Weird films have a magic to them of sorts: it takes a wholly unique vision–and a steadfast confidence in that vision–to bring it to life. Often not commercially promising, the stranger films that are produced are also the ones that have something to say, and whether important, comical, or just disturbing, due to the uncompromising nature of these visions they are often the most striking and memorable.
And like many weird films, they are also often obscure. Since by their very nature bizarre films aren’t meant for mainstream audiences, they are relegated to the realm of cult or late-night offerings on cable or, worse, the bottomless circle of hell known as Video On Demand where a pixelated movie poster and two-sentence blurb couldn’t possibly entice anyone to check them out.
While there are easily dozens of great but obscure weird cinema produced in any given decade, here are 10 that will satisfy a variety of oddball tastes. Whether they are influenced by masters like David Lynch, try to explore the philosophical vagaries of human existence, aim to disturb and shock the viewer, or else create a fantasy out of whole cloth, here are 10 totally bizarre films from the 2000s you might have missed–and also might want to check out, if the odd mood strikes you.
1. Songs from the Second Floor (2000)
In the hallway of an office building, a clerk clings to his boss’s legs, pathetically begging for the job he had just been fired from; elsewhere, an economist visits a clairvoyant hoping to find the answer to the rising cost of wages; in a coffee shop, a young man waits for his father, who had just burned down the family’s business for insurance money; and everywhere else it seems the world is falling apart and everyone is going crazy. How difficult is it to be human? The answer, in Songs from the Second Floor, is: very.
As each vignette presented in this film attests, being alive and a human being in this world at the turn of the Millennium is an often absurd prospect: having to work your whole life just to survive, only to be fired without any warning, often being punished for being the wrong ethnicity through no fault of your own, and having to negotiate your way through a cruel and indifferent existence are just some quandaries director Roy Andersson grasps in Songs from the Second Floor. And with pitch-black absurd humor, he attempts to reason out just why life is often so oblique and what–if anything–we can do about it.
This film begins his “Living Trilogy” that continues to question the absurdity of modern life, followed by You, the Living in 2007 and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence in 2014. For the existentialist in all of us, Andersson’s films address in bleakly comic terms just why so many have found contemporary life oddly unsatisfying.
2. The American Astronaut (2001)
For genre mixing, a space Western musical is as far-out a cross-pollination as any. And 2001’s The American Astronaut is a far-out movie: with much of space now the new wild west for roughnecks and bandits, interplanetary trader Samuel Curtis makes his way to an asteroid saloon to deliver a cat, for which he receives his payment–a cloning machine that can make him a real woman (women being the rarest commodity in space).
Curtis barters this new Real Live Girl for a miner only known as Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast, who he plans on trading to the all-female planet of Venus so they can use him as a stud.
If you’ve read this far into the description and think this might be a zany movie, you’re right: The American Astronaut is a weird avant-garde sci-fi comedy that mixes the sensibilities of Guy Maddin with the odder elements of David Lynch minus the deep symbolism. Instead, the film has a handmade quality to it, creating an effectively surreal atmosphere that’s part creepy and part comedy.
3. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
So here’s the thing: it turns out Elvis really is alive. After growing tired of the constant grind of being, well, Elvis, he switched places with an impersonator, which was the one that died in 1977. But an explosion destroyed all evidence that he was the real one, and after spending some time in a coma ends up in a retirement home where nobody believes him.
But that’s not all: in the retirement home he befriends JFK. Sure, he’s now an elderly black man, but this is explained away that he was dyed black and shuffled off to this old folks’ home to hide him. Oh, and also join forces battle a resurrected mummy that’s now haunting their retirement home.
This film has a lot going for it, particularly that Elvis here is being played by Bruce Campbell, B-movie stalwart and cult hero. Turning in a stellar performance as an aged, somewhat bitter Elvis, Campbell grounds a film that could easily fly off into pure silliness. Instead, it’s an enjoyable, wacky comedy featuring JFK and Elvis fighting a mummy, which is nuts but just the right kind of crazy to make for a solid film.
4. Dead Leaves (2004)
Waking up one morning in the middle of a city naked and with no memories of how they got there, a young woman with heterochromia iridium (Pandy) and a man with a television for a head (Retro) go on a hyperactive crime spree. They are arrested and sent to Dead Leaves, a supermax prison located on the rapidly disintegrating moon. Once there, they have sex, Pandy becomes pregnant and gives birth within a day’s time, and they battle a gigantic caterpillar.
This hyperkinetic anime seems straight from an overstimulated mind and the result is a wired, weird animated movie that rarely takes a break from its overblown aesthetic and tone.
Running at a little under an hour, Dead Leaves is longer than a short film but shorter than a feature, but considering the sheer velocity of the action involved, it would be exhausting for this to run for 40 minutes longer. For those animation fans looking for some eye-popping action happening at an unrelenting pace, this far-out flick is like a shot of espresso being served in anime form.
5. Elevator Movie (2004)
A strange loner and a born-again Christian enter an elevator together and get stuck. Not for a few minutes or hours, but for weeks and months. The two learn about each other as they at first survive on the bag of groceries the woman has, and learn that the man is a socially awkward virgin while the young woman turned to her faith after a promiscuous youth. They continue to survive because every morning the bag of groceries appears full once again. They begin to bond when the young woman suddenly begins to transformation into another being entirely…
This ultra-minimalistic black-and-white film is both surreal and effective, a two-hander mostly contained to one bare set that comprises the elevator.
Bringing to mind the same minimal, dialogue-heavy style of Clerks, Elevator Movie is a series of long, odd conversations between two people who have no choice but to figure out how to get along. But the weird turns the film takes is what makes it interesting enough to keep watching through the end–and you’ll be impressed by how much can be made out of little more than a good script.