Make the Case: 7 Best “Weird” Movies for Beginners

Brazil 1985
Brazil 1985

It doesn’t happen a lot, but people really do ask me to recommend some weird movies for them. I’m pretty good at suggesting films in general. It’s one of the only things about myself where I’ve had a consistent record of success. Even better, only like half of these suggestions are unsolicited. Truly, I’m living the dream.

Of course, it’s still always hard to recommend where someone should go for something weird. Some people are ready for Holy Mountain at 8:30 in the morning over coffee mixed with that stuff we found in your attic. Some people aren’t. There’s no litmus or level you need to be at to watch something like Gummo. You just have to figure out how abstract and/or bizarre you want your experience to be.

Keeping that in mind, and the fact that everyone defines weird a little differently, I’m going to take a shot at suggesting some weird movies for you. These choices are assuming you don’t watch a lot of stuff outside of mainstream movies, and that you’re interested in what we might call the top of any iceberg of odd/cult cinema we could ever put together.

We’re also only covering seven movies here, and mostly staying in the west, so keep in mind this is a very basic jumping off point for the people looking for exactly that. We’re going to see what you’re interested in because I promise you it’s out there in abundance, and you’re really going to like it. You just have to figure out what’s interesting to you, how weird you really want to get, and you always have to start somewhere with that. That’s where I hope I’m helping out.

Also, all of these movies are suitable for at least teenagers, as far as I’m concerned.

 

7. Crumb

Director: Terry Zwigoff

It sincerely sucks that Terry Zwigoff, the director of the riveting and sometimes harrowing documentary Crumb, hasn’t made a film since 2006’s Art School Confidential. This is the guy behind Bad Santa and Ghost World, so you can expect his 1995 film about Robert Crumb to touch on lonely, sometimes viciously hostile outcasts. Despite being one of the great underground comic artists, it’s pretty apparent from watching Crumb that he’s a guy with a lot of stuff to work out.

Crumb is a straight, wide-open depiction of a profoundly strange man, the creator of such comics as Fritz the Cat and a major collaborator on Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. We don’t have the space in this column to cover Crumb’s psyche, nor the unfortunate and varied mental states of the family members we meet during this funny, oddly warm, but often quite somber character study. Crumb has a barrel of sexual dysfunctions, a ton of controversy surrounding his challenging, hysterically savage and funny cartoons, and a rather prickly nature about most things. He’s the crankiest person in a family filled with oddballs, and he doesn’t make any particular effort to endear himself to you. And yet he does, or I suspect very strongly that you’ll at least find him fascinating.

All I can say is that if you want to watch a fascinating, eccentric artist telling you about a childhood sexual fascination with Bugs Bunny in the most normal way possible, Crumb is an unforgettable must-watch, even as it was made decades ago at this point.

 

6. Troll 2

Director: Claudio Fragasso

When we talk about weird movies you can watch, we must leave some room for the so-bad-it’s-good category. Films like the infamous 1990 cinematic acid trip Troll 2 are not necessarily good movies, but their strange choices and inventiveness under low budget filmmaking stress can make for a really fun night. Troll 2, a movie that is not a sequel to anything, nor does it feature any trolls, is one of the all-time most beloved examples of what I’m describing.

It’s not a good movie, but it’s one you’re not going to forget anytime soon, A family of extremely unlikable clods visits a town called Nilbog (alright), runs afoul of some goblins, and that’s really the whole plot in a nutshell. When we talk about why people love this bizarre trainwreck, we have to talk about the way everything comes across. There’s some other people you’re bound to hate, along with some bonkers, poorly-written dialog, ghosts, magic sandwiches, and a surprisingly dark ending. It’s all joined by some of the worst monster costumes ever put to film.

If you don’t mind a low-budget movie that makes a lot of strange, often confusing choices with its narrative, visuals, and basically everything else, you’re going to find a lot to love about Troll 2. It’s not hard to see why this movie inspired a documentary called Best Worst Movie.

 

5. Welcome to the Dollhouse

Director: Todd Solondz

In the early 2000s, when I started seeking out stranger cinema more earnestly, my two biggest sources were Netflix’s monumental DVD library and the Independent Film Channel. The latter introduced me to a lot of movies before Netflix became a thing in our household in 2003, and Welcome to the Dollhouse was the perfect, aggressively bleak teen angst dark comedy for my own under-18-terminal-crankiness. What starts as a pretty grim coming-of-age story about a teen girl named Dawn Wiener (an all-time great performance by Heather Matarazzo) soon turns into the kind of unhappy youth that makes Charlie Brown look like Charlie Bucket after he got the chocolate factory.

Welcome to the Dollhouse is a cruel movie. That’s important to state because it starts harsh in Dawn’s life, with Dawn trapped in suburbia with classmates, and even an entire family who seems to actively despise her. There’s something morbidly funny about watching Dawn persist with a life that is so unfair, it somehow becomes funny in a way that might make you feel a tiny bit bad.

Yet Welcome to the Dollhouse has profound humanity and something deeply relatable to Dawn’s almost farcical degree of disaster in her life. It raises its black humor stakes again and again, and you’re left in a state of wonder of how far this movie is willing to punish Dawn. It all gets quite surreal very quickly. And no matter how awful it gets, Welcome to the Dollhouse never stops being one of the funniest movies about adolescence ever made.

 

4. The Happiness of the Katakuris

Director: Takashi Miike

We could probably fill this entire column with strange movies from Japan. That might be a topic for another day, but it would be absurd to highlight weird movies without a visit to perhaps the most famous country associated with films that sometimes defy conventional descriptions. To be sure, when it comes to stuff like the musical comedy-horror freakshow known as The Happiness of the Katakuris, we’re talking about movies that are unusual even when you take cultural storytelling differences into account. People from all over the world can almost universally agree that this infamously chaotic masterpiece from the legendary Takashi Miike is weird as hell.

The Happiness of the Katakuris starts with a family that’s already off the deep end. When guests begin dying in unexpected, hilarious, and sometimes sincerely unsettling ways, the family decides to do a totally normal thing, and just bury everyone on the grounds. What could possibly go wrong?

Hey, guess what, apparently a lot can go wrong when you try to hide the bodies. We all know that, but there’s an adventurousness to just how off-the-wall The Happiness of the Katakuris will get. Yet there’s something very stable and accessible with a film that I almost guarantee will feature the craziest and most violent elaborate musical numbers you’ve ever seen in your life. If you’re watching The Happiness of the Katakuris, which has a shocking amount of empathy for something so brazenly weird, and finding yourself getting into the rhythm of things, then you’re ready for stranger stuff.

 

3. Waking Life

Director: Richard Linklater

Linklater’s thoughts on life, politics, society, and human consciousness are sprinkled throughout much of his long, diverse career as a filmmaker. Waking Life went deeper on these ideas than anything Linklater had done before its release in 2001, and then wrapped up its various characters musings on philosophy, metaphysics, dreams and life and death with some visually arresting, gloriously unique animation. It’s about a guy who moves through a series of dreams that see him watching various people in various situations talk about things like anarchy and suicide.

One of those people, by the way, is Alex Jones, but the story of why Jones is even in this is admittedly not terribly interesting.

Waking Life is a good introduction to not only different sorts of movies, but also to some of the topics covered in its running time. We become the dreamer on this seemingly endless journey, and as we’re floored repeatedly by its gorgeous, messy visuals, we’re also coming into contact with conversations you’re going to be thinking about long after you’ve put this film down. Waking Life succeeds at putting you on shaky ground, but it never fails to suggest the profound in a way you can come to terms with. This is a movie that encourages creative thinking and open-mindedness. It’s also the concept of dreams brought to, well, waking life. Animation like this contributes as much to the narrative as the words themselves.

 

2. eXistenZ

Director: David Cronenberg

While I don’t think eXistenZ is the weirdest David Cronenberg movie, and it’s certainly not his most accessible work, I do think it’s a film that deserves more admirers. I also consider this 1999 film to be way ahead of its time, with its story of a game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a young businessman (Jude Law) being forced to travel through a brand-new virtual reality game. The movie has some incredible insight and narrative perspective thrown towards the larger and scarier subject of our relationship to technology, as it zips you along a plot that blurs sex and death in a confine that might remind you a little of Inception.

The situation in eXistenZ begins as a pretty normal story of a woman having no choice but to go on the run. Once things get going however, we’re forced to contend with what happens when an escape from reality becomes the prevailing reality. It’s a frantic approach to this question, and a consistently entertaining one, as well. It doesn’t hurt either that Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh are fantastic together, with great actors who often got offbeat material and did amazing work with it, including Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, and recent Oscar winner Sarah Polley.

 

1. Brazil

Director: Terry Gilliam

Brazil is another good personal litmus. Drawing from 1984, the works of Franz Kafka, and movies like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Terry Gilliam’s controversial 1985 pitch black sci-fi comedy will tell you two things. How much weirdness you can handle in a single movie, and how much despair you can take in the running time amidst all the aforementioned weirdness. This is a story of hope, and you may want to lean into the suspicion that hope is not necessarily a good thing in the futuristic hellscape of Brazil.

Focusing on a completely unremarkable bureaucrat whose only escape from a crushing dystopia that already sees him as long dead are elaborate, fantastical daydreams in which he is the hero of his story. These dreams push him to make bolder decisions and to try to seize some semblance of destiny and true happiness.

In other worlds, these qualities and aspirations might be enough. But in Terry Gilliam’s world, and particularly in the startling, sometimes grimly hilarious Brazil, these qualities are ruinous. The world conspires to crush our hero Sam Lowry’s dreams, and the ways in which society goes about punishing Sam for trying to escape is haunted stuff indeed. Brazil is thrilling in what it goes for in visual effects and storytelling conviction, but it’s also an idea of Hell on earth that might hit you too close to home.

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