This list was originally published in 2015. It has been republished in honor of David Cronenberg’s 80th birthday.
It takes a lot of great work over a long career to be considered a great filmmaker, but it could be argued that the true mark of legendary status is when your name becomes synonymous with an entire aesthetic or style, when enough people have attempted to do what you did first that you become the zero standard for those who follow. You hear it all the time: Spielbergian journeys taken by young people through lushly photographed locales, Tarantino-esque bursts of violence. But of them all, few are more uniquely distinct than the subset of films that come to mind when you talk about David Cronenberg.
The signature is “body violence,” and throughout his career there’s been no shortage of it. The filmmaker has worked heavily in the arts of repulsion and paranoia, those often informing one another, and has spent decades challenging the boundaries of popular art. His films engage with our bodies in ways few others do, both theoretically and in the literal sense of the nausea his films have the capacity to induce in audiences.
So, with his latest film, Maps to the Stars, debuting in limited release and via VOD platforms this weekend, we got to debating the best work of one of modern film’s most unique, perverse, and wholly distinct voices. Read on, and long live the New Flesh.
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
10. eXistenZ (1999)
A funny thing happened to David Cronenberg in the 2000s: he went mainstream. He traded in his decades-long obsession with physical deformity, over-the-top gore, and sexual symbolism for relatively straightforward narratives, ones that were more palatable for the average moviegoer. This directorial shift proved successful, and he quickly began racking up more award nominations (especially for A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) than at any other point in his career. Prior to this switcheroo, there was eXistenZ (1999), the last of Cronenberg’s old-school body-horror films.
On the surface, eXistenZ tells the story of a video-game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who becomes the target of a violent political group opposed to virtual reality. A security guard, Ted Pikel (Jude Law), tries helping her escape their assassination attempts…and then things get weird. Honestly, none of this film’s greatness has to do with its paper-thin plot or its philosophizing about the nature of reality. Nope. This movie is a must-watch because of its gruesome special effects and its Freudian prosthetics.
Somehow eXistenZ gets away with showing half a dozen graphic sex scenes disguised as video-game play. Ya see, the game’s plug looks like a giant umbilical cord with a phallic tip, and it must be jammed into an asshole-shaped bioport located in the player’s spine.
This leads to scene after shocking scene of Jennifer Jason Leigh penetrating Jude Law, including a spit-take-inducing moment when she sprays WD-40 on his bioport to loosen it up because first-time players tend to be “tight.” This movie definitely isn’t for everyone, but it brims with the same originality and jaw-dropping weirdness that made David Cronenberg a cult favorite in the first place. — Adriane Neuenschwander