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!
- 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.
- 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…
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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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!
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…
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.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Agree or disagree? Any you’d take away or add? What is your Top 10?