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Originality is not dead in cinema. It’s simply not as plentiful as it once was. Often original and revolutionary films which question the values of society reach a cult status. They become a separate vehicle to mainstream offerings – void of commercial success and often made simply as art for the sake of art.
As we settle into 2019, the plethora of remakes and sequels churned out on a weekly basis is at times disheartening. Some audiences may feel comfortable knowing the basic plot and structure of a movie before seeing it. Others though, cry out for more. What those people seek is pure, stimulating entertainment – where you question what you are watching and remain riveted in the haze of those questions.
Of course movies such as these require repeated viewing. Below are five examples of films which defy a single outing, improving with age and further trips into their layered existence.
#1. Withnail And I (1987)
Withnail And I offers very little on the surface other than the shabby clothes it stands up in. There is no violence, CGI, exotic locations or mind bending plot twists. It is simply a beautiful movie, where the dialogue is the breathing entity that draws audiences in.
Written and directed by Bruce Robinson (The Rum Diary), it is based loosely on his own experiences of being broke and unemployed. The movie follows two impoverished, out of work actors – Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) in the late 60s who decide to leave their Camden Town flat in London and go on holidays to a remote cottage near Penrith in Cumbria. All this sounds rather dull, if not for the spark within the portrayals by Grant and McGann. This film holds some of the most quoted lines in movie history. It also transcends its era, not looking or feeling like a movie from the late 80s. In fact, it actually holds its place firmly in the 60s while defining the term cult classic.
#2. Donnie Darko (2001)
If you have not experienced Donnie Darko, forget what you think you know about movie structure. This is the ultimate choose your own ending film. It does what few movies attempt to do by simply letting the audience figure out what its premise is. Is it about time travel? A probe into mental health? Or simply a Twilight Zone-style movie about faith? All is totally up to interpretation.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role as the disturbed teenager, Donnie is drawn one night by a strange voice belonging to a giant, demonic-looking rabbit known as Frank. Frank tells the teen the world will end in “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.” (Note: The film was actually shot in 28 days). From here Donnie becomes obsessed with time travel and the thought of stopping the world from ending, as he has more hallucinations.
The lines between reality and what the titular character perceives as real blur continuously. This is especially in the climax, with the film culminating in an enigmatic but pitch-perfect ending from which various opinions can be drawn. Repeated watches offer a different meaning each time, which can be reflective of the viewers’ own creativity.
#3. Memento (2000)
This movie is staggering in its ability to stick in the viewer’s mind long after the closing credits. Christopher Nolan wrote the screenplay and directed Memento, throwing the full weight of his creative genius into this low-budget work. It follows Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator on the trail of a person responsible for killing his wife and causing his anterograde amnesia – the inability to form new memories.
Only remembering information for moments at a time, Leonard uses polaroids and tattoos across his body as clues to unravel the mystery as to who he is looking for. The story-line is presented as two different sequences interpersed during the film, a series in black-and-white that is shown chronologically and a series of colour sequences shown in reverse order (a means of putting the viewer in Leonard’s shoes). Both merge in the climax with an ending so unashamedly cool, viewers are helpless in the need to watch it all over again with a different perspective.
#4. Being John Malkovich (1999)
This is perhaps the strangest movie ever made, as well as one of the more original and daring. It contains enough unique ideas to fill five separate movies, while also being riotously funny.
Directed by Spike Jonze (Adaptation), it stars John Cusack as Craig Schwartz, an out of work puppeteer who gets a job as a file clerk. Behind a cabinet he finds a small door which when entered brings him directly into the mind of famous actor John Malkovich for 15 minutes before being dumped out near the New Jersey Turnpike.
The premise sounds bizarre but the film works brilliantly as Schwartz along with his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) turn the portal into a money making adventure, charging participants $200. Things get even stranger as Schwartz’s wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz), becomes addicted to living out her transgender fantasies through the experience of traveling into Malkovich’s head.
This is a film which rightly deserves repeated viewing. It is an addictive, quirky movie which sticks out like a waterfall in a desert of monotony. The sequence towards the end where John Malkovich discovers what has been happening and decides to enter the portal himself, thus entering his own head, is the absolute definition of mind blowing.
#5. Primer (2004)
What if you invented a time machine? What would you do with that power? That’s the premise of Primer. Knuckle down for this one though. It takes a bit of explaining.
Primer was written, directed, produced, edited and scored by Shane Carruth (Upstream Color). Costing a mere $7,000, it won big at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, proving a film made with so little can cleverly raise more issues and moral dilemmas than other higher profile and well funded cinematic epics.
The movie follows engineering students Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) who accidentally create a time machine, capable of altering the past with multiple versions of themselves created over a six-hour period. While one-self travels back in time, the present self waits it out until the past self catches up and the present ceases to exist!
You do not need a PhD in mathematical physics to understand Primer, though it would help as the dialogue is at times purposely complex, giving it that enhanced realism. This touch shows how genius scripts and techniques win over big budgets. Repeated viewing is a necessity to understand this layered work of cinematic art.