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The Best Movies About the End of the World, From ‘Melancholia’ to ‘Dr. Strangelove’

We asked a panel of film critics to name the best films about the apocalypse, and the results were as varied as their fears for the future.

Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier's Melnacholia

As Justine in Lars von Trier’s masterful end-of-days chamber drama “Melancholia,” Dunst professes, in the face of utter, inexplicable doom, that she “knows things.” Which is why when her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) suggests that, in Earth’s final hours, they decamp to the terrace to drink champagne and sing songs, Dunst’s vacant and pained-eyed Justine suggests, “Why don’t we meet on the fucking toilet?” There is something quietly heroic about Justine’s decision to ditch her perfect husband on their wedding night, quit her soul-sucking advertising job, and screw the best man on the golf course because, why the hell not? Our lives are over anyway.

Dump that husband! Quit that job! Ruin your life! Who cares when the world’s ending? Dunst perfectly portrays a woman in crisis, a metaphor for a crumbling planet but also a very real person. At the end of the world, what really matters anymore? “Life is only on Earth, and not for long,” she says. A toast to oblivion.

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Apropos of absolutely nothing (and definitely not in response to a certain world leader taking disastrous steps towards dooming the environment of the only inhabitable planet we have), what is the best film about the end of the world?

Erin Whitney (@Cinemabite), ScreenCrush

It’s a hard tie between “Melancholia” and “Take Shelter.” One is a devastating meditation on depression, isolation and death, and the other is a dramatic masterpiece that evokes the dread and anxiety of a looming end. They’re very different films (and coincidentally opened within months of each other), but both end on final shots that left me breathless.

Christy Lemire (@christylemire), RogerEbert.com, What the Flick?!

“Melancholia.” If the world is going to end, it may as well be devastatingly beautiful. Lars von Trier’s 2011 drama (his best film in a while, at this point) is visually and aurally operatic — a sumptuous mixture of all his signature themes and visual schemes. But it’s just as powerful in its quiet intimacy, as it suggests that the throes of depression truly can make the sufferer feel as if tomorrow will never come, or at least hope that it won’t.

Christian Blauvelt (@Ctblauvelt), BBC Culture

Most films that imagine the apocalypse present a beginning rather than an ending: there’s always some scrappy group of survivors on whose shoulders will be the task of rebuilding civilization, and you get the sense that humanity will recover, with maybe a better a society on the horizon than the one that preceded (and caused) the end of the world in the first place. What a delight then that the funniest and indeed most life-affirming apocalyptic film actually does present the death of everyone on earth. “This Is the End,” easily the greatest joint Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have been responsible for, serves up a biblical rapture and End of Days that evangelicals would love – if they could forgive the f-bombs and the sight of Danny McBride holding Channing Tatum on a leash.

Brilliantly self-critical, it imagines Rogen, James Franco, and an extended cast of Hollywood comedians (and Emma Watson) as themselves. And none of them are worthy of rapture – at least, not right away. “This Is the End” looks at the idea that many of the people we look up to, or at least entertain us, are assholes, and that in fact our culture now may be a cult of assholes. Maybe it really will take the apocalypse to bring out the better angels of our natures. This profound film – at the time of its release Michael Arbeiter wrote an illuminating review that grapples with its genuine intellectual heft – is ultimately feel-good, even with its depiction of towering hellbeasts, because it imagines that redemption is possible and there’s an afterlife that’s one long Backstreet Boys concert. Sure, only the worthy will get to enjoy it, but somehow Judgment Day has never seemed less judgmental.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse) Freelance for the Guardian, Vulture, Nylon

As much I love “Melancholia,” it’s a far more perceptive film when it comes to depression than end times. The empirically correct answer is, of course, “Southland Tales.” Reviled upon its bungled release, posterity has revealed Richard Kelly’s haywire prophecy of pop armageddon to be the most eminently true film about America’s self-fashioned destruction. He captures the hectic confusion, the paranoid tension, and best of all, the tackiness of our Trump-led march towards oblivion; if he could get a war sponsored by Hustler, I have zero doubt in my mind that he would. [clears bong rip] The movie about the people who write a movie that doubles as a prophecy predicting the end of the world doubles as a prophecy predicting the end of the world. Could Kelly have known?

Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic), Freelance for Little White Lies, The Film Stage

It is essential to our human condition that we should be anxious about the limited time we get to spend on earth. Our awareness of our own finitude means we not only worry about how best to use our relatively short lives, but also –more often than not- about whether we will get some extra time after our death. Yet if that were the case, what would be the difference between life and death? And what would be the point of life and the best direction to take it, if it were to never really end?

The Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” might be the best film exploring these existential — and thus terrifying — questions because it does so with, indeed, seriousness, but combined with large doses of humour and kindness. And if that weren’t enough– how could it be?! — it may offer a semblance of an answer to these problems in its very last moments.

In the space of a few days, Jewish Minnesota physics teacher Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has seen his life go from pretty boring to bad to worse, despite his efforts to be a serious man: his wife suddenly left him for their supposedly more able friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his luckless brother is having a particularly difficult time, a student of his is cheating on his exam and trying to buy a passing grade… Meanwhile, his stoner son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is about to have his bar mitzvah and lives in his headphones, drifting through the days.

Judaism doesn’t have a very clear stance on eschatology — “the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind,” as per the Oxford English Dictionary — but tends to argue that life is for the living and one should focus on living well. Larry’s problems, however, make this direction difficult to heed as they lead him to feel vigorously how inconclusive his faith is when it comes to the meaning of life and of its trials. None of the rabbis he goes to for spiritual advice can tell him why God is testing him, but all remain frustratingly and hilariously calm and positive. As the Coens focus their camera on Michael Stuhlbarg’s gloriously tortured face, we could be forgiven for thinking that these rabbis are blind to the horrors of the world, and perhaps even borderline stupid.

But what if these holy men were right all along? In the middle of class, Danny and his classmates are asked to evacuate. Eventually, Jefferson Airplane blasting through Danny’s headphones can’t drown out the sound of the storm that has been building up outside: a monstrous tornado is approaching. Meanwhile, Larry hasn’t seen this apocalyptic scene yet since he’s too busy contemplating his own death. But his own destiny, just like Danny’s bad behaviour, seems of little importance now: the world is literally ending. All that’s left is what has already happened, and it’s not too pretty. Larry has wasted his last days worrying about this moment and its non-existent continuation, and although Danny wasn’t anxious, he wasn’t really present to himself either. When not only your life but the whole world is ending, searching for meaning feels like a waste of time and living well much simpler.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

As Sun Ra said, “It’s after the end of the world — don’t you know that yet?” I knew. As a child watching science-fiction B-movies on television, I had seen enough fictitious apocalypses to imagine the playground outside my bedroom window a blasted post-nuclear wasteland and think it funny. Then came the actual end of the world, so I thought, and it didn’t seem funny at all. (The story’s here.) No post-apocalyptic movie ever impressed me again, let alone scared me — depending on how you define it (the ending of “Fail-Safe,” though a bit on the nose, is very effective).

My first substantial movie-going experience — my first viewing of a movie that meant more to me than a night out with friends — was of Ingmar Bergman’s “Shame,” and it’s as persuasive a vision of end times as I’ve ever seen. In the more literally apocalyptic realm, there’s “The Sacrifice,” in which Andrei Tarkovsky visits Sweden — and borrows Bergman’s alter ego, Erland Josephson — for a nuclear-disaster film with a Bergmanesque strain of psychological drama and a twist of metaphysical madness.

Jude Dry (@jdry), IndieWire

For quality, it has to be “Dr. Strangelove.” It was my first intro to Kubrick and to Peter Sellers and I immediately understood what the big deal was about both of them. However, if we’re going on gut reaction, the first thing I thought of was “Armageddon.” It’s cheesy, it’s Michael Bay, it’s Affleck and Willis. It’s nothing I believe in but everything I wanted at 12. I was then and remain a sucker for romance, and “Armageddon” made FEEL something, dammit. Especially that Liv Tyler. “Waterworld” is also great. Give me a young Jeanne Tripplehorn any day.

Jordan Hoffman (@jhoffman), Freelance for The Guardian, Vanity Fair

As a young lad “The Dead Zone” (1983), which I watched on cable television a great deal, really rocked my socks off. At the time there was a jingoistic and belligerent president who was completely aloof, absent-minded and ready to plunge us all into nuclear oblivion. (He also laid a wreath down at a Nazi cemetery, which didn’t really sit too well with my family.) At the time I was living not far from an air base where jets frequently screamed across the sky when all I was trying to do was play Connect Four with my sister, and each time I heard them I was convinced a blinding flash was soon to follow and then I’d get to see my skin disintegrate.

This president is now remembered as the Great Communicator, but at the time every adult I knew spat at him for slashing budgets earmarked for the homeless and mentally unstable, ignoring the problems of drug addiction with preposterous policies and refusing to recognize the AIDS epidemic for fear that the very notion of gay or pre-marital sex would embarrass grandma and soil the ludicrous image of America’s picket fence/apple pie narrative. Eff that guy. Anyway, “The Dead Zone” is David Cronenberg’s most conventional picture (I believe he considered it something of a gig-for-hire) but it’s still damn good and it gave me substantial nightmares, even if the end of the world only appeared in an alternate timeline.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics, Film School Rejects

If we’re talking about the end of the world for all creatures, as in a nuclear apocalypse, then there’s an Oscar-winning speculative documentary feature for that: “The War Game.” And if we’re talking about just the end of mankind, then there’s also kind of an Oscar-winning speculative documentary feature for that: “The Hellstrom Chronicle.” But better for the latter idea is another documentary that wasn’t so heavily honored.

The end of the world as we know it is addressed in the future-dealing Michael Madsen (no, not that one) documentary “Into Eternity.” The knowable subject matter is the storage of nuclear waste in an enormous repository complex in Finland. Madsen ponders what Earth will be like in the distant future as this waste continues to be harmful long past the presumed existence of mankind. Will there be evolved creatures? Visitors from elsewhere? Nothing? I haven’t stopped thinking about its questions since seeing it at Tribeca seven years ago.

April Wolfe (@awolfeful), LA Weekly

I’m by no means a Lars von Trier stan. His brand of torture doesn’t often sit well with me. But “Melancholia” is one of the most beautiful depictions of both sisterhood and the end of the world. The film’s so simple in the dichotomous setup: One sister acquiesces to the giant fireball about to destroy the Earth, while the other foolishly attempts to stave off her fate. So instead of being an adventure or a meet-cute at the end of the world, it’s more a quiet, psychological exploration of belief and humanity, which for me was a welcome departure from the canon of apocalypse films.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail

I actually think the best end-of-the-world film is J.C. Chandor’s brilliant 2011 “Margin Call,” because it is not fantasy, but a portrait of the very forces that are currently undermining civilization and leading to our downfall. This film, about the 2008 global financial crisis, focuses on the unmitigated greed and cruelty of major banks – one in particular – as they strive to make sure that anyone but them is hurt. As a result, the lives of innocent people are destroyed. Couple this with Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning 2010 documentary “Inside Job,” about the same phenomenon, and you have all you need to know about why we are all screwed and going to die. Trump, climate-change denial, increasing threats to safety and health – these all come from the unresolved conflicts of this very recent past. Scary stuff, indeed.

Kate Erbland (@katerbland), IndieWire

There are so, so many great choices and options for this one, and it would be easy to tick off picks like “The Road,” the entire “Planet of the Apes” series, or even something as bombastic as “Deep Impact,” and that’s not reaching in the slightest. But I have to go personal here, real soft spot stuff, and opt in for “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.”

This movie makes me sob every time I watch it, and often in different spots and for different reasons. Mainly, I think it speaks to me because I find it so intensely, terribly relatable. If the world suddenly got a big, ticking expiration date stamped on it, I doubt that I’d be the kind of person who would stock up and move out, hoping to survive and kick ass during whatever the hell was to come next. I’d want to go to sad, alcohol-laden parties and listen to music and make amends with people I love. There’s something so weirdly inspiring about that kind of depiction of a world at its end.

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