Okay, none of these have a chance of dethroning Taylor Swift’s monster “Eras” concert film at the box office, but they are part of a wonderful wave of kooky fare that is the best side effect of a long, hard year in which writers and actors have had to forgo paychecks to fight for their livelihoods.
If you, like the rest of the country, spent the summer at home binge-watching “Suits,” or watching illegal downloads of “Barbie,” you may not have noticed this, but those historic dual strikes have thrust us into a kind of “Twilight Zone” of moviegoing. When major films like “Dune: Part 2” and “Challengers” pushed their release dates back to 2024 — mainly because the studios just felt they couldn’t get the launches they wanted without Zendaya, who stars in both those movies, making a promotional push to her 185 million Instagram followers — a lane suddenly cleared for stranger film fare to flourish. It’s as if a benign form of cordyceps has taken over the industry, and with every zombie bite, the 18th iteration of a superhero movie dies and indie film successors to “Everything Everywhere All at Once” rise up in their place.
For fans of the wild and inventive, the odd and adventurous, you’re in for a treat. Here’s a taste of what’s on the horizon:
“El Conde,” dir. Pablo Larraín (Netflix, streaming now)
Too delicious and bizarre to leave off the list just because it’s already streaming. What if corrupt Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet never died but instead lived on as a 250-year-old vampire who still ventured into Santiago for the occasional killing spree? In the film, Vampire Pinochet is using a walker and says he finally wants to die, but he is secretly starting to feast on human-heart smoothies again. Meanwhile his five children have gathered at his home in the desolate countryside, hoping they’ll finally get their hands on their inheritance. Larraín’s gory satire is filmed in beautiful black and white, with a stunning, devious nun posing as an accountant, a prominent guillotine and plenty of night flights that literally make heads roll. “Once one suckles the palpitating muscle of a still-beating heart, it’s hard to go back to being a normal person,” trills the narrator — a regal English woman whose identity reveal is one of the movie’s great delights.
“Dicks: The Musical,” dir. Larry Charles (A24, opened Oct. 20 and currently in theaters)
Whatever people say about not judging a book by its cover, or a movie by its title — eh, go ahead with this one. It’s really all there! Originally a two-man off-off-Broadway show called “F—ing Identical Twins,” this unabashedly LGBTQ+ musical comedy stars co-creators Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson playing said very-hetero twins, who meet after being separated at birth and set off on a John Waters-esque version of “The Parent Trap.” Winner of the Toronto International Film Festival’s “Midnight Madness” people’s choice award, it also features Megan Thee Stallion as their dominatrix boss, Nathan Lane as their newly out bisexual dad, a pair of disgusting “sewer creature” puppets, Bowen Yang as God and Megan Mullally as their shut-in mom who has a detached vagina she carries in her purse. Just go with it. Resistance is futile!
“Nyad,” dir. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Netflix, opened in select theaters Oct. 20, streaming Nov. 3)
You are probably wondering what a rather straightforward biopic about Diana Nyad, who in her 60s became obsessed with swimming from Cuba to Key West, Fla., is doing on this list. This is a sports movie and an obvious Oscars vehicle for Annette Bening as Nyad and Jodie Foster as her supportive yet frustrated coach, Bonnie Stoll. But it’s also the story of athlete extremism, which, let’s face it, is totally weird. We’ve got Bening in Halloween-type masks to ward off jellyfish stings, being followed by an eagle-eyed shark patrol, and emerging from 53 hours in the water with lips so swollen she could be mistaken for a blowfish. The filmmakers also depict her hallucinations as she gets deep into her swims, which at one point merge a certain landmark in India with Dorothy’s trip to Oz.
“Fingernails,” dir. Christos Nikou (Apple TV Plus, limited theaters Oct. 27, streaming Nov. 1)
This is, truly, a big-hearted, romantic sorta-comedy about a lo-fi future in which a test can now scientifically determine if you and your partner are in love — that is as long as both parties are willing to rip off a fingernail. Three years after the test has thrown society into chaos, we join a young in-love couple, Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), whose relationship is challenged when Anna encounters a co-worker, Amir (Riz Ahmed at his funny, charismatic best), who might get her more than her partner does. It’s also the first English-language film from Nikou, a member of an actual cinematic movement called the Greek Weird Wave that arose out of the country’s 2009 financial collapse, in which filmmakers working on shoestring budgets tried to make sense of a society that had drifted into absurdity. (Their definitive leader is Yorgos Lanthimos — also on this list! — and Nikou was his assistant director.)
“Dream Scenario,” dir. Kristoffer Borgli (A24, in theaters Nov. 10)
Nicolas Cage seems to be having the time of his career these days playing fractured versions of Nicolas Cage. This darkly comedic horror film from Oslo-born director Borgli had audiences laughing so hard at the recent Middlebury Film Festival in Virginia that it could have registered as a medium-sized earthquake. Cage is nearly unrecognizable as balding, pudgy, unpublished evolutionary biology professor and dad Paul Matthews, whom no one thinks twice about — until he becomes an overnight celebrity after appearing in millions of people’s dreams. Just sort of strolling through, or leaf-peeping in the background. Until, inevitably, the dreams become true nightmares. It’s a parable about fame and cancel culture, and Borgli and Cage have a blast re-creating the insides of people’s subconscious minds as, say, a student of Paul’s is being hunted and shot at in a mushroom- and muffin-filled forest, or as large objects fall from the sky threatening to crush Paul’s teenage daughter to death.
“May December,” dir. Todd Haynes (Netflix, in theaters Nov. 17, streaming Dec. 1)
The moment that sets the tone in Haynes’s disturbing and deliciously pulpy look at a tabloid sex scandal comes about one minute in, when Julianne Moore’s Gracie Atherton-Yoo opens the fridge during a late-summer barbecue, as the ominous score swells, and gasps, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs!” Nothing is truly mundane in this psychological thriller, in which boundary-crossing actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) descends on the home of a woman she’s playing in an independent film: Moore’s Gracie, who as a 36-year-old married woman had an affair with a 13-year-old (Charles Melton of “Riverdale”), then had his baby in prison and married him. We catch up with the couple just as they’re sending their fraternal twins to college, as Berry’s presence quickly rains chaos on their lives. The film is simultaneously an instant camp classic and an Oscar vehicle for its three main actors.
“Saltburn,” dir. Emerald Fennel (Amazon MGM studios, in theaters Nov. 24, streaming on Prime Video Dec. 1)
Do you like class wars, masquerade balls, murder and things like a close-up of Barry Keoghan slurping up filthy, meaning-laden bath water, all at one of the most opulent British estates you’ve ever seen? Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to “Promising Young Woman” is a satirical cousin to “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — or a wry across-the-pond “Gossip Girl” (the original, of course). Keoghan is Oliver, a scholarship kid at Oxford University who somehow finds himself as the best friend/charity case for Jacob Elordi’s rich and irresistibly charming Felix, who invites Oliver to summer at his family’s estate, Saltburn. Much of the plot goes as you’d expect, but Fennell and the cast clearly delight in throwing as much kinky provocation as possible on the screen. This is a movie that will be endlessly memed, particularly Rosamund Pike’s every line as Felix’s blithely callous aristocratic mother. For instance, upon hearing news that a friend has killed herself: “She’ll do anything for attention.”
“Poor Things,” dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (Searchlight Pictures, in theaters Dec. 8)
Lanthimos, the definitive leader of the Greek Weird Wave (he made such treasures as “The Lobster,” in which single people must couple up, or be turned into animals), has emerged this year with his most delightful, accessible and visually spectacular movie yet — that also happens to be a major Oscar contender. It’s still defiantly odd, centered on Emma Stone’s Bella, a woman in late 19th century London who was resurrected from death and is now rapidly growing up all over again, being raised by a grotesquely scarred mad scientist she calls God (Willem Dafoe) — but without any of the angst that society typically thrusts on women, particularly around sex. Stone (the surefire Best Actress front-runner, who has now done four projects with Lanthimos, including “The Favourite”) was a producer and the chief architect of the sex-positive character, who tears her way across Europe on her way to feminist enlightenment, often wondering why the men in her life seem to be so upset with “all the whoring.”
“The Boy and the Heron,” dir. Hayao Miyazaki (in theaters Dec. 8)
In what may or may not be the 82 year-old Japanese animation master’s last film, a 12-year-old boy, Mahito, who is grieving the loss of his mother in war-torn Japan, moves to a creepy countryside home with a looming stone tower. Soon, he finds himself in an alternate world where the old are now young, women are hero pirates, and almost all birds are terrifying (accurate!), particularly the lair of giant, knife-wielding parakeets who would like nothing more than to cook Mahito in a tasty boy stew. Ignore the critics who call this a middling Miyazaki; it’s for sure going to be in the Best Animated Feature race. Underneath the incredible flights of imagination and gorgeous landscape drawings are profound ruminations on mortality and climate change and how to leave some beauty in the world once you’ve gone. Or, just come for the parakeets. They’re fantastic.
“All of Us Strangers” by Andrew Haigh (Searchlight Pictures, in theaters Dec. 22)
On the surface, it’s a tender, sexy British romance between Andrew Scott (the hot priest from “Fleabag”) and Paul Mescal (in yet another devastatingly sensitive role, following “Normal People” and “Aftersun”) — another heartbreaker from Haigh, whose every movie will leave you weeping. But it’s also a deeply strange, unsettling, disorienting trip through the mind and possible madness of a Gen X survivor of the AIDS crisis, as Scott’s frustrated screenwriter, Adam, begins traveling to his childhood home to visit his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), who died in a car crash when he was 12. What if the ghosts of your past sat before you, able to grow and learn from who you are now, as an adult? Would you destroy your life to get back what you lost? This is one of the most eerie, emotionally rewarding films of the year, if you’re willing to give in to supernatural fantasy and let it take you where it will. Trust me, being a realist is overrated.