There is a lot of death in film, ranging from the maudlin (Love Story) to the quirky (Harold and Maude) to the existential (The Seventh Seal). While I love a good romance, a good laugh, a good cry, my favorite death movies are the ones that give the viewer the real. Serving mortality realness, if you will. No surprise, most of the list is going to be– spoiler alert– documentaries.
The following films were selected because they represent what excellent cinema can do: inform, expose, entertain, and spit you out a better person. Since I erred on the side of brutal realism, if you’re watching these Netflix binge-style, make sure to take time for crying, warm baths, popcorn breaks, puppy cuddling, etc.
We’ll start with the gold standard. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this Japanese film, 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, is the death film. Every time I watch Departures there is another reason to shake my head and say “damn that’s genius.”
It’s about a young man who is a cello player in a Tokyo orchestra that, at the start of the film, loses its funding. He is forced to return to his hometown and take a job as an encoffiner, ceremonially washing and dressing the corpse prior to cremation. The lead actor, Mashahiro Motoki, brilliantly captures the experience of working with the dead for the first time. The unpredictability, the hilarity, the discomfort, the disgust, the respect, the joy. Plus, you’ll sob like 22 times, give or take several sobs.
This documentary hits close to home for me. It follows what happens in Los Angeles when someone dies without a next of kin. The bodies featured in the film were the bodies we worked with in mortuary school. The bureaucracy in the film is the same bureaucracy I work with in my post-mortuary school career.
A Certain Kind of Death kills it in three ways: 1) Unprecedented behind the scenes access to scenes of death, the cremation process, the morgue, etc. It’s all the things I know you want to see (don’t worry, it’s not morbid) but were afraid to ask for. 2) The harsh realities of dying alone, either with mental disabilities or in poverty, and all that situation implies. 3) The excellent look the bureaucrats doing their seemingly gruesome jobs as if they were totally normal. These are just normal folks who happen to have jobs that society considers deviant.
If it were up to me (why is it never up to me?) I would have all high school aged children volunteering at hospices and nursing homes. “But I want to drink Smirnoff Ice and Snapchat and drag race cars!” NO you little shit, let’s see you wipe the poo off a dying person’s bum and connect you to the humbling realities of life & death.
Serving Life is a documentary about men doing hard prison time volunteering in the prison hospice system, for their fellow terminally ill inmates. The men they feature are deeply sympathetic (even though you know what crimes they committed) and the scenes of dying, death, and redemption are top notch cinema.
On the banks of India’s Ganges River, corpses are brought to be cremated and scattered into the holy river. There are groups of young boys from India’s untouchable caste who, to survive, perform the cremations and steal the expensive shrouds that cover the bodies. They grow up with death and live with death in every way.
This is a real look into how cultures outside the West can do death so differently. Plus the boys they feature are real loveable scamps (think: Newsies) who just happen to be corpse burners. It gets very surreal.
Jennifer Lawrence is totally fun, right? Remember when she won her best actress Academy Award and she stumbled up on stage and was all “gosh guys!” Fun as that was, there is no way in heeeeeeell she should have won that award, based solely on the fact she was nominated against Emmanuelle Riva.
Riva plays an elderly woman who has a stroke one morning at the breakfast table. Her husband must learn to cope as she slips into ill health and dementia. Riva’s performance is brave and intense and realistic like nothing I’ve ever seen. Films by director Michael Haneke aren’t exactly fun, and maybe are not to be watched more than once, but this is the reality of old age for so many. These are the people society pushes to the margins because we’d like to believe the world is full of vibrant young Jennifer Lawrences.
There are only a few states in the US where death with dignity laws, allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives, are legal. Oregon became the first in 1994. This documentary follows several terminally ill people who are considering using the lethal dose before their illness gets too painful to bear.
The main subject is a woman named Cody Curtis who has liver cancer. She says, “I’m not going to die with the fluid oozing out of the pores in my legs. I’m not going to lose my hair again. I’m not going to weigh 200 pounds again. I’m not going to be humiliated with losing control of my bodily functions again.” You really like her, and frankly, don’t want her to die. When it becomes clear she will, we watch her struggle with the idea that dying without excessive suffering is a cop-out (something our culture certainly promotes).
On that note, I hope you enjoy facing your mortality through film. I’m sure you have your own favorite death films, and I hope you share them. Vive la muerte, vive la cinema!