Tag Archives: Meaning of Life



FEATURING: , Mélanie Thierry, , Lucas Hedges, , Matt Damon

PLOT: Qohen Leth (Waltz) is a gifted but troubled programmer (or “cruncher” as they are referred to in the film) who is assigned a seemingly impossible task: to calculate the “Zero Theorem” and thus prove the lack of meaning in anything. The only problem is, Qohen is convinced that there is meaning to everything, and that it’s just a matter of time before he finds out what it is.

Still from The Zero Theorem (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gilliam alleges that The Zero Theorem is a tragedy and that has fared poorly with critics due to assumptions that it is supposed to be a comedy. But the honest-to-God tragedy is Gilliam’s decision to essentially rehash one of his finest films (Brazil) with a more contemporary slant regarding technology and our current sense of isolation. This is a film that has plenty of fine moments, and it’s something of a must see for all the weird fans out there, but it’s a footnote in Gilliam’s cinematic career that puts more pressure on the now 73 year-old auteur to complete the long gestating “Don Quixote” project that has dragged him through Hell (and Spain) and back over the last two decades.

COMMENTS: For all the Gilliam aficionados out there, please don’t despair! The Zero Theorem is lots of fun, and demonstrates just what a criminally overlooked talent Gilliam is behind the camera. The movie looks superb, especially given its extremely modest budget, and many of its imaginative flourishes are a joy to behold. A film needs to be more than just the sum of its parts in order to truly succeed, however, and The Zero Theorem cannot escape the shadow of its far superior filmic sibling Brazil in terms of quality and vision.

The two movies are simply too thematically similar in terms of subject and presentation, and particularly in terms of David Thewlis’ performance which directly channels ‘s turn as the terrifying Jack Lint. The update of modern society is viewed through Gilliam’s eye: the blaring in-your-face nature of technology and the personal detachment it encourages. All this is all well and good, but this is all ground that is well-trod, and in better boots, by the earlier and superior film. Zero Theorem is simply too derivative of his past work to have any lasting merit.

Perhaps the biggest saving grace of the film is the performances of the main cast. Mélanie Thierry’s eccentric allure is charming and garish at the same time, and Lucas Hedges gives a star turn as the teenage genius Bob, a role he leaps into with such abandon that he is surely an actor to watch out for in the future. Let’s just hope that Gilliam pulls one last truly great masterwork out of his thoughtbox before he dies, as this minor film would be an unworthy epitaph for such a great director.


“There’s weird and there’s Terry Gilliam weird, and his latest exploration into the fleeting nature of humanity, The Zero Theorem, may as well have been watermarked with his name… weirdly enjoyable”–Blake Howard, Graffiti with Punctuation (contemporaneous)

49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: A Serious Man has been promoted onto the List of 366 Best Weird Movies of all time after initially being placed in the “Borderline Weird” category.  For reference,  you can read the original borderline weird entry here.

“Even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm.”–dream dialogue from A Serious Man

DIRECTED BY: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

FEATURING: Michael Stubargh, Aaron Wolff, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Fyvush Finkel

PLOT: A Serious Man opens in the indeterminate past with a Jewish couple entertaining a man who may or may not be a dybbuk (ghost) on a snowy night somewhere in Eastern Europe.  In 1967, in suburban Minnesota, a Jewish physics professor suffers from an escalating series of problems including a failing marriage, bratty kids, students willing to do anything for a passing grade, financial troubles, and a ne’er-do-well, mildly insane brother.  Seeking advice on a life that seems to be spinning out of control, he visits three rabbis, each of whom is less helpful than the last.

Still from A Serious Man (2009)


  • Though the film is not autobiographical, Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in suburban Minnesota roughly at the time the events of A Serious Man take place.
  • The core idea for the movie originated when the Coens considered making a short film about a boy who attends his bar mitzvah stoned.  As the story expanded from that scene, the idea was originally to make the father and son’s stories of equal weight, but as the script evolved the story of the elder Gopnik assumed center stage.
  • The prologue is not an actual Jewish folktale.  The Coens searched for an authentic legend to use but finally decided to create their own.
  • The movie makes extensive reference to quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, theories of modern physics which suggest that there are limitations on our ability to know basic reality.
  • The Coens’ script for A Serious Man was nominated for a Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  The film won “Best Screenplay” or equivalent awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review, and National Society of Film Critics.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The very last shot, which I can’t reveal here.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Superficially, A Serious Man is only mildly weird. There are a

Official trailer for A Serious Man

few dream sequences and multiple nonsense parables, but unlike the Coens’ definitely weird Barton Fink, this story of a suburban Jewish man beset by an improbably mounting set of real life woes contains no surrealistic fireworks (although there is a conspicuous surrealistic pillow).  On the other hand, A Serious Man has a skeletal undercurrent of ambiguity and disturbance running through it like a bone cancer; it feels weird at its core.  With a head-scratching prologue and epilogue bracketing a central fable about a goy’s teeth, the thoughtful and frequently brilliant A Serious Man earns its place on the List by mining the mysteries at the basis of existence.

COMMENTS: A Serious Man is a retelling of that most fascinating parable in the Old Continue reading 49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: $9.99 (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Tatia Rosenthal

FEATURING: Voices of: Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia

PLOT:  A series of intertwined tales about the residents of a Sydney apartment complex,

Still from $9.99 (2008)

including a repossessor, a supermodel, a lonely old man, a dour angel, three miniature surfer dudes, and an aimless young man who buys a book promising to supply him with the Meaning of Life for the bargain price of $9.99.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Several of the multiple storylines generate absurd punchlines which depend on the element of surprise; I can’t reveal them without spoiling their intended effect, but be sure they are weird enough to merit our notice.  But despite these (often black) magical realist whammies that invade the daily lives of the residents of Rosenthal’s Claymation apartment complex, $9.99‘s not entirely successful as weird film.  By dividing its attention between an observational drama on the Way We Live Today and a surrealistic spectacle, $9.99 fails to find a viable tone.  The bleak existential punchlines often fail to pop out of the flat dramatic background.  Ultimately, the film works better as a feature-length advertisement for the short stories of Etgar Keret (who wrote both the original stories and the screenplay) than it does as a feature.

COMMENTS:  Just like the promise embodied in the priced-to-move tome on the Meaning of Life, $9.99 is an intriguing work that constantly taunts us with hints that some great epiphany lurks around the next narrative bend, just out of our current view.  In the end, the major lesson we glean from it is to temper our expectations the next time we hear a too-good-to-be-true pitch.  The opening is a near-perfect, beautifully balanced and drawn-out battle of conflicting agendas between a passive-aggressive deadbeat begging for a smoke and a cup of coffee and a businessman whose sense of propriety ever-so-slightly exceeds his compassion.  It’s easy to see how this exchange would have made a gripping short story, but the scene also sets up a darkly comic and ironic callback sequence near the end of the film.  These great moments are, sadly, too few and far between.  Although the individual story arcs of the nine major characters are interwoven seamlessly, the film suffers from trying to give each of them equal time, regardless of how inherently interesting they are.  The anthology film is a difficult form to succeed in: even the master Robert Altman couldn’t always pull it off, much less a first time director.  A storyline about a child and his piggy bank is unexpectedly sweet, given the morose tone of the rest of the film, but it lacks heft and a larger purpose in the story.  The film would have worked better if it had revolved entirely around its most interesting character, the morose and afterlife-weary “angel” voiced by Geoffrey Rush, with the other tales submerged into subplots feeding into the main theme.  Although I may be in the critical minority here, I found the Claymation to be unsatisfactory, and constantly wondered whether the film would have worked better as live action.  The animation is only used to magical purpose in a couple of places; otherwise, its main effect is to make the characters less expressive than real actors.  These clay figurines lack the human ability to express true wonder, fear, desire or disappointment.  This may be a deliberate choice to highlight the characters’ alienation and strangeness, but in a mostly drab and a downbeat film in need of more warmth and richer textures, the tactic backfires.

$9.99 is an oddly positioned film that will have trouble finding an audience outside of dedicated Etgar Keret fans.  It’s too weird to appeal to those looking for a thoughtful drama, but too dry and literary to build a cult audience.  It’s worth a look when it shows up on DVD if some aspect of the production interests you—the author, the art of stop-motion animation, movies with thoughtful but inconclusive storytelling—but its not essential viewing.


“An aura of dreamy melancholy… pervades the entwined stories, which treat the bizarre and the banal as sides of the same coin… in the end too self-conscious, too satisfied in its eccentricity, to achieve the full mysteriousness toward which it seems to aspire.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)