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About Jenna Cato Bass

I'm a director, writer, photographer, aspiring explorer and retired magician living in Cape Town, South Africa

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My Favorite Films About Death

Posted December 07, 2010

So as my script TOK TOKKIE is about death and it's the end of the year and all, it's understandable that a degree of melancholia is to be expected. So, I thought I'd make a list of the best films that deal with the subject to end all subjects. That and I also just had to kill a cockroach. So, without further ado...



Introduction: The first time I ever saw anyone killed in a film was Air Force 1. Yes, I'd probably seen stabbings and shootings and other family-friendly offings of unsavory characters, but the first time I saw someone irrefutably die was in Air Force 1 and I was about five years old. My first encounter with the concept that even good people will die was The Great Escape. I was about nine and my surprised parents had to deal with the nervous breakdown that ensued when Donald Pleasance walked blindly into the midst of the awaiting Nazis. The first time I enjoyed watching people die was The Usual Suspects. I was probably fourteen. It's all been downhill since then... 

The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman) - I know, the obvious choice, but let's not hold that against it. Every bit as iconic as they tell you in film school. And of course, Bergman is definitely one of the greats to really grab Death by the... you get the idea.

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa) - Kurosawa brilliance at work, which I think is even more evident in the heart of a dying man than on the epic battlefields.  

The Shootist (Don Siegel) - two aging filmstars, John Wayne and James Stewart, two old men, sit and discuss what makes a good death. 

Afterlife (Hirokazu Raifu) - This film explains it all: When we die we all go to a pleasantly derelict building, where a team of social worker beaurocrats help us choose our favourite memory, to be recreated for us to live out for all eternity. See? All sorted. Actually no, the pleasant fantasy is more terrifying, though I'm not sure if that was intentional. 

Fluke (Carlo Carlei)/All Dogs Go to Heaven (Bluth, Goldman, Kuenster) - what would a movie death list be without a few dog films (condensed into one for brevity). Possibly because for a privileged some, our first brush with death is through a pet's passing... I don't know how these films were supposed to be enjoyed by children. 

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (Lone Scherfig) - Despite its suicide obsessed protagonist, this film is really more about living. But this is a severely underrated film (much better than Lone Scherfig's next - An Education), so I'm putting it out there. And this is my list so I make the rules.

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu) & Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica) - I know I'm being unfair lumping these films together, but I'm trying to get thios list in under fifteen movies. Ageing, loneliness and bewilderment in a world which most likely forget you. Best confront these things now.

The Grey Zone (Tim Blake Nelson) - the strangest and most fascinating ending I have seen in a long time. 

No Country for Old Men/A Serious Man/The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel & Ethan Coen) - taking the giant strides across the existentialist plane as they do with all their great films, the Coens can't help but touch on Death. No Country is probably the obvious example... but I couldn't resist the other two for my Coen-completionist-compulsion. 

Mr Death (Errol Morris) - Definitely death at its more bizarre.

Harold & Maude (Hal Ashby) -  Another one wich is more about the joys of life than death itself, but still an insightful portrait on how different people cope with the shadow of mortality. And of course the best faux suicides ever committed to celluloid.


And then because I am a stickler for thoroughness and hate to exclude films... here are four films I haven't seen yet, but probably would have made the grade if I had: A Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami), Death Takes a Holiday (Mitchell Leisen), A Matter of Life and Death (Powell & Pressburger), Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch).