Guess what: we’re all a little weird. And it shows in the films we like. Of course, we might not always want to admit it. After all, more often than not, films become massive hits because they appeal to the masses, with conventional romance and action, even if they’re set in a fantasy world. Seven of the 10 highest grossing movies of all time are sequels or parts of film series (like the Marvel Cinematic Universe titles).
But every once in a while a filmmaker concocts some weirdo formula, far outside the norm, and people dig it in a big way. We’re talking bizarre or shocking plots, humor, imagery and structures; unconventional storytelling techniques that you might not think would appeal to a mass audience. But they do, because sometimes we like it weird. In the case of the films on this list, we like it so much they’ve each made over $200 million. (One rule: no sequels, because audiences already got the weird from the first movie.)
Get ready for some crazy, with the 17 Weirdest Blockbusters of All Time.
17. PULP FICTION
Is Pulp Fiction weird? Sure, it’s no fantasy; pretty much everything that happens in this 1994 Quentin Tarantino classic could conceivably happen in real life, except maybe for the magic briefcase. And there’s your first clue that it’s weird. Hitmen Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) recover a briefcase that belongs to their boss, and while we never see what’s in it, it emits an odd golden glow.
Pretty much all the characters and dialogue in this film are slightly askew, as is the film’s structure as a whole: it’s a somewhat circular narrative, but told out of chronological order, and with separate but interconnected storylines. It’s filled with goofy dances, drug overdoses (and shocking recoveries), conversations about cheeseburgers, and extreme, blood-curdling violence. But this strange mishmash of a film was (and still is) adored by critics and audiences alike, and was named the best film of the past quarter century by Entertainment Weekly in 2008.
OK, here’s the pitch. You’re the big-shot Hollywood producer for this one. It’s a Christmas comedy. OK, you say, people like those, go on. It’s a fish out of water story about one of Santa’s elves who goes to New York. Hilarious, you say – this is animated, right? No, live action, but we’ll throw in a little stop-motion. And there’s more. He’s going to New York to find his real father, who knocked up an old girlfriend and the girlfriend put the baby up for adoption and the baby wound up in the North Pole, raised as an elf despite the fact that he’s actually a really tall human. Um…., you say. Oh, and the elf is played by Will Ferrell. The guy, you ask, who ran naked in the street in Old School? Yup, that one. Green light?
Clearly, despite all that weirdness, Elf did get the green light and it made $220.4 million. Remember, this was Ferrell’s first lead role, so even that casting was a little weird. Plus, you had a dopey-voiced animated narwhal, Buddy the Elf, eating used gum and pouring syrup on spaghetti, and a pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage as a cranky, quick-to-violence children’s book author.
15. GONE GIRL
Based on the 2012 novel, 2014’s Gone Girl was directed by David Fincher, who’s always prepared to show you something certifiably insane onscreen. And this film, starring cranky Batman himself, Ben Affleck, was of course no exception. On its most basic level it’s about an extremely dysfunctional marriage between Affleck’s character, Nick, and Rosamund Pike’s Amy.
Let’s put it bluntly: Affleck may be Batman, but Pike’s character is bat-crap crazy. Not only does Amy leave Nick, but she goes to ingeniously insane lengths to fake her own death and frame Nick for her murder. To describe any of her plans would be to spoil the movie, but it all culminates in a completely psychopathic murder. Google “Neil Patrick Harris Gone Girl death scene.” But make sure to do it on an empty stomach.
14. THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY
When the Farrelly brothers shoved There’s Something About Mary in our faces in 1998, we’d already seen Dumb & Dumber and Kingpin. So we knew what we were in for. In fact, Dumb & Dumber could just as easily been on this list, too, for its deliciously dim main characters. But the title gave away its weirdness.
In Mary, you have the infamous sperm-as-hair-gel scene, but there’s so much that’s shockingly strange – and simultaneously hilarious. There’s Ted (Ben Stiller) getting his man stuff caught in his zipper. There’s Tucker/Norm pretending to need crutches. There’s everything that happens to that poor dog. There’s musician Jonathan Richman as a Greek chorus. There’s uber-tanned Magda and her lady parts. And there’s Chris Elliott. With Chris Elliott in your film, it can’t be normal.
13. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
The success The Blair Witch Project, released in 1999, was improbable first because it was a tiny independent film with a $60,000 budget. It went on to make back more than 4,000 times its budget. What else made it weird? It was a horror movie without a visible villain. All you ever see is a bunch of sticks and a few teeth.
Its directors are completely unfamiliar. Its entire cast is completely unfamiliar. The film is filled with completely nonsensical events, the most significant of which is the three fictional filmmakers getting lost despite having a compass and a map, seemingly traveling in circles without ever turning. Even the ending, while chilling, is ambiguous. You never get any answers as to why all this happened.
12. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL
Earlier in the ‘90s, we had Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which handled the holocaust much as you’d expect: with great seriousness and respect for the survivors. In 1997, Italian actor/writer/director Roberto Benigni decided to do something completely unconventional: make a comedy out of a holocaust movie.
Shockingly, it worked. In Life is Beautiful, Benigni told the rather touching tale of a man who is imprisoned in a Nazi internment camp and uses his sense of humor and imagination to protect his young son from the nightmare going on all around them. The film raked in $229.2 million and netted Oscars for Best Actor (Benigni) and Best Foreign Language Film.
11. VANILLA SKY
Back in 2001, everybody, quite understandably, said, “Hey, let’s go to that new Cameron Crowe movie. Tom Cruise is in it!” We know what to expect from those guys. The films Crowe has directed usually have a touch of quirk to them, but are set in reality and deal with heartfelt human relationships. And Cruise’s movies are usually action-packed thrill rides with a dash of romance (with some exceptions, of course). Five years earlier, the two collaborated on Jerry Maguire, which was very much what you might expect from them.
Then came the curveball that was Vanilla Sky. Based on a Spanish film, it’s a bit of a brain bender. Cruise plays David Aames, who wears a mask after his face was disfigured in an accident caused by his ex-girlfriend’s crazy driving (she dies in the accident). He’s told his face can’t be repaired, but then later it is repaired, but later still it looks like it wasn’t repaired, and he sees his dead ex living as his current girlfriend, and it all turns out to be some sort of death-defying dream state. Critics were all over the map on this bizarre narrative, but folks forked over more than $203 million to see it in theaters.
It may be the highest-grossing movie in history, but Avatar is also pretty freaking weird. Sure, we’ve seen movies with aliens before. We’ve even seen movies where humans take on other forms. That’s just your typical fantasy/sci-fi stuff.
But have we ever seen weird interspecies alien hair sex before? We don’t think so. And we’re not even talking about the deleted scene where Jake and Neytiri actually get it on by intertwining their tendrilous hair tails. We’re talking about how the Na’vi ride their animals, by sticking their tail things into the animal. Kinda gross, no? And then there’s “unobtanium.” It’s just a weirdly on-the-nose name for a highly-sought after, and fought over, fictional mineral.
9. LIFE OF PI
Based on a Yann Martel novel, 2012’s Life of Pi is your typical tale of a young man who survives a shipwreck and spends weeks on a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker. You know, the usual. Other wild animals show up in his little boat, including a zebra, orangutan and hyena, which somehow emerges from under the boat’s tarpaulin. And this is not a big boat. This is not a boat that can realistically hold and hide a tiger, zebra, orangutan, hyena and a human.
Nevertheless, it’s a beautifully told story by director Ang Lee, with fantastic special effects. Life of Pi made over $600 million worldwide, about 80% of which came from countries outside North America. It’s easy to see the global appeal, with its peaceful multicultural and multi-religious scope.
8. NATIONAL TREASURE
Disney spent $100 million to make this Indiana Jones-style epic Nicolas Cage vehicle, and it paid off to the tune of $358 million, despite a plot that makes you want to eat the Declaration of Independence rather than make sense of it and the role that historical document plays in it. Roger Ebert called it, “so silly that the Monty Python version could use the same screenplay, line for line.” Fortunately, National Treasure’s flaws make it fun.
Cage’s character, Ben, decides he has to steal the Declaration of Independence in order to protect it from being stolen by someone else. But he knows who that person is, so he initially tells the FBI, who basically say, “Nah, that’s impossible, don’t worry about it.” Why? Because otherwise there wouldn’t be a crazy, $358-million movie for us all to enjoy.
One look at the poster for 2014’s Lucy and you know it already has two attributes that will tip the weirdo scale: writer/director Luc Besson, who often infuses his films with a touch of the bizarre; and this tagline: “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.”
What doesn’t she do with 100%? “She” is Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson. In a wacky plot, she has a bag full of an experimental drug sewn – yes, sewn – into her abdomen by bad guys. Then a bad guy kicks her in the gut and her system is overloaded with this crazy drug that gives her abilities like telekinesis, telepathy, and the inability to feel pain. And that’s just the part of the movie where she has a normal human form. It’s an experimental-drug-filled bag of crazy, but it’s also an experimental-drug-filled bag of fun. And that’s how you make a movie that hauls in $463 million.
Prior to 1988’s Twins, as an actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger was known exclusively as the biggest action star in the world. He was a guy who carried big guns with his, er, big guns, and spewed iconic one-liners, and that was about it. Then some Hollywood brainiac thought it would hilarious if Arnold tried a comedy. And even more hilarious if the nearly six-foot, musclebound former Mr. Universe starred alongside height-challenged, schlubby goofball Danny DeVito. But, hey, thought Hollywood Brainiac… what if they were twins!
Thus, we have the nonsensical premise of Twins: the two characters were brewed in a genetics lab with “stuff” from six different fathers, in an attempt to make the perfect child, but they were split at birth, not meeting until they were 35. Audiences flocked to see how this peculiar premise panned out to the tune of $216.6 million 1988 dollars, which would amount to about twice that with inflation. Oh, and it gets weirder still: a sequel is evidently in the works called Triplets, featuring another long-lost sibling played by Eddie Murphy.
5. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Cannibal. Need we say more? Oh, OK. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a key character in 1991’s Oscar winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs, is a full-on man eater who slurps like a lizard as he reminisces about eating a man’s liver with some fava beans. And people loved him – so much that he popped up in a sequel and a prequel. (This film, too, was a sequel of sorts to Maneater, but it gets a pass on the sequel rule because nobody knew about the original and it features a different cast.)
And he wasn’t the only completely demented bad guy in this one. There was also “Buffalo Bill” who takes great pleasure in killing women and carefully removing their skin so he can make “women suits” out of them. And there was also his poetic little ode to a woman he’s trapped in a pit: “It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.” So sweet.
4. THE FIFTH ELEMENT
Clearly, Luc Besson is at his best when he’s weirding people out, because 1997’s The Fifth Element is the second oddball film on this list by the French director to make buckets of cash. It’s not weird just because it’s a science fiction flick and there are strange aliens. Star Wars movies fit that description, and we wouldn’t describe them as weird. It’s weird for the wacko characters.
Milla Jovovich plays Leeloo, an often barely clothed, orange-haired humanoid who speaks in an unintelligible language. And then there’s Chris Tucker’s cylindrical-haired, leopard-print-wearing, fast-talking talk show host Ruby Rhod. And, of course, the weirdest weirdo of them all, Gary Oldman as the villain Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. He’s also bizarrely coiffed and never blinks, has a strange southern accent and just simmers with eccentric evil.
No doubt, people flocked to this movie first and foremost because of the faces (or half faces) on the poster: John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, both of whom were big box office draws in 1997. But Face/Off, as the title suggests, has a super-bizarre premise: technology exists to perfectly transplant an entirely different face in place of your own. So just when you’re getting to know Travolta as his character, FBI agent Sean Archer, he gets a face transplant and is suddenly played by Cage, because Archer now has the face of Cage’s character (terrorist Castor Troy). Totally normal.
This is a literal face transplant, mind you, meaning Archer now has Troy’s actual face, which was sliced off while Troy was in a coma. When Troy wakes up, faceless, he finds Dr. Face Transplant and forces him to put Archer’s old face on him. Totally normal. It’s an engrossingly absurd ride, and fascinating to watch Travolta and Cage be each other and even mock themselves in some cases (Travolta, as Cage’s character, makes fun of his own chin).
Inception’s weirdness stems from its mind-bendy-ness. It’s just flat-out unconventional for a hugely popular movie to have a plot that can be so difficult to follow. Sure, it’s the kind of film writer/director Christopher Nolan is known for, and that’s what attracted many film-goers (along with A-list star Leonardo DiCaprio). But it’s not the kind of film you’d expect the masses to flock to.
The idea of “inception” is easy enough to buy into: thoughts can be planted into someone’s subconscious mind by infiltrating their dreams. But it’s when the plot is hatched to use three different levels of someone’s dream to complete a mission that things get wonky. Many viewers were confused as to which level was which. And there’s also the ambiguous ending, which is so ambiguous we couldn’t spoil it even by talking about it, but we’ll stick with better safe than sorry. Still, it hauled in a massive $825.5 million.
1. BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN
That full title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, tells you one of two things: either this movie is going to be some sort of wacky satire, or it’s a documentary by a person without the firmest grasp of the English language. Turns out, it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. Borat is most certainly the strangest, most hilariously un-politically-correct mockumentary ever made. And yet it made $261.6 million on a mere $18 million budget.
Writer/producer/star Sacha Baron Cohen created a character who simultaneously loves and mocks both Kazakstan and American cultures. The film skewers anti-Semites, Christianity, patriotism, and homophobia, among others. In this largely improvised film featuring often unknowing real-life participants, Borat brings a prostitute to a prim and proper dinner party and returns from the washroom asking where to put the sack he’s holding filled with his own excrement. And then there’s the whole naked fight scene between Borat and his portly friend, which spills out into an elevator and crowded ballroom.
Any other massive movies that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments!