Some movies make us laugh, some make us cry, and some completely break us down emotionally and scar us for years.
Some shed light on serious social or political issues, and some are just meant to entertain us and make us forget our mundane world for ninety or so minutes. And that’s great. Cinema is an art, and like all art, it is perceived differently by all and serves different purposes for each viewer.
There are, however, some movies, that will make the audience utter a unanimous “WTF?” once the credits start rolling. If not that, they’ll leave the viewer with the feeling that they haven’t understood anything, or that they have missed something very important that keeps slipping from their grasp.
Many of the mind-bending movies listed below have left behind loyal followers, dedicated to cracking open their secret meanings and hidden messages, developing theories, and piecing clues and timelines together. Enjoy!
1. Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman
Synecdoche is a film that polarized critics when it as released and for good reason. Roger Ebert and others called it a masterpiece and one of the greatest films of the decade. Others called it self-indulgent, pretentious, undecipherable, and needlessly confusing. Now, Charlie Kaufman has never been a man to make simple works.
All of his films so far have dealt with the workings of the mind and how people perceive reality and the self, among other things. To expect a simple, easy to follow film from him is naive at best.
Sporting another great performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, properly transformed to an ailing theater director, the film starts off innocently enough: Hoffman plays a director whose life is falling apart, and his only solace is his magnum opus, a theater play that requires building a replica of New York City in a warehouse.
That’s when things start getting weird, as the line between the stage and reality becomes more and more blurred; even the actors begin having doppelgangers, and at some point, we’re not sure what’s going on and what is real. Maybe it’s meant for us to see things as the protagonist does, obsessed with his work to a point where he loses his self and mind in it.
Analysis of the film has provided many motifs and themes that are being explored through the film, some of them being Jungian psychology, death, delusion, and others. One thing’s for sure, it will leave the mind grinding for weeks after one sees it.
2. Upstream Color, Shane Carruth
The first of the two Carruth films featured on this list, Upstream Color is really, really goddamn confusing, but also tender and sweet at the same time. It has received wide critical acclaim, despite its complexity.
The story is about two people who have had similar traumatic experiences by a mysterious figure named the “Thief”, and who have had their memories lost and their lives fragmented due to an also mysterious parasite, which follows three circles of life, one on humans, one on pigs, and one on flowers.
Shots of the movie show an influence by Terrence Mallick’s cinematography and preoccupation with nature and it’s circular motifs. It’s hard to say more because it’s a movie that’s hard to explain with words. According to Carruth, everything about the movie is there to be understood by viewers who are up to the task.
3. Paprika, Satoshi Kon
Based on a 1993 novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, “Paprika” was Satoshi Kon’s final feature film before his death in 2010. The premise of the story is that a therapist has acquired the use of a device that enables therapists to help their patients by entering their dreams. What could go wrong?
The story gets more and more interesting and complex as characters start entering each other’s dreams. At the end of the day, “Paprika” is a beautiful mind trip, based on dreams, that is not easily (if at all) forgotten.
4. Inland Empire, David Lynch
Okay, we all know that basically, every David Lynch film is a little trippy. Why the Inland Empire, one might ask. Why not Mulholland Dr., or Eraserhead? Well, Mulholland Dr. is enigmatic and confusing, sure. Eraserhead is trippy but mostly dark. Inland Empire is just fricking bizarre.
It also has Laura Dern in it, a personal favorite of mine. This is a really weird movie, one could try to understand it, but, as it usually goes with Lynch’s films, it’s better to just stop fighting and go with it, letting the surreal, nightmarish atmosphere to sweep you away.
5. Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson
Larry “Doc” Sportello is a pothead PI. One day, his ex knocks on the door, imploring him to search for his missing lover. Things get strange after that. This is PTA’s newest film, starring the lovely Joaquin Phoenix, and – wait for it – it is based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name.
Now, it is common knowledge that Pynchon makes complex, intricate, layered stories that take time to be unraveled. From strange characters to an even stranger storyline, Inherent Vice, like Inland Empire above, ultimately leaves us no choice but to be carried away.
6. Primer, Shane Carruth
We’ve reached Shane Carruth’s second entry in this list. Primer was his debut long feature film, and it is known for two things: it’s minimal budget and disproportionately massive success, and how absolutely mind bending the plot is. Primer has had time maps made about it. Countless forum discussions, and hours of people trying to piece the narrative together in a linear way.
It’s no wonder since the film centers around two scientists trying to develop time traveling. It’s very confusing because it has multiple timelines, paradoxes, and the comprehension of time traveling itself. It’s also a very exciting film to decipher and fully recommended.
7. Enemy, Dennis Villeneuve
Dennis Villeneuve has made quite a splash the past couple of years, first with Incendies, then with favorite thriller Prisoners, and now with his new Cannes contender, Sicario. In 2013, he also made Enemy.
Based on Jose Saramago’s novel “The Double”, the film stars Jake Gyllenhaal, who masterfully plays two people identical in appearance, but whose lives and personalities couldn’t be any more different.
Villeneuve’s directing is beautiful, it creates a bizarre, almost claustrophobic atmosphere, and the sepia tones of the film almost have us thinking it’s set in an alternate reality.
I still have not understood what the hell the final scene was about and how it tied to the related pattern shown throughout the film. Is it a story about the subconscious? Repetition, chaos maybe? Totalitarian regimes and the personal equivalent of psychological totalitarianism? It’s left for us to make sense of.
8. The Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky
Jodorowsky’s cinema is surrealist, everyone knows that. But The Holy Mountain might be the crown jewel in his body of work. It is immensely hard to understand, contains infinite amounts of symbolism and mystic references, and generally takes a certain type of filmgoer in order to be at least partly understood.
There’s a lot of Tarot cards elements, a figure that resembles Jesus Christ, a quest to ascend the Holy Mountain, even a Fourth Wall moment. If you want to sit through Holy Mountain, you have to be prepared, patient, and very, very open-minded.
9 – Honorable mention: Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis
Cloud Atlas is based on a novel of the same name, was produced by the Wachowskis, and for some reason, I don’t understand. It’s become one of those movies that people either love or hate.
In my opinion, there’s little reason to hate it; the performances are good, the directing is good, the music is good, makeup and special effects are awesome, costumes are awesome, but the cinematography, the world-building, literally every technical aspect of the movie left me dissatisfied.
A somewhat complex narrative and a long-running time are probably the culprits for Cloud’s infamy, but it still seems like a bit of a stretch.
There are a lot of different plotlines, yes; there is the theme of interconnectedness, morality, and cause and effect throughout time and space, which I understand can be a bit much for people not used to three-hour-long philosophical sci-fi films. But still, it passes a very good message, and the narratives make sense.
Cloud Atlas is not as mind-bending or complex or confusing as the other films on this list, but its core philosophy presents an idea that is essential to many spiritual faiths and also leaves a lot to think about on a personal level, concerning how we live our lives and how much we think about our actions.
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