Are you tired of the same old Hollywood blockbusters? Do you crave something more daring, innovative, and thought-provoking? Look no further than the world of avant-garde cinema, where filmmakers push the boundaries of conventional storytelling and visual language.
In this list, we explore ten films that will take you on a journey through surrealism, psychedelia, and dark humor. From the demonically possessed bed in “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” to the parable of seeking equality in “Fantastic Planet,” these films will challenge your perception of art and reality.
Get ready to step into the bizarre and mind-blowing world of avant-garde cinema.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Director Luis Buñuel is widely regarded as a pioneering surrealist filmmaker, having been welcomed into the Surrealist Movement by its leader Andre Breton in the 1920s. Buñuel’s filmography spans various genres, but his fundamental style remained consistent throughout his lengthy career. Even Ingmar Bergman acknowledged Buñuel’s incomparable vision.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is among Buñuel’s most celebrated works, a virtually plotless film that revolves around a group of six middle-class individuals whose attempts to have a meal together are repeatedly interrupted by surreal dreams. The film serves as a metaphor for Buñuel’s belief that the bourgeoisie are pointless, and it satirizes social conventions with its dreamlike logic and imagery.
Death Bed: The Bed That Devours (1977)
Death Bed: The Bed That Devours (1977) may be better known for comedian Patton Oswalt’s hypothetical film about a rapist stove than for its own bizarre existence. But even if Oswalt’s film ever comes to fruition, it will be hard to surpass the strange, existential folk tale-meets-campy schlock tone of this micro-budget cult gem.
Narrated by a ghost trapped behind a painting, the story centers around a demonic bed that devours unsuspecting victims. While the premise may sound cheesy, the film’s dreamlike atmosphere and surprisingly good special effects make it a captivating, if unconventional, viewing experience. The bed’s consumption of its prey even produces residue that sounds like eggs crackling in a frying pan.
Despite its aim to be weird for the sake of being weird, Death Bed: The Bed That Devours has earned a devoted following and even inspired a stage adaptation.
Begotten (1990) is an unsettling, grainy film with no dialogue that relies on a haunting score and vulgar imagery to create a visceral experience. It’s not the easiest film to watch, but it’s worth the challenge.
The film retells the Genesis story after God kills himself with a razor, leading to the birth of Mother Earth. From her, the Son of Earth is born, only to be devoured by faceless cannibals.
While Begotten is nauseating and disturbing, it also achieves its intended goal of being an unrelenting, provocative masterpiece.
The Holy Mountain (1973)
Alejandro Jodorowsky is a provocateur whose influence on avant-garde cinema is unparalleled, despite his sparse output due to a lack of funding for his unique films. The Holy Mountain is a prime example of Jodorowsky’s visionary approach to filmmaking.
The film follows a thief who resembles Christ, an alchemist, and other characters representing different planets on their journey to ascend a mountain in search of immortality. Along the way, they experience transformation rituals and visions that reflect their deepest fears.
Rooted in mysticism, astronomy, and religion, The Holy Mountain is a baffling and confusing film that encourages viewers to interpret it in their own way.
Sweet Movie (1974)
Sweet Movie (1974) is a film that challenges societal norms and ideologies through its intertwining stories of two women who reject conventional expectations. One is a beauty queen descending into madness, and the other lures men onto her ship for sexual debauchery and murder.
While Sweet Movie is provocative and at times repulsive, it offers a unique perspective on societal morals and values. It’s a thought-provoking film that is also surprisingly funny in places.
Big Man Japan (2007)
Big Man Japan (2007) is a fresh take on Japan’s kaiju films, presenting the typical monster battles in a mockumentary format. The film follows the life of Masuru Daisato, an eccentric man living alone who periodically transforms into a 100-foot giant to protect his country from monster attacks.
The film infuses mundane everyday life with crude and absurd humor, making for a unique and unforgettable viewing experience.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973) is a parable about seeking equality and overcoming oppression. Set on a distant planet called Ygam, the film follows the story of Ter, a human-shaped Om slave who escapes and leads a revolt against his alien overlords, the Draags.
The film encourages viewers to seek knowledge and reject intellectual imprisonment, lest they be ruled by despots. Fantastic Planet is a brilliant film with a timeless message that still resonates today.
Czech director Jan Švankmajer’s first feature-length film, Alice (1988), is a dark and nightmarish retelling of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale. Disappointed with previous adaptations, Švankmajer sought to strip away the sugar-coating and present a morally ambiguous version of the story.
The film received critical acclaim and won the Feature Film Award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 1989. Alice takes viewers on a disturbing and unsettling journey, offering a unique and chilling take on the beloved fairy tale.
David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) is an unsettling and surreal film that challenges viewers on both a visceral and intellectual level. The film explores the fear of fatherhood and the dangers of unprotected sex through its disturbing and bizarre imagery.
While the film is difficult to watch, it is a captivating and thought-provoking work that continues to inspire and influence avant-garde cinema to this day. Lynch’s unique vision and style have made him a true pioneer of the surrealist genre.
Fehérlófia (1981) is a surreal fairy tale by Hungarian animator Marcell Jankovics, which tells the story of a man who is also the son of a horse and is bestowed with superpowers. He uses his powers to battle dragons and rescue his mother, who has been imprisoned by them.
The film is a brightly colored, psychedelic adventure that draws heavily from Hungarian folktales and symbolism. Despite being relatively unknown outside of its homeland and animation circles, Fehérlófia is a captivating and unforgettable film.
Andrzrej Zulawski, a unique visionary of Polish cinema, left behind a remarkable oeuvre of cinematic masterworks before passing away earlier this year after a long battle with cancer. Among his many films, Possession stands out as arguably his best and most accessible. This film incorporates Lovecraftian-inspired body horror and applies it to the degradation of a hysterical relationship drama.
The narrative of Possession revolves around infidelity, a mutant baby, and a marriage in turmoil. This film is narratively ambiguous, surreal, and politically allegorical. It explores the breakdown of a marriage in a grotesque, strange, tragic, and ultimately heart-breaking way, containing bizarre erotic elements that are often misunderstood.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the crowning work of the German Expressionist era of cinema. The film’s impact was so significant that the term “caligarism” was coined to describe movies about madness and obsession. This film inspired some of the most seminal movies of the silent era, such as Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927), as well as the film noir movement that would come later when cinema evolved into talkies.
The movie deals with authority and the obedience of people who kill in its name. Scholars have suggested that it served as a premonition of a dictator’s rise to power, suggesting that Germany was a country willing to submit to tyranny. Furthermore, the film has also been interpreted as a study of human nature, exploring the relationship between sanity and insanity as dual forces.
This film is a gripping and thought-provoking tale that is also a marvel of fantastic visual tapestry, which still holds up impressively.
Uzumaki, based on the manga of the same name, is a film about a town haunted by malevolent spirits that cause the residents to turn into different types of spirals, such as snails and other forms of curling mutations.
This film is not one that takes itself too seriously, and the black humor is at the forefront throughout. The mystery of the vortexes is constantly ambiguous, thus giving it a constantly strange aura. Like a lot of Japanese horror films, it is intrigued by – and quite satirical of – the fascination with death ingrained within the culture. The imagery is often dizzying, and it does the manga justice, which is an essential read if you are a fan of horror comics.
Singapore Sling (1990)
Singapore Sling is a film that blends different genres into an indistinguishable cocktail that is neither one nor the other, while being a little bit of everything nonetheless. This transcendent myriad of noir, horror, black comedy, erotica, crime thriller, and art house exploitation flick follows a down-and-out detective as he searches for his long-lost lover. When he discovers that she has been murdered, he is kidnapped by her deranged killers, who just so happen to be a mother-daughter combo that gets their kicks out of making him commit sexual atrocities.
This film pays homage to the 1944 neo-noir Laura, although it has more in common with transgressive oddities like Salo: 120 Days of Sodom and other exploitation pictures. However, it is shot beautifully in black and white and is as unapologetically cinematic as it is disgusting.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988)
Tales From Gimli Hospital, the film that launched the career of Guy Maddin, is about two friends who share a hospital room during the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic. However, their friendship comes to an end when a disturbing revelation concerning one of the men’s lovers causes their relationship to violently disintegrate.
Maddin’s love letter to the silent films of the 1920s, Tales From Gimli Hospital, is an expertly woven tapestry of haunting dreamlike sequences, slapstick, and melodrama that established Maddin as a force to be reckoned with early on. It continues to be relevant in the contemporary climate of experimental cinema after last year’s acclaimed The Forbidden Room.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a demented cyberpunk body horror about a man who runs over a metal fetishist with his car and tries to hide the body, assuming he’s dead. Following the incident, a disease takes over his body, causing his skin to turn into scrap metal. It turns out his victim might not be dead after all, and is exacting his revenge by using his rage to enforce the strange transformation.
Director Shinya Tsukamoto has since gone on to become one of Japan’s most globally renowned cult directors, and he has Tetsuo: The Iron Man to thank for launching his career into the global spotlight. Tetsuo also re-energized Japanese cinema at the time, paving the way for a 90s boom period where the likes of Takashi Miike began to surface.
Lost Highway (1997)
David Lynch once again raises his beautiful quiff on the list with Lost Highway, an astonishing film that contains two intersecting and perplexing tales. One focuses on a jazz musician accused of murdering his wife, while the other is about a mechanic entangled in a web of deceit after being seduced by a gangster’s girlfriend. In both tales, the woman is played by Patricia Arquette.
Lost Highway sees Lynch expertly weave noir, psychological horror, and surrealism to create a masterwork that explores male insecurity and identity crisis and their effects on the psyche. It’s Lynch at his most personal and daring, resulting in dark, twisted allegories. Non-linear storytelling at its finest, it is more akin to a nightmare than anything else – one brought on by common insecurities that many of us can relate to.
Tarkovsky’s revered sci-fi drama Solaris tells the story of a psychologist who is sent to a space station to investigate what caused the crew to go insane. However, the planet has hallucinatory effects on humans, and when his long-deceased wife appears in his visions, he must face his guilt surrounding her death in lieu of the divine search for a higher purpose.
Cited as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, Solaris is a philosophical exploration of spirituality and philosophy. In 2002, American director Steven Soderbergh helmed a remake starring George Clooney, while also serving as a key inspiration for the horror film Event Horizon – both of which are highly enjoyable.
Enter The Void (2009)
Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void is a film that feels like an outer body experience. It’s a neon-lit, psychedelic haze, shot entirely from a first-person point of view, as the spirit of its downed protagonist floats around Tokyo bearing witness to the events after his death. Some compare it to the hallucinogenic experience of drugs, although you don’t need to be under the influence of mind-altering substances to feel its effects.
Despite its strong experiential qualities, Enter The Void is much more than the surreal trip it may come across as on the surface. It explores the ideas found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead and can be viewed as a study of the human psyche, fusing philosophy, belief systems, and cognitive neurology to create a cocktail of self-exploratory themes, in addition to encapsulating the feeling of aimless wandering and emptiness that comes with a life without purpose. Whether you interpret it as self-indulgent, pretentious emptiness or a bold, ambitious, and daring film, Enter The Void is certainly a unique experience that may leave you feeling like you’ve been tranquilized.
These films represent some of the most innovative, challenging, and thought-provoking works of avant-garde cinema. From the surrealism of Buñuel and Jodorowsky to the disturbing imagery of Lynch and the psychedelic worlds of Laloux and Jankovics, each film offers a unique perspective and challenges viewers to think beyond the boundaries of conventional cinema.
While these films may not be for everyone, they are undoubtedly important works that have had a significant impact on the world of cinema. They are not simply oddities or curiosities, but true works of art that continue to inspire and influence filmmakers to this day.