Giant pink puppies, sentient severed hands, a murderous red dress, and dolls that fight Nazis: 2019 was a GREAT year for weird movies.
I saw over a hundred new releases last year, here are the 9 strangest and wildest of the bunch.
Giant Pink Puppies – DIAMANTINO
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. They start stealing his money.
They also 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 (then!!) 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. 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.
True Love and Trolls – BORDER
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 neither 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 are rare but they’re out there, and they live among us.
Then Tina meets another troll, confident and outgoing. He encourages her to stand up for herself, and embrace her troll-ness. We also learn that troll sex is not the same as human sex; I don’t want to spoil this, and actually, there is no way I could spoil it, as there is no way to use words to describe what happens, but please take note: 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 the classic film theme of self-acceptance. 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.
Kinky Sex in Deep Space – HIGH LIFE
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 killing each other in an orgy of frustrated violence. Everyone, that is, except Pattinson, 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: This made me feel a bit uncomfortable.
The Killer Red Dress – IN FABRIC
Director: Peter Strickland
In suburban England everyone is obsessed with ‘Dentley and Sopers’, THE local department store. 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 finally kills her in a staged car accident.
And then…. 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 store, to the clerk who speaks in circular epigrams (‘The hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recess in the spheres of retail’), the 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. Even the poster is discomforting.
And then there is the ending, where the dress’ victims are consigned to a hell of eternally making more sinister dresses.
Or is it just, life in the consumerist modern world is hell?
When Dolls Fight Nazis – WELCOME TO MARWEN
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
But it’s not just arthouse cinema where directors run amuck. It is less common now, but sometimes, occasionally, film makers are still allowed to create weird movies 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 shows Hogancamp (played by Steve Carell; a good actor facing an impossible task) making his models, then shows him AS a model; CGI fantasy sequences with a doll Hogancamp leading a troop of doll female mercenaries, fighting Nazis. These truly strange scenes, with plasticy 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, and fighting each other to take him to bed. He cheerfully explains all this to the female friends the dolls are based on, and they all seem delighted, 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. 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.
Superheroes in Pastel Pyjamas – GLASS
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Another big name director to create a weird 2019 movie is M. Night Shyamalan, whose ‘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 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, and we learn that the psychologist from earlier was actually working for a secret anti superhero society, one that likes to host fancy dinners. 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.
The Whale That Consumed the Universe – CHILDREN OF THE SEA
Director: Ayumu Watanabe
Ruka is a young Japanese girl struggling with 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 very 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!
But in the final half hour, this movie moves away from the human-animal communications, and morphs into a psychedelic free form jam on the nature of existence. Ruka and one of the pod boys expand and turn into living consciousness, and then into a giant whale, that consumes the entire universe; beautiful, highly strange images and patterns strobe across the screen, and disembodied voices debate the quest for meaning.
It’s like 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… bye’ and runs off.
Gob-smacking. Stunned silence in the cinema when I saw this (MIFF 2019), and then sustained applause.
The Sentient Severed Hand – 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, there are 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 going to call ‘the magic of cinema’. This is why you watch movies, or at least one reason: to be surprised.
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; with determination.
This is an unusual character study, and a unique and beautiful film.
Swifty on the Moon – CATS
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 visual presentation like 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?
And then there are the dancing mice and cockroaches, who are so genuinely strange that you forget the cats for a minute, when they do their big number.
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.