Whether seeing them for the first time or revisiting the works of the Master of Body Horror, Cronenberg’s library is always a chilling place to visit.
In 2013, the Toronto International Film Festival opened an exhibit called Cronenberg: Evolution, a look at the career of one of the most distinctive directors of the modern era. The exhibit breaks down Cronenberg’s career into three loosely defined eras. The first, featuring films like The Brood and Scanners, is listed as “Who Is My Creator?”. The second is “Who Am I?” with films like The Fly and Dead Ringers. The last section is “Who Are We?”, and it includes The History of Violence and Eastern Promises (I’m more inclined to call this the Viggo Mortensen era).
This is a pretty accurate breakdown of Cronenberg’s filmography. His early films focus on science or a scientist and what they have created. This shifts to films where science or a scientist are their own subjects. Cronenberg’s latest films focus on who we are as a society and how we perceive and are shaped by violence.
Cronenberg’s oeuvre is one of the most solid of any of the modern era filmmakers. With the possible exception of the truly horrible “Cosmopolis”, there isn’t a movie he has made that I wouldn’t recommend checking out. But here is a list of my ten favorite films (okay, twelve – there were a couple of ties) from the brilliant mind of David Cronenberg.
Before we get started on the list, here are a couple of films that came very close to making my list.
Honorable Mention: eXistenZ (1999)
While the story is a little uneven, Cronenberg’s foreshadowing of how much games and VR would play in our future is chilling. A game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is forced on the run with her PR person (Jude Law) when a group trying to stop her new game from being released targets her for assassination. Ahead of its time, eXistenZ is a fascinating look at the mindset of hardcore gamers who have ports placed in their bodies that connect to organic controllers. This lets the gamers immerse themselves in the game. It’s a fascinating film with a twist that M. Night Shyamalan would envy.
Honorable Mention: A Dangerous Method (2011)
It would be hard to argue the Freudian influence in near all of Cronenberg’s films, so a movie about the friendship and rivalry between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and their relationship with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), seems like a natural fit. It’s an interesting period piece with an effective story, and the scenes between Fassbender and Mortensen are electric.
Honorable Mention: Nightbreed (1990)
Okay, so this is a bit of a cheat. Nightbreed is directed by Clive Barker, not David Cronenberg, but Cronenberg plays Dr. Philip Decker, a creepy psychiatrist who convinces his patient Boone (Craig Sheffer) that he has committed a series of brutal murders that sends him seeking Midian, a haven for monsters. Nightbreed is a fantastic film (make sure you watch The Director’s Cut), one of my favorite adaptations of Clive Barker, and watching Cronenberg in front of the camera (at this point, he had only played extras in some of his own films) is pure joy.
TOP TEN CRONENBERG FILMS
10. Scanners (1981)
Scanners is probably most famous for its head explosion scene. It was (forgive me) mind-blowing at the time, and nearly forty years later, it’s a shot that holds up surprisingly well. But to simply write off Scanners as the head explosion movie isn’t fair. Despite the challenges of the special effects and the fact that the script was still being written after filming had begun (Cronenberg has referred to Scanners as his most frustrating film to make), it is a well-designed sci-fi thriller with a great performance from Michael Ironside.
Scanners are people with telekinetic powers. ConSec is a security firm working to weaponize them, but during a demonstration, Revok, a volunteer (Ironside), kills someone (the famous head explosion) and several guards when ConSec tries to take him into custody. Revok begins to work against ConSec, and they are forced to send Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), another powerful scanner, to stop him.
Despite the gore, Scanners is probably one of Cronenberg’s most mainstream films. Overall, the movie doesn’t hold up as well as a lot of his other films, but it’s still Cronenberg being brilliant, and you can see some of his earlier ideas pay forward when he directs Stephen King’s The Dead Zone.