The 10 best movies about obsession

Obsession is something all humans experience to varying degrees, whether that be a healthy fixation on a movie or band or a soul-crushing desire for another person. Obsession can be a perfectly normal part of life, sustaining us with motivation or creatively inspiring us.

On the other hand, obsession can be deadly, deluding people into committing crimes, acting unnaturally, and shattering their own sense of identity. This all-consuming obsession possesses some of cinema’s most memorable, often terrifying figures, allowing for compelling on-screen character studies.

Over the years, directors have explored the effects of different kinds of obsession on individuals, whether that be the extreme drive for success or an impassioned desire for another person. Obsession often morphs into something horrifying, making it the perfect topic for horror and psychological thrillers.

So, from the ballet-crazed Nina in Black Swan to the disgusting Humbert Humbert of Lolita, here are ten of the best films about obsession.

10 best movies about obsession:

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is one of the best depictions of destructive obsession in recent cinematic memory. The film follows Nina Sayers, played excellently by Natalie Portman (who won a Best Actress Academy Award for the role), as a ballet dancer who slowly loses her grip on reality as she strives for perfection. Desperate to master the opposing dual roles of the Black Swan and White Swan whilst facing competition from other dancers and an overbearing mother, Nina becomes increasingly dissociated from herself, which ends catastrophically. 

To prepare for the role, Portman almost became as obsessive as her character. She told Collider: “At about six months [before shooting], we started doing five hours [of ballet] a day. We added in swimming, so I was swimming a mile a day, toning, and then doing three hours of ballet class a day. Two months before, we added the choreography, so we were doing probably eight hours a day.” 

The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)

Sofia Coppola made her directorial feature debut in 1999 with The Virgin Suicides, adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel of the same name. Set in the 1970s, the film tells the tale of the Lisbon sisters, whose lives are the topic of much speculation and fascination following the suicide of the youngest child, Cecilia. The girls’ parents become increasingly authoritarian, banning the sisters from consuming popular music or socialising.

The film is narrated by one of the neighbourhood boys, now an adult, reflecting on the mystery of the girls and the impact their short lives had on him and his friends. Coppola frames the boys’ obsession with the girls as an example of the unwavering objectification of girls, even after death. The boys treat the Lisbons as otherworldly creatures – nothing more than vessels of both pain and beauty. 

Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)

“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” was the question on everyone’s lips when Stanley Kubrick released his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel in 1962. Centring around Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who becomes obsessively infatuated with an adolescent girl, the film chronicles his descent into madness and paranoia, attempting to destroy anything and anyone that gets in the way of Lolita. 

Starring James Mason, Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters, and Peter Sellers, the film tones down much of the book’s most scandalous moments due to the Hays Code, yet this does not diminish the impact of Humbert’s obsessive nature. Darkly humorous but equally disturbing, Kubrick’s film exposes vile truths hidden in plain sight, suggesting that even the most intellectual, well-respected man can hide the deepest of secrets. 

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s historical drama Phantom Thread remains his finest work, which is impressive, considering that his back catalogue also contains Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of a lifetime as Reynolds Woodcock, a controlling and demanding fashion designer. Anderson explores the repercussions of creative obsession on individuals, tracing its effects in Woodcock’s relationship with Alma, who sticks by his side despite his fanatical behaviour. 

Phantom Thread demonstrates how obsession can manifest in all facets of life, including work, romance, and family. Not only does Woodcock exhibit increasingly obsessional behaviour, but so does Alma, creating an intense and fiery link between them. 

Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)

Kate Dickie gives a stunning performance as the lonely, grieving protagonist of Andrea Arnold’s 2006 psychological thriller Red Road. The film follows Jackie, a CCTV operator, who spends her days monitoring the screens. However, her interest is piqued by the appearance of a mysterious man, and she decides to track him down. Arnold withholds the reason for Jackie’s obsessive interest, creating a thick air of suspense and tension as the CCTV operator gets herself into dangerous and questionable situations to get closer to the man. 

Red Road is a heartwrenching exploration of grief and isolation, examining how obsession can manifest in the most bizarre and unfounded ways. The film took home the Jury Prize at Cannes and a ‘Special Achievement by a British Director, Writer or Producer in their First Feature Film’ accolade at the BAFTAs. 

Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970)

Deep End is an underrated gem from the beginning of the 1970s, starring Jane Asher and John Moulder-Brown as young public bath attendants. Jerzy Skolimowski’s film explores the obsessive tendencies of Mike, a 15-year-old drop-out who becomes increasingly attracted to his slightly older colleague, Susan. Ten years his senior, she teases his affections, only making him desire her more. Events slowly unravel into chaos as Mike’s desperate desire for Susan becomes increasingly apparent, resulting in tragedy. 

The film, which includes an original track by the krautrock band Can, even has the David Lynch seal of approval, who once said: “I don’t like colour movies, and I can hardly think about colour. It really cheapens things for me, and there’s never been a colour movie I’ve freaked out over except one, this thing called Deep End, which had really great art direction.”

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

Speaking of Lynch, his 2001 surrealist masterpiece Mulholland Drive is a phenomenal tale of obsession told non-linearly. The director exposes the truth behind the American Dream, highlighting the darkness lurking beneath an obsession that can never be fulfilled. Furthermore, the film explores romantic obsession, with Naomi Watts’ Diane losing her sanity over Laura Harring’s Camilla. Although the film’s narrative is hard to follow, interweaving eccentric characters with scenes that initially appear as though they don’t belong and ambiguous dialogue, one theme is for sure – all-consuming obsession.

“A mystery is one of the most beautiful things in the world,” Lynch once claimed. Indeed, the mystery of Mulholland Drive is what makes it so beautifully intoxicating. In many ways, it is easy to become obsessed with Lynch’s film, returning for rewatches in the hopes of decoding more of the puzzle. 

Eyes Without A Face (Georges Franju, 1960)

Georges Franju’s French horror Eyes Without A Face introduced the smooth, featureless mask to cinema, inspiring John Carpenter’s Michael Myers in Halloween, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, and even Face/Off. The movie follows an obsessive plastic surgeon responsible for his daughter’s facial disfigurement as his guilt-ridden pursuit of beauty turns dangerous. When the film was released, audiences “dropped like flies” during the graphic heterografting scene. 

Eyes Without A Face is a fascinating study on patriarchal control and the role of the father, with the plastic surgeon becoming obsessed with sustaining his power. Moreover, Franju highlights the potential of power abuse that comes with technological advancements, which can become fatal in the wrong hands.

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

The beauty of Vertigo extends far past its vivid colour palette. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller starring James Stewart and Kim Novak is a dizzying exploration of an all-consuming obsession. Stewart’s Scottie has a distorted sense of identity, marred by trauma and acrophobia, leading him to fixate on the woman he is hired to follow. Mental deterioration and tragedy don’t prevent Scottie from dropping his obsession; instead, it continues, transcending his reality. 

Every character exhibits some form of obsession in one way or another, highlighting the inevitability of human beings succumbing to delusion, hyper fixation, and illusion. 

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)

Damien Chazelle’s Academy Award-winning drama Whiplash, featuring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, perfectly conveys the lengths individuals will go to achieve perfection, akin to Black Swan. Teller plays a first-year jazz drumming student studying at a prestigious music school, whose limits are tested by Simmon’s abusive teacher. Based on his own experience in a “very competitive” jazz band at school, Chazelle’s film forces audiences to consider whether the achievement of pure success is worth the sacrifices. 

By deconstructing the notions of ambition, Chazelle creates a hair-raising film that’ll keep audiences on the edge of their seat. Both Teller and Simmons give career-defining performances in this sharp and cautionary drama.  

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The 10 best movies about obsession

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