Celebrating the Cinematically Strange and Obscure
I’ve spent a big chunk of my teenage years devouring film after film, ascertaining my own palate for the moving pictures by scouring through endless film lists and diving headfirst from one title to another. Not to mention the occasional after-school trips to the cinema; trying to catch a film as soon as the school bell went off always felt like a race against time. After much exploration, I’ve come to realize that the cinematic experiences that have moved me the most are either those wreathed in melancholy or are just distinctly unconventional. As a means to celebrate the latter, I’ve put together a small list of films that defy either the narrative, aesthetic, or social conventions of cinema—perhaps even all of the above.
Sans Soleil (1983) dir. Chris Marker
As the creator himself puts it, Sans Soleil is a meditation on memory. Told through the voice of a female narrator, this documentary sets forth the thoughts and memories of a time -traveler who wrote of his journeys across different continents and time periods. The film, however, deviates from the documentary form and conjures up its own realm—one that is seemingly crammed with dissonant images and makes you feel like a stranger among your own species, but somehow also commemorates the oneness of humanity. It’s a piece of cinema that I see myself going back to over and over again, just to get lost in its liquid poetry. Though still often overlooked in the mainstream media, it comes as no surprise that Sans Soleil has made its way in many “best” lists along with other avant-garde titles—since Marker himself was known as a pioneer of the essay film.
The Juniper Tree (1990) dir. Nietzchka Keene
Through this monochromatic retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Björk marked her film debut in which she channels a young witch named Margit whose mother was burned at the stake for witchcraft—forcing her and her older sister, Katla, to flee for their lives. The two sisters search for salvation in a small makeshift family that’s soon strained by Katla’s dark magic. The film itself unfolds like a poem, pulling you along in its lonely, moody trance. This medieval fantasy—with its otherworldly imagery and symbolism—will transport you to another place and time in which the mysteries of the spirit world are indispensable.
Nutcracker Fantasy (1979) dir. Takeo Nakamura
This lively stop-motion puppetry is a loose adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, in which a girl finds herself lost in a magical world where her toys have come to life. But before she can return home, she must defeat the evil mice threatening the kingdom. While some parts might feel a little dragged and disjointed, its dreamy sequences full of oddball thrills—like spinning fairies and dancing strawberries—are definitely worth sticking around for. The film was released in Japanese and English, with the former being the original (and better) version.
Alice (1988) dir. Jan Švankmajer
This Czech adaptation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is one that is closest to the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s literary classic. The film incorporates live-action footage and stop motion animation characterized by some strange character designs and troubling images. Crafty and heavily steeped in surrealism, this adaptation is comparable to a voyage into something between a dream and a nightmare.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006) dir. Park Chan-wook
A tender romance between two psychiatric patients—one who believes herself to be a cyborg and one who believes he has the ability to steal other people’s souls and personality traits. Aside from being one of Park’s lesser-known works, this absurdist arthouse romance clearly greatly contrasts the more violent nature of his other films. Despite coming off as a quirky and lighthearted comedy, the film does a decent job in portraying mental illness in a serious manner—and without villainizing it! With its refreshing ideas and surreal visuals, it’s a film I would consider to be a true little gem.
A film can present as many alien concepts and oddities imaginable, but still would not stand out in a crowd if it’s told in a conventional way. Some might brush off anything a little out of the ordinary as, for lack of a better word, nonsense. But I’m sure a lot of fellow film lovers (if not all) are with me when I say even films that elude traditional patterns deserve just as much love and praise as their more orthodox counterparts. The titles mentioned above are just a few out of many films one could consider strange and obscure. If you’re willing to dig a little deeper down the rabbit hole, you’ll realize how many bizarre films there are that await you. -SN