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4. Videodrome (1983)

We don’t want to think about media changing us, but Videodrome suggests that the effects of media consumption are incredibly powerful and wildly unpredictable as cable TV operator Max Renn discovers that a violently alluring pirate video broadcast is actually a control signal with the power to kill. There’s a media prescience here, as Videodrome saw the all-encompassing future of the moving image, but there’s also something deeply reactionary in Cronenberg’s story — the videodrome signal is, after all, designed to affect those attracted to deviant images of sex and violence. Exactly the stuff, in other words, of Cronenberg’s own films, for which he was targeted in the press. If only other responses to one’s own critics were as imaginative as this.

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3. Naked Lunch (1991)

The discomfort, paranoia and spiritual violence of a life spent opening up the deepest recesses of your consciousness to strangers is deeply embedded in Cronenberg’s adaptation of several works by William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch finds some middle ground between visualizing the hard work of being alone in a room with a writing device and a blank page, and the unbounded leaps of conceptualization that produce creative works. If those leaps are into places that are as disturbing as those in Naked Lunch, so much the better. Here, Cronenberg performs his own creative alchemy and upends the very form of the biopic by merging concepts from Burroughs’ work with moments from his own life. In doing so, he captures the process of writing and mythologizing our own lives, as horrifying a process as it may be.

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2. eXistenZ (1999)

Released not even a month after The Matrix hit the US, this heavily meta-textual and multi-layered video game narrative had no chance to make an impression. As it has aged, however, something unexpected has happened: many of its criticisms — of video game writing, reliance upon cliche, sexualization of female characters, and navel-gazing self-obsession — have become more appropriate than they were sixteen years ago. In a way that has always felt like a direct tie to VideodromeeXistenZ is a nested set of realities; the one that occupies most of the film is like a cartoonish rendition of GamerGate. And while it lacks a conclusive ending, hanging on a question mark rather than a full stop or even an exclamation point, even the broader reality seen in eXistenZ asks that uncomfortable question about a correlation between behavior inside games and in the “real world.” Videodrome has always seemed like Cronenberg’s most technologically prescient film, but eXistenZ turns out to be eerily visionary as well; we just needed some distance to see it.

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1. Crash (1996)

If this was a “best of” list Crash would only be near the top, but for this reckoning there should never have been any doubt. Going back to the idea that the closer Cronenberg pushes towards an intersection of his imagination and our reality, the weirder things get, this is a deeply and wonderfully uncomfortable movie. An imagined reality of sexual desires fulfilled, man-made extensions to build and preserve bodies, and a conduit of sexual energy passing between them, Crash posits a connection between “natural” and “unnatural” that calls those very concepts into question. The link between technology and sex has always existed, especially in film, but as with so many of his other films Cronenberg makes it weird merely by showing the images that have long danced on the edge of our peripheral vision. We can’t come to terms with ideas unless we can talk about them, and Crash says that it’s weirder not to talk about this stuff than to confront it head-on.

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