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Some movies demand multiple viewings. They populate our shelves, and we revisit them on Netflix. Some of these movies we know line for line. I, for one, can (probably) recite Clueless, The Big Lebowski, PCU, and Pulp Fiction verbatim. Every time I see Aliens, Heat, or The Fugitive on TV I know I’m going to watch the whole damn thing. The reason these movies are so addictive is that their dialogue is both quotable and smart. The scenes are addictive since one effortlessly transitions into the other (eg we say “Ooh, this is my favorite part” a lot).

While these types are undeniably fun, we experience diminishing marginal returns with them. The fifteenth time I’ve seen Pulp Fiction is probably not as valuable as the fourteenth, and so on. Along similar lines, it’s worth thinking about that demand that we only watch them once. We get the gist right away, and the content is too challenging and/or disturbing to revisit. Nonetheless, the movies in this highly selective list deserve a celebration because replay value is hardly everything.

Wit. In this brutal dramedy, director Mike Nichols and star Emma Thompson adapt Margaret Edison’s play to the small screen. From the get-go, we find out a literature professor named Vivian (Thompson) has an incurable form of cancer. Wit follows her hospital visits until her health deteriorates.

Why I will never watch it again: Nichols and Thompson do not hold back in their depiction of cancer’s inexorable power. Vivian begins with a sharp mind, she does not suffer fools gladly, and by the end she’s in so much pain she can only say one or two words at a time. There is a long scene where Vivian is at her worst and she finds solace when her mentor reads her a children’s book. This is a heartbreaking look at how our bodies influence our minds and vice versa; its lack of sentiment is what makes important and impossible to revisit.

The Piano Teacher. Michael Haneke directs Isabelle Huppert in this psycho-sexual drama about a piano teacher with a seriously disturbed mind. Erika (Huppert) still lives with her mother, and she develops sexual obsession with one of her attractive male students. When another pupil attracts his attention, Erika responds by clandestinely mutilating her.

Why I will never watch it again: Before I begin, you’ll find that some of the filmmakers on this list are consistently challenging. I could have chosen any number of Haneke’s work – 2012’s Amour is a heartbreaking look at how aging redefines a marriage, and Funny Games is intentionally cruel to its audience – but I want to mention The Piano Teacher since its disturbing scenes are not without purpose. Unlike Funny Games or Code Unknown, which can sometimes feel like a sick joke, The Piano Teacher works because of Huppert’s tightly-wound performance. Sure, there are multiple scenes of sexual humiliation and the most wince-inducing shriek of pain I’ve ever heard on film, but it works because Huppert forces us to understand why Erika behaves the way she does.

The War Zone. Tim Roth directs this drama where scenes of isolated domestic tranquility give way to raw pain and unflinching violence. Ray Winstone and Tilda Swinton star as parents who live the bohemian live in the English countryside; they’re raising their two children in an open environment, one where casual nudity is no big deal. Through Roth’s steady direction, we come to see how this family shares a dark secret and how others to choose to ignore it through cognitive dissonance.

Why I will never watch it again: Roth is just too fucking relentless. He does not shy away from the implications of his premise, and blunt dialogue punctuates the final scenes so that there’s no way to forget them. There’s an infamous story where Roth screened his film at a festival, and someone in the audience responded so viscerally to the subject matter they had a nervous breakdown in the lobby (Roth was there to offer consolation). The War Zone is that kind of movie.

Capturing the Friedmans. The title of this disturbing documentary is twofold: through hours and hours of home movies, director Andrew Jarecki is able to show idyllic family life in a New Jersey suburbs. The title also refers to a protracted legal battle: two of the Friedmans, father and son, are arrested for sexual abuse of underage boys. The documentary is an attempt to get through the thorny mess of a broken family and an imperfect legal system.

Why I will never watch it again: Jarecki’s subject matter is just too difficult. There are no winners here: all the Friedmans are left reeling from the court case, and the two accused end up in jail. The documentary has been controversial since its initial release: victims have come out of the woodwork to say what the movie gets wrong, one way or another. Accuracy is not the point here. Instead, Jarecki shows us that the truth is subjective, and we’ll never know exactly what happened.


Sansho the Baliff. This dark Japanese drama from 1954 follows an exiled family until we understand the full extent of their suffering. A mother, her two children, and a slave must leave their home after the father disgraces themselves. They’re on their way to salvation, at least until Sansho captures them and forces the family to live in slavery. Director Kenji Mizoguchi then fast-forwards ten years, and it’s disturbing how bondage affects these ordinary, happy people.

Why I will never watch it again: Mizoguchi is deliberate filmmaker, one whose classical style makes it that much easier to understand what befalls his characters. There is no modern clutter or complexity to disguise the drama: there’s only raw emotion and simple storytelling. That is why I refuse to revisit a villain like Sansho. He’s a sadist and a bully, and the innocence of the family only deepens his grotesque nature. There is a scene late in Sansho the Baliff where we see some simple ripples in the water. It’s a haunting image, one that offers relief in most tragic way possible.


Antichrist. Like Haneke, I could choose any film directed by Lars Von Trier and it’d be appropriate for this list. This one focuses on a couple – Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg – as he tries to cure her of a mental affliction. They go to a cabin in the woods to convalesce, yet nature is a catalyst for some truly haunting imagery and a psychotic break. Both characters undergo physical and psychic trauma, and Von Trier’s camera never flinches away from how they harm each other.

Why I will never watch it again: This one is a no-brainer: any on-screen sexual mutilation is too much for me. That being said, the possessed and/or talking fox is kind of hilarious.

Jacob’s Ladder. Before Unfaithful and Indecent Proposal, Adrian Lyne’s horror masterpiece demonstrates an uncommon command of imagery, and how it can inspire raw terror. Jacob (Tim Robbins) is a brilliant Vietnam veteran who now works as a postal worker. Horrible nightmares haunt him: when he visits an overstimulating night club, the dancers weirdly transform into otherworldly reptiles. He thinks these hallucinations involve some secret from his military service, and they grow more frightening as he gets closer to the truth.

Why I will never watch this again: Some horror is fun to revisit: I love Dawn of the Dead, for example, because it also doubles as a well-made action film. Jacob’s Ladder, on the other hand, is relentless and bleak. There are no confident heroes, only wounded victims who mostly fail to understand the source of their psychosis. There are nightmare sequences where it’s as if Lyne lifts directly from his own dreams: the imagery is not specific, and the blunt otherworldliness of it all is deeply disturbing. There’s a resolution of sorts, yet it’s a paltry offering given what Jacob endures.


The Shape of Things. Like Michael Haneke, Neil Labute is the sort of filmmaker who relishes discomfort in his audience. His debut, In the Company of Men, is the only movie I know of that’s rated R for emotional cruelty. His follow-up Your Friends and Neighbors is a pitiless critique of racial and economic privilege. But I want to focus on The Shape of Things, the dark comedy starring Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd, because of the implications of its premise. This one skewers modern art and modern romance, leaving the audience to question basic assumptions in their lives.

Why I will never watch this again: Without giving anything away, let’s just say the movie revolves around a cruel joke. The beginnings of the joke are in the first scene of the movie, and its repercussions can be felt all the way up to the final line. It’s heartbreaking to watch because it unearths feelings on inadequacy, naiveté, and guilt. There’s no disturbing imagery, exactly, yet it’s cringe-worthy when we understand the haunting implications of its premise.

Requiem for a Dream. The last one on this list is usually the entry point to disturbing cinema. Based on the novel by Hubert Selby, Darren Aronofsky’s second film is about four New Yorkers and their descent to hell. Drugs are at the root of the problem, whether it’s heroin or diet pills. Aronofsky films with endless precision and stylistic flourishes: there are speed-ups, slowdowns, hallucinations, montages, and split-screens throughout. This is one of the first serious films where the music video format was a clear influence.

Why I will never watch it again: Actually, you know what? I have watched Requiem multiple times, and it’s totally worth the revisit. The first viewing feels like a visual assault: Aronfsky’s brutal kitchen sink approach leaves us reeling. But if you steel yourself mentally, Requiem practically demands a second viewing (at least) so you can see just how the director is able to manipulate his audience. It’s masterful filmmaking, and the difficult final act should not serve as a deterrent. That being said, you’re totally excused if you want to skip over the part where we see Jared Leto’s gangrenous forearm. Just thinking about it makes me throw up in my mouth a little.

So there’s my list of movies you need’t watch more than once. Got any that you think deserve mention? Are you pissed I glossed over Noe, Bergman, and Tarkovsky? Let me know in the comments!