These 10 movies shook-up cinema in the Prairie Dog era

25 Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

I’ve been reviewing movies for Prairie Dog for about 15 years. It’s a rewarding gig, particularly when someone approaches me after a movie and asks “how many prairie dogs”? (most of the time: three.) I’ve also enjoyed triggering right-wing extremists by panning jingoistic garbage like Lone Survivor (although those “go write about some lame-ass low-budget movie that attracts all the weirdos” retorts hit home).

But my favorite part of the job is discovering a film worth raising awareness about.

Bound to annoy some purists, this list of 10 films that changed cinema in the last 25 years doesn’t include obvious choices like Fight Club, The Blair Witch Project or Get Out. I picked films whose influence is pervasive, but more subtle. They also happen to be damn good films. Except one. Okay, two.

INCEPTION (2010): Perhaps the most obvious title of the list, Christopher Nolan’s best film to date demonstrated complex narratives (like his indie hit Memento) could thrive in a blockbuster setting. Nolan proved this consistently (Interstellar and Dunkirk both break the space-time continuum to make the story more engrossing), and our cinematic experiences are richer because of it.

INSIDE OUT (2015): Even though Pixar doesn’t have a clean sheet anymore (looking at you, Cars. And you, hands-y John Lasseter), the animation giant hit its greatest height just two years ago. Inside Out was the perfect blend of entertainment, emotion and psychoanalysis. Never mind that it’s for children, I’d hard-pressed to think of a more imaginative, ingenious and thorough exploration of the human psyche. Thanks to Inside Out, we learned that kids can be sophisticated moviegoers. In spite of their affection for anthropomorphized, googly-eyed yellow pills.

THE ACT OF KILLING (2012): Ironically for a genre focused on chronicling a changing world, the documentary format itself hasn’t changed much over time (snazzier infographics, maybe?). Director Joshua Oppenheimer captures the tense coexistence between war criminals and their victims in Indonesia by convincing both parties to re-enact heinous acts of violence. The approach lets Oppenheimer capture a different kind of truth — one beyond binary good-evil characterizations. In The Act Of Killing, the torturers are as human as the people they hurt. This movie’s sheer audacity hasn’t been recognized enough.

THE HUNT (2012): Scandinavian films are unquestionably ahead of everyone else when it comes to tackling the social challenges of the new millennium (it doesn’t hurt their target audiences are adults, not 12-year-old boys). The Hunt is emblematic of topical fearlessness: a kindergarten teacher is accused of molesting a child at school. We know from the start that he’s innocent, but the pervasiveness of the narrative makes us doubt what we know. In a time when public opinion is prosecution, judge and jury all at once, any film that honestly asks uncomfortable questions qualifies as ground-breaking.

FRANCES HA (2012): Before Lady Bird there was Frances Ha. The most thorough, compassionate portrayal of the millennial generation yet, Frances Ha makes flying by the seat of your pants look desirable (forces you to live in a community; focuses you on the pursuit of your goals, however impractical they may be). The film doesn’t give the main character a pass — Frances can be maddening — but her complexity makes her captivating. You can only appreciate how good this movie is by watching how other films fail to ‘get’ those slippery millennials.

A SERBIAN FILM (2010): One of the harshest cinematic experiences ever to see the light of day, the unrated version of A Serbian Film stays with you whether you want it to or not. The film crosses several boundaries (necrophilia, incest, child abuse), but it does it artfully. This isn’t porn, it’s cinema re-purposed to defile the audience. The filmmaker’s alleged intent was to bring attention to Serbia’s plight (elites ransacking the country) but the real effect was to open the door to seriously vile content. Gee, thanks.

FUNNY GAMES (1997): Unlike A Serbian Film, Funny Games uses horrific imagery to make a point: we, as an audience, are complicit in the violence permeating our entertainment. The villains, a couple of teens with a nihilistic streak, break the fourth wall to dare us to keep watching, as they inflict pain on a helpless family. Twenty years after Funny Games made us reflect on the consequences of our behavior as consumers, violence remains omnipresent in film and television. The bad guys won.

WALK HARD (2007): The music biopic spoof didn’t exactly set the box office on fire but by exposing the conventions of the subgenre in painful detail it effectively put an end to the formulaic approach that plagued Walk the Line and Ray (father issues, rise, drugs, fall, rehab, reinvention). The effect seems to be fading (see the Tupac-centric All Eyez on Me), but at least the line “the wrong kid died” has been banned for good.

A SEPARATION (2011): For the longest time, the closest we got to understand what it was like to live in contemporary Iran was through Abbas Kiarostami’s lyrical creations: exquisite, but limited. A Separation, a fierce drama in which the dichotomy between tradition and progress tears a family apart, introduced audiences to an Islamic country most couldn’t imagine: awfully close to modern Western civilization. Even though religion is present in Iranians’ daily lives, secularism is strong — a far cry from the picture neoconservatives, Fox News and the alt-right paint of it. A Separation is an inconvenient movie for Trumpism. All the more reason to watch it.

TRAPPED (2002): Four months after my arrival in Canada I got my first Prairie Dog assignment: Reviewing this utterly forgettable Courtney Love film. It had some interesting elements (Love and Kevin Bacon hold a very young Dakota Fanning for ransom), but it was bad enough for me to eviscerate with gusto. Despite a number of ESL malapropisms, my editors decided to stick with me and here I am, still mixing up prepositions every other review. Here’s to 25 more years.