In theory, all movies share one central purpose: to entertain. Every movie accomplishes this to one degree or another. Even if a movie is complete rubbish, your mind is distracted enough by the relaxation of your buttocks not to think about what’s happening outside of the film. And distraction, as we know, is the confused cousin of entertainment.
As the film medium has evolved, so has its span of intention. All films at their base still seek to entertain in some way, but now we have films who isolate their purposes on making us laugh, or scaring us, or taking us on a wild ride into a new world. Some film forms actually portray a very different kind of wild ride, with a very specific intent focused on getting a reaction from our reproductive organs. That’s a whole subject in itself, but we won’t talk about those films today, no. Today, we’ll be talking about films that are quite difficult, even painful, to watch. Whether the filmmakers intended this to be the effect (which, we assume, most who made the films on this list did), these films are strong in the cringe, and are known to produce audible sounds of discomfort. SPOILER ALERT, of course — if you’re wanting to experience the films with a totally fresh mind, just read the entry titles and go watch, at your own risk. For the rest, read (and cringe) on.
15 Battle Royale
Battle Royale is essentially The Hunger Games, except with absolutely no f***s given. Based on the 1999 novel of the same name, the film was released about a year after the novel, because apparently there was a rush demand for the world to see the inevitable deaths of a class of middle school students.
The film’s premise goes something like this: after a major school strike in Japan in which 800,000 students walked out of school, Japanese legislation passed the BR act, which entails one randomly chosen group of students to engage in an annual Battle Royale to do the death, where only one among them must remain standing by the end. Class 3-B is the group of students we follow, and they were taken to the Battle Royale thinking they were going on a field trip. It ended up being a field trip, in a sense, but not quite a traditional one. If you found The Hunger Games a little difficult to watch, stay the hell away from this one.
14 12 Years A Slave
Yeesh. Films based on slavery have been made before, but there’s something about the quality and effort put into this one that makes it really hard to watch. Based on the 1853 slave narrative memoir of the same name by Solomun Northup, 12 Years a Slave follows a freeborn African-American man who was kidnapped and subsequently sold into slavery to work in the plantations of Louisiana.
Having never been slaves ourselves, we can only assume that slavery is a hard, hard ordeal for anyone who has to go through it. But Solomun’s case, with him having been a free man his whole life who only experiences slavery as an adult, gives a twisted freshness to the whole experience. The audience is seeing the utter hopelessness of the slaves’ lives through Solomun’s eyes as he witnesses (and joins them in suffering) the purest of life’s atrocities. Not a film for the faint of mind.
13 The Last House on the Left
If there’s anything Wes Craven knows how to do, it’s how to shoot a horror film. He knew how to do this even from his directorial debut, The Last House on the Left. Released in 1972, this gruesomely unapologetic film revolves around two teenage girls who are on their way to a concert, having a happy-go-lucky time right up until they’re kidnapped by a group of criminals. There’s always a faint glimmer of hope for the kidnapped, and the sad part is, the girl’s seem to know this as they go through their nightmare.
The sick, brilliant Mr. Wes Craven toys with that sense of hope throughout the film, which is part of what makes the experience so darn nerve-wracking and horrific. The Last House on the Left is a hard watch through and through, but if you get through most of it without leaving the room, you’ll get a hearty reward in the third act in the form of sweet, sweet vengeance.
12 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This one’s a toughie to watch not because of its horror or gore content, but because of its purveying sense of complete heartbreak. Released in 2004, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about a couple who have both decided to erase their memories of one another after a really bad breakup. Aside from the super futuristic technology needed to make that happen, the whole concept is simple enough, except for the fact that throughout the procedure, the man in the relationship (played by Jim Carrey) realizes that he does not want to lose all recollection of the love of his life. So he resorts to playing a hopeless game of hide-and-seek inside the depths of his mind, hiding memories of his girl (played by Kate Winslet) inside pockets of his subconscious to preserve memories of her. He’s fighting a losing battle throughout, no matter how hard he tries, which kicks us right in the feels.
11 American History X
This film is grimy, dark and the basis of some of its inspiration lies in pure evil, but what makes it really hard to watch is one particular scene. American History X, starring none other than America’s sweetheart Edward Norton, was released in 1988 and tells the story of two brothers living in Los Angeles who become initiated into the neo-Nazi movement.
Despite its dreariness, the film has some heart to it. The character played by Norton spends some years in prison for manslaughter, during which he experiences a change of heart toward his skewed life view. When he leaves prison, he attempts to convince his brother to change his ways. The scene that makes the film singularly hard to watch is the one where Norton’s character committed the manslaughter that got him thrown in jail. There’s not much to say about it — it’s a textbook curb stomp. Thing is, you don’t see curb stomps often in film, and never as blatant and on-the-nose as the one shown here. It’ll make your jaw hurt, at the very list. You’ve been warned.
10 The Road
Released in 2009 and based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name, The Road is about a man and his young boy who journey through a post-apocalyptic world, trying to survive long enough to make it to the coast, which they hear is warm. It’s a real feat, trying to find warmth in a post-apocalyptic world, especially when you have a little kid you need to protect from rabid dogs, scavengers and cannibals.
Most of us experience the film through the eyes and boots of the man (played by Viggo Mortensen), and so we feel the overwhelming tension and sense of self-sacrifice throughout the film. The bleak, abysmal circumstances of the movie make for hard trials for anyone to go through, but it is particularly painful for the lone father of an innocent boy, and it’s especially hard for the boy. It’s a good film worthy of a watch, you just need to keep in mind that it’s just a movie or you’ll risk an empathy overdose.
Oh sweet, bleak, bleakness. Melancholia is a beautifully, heartbreakingly bizarre film released in 2011, directed by Lars von Trier and starring Kirsten Dunst. On its surface, the film is about two sisters, one who is about to get married, and their families. Beneath the surface, a massive rogue planet named Melancholia is on a doomed trajectory set to collide with Earth. The bride-to-be, who seems to be aware of all this before anyone else, calls off the wedding and waits weirdly for the world’s impending doom.
Two things make this film so crazy difficult to swallow. For one, you can see the planet coming toward Earth, getting incrementally closer every time its shown. Also, there’s one really off-putting scene where Kirsten Dunst’s character is explaining that nothing happens after we die, and Earth is the only place in the universe where life has been generated. And now, Melancholia’s coming to wipe it all away. Oh, great.
8 Funny Games
Home invasions are never funny, which brings the title of this film to question. Anyway, Funny Games is a psychological horror film released in 2007 and written and directed by Michael Haneke. The film revolves around a family (comprising of a wife, husband, their son and their dog) who arrive at their lake house for some wind-town time, only to be taken hostage by two overwhelmingly creepy brothers. The brothers, who we assume are just undergoing another day at the office, proceed to play a series of games with the family, thus the title.
Despite the title (unless you’re a murdering psychopath), this film is not exactly fun and games. It’s a love letter to sheer violence, pure horror and murderous psychopathy. It toys with your totally human sense of hope and perseverance, only to extinguish it completely at every curve. You’ll want to hug your family and dog after watching this one.
Ahh, Bambi. It was such a smoothy, easy, happy watch, right up until it wasn’t. Initially released in 1942 (having several re-releases throughout the following decades) Bambi is Disney’s fifth feature-length release. The film basically puts an imaginative eye to the on-goings of the deep woods, where a fawn (Bambi) is learning how to survive and socialize in the wild.
Countless, nameless beauties occur in nature; same goes for tragedies, too. Of course, the tragedy we’re talking about here is Bambi’s poor, sweet doe mother being shot to death by a hunter right in front of her son’s eyes. For many of us, watching the film as kids, this was a key step to developing our theory of mind: our first introduction to death as an unforeseeable and incredibly painful thing. Oh poor, sweet Bambi’s mom! Bambi soldiered past the trauma, as did we, but still… that s*** stung.
6 Dragon Ball Evolution
This one’s just painful in every sense in the word for all moviegoers, especially fans of the Dragon Ball manga and anime, a.k.a. the greatest story ever told. Released in 2009 and directed by James Wong, Dragon Ball Evolution is an American adventure fantasy monstrosity loosely based on the original Dragon Ball series. Featuring the angsty teenager from War of the Worlds as our hero and friend Goku, and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Piccolo, the film centers on a horrifically modernized Goku who tries to stop the evil Namekian from taking over the world.
To those who never experienced the original Dragon Ball series, this film is simply an 84 minute cheese-blasted yawn and a total waste of $57.5 million that could have otherwise gone to feeding hungry mouths. To fans of the series, this is a heavy, steel-toed kick to the cojones. We finally got our big budget live-action DB film, and all they did was take the characters’ names and recycle parts of the original story to make a nonsensical B-movie monstrosity. It’s really lame, really mean and incredibly painful.
Released in 1997, Gummo is an American art drama film penned and directed by Harmony Korine. Widely known for its graphic content, the film features a wandering narrative which focuses on several characters in different settings who find strange ways to pass their time in a small Midwestern American town that had recently been struck by a huge tornado.
Being comprised of several odd vignettes that stitch together to from the feature film, there are several sequences in Gummo that host their fair share of awkward. The one that sticks out most for us, however, is the scene in which a strange looking young boy is sitting in murky bath water, gobbling down a plate of spaghetti. That alone would have been off-putting enough, but then his mother comes into the bathroom and hands him a chocolate bar for dessert. The boy drops it in the dirty bath water, fishes it out and eats it anyway. Ew.
4 Django Unchained
Throughout his career as a director, Quentin Tarantino has been known to feature themes and scenes that disturb rather than delight, and Django Unchained is no different. Released in 2012 and set in the American West in 1858, Django Unchained is a spaghetti western in which a freed slave (Django, played by Jamie Foxx) teams up with a bounty hunter and proceeds to kick all assortments of slave-owning, racist hoochie.
Because the film centers on justice being served, its overall effect is much more satisfying than it is cringey. However, much like 12 Years a Slave, it showcases certain elements of slave life that we don’t come across too often in modern life. Unlike 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained’s tone is consistently lighter and more comical. Though, strangely, this doesn’t remove from the impact of some of the film’s violent scenes. The scene where a slave is eaten alive by dogs is particularly hard on the eyes, as is the mandingo fight wherein two slaves fight to the death merely for the sake of staying alive to fight another day.
3 Pulp Fiction
How could we not include Pulp Fiction in this list? Quentin Tarantino’s second feature length film is his magnum opus, and is perhaps more responsible than any other film for bringing stylish cinematic pain and abrasion to the mainstream. Released in 1994 to widespread critical acclaim, Pulp Fiction paints a picture of gritty urban gang life through its wandering narrative that flows from two hitmen on a job, a boxer on the run from the gangster he betrayed, and two low-life thieves robbing a cafe.
Stylish though it may be, one of the factors in Pulp Fiction’s appeal is how openly it welcomes the concepts of gore and cringe. The pawn shop scene in particular is one hell of an eye-gape. In it we see Marcellus Lawrence, one of the most feared gangsters in Los Angeles, being mercilessly sexually assaulted by a hillbilly cop, all while a man in a leather bondage suit laughs like a maniac.
2 Under The Skin
A truly refreshing experiment in film, Under the Skin is a sci-fi released in 2013, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson. The film centres on a crazy sexy extraterrestrial babe (played by Johansson, obviously) who seduces and traps unsuspecting men in Scotland.
The film is eerie throughout, with the mysterious babe being completely merciless in her selection of innocent men. However, what lands Under the Skin on this list is one particular scene filmed on a white, sunny beach. The alien has her eye on a family of four, consisting of a man, woman, baby and dog. The dog is picked up by the tide and brought several metres past the shore. Upon seeing this, the woman swims after the dog, desperate to get it back. But the dog is too far gone, and the woman realizes this far too late before trying to make her way back to shore. With the dog already drowned and the husband on her way to save his wife, the woman is now fighting the same losing battle the dog was. She drowns before the husband can get to her. What happens to the husband? You guessed it — drowned. The baby is left crying on shore, completely alone, with the alien standing over the shoulder. It’s enough to make anyone gulp audibly.
1 Pokémon: The First Movie
Released in 1998, Pokémon: The First Movie was the first theatrical Pokémon film and the final gust of wind of the franchise’s epic first generation. It centres around the origin story of Mewtwo, the world’s most powerful Pokémon, and his subsequent attempt to seek revenge against humanity for how (in his view) they have enslaved all the world’s Pokémon.
Pokémon: The First Movie is a glorious viewing experience for anyone, and is mostly difficulty-free in its watching. Just a bunch of Pokémon and Pokémon battling, right? Right, up until that faithful scene near the end where Ash is caught between the psychic blasts of Mew and Mewtwo, and is petrified into stone. That… that was a tough one. We, being of the Y chromosome, had to choke back tears for our pride’s sake.
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