13 Of The Best Mind-Bending Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
April 4, 2013 3:30 PM
32 Comments
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The 2013 Sundance Film Festival will likely go down in history as one of its finer years, with a nearly unparalleled programming slate of movies that got festival goers excited not just about the festival, but cinema in general. And perched at the top of the list of the festival's best movies (one of the ones that got people excited about cinema as a whole) is easily Shane Carruth's lyrical mind-puzzler "Upstream Color" (review here). A film about inceptions, no wait, pig farmers, orchid thieves and dysfunctional relationships, or is it about the nature of love via the nature of all things? The interconnectedness of our daily lives? “Walden?”

Carruth’s psychotropic, opaque picture is dense and dream-like, culminating in a masterful final act of only images and music and nary a word of dialogue. It’s a fascinating picture that has left some scratching their heads, but invited others to soak in repeat viewings, desperate to crack its hard-to-decipher code. And what’s more -- it got us thinking about movies that left us similarly (invigoratingly) perplexed. These are movies that don’t just make you think, they change the way you think; movies that hit you on a visceral and intellectual level. They bruise your brain. It’s with this in mind (and these are nothing if not movies that you think about endlessly) that we compiled our list of 13 brain-bending favorites (many with similar thematic concerns). They might turn your mind into a soft pretzel they sell at the mall, but you’ll be all the better for it. "Upstream Color" is being released in theater tomorrow, so check it out and give us your thoughts on what made (or should have made) our mind-bending movies list.

“Inland Empire” (2006)
Overflowing with the thematic preoccupations that seem to have haunted David Lynch for the last half of his career in films like "Mulholland Drive," "Lost Highway" and even " Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me," the director's 2006 opus explores similar themes of identity, loss thereof, changing fates, blurred realities and doppelganger motifs. Nearly 3 hours long and his first film not shot on celluloid (lensed on standard definition digital video instead), David Lynch's "Inland Empire" might not be, to some, the masterpiece that is "Mulholland Drive,” it is nevertheless still quintessentially weird, disturbing and genuinely unnerving -- perhaps the closest Lynch has come to psychological horror since "Eraserhead." Within the bewildering picture, a film crew is making a movie that they realize after the fact is a type of remake -- a movie abandoned during production because the lead actress was murdered midway through filming (the rumor is that the movie is cursed). Laura Dern plays the lead actress in this unnamed film alongside Justin Theroux, a lothario actor known for bedding his co-stars, who has to deal with her extremely jealous and distrustful Eastern European husband. As the script she's shooting becomes blurred with her reality, Dern's character(s) becomes increasingly sucked into the picture’s surreal, feverish and authentically nightmarish-tone. Featuring Lynch regulars like Grace Zabriskie, Diane Ladd, Harry Dean Stanton and co-starring Julia Ormond and Jeremy Irons (with cameos by Mary Steenburgen, Terry Crews, William H. Macy and more), "Inland Empire" is also known for its absurdist elements, like a recurring sitcom-y sequence with human-like rabbits replete with laugh track and all -- taken straight from the filmmaker’s web-only video series, “Rabbits” -- but Lynch's picture is strangely coherent and one of his most chilling works. "Inland Empire" was shot without a script and took Lynch two and a half years to make. The filmmaker hasn't directed a feature since, but ‘Inland’ is a masterful and frightening brainful that one can ruminate on (and revisit) over and over again.

"Celine and Julie" (1974)
The most elliptically playful and joyfully absurd mindbender on this list, though itself not without its nightmarish qualities, Jacques Rivette's whimsical and strange "Celine & Julie" is the 'pop goes the weasel' meets Alice In Wonderland of brainbusters, albeit a long and winding one, with many contours and colors that runs for an exhausting three and a half hours. Centering on two female friends (Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto) who find themselves in a loop they cannot free themselves from, "Celine and Julie" is equal parts buddy travelogue, mystery and creepy ghost tale, which culminates in a haunted mansion with the two Scooby Doo-like detectives who try to help a dead girl discover who killed her. But it's far less linear than it sounds, more of an opaque cycle of loosely connected themes that coalesce suddenly in the final act like a magic trick pulled off while in a state of hypnosis. Lots of films go down the rabbit hole, but many tend to take themselves too seriously and often don’t have as much fun. Delirious, creepy and comical, there's nothing like "Celine And Julie" out there and it's unlikely this deeply idiosyncratic work will ever be quite matched in its sprawl, ambition and sense of humor.

"Pi" (1998)
Everyone's gotta start somewhere. And before more polished works like "Requiem For A Dream," and "The Fountain," Darren Aronofsky made the low-budget, 16mm, black-and white, but highly ambitious "Pi." Blending high-end mathematics, Jewish Kabbalah mysticism and numerology, "Pi" is a scrappy, high-energy look at obsessions and conspiracy theories revolving on the elusive and infinite number of Pi -- 3.14159  etc. -- the Mount Everest of numbers for mathematicians who have tried and failed to round the number off. The picture, scored to kinetic breakbeats and '90s electronic music like Aphex Twin, Orbital, Autechre and more, follows Max (Sean Gullette) a recluse mathematician trying to break Wall Street’s “code” with his until-then unsuccessful formulas, who is being hounded by a mysterious company who wants him to come work for them. Meanwhile, he meets a number-obsessed Hassid (Ben Shenkman) who ropes him into a new numeric challenge, but is warned by his retired professor (Mark Margolis), that chasing a solution for Pi is a fool's errand. Max, however, is convinced his teacher fell to a stroke because the exhausting probabilities broke him and in order to discover the deeper mysteries of the number, one has to dance past the edge of madness. Reality bends (as it is wont to do in these movies) and Max finds himself at the nexus of a conspiracy where all parties want the knowledge in his head that's driving him insane. "Pi" is to Aronofsky what "Primer" is to Carruth, and while to compare them does a disservice to both, "Pi" is ultimately still the more successful low-budget debut, if only because it burrows in the head more profoundly in the end.

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32 Comments

  • WTF | July 25, 2013 1:02 AMReply

    SPOILER ALERTS
    GODDAMN.

  • droop | April 16, 2013 11:44 AMReply

    i see what you're going for here, mind bending through narrative i guess, but where the fuck is koyaanisqatsi!?

  • James From The Mall Office | April 9, 2013 9:58 AMReply

    3 Women is plenty mind bending, in my opinion.

  • Jamaica | April 8, 2013 12:32 PMReply

    Would've liked to have seen Shinya Tsukamoto mentioned in this blog. Oh well.... :)

  • tyler4all | April 7, 2013 4:19 PMReply

    Can we please give credit to Alejandro Amenabar for "Open Your Eyes", which he wrote and directed? Cameron Crowe made a remake.

  • Dave | April 18, 2013 3:48 PM

    ^yes, that's your opinion. I think Crowe's version is weaker and fails to really build up the tension recquired for the ending. "Abre los Ojos" is IMO a true cinematic achievement.

  • Fred | April 7, 2013 4:58 PM

    Yes, but Abre Los Ojos is also terrible and remake or no, Crowe's film is slightly better.

  • Hewston | April 7, 2013 7:26 AMReply

    13 "of" the best cretins, not "the" 13 best... sheesh.

  • Brettro | April 7, 2013 3:01 AMReply

    Liquid Sky and anything by Ken Russel

  • Dan | April 6, 2013 5:01 AMReply

    It's simply astonishing that after all the films in the article and in the comments that were mentioned the ultimate "trip" film had not yet been mentioned.

    Donald Cammel's and Nicholas Roeg's 'Performance' is easily the most astonishing mind-bending film that's ever been made. Not only has it's themes and ideas have been compied in countless later films (hell, Tony Scott lifted nearly entire Memo to Turner sequence visuals for the Garry Oldman/Christian Slater scene in True Romance), but the movie also has what can arguably be called the first music video ever as was later popularized on MTV.

    The films' power to astonish has not waned a bit and its themes of psychological and emotional breakdowns of social and artistic barriers (and understanding of one's own identity) are more relevant than ever.

  • Kari | April 5, 2013 3:19 PMReply

    No A Serious Man?

  • Dallas H. | April 4, 2013 9:58 PMReply

    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and also the classic Altered States is missing from this list (even from the Honorable Mentions section).

  • Ollie | April 6, 2013 5:17 PM

    Eternal Sunshine... was directed by Michel Gondry and he's in the honorable mention section

  • Tusk | April 4, 2013 8:58 PMReply

    You really dropped the ball on that mild synopsis of Mulholland Drive. When the switch occurs, it's pretty obvious that Naomi Watts is no longer playing Betty, but rather the waitress from earlier in the film that is played by a separate actress. Its a time loop with Watts playing two different characters. Ah fuck it - i'm wrong. I'm sorry i brought it up. I'm just some asshole who knows nothing.

  • Thislalife | April 4, 2013 7:25 PMReply

    The fact that Herzog's THE WILD BLUE YONDER isn't in on here is mind bending itself. Have you seen that shit? The ultimate.

  • Thislalife | April 4, 2013 7:19 PMReply

    The fact that Herzog's THE WILD BLUE YONDER isn't in on here is mind bending itself. Have you seen that shit? The ultimate.

  • Thislalife | April 4, 2013 7:19 PMReply

    The fact that Herzog's THE WILD BLUE YONDER isn't in on here is mind bending itself. Have you seen that shit? The ultimate.

  • Thislalife | April 4, 2013 7:19 PMReply

    The fact that Herzog's THE WILD BLUE YONDER isn't in on here is mind bending itself. Have you seen that shit? The ultimate.

  • Thislalife | April 4, 2013 7:10 PMReply

    The fact that Herzog's THE WILD BLUE YONDER isn't in on here is mind bending itself. Have you seen that shit? The ultimate. Also Valhalla Rising is very very very strange as well. No Bunuel?

  • jg | April 4, 2013 6:17 PMReply

    Except to say Tetsuo the Iron Man.

    (Have to read these in reverse order you know).

  • THOR | April 4, 2013 6:16 PMReply

    "which is sort of short by Tarkovsky standards"

    Solaris is Tarkovky's second longest movie.

  • jg | April 4, 2013 6:15 PMReply

    And Holy Motors sucked, trippy as it is.

    And Time Crimes blows away Primer. No contest.

    My work here is done.

  • Cyvydy | April 5, 2013 1:59 AM

    Your work sucks. Go to bed.

  • jg | April 4, 2013 6:13 PMReply

    Eh, Primer? Synechdoche? Inland Empire?

    No Lost Highway, Irreversible, Memento, American Psycho, Strange Days, A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Run Lola Run, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Brazil, Naked Lunch, and I'll probably think of some more. The trippiest short I ever saw is linked at my blog now, where it's Short Week Madness... l pet goat 2... http://wp.me/pwAWe-1ok

  • Chap Chapman | April 11, 2013 4:42 AM

    the moment someone mentions american psycho... especially as a mind bending movie is the moment i go "yeah fuck this guy"

  • Kev | April 5, 2013 4:54 PM

    In every list there will always be those snobs in the comments that just keep saying "No this? No that? No Star Wars? No Deuce Bigalow?" and you're one of the worst offenders. Your blog sucks.

  • huffy | April 5, 2013 1:37 AM

    Not sure you understand what this list was going for. There's a difference between using a bit of narrative/aesthetic trickery and completely structuring a film's narrative and thematic nature to be enigmatic. Most of the films you listed fall in the former category. Requiem, Brazil and Fear and Loathing (which I love) honestly aren't even close to a being "mind-bending" considering their narrative structures are completely straightforward. The reason this list was created was because of the release of Upstream Color so its obvious that the author was approaching it with that kind of borderline-experimental filmmaking in mind.

    And Lost Highway is the poor-man's Mulholland Drive, technically inferior and honestly thematically dull. It's interesting but really pales in comparison with what came after it, including Inland Empire.

  • huffy | April 5, 2013 1:36 AM

    Not sure you understand what this list was going for. There's a difference between using a bit of narrative/aesthetic trickery and completely structuring a film's narrative and thematic nature to be enigmatic. Most of the films you listed fall in the former category. Requiem, Brazil and Fear and Loathing (which I love) honestly aren't even close to a being "mind-bending" considering their narrative structures are completely straightforward. The reason this list was created was because of the release of Upstream Color so its obvious that the author was approaching it with that kind of borderline-experimental filmmaking in mind.

    And Lost Highway is the poor-man's Mulholland Drive, technically inferior and honestly thematically dull. It's interesting but really pales in comparison with what came after it, including Inland Empire.

  • DG | April 4, 2013 5:33 PMReply

    HOLY MOTORS!

  • Fenil | April 4, 2013 4:32 PMReply

    Nice list!!!...Glad to see PRIMER on it.

  • Grant | April 4, 2013 3:47 PMReply

    Soderbergh's Solaris isn't necessarily a remake of Tarkovsky’s, rather it's another adaptation of Lem's novel.

  • Chris | April 4, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    Does Pi really need to be on this list?

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