Winter Light (1963): Ingmar Bergman made his name by offering the image of death as a black-clad figure playing chess with the recently deceased. Later, he won an Oscar for Cries and Whispers, about a woman’s last anguished days. Neither is arguably as unnerving as the second in his “Trilogy of Faith,” in which a pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand) leads a dwindling flock of the hopeless, who’ve come to resent God’s relentless silence. Originally, Bergman wanted to make it about someone demanding God prove his existence and slowly going mad, waiting for nothing. This gets the job done, too.
The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eye (1971): A rare break from purely abstract works, Stan Brakhage’s literal stomach-churner prowls the open chest of an autopsy corpse, the human body reduced not only to a lifeless entity but to a barely recognizable shape.
The Mouth Agape (1974): “The movie Amour wishes it could be,” said a friend, who greatly preferred Maurice Pialat’s coldly searing study of a family trying to ignore the dying matriarch relentlessly wheezing from her deathbed to Michael Haneke’s similar latest. Too bad only Americans who can play foreign DVDs will have a chance to see that proves correct.
Blue (1993): Derek Jarman’s swan song is 76 minutes of a hot-blue screen with voices drifting in and out. As it were, Jarman was sick with AIDS-related complications, which had partially taken his sight. This, in his final days, is how he saw the world.
Synecdoche, New York (2008): A dumpy theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) spends decades putting on a live production about his failures, wasting the remainder of his life on worrying. What Jaws did for the water, this does for bottomless self-involvement and -hatred.
The Grey (2012): 2012: A Great Year for Filmic Death. In most other years, Amour would have been its finest, darkest statement. But then there was Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse and, yes, the movie where Liam Neeson (almost) fucks up wolves. In fact, it’s a brooding and stark portrayal of existential dread, arguing that the best way to die is to first accept it, then delude yourself into thinking it’s a good thing, even when it isn’t.