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13 Of The Best Mind-Bending Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
April 4, 2013 3:30 PM
34 Comments
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“The Holy Mountain” (1973)
Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean-French filmmaker behind “El Topo” and “Santa Sangre,” is one of the undisputed kings of the cinematic mind warp. His movies, all of which were destined to become midnight movies and cult classics of varying degrees of notoriety/infamy, feature the kind of hallucinogenic imagery and nonsensical narratives that drive intellectual grad students’ discussions long into the night. His movies are the kind of thing that should come with their own small Tupperware jar full of hash brownies. And the trippiest, most outrageous movie in his entire canon might be “The Holy Mountain,” a movie that was partially funded by Beatles manager Allen Klein and befuddled film festival audiences the world over. You can get a contact high just watching the trailer – birds flying out of bullet holes, a crucified toad, a hippo in a water fountain and an eyeball in the center of a flower are just some of the surrealistic images on display.The plot, in as much as there is one, concerns characters based on tarot card glyphs and some kind of quasi-mystical journey (it’s based, in part, on a bizarre French novel and a 16th century Spanish religious treatise, because, of course). You can’t take your eyes off of its profound weirdness, even if you are helpless in figuring out what is going on.

“Jacob’s Ladder” (1990)
One of the reasons that “Jacob’s Ladder” is such a mind-bender is because it seemed, from the outset at least, so ordinary. This was marketed, after all, as a psychological thriller from the director of “Fatal Attraction,” Adrian Lyne and the writer of the following year’s hit supernatural romance “Ghost,” starring the perennially lovable Tim Robbins. But “Jacob’s Ladder” is a far stranger affair altogether, weaving the story of an emotionally bruised Vietnam vet through a whole host of increasingly surreal, often nightmarish situations, as his grip on reality comes undone and he begins to question his very existence. (Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the bible will be able to decipher its “big reveal” a mile away, just based on its title, but it’s still a lot of fun.) Lyne eases you into the weirdness of “Jacob’s Ladder” in a way that feels natural and emotionally resonant, so that when the stranger stuff starts to happen, you’re tethered to both the characters and their stakes. Lyne is often overlooked as one of the most exciting visual stylists of the period and here he really lets things loose – in particular there is a scene where the Robbins character starts hallucinating on a dance floor that is truly unforgettable. Sex, death, life, love, it’s all intermingled (and not easy to untangle) in “Jacob’s Ladder.”

Honorable Mention
As usual, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are just as many other movies, of course, that have melted our frontal lobe just as completely – things like “Clean, Shaven,” Lodge Kerrigan’s film that puts you inside the mind of a schizophrenic; Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Tropical Malady,” a movie that is half gay romance, half mystical vision quest; “eXistenZ,” a wild virtual reality-based thriller from David Cronenberg that had the severe misfortune of opening the same year as “The Matrix;” Nicolas Roeg’s “Eureka” (or his equally bendy “Don’t Look Now” or “Bad Timing” or anything else by him really), a trippy meditation on greed and power anchored by one of the great unsung Gene Hackman performances; Louis Malle’s “Black Moon,” an oddly dreamy post-apocalyptic doodle, is largely considered a commentary on the women’s rights movement of the period; Stanley Kubrick’s immortal “2001: A Space Odyssey” still has people discussing its vagaries and contains maybe the single greatest “trip” sequence in the history of motion picture; “Vanilla Sky” (and its Spanish counterpart “Open Your Eyes”) questions reality fractured through the lense of popular culture and doomed relationships and remains one of Cameron Crowe’s most deliciously elliptical films; “Donnie Darko” is a neato suburban nightmare that’s equal parts metaphysical dream-space and trashy horror novel (filmmaker Richard Kelly has yet to get the balance right again); plus there are the filmographies of filmmakers like Canadian director Guy Maddin, French filmmaker Michel Gondry and Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, all of whom regularly bend our perceptions of reality in wonderfully unexpected ways. -- Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Tess Hoffman, Kevin Jagernauth

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34 Comments

  • smokey710 | June 29, 2014 10:48 AMReply

    got stuck indoor for good chunk of last nights journey and watched waking life and fritz the cat both amazing while tripping and clearly made with LSD in mind if you havnt seen either you need to just buckle i n Cruz both were a ride

  • 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.

  • bajke | June 26, 2014 11:48 AM

    True you are

  • 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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