This site loves nothing more than to collect top 10 weird movie lists from directors and critics, but I chickened out of soliciting one from Roger Ebert, until it was too late. Perhaps it was the certain knowledge that he wouldn’t return my calls or e-mails. Perhaps I had read this quote—“Despite the entreaties of countless editors, authors and websites, I decline to make lists of the best comedies, horror films, Christmas films, family films, Westerns, musicals, political films, silent films, films about dogs, and so on. That way madness lies”—and taken it to heart. Whatever. Never mind. Roger Ebert is beyond madness now. I’ll leave it to others to compile his posthumous lists of best comedies, horror films, and so on. By way of tribute to one of the great proselytizers of the movies, we’re going to reconstruct a list of ten films that, based on available evidence, very well might have comprised Roger Ebert’s Top 10 Weird Movie List, had he deigned to compose one for us.
Some may assume that an overstuffed shirt like Ebert could never appreciate a truly weird movie. In cult movie circles Ebert is notorious for his one-star review of David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet, which he almost admire but complained was irredeemably “marred by sophomoric satire and cheap shots.” Nearly every hip movigoer throws that one back in Ebert’s face at one time or another; that embarassing slam of a beloved classic confirms the stereotype of movie critics as nerdy old white guys with no sense of humor when it comes to gratuitous nudity, violence and general transgressiveness.
People forget that, as a Russ Meyer screenwriter, this same Roger Ebert was the creator of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls‘ Z-Man, the acid-tripping, broadsword wielding hermaphrodite manager of the big boob babe band The Carrie Nations. The man knew his weird. And although he necessarily covered the mainstream movie beat, he constantly challenged his readers to seek out new cinematic experiences, recommending they see black and white movies, silent movies, campy movies, foreign movies, surreal movies… anything different, and anything bizarre. “We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds” Ebert said in answer to the question of who would possibly want to see the sadomasochistic Korean fishing story The Isle.
Constructing a ten weird movie list that Roger Ebert would probably sign off on is a tall order, but not an impossible one. First off, we have access to Ebert’s ten votes in Sight & Sounds’ greatest movie poll. Strikingly, two of the movies he considers the greatest of all time also fall under the general heading of “weird movies” (and cases could even be made for some of his other choices like Aguirre: Wrath of God, La Dolce Vita, Vertigo and Apocalypse Now, although I wont make them). If they’re among his top ten movies of all time regardless of genre, we’ll assume they would also make his top ten weird movies of all time. Ebert also reveals a runner-up film for the poll which is substantially weirder than all of the others that made his list—so there’s a third entry right off the bat. We also have access to Ebert’s year-by-year top ten lists for the decades he reviewed films, from 1967 to 2012; whenever he considered a weird film to be the best movie of the year—which happened a remarkable four times—I presumed it would make his all-time weird film list.
That procedure left us needing only three movies to fill out his quota, which (besides the difficulty of ordering the selections) is where the trouble comes in. Ebert created a canonized list of over 300 films he considered “Great Movies.” Obviously his remaining three favorite weird films would be found there—but which ones? I eliminated any movies that came from his reviewing career of 1967 on, assuming that if a movie was one of his favorite weird films, it would have topped his overall movie list for that particular year. That methodology eliminated a number of perfectly honorable weird films, including Mulholland Drive (2001), two Alejandro Jodorowsky efforts (1970’s El Topo and 1989’s Santa Sangre—never say anyone who includes two Jodorowsky movies in their top films of all time doesn’t appreciate his weird movies), and Persona (1966) (one of his very first reviewing assignments which, I suspect, he might have reassessed more glowingly if he had redone his yearly lists).
That left me with only a handful of remaining movies that were both weird, and unranked by Ebert in other venues, to consider. Here is where the arbitrary element of the process creeps in. I tried to select from these movies the ones that seemed most important, the ones about which Ebert was most effusive, and the ones that actually incorporated the word “weird” in a complimentary way somewhere in the body of the review. That procedure meant overlooking a good number of movies that Ebert might very well have honored if he’d had the chance to compose the list himself. I’ll mention the five most important of those omissions here as Ebert’s unofficial honorable mentions: Un Chien Andalou, Orpheus, The Exterminating Angel, Last Year at Marienbad, and Belle de Jour.
Although this project may seem like a self-serving act of public necrophilia to steal clicks away from more deserving and original pieces of film criticism, I honestly intend this hypothetical compilation as a tribute to a great movie lover whose advocacy of the offbeat has been under-appreciated. Spending time with his writing, trying to put myself inside the mind of Roger Ebert, has been an honor and a gift.
Without further ado, here is Roger Ebert’s unauthorized, conjectural Top 10 Weird Movies:
10. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, d. Guillermo del Toro). Ebert’s top movie of 2006. I have placed it in the tenth position because, although it’s as good as any other movie on this list, it’s probably the least weird movie to grace this list. Still, Ebert proclaims Labyrinth no less than “one of the greatest of all fantasy films” and points out that director Guillermo del Toro “responded strongly to the horror lurking under the surface of classic fairy tales and had no interest in making a children’s film, but instead a film that looked horror straight in the eye. He also rejected all the hackneyed ideas for the creatures of movie fantasy and created (with his Oscar-winning cinematographer, art director and makeup people) a faun, a frog and a horrible Pale Man whose skin hangs in folds from his unwholesome body.”
9. Dark City (1998, d. Alex Proyas). Ebert’s favorite film of 1998 was a controversial choice; although this weird sci-fi noir mindbender about a dreaming city was generally well-received, outside of cult circles, not many considered it a masterpiece. In his original review he called City “a great visionary achievement, a film so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like ‘Metropolis’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’” Ebert stuck to his guns, championing City as one of his Great Movies. Composing his new essay for that book, he wrote “I believe more than ever that ‘Dark City’ is one of the great modern films. It preceded ‘The Matrix’ by a year (both films used a few of the same sets in Australia), and on a smaller budget, with special effects that owe as much to imagination as to technology, did what ‘The Matrix’ wanted to do, earlier and with more feeling.”
8. 3 Women (1977, d. Robert Altman). Ebert’s 1977 fave. “Robert Altman’s 1977 masterpiece tells the story of three women whose identities blur, shift and merge until finally, in an enigmatic last scene, they have formed a family, or perhaps have become one person… The movie is whole and complete without being lucid and logical.”
7. Being John Malkovich (1999, d. Spike Jonze): Ebert’s top pick of 1999. “The movie handles [the idea of entering John Malkovich’s head] not as a gimmick but as the opportunity for material that is somehow funny and serious, sad and satirical, weird and touching, all at once… Every once in a long, long while a movie comes along that is like no other. A movie that creates a new world for us and uses it to produce wonderful things.”
6. Night of the Hunter (1955, d. Charles Laughton): From the “Great Movies” list. Ebert considers Hunter underrated thanks to its oddness, saying it’s “one of the greatest of all American films, but has never received the attention it deserves because of its lack of the proper trappings… many great movies are realistic, but ‘Night of the Hunter’ is an expressionistic oddity, telling its chilling story through visual fantasy. People don’t know how to categorize it, so they leave it off their lists.” He goes on to praise the cinematography, noting Hunter was “photographed in black and white by Stanley Cortez, who shot Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons,’ and once observed he was ‘always chosen to shoot weird things.’ He shot few weirder than here, where one frightening composition shows a street lamp casting Mitchum’s terrifying shadow on the walls of the children’s bedroom.”
5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, d. Robert Wiene): From the “Great Movies” list. “The first thing everyone notices and best remembers about ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1920) is the film’s bizarre look… In itself, this is not a startling plot. The film’s design transforms it into something very weird…”
4. Metropolis (1927, d. Fritz Lang). From the “Great Movies” list. Because Ebert calls it “…the summit of German Expressionism, with its combination of stylized sets, dramatic camera angles, bold shadows and frankly artificial theatrics…” I had to place higher on the list that the similar Caligari. Comparing the look to King Kong (1933), Ebert goes on to express Metropolis‘ visual appeal: “I find that its effects, primitive by modern standards, gain a certain weird effectiveness. Because they look odd and unworldly compared to the slick, utterly convincing effects that are now possible, they’re more evocative…”
3. Synechdoche, New York (2008, d. Charlie Kaufman): Synechdoche was both Ebert’s favorite film of 2008, and his runner-up to add to his Sight and Sound poll—suggesting he believed this totally bizarre film was the eleventh greatest movie ever made. “[Synechdoche, New York] will open to confused audiences and live indefinitely… The surface may daunt you. The depths enfold you. The whole reveals itself, and then you may return to it like a talisman.”
2. The Tree of Life (2011, d. Terrence Malick): The Tree of Life was the new film Ebert chose to insert into his 2012 Sight and Sound list. Ironically, Life did not even top his 2011 “best of” list; in fact, it initially came in at #3 behind both A Separation and Shame. (Then again, in 1968 he unwisely chose The Battle of Algeirs over 2001: A Space Odyssey on his original top 10 list. People learn over time). Ebert’s review described it as “a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives. The only other film I’ve seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ and it lacked Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling.” But, as trusting and accepting of cinematic weirdness as Ebert was, he didn’t even realize until later that The Tree of Life is a weird movie. Speculating why he (correctly) believed Life could not win an Academy Award, he pointed out “The Academy shies away from winners that might alienate or confuse audiences… Having been overwhelmed by the experience of ‘The Tree of Life,’ it didn’t occur to me that some moviegoers would be baffled by it.”
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (S&S) (1968, d. Stanley Kubrick) 2001 has shown up on Ebert’s top ten films for the Sight and Sound poll every year he submitted one; it’s fair to speculate that this, one of his ten greatest films, would take the top spot in his fictional top 10 Weird Movies List. “Alone among science-fiction movies, ‘2001’ is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe… The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling… Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape.”