“Joker” did its job at the movie theaters, setting a box-office record for an October opening with $93 million in ticket sales – quite robust for an R-rated comic book spinoff. The origin story also lit a bonfire of critical division and controversy as it portrays Batman’s eventual arch-nemesis, Arthur Fleck, as a product of constant abuse in a rotting city that offers no safe haven for this human punching bag. No wonder during one break in what turns into a killing spree, he empties his refrigerator and hides in it.
As this emotional mess of a madman, Joaquin Phoenix invests his whole being while transforming into a wafer-thin damaged soul who just wants to make people laugh. He is like one of those wind-sock characters desperately beckoning customers who aren’t buying. Instead, the Clown Prince of Crime becomes a walking kick-me sign until he can’t take it anymore and fights back with horrifying violence and bloody chaos. After wowing the crowd at the Venice film festival and winning its Golden Lion award, the Todd Phillips-directed movie quickly took a dive in its Rotten Tomatoes score that currently stands at 69% positive.
I girded myself to see what Richard Brody of New Yorker deemed as “a movie of a cynicism so vast and pervasive as to render the viewing experience even emptier that its slapdash aesthetic does.” But instead of being repelled, I was drawn by Phoenix’s perverse homicidal poetry in the role. He is nearly constantly on screen, often dancing and performing in an attempt to entertain while often failing.
Phoenix, who is way overdue for an acting Oscar having been nominated three times previously, is likely to compete again as a lead. As for “Joker” making the cut for Best Picture, it currently squeaks by in Gold Derby’s combined prediction odds at No. 10, while Phoenix is currently tied with Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”) for the top Best Actor spot.
Something clicked in my mind at some point and I realized I was watching a 21st-century cousin of Malcolm McDowell‘s thuggish antisocial Alex from “A Clockwork Orange,” a then-X-rated film that similarly drew similar criticism for its so-called “ultra-violence.” As for the outrage, ennui and disregard for “Joker” and its outbursts of slaughter, it got me thinking of Best Picture winners and contenders through the decades that trafficked in and exploited violence and transgressive behavior, starting in the late ’60s. Here are 22 Academy Award-nominated titles that took carnage and shocking imagery to the next level.
BONNIE AND CLYDE ( 1967)
This Depression-era biographical crime drama starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as bank-robbing lovers turned folk heroes that broke many Hollywood taboos, mostly involving depictions of violence and sex. I still remember flinching when Estelle Parsons as Clyde’s flighty sister-in-law got shot in the eye. At least she won a supporting Oscar for her troubles. But it was the law enforcement’s final ambush of Bonnie and Clyde, described as “one of the bloodiest death scenes in cinematic history,” that lingers long after the credits roll as bullets pummel and tear into their bodies as if they were rag dolls.
MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)
The first X-rated film to be nominated, and only one to win Best Picture, is about Texas gigolo Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and his con man buddy Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) as they try to survive on the mean streets of a rather rotten Big Apple. There are some sexually explicit moments but the scene that proves the hardest to watch is when a desperate Joe picks up a gay man (Barnard Hughes) at an arcade and violently attacks him in a hotel room, possibly killing him, and takes his money so he and the sickly Ratso can travel by bus to Miami.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick unleashed a torrent of brutal acts often accompanied with the backdrop of classical music — primarily Beethoven — in this dystopian crime film set in a near-future Britain. The movie focuses on a small gang of four white-suited thugs with bowler hats led by Alex (McDowell) who engage in crime sprees including skirmishes with rival gangs, break-ins and rape. The most horrifying scene is when the quartet go to the home of a rich writer, beating him until he is crippled, while Alex rapes his wife as he sings and dances to “Singin’ in the Rain.” Later, Alex then goes solo as he enters the home of a wealthy cat lady and attacks her with a large phallic statue — an act that leaves his victim dead. The film led to acts committed by teen males in the United Kingdom that seemed to be copycat crimes.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
The same year that “Clockwork Orange” was released, this fact-based gritty crime thriller directed by William Friedkin and starring Gene Hackman as narcotics detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle won for Best Picture, director, lead actor, adapted screenplay and editing. Its most notable sequence is a dangerous chase between an elevated runaway train and a recklessly speeding car on the streets of Brooklyn as Doyle and his partner (Roy Scheider) borrow a bystander’s vehicle to chase down a hitman, who Doyle shoots in the back. Some critics called out how Doyle, an early anti-hero, beats up petty crooks that he happens upon in alleys and bars before he arrests them. The movie was the first R-rated film and first action movie to win Oscar’s top prize.
No one who has seen director John Boorman‘s nightmarish outdoorsy jaunt shared by four pals from Atlanta as they traverse the Georgia wilderness by canoe probably isn’t haunted by that one scene: When Ned Beatty‘s Bobby and Ronny Cox‘s Ed are held hostage by a pair of mountain men with a shotgun who force them into the woods. Ed is tied to a tree and Bobby is ordered to strip naked while one of the men sodomizes him while demanding that he squeals like a pig. Their fellow travelers Lewis (Burt Reynolds) and Ed (Jon Voight) show up and ace archer Lewis kills the rapist with his bow and arrow — but the dangers don’t end there.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
This supernatural tale about a young girl (Linda Blair) who becomes possessed by the devil, directed by William Friedkin, became the first-ever horror film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It was infamous for its ability to produce strong physical reactions in moviegoers, some fainting or vomiting at the sight of Blair’s 12-year-old Regan masturbating with a bloody crucifix, spewing green slime and undergoing invasive and painful medical tests. There were even reports of heart attacks and miscarriages while a psychiatric journal wrote about the “cinematic neurosis” caused by the film.
Who doesn’t know someone who is afraid to swim in the ocean because of Steven Spielberg‘s ode to a humongous great white shark who snacks on beachgoers in a New England resort town? Much of the heavy lifting to put audiences on edge is due to the ominous score by John Williams that begins to speed up whenever the fishy beast is about to attack. While the mechanical shark known as Bruce often malfunctioned, somehow just the sight of a fin was enough to get moviegoers squirming in their seats. The unlikely team of heroes in the guise of Roy Scheider’s police chief, Richard Dreyfuss‘s marine biologist and Robert Shaw‘s professional shark hunter humanize matters as they put their lives on the line.
TAXI DRIVER (1976)
Martin Scorsese’s vigilante thriller “Taxi Driver”– his first Best Picture nominee — as well as his “King of Comedy” very much informs “Joker,” what with Robert De Niro playing a TV talk-show host a la Jerry Lewis and Phoenix’s Arthur as his adoring fan. His New York cabbie Travis Bickle’s mind begins to be affected by the decaying and morally bankrupt big city that surrounds him. Rejected by Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign volunteer for a presidential candidate, after he takes her to a porn film, he turns into a crazed gunman after he buys four weapons illegally. He plans to assassinate the candidate at a rally but is forced to leave without success. But instead, he decides to take a 12-year-old child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) away from her pimp (Harvey Keitel) backed by plenty of rounds of ammunition and much bloodshed. He then is declared a hero by the media.
THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
This Best Picture winner about steelworkers and their experiences as soldiers during the Vietnam War had a harrowing scene with Christopher Walken‘s POW character –which won him a supporting Oscar — shooting himself in the head during a game of Russian roulette and having co-star Robert De Niro cradle his head. The sequences were criticized for portraying the North Vietnamese as sadists, racists and killers. Director Michael Cimino insisted that he had news clippings that verified the use of Russian roulette during the war.
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978)
Based on a true story directed by Alan Parker is about an American college student (Brad Davis) who brings hashish onto a plane heading to the U.S. and is stopped by Turkish police in Istanbul who are on alert for terrorist attacks. That’s just the beginning of a legal nightmare that lands him first in a local jail where he is brutally beaten and then moved to a bigger prison among other Western prisoners being held on various charges. Subjected to mental and physical torture, he eventually engages in a terrifying escape across the border to Greece. The film was criticized for being “anti-Turkish” and for its one-dimensional portraits of its citizens.
Filmmaker Oliver Stone‘s Best Picture winner relied on his own experiences as a veteran of the Vietnam War for a you-are-there battle film that stars Tom Berenger as Barnes and Willem Dafoe as Elias, two sergeants – one cynical and bitter, one good-hearted and empathetic– who struggle for the soul of Charlie Sheen‘s infantryman Taylor. While on patrol, American troops led by Barnes kill and rape the villagers. Barnes, afraid of a court martial, shoots Elias and lies about it. Eventually, Taylor fights to save his fellow soldiers as he pursues the enemy and fulfills Barnes’ request to be killed after he is mortally wounded.
FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)
I wish that someone did a survey of family men who vowed never to stray from their wife and family after watching this quite effective psychological thriller about the weekend tryst from hell. Michael Douglas as Dan, who stood in for Everyman in the ’80s quite nicely, and Glenn Close as Alex, who proved to be quite capable of steaming up the screen, made this one heck of a morality tale. Two scenes that push the violence quotient stand out. The boiling of a pet rabbit owned by Dan’s sweet daughter for one. And the climax with Dan’s wife Beth (Anne Archer) preparing to take a bath and Alex showing up with a knife. Dan pushes Alex underwater but she emerges while swinging her weapon. Suddenly, she is shot by Beth who uses Dan’s gun. Adrian Lyne is one of the few directors who knows how to film sex on screen — both the erotic type and the scary kind.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
There are more than a few chilling moments in this psychological horror thriller and Best Picture winner directed by Jonathan Demme, which balances creep-outs with a feminist through-line in which Jodie Foster’s novice FBI agent Clarice Starling is underestimated by almost every male on screen save for Anthony Hopkins as the monstrous Hannibal Lecter. The scenes that always get me is when Clarice finds the severed head in a storage unit. Then there is crazy-eyed Ted Levine‘s Buffalo Bill as he tortures a senator’s daughter by keeping her in a well in his basement and the “woman suit” that he stitches together from human skin. The showdown between him and Clarice as he uses night-vision goggles is as tense as they come. Yes, some members of the LGBT community didn’t like how Buffalo Bill was portrayed while women rights advocate Betty Friedan was outraged by the villain’s habit of skinning alive his female victims. But there is no denying this is primo scare fare.
PULP FICTION (1995)
There is one scene in Quentin Tarantino‘s first Best Picture candidate where John Travolta‘s hitman Vincent Vega goes to the bathroom as he babysits Uma Thurman‘s Mia Wallace, the wife of Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), the crime boss he works for. Unfortunately, he leaves behind his heroin, which Mia snorts, thinking that it is cocaine. He then rushes her to his drug dealer, who revives her by shooting adrenalin into her heart and she awakes with a horrifying gasp. That is when I knew some line had been crossed. Oh, then there’s “the gimp,” a being in a bondage suit who babysits the captive Marsellus who is about to be raped. He is saved when Butch the boxer (Bruce Willis), who double-crossed him, snatches a Japanese sword to use on one of their captors and they both escape.
Mel Gibson might not be a subtle filmmaker, but he is an effective one. As the director, producer and star of this war epic about 13th-century Scottish warrior William Wallace, he ensures there is rape, pillaging, severed heads and all matter of medieval bloodshed as he and his followers rebel against England’s King Edward (Patrick McGoohan) by engaging in guerrilla warfare. But just to boost his character’s heroic sacrifice, he has Wallace undergo a torturous demise that involves being hanged, drawn and quartered and then beheaded. Before he is dealt a final blow, Wallace is told he will be spared if he utters the word, “Mercy.” Instead, he says, “Freedom!” And that is the end of that.
The Coen brothers, never shy about on-screen violence, collected their first Best Picture nod with this twisted dark crime comedy whose ever flowing trail of blood is used as a source of laughs and gasps as a pregnant Minnesota police chief (Frances McDormand) investigates several roadside homicides that occur after a car salesman (William Massey) hires two inept criminals to kidnap his wife and get a ransom from her father. Many nasty bullet wounds as well as the use of an axe ensue. The piece de resistance, however, is when Marge stumbles upon the surviving kidnapper who is shown shoving his dead partner’s dismembered body into a wood chipper.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
Most of Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic is like many battle stories as a group of soldiers try to save the son of a family who lost three other sons during the invasion of Normandy in 1944. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is ordered to find Private Ryan (Matt Damon) and bring him back with the help of seven members of his company. But it is the 27-minute re-creation of American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day early in the movie that captures the chaos and tremendous loss of life and limb when it comes to combat. Actual amputees were hired to play wounded soldiers who were maimed. As Hanks told Roger Ebert about the sequence, “I was in the back of the landing craft, and that ramp went down and I saw the first 1-2-3 rows of guys getting blown to bits.”
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)
The Coen brothers’ Best Picture winner is a neo-Western set in Texas with the splatter factor of a Sam Peckinpah shoot-out involves a hulking hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who manages to strangle a deputy sheriff with the handcuffs around his wrists and then uses a captive bolt pistol to kill a driver and steal his car. Meanwhile, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad with dead bodies of men and dogs. He also finds a suitcase holding $2 million, which he takes and hightails it to a hotel. Chigurh, who decides the fate of his possible victims by flipping a coin, is tasked to find the suitcase and he is not to be denied. The brothers wanted to depict a very arbitrary violent brutal world and they succeeded. As Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan noted, “They’ve put violence on screen before, lots of it, but not like this. … ‘No Country for Old Men’ doesn’t celebrate violence, it despairs of it.”
THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)
It’s right there in the title, isn’t it. Daniel Day-Lewis is a silver miner turned oilman Daniel Plainview, who lusts for wealth during a boom time in Southern California. But the lifestyle involved with oil-drilling has its downsides including deadly accidents and a gas blowout that deafens his adopted son. He also has antagonistic relationship with Paul Dano‘s preacher Eli, who makes a oil deal with him. When Plainview learns a man who passes himself off as his half-brother, Henry, is actually an imposter, he holds him at gunpoint and then murders him, burying his body. But the mayhem truly goes over the top when a hungover and penniless Eli stumbles upon Daniel in his private basement bowling alley. The oil baron ends up chasing Eli around the lanes and bashes him to death with a bowling pin. When his butler enters the room, Daniel, weak from his exertion, simply proclaims, “I’m finished.”
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)
Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist World War II film ties together two schemes to assassinate Germany’s Nazi leaders with Christoph Waltz as an SS colonel tied to both plots. He visits a French farmer and enquires about a Jewish family that he suspects is hiding out under the floor. Soon SS soldiers shoot at the floor as one member of the clan, daughter Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), is able to escape. She hatches a scheme to kill the Nazi leaders by setting a cinema she owns in France on fire. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) gathers Jewish-American soldiers for his militia who kill the German soldiers by scalping them. There is also a massacre at a tavern, a German film star is tortured while Hitler and Goebbels die as submachine guns are fired into the theater audience, setting off bombs and killing everyone in attendance.
A 16-year-old girl named Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) lives in Harlem with her out-of-work monster of a mother (Mo’Nique) and is constantly abused physically, verbally and sexually by both her parents. Her father caused her to give birth to a child with Down syndrome that lives with Precious’ grandmother. When it is learned she is pregnant again, her high-school principal sends her to an alternative school where she finally learns to read and write. Her mother drops her 3-day-old child Abdul and beats Precious for revealing the abuse she has suffered that resulted in her being cut off from welfare. Her rage leads her to toss a TV at her daughter and her newborn. Eventually, Precious finds a place in a halfway house but then learns of her father’s death from AIDS. Turns out, she suffers from AIDS as well but she is finally free from her horrendous home life.
DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)
A revisionist Western by Quentin Tarantino that eventually unfolds in the Antebellum South might have comedic elements, but the thunder storm of carnage that rains down in the last half is nothing to be laughed at. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave who is of interest to Dr. Schultz, a German dentist turned bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz). He needs Django’s knowledge about the three Brittle brothers, overseers at the plantation of the slave’s previous owner. Meanwhile, Schultz shoots one of the brothers dead and pays the other sibling for Django, while allowing the other shackled slaves to kill him and seek their freedom. Django and Schultz become a successful team as they hunt down wanted outlaws. The dentist agrees to help find his wife, whose new owner is Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a suave but cruel owner of a Mississippi plantation where slaves are forced to fight to the death in so-called “Mandingo fights.” At one point, he has attack dogs actually eat an escaped fighter alive. Schultz kills Calvin after he signs papers to free Django’s wife, but Schultz is killed as well. The film ends in an outburst of violence, with Django setting off dynamite throughout the mansion and riding away with his bride.