13 Of The Best Mind-Bending Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
April 4, 2013 3:30 PM
32 Comments
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“Last Year at Marienbad” (1961)
Alain Resnais’ seminal and enigmatic 1961 picture, “Last Year at Marienbad” is one of the early proto touchstones in the “mind-bending” genre (if we wanna call it that, though for these purposes we will) and while chilly and aloof for many, it’s also tremendously melancholy and haunting; at its core a stylishly lavish and mysterious look at our eternal and existential loneliness. Perhaps a collection of choreographed moments that exist outside of time, Resnais’ picture centers on a social gathering in an elegant chateau wherein one of the guests, a nameless man (Giorgio Albertazzi) meets a nameless woman (Delphine Seyrig) and insists they have met before and she has been waiting for him all along. She knows nothing of this (or is it a game?) and another man (Sacha Pitoëff) might be her husband. Like an eerie and slow-motion game of mathematical nim, the characters in this story slowly pirouette around one another in an emotional and provocatively opaque game of memory, love and longing. Baffling, dream-like, disorienting and ambiguous, with its flashbacks and sequences and conversations that repeat over and over again like in maddening loop, “Last Year at Marienbad” is usually viewed as either impenetrable nonsense (the nee plus ultra of icy, glacially paced foreign films Americans liked to mock in the ‘70s) or a masterpiece. And while Resnais’ can be frustrating for those wanting linear narrative meaning, 'Marienbad' will leave an indelibly lasting impression on those who experience it as a surreal nightmare, both tragic and romantic -- a disturbing and abstracting examination of our deep desire to connect with one another and the inscrutable forces that push us apart.

“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives” (2010)
It’s safe to say that the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul have never been conventional in the narrative sense, preferring cinematic metaphor over definitive exposition. Thus it was a bit surprising when ‘Uncle Boonmee’ became something of art house sensation, kicked off by a Cannes Palme d’Or win, from a jury led by none other than Tim Burton. But upon watching -- rather, experiencing -- the film, the hypnotic pull of the movie is easily felt. Featuring ghosts, catfish sex, creatures with burning red eyes, long takes and enigmatic, spare dialogue, ‘Uncle Boonmee’ isn’t so much a film as a slow-burning dream while you’re wide awake. The plot, if you really need one, revolves around the titular uncle who, suffering from kidney failure, is visited by the ghost of his dead wife, and by his long-lost son who returns in a monkey-man-like form. But there is so much more at play, with the film touching on the intangibility of memory, and it’s certainly safe to say that some of the political undertones will go right over the average viewer’s head. And while that might slightly lessen the impact, the images as innocuous as many of them are -- a catfish mating with a princess; a monk taking a shower; people sitting in a restaurant as karaoke music blasts; an ox tied to a tree freeing itself -- will long linger with you. Having your brain twisted doesn’t often get as surreal as this.

“Primer” (2004)
Shane Carruth already had some experience in the “melting people’s minds at Sundance” department. In 2004, the writer/director/composer/polymath jack-of-all-trades debuted “Primer,” a nifty, low-budget sci-fi movie that contemplates the real world technology that could (possibly) facilitate time travel. Carruth shot it for $7,000 in a grungy Dallas suburb and did almost everything himself, shying away from the big budget theatrics that have typically defined Hollywood portrayals of time travel, instead focusing on the nitty gritty of what it would actually take to get the job done. (Carruth is a former engineer with a background in writing code.) The movie is only 79 minutes long, with long stretches of overlapping, tech-heavy dialogue and very little in the way of breakout visual moments His new film “Upstream Color,” in contrast, has some genuinely gorgeous sequences, but that doesn't mean you won't be hitting the play button all over again once you've gone through your first watch of "Primer." Part of what makes Carruth such a fun filmmaker (and the easiest way to deflate any criticisms that he’s “too pretentious”) is that he nestles easter eggs into the tapestry of the film, so that you really have to watch the movie repeatedly to understand all the sly, subtle gestures and sleights of hand. The kind of discussion that sprang up around “Primer” and the endless internet-based hypothesizing would predate the way that a whole community of geeks dissects, say, an episode of “Lost.” “Primer” turns you into a cinematic gumshoe, and you’re all the better for it.

“Mulholland Drive” (2001)
You won’t want to spend much time alone after watching “Mulholland Drive” for fear of your own fragile, twisted mind. What starts with a relatively graspable setup -- an amnesiac woman Rita (Laura Harring) wanders into the apartment of stranger Betty (Naomi Watts) after a car accident on the famed stretch of LA road -- ends up gloriously mired in David Lynch’s signature brand of off-putting surrealism, bold-faced dropped plot lines and even complete abandonment of coherent story, when the entire thing flips and it is revealed that Rita and Betty previously knew each other as respectively successful and struggling actresses and also had a passionate lesbian love affair together. You may even be able to wrap your head around that, until you realize that other faces in their lives have switched identities as well. So did Betty stage the car accident? Was the entire beginning of the movie her psychotic fantasy? Regardless, a vague sense of dread will linger as you try to puzzle out the satire on Hollywood and Watts’ tragic ingénue, the meaning of a few terrifying images, and why on earth you feel the urge to simultaneously download Rebekah Del Rio’s “Llorando” and hide from it. Maybe the Lynchiest of Lynch’s films, making its inclusion on this list imperative.

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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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