So…what do I mean by “What the F**k?” Movies? These are the films that, upon completing your viewing, you seriously worry about the director’s sanity. Or you can’t really comprehend what you just saw. Or you know what you watched was something magical, but can’t really put the pieces together in your mind. Or, worse, you know what happened, but certifiably it’s insane. But with this “definition” comes a few caveats: no horror films and no fully animated films. Those genres lean a little too crazy to begin with – it’s more fun to look at films that force a sense of realism, even if it’s just on the surface.
Not all these movies are necessarily “good.” In 2001, writer/director Richard Kelly found cult status with the mind-bending Donnie Darko. It took six years for him to bring another film to the big screen with Southland Tales, an incredibly strange science-fiction/drama/comedy hybrid about alternate universe Los Angeles that is supposed to play like social commentary on the media and the War on Terror. Instead, it’s a fantastically misguided hodgepodge of moments that feel completely disconnected. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays an action star with amnesia, Sarah Michelle Gellar plays an ex-porn star with psychic powers, and Seann William Scott as twin brothers. It involves a new source of inexhaustible energy that screws with the planet’s rotation, a screenplay that tells the future, and narrative tracks from Justin Timberlake (he even provides a weirdly mesmerizing scene where he lip syncs The Killers “All These Things That I’ve Done.”). Whatever mild approach to strict storytelling Kelly exercised with Darko is all but lost with Southland Tales, with a set piece-focused film that just never comes together and really doesn’t make any sense.
From a sweeping, messy science-fiction fable to a tight, cerebral time travel parable that was made for next to nothing ($7000) and looks like it. Shane Carruth’s debut film (and when I say debut, I mean everything: acting, writing, directing, editing, music, and producing) follows engineers Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) and a few of their co-workers as they run an experiment meant to decrease the weight of an object. While the invention appears to work, it also has an incredible side effect: it appears to make the object travel at a speed of time much faster than everyone else. From there, it’s a story of friendship, betrayal, and the ownership of power. The general story isn’t difficult to understand, but the concept behind the story is migraine-inducing. Carruth refuses to dumb down his dialogue. A good 75% of the dialogue in Primer is nearly impossible to understand for a lay person. Despite the sheer weight of the language in the film, it still manages to grab the audience and create an experience that feels like a breath of fresh air in the world of science-fiction that is altogether simple and sophisticated at the same time.
This list could just be a collection of about five directors’ filmographies if I really wanted to. And one of those would be Todd Solondz, whose films dissect pockets of humanity that are assemblages of depravity, above all else. Happiness is probably his best known offering and quite possibly his most complete work, though not any more easily viewed. The film focuses on three sisters, their families, and the people in their lives. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) is the oldest daughter, married to a psychiatrist named Bill (Dylan Baker) who, unfortunately, is a pedophile. Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is the middle sister, a beautiful author who is loved by everyone, but finds herself oddly fascinated by a man who keeps calling her and threatening her, only to find it’s a neighbor named Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whom she has no interest in. Joy (Jane Adams) is the youngest sister, a hyper sensitive, confused saleswoman who decides to begin teaching at an immigrant education center. After being rejected there and being attacked, she ends up alone again. Through all this, their parents are getting separated, thanks to their father’s (Ben Gazzara) boredom and desire to be alone. All these moving cogs shifts through a sea of dingy locations, focusing heavily on a twisted, hopeless side of life that most of us try not to see. Sundance refused to accept the film, based on its disagreeable themes. Eventually, the film received an NC-17 rating, forcing it into limited release. Themes aside, the performances – especially from Hoffman and Baker (one of the most underrated performances of the 90’s) – provide a thankful upside to an otherwise trudging journey through tunnels of pain and disgust.
Imagine you are twelve. You live in a crappy apartment with a huge family that is, without a doubt, certifiably insane. Your brother is obsessed with weight lifting. Your sister is institutionalized. Your grandfather tries to drown you. A turkey and a rat live your bathtub. Wouldn’t you want to retreat into a world of make believe? The final film from Jean Claude-Lauzon before his untimely death in a plane crash, Léolo centers on one such boy, living in Montreal, who escapes his family’s dysfunction by create a surreal world to inhabit himself, through is writing and dreaming. He’s convinced himself that his family is not his own – that his mother was impregnated by a tomato which just happened to get covered in sperm on a boat sailing from Sicily (as we all sometimes do). Because of this, he insists he is Italian and only goes by “Léolo,” rather than “Leo.” He locks himself in the bathroom for extended period, having been convinced by his family that a bowel movement a day is the key to a healthy life. Instead, he is reading pornography, as he is slowly become aware of the sexual world around him, thanks in part to his grandfather’s pay-for-play relationship with a young neighbor girl whom Léolo believes will one day be his. The structure of the film is mind-boggling. We are treated to animated sequences. Léolo himself has a muse who visits him in his dreams. But somewhere in between all the insanity and tragedy is a weirdly beautiful movie, led by a fully formed child character who, despite the wild tonal shifts in the film, is not unlike the rest of us when we were pre-teens.
Certainly a much better known film than the rest on the list so far, Terrence Malick’s opus about life and existence is easily one of the most beautiful films on the list, despite its contentious topic (or lack thereof). A rare case when an art film becomes a theater must-see, The Tree of Life somehow found a mainstream audience, resulting in an incredibly mixed public reaction. The film focuses (for the most part) on a Midwestern American family in the 1950’s, centering on the eldest son Jack (brilliantly played by Hunter McCracken), who struggles mightily with his relationship with his father, played by Brad Pitt. He sees his father as a role model, but butts heads with him constantly, leading to his inability to comprehend his place in a the modern existence of today. What is the meaning of it all? The film detail’s Jack’s struggle with his place in his family, his love for his father and mother (Jessica Chastain), and his difficulty with the questions of faith, leaving him a lost soul as an adult (Sean Penn). The layered themes that are never fully formed are meant to leave the audience a bit confused, but the more difficult thing for moviegoers to handle was Malick’s insistence on telling the world’s story. We don’t begin with Jack’s birth; we begin with the world’s birth. Dinosaurs. Erosion. Global warming. The world we all live in is the same world, begot from the same seeds, as it was at the beginning of time. Despite our best intentions, there’s no pretending that we aren’t still part of a timespan that includes dinosaurs and nothingness. And that’s where Malick lost a chunk of his audience. So, while many view The Tree of Life as one of, if not the best film of the past five years (it’s definitely in my top 15), its lack of definition makes it terribly confusing.
It was already going to be confusing. Then, tragedy struck, and the decision to keep going and replace the lead actor with three actors only added to the disjointed narrative. Terry Gilliam’s fantasy film starred Heath Ledger as the protagonist, who unfortunately passed away during the making of the film. Thankfully, the film’s surreal nature allowed Gilliam to call an audible, with the help of three actors: Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law, who stepped in to play Ledger’s role at various points of the film. The film follows a traveling drama troupe whose leader guides audience members through their own imaginations and allows them to choose between a life of enlightenment or continuing in an ignorant blur. Parnassus is played by Christopher Plummer, who made a deal with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) that he could capture more souls, thus gaining immortality, but must give his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) over to Mr. Nick when she turns 16. Ledger enters the picture as Tony, who then wagers with Parnassus to see who can reach five souls first – Valentina will stay with the winner. It’s already convoluted, but it gets even more hazy. Also starring Andrew Garfield and Verne Troyer, Parnassus jumps around quite a bit, between the real world and the dream world, enabling Tony to be played by four different actors. It’s Gilliam being as self-indulgent as ever, but his imagery and haunting effects tie whatever strings may have been hanging together, if only briefly. It’s not so much messy as it is over-imagined, but the beauty of the performances and Gilliam and company’s push to complete the film anyway gave it an other wordly quality that both helped and hurt the film as a whole.
Emmanuel Carrère’s novel was the source material, but he also took the helm behind the camera of the adaptation in this French film with music from Philip Glass. Marc Thiriez (Vincent Lindon) lives in Paris and has decided, after having a moustache for his entire life, to shave it off. His wife Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos) jokes that she wouldn’t recognize him, but, upon her departure, he shaves it off anyway. When she returns, Marc expects a reaction, but gets nothing from his wife. His friends don’t mention it either. After multiple arguments, everyone reveals that he has never had a moustache, despite photo proof Marc presents to Agnès. And that’s the plot. The story continues, more and more people insist that Marc hasn’t sported a moustache for fifteen years; he slowly begins to lose his grip on reality. In a list full of weighty themes and mental gymnastics, La Moustache may be the simplest, most fascinating movie on the list. Carrère’s brilliant story of chaos and confusion doesn’t have to jump through any hoops. The slow deterioration of Marc’s psyche doesn’t have to be caused by a life changing event. When the world around you doesn’t see the same things as you, there is nothing more terrifying, even if it’s a moustache. Lindon’s performance is wonderfully unhinged, taking us with him on this life-altering riddle that all started with a little facial hair.
An incredibly absurd comedy-drama that took the Czech New Wave movement to a crazy level, Daisies follows two women, both named Marie (Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová) as they just, well, do stuff. They begin in bathing suits and decide they don’t want to be good/nice anymore. Then, they dance in front of a tree and eat from it. Suddenly, they are back at their apartment. From there, they just kind of go nuts, but in a way that is driven by a warped sense of female empowerment. They start playing pranks that involve quite a lot of eating, some parade watching, and property destruction. They go to a nightclub and make trouble. They eat a feast set out for Communist leaders. Eventually, they get crushed by a chandelier. There’s not much more to say about the “story,” but the depiction of two teenage girls throwing caution to the wind immediately caused an uproar, resulting in the expected banning of the film. While plenty of films have been based on similar themes, none went quite as avant-garde as Daisies, which still baffles. It feels like a feminist film, but it also feels like a nihilist prank. It’s anarchic and deliberately disconcerting, but may very well be the most important Czech film of all time. Thelma and Louise et. al. may have showed women taking their lives into their own hands, but none can boast such a wild lack of narrative with such unreal performances.
Long before Robert Downey Jr. played Tony Stark, he was just a puppy. Literally. His father, an independent filmmaker and playwright, put him in his 1970 movie Pound, based on his play “The Comeuppance.” The film takes places in a dog pound, introducing us to a group of eighteen dogs, a Siamese cat, and a penguin, all played by human actors (Downey Jr. plays the puppy, as mentioned). The dogs’ lives are shown through flashbacks, but those flashbacks begin to merge with the dogs’ fantasies about their lives. The dogs can understand human language and these flashbacks shown the dogs living surprisingly human lives, leaving the audience to wonder – are these actually dogs or people who think they’re dogs? Is this a vision of reality? Is this purgatory? Is this just Downey screwing with us? The latter is certainly true, but not without some possible buried statements about the modern world and the way we view it. For the most part, though the dogs are played by people, they still behave like dogs. They talk out of turn and they don’t ever seem like they listen to one another. There’s a weird selection of musical interludes in places that makes the film even more erratic, but the humor Downey injects (as with his other more successful, though equally surreal films) makes the sit a little more enjoyable. If you manage to get your hands on this incredibly original film, enjoy – it’s a dog eat dog world out there, after all.
Some people will do anything for a baby. Based on the folktale of the same name, Otesánek (also titled Little Otik and Greedy Guts) is, as most Švankmajer films are, a mix live action/stop motion animation film, centering on a Czech couple. Karel (Jan Hartl) and Božena (Veronika Žilková) have been told they cannot have children, so they decide to move out to country. Karel digs up a stump that looks a little like a baby and gives it to Božena, who decides to treat it like a regular baby and lays out a plan that has her giving a scheduled “birth” to it. She goes through her process and, when the day comes, the baby – Otik – comes alive and is incredibly hungry. Otik begins eating Božena’s hair and plenty of other things, resulting in Karel’s desire to kill it, despite Božena’s objections, since it is their “child.” Then Otik eats a couple of people, forcing them to lock Otik up in the basement. Despite the ridiculous story, Otesánek is surprisingly well received – it won the Czech Critics award for best film of the year, as well as some awards from the Czech alternative to the Oscars. It manages to get some wickedly uncomfortable laughs and carries some buried themes of consumerism and the definition of family while it makes your stomach turn a bit. A Disney version of the film would function like Pinocchio; Švankmajer just sets out to screw with your head in this overlong, but oddly engaging dark fairy tale.