Dedicated to films from all over the world of the horror, thriller, sci-fi, action, experimental, and/or mash-up persuasions, Fantastic Fest is the perfect place to discover all-new weird movies of various origins. I tried to take in a little bit of everything, and I’ve come out with a list of the Top 5 Weird Movies of Fantastic Fest for 2015. Note: Due to scheduling conflicts I missed Yakuza Apocalypse, which I suspect would have made this list. I also missed Anomalisa. Oh well.
5) Belladonna of Sadness (1973, Japan)
This was the most significant repertory screening for weird-movie lovers: a long-lost anime acid trip directed by Eiichi Yamamoto that never received a proper release in the US, but has been restored and re-released by Cinelicious Pics for 2015. Known to some for its use as a backdrop for musicians, the film’s visuals are without par, composed primarily of sprawling watercolor paintings that the camera pans across like an unraveling scroll. The art style is complex and elegant, with detailed linework and selective color, a kind of animated Art Nouveau, and the soundtrack is a thumping psychedelic score that pairs perfectly with the hallucinogenic imagery onscreen. As a purely sensory experience, the film is remarkable. The script and themes are less so. Hailed by some as a feminist statement, the story (inspired by Jules Michelet’s 19th-century nonfiction book Satanism and Witchcraft) follows Jeanne, a peasant woman in feudal France who is publicly raped on her wedding night by a skeletal baron and his courtiers. Physically and emotionally shattered, she turns to a demon spirit who offers her revenge in exchange for sexual devotion, and eventually she becomes a powerful sorceress who controls her whole town. On paper it sounds empowering, but in action it tends to stray far more into pornographic objectification of Jeanne, and the script is so bare-bones it would be about half the length without all the sex scenes. Narrative issues aside, this is definitely a must-see for anyone interested in experimental animation or weird stuff from Japan.
4) Men & Chicken (2015, Denmark/Germany)
My first foray into the wacky world of Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen, Men & Chicken is a sick, strange, and funny family drama about 5 brothers and their enigmatic scientist father. Mads Mikkelsen plays Elias, a chronic masturbator who, upon his father’s death, discovers that he and his brother were both adopted, and that they come from different mothers. The two go on a quest to find their biological dad and end up gaining three more brothers they never knew existed, all with odd habits and a decidedly anti-social bent. The five men try to make it as a family, to mixed success and much hilarity, while digging into the mystery of their brilliant-but-abusive father’s experiments. The narrative is meandering to say the least, but so incredibly enjoyable it doesn’t matter, with a perfect comedic cast, ridiculous dialogue, downright silly situational humor, and a unique story tinged with darkness. The result is an unexpected mix of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Island of Dr Moreau, and if that doesn’t appeal to you then you might be beyond saving.
3) High-Rise (2015, UK)
Ben Wheatley engages a little with his inner Cronenberg in this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, crafting an unsettling class satire set almost entirely within an ultra-lux high-rise apartment building. Thanks to a built-in grocery store, pool, gardens, and school, the tenants are provided with everything they might need, but after a prolonged power failure the lower (and, naturally, lower-class) floors grow restless and rebellious. The situation quickly escalates into an all-out war between floors, with frequent breaks for parties, drugs, orgies, and redecorating. Through the eyes of popular new resident Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), we see the penthouse-dwelling Architect (Jeremy Irons) delving into the depths of vulgarity while an irascible documentarian (Luke Evans) tries to make his way to the top to expose the wealthy businessmen living there. Alliances are forged and broken, and money becomes meaningless. One of the more polarizing films at the fest, High-Rise is jarring in its strange pacing decisions, uneven tone, and extreme visuals, but Wheatley’s unexpected choices make for the most brilliant moments. An incisive and grim social commentary, it is also bitingly funny and irreverent in that droll, British kind of way. The 1970s setting allows for fun retro-futuristic visuals and copious sideburns, but its themes of societal collapse and barbaric classism are timeless.
2) The Lobster (2015, Ireland/UK/Greece)
Dogtooth-helmer Giorgos Lanthimos’s first English-language feature, The Lobster is set in a magical realist dystopia in which everyone must be in a government-mandated two-person romantic relationship. Singletons are sent to a special hotel where they must find a mate within 45 days or else they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. The plot follows a dumpy divorcé (Colin Farrell) as he settles into the hotel, taking part in bizarre rituals and social events designed to teach guests the importance of codependency, and going on regular stints into the wilderness where he and his cohorts are tasked with shooting down escaped rebels who believe in independent lifestyles. The premise is fascinating, set in a world of extremes, of shallow ideals and confused emotion, with offbeat characters and deadpan narration that propel the story through quite a few twists and turns. It is marked by a warped sense of humor, with comedic moments found in nosebleeds, attempted suicide, and heartless violence, but there is also a surprisingly poignant thread running throughout in its understanding of loneliness. Elements of Logan’s Run and The Apple inform its science-fiction setting, while the romantic satire and flippant nihilism give the story a compelling angle, blending together into a totally strange and wonderful film with a knock-out ambiguous ending.
1) Love & Peace (2015, Japan)
The weirdness inherent in Shion Sono‘s newest bit of madness is encapsulated within its plot summary: a sniveling wannabe songwriter dreams of leaving his miserable office job and becoming a star. After his best friend/pet turtle Pikadon is flushed down the toilet, his luck suddenly changes when he writes a hit song and finds himself signed to a major label with a punk backing band. Pikadon ends up with a herd of toys and small animals who had all been thrown away and given magical speech candies by a kindly old man who lives with them all in the sewer. The old man accidentally gives Pikadon a wish candy, which allows the turtle to wish for his owner’s success. But things go awry due to magical mishaps and big egos, and eventually the city has a Gamera situation on its hands. Though the Ratatouille-meets-“Island-of-Misfit-Toys” story sounds convoluted, Love & Peace works thanks to Sono’s masterful juggling of various interconnected ideas. It is equal parts adorable and hilarious, with the familiar rags-to-riches structure completely upended by the bizarre circumstances surrounding it. With its sweetness, this film wraps its audience in a big, crazy hug and charms us into hugging right back, while always maintaining its essential Weirdness. Bonus: The title song is catchy as hell, and you will definitely have it caught in your head for a very long time. I am currently singing it as I write this, and probably still as you read it.
Liza the Fox-Fairy (2015, Hungary): For those who liked Amelie but wish it had more deaths, this Hungarian fantasy about a lonely woman who believes she is cursed due to her suitors consistently dying around her is an absolute delight. Its saturated palette, Soviet settings, endearing performances, and biting humor won me over completely, and the Japanese classic rock soundtrack made me want to dance the night away. The only thing keeping it out of this top 5 is that it’s more quirky than weird, but it was probably my overall favorite film of the fest.
Der Bunker (2015, Germany): This off-kilter domestic comedy about a family who willingly shut themselves up in a secluded bunker features a 31-year-old actor playing an 8-year-old boy and a strange disembodied presence that instructs the mother in all things. I knew this movie would be weird, but it got weird in a way I didn’t expect and I really respect that.
Evolution (2015, France/Spain): Lucile Hadžihalilović’s quiet, subtle sci-fi mystery about an island of pale-faced women who have found a way to propagate without men definitely isn’t for everyone. However, its meditative air and rich visuals have stuck with me days after viewing, and its approach to gender is thought-provoking and different, especially for the genre.
Stand By for Tape Back-up (2015, UK): The most emotionally affecting film I saw at the fest, I consider this weird not for its content but for its style, which amounts to a kind of analog performance art as filmmaker Ross Sutherland narrates a spoken-word autobiographical poem over tv clips recorded onto a worn VHS tape during his childhood. It’s an experimental form of memoir that effectively blends pop culture nostalgia, freestyle rap, and forthright honesty, and I’ve never seen anything like it before. And it made me cry. Like, a lot.