The term "must-see" is thrown out left and right in the film world, usually by quote whores paid by Hollywood publicists to promote crappy movies. Critics such as myself use the term to try and persuade viewers to see the distressingly few good movies that come out every year. This list is different. This list is for five movies that I think everyone should see at least once. Either because they're good filmmaking, shine a new light on the human condition, or are an experience that I don't think anyone should miss, these films are movies that I recommend with the highest compliments.
A word to the wise. Some, although not all, of these films are very hard to watch. They are meant to be. I'm not a sadist or anything, nor do I recommend them simply because they are powerful. For example, while "We Need to Talk about Kevin" and "Frailty" are very tough but very powerful films (that I enthusiastically encourage anyone who is interested to watch), I don't think they rise to this level. I recommend them because they are superb films and because I believe that a person who ventures in will come out at the end a better person for it. I know more than a few people who view films as escapist entertainment and avoid anything that makes them uncomfortable no matter how many people laud it. I get that. However, I know those same people watch movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and "American Sniper," which are just as difficult. What's the difference between that and something like "The War Zone?" Well, what's your answer?
These films are not presented in any order, by the way. Just saying.
"Boys Don't Cry:" Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were fond of saying that they valued films because they allowed audiences to be taken into another person's life and allowed them to see the world through someone else's eyes. There are many things to admire about "Boys Don't Cry," not least of which the performance to end all performances by Hilary Swank. I'm putting it on this list for another reason: it humanizes a transperson. Transgender rights are hugely controversial these days, and I think that with all the jargon, memes and firebrand commentary what gets lost is that these are real people. Different from you and I, yes, but still human beings. By refusing to categorize Brandon Teena in media terms, director Kimberly Pierce forces us to see him not as a freak or an anomaly, but as a human being. This is a difficult film to watch, to be sure, with his brutal rape being one of the most savage ever filmed, but it's worth it because it humanizes someone we don't understand.
"Once Were Warriors:" Alcoholism and domestic violence are not new topics for movies. However, never have they been dealt with in such an uncompromising way than in this highly acclaimed but overlooked New Zealand drama. Most films about addition show how it rips a person apart. Admirable and true as that may be, "Once Were Warriors" takes it a step further by showing how it affects not just the addict, but the family members as well. Although the wife is the only one physically affected by the alcoholic husband, there's no denying that the children are deeply affected too. That the two leads give some of the best performances I've ever seen is just another reason to see this film.
"Boyhood:" On paper, this sounds like a gimmick and a recipe for boredom. I mean, who wants to spend nearly three hours watching an ordinary kid grow up? The key is in how it's presented. By filming it over 12 years we see the characters grow up in a way that no other film has done. The minutiae is rendered fascinating (normal as it may be), because the film reflects reality rather than mimics it. Writer/director Richard Linklater could have easily fallen into the trap of making the film so realistic that he leaches all the drama out of the situation, something that has rendered many an indie film legitimately unwatchable ("Greetings from Tim Buckley" and "The Snowtown Murders" are two unfortunate examples). But by seeing these people as characters rather than just ordinary people, Linklater turns what could have been dull into great drama. Mark my words, this is a movie that will be remembered for as long as there are movies.
"The War Zone:" Who would want to watch this movie? Considering its subject matter, it's a legitimate question. Normally, I avoid revealing what this movie is actually about because it would turn away 99% of potential audience members. However, seeing as it's my most widely read review by a considerable amount, I feel comfortable discussing it in detail (not that doing so will spoil the movie in any real sense). The subject of incest is something that all but the most adventurous films avoid, and for good reason. It's too raw, too painful for many viewers to endure even tangentially. Tim Roth, in his directorial debut, throws caution to the wind and tackles it head on. The results are devastating. Of course it's difficult to watch. Very difficult. The bunker scene in particular is one of the most painful scenes ever filmed. However, I recommend seeing this film for the same reason that a person would watch "Saving Private Ryan:" it is filmmaking of the highest order. The acting is exceptional (not least because the two leads were non-actors) and the film demands mental engagement. Every scene, every line, is open to infinite interpretations, and just when you think you've understood everyone's motives, something happens that offers a new interpretation on everything that comes before it. That it's still easy to follow is something of a miracle. More than anything, this is a movie that forces us to confront a very real evil that is unfortunately, but understandably, considered taboo. But "The War Zone" refuses to be ignored. It demands that we confront this horrible reality. Maybe then we can actually do something about it.
"Spirited Away:" Of the five films on this list, this is the only one that can be described as "entertainment" in the truest sense of the word. That doesn't make it any less essential to watch, just that it won't hit you in the gut while you watch it. I encourage everyone to see this film, but no matter how hard I try, my words usually fall on deaf ears. And how can I blame them? Anime is a cult genre, associated with geekdom and some of the worst TV shows ever conceived. "Spirited Away" is different. I will loudly proclaim that this is the definitive animated film. I'll go further and claim that its director, Hayao Miyazaki, should be listed along with Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick and all the other filmmakers considered the best. I'll go even further than that and claim that this is one of the ten best films ever made. In as much as the other films I've listed, "Spirited Away" is an experience. However, the feelings you'll get while watching this film are not pain and suffering, but magic and joy. I defy anyone to look at some of the images that Miyazaki has created and not stare. Studio Ghibli, despite releasing one captivating film after another, is still a cult phenomenon. That's a shame, because everyone I know who has seen this movie has been just as rapturous as I am. With any film, you can find someone who doesn't like it. Yes, I've met someone who thinks that "Saving Private Ryan" is an overrated bore. I have yet to meet someone who has made the same claim about "Spirited Away."