We’ve already seen two films from Jan Švankmajeron the list, but this elaborate movie about a number of separate, but connected people takes the cake. Conspirators of Pleasure follows six people, each with their own incredibly unsettling fetish. A letter carrier ingests dough balls every night before bed. A clerk is obsessed with a new anchor and creates a machine that pleasure him while he watches her. That anchorwoman has an odd obsession with live carp. One customer of the clerk’s practice paper mâché voodoo with a chicken costume and a doll resembling his neighbor. The neighbor has a doll of him that she brutalizes. Finally, the anchormwoman’s husband rubs homemade contraptions to rub all over his body. Conspirators could simply be a character study that, while still strange, would not be nearly as creepy. Švankmajer’s known for his animation and puppetry, but Conspirators offers limited of each. On many occasions, there are opportunities, but it never comes to fruition; that alone is a bit unsettling. It may still be Švankmajer’s most human film, but it certainly isn’t any easier to stomach.
Having been on Twitter for over three years now, following mostly film industry people, I can’t remember another film so unabashedly and unexpectedly adored as Holy Motors, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Directed by Leos Carax, Holy Motors follows a man named Oscar (Denis Levant) as he rides around in his limousine, meeting his appointments. The catch: his job apparently involves getting decked out in makeup and costuming and playing various roles. Sometimes, they are at the request of people he knows. Sometimes, they seem to have no purpose. So, we are taken to Paris, where Oscar’s first performance is as an old homeless woman. Next, he has simulated sex with an actress on a soundstage. Then, he kidnaps a model from a photoshoot. Next, he picks up his “daughter” from a party and argues with her. This is followed by a fun musical interlude where Oscar plays the accordion with a group of musicians. I could go on, but it’s much more fun to experience this whirlwind on your own, wondering what performance is coming up next. Also starring Édith Scob, Eva Mendes, and Kylie Minogue, Holy Motors was a surprise success in the critical circuit, though it came away with no major awards, though it was nominated for nine César Awards. While a great majority of the films on this list are confusing and/or unsettling, Holy Motors is a rare film that, while not making a whole lot of sense, still manages to be an entertaining, exciting trip through a somewhat underdeveloped “story.”
There are numerous variations on the story of Jesus. There may be even more films that, while not adapted from The Bible, use a protagonist that would commonly be identified as “Christ-like.” Enter surrealist Robert Downey, Sr. and his version of the story with Greaser’s Palace and Jesse (Alan Arbus), a zoot-suit donning drifter who ends up in a broken down Western town. He’s on his way to Jerusalem to become an entertainer, though he is the second coming of Christ. His appearance causes some problems (as any Christ figure’s does), especially with the town leader Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson). Jesse use his ridiculous powers to bring healing to many, including Greaser’s son Lamy (Michael Sullivan), whom he raises from the dead. While its series of vignettes do look like blurry version of Old Testament stories, the filth and insanity of Downey’s screenplay moves it into wholly unbelievable directions. It’s all over the place – moments of incredible silence cut against loud, cacophonic bellows and screeches coming from townspeople, rather than actual language. Ever the child actor at his father’s beck and call, Robert Downey, Jr. shows up again in an uncredited role as a humpback child who gets killed. Greaser’s Palace has no business being associated with any of the brilliant – however loose – adaptations of The Bible, but the gaping holes of narrative and sanity make for an entertaining watch, at the least.
Long before he pulled a wildly inconsistent, but fully realized performance out of James Franco in Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine made his directorial debut with a mess of a film titled Gummo. Korine came on the scene in 1995 by penning the script to Larry Clarke’s unsettling Kids, only to push further over the threshold of taste as he moved along through his career (Spring Breakers is maybe his best offering, and also his least deliberately offensive). Gummo displayed that cynicism front and center, telling the story of a group of kids in a poor, tornado-stricken town in Ohio. This seemingly random collection of offensive imagery follows Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton) as they wander around, doing whatever they want. Kittens are murdered. Sex is had. Dirtbikes are driven. Solomon and Tummler come across a number of odd characters in their little garbage town, from a tween transvestite to a man who sells his mentally handicapped wife to the boys for sex. Among these nausea-inducing pictures of poverty and chaos, a young boy walks around town with his skateboard wearing pink bunny ears. Solomon’s mother is the only character in the film who doesn’t feel like a warped invention of Korine’s repugnant imagination, but even she is castrated by the world around her, filled with death and despair. Gummo is not for the faint at heart, which goes for all of Korine’s other writing and directorial efforts. At the very least, it was a completely original attempt at indie filmmaking that may have influenced more filmmakers than we give it credit for.
From a director who rips the flesh off of his films to a director who has developed an incredibly distinct, however cold, style. Steven Soderbergh is easily one of the most important directors of this generation, breaking into the industry with 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. After a few years of well-received, but little seen films, he gave the world a twisted comedy with Schizopolis, a film he wrote, directed, composed, and starred in. Schizopolis is devoid of a linear plot, though the three acts are held together by nothing more than cheap floss. Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh) works for a Scientology style “company,” though he doesn’t really communicate with anybody, including his wife, with whom he exchanges innocuous phrasing that describes their dialogue, rather than actually saying anything. Eventually, we move to a second act and Fletcher’s doppelgänger (also played by Soderbergh), a dentist who has been having an affair with Fletcher’s wife, though he eventually falls for another woman, simply referred to as “Attractive Woman Number 2.” The third act is seen through the eyes of Fletcher’s wife, Mrs. Munson (Betsy Brantley). The same story from the first two acts is told again, but through her point of view, though Fletcher and his doppelgänger speak Japanese in this retelling. Schizopolis has no beginning or end credits and seemingly no purpose, though Soderbergh introduces the film and tells the audience “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing…this is your fault, not ours.” In a way, it’s a discussion on the way communication is viewed in our society and how verbal communication differs greatly from subconscious thought. Or it could just be a weird experiment that doesn’t mean anything. You decide.
Buñuel’s films tend to have some semblance of a plot to hang on to, even if by thin pieces of twine. But The Phantom of Liberty is something that goes beyond the typical surrealism, taking an entirely free form to deliver what can only be described as a stream of consciousness fever dream. It begins in the early 19th century in Spain, where Napoleonic troops are executing rebels. It jumps forward to a nanny reading in the park, paying no attention to the children under her care. We then meet a man rearranging his furniture. He eventually goes to doctor after he is awakened in the night by a cockerel, postman, and an emu in his bedroom. Then we follow a nurse as she leaves to visit her father, only to stay at a hotel filled with monks. And so on, and so forth. It goes on, each scene topping the next in terms of chaotic storytelling. I could go on, but there’s no point; any further exposition wouldn’t necessarily spoil anything, but it wouldn’t shed any further light on the purpose of the film. Buñuel is the master of surrealist cinema, but, most of the time, it was pretty clear what he was trying to say, even through the muddled delivery. The Phantom of Liberty does not have that luxury. Sometimes a good old potpourri of random scenes that ends with an ostrich head is all you need.
If you ask any lay person in my generation (mid-20’s to mid-30’s) what the most confusing movie they have ever seen is, a good percentage of those respondents will say Donnie Darko, usually because one of their friends saw it and threw it in the DVD player one night saying “You have to see this movie. It’s crazy.” Now, as we’ve gone through this list, it’s pretty clear that Richard Kelly’s breakthrough film is nowhere near the craziest, but it is one of the films here that managed to find a following in the mainstream after its theater run, despite itself. Donnie Darko‘s title character is played by a young Jake Gyllenhaal and learns – from a giant talking rabbit named Frank – that the world will end in 28 days. When he returns home the next morning, a jet engine has landed in his bedroom. He begins doing things Frank tells him to do, like flooding the school. The flooding is blamed on the teaching of a story titled “The Destructors” by an English teacher (Drew Barrymore). Enter motivational speaker Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who attempts to influence Donnie and his classmates, only causing more friction. This all leads to Donnie’s research into time travel and his visions of tiny wormholes begin to slowly erode his sanity. In the end, we are taken through folds of time, leaving us wondering what is and isn’t happening. Does Donnie actually see Frank? Is any of this even happening? Kelly’s inventive approach to broken narration set the stage for what could have been a promising career, though he has fallen off a bit since. But this introduction of Gyllenhaal (and his sister…and even Seth Rogen as a school bully) to the world is really a gateway drug to other independent films with fascinating twists and turns more than anything, but from personal experience: I rented this film from Blockbuster one evening in college and watched it by myself. Upon finishing it, I immediately returned it, went to the store, and bought the DVD. My tastes have matured a bit since, but that doesn’t take away from the profound effect this little mind trip had on me in my college years.
From a broken narrative to just a screwed up concept of a film, Dogtooth focuses on a Greek married couple who keep their three adult children – a son and two daughters – on their gated compound, closed off from the world. These children don’t know they are sheltered, however, for they have no knowledge a world exists outside of their walls. The parents give different words to different things, cultivating an environment of confusion. A security guard named Christina from the father’s factory comes to the house regularly, but only to perform sexual favors for the son. Christina – eventually getting fed up with her role – begins to trade oral sex from the eldest daughter for various things from the outside world (a headband and two movies – Rocky IV and Jaws). When the father finds the tapes, he beats her relentlessly. But the seed has already been planted – she wants to see what the world has to offer. The dogtooth of the title is the concept that sets the film in motion; the parents have told their children that they have a brother who lives beyond the walls, but the only way for them to gain release from the compound is to wait until they matured enough to lose their dogtooth. When the eldest sister is overcome by her desire to leave her house, she takes matters into her own hands, providing a terribly brutal scene that leads to the conclusion. Dogtooth is a borderline exploitation film – a relatively heavy-handed allegory on the dangers of sheltering your children from the world. Most admirable of the film may be the way Lanthimos sets up his camera – most of the film feels still, but the often skewed shots where action doesn’t fill the entire screen provides a level on unease that affects our view of this already unbalanced family dynamic. Somehow this twisted little Greek film grabbed a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination; it’s deserved, but it’s pretty clear this isn’t the type of film the Academy tends to lean toward.
Somehow, this is the first David Lynch film on the list. I’m surprised, too. Starring Lynch muse Laura Dern, Inland Empire is the story of an actress named Nikki (Dern), brought on to play the lead in the film “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” which is actually a remake of a German film title 47, which was halted due to the two leads being murdered. As Nikki rehearses with her co-lead Devon (Justin Theroux), she finds herself fading in and out of daydreams, fully inhabiting her character “Sue,” to the point that she appears to be having an affair as “Sue” with Davon’s character “Billy.” At one point, Nikki wanders off set and finds a hidden room behind the studio and flees the production, believing she is the reason the film is cursed. Then, to put it lightly, things go CRAZY. The film’s narrative is thrown in the garbage disposal, random sub-plots begin to develop, characters begin to shift in and out of the characters they are playing in the movie within a movie, and the line between fantasy and reality within the movie gets incredibly hazy. Even as it seems that knots are being untied, they get re-tied further and further, cramming a mystery into a paradox into a Rubik’s cube of narrative flow and characterization. All this and I haven’t even mentioned the cryptic speaking rabbits that appear at the beginning of the film. While Lynch has made a number of twisted, shocking films, Inland Empire – while certainly not his best – may be his most perplexing, jumping from plot to plot at a staggering pace, always jumping backwards, only to leap forward even further. One has to suspect Lynch knows exactly what he’s doing, but there is a little inkling of wonder that maybe – just maybe – he’s just throwing words on a page that aren’t meant to make any sense.
SPOILER: This is the only Lars von Trier film on the list. Why? Well, while von Trier has a tendency to shift into the darker themes, all of his movies tend to “make sense,” for lack of a better term. The first entry in his “Depression Trilogy” (also includes Melancholia and Nymphomaniac), Antichrist is easily the most difficult to get through, even though Nymphomaniac, with its two parts, is twice as long. It begins with a prologue, where we see a couple, simply referred to as He and She (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg), having passionate sex while their infant son walks out a balcony, falling to his death. Chapter One explores the child’s funeral and the “She’s” hospitalization due to grief. “He” decides the best way for her to deal with the grief is to take her to an isolated cabin in the woods (Eden) to do some heavy exposure therapy. Here, we begin to see some graphic imagery, like a dead fawn hanging out of a deer’s womb. Chapter Two sees the two diving deeper into the therapy, trying to conquer the mundane and sinister environment surrounding Eden. The chapter ends with “He” encountering a fox eating itself, at which point the fox peers up and says “chaos reigns.” Chapter Three sees “He” uncovering “She’s” previous work on her thesis, attempting to prove that women are inherently evil. When “He” confronts “She” with his findings, she worries he will leave her and decides to force him to stay in some extreme ways (these physical punishments are intertwined with some really uncomfortable sexual imagery). While Chapters One and Two push the envelope in terms of stillness and pain, Chapter Three goes for the jugular in a way that few films can. The build-up is slow and burning and von Trier’s “pay off” is exceptionally brutal. I’ve never been to therapy for myself, but I do recognize the need for exposure or immersion therapy in many cases. But Antichrist is a level of pain and suffering that can’t even be equated. Gainsbourg won the award for Best Actress as Cannes and the film has since had a number of different version released, some cut, some not. As John Waters put it while describing his love for the film, “If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, this is the movie he would have made.” Let’s go with that.