In this week’s paper, J.R. Jones has a long review of Maps to the Stars, the new film by Canadian master David Cronenberg. The director’s long, varied career has yielded some of the most exciting and rigorous films in recent memory, from his early body-horror chillers to his recent psychological surveys of the social world. His style isn’t readily defined, and he always seems to have one foot in the mainstream and another in the underground. In a recent survey, the critic J. Hoberman wrote Cronenberg is “not a commercial director with artistic aspirations so much as an avant-garde filmmaker who has contrived a commercial career, in part by remaining in Canada.” As such, the director has amassed a singular body of work, as varied as it is vast. You can catch my five favorite Cronenberg films below.
5. Crash (1996) Though not the most ambitious of Cronenberg’s literary adaptations (see Naked Lunch, below), his take on J.G. Ballard’s masterful neofuturist novel is nevertheless a wry, strangely dispassionate survey of exotic sexual behavior. The film is sort of a normalized look at a unique sexual kink, Cronenberg’s way of intimating Ballard’s conception of sex and identity as commodity, a condition of our public lives and sexual lives becoming one.
4. The Brood (1979) At the time of its release, Dave Kehr called this “most direct and personal of Cronenberg’s films,” and though that distinction has surely shifted to The Fly, this gruesome horror film is nevertheless vintage Cronenberg, certainly the one from his early period I most enjoy revisiting. It might be his most classical film, a clinic in circular structure and existential false starts masquerading as resolution.
3. Naked Lunch (1991) Not so much an adaptation of the Burroughs novel as an adaptation of the Burroughs legend, an exhilarating exploration of narrative incoherence as both subject and feeling, method and affliction. The densely populated symbolism, metaphors, allegory, allusions, and fantasies probably make more sense if you have a higher-than-average understanding of Burroughs and his work. I don’t, really, and I still love this film, which is as much a Cronenberg original as it is a Burroughs homage.
2. A History of Violence (2005) Cronenberg’s recent films have become a bit less inscrutable and perhaps more legible, but they aren’t any less weird. In the case of this seemingly conventional thriller, the weirdness derives from the thematic and stylistic cliches that seem somehow alien and even threatening in the director’s hands. The film appears as both simple, plain ol’ entertainment and as a self-reflexive art piece that holds a mirror to its audience. Of course, it isn’t both, but Cronenberg’s genius lies in making it seem like it is.
1. The Fly (1986) A masterful synthesis and bizarre commingling of Vincent Price, La Belle et la Bête, vintage monster movies, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and pitch-black sex comedy, this horror masterpiece does what any great horror film does: it gives life to the grotesque, makes the unthinkable visible, and forces us to confront our must irrational of fears (namely, the fear that we, too, might one day become a weird human-fly hybrid). Cronenberg isn’t immediately thought of as a great director of actors, but like James Woods’s turn in Videodrome and Jeremy Irons’s in Dead Ringer, it’s impossible to envision anyone else but Jeff Goldblum in the lead role here.