All posts by Gregory J. Smalley (366weirdmovies)

Originally an anonymous encyclopediast who closely guarded his secret identity to prevent his occult enemies from exposing him, a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that "366weirdmovies" is actually Greg Smalley, a freelance writer and licensed attorney from Louisville, KY. His orientation is listed as "hetero" and his relationship status as "single," but Mr. Smalley's "turn-ons" and "favorite Michael Bay movie" were redacted from the FOIA report. Mr. Smalley is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

CAPSULE: FILM SOCIALISME (2010)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard

FEATURING: Marine Battaggia, Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Gulliver Hecq, Eye Haidara, Élisabeth Vitali

PLOT: Snippets of scenes involving passengers on a cruise ship are followed by a long segment exploring a rural French family who run a gas station; it’s topped off with impressionistic travelogues to Egypt, Palestine, and other locales.

Still from Film Socialisme (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s weird—by way of being random and impenetrable—but it’s also boring.  Really boring.  Had Jean-Luc Godard’s name not been attached, this movie would remain happily unseen by all but a handful of unlucky film festival attendees.

COMMENTS: Jean-Luc Godard has been telling French magazines that “cinema is dead” (though he would say “le cinéma est mort” and translate it as “film    dead.”)  Film Socialisme is the work of an auteur who truly believes that sentiment: it’s a dispassionate, bloodless dissection of moving images.  It offers us actors but no characters, situations but no drama, incidents but no story, ideas but no argument, and challenges but no rewards.  Deliberately obtuse, Film Socialisme sets out to frustrate: the first thing English speakers will notice is that Godard chooses not to fully translate the French dialogue, opting instead to tell the story through what he calls “Navajo English.”  Large portions of the French dialogue are left untranslated, and when the viewer does see subtitles he reads only snatches like “watch    notell    time” and “itshim    wariswar.”  Sometimes the language will switch from French to English or German or Russian, sometimes in the middle of a conversation; one presumes that this provides brief  opportunities for Francophones to enjoy “Navajo French.”  Structurally, Film Socialisme is divided into three chapters.  The first, titled “Des choses comme ça,” takes place aboard a cruise liner and explores fragments of stories from various travelers that don’t appear to add up to anything: a woman is trying to learn to speak cat by watching kitties on her laptop, a couple have a conversation about the Allied landing in North Africa while ignoring an apparently drunk woman Continue reading CAPSULE: FILM SOCIALISME (2010)

366WEIRDMOVIES TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIE LIST(S): THE SECOND PASS

We’ve now certified over 100 of an eventual 366 movies here, and it’s time to step back, take stock, and make a provisional list of the “Best of the Weird”—and a list of the “Weirdest of the Weird.”  We first took a stab at this list about two years ago, and my how things have changed since then (at least, at the bottom).  We’ve added new movies, and reshuffled our ratings for some of the others, and—well, you can read for yourself.

Recognizing that “weirdest” and “best” aren’t always the same thing, we’ve actually created two top ten lists here: one for the best movies that fall into the weird genre (these are the ones to start your timid friends off with), and one for the absolute weirdest movies we’ve seen (these are the ones to put on at a party when you want to clear the room).  Because we’re giving you two top ten lists for the price of one, you’re actually getting 20 recommended weird movies.  Well, actually 19, since one movie appears on both lists, but who’s counting?  Oh, wait, we are, that’s the entire point…

Feel free to agree with my choices, disagree, or hurl hurtful epithets at me in the comments.  But do remember that this list only covers movies we’ve already reviewed.  Your favorite movie we omitted may be coming down the line, and may make this list the next time we formulate it (in another two years or so).

With that said, let’s get to it!

# 10 Best Weird Movie: Kwaidan (1964). “Although on the surface it’s just a collection of bare-bones ghost stories, in telling these tales director Kobayashi wisely jettisons reality in favor of a stylized, expressionistic, visually poetic aesthetic that gently detaches the viewer from everyday life and floats him into an ancient spirit world that seems simultaneously to have never and always existed.”

#10 Weirdest Movie: House [Hausu] (1977). “Rife with images of flying heads, murderous painos, laughing watermelons, an invisible wind machine, and a truly demonic kitty, the film’s surrealist atmosphere and ever-shifting styles are as hilarious as they are inscrutable.  There is no way to get a handle on Hausu—the viewer is completely at the mercy of Obayashi’s bizarre whims.”

#9 Best Weird Movie: The Wicker Man (1973): “Hardy and Shaffer create an atmosphere like no other; it’s an encounter of civilized man with strange, primeval beliefs…. The viewer himself undergoes a dread confrontation with Old Gods who are at the same time familiar and terrifyingly strange.”

Continue reading 366WEIRDMOVIES TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIE LIST(S): THE SECOND PASS

CAPSULE: SESSION 9 (2001)

DIRECTED BY:  Brad Anderson

FEATURING: Peter Mullan, David Caruso, , Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton III

PLOT: A hazmat crew removing asbestos from an abandoned asylum uncover secrets about the long-dead but deeply disturbed residents—and, arguably, more chilling secrets about each other.

Still from Session 9 (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  The weirdometer registers only trace amounts of bizarrity in this eerie, complex psychological horror.  It’s worth a viewing for fright fans, but not thanks to its strangeness.

COMMENTS: Before Session 9, director Brad Anderson was best known (if he was known at all) for his romantic comedies.  Anderson co-fashioned Session 9‘s complicated, haunted script to take advantage of the availability of an abandoned mental institution, a dream location to shoot a horror movie, and wound up finding a more successful niche as a specialist in psychological suspense.  Disdaining shock violence and other teen horror tropes, Session 9 hoes a tougher row by creating its suspense through characterization, hidden secrets, and (for the most part) by encouraging the audience to imagine unspeakable carnage rather than to get off on seeing it laid out in splattery crimson glory.  The idea here is to throw five average Joes into a pressure cooker situation (finishing a three-week asbestos removal job in one week) inside a suggestively creepy locale, and let the tension build organically as they begin to crack under the stress.  Gordon is the most preoccupied of the bunch: he may lose his struggling business if he doesn’t complete this contract on time, and he’s got a newborn baby back home to feed.  Phil, his right hand man, has his own tense dynamic with the obnoxious Hank: they share an uncomfortable history with a common woman.  Mullet-headed young Jeff is the neophyte kid who gets picked on by the others, and Mike is the thoughtful guy who’s too good for this job (for unknown reasons, he’s dropped out of law school to schlep around in a hazmat suit).  The characterizations aren’t deep, but they’re efficient; we know these guys, we get their conflicting agendas.  Mike’s discovery of old tape recordings of hypnotherapy with a schizophrenic woman—reels labeled sessions 1 to 9—provides a parallel dramatic line, as we periodically hear a tranquil doctor probe the mind of a psychopathic woman with buried issues that may continue to haunt the hosptal’s halls to this day.  Like the Overlook Hotel in Session 9‘s closest ancestor, The Shining, the empty spaces of the asylum are virtually a separate character (there are plenty of tracking shots down abandoned corridors to remind us of ‘s horror).  The grounds are full of memories of the departed: Satanist graffiti scrawled on the walls by the teens who broke in to party there on weekends, old mementos and clippings pasted onto the walls of the patients rooms, and broken bric-a-brac left there by the long-gone staff and by homeless squatters.  Everything is linked by dark, dank underground tunnels connecting the various buildings.  It would be almost impossible to shoot a film in this setting that didn’t raise at least a couple of hairs on the back of your neck, and Anderson’s restrained direction and the ensembles’ paranoiac acting ably amplify the institution’s inherent creepiness.  The ending is too obvious to qualify as a twist, and I wish Anderson had shown Kubrick’s courage to go shamelessly over-the-top every now and then, but Session 9 satisfies as a mature, eerie, and mostly quiet horror—a type of film that’s all too rare nowadays.  What could be scarier than an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of ghosts?  The answer: an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of schizophrenic ghosts.

The asylum in the movie, Danvers State Hospital, was a real abandoned mental institution in Massachusetts. It holds the dubious honor of being known as the birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy (a fact referenced in the movie), and later became infamous for overcrowding and inhumane treatment of its inmates.  Most of the buildings on the sprawling campus were torn down in 2006 to construct an apartment complex.  The units burned down in 2007 in a mysterious fire, though they were soon rebuilt.  A 12-minute featurette on the DVD documents the cruel history of the institution.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Save for the disappointing finale, Session 9 proves to be a remarkably spare journey into the confines of the mind and a unique evocation of just how terrifying it is to loose one’s mind.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Jack Mort.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PULSE (2001)

AKA Kairo

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki

PLOT: A computer expert’s suicide is the first in a series of mysterious events and disappearances that leave Tokyo, and the world, depopulated; is a website that dials up people on its own and asks if they want to meet a ghost responsible?

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy and weirder than the average scare flick, but Pulse is tuned to the standard turn of the millennium J-horror wavelength.  It’s a good watch for fear fans, and a seminal one for Asian New Wave horror followers, but it doesn’t go that extra weird mile.  Kurosawa’s ambiguous horror/detective procedural Cure (1997) makes for a better bizarre candidate.

COMMENTS: Pulse slips so quietly from reality to strangeness that you hardly recognize the transition; one minute, you’re watching its characters going about their daily lives, dealing with unexpected suicides and alarming computer viruses, and the next minute the world is almost deserted and ruled by ghosts.  The theme of this horror movie is not really fear but loneliness, and how technology fosters isolation more than cures it.  The film is not too subtle in delivering that message.  A plague of ghosts seems to spread via a computer website; one character immediately diagnoses a low-tech character’s sudden interest in the Internet as a desire to connect with his fellow man; a spirit tells the protagonist “death was eternal loneliness” from inside a foil-lined room.  Even scenes occurring before people start disappearing en masse are shot in disconcertingly deserted urban settings, on empty streets and buses and in lonely apartments.  Characters discuss the difficulty humans have making deep and lasting connections, while simultaneously hungering, struggling, and failing to form those bonds with each other.  Those who encounter one of the malevolent spirits in Pulse go through a syndrome (ghost traumatic stress disorder?) that involves locking themselves inside a room alone and sealing the door with red tape.  What the movie intends to say on the metaphorical level is very clear; what’s a little more confused is what’s supposed to be happening on the literal level.  We get half-baked exposition regarding the mechanics of the ghost world, but the spirits’ malevolent motives aren’t ever clearly explained, and it’s not at all certain how all the pieces are supposed to fit together.  If, as one sage tells us, the dead are now leaking into our world because theirs has exceeded its capacity, how do they benefit from convincing the living to kill themselves?  Wouldn’t that just worsen their overpopulation problem?  If the spirits of the dead have no place to go, shouldn’t the world be overrun with ghostly presences, rather than empty?  What purpose in setting up the spectral website that dials up users on its own—other than to scare a technophobic audience?  The movie glosses over answers to these questions, which does make it feel like a weirder endeavor; in this case, however, it seems the material might benefit from a fairer stab at clarity.  But Kiyoshi (no relation to Akira) Kuroswa is all about atmosphere, and he’s an expert at conjuring it.  The long lonely narrative spaces are broken up by several memorable moments, including glitchy technostrangeness involving a metaphysically malfunctioning webcam with a distorting lens, bizarre broadcast television interference from the Beyond, people who melt into black smudges on the wall, and a genuinely frightening trip inside “The Forbidden Room” to discuss matters of mortality with the death’s head who dwells therein.  Mood, not logic or even philosophy, is the glue that holds the movie together, and while it isn’t the horror masterpiece it might have been if that atmosphere was yoked to a better story, it works well on the shiver-inducing level.

The dumbed-down 2006 Hollywood remake with Kirsten Bell, part of a trend of bastardized American remakes of J-horror classics, was widely despised by critics and audiences alike.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…dolorous, shivery, and surreal.”–Wesley Morris, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)

NOTE: By popular demand, The American Astronaut has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made! Please read the official Certified Weird entry. This initial review is left here for archival purposes.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Rocco Sisto, Gregory Russell Cook, Annie Golden, Tom Aldredge

PLOT:  A space pilot trades a cat for a “real live girl” whom he can exchange for the “Boy Who

Still from The American Astronaut (2001)

Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast,” whom he intends to swap in turn for the remains of a dead Venusian stud in order to collect a reward.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Genrewise, The American Astronaut could be described as many things—space western, garage band musical, nonsense comedy—but the one thing it indisputably is is a cult movie.  That is to say, it’s a specialized and peculiar little flick that has a devoted group of followers, and a larger contingent of outsiders who are nonplussed by its popularity.  I have to admit that in this case I lean slightly towards the second group.  American Astronaut is very weird (it has a character named “the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast,” for goodness sake), but some of it is tedious, like ninety minutes spent watching a clan of hipsters swapping in-jokes you aren’t let in on.  I can sense the magic other people get from the pic without being able to directly experience it myself.  This is a movie on the cusp of being certified as one of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made, but it will require some reader acclaim to sway my opinion towards adding it to the List.  So get to promoting the movie in the comments, Astronaut fans.

COMMENTS:  How many movies can boast a line like “Gentlemen, the Boy Who Saw a Woman’s Breast has left our planet” or a musical number like “The Girl with a Vagina Made of Glass”?  How about a villain who is incapable of killing unless he has no possible grudge against his victim and a “real live girl” who (in this early stage of her development) is just a suitcase that plays a rock tune when you lift a slat on the casing?  The American Astronaut creates a unique, absurd, but consistent universe through a dry, deadpan DIY approach.  It’s set in a boy’s cosmos, where women are strange creatures who live on one planet while the men live on another.  The movie’s nonsense proclivities are a narrative film incarnation of the free-associative lyrics of writer/director Cory McAbee’s mildly punkish band, the Billy Nayer Show.  One song Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)

CAPSULE: CINEMA 16: EUROPEAN SHORT FILMS (U.S. EDITION) (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Juan Solanas, Andrea Arnold, Christopher Nolan, Roy Andersson, Toby MacDonald, Lynne Ramsay, Jan Svankmajer, Mathieu Kassovitz, , Virgil Widrich, Ridley Scott, , Balint Kenyeres, Anders Thomas Jensen, Martin McDonagh, Nanni Moretti

FEATURING: Natalie Press, , Rúaidhrí Conroy, Klas-Gösta Olsson, Kris Marshall, Johannes Silberschneider, Tony Scott, Ulrich Thomsen

PLOT: This collection of sixteen award-winning shorts made by Europeans (mostly Brits) is a mix of dramas, comedies, and experimental pieces.

Still from Jabberwocky (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Compilations aren’t eligible for the List.  Although there are several short films on this set that are both weird, and great for their length, none of them have the weight it would take to displace a full-length feature film from the List.

COMMENTS: Like any box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get with this collection of sixteen shorts—it could be a caramel, a raspberry creme, or one of the dreaded coconuts.  The wide array of styles from artists working free of commercial concerns makes collections like this excellent primers on what cinema can accomplish, and this selection  from short film specialists Cinema 16 is one of the most award-studded compilations you’ll find.  Not having to worry about the box office receipts allows short film-makers to experiment with technique and go weirder than they otherwise would; indeed, about half of the movies here have at least a nodding acquaintance with the bizarre, while a couple are full-fledged works of surrealist art.  But no matter what direction your tastes run, rest assured there is something here to delight, and to bore, every film fan.

For completeness’ sake, I’ll briefly run down the realism-based entries first, in ascending order of quality.  We’ll then spend a little more time with the experimental offerings, a few of which are extremely important to the world of weird film.

The oldest film, Ridley Scott’s 1956 Boy and Bicycle, about a lad who takes a bike ride to the Continue reading CAPSULE: CINEMA 16: EUROPEAN SHORT FILMS (U.S. EDITION) (2007)

CAPSULE: BUNNY AND THE BULL (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Paul King

FEATURING: Edward Hogg, Simon Farnaby, Verónica Echegui

PLOT: An agoraphobic young man remembers (or hallucinates) a trip he took across Europe with his hard-drinking, sexually voracious, gambling-addicted pal Bunny.

Still from Bunny and the Bull (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s a mildly surreal comedy that’s in the weird ballpark, but it’s not nearly unhinged enough to make the List on weirdness alone, and too uneven to be counted among the best weird movies ever made.

COMMENTS: Bunny and the Bull begins by introducing us to Stephen Turnbull, an shut-in with severe OCD issues who files his used dental floss and checks the pH of his urine every morning, then shows in flashback how he degenerated from a functioning neurotic to a full-fledged basket case.  An emergency involving rats violating his boxes of hermetically sealed vegetarian lasagna forces him to phone Captain Crab for a takeout meal, unlocking a flood of memories.  The logo on the takeout box inspires Stephen to remember the time he was stood up by a girl he intended to propose to at a Captain Crab.  In the movie’s first anstract sequence, he imagines a restaurant constructed entirely out of painted paper; even the fish swimming in the aquarium are cardboard cutouts.  The motif carries over in the next scene, where an entire horse race is re-enacted with similar animated, spray-painted two-dimensional figures.  These two scenes set up the expectation that the entire movie will carry through this hazy-dream-version-of-a-high-school-play look, but as Stephen and Bunny begin their tour of Europe, subsequent sequences are shot on realistic looking sets, though sometimes employing blurry rear-projection or other random visual trickery.  Then, halfway through the movie the cinematographer pulls out a new look: a world full of gleaming brass CGI clockwork contraptions.  The different visual signatures each look great on their own, but the schizophrenic hopping about from one to another makes you wonder if they switched art directors halfway through film, then ran out of money in the special effects budget.  Bunny‘s visuals are frequently likened to those of The Science of Sleep, but that comparison only holds for the cardboard-cutout scenes; the lack of a Continue reading CAPSULE: BUNNY AND THE BULL (2009)