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.
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.
“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.
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.
“Barton Fink” (1991)
The movies of the Coen Brothers are always defined by what can be described as a gentle, almost sweet, level of surrealism. But “Barton Fink” is out-and-out dark, yet still playfully bizarre and absurd. Supposedly conceived during a month-long hiatus from “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink” stars John Turturro as the titular New York playwright who is brought to Hollywood and wooed by commercial success, coming to a creative crossroads while writing a cheap-o wrestling movie. Fink lives in a dumpy rundown hotel that also houses John Goodman’s enigmatic insurance salesman, with the pair soon forming a sort of odd couple. “Barton Fink” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (in a historic sweep, it also won both Best Actor and Best Director) and is probably the most philosophically discussed Coen Brothers movie (its Wikipedia page has an epic entry for its various themes, some of which seem wholly imagined). While there’s definitely something “off” about it from the beginning, in a way that all Coen Brothers movies are, it becomes really strange towards the end, where the plot starts to include a missing novelist, a mysterious package, and a hotel fire. Thankfully, “Barton Fink,” while not as immediately entertaining as something like “The Big Lebowski” or “Miller’s Crossing,” is still undeniably watchable and compelling, not least because of the excellent lead turn from an increasingly unhinged Turturro.. What’s more, it never sags under the weight of its ideas and themes, remaining lively and funny. Its existential, metaphysical quandaries never, thankfully, get in the way of a good joke.
“Synecdoche, New York” (2008)
It should have come as no surprise that the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of similarly perplexing (in a good way) features “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich,” would make a kind of grand-scale puzzle-box comedy/drama, one that folds in on itself until you’re not sure what’s real or imagined. Ostensibly a comedy (although this was significantly toned down in the screenplay’s transition to the screen) and incredibly difficult to describe succinctly, “Synecdoche, New York” stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as theater director Caden Cotard, whose bizarre project leads to him constructing an entire city inside a warehouse in New York, populating it with actors who double as people from his real life. The movie, of course, emphasizes the way that Caden is disconnected from people in his own life (there’s an amazing sequence where he thinks he sees his estranged daughter in a strip club) and Kaufman’s impressive script is only occasionally undone by the intermittently clumsy direction and Hoffman’s dour performance (again, it had a much more upbeat tone in the script). The fact that “Synecdoche, New York” works at all is pretty miraculous, but for it to work as well as it does is unthinkable. While critics seemed to appreciate it at the time, only a few stood up and loudly proclaimed it a new classic (its biggest supporter has been Roger Ebert, who in the highly-touted Sight & Sound poll ranked it as the eleventh greatest film of all time). And it will last the test of time, as a discussion piece at the very least.
Call it another fulfilling cycle that Carruth would appreciate. In our recent interview with the “Upstream Color” director discussing influences he said, “Well, [Steven] Soderbergh‘s ‘Solaris’ is something that I’ve seen more times than probably anything else.” Lyrical and elliptical in its own right, Soderbergh’s picture, while still abstract, is a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s even more opaque “Solaris” from 1972. The original is three hours in length (which is sort of short by Tarkovsky standards), hypnotic and surreal, the Russian film director’s movie — based on the same Stanisław Lem sci-novel that Soderbergh also adapted — is ironically, similar to Carruth’s picture, using sci-fi-ish genre trappings to examine themes of love, its loss and our humanity (and so the trickledown effect of influence is passed down). A haunting meditation on grief, “Solaris” centers on a widowed Russian cosmonaut Kris Kelvin (Donata Banionis, with George Clooney in the update) sent on a mission to investigate the mysterious suicide of a doctor and friend in a space station orbiting a planet made of water called Solaris. But while trying to find out what went wrong, it becomes apparent that something about the planet is connecting into his dark subconscious, producing a life-like version of his dead wife that makes him fall in love all over again, but question reality. Soderbergh’s version is the more romantic of the two, filled with an expression of deep longing and heartbreak that is profound and aching, while Tarkovsky’s original is the bigger head-trip and perception-focused, something like the Russian version of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (one of the great sci-fi mindbenders as well). Both make excellent complementary pieces to one another and are must-see pictures that question and contemplate some fascinating ideas about the psychology and meanings of love within our collective state of mind.
“Enter the Void” (2009)
The physical act of ingesting an illicit substance is wholly different from the passive act of sitting down and watching a movie. If there’s one director determined to blur that line, though, it’s Gaspar Noe. After his trippy, backwards revenge-epic “Irreversible,” Noe turned his sights to something even more ambitious – capturing what is essentially an out-of-body experience/drug trip that lasts for the entirety of the running time of “Enter The Void.” It’s one of the most disorienting and outrageous experiences ever, and just as unforgettable. “Enter the Void” is a kind of experimental cinematic acid test; after a young American drug dealer in Tokyo (Nathaniel Brown) gets shot down by local police, his spirit goes soaring through the streets, and the camera appropriates his floaty point-of-view. He checks in on his troubled sister (Paz de la Huerta), sees what his friends are up to, and ultimately just kind of glides. Noe and his cinematographer, Benoit Debie (who would create a similarly neon-lined visual aesthetic for “Spring Breakers”) were clearly inspired by psychedelic drug experiences and eastern mysticism; and it shows, as the movie trips forward it also travels through time, becoming unmoored from reality or linear narrative filmmaking. By the time the movie is over, we more or less stumbled out of the screening room. It shakes your blood.
“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.”
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