HAMMY’S TOP 10…SURREAL FILMS

There are films that you can burn after watching, those that are disposable entertainment. There are those that are entertaining, yet have something to say. These leave you thinking. Then there are those films that defy definition. Hollywood used to be called the dream factory. Some directors take that name literally and offer us films that don’t adhere to straightforward narratives. These films aren’t for everybody. They are like sweet dreams…or beautiful nightmares. They are, in a word, surreal.

Yes, of course, you may understand the definition of surreal. So here are my Top 10 Surreal Films! I don’t profess to be a connoisseur of surrealist film, so many big names (both of films and directors) may be missing here. For example, I’m not familiar with the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky (but will work on that aberration as soon as possible!). So my choices may not resonate with those more familiar with “proper” surrealist films. But here are my choices anyway!

Here, have a gander at a Dali painting!
  1. Being John Malkovich

Would you ever want to be inside someone else’s head? This film gives us the premise that there is a doorway that allows people to be John Malkovich. People can enter his mind and control his actions for a short period of time. Malkovich plays himself, a man driven to the point of insanity by people being inside his head. It’s full of ludicrous dialogue, ludicrous scenes, and hilarity. The ending is everything you’d expect it to be and more.

  1. The Blood of A Poet

This is the first film of a trilogy, but the only part I’ve managed to watch as I mislaid my boxset! Silly me! This is about an artist whose portrait comes to life…in a manner of speaking. It involves the portrait’s mouth latching itself onto the artist’s hand, the artist getting lost in a corridor full of doors and a failed suicide. Is it about a person’s creations overcoming them? Is it a version of the Narcissus story, where the artist falls in love with his own creation, instead of reflection? Whatever the film was about, I could never take my eyes off the screen. Now to find the rest of the trilogy…

  1. Anti-Christ

I’ll admit, I’ve only watched this once. I have a strong stomach, but some of the things seen in this film I don’t want to see again. However, I’ll brave the film again one day. It’s ostensibly about the strained relationship of a man and woman after their child dies (after falling out of a window). Their relationship becomes progressively twisted and violent, resulting in some of the most grotesque imagery put to film. The man has visions, notably one of a fox eating its own innards. Nightmarish visions combine with extreme violence to create a nauseating experience.

  1. Tokyo Gore Police

What do you get if you mix a Robocop-esque satire about police privatisation with Japanese obsessions about grotesque monsters (and women in school attire?). This absurd story has mutant human monsters as the bad guys, who grow a random aperture if they are injured. For example, when one of the so-called engineers has an arm cut off early on in the film, a chainsaw replaces it. Someone has their penis bitten off and replaced by a gun, and a woman’s lower body is replaced by a crocodile’s mouth. It’s obscene, full of over-the-top gore and violence, but a rollicking good watch! “Everything is buried under rubbish,” as the main antagonist says.

(Click here for my review)

  1. Jacob’s Ladder

This is a true nightmare of a film, about a Vietnam war veteran haunted by hallucinations and flashbacks. You’re never quite sure of what’s real and what’s illusion, in a classic example of surrealism. You become as haunted by the visions as Tim Robbins, in one of his best roles as the Vietnam war veteran. It’s chockful of disturbing imagery. Think of your worst nightmares, and particular scenes of this film wouldn’t look out of place in that pantheon of bad dreams.

  1. Tetsuo: The Iron Man

Surreal films are best when they are short; feature length surreal films can get lost in their own surrealism. Tetsuo’s short length underlines it’s great absurdity. A man runs over a metal fetishist, hides the body, but then finds himself being infected by metal. Cue his penis being turned into a drill (and being used during sex), wacky scenes of the man fighting the metal fetishist and lots of quick and erratic cuts. It’s a mind-blowing experience, to be sure, and hard to keep up with. But it’s worthwhile, to get a flavour of the surreal from the East.

  1. Pi

Darren Aronosky’s debut is a low-budget gem that will bury itself into your mind and stay there for a long time. A mathematician is trying to break the Wall Street code, which involves conspiracy theories about the number Pi. Mix in Jewish mythology and confusion about reality and illusion, and you have all the making of a surreal classic. The low budget works in the film’s favour, adding to the disconcerting effect of the soundtrack and editing. You’ll struggle to follow the complicated maths. But the trip this film takes you on will confuse you more than advanced algebra.

  1. Un Chien Andalou

What happens when Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel decide to make a film together? This hypnotic, Freudian nightmare with a title that translates into An Andalusian Dog. In the first few minutes, an eyeball is sliced open by a razor. It goes from nightmare scenario to nightmare scenario with the slimmest of associations. Most of the films on this list could be described as dreams, but this is the closest representation of a dream that I’ve ever seen on a screen. Christopher Nolan, this is what dream sequences should look like!

  1. Videodrome

I had to get Cronenberg on this list! I did think about swapping Videodrome  for Naked Lunch…but Videodrome is a stone cold classic. James Wood plays a TV studio president looking for something different…and stumbles across a show called Videodrome. It’s basically a snuff show. This involves him in a conspiracy and causes him to erotically engage with a TV screen (and insert videotapes into his abdomomen). This may not be the typical surreal film, as it’s easy to decipher what’s going on (in a way). But as a rant against our obsession with technology and TV, it’s second to none. It pushes boundaries in all the right directions. Long live the new flesh…

  1. Eraserhead

Can anyone in Hollywood do surrealism better than David Lynch? Just look at this, his first feature. What’s it about? Well, it’s about a guy who has to look after his mutant baby…in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world. Chickens are served to him uncooked and a woman with a facial deformity sings in a theatre. It’s a delirious trip through fatherhood that makes me think twice about having children. But it taps into the fears of fatherhood, the fears of the opposite sex, and the fears of existing. Lynch’s best work? Debatable. But his most succinct.

Honourable Mentions

2001: A Space Odyssey

Donnie Darko

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

L’Age D’Or

Little Otik

Mulholland Drive

Naked Lunch

Solaris

The Fountain

Agree or disagree? Any you’d take away or add? What is your Top 10?

34 thoughts on “HAMMY’S TOP 10…SURREAL FILMS

    • Hammy Reviews September 20, 2017 / 12:01 am

      I did try to limit myself to one film per director! But love Existenz. Pure Cronenberg

      Like

  1. lkeke35 September 19, 2017 / 10:09 pm

    I saw Tetsuo waaay back in the early nineties. I haven’t seen it since, but the imagery is still with me.

    Existenz is a good surrealist film, along with anything by Terence Malick, especially the movie Tree of Life.

    I just watched a movie called Tale of Tales which defies description. Please note that Salma Hayek stars in it.

    And you might want to check out the anime Paprika. The images will stick with you forever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hammy Reviews September 19, 2017 / 11:59 pm

      Existenz is great, another Cronenberg classic. Tale of Tales? Terence Malik? Paprika? I’ll investigate!

      Liked by 1 person

      • badparentingweb September 20, 2017 / 7:34 pm

        Cronenberg does some classic stuff! Love Existenz in particular, but a lot of his early stuff is killer. His version of “The Fly” is fucked.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hammy Reviews September 20, 2017 / 7:49 pm

          The Fly is one of my favourite films of all time. Early Cronenberg, like Shivers, hasn’t aged well, but still some fucked up shit in there!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Alex September 19, 2017 / 10:27 pm

    I watched Eraserhead for the first time two days ago! Saw this list and thought to my self “wonder if it made number one?” Nice list man.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Alex October 4, 2017 / 10:19 pm

        I absolutely loved it! I was a bit too tired to properly watch it so it’ll be getting rewatched soon. I’m a huge Lynch fan

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hammy Reviews October 5, 2017 / 6:14 am

          I think I could watch it over and over again without getting tired of it

          Like

  3. rAdishhorse September 19, 2017 / 11:53 pm

    Nice list. I’ve seen like 1 3/4? Should put all of these on my “to watch” list. I second on Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, or better Perfect Blue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hammy Reviews September 19, 2017 / 11:58 pm

      Ahhh, I have Perfect Blue in my collection, unwatched! Been meaning to buy Paprika for ages!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. mattdoylemedia September 20, 2017 / 9:58 am

    Good list. 2004’s J-Horror Marebito is pretty surreal too, as is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hammy Reviews September 20, 2017 / 12:16 pm

      Marebito, had forgotten about that one! Actually reviewed that on this site! And haven’t seen Brazil for a long time…

      Liked by 1 person

    • badparentingweb September 20, 2017 / 7:33 pm

      +1 for Brazil! If you like surreal Gilliam, check out “Tide Land” among about a million others (“Fisher King” or “Time Bandits,” for example).

      Liked by 2 people

        • badparentingweb September 20, 2017 / 8:48 pm

          Worth it! Robin Williams in a Terry Gilliam film plagued with terribly 90s fashion sense.

          Liked by 2 people

    • Hammy Reviews September 20, 2017 / 12:17 pm

      I suppose you could say both are surreal? It’s a wide definition

      Like

    • badparentingweb September 20, 2017 / 7:32 pm

      Can you give an example of a film that “is just weird photography”? I would love to chat about this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • paulliverstravels September 21, 2017 / 11:19 am

        Well, there is a movie called “Mystery Men” that is a pretty straight comedy but when they have big shots of the city it looks surreal. The movie is pretty weird. I guess my difficulty in coming up with examples refutes the necessity of asking the question.

        Liked by 2 people

        • badparentingweb September 21, 2017 / 2:15 pm

          Well, I’ll think on it more. I love Mystery Men and I vaguely understand what you mean about the city and some surreal shots. Another film from the 90s that comes to mind is Cable Guy. It was pretty surreal for a comedy and had some bizarre close-ups (some of them from beneath his face) of Jim Carrey that drove home what an oddball his character was.

          Liked by 2 people

          • paulliverstravels September 23, 2017 / 10:59 am

            My ex-wife grew up in the old Soviet Union and she said Cable Guy was the closest psychological parallel to life then and there she’d ever seen in an American movie.

            Liked by 2 people

            • badparentingweb September 25, 2017 / 7:04 pm

              Holy shit. That’s deep and intense.

              Liked by 1 person

            • badparentingweb September 25, 2017 / 8:16 pm

              I’m ready to read a film review / piece of social commentary comparing the two films. I know Cable Guy like the back of my hand, but not so much life in the USSR.

              Like

              • paulliverstravels September 26, 2017 / 10:09 am

                Unfortunately I haven’t seen either Cable Guy or my ex-wife in at least 15 years, however, it had to do with how Jim Carry’s characters lied and lied to worm himself into the main character’s life and turn his own family and friends against him. That was how my ex saw life in the USSR.

                Liked by 1 person

  5. badparentingweb September 20, 2017 / 6:28 pm

    What an excellent list! I’ll just throw out that it was rough not seeing “Wild at Heart” or other Lynch movies make the cut (well, wait, you had Eraserhead, as well as Mulholland on the honorable mentions… nevermind then). When I read the title of this post, my mind immediately went to John Dies at the End, but I suppose it doesn’t hold a candle to films like Tokyo Gore Police, which is absolutely on my list now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hammy Reviews September 20, 2017 / 6:37 pm

      I didn’t want to use the same director twice in my list!
      John Dies At The End? Shall have to check that out!

      Liked by 1 person

      • badparentingweb September 20, 2017 / 6:43 pm

        Wait until you see the door knob. There’s no way to get through that door.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hammy Reviews December 4, 2017 / 8:27 pm

      Oh, I have been meaning to check out some more of his films!

      Like

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