1. In a Lonely Place (1950; d. Nicholas Ray)
"I was born when she kissed me.
I died when she left me.
I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
Not just the title, but the entire picture is suffused with loneliness. Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Bogart with a thin sheet of icy reserve over a deep reservoir of roiling anger, is filled with contempt toward himsef, for the compromises he has made as a Hollywood screenwriter, and toward everyone else, because they are so clearly beneath even him in their feeble attempts to make lasting contributions to society.
He manipulates a pleasant hat check girl into reading a sordid bestseller to him so he can adapt it; when she turns up dead, he's more concerned that he may be accused of the murder than the possibility that he may actually be capable of the act. Mostly, though, it's about those lonely nights of the soul, when you have nothing to distract you from the soul-stabbing realization that you're not half the man you wanted to be. I can relate.
2. Edmond (2005; d. Stuart Gordon)
When Stuart Gordon's film of David Mamet's play screened at Fantastic Fest in 2006, I couldn't connect. Why would the title character (William H. Macy in one of his most lacerating performances) go to such lengths to satisfy an apparent simple biological need for sexual release? Afterwards, a friend told me, "Sometimes you need to feel someone else's flesh."
And, yes, I've come to appreciate that more as time has passed. When you start to feel "hollow inside" (as Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks once sang), when your inward parts are collapsing upon themselves, when the secrets of your emotional heart have been ripped out and throw upon a dung heap, the delicate touch of someone else's soft flesh is reassuring and life-affirming. It may have been the only cure for Edmond's not being where he belonged in life.
3. Taxi Driver (1976; d. Martin Scorsese)
An obvious choice, I know, but it doesn't feel right not to include it, because who among us hasn't gone a little Travis Bickle sometimes? (Acknowledgement to borrowing a line from Psycho.) Travis is restless and unhappy, searching for some kind of release, but mystified as to how to achieve it.
Like many lonely, depressed people, he's able to function at a motor level: driving his taxi, feeding himself, training himself. He feels alienated from the populace at large, and flinches from contact with African Americans and other minorities. He tries to make contact, to lessen the loneliness, to engage in conversation: with campaign worker Betsy, fellow cabbie Wizard, and teen prostitute Iris. We know how it all ends, and pray we don't end up in that particular lonely place.
4. Let the Right One In (2008; d. Tomas Alfredson)
Even worse than enduring the ragged, exhausting hell of loneliness is the prospect of living forever as a lonely soul. Even worse: trapped in a body that will never mature to full adulthood. Adolescence is hard enough as it is. The very sure knowledge that all your friends will die before you leads to the thought: why go to all the bother of making friends?
Not only will they die too soon, they will most likely fear and/or hate you when your true nature is revealed. And if you can't reveal your true nature to someone, in all of its imperfect, "so sorry I missed a party that I didn't realize was so important to you," please forgive me, please, please, please ... well, what kind of friend are they, really? Thus, the prospect of everlasting loneliness is too sad and haunting to ever forget.
5. Chungking Express (1994; d. Wong Kar Wai)
Loneliness is not just a result of isolation. You wouldn't think people as beautiful as Brigitte Lin, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and Faye Wong would ever get lonely, but that's the place they find themselves: surrounded by millions, yet utterly alone.
The thing is, loneliness can be difficult to diagnose. If you see a man in a store searching for a can of pineapple with a certain expiration date, or a woman herding a group of men around, or a woman quietly working behind a food counter, or a police officer eating his lunch, who would suspect that any of them might be suffering the nearly unbearable pain of loneliness?
More food for lonely cinematic contemplation: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, About Schmidt, American Beauty, Cast Away, The Conversation, The Elephant Man, Edward Scissorhands, Ghost World, Lost in Translation, One Hour Photo, Silent Running, The Visitor. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.