25 Incredibly Tough Movies for Extreme Viewers

We’ve been talking a lot about Lars von Trier lately, prompted by the release of his two-part sex epic Nymphomaniac, and now the fine folks over at the Criterion Collection have given us one more reason to think about his work: they’ve put out a new, fully loaded special edition of his 1996 masterpiece Breaking the Waves on DVD and Blu-ray (it’s available today). It’s a key entry in the von Trier filmography, its themes (and even some sequences) echoing throughout Nymphomaniac and Melancholia, but it takes something big like the Criterion release to warrant a revisit; Breaking the Waves is both a masterful movie and one that’s incredibly difficult to subject yourself to. We’ve looked previously at great books and important albums that are just plain hard to take; here’s a few movies that warrant the same kind of anxiety.

Emily Watson in Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves"

25. Breaking the Waves

There are other von Trier movies that are tougher sits (some on this list, some absent from it), dealing with more difficult subject matter in a more explicit fashion. But Breaking the Waves makes the cut simply because the picture’s emotional severity is so overwhelmingly wrecking — due in no small part to the raw intensity of Emily Watson’s work. Taking the leading role in her first theatrical film, Watson wears her emotions on her sleeve; in the opening scenes, as she marries the man she loves, she can’t stop smiling. But when he’s paralyzed in an accident, her sense of responsibility and utter faith (to him and the world around him) leads her to some very dark places. Moving, powerful, stuff, and Watson’s performance still has lost none of its power — it’s like a gaping, open wound on screen.