Generally deemed one of the finest American movies ever made, one could perhaps argue the extent to which "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is actually about mental illness. Unlike most of the films on this list, Jack Nicholson's Randal P. McMurphy isn't overtly mentally ill; he's nominally the one sane man surrounded by a group of lunatics, pretending to be crazy only in order to get away from prison, where he's serving out a statutory rape charge (try getting away with that little bit of backstory in a studio release these days...). But as McMurphy becomes a leader to the inmates, and embroiled in a feud with head Nurse Ratched, director Milos Forman is careful to show the more unstable side of his hero too, although generally falls down on the side that it's not so much the inmates who are crazy, it's society, man. It's easy to mock the anti-conformism message of the movie, and its take on some of the inmates, some of whom are used more for comic relief than anything else, can be unenlightened. But it's important to note the context. Czech director Forman fled his homeland in 1968 after the Soviet invasion, and McMurphy's time with the inmates, at once fiercely individualistic and highly democratic, is something of a celebration of American virtues, and a warning not to let those values be subdued or suppressed by society. And of course, Forman's case is helped by one of Jack Nicholson's finest performances, along with extraordinary support from Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif, Will Sampson, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito and more. Films have been made that are more incisive about mental illness, but there are few better films on this list.
Ingmar Bergman was known to have a cruel and unsparing streak within him (perhaps this was why he was married five times and sired nine children) and this is evident in parts of “Persona” his striking and haunting look at the frayed ends of sanity, and the blurring of identity. Bibi Andersson stars as Alma, a young nurse tasked with taking care of Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), a theater actress who suddenly stops speaking one day during a performance. Mentally cogent and not in a catatonic state, physicians are baffled over her condition/refusal to speak, and send her to an isolated seaside cottage under Alma's care. During their stay, Alma, enamored with the actress, shares intimate sexual experience stories with her only to later discover a letter Elisabet has written describing her as an “amusing study.” Shocked that her confidence and trust has been betrayed, with Elisabet taking a condescending tone in the letter, their once affectionate friendship quickly deteriorates into a tense war and Alma attacks her with a brutal torrent of vicious rebukes about being a poor mother and worse. Enigmatic and mysterious in its sometimes ghostly presentation, as Alma tries to help Elisabet, she eventually becomes sucked deeper into her madness and at one point, their identities appear to merge to the extent that it’s difficult to ascertain who is really who. Long regarded as one of his masterpieces, if not the piece de resistance, it’s shockingly experimental compared to his entire oeuvre and still as fresh and arresting today as it ever was. Bergman credited “Persona” as a creative breakthrough that kept him going through times of doubt as a filmmaker. “I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover,” he said. Truer words have never been said.
Francis Ford Coppola’s sixth feature-length effort “The Rain People” (or 3rd if you consider “You're a Big Boy Now” to be the real beginning of his career) is an interesting little curio that was one of his most underseen movies until it finally hit the Warner Archive in 2009 (even then, it’s nowhere nearly as known as some of his heavy hitters). It’s also very much a product of its time -- the late 1960s. Feeling trapped, and eager to start life anew, a pregnant housewife (Shirley Knight) leaves home and takes up with a hitchhiker (James Caan) who turns out to be an attractive, but brain-damaged football player/simpleton. Robert Duvall co-stars as a lonely highway patrolman that she gets involved with that only further complicates her life. While the “mental illness” theme is slightly tenuous, it’s there. Caan’s character is essentially a developmentally-disabled child, and Knight’s character can’t cope with life and is breaking down throughout the picture. The problem with the film overall is that while it has youthful exuberance to it -- Coppola is clearly under the influence of the French New Wave as it looks gorgeous, especially some of these rain soaked driving shots -- its arty pretentiousness (the flash forwards and the flashbacks and the clipped cutting) and meandering search for meaning in life don’t really add up to much. Still, fans of Coppola should definitely at least see it once.
Often cited as a twisted inversion of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," “Repulsion” is an uncanny little shocker and the first film in Polanski’s so-called "apartment trilogy" (the later films being "The Tenant" and "Rosemary's Baby," either of which could arguably qualify for this list too), which many point to as the most crucial cluster in the filmmaker's oeuvre. Here, the young, virginal Carole (played with saucer eyes and sincerity by a breathtaking Catherine Deneuve) is a Belgian immigrant who works at a London nail salon, but slowly becomes more isolated and alone, to the point of becoming unhinged. Polanski, using stark black-and-white photography a half-decade after "Psycho," does a wonderful job of placing us in Deneuve's psychological state, alternating calm moments with fits of paranoia, rage, fear, and outright hallucination (like the iconic sequence when the walls of her cramped apartment grow arms that grab at her). And if that doesn't sway you, maybe the original tagline from the grabby poster will: "The nightmare world of a virgin's dreams becomes the screen's shocking reality!" (Exclamation point theirs.) The film somehow found its way into the public domain dumping ground and for a while you could only see it via dodgy DVD transfers, but thankfully those Criterion folks came through and rescued it. Their presentation (also available on Blu-ray) is jaw-dropping.
Trapped within a hell of which there is no escape, “Safe” protagonist Carol White (Julianne Moore) could very well be considered the lead character in a horror picture. The boogeyman in “Safe” is unseen or unheard, but unlike other disease films, no one is really certain if it exists. White is diagnosed with MCS, or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which can be summed up by an allergy towards the natural world. Director Todd Haynes captures this “natural world,” seen as the San Fernando Valley 1987, as a cross between “Blue Velvet” and “True Stories,” all greens and taupes, all clothing checkered and pop-up. Of course no one can understand her sudden sickness of eighties consumerist culture -- everyone else has already been assimilated, pod-like. Instead of succumbing to a world of obliviousness from those around her (particularly ineffectual husband Xander Berkeley), Carol instead finds potential salvation in a desert retreat, where she successfully isolates herself from the toxicity of modern society. The frightening prospect in “Safe” is the fear that this is one villain that can be subdued, but never truly eliminated, and with no one truly aware of the condition’s symptoms, a cure feels like an intangible notion, a wisp in the wind, a taunt towards Carol that she’ll never go back home again. The Village Voice named this film the best of the decade back in the 1990s, and it’s easy to see how the Clinton-era suffocation of values underneath materialism was a favorite of critics in that era, but because of Haynes’ timeless mastery of the form, “Safe” doesn’t at any point feel like a dated relic, still holding its power to startle, scare and disturb.