Giant pink puppies, severed sentient hands, a murderous red dress, and superheroes in pastel pyjamas; 2019 was a great year for weird movies.
I watch a lot of movies, and here are the 9 strangest films I saw this year. Some of these are awesome, some of them are awful, all of them are bananas.
Directed by: Gabriel Arantes and Daniel Schmidt
Running down the plot is difficult, but I will give it a go: Diamantino is a soccer player, star of the Portugese national team. He loves dogs, and frequently imagines giant ones out on the football field with him (they appear in pink mist, and frolic). He also has two evil, twin sisters who accidentally murder their father, which they use as an excuse to take over Diamantino’s affairs and start stealing his money.
Then (then!) they sign him up for an experimental genetics research program – which they tell him is a new health and fitness regime – run by a far right political organisation; these guys want to clone Diamantino so that Portugal can win the World Cup, and also dupe him into being the spokesperson for their campaign to exit the EU. Then (then!!) Diamantino adopts a young, male refuge from Mozambique, who is actually a lesbian government agent investigating the events from earlier in this paragraph. Then (this is the last thing) Diamantino and his adopted ‘son’ end up falling in love.
And all in 96 minutes.
So this is how you do satire properly; an outlandish premise, a lot of energy, and everyone playing it straight, regardless of how batshit crazy the story gets. The movie is a riff on our hyperactive modern world, where the pace of events is breathless, expectations are constantly upended, and none of it makes any fucking sense.
Except it has to, sortof. A manic and very funny movie.
Directed by: Ali Abbasi
Tina is a likeable sad sack; she has a boring job (customs officer), a crappy boyfriend (who she supports financially), and little in the way of laughs or excitement (she actually has none of these).
Tina is also, a troll.
Not the alt-right, stir shit up on twitter type, but an actual live-under-a-bridge troll. Only, instead of a bridge, she lives in a two bedroom cottage, wears dowdy clothes and argues with her partner about who will clean up after his dogs. In the world of this movie, trolls are more like an endangered species; they exist, and live among us.
Then Tina meets another troll, confident and outgoing, who she starts an affair with. He encourages her to stand up for herself, and embrace her troll-ness. We, the audience, also learn that troll sex is not the same as human sex; suffice to say, when things get sexy in this movie, things get WILD.
By having the main characters be trolls, director Abbasi can apply a fresh spin to classic film themes like self-acceptance, and coming of age. It also allows him to comment on contemporary issues like racial discrimination, and populist politics. It’s a potent mix, at once familiar and completely not.
But perhaps the film's most amazing move is that you actually care about Tina; you ride her ups and downs, want her to find love and be happy. Trolls are just like us, after all.
Director: Claire Denis
The tagline for this movie, ‘Oblivion Awaits’, prepares you not at all for the film itself.
A group of young criminals (including Robert Pattinson, looking like a handsome skeleton) have had their sentences commuted, as long as they agree to participate in a series of deep space experiments near a black hole. But the scientist in charge (played by Juliette Binoche) has her own agenda; once the mission is underway, and away from prying eyes, she begins her own program of ‘experiments’. She is very keen – reason never explained – to have one of the female prisoners fall pregnant… by any means necessary (it is beyond my capabilities to describe how she does this, but she does).
Meanwhile, normal – i.e. non Binoche sanctioned – sexual relations are discouraged. Instead, everyone is free to modulate their libido via a creepy machine they call ‘The Fuck Box’ (also beyond my capabilities to describe, but it is there). Naturally, everyone ends up killingeach other in an orgy of frustrated violence. Everyone, that is, except R Patts, who takes the child that was eventually created by Binoche's experiments, and flies into the black hole with her.
So here we have one of the world’s most acclaimed arthouse directors making a weirdo sci-fi about sex and control. A simple read of it is: this is about how people we trust to run things frequently abuse their power. And a more complex read is: the rules that govern sex and relationships are obtuse and inscrutable. And a REALLY deep read is: I am not totally sure what this is about, and it made me feel a bit gross.
But still, for the high end film critics, one of the most acclaimed movies of the year.
Director: Peter Strickland
In suburban England, people are obsessed with ‘Dentley and Sopers’, the local department store where EVERYONE shops. A lonely, recently divorced woman, attends the store to buy a new red dress for a night out, unaware that her purchase is cursed and about to unleash havoc; it gives her a rash, causes trouble in her office, destroys her washing machine, and ultimately kills her in a staged car accident.
And then…. The dress moves on to its next victim.
A horror premise straight from a schlocky ‘B’ movie is given a deliriously imaginative treatment by director Peter Strickland; this is like something beamed in from a parallel dimension, where everything is familiar but slightly off. From the sinister tv commercials for the department store, to the department store clerk who speaks in loopy, circular epigrams ('The hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recess in the spheres of retail'), the store manager who looks like a reanimated corpse (and does weird stuff with the mannequins), the washing machine repairman who hypnotises people with spare parts talk, and the dress itself, that eats birds and refuses to be washed; everything is designed to unsettle, in a way that is horrifying and mordantly funny. Even the poster is discomforting.
And then there is the ending, where the sinister dress’ victims are consigned to a hell of eternally making more sinister dresses.
Or is it just, that life in the consumerist modern world is hell?
WELCOME TO MARWEN
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
But it’s not just arthouse cinema where directors run amuck. It is rare now, but sometimes, occasionally, film makers are still allowed to create bizarre constructions within the Hollywood studio system.
‘Welcome to Marwen’ is based on a true story (previously told in a documentary called ‘Marwencol’) about Mark Hogancamp; a man who suffered a vicious beating, emerged from a coma with amnesia, and reinvented himself as an outsider artist. Hogancamp poured his energy into creating a model World War II era French village in his backyard, and populating it with elaborate dolls that represent himself, his friends, and even his attackers.
Zemeckis’ film version shows Hogancamp (played by Steve Carell; a good actor facing an impossible task) making his models, then shows him as a model; elaborate, CGI fantasy sequences as Hogancamp leads a troop of female mercenaries, fighting Nazis. These truly strange scenes, with 'plastic' versions of the actors straight from the uncanny valley, are disturbing to watch and think about. All of the female models are based on people Hogancamp knows, and they are all depicted hypersexually; dressed in lingerie, fighting each other to take him to bed (yes: the dolls fuck). None of his female friends think this is odd, or are creeped out by it; they all act like it’s cute, in a way that does not match any version of reality I am familiar with.
Where the film is more successful, is as a depiction of mental illness. Hogancamp’s trauma and related anxiety issues ring true; this is a mentally disturbed man, with a myriad of problems, struggling to cope. But as the film tries to splice this onto a feel good story about a cute eccentric that everyone loves, it turns it into an awkward and ill-fated mutation.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Another big name director to create a very weird 2019 movie is M. Night Shyamalan, whose film ‘Glass’ completes a trilogy he started twenty years ago. And after the moody stylisation of ‘Unbreakable’, and the fun trashiness of ‘Split’ people, myself included, were genuinely excited to see how he would round this series out.
What none of us, myself included, were expecting was what we got; after a straight forward action opening, Shyamalan has his three main characters captured and taken to a mental institution, where they spend 90 minutes in pastel coloured pyjamas, arguing with a psychologist about whether the events of the first two movies actually happened.
I mean, I guess this is… different?
Then, Bruce Willis drowns in a puddle, James McEvoy runs like a dog, Samuel L. Jackson drools a lot, and we learn that the psychologist from earlier was actually working for a secret anti superhero society; something that I cared about not one bit. The biggest twist that the movie really has is that M. Night, having miraculously revived his career with his previous film, decided to make another career wrecking act of hurbis with his follow up.
That rarest of weird movie types; one that is actually boring.
CHILDREN OF THE SEA
Director: Ayumu Watanabe
Ruka is a young Japanese girl struggling with the usual teen-angst worries, and her parents trial separation. She hangs out at the aquarium where her father works, plays handball with her friends, and… (significant) stares wistfully out at the ocean.
Then two young boys are found at sea, who have been raised by a pod of dugongs. These two can communicate with ocean creatures, and can hold their breath for ridiculously long periods of time. They are also unbearably smug.
Ruka crosses their paths when the dugong boys are sent to the aquarium, for study. This leads to an awakening of her own, as she realises… she can communicate with ocean creatures too!
So far, nothing too out of the ordinary, in comparison to most animated fantasy films. But in the final half hour, this movie takes a dramatic left turn, morphing into a psychedelic free form jam on the nature of existence. Ruka and one of the pod boys expand and turn into the universe, something that is probably impossible to describe with words, while beautiful, highly strange images and patterns strobe across the screen, and their disembodied consciousnesses debate the quest for meaning.
It’s like the most metaphysical parts of the ‘The Tree of Life’, directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, and drawn by hand. And then, Ruka and the boy resume their human forms, and she says something like, 'well... see ya!' and runs off.
Gob-smacking. Stunned silence in the cinema when I saw this (MIFF 2019), and then sustained applause.
I LOST MY BODY
Director: Jeremy Clapin
Another mind expanding animated film from 2019 is this melancholy look at life, love, and limbs in modern France (currently on Netflix).
A directionless young man loses his hand in a traumatic accident. The hand gains sentience, escapes from hospital, and embarks on a lively cross city journey looking to reunite with its body.
Meanwhile, we see other plot elements via two series of flashbacks. The first shows the precursor to the hand losing; as Naofel, the world's worst pizza delivery boy, meets a girl, starts a job as an apprentice carpenter, and moves into the carpenter's attic (in scenes that wouldn't look out of place in a Miyazaki film). The other thread shows the same character as a young boy, day dreaming of being an astronaut, making audio tapes, and, later, coping with the death of his parents.
The sentient hand story and the melodramatic backstory shouldn’t work in combination, and yet they do, in a way that is hard to explain but which I am tempted to call ‘the magic of cinema’. But this is why you watch movies, or at least one reason: because you are hoping that you will see something that clicks in a way that is unexpected, that shouldn't come together into something, but does.
The different plot threads in this are, at the very least, tonally similar; watching young Naofel process his parents death, or ineptly woo a girl he likes, or watching his disembodied hand navigate a busy street while wearing an empty can like a hermit crab, are weirdly, perfectly, of a type. Both the hand and its body both experience loss and disappointment, and both cope with it in a similar way; pressing forward, no backward steps.
A unique and quite beautiful film.
Director: Tom Hooper
No discussion of the strangest films of 2019 would be complete without reference to this demented musical, which takes the already very strange source material (talking cats compete in a singing contest to get into heaven) and adds to it a visual presentation like something out of an anthropomorphic nightmare.
Seemingly unable to decide whether the cats of ‘Cats’ should be animated, CGI, or just people in make up, the film makers have created a weird mish-mash of all three; CGI fur, but with human faces, and noses, and tails that kinda join the body at an unnatural angle. And sometimes these cats act completely like people, and sometimes they mewl and wash themselves with their tongues. Oh, and Rebel Wilson's cat is weating a suit of fur, that she takes off to reveal... clothes underneath? To say nothing of the dancing mice and cockroaches, who are so genuinely strange that you forget the mutated cats for a minute, when they do their big number.
It is incredible, astonishing, that a major studio thought that this was worth lavishing $150 million on. And it is astonishing (ASTONISHING!), incredible (INCREDIBLE!) that they got the cast that they did (hat tip to Judi Dench and Ian McKellen; truly they can make anything work).
Of course, not to say the film has no entertainment value. After a bland first hour, a couple of the songs land in the second half (‘Mr Mistoffelees’ is actually very catchy), and it is fun to see Swifty sprinkling catnip from her giant moon (in a better film, what everyone would be talking about). This movie, unsuccessful now, could well be heading for cult status.
A review from letterboxd sums up the bizarrely horrific pleasure of watching this onscreen:
‘The theatre was completely full of people who were there for the same reason we were; to watch a beautiful slow-motion train wreck. We got rowdy, we screamed and laughed, we sang, we stood up and clapped and made comments. I truly feel a bond with these strangers. It was absolutely the best movie going experience of my life and I will never forget it.’
- Demi Adejuyigbe
2019: a great year in weird movies.