How does one spend the last days of their life, if they know that they are going to die? This is a common question, often answered with bucket-list type items. Skydiving, travelling, eating fancy meals, and basically doing whatever it is that you have always wanted to do. The characters in the five chosen films are all faced with very different circumstances in their near-death adventures. Needless to say, this list may contain some spoilers, so beware while reading. The immediacy and conflict that is faced in these lives make for some incredible film experiences that capture the existential and bizarre elements of the most temporary thing that we know: life itself.
Ryan Reynolds is confined to a coffin with nothing but a lighter and a dying cell phone in Rodrigo Cortes’ thriller. The most suspenseful choice on this list, Buried is a heart-pounding film about an innocent man who is hopeless in a situation where he is desperate for survival. It demonstrates how useless people can be in times when someone is in dire need of help and comments on our self-serving ways. Whether or not Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) gets out or not is besides the point, as the film examines the struggle for survival in a greedy and inconsiderate world.
A father and son’s relationship is both challenged and renewed when 75-year-old Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out as a gay man. Having lived his whole life in the closet, after the death of his wife, Hal finally can expose his true sexual identity; however, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after he finally gets the chance to live an honest life. The semi-autobiographical film is beautifully written and directed by Mike Mills, who went through this with his own father. Beginners is a beautiful film told through unique and quirky storytelling techniques about how we all can be re-born again. Although he has limited time to live, Hal is finally in a place where he can be happy and honest about the man that he is, with a new boyfriend by his side, and the love and support from his son with whom he now has a real connection. Even if only in the last days of his life, Hal finally has confronted the man that he always was.
3) My Life Without Me
Given one month to live after being diagnosed with uterine cancer, Ann is forced to re-evaluate her life. She also makes the choice to conceal her fate from her husband and two children, taking on the burden of her impending death all on her own. There is both a strain and a liberty in this decision, as Ann, at 23 years-old and only ever having been with one man, decides to create some new life experiences before she no longer has the chance. Included on her list is to fall in love again, and Ann now has two secrets that she is concealing from her family. Beautifully rendered by director Isabel Coixet and with a stunning performance from Sarah Polley, My Life Without Me examines a young woman’s journey to exploring an alternate life, one without the strains of being a young, poor, mother before she dies. Romantic, uplifting and touching, this film studies how a woman can take herself out of her own life before sickness does that for her.
2) Donnie Darko
“28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. That is when the world will end.”
Donnie receives this message from a giant bunny in the middle of the night and he alone is plagued with a threat of the end of the world. Donnie Darko is a genre-bending cult classic that enriches viewers on each and every watch. Does everything make sense? Maybe not, but that only adds to the appeal of the mysterious film that makes Donnie Darko a modern day superhero, following the instructions of Frank the rabbit, and preparing for the end of the world. Committing crimes, unraveling scandals, winning the heart of Gretchen, and discovering time travel, Donnie Darko deals with themes that mash a typical teen film with religion, science, and a grander overarching question about the meaning of life. A striking film, whether or not the world actually ends is in the hands of a troubled teenager who does not realize the power that he holds.
1) Synecdoche, New York
No film has dealt as boldly and brilliantly with death as Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece Synecdoche, New York. It’s not so much that the characters have a limited time to live, but the stark awareness of death as viewed by Caden Cotard and the fragility of his own life is held at the precipice of this comedy/drama/philosophical mindbender.
“I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.”
As Caden Cotard assembles his grandest work as a theatre director, a replicate of the city that he lives in and the people in his life, the meaning of his own existence comes into question as his real life falls apart. In a traditional Kaufman style, including one of the most perplexing and thought-provoking screenplays ever written, and performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams and Catherine Keener among many others, Synecdoche, New York is the ultimate film which contemplates the finite quality of life and the profound sadness that can come with it.