Movies are meant to entertain. You pay $12 for the opportunity to tune out the real world and escape your droll existence with 24 frames of colorful adventure per second. Though I occasionally enjoy turning my brain off while watching movies like Transformers or Predators for sheer thrills, these films aren’t the reason why I fell in love with cinema. On the contrary, the most fun that I’ve ever had at the movies has been when I’ve been challenged by the material and required to question the characters, their motives and the narrative itself.
In honor of Christopher Nolan’s new brain-boggling epic Inception, here’s a list of our favorite mind-bending cinematic experiences.
Though the franchise as a whole disappointed, you can’t make a “mind-bending movies” list without including the Wachowski Bros.’ seminal piece of science fiction. Through the eyes of Neo and the teachings of Morpheus, we learned that reality is merely a series of sensory responses to bio-chemical stimuli that can easily be manipulated by sinister forces…does that twist your cranium enough? The film’s labyrinthine narrative took us down a rabbit hole of wire-fu combat, existential theory and theological debate that got better and better as seemingly every answer led to three more questions. Many of them remain unanswered, but that doesn’t change the fact that we had a great time deciphering the film’s puzzling mythology ourselves.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman crafted an exquisite piece of romantic science fiction with this award winning, at times heart-breaking film about a man who attempts to erase his ex-girlfriend from his memory after she removes him from hers. Ultimately, it’s a story about tolerance and love, but these themes take a back seat to the journey through the marvelous memories of the eccentric Joel Barish. You’re never quite sure what period of the relationship you’ll see next, and that makes the narrative dangerous, exciting and unpredictable.
Comedic works aside, Richard Linklater is a cerebral filmmaker. His exploration of the dream world in Waking Life is a beautiful meditation on the meaning of the sub-conscious projections that inspire us in our sleep. Like most brain-boggling films, the narrative offers very little closure or explanation, but encourages its audience to create their own dialogue about what our dreams really mean and, furthermore, ponder whether or not what we deem real is any more authentic than our nighttime visions.
At one complicated point in our lives or another, we’ve all fantasized about disappearing to escape the hardships of our existence. Living that fantasy, however, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, which is quite evident in Vincenzo Natali’s dark comedy that explores the possibility of this very scenario. We follow a pair of down-on-their-luck roommates who find themselves in hot water and wish that their troubles would just go away. When they end up in a white wasteland devoid of all life, color and geographical features, they quickly realize that “nothing” can be the most terrifying experience of their lives. The film features wonderfully written dialogue that explores human nature, psychology and the necessary bond that people share with reality.
Alan Parker’s cinematic take on Pink Floyd’s crowning achievement is a montage of disturbing and anarchic imagery that takes the music of the band’s concept album to strange new dimensions. I believe that there is a coherent story within its frames, but the film is so far out there that it’s difficult to draw meaning. No matter, the trippy audio-visual experiment is meant to be experienced, not necessarily understood.
Everything made by David Lynch is mind-bending, from his depiction of rural criminals in Blue Velvet to the twisted tale of Mulholland Drive, but Eraserhead blurs the line between psychologically thrilling and terrifying. What does the deformed baby symbolize? Why does Henry Spencer have such strange relationships with women? Who is The Man in The Planet? These are questions that the 90-minute avant-garde film raises and I’ve spent years trying to find the answers. Perhaps there is no definition to the images, but Lynch will certainly hold your attention with his cryptic metaphors, even if you struggle with their horrific representation.
Christopher Nolan’s new film, Inception, is the catalyst for this list and it serves as an appropriate companion piece to his sophomore release, the chronologically intricate Memento. The intelligent filmmaker tells his story in reverse, and in broken pieces, giving his audience a dyslexic view of the story that leaves them as profoundly bewildered as protagonist Leonard Shelby. The end of the film reveals all truths, but even after multiple viewings I’m baffled by Memento’s backwards narrative…and my brain still hurts.
Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes)
With its ambitious approach of combining science fiction, drama and a character-based narrative, Alejandro Amenabar’s reality-defying opus is truly inspirational filmmaking. It comments on the connection between dreams and reality as the story alternates between the two states of mind to keep you, the viewer, mystified. In my first viewing, I found it wholly refreshing to realize that I had no idea where the story was going just as I thought I had a handle on it. Like its title suggests, the film will open your eyes to grand cinematic possibilities, where waking life and sub-conscious converge to create new meaning.
In Adrian Lyne’s darkest film, Jacob Singer is a Vietnam vet who returns home to a gloomy reality. His son is dead, he’s no longer married to his wife Sarah, he’s in a relationship with a woman named Jezebel (never a good thing) and he receives several death threats. To the viewer, and to Jacob, it all seems very surreal, and that’s because the life he’s leading isn’t what it seems. Lyne masterfully toys with our minds as he draws us into a metaphysical purgatory where Jacob unknowingly resides until it becomes clear that he never made it off of the battlefield, a revelation that is both shocking and intriguing.
Being John Malkovich
Charlie Kaufman’s name appears twice on this list, and for good reason. No one conjures exigent entertainment like the eccentric wordsmith, who teamed with visionary filmmaker Spike Jonze to take you inside John Malkovich – literally. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) uses a portal to live the life he’s always wanted through the body of Malkovich, which leads to some interesting ethical questions, philosophical debate and bizarre visuals. Of course, the cosmic joke is really on Schwartz, whose abuse of the astounding portal leaves him trapped in the body of his ex-wife’s and would-be-lover’s baby. A true out-of-body experience with a tragic conclusion, the films original premise makes for a mind-bending, heart-wrenching journey.