Written by: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson
Released in: 2003
School shootings have been a touchy subject since Columbine in 1999, so the idea to create an extensively realistic, multi-angled look at a normal school day disrupted by two vengeful teens while supposedly taking direct inspiration from the Colorado tragedy could have been a prime target for public outrage. Fortunately, Van Sant handles the subject matter with such great care and finesse that it elevates Elephant above simple controversial filmmaking into a spectacular minimalist experience. The impassive camera shows us each event in the same clinical manner, choosing not to condemn or promote but to display, whether examining a girl jogging around a soccer field trying to catch up with her gym class or bullets tearing through the school library where she works to escape her social problems.
Written by: Richard Matheson
Starring: Dennis Weaver
Released in: 1971
A TV-only movie where a traveler on a long drive notices a truck following him a little too far, Spielberg’s first work as director stretches the tension across its entire duration through terrified looks in rearview mirrors, diner scenes with mysterious patrons, and dirty shrubs zipping past the seemingly unending road. Watching the story unfold creates the feeling of being a passenger riding alongside the traveler in his car, given as little information about our pursuer as he is. The simplicity of the setup gives Spielberg the room to build a crushingly uncomfortable atmosphere around the primal fear of being hunted.
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford
Released in: 1974
Coming two years after the Watergate scandal, Coppola strings together the themes of wiretapping and paranoia felt by the entire nation through Gene Hackman's character of reclusive "master tapper" Harry Caul, whose frequent slipups make us question just how much of his praise is deserved. The recorded exchange during a public eavesdropping causes such a moral conflict for Caul that he finds himself constantly daydreaming of the surveyed couple, unable to cope with his inability to influence the coming events despite having created the catalyst for them. When his obsession turns him to action, we feel as helpless as him trying to navigate the polished corporate boardrooms, the grimy hotel suites, and eventually his own stifling apartment.
Written by: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves
Released in: 2013
One man's grudge, spawned from a decade old familial conflict where bloodlines have determined sides and pride is set before reason, provides the driving force for this sophomore film from Saulnier, whose Kickstarter origins allow him plenty of freedom to create his unique take on the corpse-laden revenge story. The conflict our "hero" (he often resembles a spineless office worker dragged into his first hunting trip) Dwight involves himself in is one of exceptional ugliness and brutality, and Saulnier has the intelligence to keep the violence contained inside the frame of the two rival families. While every scene is shot beautifully, the opening third deserves a special amount of praise, particularly the nights Dwight spends on and around his beach, when bright boardwalk rides are misplaced by his hunched figure digging through trash bags for half-finished burger stand orders.
You can also check out Carter Sigl's review of Blue Ruin from its release at the Boston Underground Film Festival 2014.
There Will Be Blood
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson and Upton Sinclair
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillion Freasier
Released in: 2007
The thing I love most about all these movies is their simplistic approach with how contained their stories feel, focusing on a single character's struggle or the interactions of a small cast. On the surface level, There Will Be Blood is about the conflict between oil prospector Daniel Plainview and local preacher Eli Sunday, but in Plainview's mind, the battle never even started: he's always been on top. While Sunday hides behind the guise of holiness to trick his audience into some form of trust, Plainview leaves his ambitions naked for all to fear. Paul Thomas Anderson's orchestration of the madness that unfolds between the two leads to an ending sequence of such shocking and disturbing nature that it serves as the perfect completion to the whole twisted affair.