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TOP 10 Strange Movies from Iconic Directors

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By Jitin Gambhir

As a director attains fame, it becomes easier to recognize their signature style. Filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Steven Spielberg have developed a unique style over the years that is distinctly theirs. However, sometimes these directors step outside of their comfort zone and take on a project that is completely different from their typical work.

These films may not be considered “strange,” but they represent a departure from the director’s usual style. From passion projects to out-of-the-ordinary blockbusters, these films are always interesting to watch. Here are ten films that marked a strange departure for their directors.

TOP 10 Strange Movies from Iconic Directors

David Lynch, known for his strange and eerie films such as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, directed The Straight Story in 1999. This sweet and quiet film tells the true story of a WWII veteran who drove his lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin to reconcile with his estranged brother. The film is devoid of special effects and typical Lynchian strangeness, making it a unique departure for the director.

Martin Scorsese, famous for his tense and violent films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, directed The Age of Innocence in 1933. This delicate film tells the story of thwarted love in the Gilded Age of New York society. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, the film is sumptuous, beautiful, and slow-paced, a departure from Scorsese’s usual style.

Francis Ford Coppola, known for his epic films such as The Godfather, directed the musical Finian’s Rainbow in 1968. The film features a ne’er-do-well senator in the state of Missitucky, leprechauns, and a pot of gold, a far cry from Coppola’s usual work. The film’s modest success helped open doors for the director in Hollywood.

Werner Herzog directed the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, which tells the story of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell’s obsession with bears led to his brutal death, and the film is a departure from Herzog’s other strange stories.

Spike Lee remade Park Chan-Wook’s groundbreaking thriller Oldboy in 2013, in a watered-down version of the original. For a director responsible for such original American classics as Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, it’s surprising that he took on this project at all.

Takeshi Kitano, known for his gritty and violent yakuza films, directed Dolls in 2002, a gentle and dreamlike film dealing with love and death. The film is a sumptuous art film that is unlike most of Kitano’s other work.

Kenneth Branagh, well-known for his lavish Shakespearean adaptations, directed the 2011 Marvel film Thor. Branagh’s years of theater and Shakespearean epics helped turn Thor into a different kind of superhero movie than what audiences were used to.

Robert Altman, known for his films M*A*S*H* and Nashville, directed the 1980 film Popeye, which was a commercial flop. Starring Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, the film is overly long and not very funny, making it one of Altman’s strangest films.

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Park Chan-Wook’s 2006 film I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is a departure from his usual violent and intense films. The film tells the story of a girl who believes she is a cyborg and falls in love with a man in a mental institution.

In conclusion, these films represent a departure from their directors’ usual style and offer a unique perspective on their filmmaking abilities. Despite their differences, these films are always interesting to watch.

Once a director reaches a certain level of fame, it generally starts to get easier to identify their work right off the bat. Directors like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Steven Spielberg: by the time the opening credits roll, you’re left in no doubt of the director, given a signature style honed carefully over the years.

The movies in this list are not strange movies, per se, but rather they are movies that represent an off-the-wall direction for directors known for a different style entirely. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always interesting to see auteurs step outside their comfort zone for a passion project, an out-of-the-ordinary blockbuster, or just a little something different. So if you think you know your favorite director, think again. Here are ten films that marked a strange departure for their directors.

10 The Straight Story (1999) – David Lynch

Richard Farnsworth on a lawn mower in The Straight Story
Walt Disney Pictures

 

 

77-year-old David Lynch is notorious for his strange films: from the squicky body horror Eraserhead and the confrontational noir thriller Blue Velvet to the confusingly experimental Inland Empire and the total wildness that is Duneyou always expect the unexpected with Lynch. Which is what makes The Straight Story such an outlier: it’s a sweet, quiet, completely comprehensible film based on the true story of a WWII vet who drove his lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin to mend his estranged relationship with his ill brother.

There’s nothing confusing, no special effects, just Richard Farnsworth making his way across the country to see Harry Dean Stanton, which makes it, for David Lynch, the strangest film he’s ever made.

Related: The Most Iconic Moments in David Lynch Films, Ranked

9 The Age of Innocence (1933) – Martin Scorsese

Daniel Day Lewis in The Age of Innocence

Columbia Pictures

 

Taxi Driver. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. Casino. The Departed. His range is of course bigger than this, but Martin Scorsese is known for his tense, sprawling films, packed with drama and violence. Not exactly the person who comes to mind as the first choice for directing a delicate story by Edith Wharton of thwarted love set in the Gilded Age of New York society.

But it is a masterpiece, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer as the will they/won’t they couple, Winona Ryder as Day-Lewis’ butter-wouldn’t-melt (or would it?) wife, and the inspired choice of Joanne Woodward doing voiceover narration. It’s sumptuous and beautiful and slow, simmering with a quiet passion. There’s no violence, no swearing, no guns, but lots of flowers and parties and wine glasses and longing looks. Wharton wrote 18 novels, among many other works; maybe Scorsese should try another?

8 Finian’s Rainbow (1968) – Francis Ford Coppola

Fred Astaire in Finian's Rainbow
Warner Bros.-Seven Arts

 

1968. Musical. A ne’er-do-well senator in the state of Missitucky. Leprechauns and a pot of gold. Doesn’t exactly scream Francis Ford Coppoladoes it? It was only his fourth film, and four years before The Godfather would alter the course of his career forever. Coppola had been having a hard time getting his foot in the Hollywood door, but he’d had some critical success with You’re a Big Boy Now (technically his UCLA thesis project, but garnering a Warner Bros. release and award nominations for Geraldine Page).

Finian’s Rainbow came in the last gasp of big American movie musicals, and the script had been languishing for a while before Coppola signed on as director. He got lucky with the casting of Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, and the film’s modest success got his foot in the door.

Related: Best Francis Ford Coppola Movies, Ranked

7 Grizzly Man (2005) – Werner Herzog

Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Bear
Discovery Docs

 

Maybe the true strangeness of the 2005 documentary film Grizzly Man is that it seemed director Werner Herzog finally met someone just as bananas as him, the late subject of the film, bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. Of course there were the years of working with his best friend/nemesis Klaus Kinski, but while Herzog has always seemed maniacal in a charming way (eating his shoes in the 1980 short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoegetting shot with an air rifle during an interview about Grizzly Man and just continuing the interview), Kinski had a diagnosed personality disorder.

But Treadwell was passionate about bears in the way that Herzog is passionate about film, and his obsession led to his brutal death (and his girlfriend’s) by a grizzly bear. Treadwell is quoted as telling a friendwho was a producer on the film, “If I die, if something happens to me, make that movie.” It’s an incredibly strange story that stands out among Herzog’s other strange stories.

6 Oldboy (2013) – Spike Lee

Oldboy
FilmDistrict

 

There are movies that just don’t need to be remade, and Park Chan-Wook’s groundbreaking, neo-noir thriller Oldboy is right up at the top of the list, but that didn’t stop Spike Lee from remaking it in 2013. Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen took over the principal roles in what ended up being a watered-down version of one of the most original films of the past 20 years.

A key element of the Korean original was the sheer audacity and shock of the plot and especially the ending, which in the American version was changed to be more palatable, but ultimately let down the daring nature of the entire film. For the director responsible for such original American classics as Do the Right Thing, Jungle Feverand Clockersit’s a bit of a head-scratcher as to why he took this project on at all.

5 Dolls (2002) – Takeshi Kitano

Two characters walking in Dolls
Shochiku

 

Takeshi Kitano (also known as Beat Takeshi), is a Japanese actor/director, probably most recognizable to American audiences as the sadistic high school teacher in 200’s Battle Royale. In Japan, he’s famous for his gritty, violent yakuza films, including his Outrage trilogy, Violent Copand Sonantine. (He’s also got a silly side, as evidenced by his time on the wacky Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle.)

And then there’s Dollsa gentle, dreamlike film from 2002 with captivating cinematography and Yohji Yamamoto costumes. There are three stories in the film, each dealing with love and death. The chronology is out of order, and the largely symbolic film can be a little hard to follow, but is ultimately a sumptuous art film totally unlike most of Takeshi’s other work.

4 Thor (2011) – Kenneth Branagh

Thor
Paramount Pictures

 

Belfast-born actor/director Kenneth Branagh is well-known for his lavish Shakespearean adaptations, which include Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Henry Vall of which he also starred in. Recently he’s received critical acclaim for Belfast and a series of Agatha Christie films. But somewhere in there was… Thor? The 2011 Marvel film was initially attached to Sam Raimi, then Matthew Vaughn, before ending up with Branagh at the helm.

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Natalie Portman (who was attracted to the project because of the oddness of Branagh as director), it became the first of four Thor blockbusters. It turns out that Branagh was a long-time comic book fan, and his years of theater and Shakespearean epics helped turn Thor into a different kind of superhero movie than what audiences were used to.

3 Popeye (1980) – Robert Altman

Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall in Popeye
Paramount Pictures

 

M*A*S*H*. The Long Goodbye. Nashville. Popeye. The movie musical that tried to turn Altman’s status as a critic’s darling into commercial success may have technically worked for him moneywise, but it was an overall flop in the grand scheme of things. Robin Williams made his film debut as Popeye, and clashed constantly with Altman. Shelley Duvall, who had worked with Altman on Three Womenwas a perfectly charming Olive Oyl, and her sweet rendition of the song He Needs Me found a second life in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 Punch-Drunk Love.

But the movie just doesn’t work. It’s overly long, not very funny (even with Williams as its star), and with a set and songs that seem pretty haphazardly thrown together (songwriter Harry Nilsson threw in the towel halfway through). Along with an ill-considered teen film called O.C. and Stiggs in 1987, chalk this up as Altman’s strangest film.

2 I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006) – Park Chan-Wook

I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK
CJ Entertainment

 

Park Chan-Wook is one of the pre-eminent South Korean filmmakers of his generation. After initial international success with his Vengeance trilogy (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), he’s gone from strength to strength with the vampire horror film Thirsterotic thriller The Handmaidenand Hitchockian Palme d’Or/Best Director winner Decision to Leave. In between the trilogy and Thirsthe directed an odd romantic comedy entitled I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK.

Set in a mental institution, it’s about Young-goon, a patient who believes herself to be a cyborg, and Il-soon, with the slightly more typical diagnosis of schizophrenia. Il-soon is told he has no sympathy for others, and attempts to borrow Young-goon’s, but the plan backfires badly, although don’t worry, there is a happy ending for our quirky young lovers. It’s a quirky, hard-to-categorize movie that lightens up Park’s usual darkness with humor, while still maintaining that twisted Park edge.

1 Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) – John Huston

Elizabeth Taylor in Reflections in a Golden Eye
Warner Bros.-Seven Arts

 

It stands to reason that a 1967 drama starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, directed by John Hustonand based on a Carson McCullers novel would have been a smash hit. So how come you’ve never heard of it? Firstly, upon its initial release, the entire film was washed with a gold filter, which made for jarring viewing. Second, it’s pretty strange. Set at a US Army base in the south, it follows six characters through their darkest sexual and voyeuristic desires.

The plot is a mishmash of homosexuality, guilt, insanity, and murder that never quite makes up its mind as to what it’s doing. An odd blip in Huston’s otherwise stellar career.

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