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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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Remembering Robin Williams: Nate’s Top Ten Performances

Robin Williams left us five years ago this week, and out of all the celebrities, actors and entertainers who have passed on, his absence is still the one I feel most. So what made him so special? For me it was the way he could cut so deep in both serious and comic performances. When he showed up in the room the energy turned light and carefree as the zany, untethered forces of his improvisation and imagination took over like a gentle breeze. Then when it was time to rein it in for a more serious, introspective scene he would be less effervescent but the light in his eyes wouldn’t dim, the focus wouldn’t falter and he’d demonstrate his equally brilliant talent for heartbreaking drama as well. He could carry an entire film on his own, light up a supporting role and even make a cameo glimmer through to become memorable. In looking back I’d like to highlight the ten performances that are most personal, most memorable and mean the most to me as someone who grew up watching him on the TV all the time, idolized and loved him dearly. Enjoy!

10. Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Viet Nam

No other scenario requires a much needed sense of humour like the fog of war, but Williams’s rebellious spirit isn’t received well by the brass in Nam, yet he makes it clear that a good dose of verbal comedy is exactly what the airwaves need in this case. It’s a no holds barred performance with some touching emotional notes and plenty of slotted time to let loose behind a radio DJ’s mic.

9. Walter Finch in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia

Cast against type as the freaky villain of Nolan’s chilly murder mystery, he channels a Stephen King style energy in playing a slippery antagonist set against Alaska’s grey skies and at odds with Al Pacino’s sharp but distraught homicide cop. Williams is somehow constantly likeable yet creepy in a way you can’t quite put your finger on until the third act rolls around and he really lets it rip.

8. Parry in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King

Mental illness gets a ballistic but tender portrayal in Gilliam’s urban fantasy that sees Robin as a former professor of medieval history who loses his mind following a tragedy. Surreal production design helps his work flow but the raw potency is all his in a performance that brings down the house, brings out the best in both Gilliam and Jeff Bridges and shows how a mind broken isn’t necessarily one lost forever.

7. The Genie in Disney’s Aladdin

I’m pretty sure all of the Genie’s dialogue wasn’t even scripted off the bat, I think they just sat Williams down in front of a voiceover mic each morning, gave him a general outline and then slowly backed away out of the room to observe the magic happen. The result is a nostalgic blast of a vocal performance that so many hold dear and one of the most quotable Disney characters of all time.

6. Alan Parrish in Joe Johnston’s Jumanji

Infusing childlike wonder is something he was always good at, and it served well here in playing a guy who has been trapped inside a deadly jungle themed board game since he was a kid. His chemistry with Bonnie Hunt is funny and touching, his feral mania upon being finally released from the game into 90’s suburbia is hilarious and the interaction with young Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce makes for a dynamic character that I always love to revisit.

5. Philip Brainard in Disney’s Flubber

Williams plays an incarnation of the absent minded professor archetype in Disney’s unfairly dismissed comedy. In a film whose star is a rambunctious pile of ever morphing charismatic green goo, trust Williams to defy that description and upstage the Flubber itself with his own wild, inspired performance. But he also gets surprisingly deep when lamenting: “I’ve spent my whole life out there trying to figure how the world works when I should have been trying to figure out *why* it works..” it’s a disarming line to hear him intone in a heartfelt manner from a Disney film, but that’s why I love this one so much.

4. Sean Maguire in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting

Mentor, friend and advisor to Matt Damon’s prodigal kid, Williams imparts wisdom in clear eyed fashion here as an extremely down to earth fellow faced with an extraordinary situation. His mid film monologue to Damon won him a best supporting Oscar, but the moment that captures this character’s spirit most beautifully is when he wistfully remembers his wife who passed away, and injects some humour into the conversation that was purely Robin’s improvisation and as a result hits the scene home.

3. Rainbow Randolph in Danny Devito’s Death To Smoochy

Devito’s venomous farce of children’s media is a criminally undervalued and quite terrific film, and Williams goes into full on nut-bar mode as a disgraced kiddie show host who never should have been let on the air to begin with. Trying to kill Edward Norton’s beloved rhino Smoochy in between bouts of rage, flagrant insecurity and maniacal mood swings, it’s an incredibly ballsy, thoroughly R rated and absolutely hysterical piece of black comedy performance art not to be missed.

2. Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire in Chris Columbus’s Mrs. Doubtfire

The lengths that loving father Williams goes to in order to see the children he lost custody of here would be horror movie material in any other actor’s hands, but because Robin was so adept at both wacky innovation, disguises and genuine heartfelt explanations for such behaviour, the result is both magical and realistic. The restaurant scene alone is time capsule worthy, in which Hillard has to multitask and hop in and out of the Mrs. Doubtfire suit rapid fire to both have a family dinner and entertain a scotch swilling TV exec (Robert Prosky).

1. Chris Nielsen in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come

A gorgeous fantasy film showcases Robin in his most deeply felt and affecting performance as a man who has lost everything including his own life. He ventures out across the afterlife through heaven, hell and beyond to find his wife and soulmate (Annabella Sciorra) and save her. Williams portrays celestial determination like no other and a fierce, passionate love for her that shines like a beacon through realms of the astral plane and lights up the film in the process.

Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoy and hold Robin’s work as dear as I do, and have enjoyed my thoughts here.

-Nate Hill

Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King: A Review by Nate Hill 

Tragic. Uplifting. Comical. Bittersweet. One of a kind. Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King takes on mental illness by way of a fantastical approach, an odd mix on the surface, but totally fitting and really the only way to put the audience inside a psyche belonging to one of these beautiful, broken creatures. Sometimes an unlikely friendship springs from a tragedy, in this case between a scrappy ex radio DJ (Jeff Bridges) and a now homeless, mentally unstable ex professor of medieval history (Robin Williams). Bridges was partly responsible for an unfortunate incident that contributed to William’s condition, and feels kind of responsible, accompanying him on many a nocturnal odyssey and surreal journey through New York City, an unlikely duo brought together by the whimsical cogs of fate that seem to turn in every Gilliam film. Williams is a severely damaged man who sees a symbolic ‘Red Knight’ at every turn, and seeks a holy grail that seems to elude him at every turn. Bridges is down to earth, if a little aimless and untethered, brought back down from the clouds by his stern, peppy wife (Mercedes Ruehl in an Oscar nominated performance). They both strive to help one another in different ways, Williams to help Bridges find some redemption for the single careless act that led to violence, and Bridges assisting him on a dazed quest through the streets to find an object he believes to be the holy grail, and win over the eccentric woman of his dreams (Amanda Plummer). In any other director’s hands but Gilliam’s, this story just wouldn’t have the same fable-esque quality. Straight up drama. Sentimental buddy comedy. Interpersonal character study. There’s elements of all, but the one magic ingredient is Gilliam, who is just amazing at finding the way to truth and essential notes by way of the absurd and the abstract. Watch for fantastic work from Michael Jeter, David Hyde Pierce, Kathy Najimy, Harry Shearer, Dan Futterman and a quick, uncredited Tom Waits as well. The hectic back alleys and silhouetted trellises of NYC provide a sooty canvas for Gilliam and his troupe to paint a theatrical, psychological and very touching tale of minds lost, friendship found and the past reconciled.