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“For Proust the concept of time is more important than time itself. For Russians that’s not an issue. We Russians have to plead our case against time. With authors who wrote prose based on childhood memories, like Tolstoy, Garshin, and many others, it’s always an attempt to atone for the past, always a form of repentance.” –Andrei Tarkovsky
FEATURING: Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev, Filipp Yankovskiy, voices of Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy and Arseny Tarkovsky
PLOT: Alexei’s life story is told through jumbled flashbacks and dreams that mainly involve his mother. Abandoned by his father, he spent his youth in a remote cabin with his mother and siblings. He grows up to have a child of his own, but his relationship with the boy’s mother is only cordial, and he’s grown apart from his own mother.
Originally conceiving the film as a memoir about his own childhood memories of WWII, but gradually adding in elements from his later life, Tarkovsky began work on this story as early as 1964.
The poetry heard in the film is written and read by Arseny Tarkovsky, Andrei’s father. Andrei’s mother appears as herself in the film.
Tarkovsky reportedly made 32 edits of the film, complaining that none of them worked, before settling on this as the definitive version.
The Soviet authorities refused to allow Mirror to screen at Cannes.
Mirror ranked #19 in Sight & Sound‘s Critics’ Poll and #9 in the Director’s Poll in 2012.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Maria floating in a dream while a dove flutters above her.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Apparition history lesson; levitating mom
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mirror is an intensely personal, extremely diffused meditation on the meaning of life from one of cinema’s greatest artists. Although insanely difficult, many cinephiles find it intensely moving as an accumulation of individual images that flow like finely crafted verses of surrealistic poetry.
FEATURING: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine
PLOT: Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the thick of WWII, comes unstuck in time and yet endures, partly through the philosophical guidance of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: While this movie is no weirder than it has to be, it is the most faithful movie adaptation of as novel from one of the strangest geniuses in American literature, so it has that going for it. Standalone, it punches the same weight as the war movies we honor here, while taking a novel that was seemingly impossible to film and making it look so natural you wonder that it wasn’t written as a script in the first place.
COMMENTS: At last, our quest for the ideal Kurt Vonnegut adaptation brings us to Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). This is the Papa Kurt movie that comes most highly recommended, with a promising directorial credit. George Roy Hill also directed the film adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), another difficult book-to-film challenge with another author of sophisticated black comedy, which he pulled off with somersaults. Hill’s resume is bursting with offbeat cleverness like Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the weirdest musical about a roaring-20s flapper busting a human trafficking ring. Charged with putting Kurt Vonnegut’s most acclaimed novel to film , Hill made an effort which the author himself would go on to praise, miracles never cease! Now let us pause to quaff a shot of something that will make our breath smell of mustard gas and roses, and prepare to be thrilled. I will try to explain what it means to be unstuck in time: take a normal life as a deck of cards, then shuffle it. That’s all; there’s no time-traveling DeLorean here.
We open with Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) in an unexpectedly graceful setup: he’s typing a letter explaining how he is unstuck in time, jumping back and forth in his life, with no control over where or when… Then we segue into the war. Billy served as a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army during WWII; he revisits this part of his life at random. He also shifts to the planet Tralfamadore, where he is held by aliens as an intergalactic exhibit with a mate, Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine), who was chosen for him by his alien hosts—who are quite pushy about having them breed. She’s sweetly Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)→
PLOT: Two Jewish boys escape from the Nazis and flee through the German countryside.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A minimalist mix of almost-documentary realism with disorienting fantasies and flashbacks, there are rewards to be had in digging up the buried narrative gems in Diamonds of the Night. But despite its impressive pathos, it’s easy to see why this dour, low-budget sleeper wasn’t one of the enduring international breakout titles of the Czech New Wave. Nemec would deliver better films.
COMMENTS:We open on two boys running into the woods with a train clacking in the background. They ditch overcoats painted with the letters “KL” (for “konzentrationslager,” indicating they are bound for Nazi concentration camps) as they flee the sound of gunfire and cries of “halt!”
This thrilling opening soon loses steam, however, as the boys continue to run, then slow to a walk, then walk, and walk, and walk, occasionally pausing to lap water from a stream like dogs or take off their boots to check on their spreading blisters. It’s all shot with documentary-style shaky handheld cameras. There is no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes (and little thereafter).
The drudging pace and gray tedium of this opening will lose many viewers. The increasing confusion of the story will lose even more; but it is here is where Diamonds of the Night starts to get interesting. A few mysterious flashbacks—one of the boys climbing through cars in an empty passenger trolley, random scenes of the two trekking through almost deserted cities—are spread throughout the film’s first half. These increase in frequency as the movie progresses, and start to overlap with fantasy scenes, creating layers of memory, dreams and reality that blend together. When one of the boys barges in on a farm wife as she prepares lunch, for a while it’s unclear what really happens. We see alternative scenarios, one in which she silently hands him bread to eat, and one in which he kills her and takes the loaf. It’s immaterial whether he really strikes her down or not; he’s hungry and desperate enough to kill, and it’s only a question of fate whether he raises his hand or not.
In the second half of the film, the fugitives are hunted by a posse of German men too old to serve at the front; it’s grimly amusing to see the aged squad arthritically stalk them through the forest. An extended, chopped-up sequence of flashbacks shows one of the pair strolling through Prague streets that were deserted in previous flashbacks, wearing the coat that destines him for the death camps, running through the trolley once more, thinking of a dark-haired girl, pressing a doorbell and getting no answer; impressions of a life just before the Nazis seized him that conveys a sense of oppression without telling a coherent story. They are caught by their doddering pursuers when one of the boys can no longer run on his injured foot and the other stops to help him; a flashback shows the healthy one trading his boot to the injured one for food on the concentration camp train.
Matching the nonlinear storyline, the film is also out of phase aurally: sometimes the sounds of memories will lap over into the current times, and sometimes the opposite happens, further blurring the boundary between past and present, fantasy and reality.
Diamonds was adapted from Arnošt Lustig’s autobiographical novel; Nemec’s student graduation thesis film (1960’s “A Loaf of Bread,” included on the Criterion disc) was also a Lustig adaptation. As a first narrative feature, Diamonds of the Night plays like a very advanced student film; even it’s padded-yet-barely-over-an-hour runtime fits the bill. There are fascinating moments, but probably only a half and hour of truly interesting material here, interspersed with long stretches of the boys trudging joylessly through the woods. The 2019 Criterion release supplements the film’s short running time with two short documentaries featuring Nemec, a visual essay, Czech New Wave expert Irena Kovaroa, the aforementioned student short, and of course a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.
PLOT: The future is a grim world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus and the rest live underground. James Cole, a prisoner in this future, is recruited to travel back in time on a mission to discover the source of this virus and help his present time develop an antidote. Thanks to unforeseen mishaps and the shaky technology of time travel, his mission goes off track.
This feature was inspired by La Jetee, Chris Marker‘s 1962 experimental science fiction short film done almost entirely with black and white still photographs and narration. Terry Gilliam knew the structure of the film, but did not view it before making Twelve Monkeys (obviously, screenwriters David and Janet Peoples were intimately familiar with the earlier film). The core story of James Cole witnessing an execution while stuck in a time loop is the main element surviving from La Jetee. The virus, Brad Pitt’s character, and Madeline Stowe’s role are all the scriptwriters’ invention, as well as an updating and cultural shift to an American setting.
One scene that does survive from La Jetee is a character tracing the timeline of their existence on a cross-cut tree stump. Gilliam makes a double-homage by showing the scene from Vertigo during a convenient Hitchcock film marathon showing at the theater where Willis and Stowe hide out.
Gilliam cites a trip to the dentists’ office, with its multiple layers of protection for everything to keep it sterile, as inspiration for the protective gear—including the “body condom”—Bruce Willis wears in his trips to the world’s surface.
Brad Pitt had never played an unhinged lunatic before Twelve Monkeys; Gilliam was excited at the prospect of casting him against type. Later, Pitt would become known for his manic portrayals in films such as 1999’s Fight Club.
On-set rumor has it that Gilliam got Pitt to be a more convincing crazy person by confiscating his cigarettes during filming; Pitt was acting while experiencing nicotine fits.
There are TV screens present at some point or another in nearly every scene of the film; Gilliam’s intended to show us as dehumanized by media. Gilliam firmly asserts his place in the cyberpunk genre with the quote: “I’ve always had a problem with the belief that technology was going to solve all of our problems.” Twelve Monkeys continues this theme from 1985’sBrazil.
Twelve Monkeys received two Oscar nominations: Pitt for Best Supporting Actor and Julie Weiss for Costume Deign. It won neither.
The SyFy Channel original series 12 Monkeys is a spinoff of this movie.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Insert the obligatory lament that there are so many indelible scenes that it’s hard to pick one. We’ll go with the giant “video ball,” a metal sphere festooned with lenses and video screens, which is always hovering in front of James Cole as the scientists interrogate him in between time hops. It’s a signature of the film’s “complex style over function” motif and the most sure moment where you can walk into the film cold and still say “Aha, this must be a Terry Gilliam movie!”
THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Mentally divergent” Cassandra Complex; tooth surgery; giraffes galloping down the freeway
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Besides Terry Gilliam’s trademark rococco visuals, off-the-wall plotting, and larger-than-life characters, Twelve Monkeys has something else that sets it apart from other time travel movies: it is completely without plot holes, and even without paradoxes except that of the stable time loop which gives us the story. Upon first viewing, the story seems to be chaos. Repeat viewings are necessary to assemble a clear story out of the puzzle pieces, every single one of which fits perfectly down to the tiniest details. It’s such a flawless whole when fully mapped that constructing it was a cerebral feat on the order of Fields-medal mathematics.
“Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”–Luis Buñuel
PLOT: The Phantom of Liberty has no straightforward plot, but moves between vignettes through various linking mechanisms. The opening, about Napoleon’s troops desecrating a church, turns out to be a story being read by a nanny; the child she is watching is given “dirty” photographs by a suspicious lurker, then her father has strange dreams which he relates to his doctor, whose nurse interrupts their conversation to ask for time off to visit her sick father, and so on… Subsequent stories involve the nurse spending a night at an inn with strange characters, a professor who lectures to a group of gendarmes, a “missing” girl, a sniper killing random pedestrians, and a police prefect who gets a call from beyond the grave.
The title was suggested by a line from the Communist Manifesto: “…a spectre [translated in French as fantôme] is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism…” Substituting “liberty” for “Communism” is typical of Phantom‘s process of reversing our expectations to shock us out of our complacency.
The film was co-written with Buñuel‘s late-career collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, the fifth of the six scripts they wrote together. They devised the scenario by telling each other their dreams each morning.
This was Buñuel‘s second-to-last film, in a career that lasted nearly fifty years. He was 74 at the time of release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The famous toilet/dinner reversal scene, which, while not at all explicit, is one of the few moments that still has the power to shock modern viewers, simply on the strength of its revolutionary idea.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Jealous statue; emu in the night; commode party
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Angry statues, wandering emus, gambling monks, a celebrity sniper, and assorted perverts jostle up against each other in Luis Buñuel‘s penultimate filmed dream, perhaps the most purely Surrealist effort of his late career.
Short clip from The Phantom of Liberty (in French)