15 Must see Surreal Films of 2015: In Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton defined cinema as ‘Three cheers for darkened rooms!’ There is a dreamlike quality to cinema watching experience itself. When an adventurer enters the darkened room and encounters a series of flickering images that projects dazzling visions of life, surrounded by complete strangers, the experience of cinema can be equated with that of dream. What moviegoers seek from cinema is the experience of otherness. Movie watching is and will always be a mystical ritual that teeters on the edge of reality. This strange analogy between film viewing and dream state is the foundation of surrealist cinema.
Surrealism isn’t exactly ‘film movement’. The acts of absolute surrealism were performed only by ‘Surrealist group’, which has dissolved long ago. In that regard, no modern film can be considered ‘surrealist film’; there are films made by surrealists and there are films that correspond to surrealism. The relation between surrealism and cinema should not be analyzed in form of stylistic or aesthetic considerations. Surrealist cinema cannot be characterized by merely dream symbols, Shocking imagery, juxtapositions or psychic disturbance. Surreal elements, by their very nature are impossible to identify. Even among surrealists, there has never been a clear consensus about which film contains surrealist charge.
Certain films tend to supersede external reality with psychic reality, to disclose what lies dormant within the collective consciousness. With a broad perspective, one should trace surrealism within the film rather than tracing ‘surrealist film’. The surrealist experience of cinema has become increasingly remote with time. Surprisingly, the year 2015 saw more number of films exhibiting signs of the surreal than any year in recent history. Making list on surreal films is an exhausting and barely rewarding task, but I’ve attempted, hoping that it may help you explore wonders of new reality of 2015.
In the Japanese rating system, R100 means a film classified as ‘suitable for people at least 100 years old’. R100 is a course in unexpected acts of extreme bondage with earthquakes in between. A lonely family man, whose wife has been paralyzed since long, goes to a mysterious sadomasochistic brothel called ‘Bondage’ to get kinky. He is whipped, slapped, kicked, punched, and choked by 100 different dominatrices. Initially, the random acts of public humiliation turn him on, and he makes waves in the fountain of ecstasy, but eventually, his wave of fantasy turns into a life-threatening tsunami of sadism. Hitoshi Matsumoto’s surreal S&M session is wild, outrageous, and at times sickening.
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14. An Illusion of My Mind
Sometimes the illusion is the only reality. An Illusion of My Mind effectively blends surreal metaphors with eerily rustic Indian backdrop to create a unique tone. The film is about a writer and his internal struggle. His inability to pen a screenplay in given deadline creates a world of illusion, wherein eccentric characters are met with unusual circumstances. It is one of the best examples of micro-budget Indian indie movie done right. There is a brief scene that surreptitiously captures the statuesque stillness of mannequins. But can a fish float in the air? Are things really as they seem or is it just an illusion of our mind?
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3. Arabian Nights: Volume 1-The Restless One
The first volume of Miguel Gomez’s ambitious trilogy about Portugal’s economic crisis is a docu-fantasia that features a wasp epidemic, politicians with a permanent erection, a talking cockerel presented in court and a union activist hospitalized inside of a gigantic whale. In one of the most dramatic opening sequences, the director runs out of his own movie acknowledging stupidity of his ideas, and the crew is running behind him. The fragmented fairytales of communal turmoil draw their structure from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. As the legend says, a mad Persian King murders his wives after taking their virginity. Scheherazade, the newlywed beautiful bride must entertain the King with stories in order to stay alive. This poetically political epic is rife with violence, rage, melancholia, humor that doesn’t inspire chuckles. Sometimes nothing much happens, and then out of nowhere, whale explodes. It is realistic and at the same time surreal. But above all, Arabian Nights celebrates the art of storytelling.
Quentin Dupieux’s crackpot satire on Hollywood follows the logic of dreams. A cameraman is searching for a perfect groan that will earn him an Oscar, a cooking show host in Bigg rat costume suffers from imaginary rashes, and a girl named Reality finds a blue VHS tape inside of gutted wild boar. None of it makes any sense, and that’s the essence of Reality. Quentin’s movies are essentially about exploring human heads. In Rubber he did it with a homicidal car tire, in Reality, he does it with TV sets. It is an ultimate parody that mocks reality itself. There is plenty of enjoyment to be derived from this wacky masterpiece once you put aside your conventional logic and enter the world of dreams.
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10. Lost River
Gosling’s directorial debut might be a wreck, but it’s the wreck of Titanic. Set against surreal backdrop of vanishing city, where a mysterious road leads to an underwater town, Lost River is a peek into hellish world of a single mother, who dreams of home and family, unsuspecting of ravening beasts looming outside the door. The flaming bicycle suggests how traumatic Gosling’s own childhood must’ve been. It is yet another example where a filmmaker employs surrealism to redeem his inner child. In one of the most shocking scenes, a woman peels off her facial skin to entertain the crowd. With Lost River, Gosling shows that behind his charismatic persona there is a timid kid who wanted to protect his mother but couldn’t.
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13. The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers
Much like its name, the film remains allusive and impenetrable for its entire runtime. A troop with caravans and horses gathers on exotic Moroccan mountains to shoot a film. The first half of the movie serves as a beautifully banal documentary, in which, Rivers captures the sublime beauty of shimmering landscapes with 16mm Bolex. As the darkness mounts, the sky beneath the earth changes its hues, reality rattles, and the King of tin cans dances on the rhythm of bullets until he dissolves into eternal light. Partly adapted from Paul Bowles’ ‘A Distant Episode’, this quasi-documentary is an outstanding achievement in observational filmmaking that inspects the myth that surrounds the mountains.
5. Tale of Tales | Dir. Matteo Garrone
Once upon a time, fairy tales used to be archetypal of our society, rife with vileness and obscenities we wouldn’t dare confess to ourselves. Alas, as time progressed, they got ‘Disneyfied’, to be served as children’s fables. But once in decades, there comes a tale, which stems from our darkest desires, our deepest fears; it is the tale of tales. In this mesmerizing assemblage of macabre, three different stories from Italian maestro Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone (a collection of surreal fairy tales) are interwoven into a single universe. A Queen eats the heart of sea monster so she can give birth, A King raises a giant flea and neglecting his own daughter, weds her with an ogre, and an old lady gets flayed to spend a night with the king. Film’s fantastical elements have sophisticated surrealism to them. In the end, everyone was disfigured and demented.
11. The Nightmare
Movies of Rodney Ascher are characterized by obsessiveness. His documentaries are multi-perspective inquires into highly unconventional subjects. This time the subject is ‘Sleep Paralysis’, a strange condition of sleeping state, in which everything shuts down except consciousness. In this transient paralyzed state, subjects are confronted by severely traumatic hallucinations. The most fascinating aspect of the movie is the re-creation of nightmares, which are quite vivid and articulate. Ascher has effectively used surreal imagery to capture the dread that takes place inside the subconscious of victims. From anthropomorphic creatures tickling asleep infant in a crib to eight feet tall life-threatening shadow, The Nightmare is truly nightmarish.
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Blind is a story of a woman, whose gradually fading vision constantly haunts her. Eventually, blindness beclouds her judgment, and out of insecurities, out of confinement, is born a fictitious world, where all perverse fantasies come alive. The main purpose of the movie is to show the sexual desires of a blind woman. Her blindness grants her a rare gift of controlling and distorting reality. She turns her husband and his acquaintance into fictional characters and whimsically writes their fate, deriving sadistic pleasure out of it. Eskil Vogt’s directorial debut has some of the most stunning juxtapositions, shot with minimalistic use of lighting. With its exuberant surreal imagery, Blind portrays how the world looks from the eyes of a blind person.
4. Cemetery of Splendour
Sleeping is the ultimate escape from reality. Cemetery of Splendour blurs the line between wakefulness and sleep. In a small Thai town, a middle-aged crippled woman volunteers to look after soldiers suffering from sleep sickness. Weerasethakul creates something magical out of mundane. In a rural hospital, built on the remains of the cemetery of Kings, a medium communicates with the unconscious of soldiers, a giant amoeba floats in the sky and everybody is waiting for something. The subtle interplay of light and color creates a hypnotically surreal ambiance. In one of the most hypnotic scene, a loop of fluorescent therapy lights beside sick soldiers shifts shade from blue to green to red. Cemetery of Splendour is a dream you never want to wake up from.
9. The Duke of Burgundy
In an isolated countryside, devoid of men, a couple of lesbian butterfly researchers engage in a subversive sadomasochistic role-playing game. After a while, it becomes unclear who is dominative mistress and who is submissive servant. In this sumptuously surreal tale of a couple’s erotic obsession, a relationship crisis is examined in the form of romantic melancholia. Here, a simple story of sexual craving is told through a complex narrative. It is set in the vernal world of butterflies and moths. Strickland has paid a wonderful tribute to EuroShock cinema of Jess Franco, adopting the same material with his customary ultra sophistication and lush texture. Duke of Burgundy is the brightest butterfly that flutters ferociously in otherwise dark tedium of the S&M genre.
7. Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents
Theory of Obscurity is a rare surreal archive on Residents, a band so radical, so demented, so mysterious that identities of group members are still unknown even after 40 years. Film features interviews with band members known as Devon, Primus, Ween, Talking Head, and Pinback who always perform wearing most bizarre masks and costumes. The mystery is a vital part of Residents’ appeal. It allows them creative freedom. The live footages of various concerts of Residents are otherworldly. There are many speculations about the identity of Residents in interviews from fans and music critics. This sound-video collective celebrates 40 years of obscurity.
1. The Forbidden Room
Dreams, Visions, Madness- that’s what Maddin’s maddening masterpiece is made of. Guy Maddin is Janus of cinema, the two-faced god of beginning and transitions, who scrutinizes past and present at the same time. In a film that started as a museum restoration project, Maddin enters the forbidden territory of past to excavate long lost cinematic treasure. It’s a visual feast, an ultimate acid trip that pays tribute to the silent era of cinema while entering the new realm of cinema. In this infinite adventure, Maddin takes viewers into the forest of fantasies inhibited by doppelgangers from past, bones of lost love, and Filipino vampires. A cascade of nostalgia flows over sloppy memories while the volcano of the brain explodes with ideas. Forbidden Room is a cinematic accomplishment that gazes into the past while leaping into the future.
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12. Atomic Heart Mother
After a wild party, two young ladies roam in empty streets of Tehran at night and talk about culture, history, and war. On their way, they come across a mysterious man who might bedevil. The first few minutes introduce Iranian society, and after a while, the film abruptly shifts from real to surreal. The topic of conversation changes from peace to war and dictatorship. Characters become ambivalent and darker. This film examines contemporary Iranian society through a surrealistic prism. Two protagonists of the film are Muslim and Christian. With this contrast, the director attempts to show how different religions are affected by the same problems. After the entrance into the dream, it assumes a more fluent form. Tehran is an atomic heart of Iran. This movie shows us a dream of utopian land, where there is no war.
2. A Pigeon Sat on Branch Reflecting on Existence
The last part of Roy Andersson’s Living trilogy unfolds like a painting, a series of surreal vignettes, filled with customary deadpan humor and wry absurdity. In this tragicomedy, a pair of depressed salesmen want to help people have fun by selling their novelty items. Every single frame of the movie is revelatory and serves a distant peek into inexplicable oddities laced with human existence. The pale hues of characters evince their lack of creative and spiritual interest as if consumerism has sucked out their spirits. This distant gaze at existence stands as a testament that man is the most inconceivable reality.
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