The air is crisp, and your breath hangs in front of you in clouds. Or, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, the air is balmy, and sweat drips into your eyes. You’re wondering whether you still have that herbal hangover remedy recipe that you used last year (was it ginseng and ma huang, or gingko and milk thistle?) You’re trying to remember the words to “Auld Lang Syne” and deciding precisely which acquaintances you’ll be forgetting in the upcoming year. And you’re rushing to the Internet to see what the experts have declared to be the ten blankiest blanks of the annum just past.
Yes, it’s that season again, the time critics look forward to all year—time to grind out another year’s end best of list to fill up a few inches of real estate on your readers’ web browsers . In weird movie terms, 2013 was a very mixed year. On the one hand, there’s no obvious consensus weird classic (like 2012’s Holy Motors) jumping out at you from this year’s lineup. But what 2013 lacked in depth it made up in breadth. We weren’t scraping to come up with ten truly weird contestants this year; instead, we were reluctantly leaving off stuff like the juvenile-delinquents-from-outer-space musical The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, which would have been a shoo-in in 2012. This year the movies at the bottom of our rankings give the ones at the top a run for their money. It may ultimately be quantity over quality, but it did make it easier to pick out something challenging from the “new releases” section to watch on a Saturday night, which makes 2013 a successful year in our book. So now, in random order—the weirdest of orders—here’s our survey of the strangest of the strange from the past year.
4. Upstream Color: A Thief infects a woman with a will-sapping worm and empties her bank account; she’s eventually psychically linked to a pig, but fortunately meets a man whose gone through the same experience. Their pigs also fall in love. Solving the question of what literally happens in Upstream Color is only the beginning of the riddle of Shane Carruth‘s bewildering followup to his confusing but logically rigorous time travel film Primer.
8. Antiviral: This queasy mixture of satire and body horror starts from the premise that in the future, people will pay good money to become infected with viruses that have recently been coursing through the bloodstream of their favorite celebrities. Director Brandon Cronenberg promises to carry on the disreputable work of his sire, David.
10. The ABCs of Death: Averaging four-and-a-half minutes per letter of the alphabet, this twenty-six short film primer on death contains three extremely weird entries (two of them from Japan, natch), along with a host of blander moments. Uneven by nature, with lots of senseless gore and “toilet horror,” but watch for the deadly masturbation contests, Nazi furries, zombie clowns, and the Asian Dr. Strangelove. Noboru Iguchi‘s “F is for Fart” is an apocalypse of bad taste guaranteed to have the average viewer scurrying for the exit, hitting the eject button, or aborting the download (check all that apply).
1. John Dies at the End: Two slackers take the drug “Soy Sauce” which allows them to see an upcoming invasion by inter-dimensional cockroaches and eventually travel to an alternate universe to save the world. John dies, or does he? Many fans of the witty original novel hated this adaptation; fortunately for us, we don’t read books, and so we loved every confusing-as-hell minute of this messed-up mish-mashterpiece of a movie.
6. The Rambler: Absurdly cool Dermot Mulroney keeps his shades and cowboy hat on at all times as he rambles through a weird West full of hook-handed hobo boxers, mummy-toting professors, and a love interest who won’t go away even when she’s dismembered. Pitched as a surrealistic horror, but plays better if you think of it as a nightmare black comedy. Footnote: director Calvin Reeder started a public cyberspat over a bad review of the film (although this in no way influenced my own positive review of the film).
9. Spring Breakers: The idea of bad boy Harmony Korine directing ex-Disney starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in a semi-experimental movie about amoral, hedonistic girls-gone-wild captured the imagination of the cinema world. The end results were mixed; critics who had previously loathed Korine’s grungy, transgressive works tended to view this more satirical fare favorably, while the Trash Humpers set was largely unimpressed. Regardless, James Franco’s skeezy rapper Alien steals every scene he’s in, especially the one where he plays a Britney Spears song on a pink grand piano on the beach at dawn while his ski-mask-and-bikini-clad henchmen chime in for the chorus.
7. Gallino, the Chicken System: The world’s first “pornophilosophical” film is almost impossible to describe, but if you have a fetish for chicken drumsticks you’ll be in heaven. I originally wrote that “Gallino looks at pornography obliquely, the way an alien might view it; it appears both ridiculous and strangely poetic, a landscape full of symbols and secrets,” and I’ll stand by that as the best possible explanation for why this movie features a scene where Jupiter’s red spot is violated.
5. Wrong: Quentin Dupieux‘s second movie (after the Certified Weird postmodern tire serial-killer parody Rubber) is another unhinged, awkward comedy of absurdity. This story follows a sad sack as he tries desperately to recover his dognapped pet, encountering a detective who is insistent on finding a stool sample, an easily-attached girl who works at the pizza parlor, and a New Age entrepreneur along the way. With scenes set inside an office where the sprinkler system constantly rains on the workers but no one seems to notice, the jokes are of the Monty-Python-meets-Charlie-Kaufman school.
2. Strange Frame: Love & Sax: It’s an animated psychedelic lesbian science fiction musical. Much of the animation was done by Hawaiian high school students. It’s one of those movies that’s so unique and peculiar in its preoccupations that you can hardly believe it ever got made; yet, you’re thrilled that it did.
3. Escape from Tomorrow: For better or worse, Randy Moore‘s controversial debut may ultimately be remembered more for its backstory than for its content. This movie, which satirizes the Walt Disney Corporation’s omnipresent escapist ideology, was shot in Disney World theme parks guerrilla-style, without permission, and featured a marketing campaign that dared the Mouse’s lawyers to sue them. (Notoriously litigious and overprotective of their intellectual property, Disney made a strategic decision to ignore the taunts to avoid drawing more attention to this underdog indie). In keeping with the spirit of such an unprecedented movie, we had an unprecedented three separate reviewers give their takes on the film. L. Rob Hubbard called it “a comic nightmare of the subconscious” and Ryan Aarset said it was “essential viewing for anyone interested in the beautiful but terrible longing for some kind of escape,” although Ben Sunde demurred that the movie “succeeds only in making explicit what everyone already knew.” I’ll be taking a personal look at it when it arrives on DVD in April of next year.
That’s it for 2013, here’s hoping for a wild and weird 2014!