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15 Hardest Movies To Watch More Than Once


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Summary

  • Some great movies are too emotionally draining to watch more than once, whether due to heavy themes or disturbing scenes.
  • Different people have different tastes in movies, and what may be disturbing for some is mundane for others.
  • Even if a movie is not a comfort movie, it can still be worthwhile and impactful in its own way.

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Even great movies can be difficult to watch more than once. Some movies discuss such heavy themes that, despite their brilliance, they can be too emotionally draining to endure a second time. In other cases, a horror movie can be too effective and disturbing, or a thriller ratchets the tension up to unbearable levels. Whatever the reason, not every great movie can become a comfort movie, but that doesn’t make them any less worthwhile.

Different people have different tastes when it comes to movies, and what some find disturbing, others might find mundane. Usually, movies that people return to again and again inspire positive emotions, but this isn’t always the case. Even a reliable tearjerker can be enjoyed many times, because they facilitate a kind of cathartic release. But when a movie goes for a more downbeat tone, a constant drone of sadness as opposed to a climactic burst, it can join the ranks of excellent movies that should only be seen once.

15 American History X (1998)

Dir. Tony Kaye

Edward Norton curb stomp scene in American History X

The world of American History X is populated by tribal groups split by ethnicity. It is not just the violent skinheads adorned with Nazi tattoos, but there is an overt racial fault line running through Los Angeles that reflects the darkest periods of human history. While the vile faux-academic hatred is repulsive, one scene in particular throws a more ferocious gut punch. Edward Norton’s Derek attacks a group of black men, grinding a man’s teeth into the curb. It’s an instinctively disgusting scene that jars with the rest of the movie in such a way that it becomes unforgettable.

14 Manchester By The Sea (2016)

Dir. Kenneth Lonergan

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester By the Sea presents a grim philosophy of the irreparable injustices of modern life. Casey Affleck plays Lee, a working-class custodian who must care for his nephew after his brother dies. On the surface, this seems like the first act of an uplifting narrative about familial resilience, but Manchester By the Sea makes no attempt at a saccharine Hollywood ending. The lack of redemption colors ordinary scenes in a new light. Plenty of movies feature a conversation in a hospital where a man receives some bad news, but they are rarely as profound and hopeless.

13 The Machinist (2004)

Dir. Brad Anderson

Christian Bale in The Machinist.

There’s a deep-seated human sense of unease that creeps in when people see physical manifestations of severe illness. It’s a survival instinct to avoid infection, and Christian Bale’s unbelievable transformation for The Machinist inspires the same reaction. Beyond the hollow physicality of Bale, however, The Machinist holds many more uncomfortable surprises. There’s a detached coolness to the color palette, which deepens the impact of the occasional crimson smear of blood, such as when a man loses his entire forearm in an industrial mishap.

12 The Whale (2022)

Dir. Darren Aronofsky

Charlie crying as he looks at his friend in The Whale

The Whale deals with fatphobia and social isolation, but it’s also a meditation on grief and generational trauma.

The Whale‘s controversial portrayal of morbid obesity makes it an extremely uncomfortable watch for many people. Brendan Fraser won an Oscar for his transformative performance as Charlie, a reclusive English teacher, but the movie’s dark subject and melancholic tone contribute to an overbearingly depressing atmosphere. The Whale deals with fatphobia and social isolation, but it’s also a meditation on grief and generational trauma, as Charlie grapples with the emotional fallout of his partner’s recent suicide.

11 Schindler’s List (1993)

Dir. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s gut-wrenching Holocaust drama tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, who worked tirelessly to save Jewish people from the Nazis. Spielberg has earned a reputation as a masterful entertainer, but Schindler’s List strips away all of his characteristic magic and leaves behind a bleak portrait of industrialized human cruelty. Based on a true story, Schindler’s List reveals the dark heart of the Holocaust in staggering detail. Although it’s not a horror movie, Schindler’s List is just as viscerally upsetting, even if there is hope for the endurance of the human spirit.

10 The Revenant (2015)

Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu

The Arikara tribe attack the trappers in The Revenant.

Iñárritu’s use of long takes creates a disturbingly immersive experience from which there is no escape.

Like Schindler’s List, Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant tells a true story with far more brutality than most fiction could muster. From the opening scene where Hugh Glass and his company of fur trappers are attacked by a hatchet-wielding tribe, The Revenant spirals like a never-ending nightmare. Iñárritu’s use of long takes creates a disturbingly immersive experience from which there is neither escape nor respite. Leonardo DiCaprio is outstanding as Glass, who fights desperately to survive in the ferocious wilderness.

9 The Passion Of The Christ (2004)

Dir. Mel Gibson

A bloodied Jesus looks on in The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson’s controversial biblical epic makes for tough viewing, even for those without a connection to Christianity. Gibson takes inspiration from his own faith to portray the last days of Jesus’ life with an intense rage and the sentiment of injustice. Jim Caviezel plays the role of Jesus as a stoic martyr, but even the son of God is eventually broken down by the explicit lashings inflicted upon him. Even if the religious context is sidelined, Gibson’s gratuitous use of prosthetics and blood highlights the extreme pain of the public execution.

8 The Farewell (2019)

Dir. Lulu Wang

Awkwafina as Billy Wang in The Farewell

In a touching tale of grief and duty, a Chinese family conceal a grandmother’s terminal diagnosis from her, deciding instead to let her live out her final days in peace. Awkwafina is excellent as Billi in this culture-clash drama. Her natural comedic flair manages to temper the moribund tone to a certain degree, but the creeping threat of death touches every corner of The Farewell. It’s an outstanding portrait of a family that deserves widespread attention, but its personal touches hit very close to home, especially for anyone with a particularly close relationship to their grandparents.

7 Inside (2023)

Dir. Vasilis Katsoupis

Willem Dafoe sitting at a table in Inside

Willem Dafoe plays Nemo, a thief who gets trapped inside a luxury apartment and abandoned by his crew, but Inside lacks all the madcap fun that is usually associated with the heist genre. Despite his seemingly comfortable surroundings, Nemo struggles with hunger, dehydration, extreme temperature fluctuations, and social isolation. As these factors mount and the pressure to escape rises, Dafoe’s features grow increasingly gaunt and withered, reflecting his character’s tortured mental state. There are moments when his skin looks ready to slough off of his face, which fills the entire frame in extreme high definition.

6 Annihilation (2018)

Dir. Alex Garland

The scientists enter The Shimmer in Annihilation

As a group of scientists venture deeper into the heart of a supernatural anomaly, the sinister forces around them close in. The dark mystery of Annihilation makes it extremely hard to pin down, but there is a pervasive sense of unease which colors every twisted development. Annihilation splices sci-fi body horror with a more existential, psychological horror, resulting in a disquiet that is hard to shake. There are shocking images, especially the mutated bear mimicking human voices, but the overall discordant feeling of the entire movie is even more memorable.

5 Dunkirk (2017)

Dir. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s movies are all deserving of multiple viewings, but Dunkirk could be more difficult than most. The story of the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 switches perspectives between land, sea and air, giving a broad overview of the operation. Grounded by some terrific performances, Dunkirk hums with unbearable tension. The German soldiers never get much focus, but their shadowy presence looms large, and Nolan hints at the psychological desperation of his characters just enough to suggest that everything could erupt into bloodshed at any moment.

4 Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)

Dir. Isao Takahata

A boy and a young girl in surrounded by fireflies in Grave Of The Fireflies

Based on a semi-autobiographical book, Grave of the Fireflies follows two siblings during the final weeks of the Second World War. It’s an unflinching anti-war story, with minute details that lend an extremely personal touch to a global catastrophe. The first scene shows the fate of the two siblings, and yet the movie still manages to garner intense sympathy for them, as they carve out tender moments of solidarity amid the rubble of their former lives. Grave of the Fireflies avoids the front lines of battle, but it shows that conditions on the home front can be just as bleak.

3 Eraserhead (1977)

Dir. David Lynch

Image of Jack Nance as Eraserhead leaning over something in Eraserhead 1977

Analyzing the disturbing visuals is just one way of coping with the experience, which drifts in and out of stark realism, occasionally meandering into the bizarre.

David Lynch’s surreal nightmare Eraserhead follows a man, sometimes in disturbing close-up, as he tries to care for a deformed baby which constantly cries. Attempts at decoding the true meaning of Eraserhead can be incredibly frustrating. Analyzing the disturbing visuals is just one way of coping with the experience, which drifts in and out of stark realism, occasionally meandering into the bizarre. Eraserhead has the rare power to inspire deep, primal emotions in its audience, but these emotions are most accurately labeled as trepidation and confusion.

2 Uncut Gems (2019)

Dir. Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie

Adam Sandler delivers a remarkable dramatic performance as Howard, the jeweler and gambling addict who becomes his own worst enemy. Over the course of a few days, Howard walks a tightrope over a deadly chasm, harangued on all sides by loan sharks and bookmakers. The Safdie brothers create an extremely claustrophobic and nerve-wracking environment. Everyone except Howard knows that he is doomed if he keeps repeating the same behavioral patterns, but his addiction defies all appeals to logic.

1 Midsommar (2019)

Dir. Ari Aster

Dani (Florence Pugh) dressed in flowers as the May Queen, frowning, in Midsommar

A movie which uses its dream-like aesthetic to conceal far more sinister powers.

The eerie beauty of Midsommar‘s setting is a red herring, meant to distract from the underlying sickness of the Swedish pagan cult. This mischievous deception runs to the very core of Midsommar, a movie which uses its dream-like aesthetic to conceal far more sinister powers, culminating in a sickening finale. It’s a slow burn, but director Ari Aster escalates the tension with a steady, confident hand. It’s hard to escape from his spell, but returning to witness the brutal sacrifices again is even harder.

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