OSCAR WON’T, AND IF CANNES CAN’T, MAYBE MEXICO?

We almost never pay attention to the Academy Awards around these parts. When the weirdest film to get a “Best Picture” nomination in 2008 is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you know you’re dealing with one weird-hating Academy. The last film “Best Picture” winner with even smatterings of weird was Midnight Cowboy (1969). Just a pinch of weirdness, or even a mild, sub-weird flirtation with the experimental, is usually the kiss of death to Oscar.

The international and less commercial-minded Cannes Film Festival, on the other hand, has been much kinder to innovation in film. In 2000 Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark managed to win the highest prize, the Palme d’Or, despite containing musical dream sequences.  Acknowledged weird classics like Wild at Heart (1990) and Barton Fink (1991) have also managed to break realism’s stranglehold on the top awards.

On May 24, 2009, Cannes announced the recipients of its jury prizes.  Let’s see how Cannes did in recognizing cinematic weirdness this year:

PALME D’ORThe White Ribbon [Das weiße Band].  Black and white film set in Germany on the eve of World War I.  The synopsis says, “Strange accidents occur and gradually take on the character of a punishment ritual.  Who is behind it all?”  Although it appears to have a weird element in the form of an unsolvable mystery, at heart it looks like a standard allegorical art film.

GRAND PRIX (I.E., PALME D’OR RUNNER UP)The Prophet [Un Prophete]:  An illiterate young Arab man is thrown into a French prison and becomes a gang kingpin.  Sounds about a weird as a plastic couple on a wedding cake.

JURY PRIZE (I.E., THIRD PLACE):  This year was a tie.  The first film recognized was Fish Tank, an unweird drama about a British teenager, her promiscuous mom, and her mom’s lout of a boyfriend.  The second awardee shows a little more promise: Thirst [Bakjwi], Chan-wook Park‘s take on the vampire legend, although reviews suggest the oft-weird director takes a conventional approach to the subject this time out.

OTHER FILMS IN COMPETITION:  A few interesting, potentially weird films were screened but failed to win the main awards.  The hottest fest topic and most controversial film was Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, an ultra-violent, despairing torture-and-explicit-sex movie that may or may not be weird (we’ll hardly be able to tell until the furor over the content dies down).  Charlotte Gainsbourg was awarded Best Actress for putting up with von Trier.  Always-interesting-but-never-quite-weird director Quentin Tarantino premiered Inglorious Basterds, soon to be a major Hollywood summer release.  The story concerns a band of Jewish-American vigilantes fighting Nazis during WWII, won Christoph Waltz the Best Actor award, and may possibly score a few weird points for rewriting history.

Two genuinely weird sounding movies were screened in the main competition.  The first was Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, the story of an immigrant Tokyo drug dealer/addict who survives a hail of gunfire as a hallucinating ghost, described by the director as a “psychedelic melodrama.”   The second was Face [Visage], a Tsai Ming-Liang joint about a Taiwanese director attempting to make an adaptation of “Salome” in France, which has been described as a series of beautiful but barely connected images. Neither film was well received by audiences or critics.

UN CERTAIN REGARD:  In many ways the most interesting category, films competing for the separate “Un Certain Regard” jury are either the work of young filmmakers, or they are ghettoized away from the main competition due to “audacity” (a term coined when Cannes did not know what to do with David Cronenberg’s weird and sexually perverse Crash).   The winner, Dogtooth [Kynodontas], is loaded with mysterious weird promise: a pair of children are sequestered away from the world in a mansion and taught bizarre life lessons by their dictatorial parents.

Also of interest in this category: Tales from the Golden Age [Amintiri de Epoca de Aur], a Romanian film exploring the history of the late Communist state through urban myths which were “[c]omic, bizarre and surprising” and “drew on the often surreal events of life under the communist regime.” There’s also To Die Like a Man [Morrer Como Um Homem], a largely overlooked transvestite fairy tale about which no detail is known other than the synopsis’ claim that the characters eventually “find themselves in an enchanted forest, a magical world…” Nymph [Nang mai] is a more conventional excursion into modern myth, a relationship drama apparently involving Thai tree-spirits. Less promising is Air Doll [Kuki Ningyo], a gentle, sexless fantasy about a blow-up doll who comes to life.

Weird will keep you out of the Academy Awards.  Weird won’t keep you out of Cannes, but it won’t necessarily help you, either.  Where can the weird go to be celebrated?  The answer may be the Mexico City film festival.  The Los Angeles Times Latin America blog points out that in 2009 this festival created a special category for weird films: movies “so bizarre, so completely outside any conventional genre, that… [the organizers] couldn’t figure out what to do with them.”  The category was named 11:59, and each film began playing exactly one minute before 12:00 A.M. (therefore getting a jump on “midnight movies.”)

The five 2008 films screened were as follows:

  • The Good, the Bad, and the Weird [Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom]: A Korean Spaghetti Western tribute set in the Manchurian desert, with martial arts.  It appears to be more of a solid mixed genre action flick than a truly weird movie.
  • Idiots and Angels:  Bill Plympton’s latest full-length animated feature: a dialogue-free exercise about a vicious drinker who grows angel wings.
  • Let the Right One In [Låt den rätte komma in]: The acclaimed tween-vampire love story we’ve been meaning to catch ever since it came out.
  • Martyrs:  Splatter revenge flick that seems more “shocking” than weird. Dismissed as torture porn by critics, but it has its defenders.
  • Vinyan (2008): Fabrice du Welz’s followup to his (unpleasantly) weird The Ordeal [Calvaire] (2004) has Emmanuelle Béart searching for her child lost in a tsunami and ending up in a spirit world.

No word on a winner–apparently, the idea is that these films were all too strange to win anything, but deserved honorable mentions.  Still, it’s probably as good a list of nominees for “Best Cult Film” of 2008 that you’re likely to find outside this blog.  It’s also as great a midnight (excuse us, 11:59) movie lineup as your likely to find playing on consecutive nights.

Let’s hope Mexico City keeps this idea alive and turns 11:59 into the weird movie event of the year!  If so, we may have to make a trip South of the Border to cover the festivities next year. Weird movies and tequila, what could be better?

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