15 Life Changing Movies You Must Watch Once (and ONLY Once)

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Among fans of cinema, there are generally two types: those who love to watch movies, and those who study them as a window into the zeitgeist. If you’re the second type, you engage in multiple viewings of every film to examine (and re-reexamine) how they evoke specific feelings or reactions.

If you can watch a movie once and feel reasonably confident that you’ve gotten all there was to get–this list is for you. These movies are vital and important, but shouldn’t necessarily be added to your collection because you’ll probably never want to watch them again. They certainly aren’t the kind of movie you put on in the background while you’re hanging out, studying, or folding your laundry.

1. Requiem for a Dream

I’m beginning with this movie because it’s featured on any list of this type. A phenomenal film that will make you look at family, addiction, prescription abuse, and a few other things with a new and terrifying perspective. Once you see what happens to four basically likable people—you’ll never want to see it again. You should totally pick up the soundtrack though. It’s outstanding.

2. Foxcatcher

This movie is winning big awards and being heaped with praise. Having finally seen it, I can say that the performances are exceptional and the emotional impact great. It was also one of the most upsetting and fiercely un-enjoyable films I’ve ever seen—and I say that as a horror fan.

3. Irreversible

Director Gaspar Noe loves to upset people, to force them to look away from what he’s showing them. Even with that in mind, I became so uncomfortable during this film that I almost turned it off. Brilliant, moving, shocking, and unlike anything you’ll ever see. A second viewing is only recommended for masochists, while a single viewing is recommended for everyone—save for those who avoid things with trigger warnings for sexual violence.

4. Stone Reader

Are you a fan of books? This is a wonderful documentary about a man who loves books, one book in particular. He goes on a quest to find the author and eventually—well, I don’t want to spoil it. It’s an engaging, if very slow film you won’t want to sit through a second time. Warning: it might be hard to find. Stone Reader is so obscure there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for it.

5. Into the Wild

This is the movie based on the popular book by Jon Krakauer, and directed by Sean Penn. It’s the beautifully tragic story about a privileged kid who goes off the grid thinking he can survive on dreams and a single guide to edible plants. Spoiler Alert: he can’t. Despite fine direction, an Eddie Vedder soundtrack, and an excellent cast—nobody will want to endure this tragedy more than once.

6. Martyrs

Horror fans are sharply divided on ultra-violent gornography films like this one, that seem to be only an excuse for over-the-top violence. If ever a film had a logical reason for such violence—it’s this one. While not for everyone, Martyrs will surely make you think about it long after you’ve finished.

7. 12 Years a Slave

Another hugely popular and award winning movie—and rightly so. If you didn’t already know slavery was awful, this movie would drive that point home. Once you’ve seen what this poor man (and indeed, all slaves) endured due to the hubris of White People, you won’t ever want to see it again.

8. The Road

Some said Cormac McCarthy’s incredible book couldn’t be filmed. But with Viggo Mortenson, all things are possible. Still, a morose and harrowing film like this can make you lose faith in humanity, not to mention losing your appetite. One watch is plenty, for me anyway.

9. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover

The title makes this seem like a fun romp of a romantic comedy, doesn’t it? Nope. This is a heartwrenching, infuriating but brilliant film detailing the exploits of a sadistic, ignorant gangster. Strong performances from heavy hitting actors—this film is so moving, violent, and disturbing that one viewing is plenty for most people.

10. Unbreakable

Fans may disagree on this one. I love it and watch it every couple of years. Many viewers find it slow, even boring—until the electrifying resolution that will knock your socks off. Once you know what’s up—you’ll never be able to experience this movie as you did the first time. This one also has the single most disturbing deleted scene I’ve ever encountered. (and that, I will never watch again.) And then there’s this:

11. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Onscreen, Tilda Swinton can do no wrong. This film proves that as a profoundly unlikable woman becomes the central character in a movie that manages to sidestep the gun issue entirely while taking a hard look at a violent teen. There’s also a glimpse of the worse coworker ever. Utterly devastating, one viewing is all most people can handle.

12. Happiness

I’m a big fan of ensemble pics, and this one features Lara Flynn Boyle, Camryn Manheim, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jon Lovitz, and Dylan Baker among others. It’s sad, funny, heartwarming, and deeply disturbing. I own it, and still haven’t watched it more than once despite it having writers being writerly, murder, infidelity, dismemberment, and a bunch of other things I look for in a film.

13. Straw Dogs

I speak here of the original 1971 film made by well-known misogynist Sam Peckinpah. This film features awful people doing horrible things (to a cat) for no good reason. It also features Dustin Hoffmann at his most dickish. When you hear him tell his wife to “do as she’s told” the way we might scold a small child, you’ll know you won’t ever be watching this brilliant thriller again.

14. Short Cuts

This is another ensemble film that offers slice-of-life glimpses of characters played by Robert Downey Jr, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Huey Lewis, Lily Tomlin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Lori Singer among others. This one has phonesex, murder, manslaughter, drugs, and more while being utterly unforgettable and disturbing enough that after you see it—you’re good for at least a decade before you’ll consider seeing it again.

15. Boxing Helena

An odd little film with a bunch of big names like Bill Paxton, Julian Sands, Sherilyn Fenn, Kurtwood Smith, and Art Garfunkel (yeah, he acts too) with direction by Jennifer Lynch. Who wants to see a woman lose her arms? Lots of people, it turns out. You’ll never see another movie like this, but you surely won’t want to see this one more than once.

I was tempted to put Disney’s Frozen on this list, if only in solidarity with parents who have seen it eleventy billion times. LOL. What’s a film you loved and never want to see again? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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