Category Archives: List Candidates

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Isaach De Bankolé, Paz de la Huerta, ,

PLOT: An enigmatic hitman is sent on an obscure mission to kill an unknown man for unexplained reasons; the movie follows him as he meets with a long string of contacts of unclear significance, each of whom gives him a matchbook with further instructions and offers him a piece of dime store philosophy.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Set in an unreal moviescape of secret rendezvous and mystifying portents, The Limits of Control has definite shadings of weird. It’s a bold experiment in pure cinema, and like most bold experiments, it’s partly successful and partly frustrating. Stripping the plot down beneath its bare essentials, to the merest skeleton, Jarmusch proves that you can get pretty far on cinematic tone and technique alone. He also proves that you can’t quite get all the way to a good movie solely through cinematics.

Still from The Limits of Control (2009)

COMMENTS:  Dawn’s light breaks across the open eyes of a lone man lying in a hotel room bed. He gets up, puts on a natty suit, and does tai chi exercises, measuring each move slowly and precisely. He goes to a cafe, sits alone, and orders two espressos in two cups; he sends the order back when the waiter brings a double espresso in a single cup. Night falls. He returns to his hotel room, lies down on his hotel room bed, eyes wide open. Time presumably passes. Dawn’s light breaks across his unblinking face. A new day has begun.

It’s a typical twenty-four hours in the life of the character known only as the Lone Man, a secret agent who spends most of his days walking around, looking at the Spanish scenery or visiting the modern art gallery, sitting alone quietly in a cafe sipping espresso, and staring off into space blankly. He’s a quiet man, one who makes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name look like a chatterbox. He won’t say one word if zero words will get his point across. Occasionally, another spy will meet him at a cafe and they will exchange Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: DARK COUNTRY (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Thomas Jane

FEATURING: Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, Laurie German

PLOT: Two newlyweds returning from their Vegas wedding hit a man in the middle of the road; he lives, but the couple finds he is not all that he seems.

Still from Dark Country (2009)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Dark Country is a bit obtuse at times, and it frustratingly delights fans of the obscure by not explaining its motives or workings very often, but I hesitate recommending mainly because it relies a little too heavily on genre standbys and noir reverence instead of blazing new fantastic territory. It is a 50s thriller/noir mixed with a modern horror, but it doesn’t create its own identity between the two stylings. There are moments of heavy cinematic distortion and interesting ideas that run through the story like a highway across the hungry desert, but it can’t quite escape some level of mediocrity as it bends prostrate for that which has already been done.

COMMENTS: Dark Country represents a promising debut effort from a director who is willing to try new things. What’s really impressive from the start is the writing. It is intense and full of good, genuine human touches that help the movie flow from scene to scene. From the first scene to the end, I felt rapt with attention to these immersive characters and their odd relationship, especially after the drive out of Las Vegas.

It is a journey through dark and unforgiving territory, perhaps a metaphor for the new marriage between main characters Gina and Dick, newlyweds who don’t really know what they’re in for. The young couple just made it official in Vegas, and are ready to go home, but even before their fateful accident, things aren’t what they seem between them. There is tension, there are incidents between the two that are hinted at, and they have secrets from each other right off the bat. After their encounter in the desert with the strange man they hit, things only get worse between them. From an artistic standpoint, Dark Country can be commended as a smart thriller with some brains to back up its craziness.

Visually, it’s a feast for the eyes, and it’s tonally interesting. Thomas Jane wants a very engrossing visual experience, but he is also on a budget here, so we are caught in a limbo of many special effects, none of which really hit the mark in a spectacular way. The CG is on the cheap side (it looks like a violent episode of “Reboot” when they wreck the car near the end!) The green screen is not very successful in melding the real and fake, but the color effects are interesting, not to mention plentiful, and we are treated to some good old fashioned camera trickery with slick editing and nifty shots.

But while it’s a solid debut for Jane, and an offbeat one at that, we’re still not treading across any bold new frontiers with Dark Country. This is a movie I have seen before, in bits and pieces: intense psychological implications, a noir aesthetic, and the lush, frightening mysteries of the deep desert. It’s not anything breathtaking or unflinching. It’s a good and often disturbing take on some classic thriller ideas, and it has a twist in the story that will have you on your toes, but I wouldn’t consider this to be one of the weirdest movies I’d ever seen. With a good cast, a taut script, some interesting effects, and a more intelligent angle than your average thriller, Dark Country has a lot going for it. Just don’t expect it to be too weird, because you might be disappointed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The developments in Tab Murphy’s script are never quite as shocking to us as they are to Dick and Gina, and the story eventually builds the feeling of marking time on the way to its TWILIGHT ZONE-esque resolution… Jane’s visual sense assures that the film is always a spooky pleasure to watch, though…”–Micgael Gingold, Fangoria (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BOX (2009)

The Box divided critics—even our in-house critics.  Eric Young defends the movie, but read to the end for Gregory J. Smalley‘s opposing opinion.

DIRECTED BY: Richard Kelly

FEATURINGCameron Diaz, , James Marsden

PLOT: A man comes unsolicited one morning to the doorstep of a financially troubled family with a proposition: if they press a button he gives them within 24 hours, they will receive $1 million, and someone in the world, whom they don’t know, will die.

Still from The Box (2009)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Kelly’s surreal odyssey through Virginia in the mid 70s is hauntingly strange. One would not think it to be remarkably anything from the marketing, the extremely negative reviews put out by, um, pretty much everyone, and a tame, seemingly safe cast. But this is Richard Kelly, so nothing is really as it seems. The Box needs to be considered for the List because Kelly tells a morality story involving aliens, God, and Jean-Paul Sartre in ways that are as flippant and off-handedly odd as , as unflinching as Lynch, and as psychologically insightful as Cronenberg.  And while Kelly is not as good a filmmaker as those three, he has grown undeniably in his talents since Donnie Darko, and this time his story is just as weird.

COMMENTSThe Box is a little more complex than you’re led to believe by the trailers. I was honestly underwhelmed when I first heard about the idea, but after hearing more about it, it started growing on me. I wanted to know what the deal was with this button, and what I got was beyond my wildest imaginings. It’s unusually dense for a Richard Kelly movie, filled with haunting music, esoteric imagery, and references to existential philosophy. In a way, The Box is Kelly’s most obscure work yet, even more obscure than his previous film, the dumb, loud Southland Tales. Although Kelly’s touted it as his commercial movie, I have the feeling that he might never have actually seen a commercial movie, because what he came up with is quite weird, and more than a little off-putting for the average moviegoer.

Kelly’s imagination makes the film something special.  He takes a simple, bare-bones concept from a Richard Matheson short story and adds a third, and perhaps even a fourth, Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BOX (2009)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: A Serious Man has been promoted from the “Borderline” category onto the List of the Weirdest movies of all time! This page is left up for archival purposes. Please view the full review for comments and expanded coverage!

fourandahalfstar

DIRECTED BY: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

FEATURING: Michael Stubargh, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Fyvush Finkel

PLOT: A putzy Jewish physics professor suffers from an escalating series of problems

Still from A Serious Man (2009)

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.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  While the early leader for Weirdest Movie of 2009, A Serious Man won’t be eligible to be officially added to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time until it receives its DVD release and the film can be pored over meticulously by our team of critics.  Okay, to be honest, the home video release requirement is a way to buy time, while I let the Coens’ latest ferment in the back cellar of my consciousness.  The conundrum is that, superficially, this movie is not that weird; there are a few dream sequences and 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, this movie has a skeletal undercurrent of  ambiguity and disturbance running through it like a bone cancer; it feels weird at its core.  Also, the way it’s currently unsettling and outraging square moviegoers points to a powerfully different movie.

COMMENTSA Serious Man is a retelling of that most fascinating parable in the Old Testament, the Book of Job, as a postmodern absurdist comedy.  The ancient Job was a good and prosperous man; God allowed Satan to test his faith by wiping out his flocks, killing his children, and smiting him with boils.  The beleaguered Job, bothered by visits from three unhelpful friends who try to console him with off-base theological speculations, eventually despairs, but never doubts God’s existence or goodness.  His only plea is to understand his misfortune, to be able to ask God directly, “Why me?”  God, appearing in a whirlwind, bitchslaps Job for his audacity: “who are you to question me, the Author of the Universe?  It’s your job to obey and suffer in silence.”  (I’m paraphrasing here).  After this reproof, God restores Job’s riches and lets him have new Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

LIST CANDIDATE: GOD TOLD ME TO (1976)

AKA Demon; God Told Me to Kill

DIRECTED BY: Larry Cohen

FEATURING: Tony Lo Bianco, Richard Lynch, Andy Kaufman, Deborah Raffin, Sandy Dennis, Sylvia Sidney, Sam Levene, Mike Kellin

PLOT: A rash of murders are committed by people who all give “God told me to do it” as their only motive. A New York City police detective must find out why.

Still from God Told Me To (1975)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A conventionally produced movie, God Told Me To has a bizarre story featuring some very strange characters, including an extraterrestrial man with a face that nobody can see clearly and a vagina in his ribcage.

COMMENTS: In this complex occult/sci-fi thriller, Tony Lo Bianco (The French Connection, The 7-Ups) plays police Lieutenant Nicholas, who unravels a mysterious spree of killings committed by fellow New Yorkers from all walks of life. Each claim that God compelled them to commit the crimes  Many kill themselves or die after immediately after making the the revelation, complicating Nicholas’ job.

The film opens with a sniper perched on a rooftop water tower. After he shoots random people in the street,  Nicholas climbs up to talk to him and the man jumps to his death.  Nicholas is contacted by a representative of a sinister cult who seems to understand what is behind the crimes. While the cop tries to track down the cult members, the investigation takes him on a twisted journey into the past, including, to his surprise, his own past as he strives to solve this dark and obfuscated mystery. Nothing is as it appears to be. As he soon discovers, Lt. Nicholas is also not who or what he seems to be either.

While he attempts to unravel the puzzle behind the killings, Nicholas investigates his own birth as well as other strange phenomenon from bygone years. The answer to the riddle is morbidly fascinating. God Told Me To is one of those unique, non-formulaic 1970’s films that just aren’t made anymore.

The enigmatic Richard Lynch (Bad Dreams) has one of his most interesting and bizarre roles ever in this exciting and odd film. The piece features an early, rare cinematic appearance by Andy Kaufman in a non comedic role.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This cult-fave Larry Cohen epic, features his trademark NYC locations, vividly drawn characters, realistically handled situations and dialogue, and one hell of a weird premise.”—VideoHound’s Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics

THE CREMATOR [SPALOVAC MRTVOL] (1969)

The Cremator has been promoted onto the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made; the Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED  BY: Juraj Herz

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, and Zora Bozinová

PLOT: In this mesmerizing, Gothic horror film, a funerary specialist becomes obsessed with what he believes to be the nobility of his calling, with terrifyingly tragic and bizarre results.

THE CREMATOR

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Cremator treats unusual, morbid, taboo subject matter in a visually dreamy way that is artful without being  gimmicky.

COMMENTS: In late 1930’s Prague, Kopfrking (Hrusínský) is a misguided, enigmatic crematorium operator. He is an impeccably groomed, eerie, and meticulous figure, always talking in a hypnotic, soft spoken, poetic manner.  He is overly preoccupied with mortality, morbidity, and the human soul, and deeply devoted to the funerary arts.

Kopfrking feels a physical affection for the instrumentality of his trade, lovingly caressing the equipment of the crematory process.  He speaks constantly, literally and metaphorically, of death and the liberation of the soul through the process of cremation.

As the story progresses, he becomes increasingly obsessed with his work, finding it glorifying and cathartic.  He sees visions of the ghost of his living wife in her youth, along with his future incarnation, as he begins a spiraling descent into fantasy and madness.  He is on a mission to free the souls of the deceased (and in time the not-so deceased) through the pyrolization of human flesh, be it living or dead—just as long as that flesh is consumed and vaporized by fire.

The pre-WWII German propaganda machine is enveloping Eastern Europe, polarizing aspiring Nazis and oppositionists.  Drawn toward the philosophy of the Third Reich, Kopfrking becomes morbidly obsessed with racial purity and the percentage of German blood flowing within his own veins—literally, to the point of having his vessels opened and the contents examined.  While The Cremator is not a raving anti-Nazi film, it uses the political ideology as an allegory for exploring the phenomenon of sweeping, consuming mass delusion and insanity.

The gathering of Nazi forces on the border offers Kopfrking an opportunity to realize his misguided aspirations on a grand scale, one much larger than he could have ever hoped for, one seemingly without limit.  Before applying his fervor and passion to the task, he hatches a plan to betray and destroy his own acquaintances, colleagues and family.

While there are elements of black satire in the The Cremator, the movie is so compelling as to nearly overshadow it.  The film insidiously and steadily flows to its inevitable and horrifying conclusion like a hot rivulet of liquefied fat.

The production design is crisp and symmetrical.  Stanislav Milota’s stunning black and white cinematography is haunting and beautiful.  It features successions of extreme closeups that emphasize the slightly grotesque and disturbing features of the biological condition.  Milota’s use of black and white film stock’s enhanced tonal range is artfully employed to focus attention on rich textures and multitudes of shades.  This gives The Cremator a uniquely unsettling dreamlike quality.  The musical score by Zdenek Liska is alluring, phantasmic, and aesthetically intriguing. Viewing The Cremator is akin to experiencing a nightmare that one is reluctant to wake from.

The Cremator was a Czech nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this 1968 black comedy in black and white is undeniably creepy—once director Juraj Herz enters the fractured mind of his protagonist, he refuses to budge.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

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.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“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)