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13 Of The Best Mind-Bending Movies

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 4, 2013 at 3:30PM

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?”
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Last Year At Marienbad
“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
“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
“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.

Naomi Watts Mulholland Drive
“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.

This article is related to: Features, Upstream Color


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