century. Rafelson gives it the pacing of something by Elmore Leonard and eccentricities to spare. It’s not a super memorable thing or a great film by any standards but works well enough as a sleepy, romantic crime thriller. Oh yeah, this is the legendary Rafelson’s final feature film before apparent retirement, so it’s worth checking out for that reason too.

-Nate Hill

David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

If you think about it, the source material for a story like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the perfect kind of thing for director David Fincher to have a whack at. It’s dark, kinky, and riddled with detailed clues, any of which could spell survival or a scary end for the two protagonists, and there’s an overall misanthropic edge as well. Not to say that Fincher deliberately picks dark, fucked up projects in his work, but there’s a definite gravitation towards the macabre, he has an eye for it. I love this film a lot, it’s among my favourites in his stable and I think he improved on not only the book by Stieg Larsson, but also made a better film version than the first adaptation. The original was serviceable but in a mystery like this I feel like atmosphere is key, and Fincher provides enough to get lost in. This is a story spanning decades, outlining years of dark deeds and unearthing secrets buried within secrets and as such it should feel eerie, ambient, be lit in ways that evoke the passage of time and have a soundscape that not only freaks you out but guides your focus and has you searching for clues right alongside the heroes. I feel like he definitely has those boxes solidly checked off.

Rooney Mara makes a more detached, colder Lisbeth Salander than Noomi Rapace’s hot blooded take and you could argue all night who was better in the role, but I don’t think that’s really the point. What matters is Mara is a fantastic Lisbeth, emotionally complex, seemingly shut off yet injecting pockets of warmth in where you least expect it and losing none of the caged animal or ruthless survival instinct that is so important to the character. Daniel Craig has the perfect jaded half smirk to play a guy that enters the story disgraced and surrounded by scandal, I think he rocks his role too and the chemistry between both is as tangible as the spooky Swedish ambience that Fincher turns them loose in. There’s a killer out there, one who has been operating with relative impunity for many years and right under the nose of the spectacularly dysfunctional Vanger family, whose industrialist patriarch (Christopher Plummer, excellent) enlists Craig’s help in finding the truth. His daughter went missing from their secluded island home some thirty years before as we see in dreamy flashbacks where Julian Sands steps in for Plummer. Craig’s Mikael and Mara’s Lisbeth are a pair of introverted workaholics who both come from rocky pasts and understand the kind of risk involved with this type of work, but neither are prepared for the brand of sick horrors that revolve around this mystery. Fincher carefully casts the film with impressive talent including Joely Richardson, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Goran Visnjic, Donald Sumpter, Embeth Davidzt, Alan Dale, Geraldine James and scene stealer Stellan Skarsgard as another key member of the Vanger family.

One of the most effective aspects of the film is the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a subtle atmospheric composition that brings on feelings of dread, unseen danger and anticipatory anxiety wonderfully. As Craig’s car snakes along the long driveway of Plummer’s extravagant yet isolated mansion, a strange warble of tubular bell style music fills the snowy air, giving off incredibly creepy vibes and in turn giving me chills every time. Fincher cranks up the dial on violence and sex about as far as one could in a Hollywood film and as such you get some deeply disturbing scenes to sit through, especially involving Lisbeth’s deranged legal guardian, who really made me question the foster system in Sweden. None of it is glorified though and all serves to tell this dark story in the most affecting way. There’s a shadowy blanket over the film, everything seems frosty and frigid thanks to the cinematography from Jeff Cronenworth, as if there’s some spell of dark magic laying over the land and protecting those hiding within it as Lisbeth and Mikael race to find them. This is a perfect tale to get transported away by, a nightmarish yet strangely picturesque mystery to get lost in like a snowy night, until you arrive at the wrong doorstep alongside our heroes and then the real thrills begin. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Peter Antonijevic’s Savior

Savior is not an easy film to watch. At times it’s downright excruciating. But it’s also beautiful, and takes its subject matter very, very seriously, with not a cliche in sight for the entire duration, one of the reasons it’s my favourite war film. Dennis Quaid is mostly known for the charming, roguish way he has about him and that unmistakable mile wide grin, but here he drops all of that for a solemn, tortured turn that leaves your heart in a vice grip and your hands gripping the chair. He plays plays a military man forced to go mercenary in the French foreign legion after his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and young son are murdered in a radical terrorist bombing. His knee-jerk reaction is to walk down the street to the nearest mosque and shoot everyone in the place to death, so naturally he kind of has to lay low after. Fate finds him working freelance in the horrors of the Serbian Bosnian war circa mid nineties, and it’s there the film becomes a deep, challenging, distressing but necessary portrait of the kind of chaos, both physical and psychological, that war leaves in its wake. Tasked with transporting a Bosnian girl (Natasa Ninkovic) who was impregnated by a man on the other side of the conflict and has now been shunned, he’s faced with a shot at doing something kind to combat the tide of horror and perhaps find his retribution. In a time of such rampant, normalized genocide, he takes a stand for one mother and her child, trying to get them safely to the UN and find a little solace for himself while he’s at it. It’s an interesting character and Quaid plays him brilliantly but close to the chest. Early on we see him absentmindedly gun down a young boy herding goats, a harsh and seemingly inexplicable action. Later on he defends innocents against slaughter, but he’s not a hero so much as he is a malleable, realistic human being who makes choices just like anyone, and war sometimes brings out extremes in people that go both ways. This is unlike any other war film; there are no orchestral heroics, no ponderous meandering, no large scale epic battles to flash the budget. This is the frank, blunt force trauma vision of the genre, and Quaid is the perfect haunted, bitter hearted antihero to populate it and find the dormant humanity residing in himself even in a region that has so badly lost its way. Genocide is depicted later on in the film and it’s a fucking harrowing thing to witness, the perpetrators matter of factly bludgeoning villagers to death along a river, the victims relegated to a resolute shell shock, it’s nothing like usual melodrama employed in these scenes elsewhere. Stellan Skarsgard makes a quick and welcome appearance as his partner and fellow mercenary who himself has had just about all he can take of war, but it’s Quaid and Ninkovic’s show mostly and they’re captivating. The Bosnian war isn’t one you hear about often in films but it was one of the worst, and the fact that director Peter Antonijevic was a real life political prisoner during this time gives it all an eerily authentic edge. Not a film you hear about very often when discussing war in cinema, but one of the very best you’ll find.

-Nate Hill

The Railway Man

It takes more effort to convincingly tell a story about reconciliation than it does one about revenge, as I found with The Railway Man, a gripping study of post traumatic stress disorder, the horrors of war and the scars they burn into people, often having lasting effects years later. Colin Firth plays real life WWII veteran Eric, who was captured by the Japanese along with his regiment and held as prisoner of war for some years in a hellish POW camp. His fixation and uncanny knowledge of railway systems all over the world unfortunately is misunderstood by the Japanese, resulting in brutal torture and interrogation which goes on for months, and when the war is over and they are released, turns him into a broken, haunted man. He eventually meets, falls in love with and marries Patti (Nicole Kidman), but the time spent in that camp has left wounds that seemingly will never heal, and he finds it hard to cope. His friend and fellow veteran Finley (Stellan Skarsgard) complicates matters when he discovers that one of the Japanese officials responsible for his treatment is still out there somewhere, and can be located. It’s a fascinating situation, for the man (Hiroyuki Sanada, full of haunting complexity) has changed and bears scars of his own in ways that Eric could not imagine before coming face to face with him. Their meeting and correspondence raised many questions about the nature of war and what it brings out in a person versus how time changes ones feelings, perhaps heals some wounds and shifts perspectives greatly. Director Jonathan Teplitzky tackles the story in a straightforward, traditionalist manner, letting the emotional beats speak for themselves, keeping the camera and editing mellow to allow the actors to organically perform. Firth is a brilliant actor who too often get me stuck in syrupy roles, he shines here especially well when he’s faced with the darkness of memory and we see exactly that reflected in his eyes. Sanada has the toughest role but lands it squarely, never cloying or reaching for emotional straws but rather letting the anguish build to a tipping point and than breaking down naturally in what has to be the film’s best, most honestly realistic scene. Kidman radiates compassion and is around for less of the story but still says a lot with her screen time and does excellent work. Kind of an under seen gem, this floated by off the radar back in 2014 but it’s rich, well told drama with three brave, finely tuned central performances.

-Nate Hill

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is a blast of serotonin in cinematic form, a pure ‘happy’ movie that may be even more fun than the first. I’ll level with you though: to enjoy it you’ll need to a) love the music of Abba, and b) not be one of those stiffly stiffersons who puckers their sphincter at the very mention of the word ‘musical.’ Both those boxes are heartily checked off for me, so it’s nothing but a glowing review on this end. Sunny Mediterranean skies, an unbelievable all star cast clearly having some of the most fun of their careers, all the glorious Abba music you want and a heartbreaking poignancy that both blindsides you and wasn’t quite all the way there the first time around, what’s not to love? Sure, it’s gimmicky, ditzy, silly beyond compare, but like Mrs. Mia Wallace would say, don’t be a 🔲. Staged as both sequel and prequel, this one zooms back to the raucous 70’s to show us just how Meryl Streep’s Donna found her way to that idyllic Greek island and stumbled into the hotel business. She’s played by Lily James here who is a true find, a charismatic beauty with a singing voice that could clear a cloudy day right out. The amazing, uncanny thing here is how they’ve managed find young actors who really do emulate their older selves, in the case of the three famous potential fathers she meets, and her two hilarious best friends, played again in the present by scene stealing Christine Baranski and Julie ‘Mrs. Weasley’ Walters. Amanda Seyfried has really come into her own as an actress, I’m always looking forward to whatever she does next because I know she’ll do it with grace and gravity, and her character blooms here as a strong pillar of the story as opposed to the fresh faced bride role she got in the first. Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard return and give the film a shot of humour and warmth, while Andy Garcia charms everyone in a role which ties into a hit Abba song later in a way that’s so funny you don’t know whether to clap or roll your eyes. And yes, Cher is in it, her voice is still a powerhouse but she must have had so much work done that she’s more synthetic that organic these days, she’s gotta be in her early 70’s and looks like she just got done recording like her second album, it’s slightly terrifying. If you’re a true Abba buff you’ll appreciate two wicked cameos from founding members cleverly added. The film is fluff and sunshine for the most part, with emotion being relayed by the not always deep or resonant lyrics of Abba, let’s face it, they were a playful disco band. Curiously, there’s one song that really plumbs depths and reaches the most grounded and emotionally truthful height from both actors and audiences that these films have ever ascended to, and, not surprisingly, it’s the one song we get from Meryl Streep, who sadly has no more than a hyped up cameo, but five minutes of Meryl is enough to turn anything gold, really. This seems like an unreleased Abba song, one from mother to daughter sung to Seyfried, and anchors the film right into lucid pathos that I didn’t think was possible with a jumping bean of a flick like this. Like I said before, it’s love it or hate it. I grew up listening to Abba on vinyl, and these songs are a part of me. Every actor in the cast is someone I love to see, it’s set in one of the most beautiful locations in the world, uses the power of music to literally give nutrients to the soul, and is the perfect recipe for summer escapism.

-Nate Hill