What exactly makes something “NEEM tier?”
A question for the ages, and I’m not sure of the answer myself. It’s something you feel rather than consciously understand.
If I could attempt, I would define it primarily through the lens of incongruence; a mixing of unexpectedness, an ironic self-awareness combined with self-seriousness. It is, how the cliche goes, a land of contrasts.
The movies on this list are not in any particular order (except loosely sorted by theme and director), nor are they all my favorite movies. They are simply movies that fit the aesthetic of the meme page and our general discourse, whatever that strange energy is in which we have tapped into.
I’m going to leave the descriptions vague, mostly because I don’t like spoiling things, I’m lazy and slightly drunk while writing this, and also because I find ‘critique’ rather silly for movies.
You either like the sound of the premise and the look of the film, or you don’t. I can’t convince you something is interesting.
Tampopo (1985) – Juzo Itami
Tampopo is an absolutely hilarious self-declared Japanese “ramen western,” in which scenes of non-sequitur food-and-sex humor are interspersed within a plot involving a pair of truckers and a struggling ramen shop.
This is the only movie you will ever watch that features a famous ramen critique scene, as well as a scene of raunchy food fetish sex. I’m sure that last part might actually turn people off, but it’s just part of cinema!
Minbo no Onna (1992) – Juzo Itami
I’m partial to any art that gets the creator killed, so it goes without saying this film comes with my most sincere recommendation. Much like Tampopo, it is immensely funny and absurd.
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) – Bong Joon-ho
Maybe you’ve heard of a film Parasite? Maybe. Probably. Hopefully!
This is the director, Bong Joon-ho’s (Or as I like to call him, Mr. Bong’s) first film. His debut is of course amateurish, but those are the best films.
It’s the blackest black comedy I have ever had the pleasure of watching, and I’m partial to the genre. I don’t think any other director could make a story about a dog murderer funny.
High and Low (1963) – Akira Kurosawa
I don’t consider any film on this list ‘perfect,’ but High and Low would be the closest in a narrative sense. Akira Kurosawa’s “police procedural” masterpiece will keep you engaged for the entire run-time, and there’s never a dull moment in this expanse of bumbling criminality, corporate drama, and detective work.
The Japanese name translates more literally into “Heaven and Hell,” which conveys the theme of the movie much more accurately. Like most East Asian crime dramas it’s somewhat of a Confucian morality play, though like all Kurosawa films, shades of gray do not allow simple interpretation of characters and their actions.
Dersu Uzala (1975) – Akira Kurosawa
A Soviet-Japanese joint production (the spoken language is Russian) from our legendary director friend, Dersu Uzala presents a perilous trek through the wilderness of the Russian Far-Far East.
Themes of nature versus technology, traditional living versus modernity, and a slew of other 20th century conundrums are captured well with Kurosawa’s eye for nuance, and the film’s overall aesthetic is just as beautiful as North Asia itself.
Son of the White Mare (1981) – Marcell Jankovics
A Hungarian classic, Son of the White Mare (Fehérlófia in the native tongue) is a psychedelic retelling of ancient Steppe folk tales. Told in a wildly animated, partially non-narrative, absolutely mind-bending style, anyone with a love of the visual arts will appreciate this film.
One need only watch a short clip to know this movie is unlike anything you have ever seen before, even if you are one of those art-house animation guys like myself.
Fantastic Planet (1973) – René Laloux
Another trippy animated film, this time from the French master of animation René Laloux. A portal to a strange and otherized planet totally unlike our own, the film uses the medium of animation to escape into the furthest the bounds of imagination.
It’s not a movie with nothing to say, however. The film is essentially an allegory for colonialism, racism, apartheid, and other more earthly problems of discrimination that the French particularly (and humans generally) have long grappled with.
Les Maîtres du temps (1982) – René Laloux
A whimsical film from Laloux, Les Maîtres du temps is more of a classic science-fiction adventure than an exercise in exploring otherworldly alterity. But with art design by the French king-of-cartoons Moebius, expect just as much pure imaginativeness as in Fantastic Planet.
A wonderful short movie with nonstop scenes of sci-fi intrigue, you’re kept guessing on where the story will go. Laloux keeps it fun and light, but he’s not without surprises.
Gandahar (1987) – René Laloux
Yes. Laloux’s entire feature filmography makes the list. What are you gonna do, call the cops?
This one is Laloux’s most pure film: not an experiment in imagination nor a typical adventure story. It is instead a more serious precautionary tale on the limits of technology and resource extraction that science fiction excels at telling.
The art matches the narrative with its sharper lines and and realism, but it’s just as fantastic as anything in his earlier works.
Fritz the Cat (1972) – Ralph Bakshi
Despite the tagline, the movie really is “X-rated” for nothing. Nowadays it would just be rated R, and is quite tame compared to what we post-moderns would consider an edgy movie.
But it’s still extremely funny and relevant for modern young people.
The most interesting part of the film is simply how it was made. Ralph Bakshi went out into the streets of New York, recorded random everymen talking, and mixed it into an amazing movie.
Nothing else has ever captured the confluence of prole reality and bourgeois adventurism in New York City and the United States as a whole in such a raw, uncut way.
Fire and Ice (1983) – Ralph Bakshi
A Bakshi collaboration with the now out-of-style illustrator Frank Frazetta, Fire and Ice was doomed to be ghettoized by film critics on arrival. Don’t let the pretentious hacks get you down though; the film is a seriously well put together Conan-esque fantasy epic.
While critics may decry the overall film, few deny the artistic brilliance of the animation itself. Using the animation technique of rotoscoping, the action is fluid and dynamic in a way that is hard to describe on paper.
Bakshi used the same technique in his earlier film Wizards, which is also a fun watch.
Porco Rosso (1992) – Hayao Miyazaki
Porco Rosso is Hayao Miyazaki’s most forgotten work, but has a stellar reputation with die-hard fans. Miyazaki was first drawn to animation and cartooning by the desire to draw vehicles: tanks, planes, ships. This is his loving tribute to that first spark of inspiration.
The film is out of place in Miyazaki’s filmography because it lacks the fantastical folkloric themes of his more Japan-centric works (while a known anti-nationalist in Japan, you can’t say the man doesn’t love his culture), as well as his common critiques of modernity and technophilia.
In this lies the film’s strength. It’s a classic distilled story of love, friendship, adventure, and the folly of violence.
Mind Game (2004) – Masaaki Yuasa
Yuasa has a breadth of work but only one life-message he wishes to impart, a sort of vitalistic existentialism that makes no moral judgment on the viewer except to remind them that they’re “really in this bitch.”
A difficult and ultimately useless to describe film, the mish-mash of styles and fast-paced scenes of utter zaniness fit the title of the movie perfectly.
Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space (2002) – t.o.L.
Few Western anime fans know that the medium is also enjoyed by art-house types, such as the mysterious director duo t.o.L. (trees of Life).
The film tackles capitalist dystopia with cutesy characters and serious themes. Abuse, exploitation, and the plight of consumerism are presented in complete earnestness, making it much more difficult to watch than the others on this list.
While many fail at the style of self-aware capitalist critique, Tamala succeeds completely. But I did warn you. It’s hard to watch.
Obaltan (1960) – Yu Hyun-mok
A Korean classic film relatively unknown to modern audiences, Obaltan was initially banned in South Korea due to Yu Hyun-mok’s pessimistic portrayal of mid-century life on the peninsula.
The movie is a biting expose of a country in crisis, but one that just as expertly tracks the micro-stories of all humans involved as well as it does the macro-story of the nation as a whole.
Filmed with an exquisite eye for detail and setting, every scene feels like it’s directly pulling you into post-armistice Korea. A place first alien for modern audiences, but then decidedly universal.
The Road to Sampo (1975) – Lee Man-hee
Another long-lost Korean classic, director Lee Man-hee died while creating the film. As I said earlier, I’m attracted to films that somehow kill the creator.
The Road to Sampo is a simple enough wanderer’s travel story, but with intense notes of the modern out-of-placeness that was so common for rural dwelling Koreans during the 20th century.
One thing many forget about Korea is that it’s an exceedingly cold place during the winter, and snow is common. Lee Man-hee’s artistic vision of colorful travelers traversing the barren-yet-beautiful winter landscape makes the film hauntingly engaging from a visual perspective.
Travellers and Magicians (2003) – Khyentse Norbu
A hidden gem of the 2000s, Khyentse Norbu’s Travellers and Magicians was the first Bhutanese film to breakthrough to global audiences. A film that is rife with traditional Buddhist and Himalayan themes, it’s enjoyable from a purely educational standpoint as well as a cinematographic one.
Although Norbu had to rely on amateur actors because Bhutan just doesn’t have a real film industry, it’s hardly noticeable. Every cast member gives a performance of pure passion for their culture and art.
THX 1138 (1971) – George Lucas
Star Wars creator George Lucas is undergoing a rather controversial reevaluation as his space opera takes on a new life under Disney, following a disastrous prequel run.
Inundated with Star Wars fever, some claim Lucas was always bad, while others are sticking to the guns of their initial appraisal.
In any case, and keeping with the amateurish debut theme of this list, THX 1138 (Lucas’ first film) undoubtedly evidences Lucas’ bona fides as a director and visionary.
THX 1138 makes its mark as a viscerally-stimulating minimalist work, touching on dystopian sci-fi themes such as surveillance culture, over-medication, and social atomization.
The Andromeda Strain (1971) – Robert Wise
The Andromeda Strain is an well-crafted hard sci-fi disease thriller that’s well-regarded for both scientific accuracy and gripping suspense.
Not a frilly movie, the minimalist style pairs well with Lucas’ THX 1138, if you’re in the mood for a double feature. Robert Wise proved himself a science fiction pro with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and you don’t want to miss his later work.
Solaris (1972) – Andrei Tarkovsky
The film is more of a claustrophobic psychological thriller that so happens to be set in space than true sc-fi, but the setting gives Andrei Tarkovsky room to play around with novel ideas and intensely unsettling images of lonely coldness.
Dark Star (1974) – John Carpenter
Another amateurish debut, this film from John Carpenter takes us to a wondrous science fiction universe where absurdity and satire reign supreme.
I don’t think I can give a better blurb than the tagline, “the spaced out odyssey.” Definitely hit the bong for this one.
M (1931) – Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang’s own self-declared magnum opus, M makes all other detective/crime thrillers look like ersatz trash in comparison (don’t worry, I only mean this hyperbolically).
Tackling the underside of society and the homicidal urges subconscious in all of us, M is a poignant look at the devil within.
A little talked about aspect of this movie is that almost every scene features the entire cast just blasting cigarettes. The way the smoke is captured on camera adds a sense of hellishness to the mise-en-scène.
The Third Man (1949) – Carol Reed
The Third Man is well-known for it’s topsy-turvy, disorienting cinematography in which everything is filmed slightly askew. Carol Reed transports us to a film noir escapade in post-war Germany, a setting just as “off” as the camera suggests.
Cinemotographer Robert Krasker won an Academy Award for this novel method of filming, and it’s just as engaging to viewers now as it was back then.
The movie is difficult to appreciate without a keen eye, so make sure to pay attention.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) – Werner Herzog
A true masterpiece of film, Werner Herzog shows you a raw vision of madness and despair that is always difficult for artists to capture.
In keeping with the amateurish theme, this film was created using a stolen camera, and there was absolutely no movie magic involved. The actors just literally floated downstream on traditionally-made wooden rafts.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) – Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog is of course also an excellent documentary filmmaker, and his 21st century tribute to some of the oldest human art in existence is spectacular.
It’s an odd film, and has an ever odder production history. Herzog’s only film shot in 3-D (to capture the depth and detail of the cave art), the film crew consisted of solely four people, with Herzog himself working the lights.
I must go on a slight tangent here: the “Decorated cave of Pont d’Arc” is immensely interesting to me from an artistic standpoint. The cave itself is almost unreachable, deep within the bowels of a remote wilderness area.
One can imagine diving into the dark depths, torch in hand, to paint using crushed up plants on raw rock walls. How did the artists feel? How did they prepare? Whatsoever did they MEAN by it? The maddening thing is we will never know, and can only postulate.
Leviathan (2014) – Andrey Zvyagintsev
A modern Russian retelling of the Book of Job, Leviathan gives us a story of Kafka-esque bureaucratic-bourgeois meddling and couples it by exposing the sheer weight of downwardly-mobile desperation that so many in Russia’s provinces find themselves under.
Shots of the decrepit rural coastal landscape parallel the mindscapes of our characters. Andrey Zvyagintsev captures the bleak beauty of the setting in tandem with the bleak eternal pessimistic optimism of the “mysterious Russian soul.”
They will always fight to persevere, even when there’s nothing left.
The Decline of the American Empire (1986) – Denys Arcand
A horny French Canadian film from Denys Arcand, The Decline of the American Empire is dialog-heavy drama-comedy with surprising philosophical depth.
The film is a rumination on sexual mores, individualism, decadence, personal relationships, and the aloof ivory tower that is academia.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – Joel Coen
An underrated part of the Coen brothers’ filmography, The Man Who Wasn’t There is their most ponderous work. It’s slow, confusing, and understated; on purpose, of course.
The experience is an odd and disorienting crime drama shot in black and white. What the protagonist lacks in emotion he makes up for in his increasingly erratic but engrossing actions.
A Serious Man (2009) – Joel and Ethan Coen
Another film adapting the Book of Job, but this time from an American-Jewish rather than Russian perspective. A Serious Man is the Coen brothers’ attempt to situate the suffering, oppression, and prosperity of the Jewish diaspora into a modern context.
I have a strange infatuation with this film. Something about it speaks to me personally: the randomness of life and death, religious despair, self-doubt, human dilemmas from a sacred perspective.
Mulholland Drive (2001) – David Lynch
A film that has invited intense speculation ever since its release, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a dream-like expose of the elite culture of Hollyweird.
Anything I write here will just be my own interpretation, so just watch it yourself. Everyone sees it differently.
One Hour Photo (2002) – Mark Romanek
A thoroughly creepy suspense-voyeur film starring (of all people) Robin Williams as our anti-hero. The inherent voyeurism of film is always played with by directors, and Mark Romanek does it in an effectively discomforting fashion.
The cinematography and narrative of the film mirrors Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window, so that the mystery is communicated to the viewer in a similar manner in which it’s arrived at by the fictional characters within the work.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) – Liu Chia-Liang
Kung fu is a deceptively highbrow genre. Separated from the chaff are some extraordinarily well made-films, and Hong Kong-based Lui Chia-Liang’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of them.
The dynamism, reality, and gracefulness of all the stunts are apparent immediately to the viewer, as if one is watching the expert movements of an elite ballet company.
This film also inspired 90s rap group Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Wheels on Meals (1984) – Sammo Hung
Sammo Hung is famous for his kung fu comedies, and Wheels on Meals is the best of them. Jackie Chan is equally brilliant in the film, and is as-always a master of physical humor.
Chungking Express (1994) – Wong Kar-wai
The preeminent film for understanding contemporary Hong Kong through art. Chungking Express is the result of Wong Kar-wai’s lifelong existence in the intersection of insularity and diversity that eternally pull the city apart.
The narrative follows two separate but sequential love stories, a bold choice that is executed without missteps. It’s ultimately both sad and funny, a rare accomplishment.
City of Life and Death (2009) – Lu Chuan
I am totally entranced by a specific scene wherein the Japanese officer protagonist performs an ornate ritual to formalize seizing the city. He is simply “going through the motions” while he dances, an indicator of the humanity lost through the regimentation of life under a militaristic empire.
A Touch of Sin (2013) – Jia Zhangke
To round off the list I give you Jia Zhangke’s contemporary masterwork, A Touch of Sin. A Tarantino-esque depiction of present day China, it’s a bleak, stylistic work that covers a multitude of social issues.
The ultraviolent sequences in the film are rare for Chinese cinema, but Zhangke stands toe-to-toe with other great aestheticizers of of death and destruction. The movie is a powerful work that is immensely satisfying.