They’re known as the movies you have to see twice, or sometimes more affectionately as the movies after which you say “I don’t know what the $%*# just I just saw.” For now, I’ll call them mind-benders: films that are so enigmatic and intricately woven that wow you at the end, even if you have no idea what happened. Considering that tomorrow’s “Inception” should be one of those films, I thought I’d share with you my Top 10.
Before we continue, let it be clear this this is not a list with endings that made you drop your jaw. That is a common element in a lot of these films, but there are a lot of elaborate films with amazing climaxes that simply don’t warrant the title of “mind-bender.” “The Sixth Sense” is one such film and it belongs nowhere near this list. With that in mind, enjoy and be sure to check out any of these films that you haven’t seen — as long as you’re up to the mental capacity and willingness to focus.
10. The Fountain (2006)
I debated between this and Darren Aronofsky’s first feature-length film, “Pi,” but I personally found this story a bit more captivating and visually stimulating. “The Fountain” is a love story that takes place in three different incarnations: Spain during the inquisition, modern day and the distant future on another planet. The film deals with love and mortality in abstract ways, meditating on themes and overloading us with rich imagery. The only trouble is that the film truly demands a second viewing because it begs to be made sense of in terms of plot despite plot truly being second to themes, emotions and ideas.
9. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Coming-of-age and romance expert Richard Linklater’s foray into science-fiction by way of a Philip K. Dick story was gutsy, but it certainly gets the brain gears churning. Filmed in live action but then rotoscoped, “A Scanner Darkly” sends all kinds of strange signals to your brain in its attempt to create some empathy for the main character whose life spirals out of control and results in him taking large amounts of “Substance D.” Between this film, Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” and Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing,” you have the top three films in the subgenre of drug-related mind trips.
8. Adaptation. (2002)
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is not surprisingly responsible for three of the ten films on this list. No one over the years has been better able to take existential but deeply human concepts and extrapolate them into the most bizarre of movie premises. “Adaptation.” is one of my favorites of his because it deals with writing and story, but as a mind-bender it’s third of the three. Kaufman wrote himself into the film as the main character who along with his alter-ego twin, Donald, is trying to adapt a novel for the big screen and decides he is going to write himself into the film. See what I mean? Nicolas Cage gives the best performance of his career in this one-of-a-kind concept film that exposes our need for extraordinary drama in movies.
7. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam is a master of trippy filmmaking and “Twelve Monkeys” is one of his grittier science-fiction films. It is Gilliam’s lone representative on this list because the sci-fi plot will throw you for a loop just as much as the visual style. The film features Bruce Willis as a man sent back in time to gather clues so that a cure for a future virus can be detected. When he ends up in the loony bin, Gilliam takes over and quickly implements his plan to drive the viewer as insane as some of the characters (such as Brad Pitt’s role). Equipped with a great climax that seems to redeem the film or even put it on the same shelf as some of the greats, “Twelve Monkeys” is top-notch science fiction.
6. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
One of my favorite films and without question a top science fiction movie on the all-time list, “A Clockwork Orange” takes a slight back seat on the mind-bending list as a lot of its strength comes from its powerful and disturbing concept and imagery as well as its supreme intelligence – rather than how complex it is. Both of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi films have distinct mind-numbing aspects, but they don’t dominate his films so much as the combination of shock and character development. Once Alex (Malcolm McDowell) ends up in the correctional facility, that’s really when the weirdness comes into play. “Clockwork” is much more accessible than the other films on this list, but too incredible to leave off.
5. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The most recent Charlie Kaufman film makes this list with ease. “Synecdoche” goes back to Kaufman’s fascinations of stories within stories and how we look to art and stories to make sense of our own lives. The film is a literal and abstract approach to this idea. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a middle-aged man with numerous failed relationships who believes he is dying. Searching for purpose, he takes a grant to stage a play in a giant warehouse where he reconstructs New York City in attempt to recreate his life. He first hires people to play himself and those around him and then eventually as he continues to come up empty in his search, he starts hiring people to play the actors playing him in a version of his life and has his actor become a director of this play, etc. Crazy stuff, but such a unique look at life and art.
4. Donnie Darko (2001)
Richard Kelly’s cult classic is a sci-fi family drama thriller that gained its popularity simply on its mind-blowing plot and bizarre yet satisfying climax. The film combines elements of time travel with coming-of-age drama along with the apocalypse as Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is fitted with “hallucinations” of a creepy bunny-man named Frank who tells him exactly when the world is going to end. How Kelly gets all these elements to fit is something miraculous which might explain why the filmmaker has really struggled in his few attempts since with “Southland Tales” and “The Box.”
3. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
I was a little incensed with how completely indecipherable David Lynch’s thriller “Mulholland Dr.” was after one viewing, but there’s no contesting its status as one of the most messed-up films of all time. Lynch is all about the imagery and visual manifestations of ideas or subconscious thought. I would discuss further, but there’s almost no way to do it without spoiling something. The film is about a woman (Laura Elena Harring) who survives a near-fatal accident on Mulholland Dr. but ends up with amnesia, stumbling upon the apartment where a goody-two shoes aspiring actress (Naomi Watts) is staying with her aunt. The two attempt to uncover bits about her identity and eventually the film descends into complete and utter confusion. Considering this is not a science-fiction film, it means the way this thriller unfolds is totally unconventional and not tied together with any semblance of common sense or even faux-common sense used in sci fi.
2. Memento (2000)
Boy, the turn of the century was certainly loaded with mind-benders. Anyway, Christopher Nolan would have a few more films on this list if I’d made it just a tad longer. The difference is that these other films are also abstract in terms of visuals and concepts, whereas Nolan just toys with non-linear plot structure and does the bending by means of damn good writing. In this vein, “Memento,” still remains his best work. It tells of the story of Leonard (Guy Pearce), who suffers from short-term memory loss and writes notes to himself in the form of tattoos. To top that, Nolan and his brother tell the story in reverse chronological order so as to mimic that effect and create empathy for the character. Brilliant.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This Charlie Kaufman script as directed by Michel Gondry takes the mind-bending cake because it is founded on a classic love story. The film takes place largely in the memory of its main character, Joel (Jim Carrey in what is widely regarded as his best performance), who has hired a doctor (Tom Wilkinson) to erase his last girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), from his memory. Inside Joel’s mind, Kaufman and Gondry have a field day with abstraction. During the erasing process, memory-Joel and memory-Clem run through Joel’s memories as they disappear into nothingness. On top of all that, there’s a love subplot involving the employees who work for this doctor (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst) that hammers home Kaufman’s ideas about love and memory. It’s truly beautiful — when you understand what’s going on.