Category Archives: List Candidates

LIST CANDIDATE: AVIDA (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Benoît Delépine, Gustave de Kervern

FEATURING: Gustave de Kervern, Benoît Delépine, Eric Martin, Velvet

PLOT: A simpleton stumbles into a job at a zoo and is conscripted into a heist involving the theft of a dog; through a mishap, the thieves end up leading the pet’s owner up the side of a mountain so that she may die there.

Still from Avida (2006)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Avida is deliberately surreal, piling offbeat scenarios on top of mysterious images until they constitute a puzzle to be solved. Ironically, the film’s final image suggests a level of logic that is almost too sensible for all that has preceded it.

COMMENTS: Avida sets up a theme right from the get-go, as a picador psyches himself to go into the ring against a formidable opponent. Once his foe is revealed to be a rhinoceros, we get our first taste of the film’s surreal view of the battle between man and animal. From there, we meet our mute hero working as a dog trainer whose job seems to be primarily a target for the animals’ aggression. But when he is too distracted to help his employer in a moment of need, he finds himself adrift in the world. It’s like Being There, but with more barking.

Our theme quickly gives way to a picaresque journey in which the nameless protagonist reveals that he has no idea how to get on in the world. He attacks a golfer for his shoes, pushes down a woman to take her wristwatch (she seems disappointed that his intentions are not more lascivious), and raids a fancy restaurant to steal some lobsters. His visit to a ian job fair lands him at a zoo, where a new array of characters and settings emerges.

The film has the feel of a sketch show, with scenes careening from one to the other. Two men shooting each other with pellet guns give way to a restaurant where the zoo’s animals are on the menu. There’s a plot, but only just enough, and characters who are only germane insofar as their names give them purpose: the Distracted Nanny, the Benevolent Singer, the Man With the Head of Scotch Tape. Avida doesn’t think about these people for too long, and neither should you.

In its first half, Avida is frequently funny, with choices that amuse through surprise. The filmmakers clearly subscribe to the view that anything seen long enough will become amusing in time, as when a bodyguard who has failed to stop the dognapping calmly reaches into an unexpectedly deep arsenal to take aim at the perpetrators. Eventually, though, we meet up with the title character (the only one given a name) who demands that the Mute and his colleagues deliver to her death in a barren wasteland filled with mirrors and armoires, and the humor gives way to a look at humanity’s more pathetic traits.

What Avida is ultimately about is unclear and up for debate. The final image, and the only one in color, is a Dali-esque painting that seems to suggest that everything we have seen is the reasonable explanation for such an artwork, or perhaps that all Surrealist images have their origin in the kind of hijinks that have unfolded before us. The message is further muddied with an epigram from the Native American leader Chief Seattle that cautions against carelessness toward our animal friends—hearkening back to the early theme, but also reminding us that it hasn’t been relevant to the film for quite some time. Avida is idiosyncratic to a fault, and that fault seems to be a lack of trust. The movie bends over backwards to justify its quirks, rather than just letting them be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somewhere between Monty Python, Jacques Tati and a slideshow of New Yorker cartoons, this critique of life’s cruel inconsistency confirms the French co-directors’ gift for reinterpreting surrealism in a humorously modern key. Though their often disgusting imagery may alienate the squeamish and send fans of conventional comedy running for the exit, pic’s very wildness could earn it a cult following via festivals and maybe attract younger audiences.” – Deborah Young, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Donya, who deemed it “an intelligent beautiful poetic ‘weird” movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

NOVEMBER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Aided by witchcraft, a love triangle unfolds in an Estonian village in the 19th Century.Still from November (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s only February, and November is already our first contender for weirdest movie of 2018. Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.

COMMENTS: At one point young Hans, listening to magical tales from an unlikely source, proclaims “Unbelievable stories! They’re so enchanting.” There is an overarching plot in November, but it takes a back seat to the enchanting digressions. Set in a 19th century that feels like the depths of the Dark Ages (aside from a few anachronisms like muskets and tobacco), November unspools like a compendium of folk legends. Beginning on November 1, All Souls Day, when the dead join their descendants for a light meal, the story takes us on a tour of peasant beliefs and traditions, with a few mini-tales recounted inside of the main plot: stories of mysterious women seeking passage across the river, of effete lovers mooning in a gondola. The dreamlike monochrome cinematography and a doom-laden musical score nurtures the magical atmosphere, while the griminess of the characters’ hygiene and the baseness of their morals adds a contrasting level of realism that makes this alternate Estonia strangely believable.

The most exotic feature of this magical realist landscape are the kratts, automatons made from whatever farm implements (or, as we see later, other materials) the peasants have lying around, powered by souls that must be purchased from the Devil. Before the opening credits we meet a three-legged monster cobbled together out of broomsticks, metal rods, an axe, a sickle, and a skull; it’s capable of airlifting a cow, and develops a nasty temper when it’s not assigned enough work. The kratts may be the most uniquely Estonian element here, but folkloric magic is an everyday part of these character’s lives: diabolic meetings at midnight crossroads, lupine transformations on the full moon, disgustingly compiled love potions, and a bizarre scheme to trick the plague into skipping over the village all play parts in the story. Persistent pagan beliefs dominate Christian ones, leading to absurdly humorous situations. The villagers see Jesus as a powerful deity who can be gamed for their personal gain, and find non-Church sanctioned uses for consecrated hosts. They’ve adapted the magical elements of Christianity to their own purposes, but haven’t internalized its ethics: they are a barbaric, mean, and backstabbing lot of louts, continually scheming and stealing from both their doting German overlords and from each other. This depraved condition may be imposed on them by the necessity of their hardscrabble existence and servitude. Young love, however, remains a beacon of pure idealism, even in this bleak world; only proving, perhaps, that some ancient superstitions remain with us even today.

Frequently astounding, with a new fabulous wrinkle every ten minutes, November will enchant fans of weird cinema, though its downbeat nature and lack of likable characters may make it a hard sell to your straight cinema friends. Cold, but lovely, like a frosty November morn, its fascinations lie mostly on the surface, but what a surface it is.

November opens in New York this Friday (Feb. 23), expands to Los Angeles on March 2nd, and will play major cities in the U.S. throughout the Spring. See the official site for a list of screenings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fantastical, strange, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and just the right amount of weird to give us this strange fairy tale that we feel it’s a world we might have inhabited in a past life.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: HITLER LIVES! (2017)

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Stuart Rowsell

FEATURING: Morte, Jay Katz, Chris Sadrinna

PLOT: The deteriorating, practically zombified body of Adolf Hitler shuffles around a bunker deep underground, his nightmares and visions of past associates interrupted only by visits from a faithful henchman and his telecommunications with Dr. Mengele, who has unsettling plans to permanently immortalize the erstwhile Führer.

Still from Hitler Lives! (2017)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hitler Lives! is definitely weird, with hallucinated marionette memories, decomposing visuals mimicking the decomposing Hitler, and an ending that cannot be un-watched (much like most of the movie). The lack of polish, although sometimes smacking of amateurism, is stylistically effective; kind of like if Jörg Buttgereit started a movie promised a tiny budget, but instead was given no budget.

COMMENTS: Wikipedia tells us that “Adelaide is the capital city of the state of South Australia, and the fifth-most populous city of Australia. In June 2016, Adelaide had an estimated resident population of 1,324,279.” What that opening blurb does not mention is that one of those 1.3 million people was none other than Adolf Hitler. Perhaps that is unsurprising, as the former dictator was busy slowly decomposing in an underground bunker in 2016. That, in brief, is the premise of Stuart Rowsell’s zero-budget trash horror weirdness, Hitler Lives! In a string of un-unseeable scenes taking place over an unclear amount of time, we get to watch, in horror spiced with disgust, as Hitler shuffles around in mostly solitary agony.

Beginning topside, two construction workers zip down into a tunnel as one of them regales the other with an anecdote about his grandfather helping to transport Adolf Hitler from the Antarctic hideaway to which he escaped after Germany’s fall. The colleague meets the once powerful demagogue, who is now scarcely able to move and hooked up to some ominous, boiler-looking device. After the worker is killed to fuel the boiler, things get grislier as Hitler hallucinates, hacks, stumbles around, and is increasingly distressed about Doctor Mengele’s new plan for their immortality.

So, we’ve got a few standard items here: Hitler did not die at the end of World War II; weird science has come to the Führer’s rescue; and at least one Nazi ended up in Argentina (Dr. Mengele). Director Stuart Rowsell, a special effects man by trade, twists those tropes into perhaps the least palatable presentation possible. Dorff’s doomed colleague immediately smells gangrene upon entering the bunker, and we almost can, too. The atmosphere on-screen is stifling, and the visuals look as decayed and dripping as Adolf’s rotting body. A video screen displays constant Nazi propaganda, and Hitler’s wistful musings about Wagner and success are constantly interrupted by creepy, strangely-voiced marionettes of his past henchmen (Göring, von Ribbentrop, and Hess are among the Nazi superstars we see puppetized) as well as unnerving videophone calls from Doctor Mengele. And did I mention aliens? They appear very briefly, but allow for what is one of the most… memorable endings I’ve endured in a while.

As you saw at the top of this review: Beware. We’re running precipitously low on slots, but as much as it was a trial at times, Hitler Lives! has earned, through slime, ickiness, outlandishness, and puppetry, serious consideration for Certified status. I’ve mentioned it had no budget, which is a bit of a lie: a whopping 150,000 Australian dollars were funneled into this. Impressively small change, yes, particularly considering how thoroughly real (in its surreal, unsettling way) Hitler Lives! feels. Perhaps the weirdest thing of all, however—and I say this with considerable reservation—is that by the end, the movie somehow makes the viewer pity the walking corpse on display. This feeling dissipates quickly once one leaves the rancid bunker, but the fact that human sentiment could be so upended for 80 minutes is impressive.

THE DIRECTOR SAYS:

“…the film was never stage managed for the mainstream – it was designed and written for the alternative fringe of the ‘strange film’ loving audience …. so the film is what it is – a messed up surreal trash exploitation film made on a limited budget of next to zero, that only ‘the audience of the weird’ and strange film could understand and enjoy!

Hitler Lives! was made for the weirdest audience that exists.

Hitler Lives! is available to watch on USA Streaming websites such as iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, XBox and Google Play …. visit www.hitlerlives.com for updates on more VOD/Streaming … as of yet there is no official DVD/Blu Ray release – maybe there will be a release in a year or so, depending on interest and demand…”–Stuart Rowsell

LIST CANDIDATE: ONE POINT O (2004)

AKA Paranoia 1.0 (DVD)

DIRECTED BY: Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson

FEATURING: , Deborah Kara Unger, , Eugene Byrd,

PLOT: Computer programmer Simon J develops crippling paranoia, and a craving for branded milk, when he begins receiving a series of empty packages at his apartment.

Still from One Point O (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Telling the classic tale of corporate-owned dystopia through a low-budget lens mixing Kafka and noir, the film creates a uniquely arthouse-ian mashup out of familiar tropes.

COMMENTS: Jeff Renfroe (no connection, thankfully, to the trucker from that exploitation shock-fest The Bunny Game) is a director whose name is not likely to be widely recognized, but who, as the cutthroat movie industry goes, hasn’t done too badly for himself. Certainly, he’s been chiefly restricted to TV episodes, but they’re decent gigs: “Killjoys,” “Helix,” “Dominion,” and various other shows that, while crowd-pleasing in that way that modern television is obligated to be, are far from the worst that the medium has to offer.

Point is, I like to console myself about the negligible notice that Renfroe’s directorial debut got by telling myself that, judging by the path his career took, he must have at least impressed somebody relatively high up.

Paranoia 1.0—or One Point O, as it was called at its Sundance premier—follows Simon J, an isolated computer programmer struggling to meet his latest deadline. When a succession of empty packages begin mysteriously appearing in his apartment, Simon finds himself overwhelmed by a growing sense of crippling paranoia, and an insatiable craving for Nature Fresh brand milk.

Paranoia 1.0 draws its primary influences from film noir, Kafka, and philosophical science fiction. None of these are genres or styles I’m particularly familiar with; but I know enough to be able to tell that their combination here is a major part of what lends the film its particular atmosphere.

In the tradition of low-budget sci-fi, Paranoia 1.0 takes place in that weird historical limbo that exists only in films: contemporary fashions, computers and coding interfaces exist alongside rotary phones and vaguely Soviet architectural backdrops (the film was shot in Bucharest), while artificial intelligences, nanotechnology and VR games that are advanced even by today’s standards factor heavily into the plot.

There’s a myriad of reasons why one could argue that—in comparison with Hollywood’s tendency to invest in polished, lily-white backdrops that make the world of the future look like a gigantic Apple store—this rugged and piecemeal representation of the future comes across as more genuine. But in this case, the most relevant aspect of it is its timelessness, a timelessness that matches fittingly Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ONE POINT O (2004)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ORNITHOLOGIST (2016)

O Ornitólogo

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao Teijo, Han Wuen, Chan Suan

PLOT: After being swept away by rapids, Fernando, an ornithologist looking for black storks, finds himself in a mysterious forest where he’ll undergo a transformative spiritual journey mirroring the life of Saint Anthony of Padua.

Still from The Ornithologist (2016)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Ornithologist is the allegorical tale of an atheist ornithologist’s conversion through a succession of increasingly bizarre occurrences. Given that these moments vary from slightly odd to truly surreal, the film plays the weirdness card, although the limited number of remaining slots in the List make its inclusion uncertain.

COMMENTS: The first shots of The Ornithologist, after an introductory quote by Saint Anthony, depict a dark, calm river with a bird and plant life, accompanied by the ambient sounds of nature. After the film’s weird notes kick in, the atmosphere remains remarkably the same: quiet and naturalistic, persistently treating the strange sights of Fernando’s mystical journey as perfectly normal. The stunningly shot setting, a Portuguese forest that director João Pedro Rodrigues populates with strange images and figures, also persists for the entirety of the movie (save for the very last, and very weird, scene).

After he crashes his kayak, the titular protagonist is rescued by two female Chinese pilgrims, on their way to Santiago de Compostela, with whom he spends the night. This moment marks the film’s first foray into Fernando’s symbolic journey, as well as a turn to a darker tone. When a menacing sound is heard, the frightened pilgrims assume it’s a demonic entity just as quickly as Fernando casually rebuts their belief, claiming there’s no God or Devil. Shocked by his lack of faith, they oblige him to sleep outside of their tent, and the next morning finds him tied to a tree.

From that point on, the steps on the ornithologist’s conversion grow progressively surreal; some are blatant in their symbolism (such as the appearance of the Holy Spirit as a white dove), others more obscure (naked amazons shooting him with a rifle, only to have a quick chat with him after he revives). Most are blasphemous and/or contain homoerotic undertones. They include Fernando’s baptism in urine (!), sex with a mute shepherd named Jesus (!!!), and the appearance of what appear to be embalmed animals in the woods, among other outrageous stops in his mystical-existential self-discovery arc.

These episodes are consistently engaging and reveal Rodrigues’ fascination with Christian iconography, mysticism and eroticism (a potently heretical mix), as well as his intention to filter universal religious symbols through his personal sensibilities. The “enlightenment quest” narrative will likely remind weirdophiles of ’s El Topo or The Holy Mountain, but the film is stylistically much closer to ’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Like that film, The Ornithologist‘s bizarre and phantasmagorical apparitions seamlessly blend in the environment as if they were no less natural than a tree or a bird. Accordingly, our main character remains stoic throughout his adventure. Speaking only when needed (that is, sparsely), his language, like the film’s, is mostly non-verbal. Actor Paul Hamy subtly conveys feelings of confusion and curiosity; interestingly, he has explained in interviews that he likes physical expression, comparing himself to a sculpture that the director shapes in front of the camera. The Ornithologist displays this particularly well, as Hamy’s character is aloof and his metamorphosis occurs internally, manifesting itself mostly in his careful physicality and expressions.

Even if you have difficulty relating to Fernando, it’s apparent that this is a very personal affair for Rodrigues. At one point near the end, the director himself literally steps into the shoes of the main actor. The character’s name changes to António (another reference to Saint Anthony), signalling that his transformation is complete. Fernando is not meant to be an avatar of the audience but, rather, of his creator; as a result, viewers without familiarity or investment in the narrative of Saint Anthony may find themselves estranged. The story is clearly very important to Rodrigues, and ultimately asserts itself as vaguely autobiographical. This is not to say, however, that its deeper meaning is impenetrable. Surely, watching The Ornithologist is, above all, an experience, and the beautiful cinematography and pervading atmosphere, languid and sometimes sinister, will please the adventurous viewer. But I believe exploring the film’s symbolism is a rewarding enhancement. Like Fernando, we feel shipwrecked and disoriented in such a strange environment, but by the end, we’ll probably have changed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Rodrigues toys with his audience with the deadpan playfulness of Luis Buñuel, whose films The Ornithologist sometimes recalls in its tricky approach to religious themes… If nothing else, the film reminds one of how strange and beautiful existence can be.”–Ben Sachs, The Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: SLACK BAY (2016)

Ma Loute

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Fabrice Luchini, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Brandon Lavieville, Raph

PLOT: During the holiday season on the beaches near Calais, two young people from opposite worlds discover a mutual attraction, but complications arise from the behavior of their quirky families and an ongoing investigation into unexplained disappearances among vacationers.

Still from Slack Bay (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The film goes all in on the oddness, contrasting over-the-top dramatics with an aggressively blasé attitude toward the more salacious elements of its story. Writer/director Bruno Dumont wants very badly to put you off your guard, mixing in livewire topics like cannibalism, incest, and gender confusion with characters who are carefully calculated to be ridiculous. But the effort is so determined, so blatantly deliberate, that there’s a case to be made that the weird factor is reduced by the strain behind it.

COMMENTS: Not long after the first run of Twin Peaks flamed out in the dual crucibles of American television production and audience fickleness, ABC decided to see what other ideas David Lynch might have up his sleeve. In the wake of perhaps the moodiest show in TV history, Lynch decided to mix things up by proffering, of all things, a situation comedy. Although possessing a quirky and dark sense of humor, Lynch was hardly anybody’s idea of the next Garry Marshall, and the resulting show—a true curio called “On the Air,” about a failing TV network in the 1950s—was so strange and off-putting in its attempts at comedy that the network pulled the plug after three episodes. There’ll be no latter-day revival for that Lynch project.

It would come as no surprise to learn that Bruno Dumont had stumbled upon “On the Air” and been suitably inspired. Known for the intense gravitas of his raw autopsies of life in Cannes Grand Prix-winning films like L’Humanité and Flanders, Dumont surprised everyone by throwing in with the comedians for Li’l Quinquin, a French TV miniseries that answered the burning question, “What if ‘Broadchurch’ were played for laughs?” Slack Bay continues that dalliance with silliness, viewing a number of serious themes through a filter of absurdity.

The most visible example of this is the extremely broad acting of almost everyone in the cast, resembling the broad physicality of the earliest sound films. Nearly every actor seems to have been given the note, “Go over the top and keep going.” The vacationing family, the nitwit Van Peteghems, revels in stretching every character choice to its extreme. Luchini’s hunchbacked, perpetually perplexed father is so flummoxed by basic tasks that it takes him several minutes to try to cut a piece of meat. (He is unsuccessful.) Bruni Tedeschi is eternally frazzled until a surprising burst of flight provides her with much-needed inner calm. And then there’s Binoche, attempting to become the dictionary definition of the word “histrionic.” She reacts in the biggest way possible to everything, so that when situations finally seem to justify an outsize response (such as an anguished revelation of a family secret), she has Chicken Littled herself into unbelievability.

But it’s not just the upper-class twits whom Dumont captures at their looniest. There are the taciturn Bruforts, who mostly grimace and grunt, barely speaking except to lash out at each other. And then there are the two detectives who stumble across the countryside like a Gallic , utterly incapable of putting one clue together with another. Didier Després’ Machin is a particular idiot: corpulent to the point of being unable to move around effectively (his repeated falls are Slack Bay’s nod to slapstick), he confronts everyone he meets with an aggressive tone and is defiantly oblivious to information directly in front of him. When he too unexpectedly takes to the skies, his experience is utterly different: inspired by nothing, angry, and only resolved by shooting him down.

The closest thing to normal is a young romantic couple. Played with a charming lack of guile by novice actors, Billie and Ma Loute are appropriately awkward, coy, and relatable in ways that set them apart from everyone else in the film. Well, as relatable as a couple can be when they consist of a gender-fluid teenager and a tight-lipped young man who whacks people over the head with an oar so they can be served up as food. It’s almost as though Dumont is playing a game in which you have to decide what makes a character more tolerable: acts or behaviors. In Slack Bay, he seems to lean toward behaviors.

The question of whether or not Slack Bay is weird relies heavily on whether you think Dumont is staging an elaborate put-on. Everything is so broadly vaudevillian, it’s easy to suspect that he’s purposely having a go at us. But I choose to believe that he earnestly wants to explore the human condition via these crazed antics. Maybe, like Lynch in sitcom mode, everything will inevitably filter through his old sensibilities, which will certainly carry over to other styles and genres, like his most recent film: a musical about Joan of Arc.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Just as you near the end of your patience with an item of slapstick farce, something weird and wonderful straight out of a Kevin McSherry painting comes into the frame to transfix you… The shenanigans oscillate from dark and distorted to joyously daft but they may prove too willfully eccentric for some viewers. Others, however, may find delight in such gay abandon.”–Hilary A. White, Sunday Independent (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Julia Ormond, , Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey

PLOT: The story of a pseudo-miraculous infant unfolds in an elaborate passion play, which we watch along with 17th-century Italian aristocrats as they take in, and at times partake in, the play’s action.

Still from The Baby of Macon (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Beyond my usual answer of, “quite frankly, every Greenaway movie probably qualifies for the List,” is the less fatalist reason that The Baby of Mâcon should count among the weirdest movies of all time because it makes all other Greenaway films (except, perhaps, The Falls) feel positively accessible and happy. More a recording of a hyper-sumptuous stage production than a film, this movie is such an embodiment of hyper-stylized hyper-formalism it proves that Peter Greenaway can, like Spinal Tap’s guitar amp, “go to eleven.”

COMMENTS: Despite his oeuvre’s opulence, stylishness, and glamour, Peter Greenaway could never be accused of catering to any audience other than himself. I mean this as no criticism. The reception to his films proves that there are non-Greenaways out there who can get on the same wavelength and, if not always enjoy, then at least appreciate the detailed grandeur of his vision. The Baby of Mâcon checks its way down the Greenaway list: stylized setting and dialogue, grandiose presentation, and a vicious current of sadism. We’ve seen that he can be lyrical (The Pillow Book), quirky (The Falls), and, sometimes, even commercially successful (The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover). The Baby of Mâcon, however, is Greenaway at his angriest. Watching this film is like watching a back-alley murder scored by Wagner and choreographed by Baryshnikov.

The story is a simple plot of cynicism hijacked by vengeance. Sometime in the middle of the last millennium, a baby is born. The baby’s actual mother was long thought barren, and through some quick maneuverings, one of her daughters (Julia Ormond) claims to have birthed the child through some immaculate conception. A local Bishop’s son (Ralph Fiennes) is, along with his father, skeptical. The baby has his own evil streak and condemns the Bishop’s son to death by ox-goring for having almost taken (consensually) his false-mother’s virginity. The Bishop (Philip Stone) finds his son dead, takes the child, and exploits him further. The boy is killed by his false-mother, who herself is condemned to a fate that would be best left unsaid.

Nonetheless, it must be. Peter Greenaway, through all the pomp, costumery, and stylization of the dialogue, shows his true fury at religion, the aristocracy, and much else about societal order. With the blessing of the in-film audience member Cosimo Medici (Jonathan Lacey), the false-mother of the titular child is doomed to a death by rape. I won’t trouble you with the “logic” behind it, but through one of his beloved lists, Greenaway subjects his character to hundreds of such experiences, consecutively, at the hands of the local militia—all blessed and “pre-forgiven” for their acts by the Bishop. All this is done before an audience who gaze, along with us, at the cruelty. They, however, are observers of a “morality play”; we have the discomfort of acknowledging how immoral the play’s events are. The only blameless character, the Bishop’s son, is the unfortunate catalyst of this evil. He is referred to as a scientist before his demise, and seems of a level head. No room for him in this world of intrigue, superstition, and malice.

There is simultaneously not much more to say about this film, as well as extensive remarks to be made about the reams of allusions throughout. Uncharacteristically for Greenaway, there is often a great deal of on-screen confusion (à la Aleksey German), as the camera is often (seemingly) obtusely placed, mimicking the position of an audience member of a stage play. It is left to us to follow the action, scouring the screen for what is happening where.

A bit of trivia: this was Ralph Fiennes’ second film role. His third, which would make him famous, is substantially more uplifting and, even, more cheerful—Schindler’s List. Released the same year as The Baby of Mâcon, film distributors in North America found it easier to put the evils of the Holocaust on display than to reckon with the malignity found in Greenaway’s offering.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Not even Ken Russell could have dreamed up the stew of grotesque religiosity, slavering voyeurism and sexual violence that is Peter Greenaway’s 1993 movie, ‘The Baby of Macon’…”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (1997 screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic

PLOT: A cardiologist’s odd relationship with a teenage boy reveals a secret about his past, and will lead him to a dilemma in the future.

Still from The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Two-time Certified Weird director Giorgos Lanthimos never fails to deliver weirdness; it’s in his DNA. His first official stab at a horror movie is every bit as disturbing as you might hope—which is to say, every bit as disturbing as his comedies and dramas.

COMMENTS: The Killing of a Sacred Deer flips the script of The Lobster. That was a comedy with terrifying moments, while Deer is an unapologetic horror movie with a few funny bits (most of which come from blasé or inappropriate conversations about weighty or grotesque subjects). As is always the case with Lanthimos, what you notice first is the anti-acting acting style: the characters barely register emotions, and when they do express, say, marital tenderness, it’s strained, like they’re pod people trying to fake it to fool the humans. That’s the case here, where Steven, Colin Farrel’s cardiac surgeon, trudges through relationships with both Martin, a pleasant but mysterious teen boy, and his own family with the usual Lanthimos-imposed rigidity. This lack of humanity magnifies the mundanity of the family’s suburban existence. The drama is accented by heavy, obtrusive bursts of dissonant classical music (e.g., cue a Ligeti chord at the conclusion of mother/daughter conversation re: smartphones) to give it that ominous horror film feel. It sounds forced, but it’s effective; combined with the awkward interpersonal relations, the technique creates a real sense of dread that rises for nearly an hour before the first major revelation.

Despite the initially repressed thesping, an interesting thing happens in Deer. Delving into horror forces the director to allow his actors to reveal genuine feelings, however briefly. You can’t remain restrained and unreactive when faced with immediately horrific situations like mental or physical torture, however absurd the premise from which they flow might be. Farrell (and Kidman, but mainly Farrel) gets to play furious, frightened and bereaved here. The further into the plot they venture, the more emotions are unleashed, an unexpected progression that feels natural and satisfying.

Although this isn’t a thriller that depends on a twist, I still don’t want to give away too much of the plot. I think it will be more rewarding if the viewer is in the same position as Steven when Martin quickly and casually recites the rules of the game at a cafeteria. I will say that the tale involves a moral dilemma, of sorts. I also feel obliged to say that I found the final resolution unsatisfying, for reasons I can’t discuss in detail without crossing the border into spoiler territory. Let’s simply say that the way Lanthimos resolves the situation, though perhaps the only reasonable solution, allows the protagonist to avoid responsibility for his choices—a surprising cop-out in a movie otherwise so uncompromising, both formally and in its cruelty.

Before sailing to Troy, Agamemnon, the high king of the Greeks, unknowingly killed a deer that was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Angry, the goddess calmed the winds so that the fleets could not sail. To atone for his sin, she demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his own beloved daughter, Iphigenia. Even though Steven’s daughter Kim got an “A” on her presentation on Iphigenia in class, it’s not necessary to know how that story ends (versions of the myth differ, anyway) to understand Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But the title is intentional foreshadowing that lets you know you’re in for something approaching classical tragedy—and if you know your ancient Greeks, you know they liked their tragedy gruesome. So do modern Greeks. They also like it a little weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as things spun out of control, getting ever stranger, I started to wonder if the director had merely written himself into a corner and was doubling down on weirdness to get himself out. And yet the film never quite loses its mythic drive. You walk out feeling like you’ve truly had an experience.”–Bilge Ebiri, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

 

LIST CANDIDATE: PAPERHOUSE (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Bernard Rose

FEATURING: Charlotte Burke, Elliott Spiers, Glenne Headley, Ben Cross

PLOT: Bedridden from an illness, young Anna experiences recurring dreams of a house in a field—a house, she soon realizes, that changes corresponding to the drawings she makes.

Still from Paperhouse (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Applying an overlay of stark realism to the classic Wonderlandian formula of a child immersed in their own imagination, Paperhouse brings the essence of ’s classic tale of weirdness into the world of the lower-class, late-20th-century childhood, and makes it all the weirder for its dreariness.

COMMENTS: Four years before rising to international attention (and then abruptly falling out of it again) with the horror classic Candyman, director Bernard Rose would helm this loose adaptation of Catherine Storr’s children’s novel Marianne Dreams. Despite the high praise it received from Roger Ebert, the film flew largely under the international radar, and has yet to receive a DVD release outside Europe.

Drawing, like so many “weird” films before and after it, on a certain Alice in Wonderlandian spirit, the movie builds upon the versatile foundation of a child’s imagination, supplanting Carroll’s prim and privileged young Victorian with a rebellious young lower-classer whose world is London flats, government schools, and dysfunctional families. For all her premature cynicism, she yet clings to her childhood beliefs in fantasy, fairy tales, and happy endings.

As any child, and many adults, would naturally do, Anna attempts to escape her worldly concerns—which include an alcoholic father and a bout of fever—by retreating into her fantasies. But these dreams, we soon realize, are as tainted as the rest of her childhood, a fact communicated by the film’s distinctive set design. The titular paperhouse truly looks—in the most clinical sense—like what a child’s drawing of a house might look like if brought to life. It isn’t a pretty sight. Malformed and misshapen, Anna’s dream house is a hollow shell, empty of color, décor, architectural nuances, all those dull details a child would generally not concern herself with. As the woes of daily life continue to plague her, Anna’s attempts to draw some child-friendly charm into her paperhouse only transform it from dreary to sinister. An ice cream dispenser becomes a roaring, metallic industrial beast; an oversized Coke bottle seems sarcastically Warholian; and her attempts to draw her estranged father into the picture spawn a blind, raging monster.

From a filmmaking perspective, Paperhouse, despite (or, perhaps, because of) its limited budget, offers little to criticize. Rose’s direction is confident and purposeful; the set design is realized in a manner that wonderfully conveys the film’s central themes; Glenne Headley manages a convincing London accent; and Charlotte Burke and Elliott Spiers, despite their young ages, carry their leading roles with competence (though both of them, thankfully, had the good sense to get out of the film business before the ugly industry of child acting could consume them).

But perhaps the core of what makes Paperhouse so recommendable, and so weird, lies not in its technical execution, nor in its fantastical elements, but in its abnormal honesty. Looking past the “Alice” influences, we might see it as a more grounded prototype of such later films as Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls. Although she appreciates the draw of imagination and the appeal of escape into fantasy as much as the next child protagonist, Anna’s mind is far too preoccupied with, and jaded by, her worldly experiences to have time to conjure up elaborate, intricately detailed backdrops encrusted with CGI and Hollywood budgets. In this sense, the film might seem abnormally dreary for its subject matter; yet for that very reason it will also be, for many, far more relatable than similar works.

One can pick holes in anything, and there’s plenty that might be said about the notion that the romance between the two leads seems to happen for little reason other than that they’re a boy and a girl, or that the idealistic ending might jar with the rest of the movie’s more grounded tone. But as with the beloved tale of Alice, the plot is a secondary consideration to exploring the expanses (or in this case, the limitations) of a child’s imagination. Besides, one of the many things that Paperhouse does well is setting up a protagonist who deserves, at the very least, a happy ending.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… has the stark landscapes and the obsessively circling story lines of a dream – which is, of course, what it is….  wisely never attempts to provide a rational explanation for its story…”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BAD BATCH (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, ,

PLOT: Exiled as an undesirable, a woman finds herself escorted to the wrong side of the border fence where she is abducted by a society of iron-pumping people-eaters; escaping after some heavy bodily losses, she finds the closest thing to a utopian village this side of the scorched wasteland.

Still from The Bad Batch (2016)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In the follow-up to her debut hit, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, director Ana Amirpour imbues the harsh, sun-drenched world of The Bad Batch with the same dreamy otherness found in her nocturnal black and white feature. An oddly appropriate New Wave soundtrack underscores the joie de vivre that the exiles somehow maintain, while things get good and weird with a ’70s drug-dealer-style Keanu Reeves as the king of Comfort and Jim Carrey’s non-speaking, desert-wandering vagrant oddball. Also in the mix: cannibalism, Keanu-speechifying, and an LSD Eucharist.

COMMENTS: Upon its release, most reviewers dismissed The Bad Batch as a bad movie. 43% “Fresh” at Rotten Tomatoes, an IMDB featured user review railing on about its overall crumminess, and the movie was some several million shy of recouping its six-million-dollar budget. Washed upon our shores because of a quick release on Netflix and DVD, it would seem a hopeless case. It is not. The Bad Batch is one of the more novel films to come out in a while. Bringing together elements of dystopian allegory and post-apocalyptic survivor story (sans actual apocalypse), it takes the difficult path of providing no backstory. Only as the movie unfolds does the bizarre reality start making (some) sense—albeit with heavy doses of strange circumstance and stranger characters.

We get our only glimpse of “civilized” society during the opening credits. Young Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is tattooed behind the ear with “BB5040” and then shunted through a massive border fence with a sign outside that advises, “Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas […] Good luck.” Almost immediately, she’s nabbed by a pair of muscle-bound bandits on a speeding golf cart and finds herself a prisoner in the shanty-est of shanty-towns. Relieved of both her right arm and leg to feed the locals, she hatches a clever escape: downing a bandit with an iron rod, she slides out of town on a skateboard. Picked up by a vagrant with a shopping cart, she’s dropped off in “Comfort,” where she finds… comfort, but no purpose. She only evolves after taking acid at a town rave hosted by Comfort’s ruler, a man credited as “The Dream,” played with jaundiced silkiness by Keanu Reeves.

The blazing sun of the south-of-Texas desert blinds by day, and the clear skies at night heighten Arlen’s spirit journey as she stumbles into the desert looking for purpose. The engine of the story is, in a way, revenge. She encounters one of her captors (and the captor’s daughter) sifting through a landfill, and the subsequent act of murder ironically forces Arlen to take responsibility for the daughter’s life. The cannibal society lives to pump iron, while Comfort’s denizens live for pleasure and self-realization. Even in the wasteland, there is a stark divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Things come to a head when “Miami Man” (Jason Momoa), tattoo and sketch artist, body-builder, butcher, and father, begins his hunt for his missing daughter. Drizzled throughout this sun-and-star-soaked drama are bizarre, eyebrow raising details: a “Jizzy-Fizzy” soda machine, pregnant machine-gun-toting bodyguards, the solemn trade of a snow-globe, and the Dream’s illuminating question to the daughter: “Is this your rabbit?”

In its bizarre way, The Bad Batch is a remix of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Both films take place in ghost towns populated by unsavory, larger-than-life characters. Both focus on the awakening of a young woman’s sense of self. Both use a skateboard as a metaphor for freedom. The Bad Batch‘s tone is hard to pin down; El Topo springs to mind, but with a esque bent. Perhaps that’s why The Bad Batch did little more than confuse and disappoint the general public. Pity for them; but its eccentricities and meaty characters leave us with something fresh and delicious to chew on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a trippy, sun-scorched apocalyptic horror film with a rom-com finish that gets as bloody, visceral and cannibalistic as its U.S. R rating will allow. “–Julia Cooper, Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)