With Mike Cahill’s second feature "I Origins" slated for a Friday release, we decided to take a look at some of the most intelligent indies out there. "I Origins" is the second of Cahill’s films to win the renowned Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance, given to films that successfully incorporate science and technology. The following films, with their highly abstract plots and difficult-to-follow-themes, are some smart indies that, quite frankly, make us feel incredibly dumb.
"Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams" is a confounding art house meditation on the psychological surrealism of dreams."Dreams" looks directly into the mind of the famed Japanese director at the helm, forming an introspective mental collage that seems to exist more for Kurosawa’s state of being than for the viewer’s enjoyment. The result is a film that swaps characters and philosophical conversations with the muted beauty of bold images and lyrical Eastern fables. Take the first dream, for instance, in which a disobedient young boy is cruelly punished after he ventures into the woods and witnesses a hypnotic, peculiar marriage procession of Japanese foxes. Is it a tall tale about staying respectful to your parents? Or maybe a cautionary tale about tainted youth? Searching for each dream’s significance is a tedious affair, but the gorgeous imagery makes it impossible not to try. "Dreams" continuously challenges because it forces the viewer to find his or her own meaning in the artful, historical and political dreams of the director. And what colorful, cultured and breathtaking visions he has. From an environmentalist wonderland where peach trees come to life as dancing Japanese dolls to a nightmarish nuclear future where civilians are mutated beasts, "Dreams" won’t only puzzle you under the weight of Kurosawa’s highbrow mind, it will make you envious that your own dreams can’t be as mesmerizing as his.
"Another Earth," the debut film of director Mike Cahill and writer/star Brit Marling, was a pleasant, albeit difficult to comprehend surprise when it premiered at Sundance in 2011. The sci-fi film follows a young and brilliant girl, who, after getting accepted into MIT, drinks and drives, causing the deaths of two people. Meanwhile, another Earth has appeared; it’s an identical planet that can be seen from our Earth. While the film is an obvious look at redemption and identity, it grows progressively more abstract, particularly with its scientific elements. The way it blends the notions of time aren’t exactly easy to understand, especially for us mathematically-challenged. Still, it’s a beautiful and mysterious debut, a subtle and unusual thriller that introduced two rising talents in the film world.
"Donnie Darko," Dir. Richard Kelly
"I can do anything I want. And so can you," says a sinister-looking man in a silver bunny suit. He’s talking to Donnie, a socially alienated teenage boy, about time travel. At first, Donnie’s unsure if the rabbit-suit, who calls himself Frank, is a figment of his imagination, but quickly it becomes clear that the man is, in fact, imbuing Donnie with the power to travel through time. It turns out that Donnie has a very important purpose of which he’s tragically unaware. Richard Kelly weaves the necessary elements for time travel–a wormhole, tangent universe, physical universe, artifact, living receiver, and "manipulated" living–into the fabric of Donnie’s personal narrative, and the film becomes a haunting coming-of-age sci-fi thriller that’s nothing short of a memorable work of art. A starkly original effort, "Donnie Darko" even manages to weave political and social satire, literary theory, and religion into its heady narrative.
"Enemy," Dir. Denis Villeneuve
After making it big with his foreign film Oscar nominee "Incendies," Canadian director Denis Villeneuve took on two back-to-back projects: the heartbreaking, but straightforward "Prisoners" and an artsier piece "Enemy." Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent and Isabella Rossellini, "Enemy" is a confounding film that takes on the familiar doppelgänger concept, but like you’ve never seen it before. Gyllenhaal plays a misanthropic college professor who sees his double, an actor, while watching a film. As their lives begin to mesh, the film becomes increasingly more surreal, blurring the lines between the two men’s lives. "Enemy" is erotic, often times morbid and features a bunch of tarantulas (for God knows what reason). While it can be seen (and dismissed) as an art piece, "Enemy" manages to linger, becoming a work that says way more beneath its surface.
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," Dir. Michel Gondry
When it comes to "Smart Movies That Make Us Feel Dumb," screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is king, just see "Synecdoche, New York" (also makes this list), "Adaptation," "Human Nature" and "Being John Malkovich" for more proof. The narrative-bending Oscar-winner has never been afraid to put his stories through a formal shredder, and the results are wholly original works that burst with challenging inventiveness. "Sunshine," directed by the equally cerebral Michel Gondry, is a classic of science fiction romance. The movie focuses on the relationship between the emotionally stifled Joel (Jim Carrey at a career peak) and the free spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet, earning her second Best Actress Oscar nomination). The two meet cute on the Long Island Rail Road and just as the trappings of the romance genre settle in, Kaufman shatters them. You see, Joel and Clementine were actually in a relationship for two years before a viscous breakup sent Clementine to a company that specializes in erasing memories. Upon learning this, Joel sets out to do the same. Feel dumb yet? Brace yourself, because the screenplay free falls into Joel’s jumbled mind, chronicling his memories of Clementine in reverse as he battles to preserve the love these two once shared against the company trying to erase it. Out of nowhere, "Sunshine" morphs into a beat-the-clock thriller as Kaufman forces the viewer to navigate a byzantine labyrinth of Joel’s painful and joyous memories. And yet, things only get more twisted when one company worker starts to use Joel’s memories for his own seducing purposes and three others become entwined in their own memory-erasing subplot. But Kaufman’s inexplicable control of the convoluted narrative makes "Sunshine" pulsate with raw feeling and romantic passion. It’s an unforgettable trip down memory lane.
"eXistenZ," Dir. David Cronenberg
It’s the video-game equivalent of "Her," only a thousand times darker and more complex. Cronenberg articulates his deepest fears about the dangers of virtual reality in "eXistenZ," a truly unforgettable sci-fi thriller that constantly upends our expectations. Set in the Not Too Distant Future, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a world-renowned game designer perfecting a revolutionary technology that allows video-game players to "plug in" to their virtual reality worlds through a pod inserted in their spinal cords. Thus, sensory perception — life as we know it — entwines with the game, leaving players unable to distinguish between realities. Catapulting the viewer into the center of the action sans explanation, Cronenberg forces us to do the heavy-lifting and piece together a nonlinear meta-plot that’s constantly in flux. (The fact that Cronenberg reportedly had his cast read Sartre, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Camus to get into the proper mood is not at all surprising.) The film is a grisly meditation on technology, suggesting that escapist and increasingly hedonistic innovation may cause us to indelibly warp the world we live in. At one point, after returning from a particularly violent stint in the game, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character asks Jude Law’s character, "So, how does it feel? Your real life? The one you came back for. You’re stuck now, aren’t ya? You want to go back because there’s nothing happening here. We’re safe. It’s boring." "It’s worse than that," Jude Law’s character says. "I’m not sure… I’m not sure here — where we are — is real at all. This feels like a game to me. And you… you’re beginning to feel a bit like a game character."
Built on a minute budget, "Pi" was effectively the launching point of one of America’s great contemporary auteurs, Darren Aronofsky. While it is not his most thematically bold story — that belongs to the human frailty exposé "Requiem for a Dream" or spiritual allegory of "The Fountain" — "Pi" might be his most thought-provoking. It dares to take on constructs of religion and mathematical sciences not as enemies, but as inherently related. "Pi" convincingly justifies its protagonist’s paranoia, forcing the audience to wonder what may be out there that they don’t know to look for. If everything is so intertwined, why can’t we see it? The surprising ending, full of an equally surprising sense of optimism, suggests that perhaps you should be glad you can’t see it all.
Anyone who has watched either of Shane Carruth’s two features has probably thought, "I like this, but I don’t know why." With his debut film "Primer," Carruth introduced us to his extremely abstract and mathematical brain, showing us the ways in which four engineers accidentally discover time travel. His second feature, "Upstream Color," is even more complicated and difficult to describe. It’s a film about parasites, two linked people, pigs and a bunch of other things that work well together for no discernible reason. Before making his way to film, Carruth developed flight simulation software; this is evident in his knack for really complex ideas. Both films are a compromise between his cinematic and academic genius. Watching them, you know something right is being done, even if you don’t exactly know why.
"Synecdoche, New York," Dir. Charlie Kaufman
A densely layered take on the artistic process, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut demands multiple viewings and improves with the understanding gained accordingly. On the surface, it is a metaphor-laden critique and tribute to art, as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s paranoid and obsessive theater director loses grasp of the lines between truth and his manufactured world. It is a case study in human nature, allowing the audience to watch people who seek to create and recreate their worlds as they think they should be. These artificial dimensions, carefully tied up in a massive model of New York City, reflect not optimism or pessimism, but a stubborn yearning for the ordinary. While some critics have questioned Kaufman’s directing ability, "Synecdoche, New York" is his crowning achievement in screenwriting, leading Roger Ebert to call him "one of the few truly important writers to make screenplays his medium." This film is about each of us in clear yet subliminal enough ways to catch us by surprise, and once it is understood that way, "Synecdoche, New York" makes perfect sense. But to a first-time Kaufman viewer, it might tie your brain into a knot.
"Under the Skin," Dir. Jonathan Glazer
On paper the plot for "Under the Skin" reads like a formulaic, sexy B-movie: An alien posing as a hot young woman seduces and kills young men to harvest their bodies for mysterious purposes. But as adapted from Michael Farber’s acclaimed sci-fi novel by "Birth" Jonathan Glazer’s "Under the Skin" is anything but dumb. In very loosely adapting Farber’s more straightforward story, Glazer made a film that plays like a fevered dream with a lot on its mind. Scarlett Johansson as the comely alien is as opaque as film protagonists get. It’s never explained exactly why she’s on a murdering spree, or how she ended up on our planet. Viewed as a straight up thriller, "Under the Skin" is an undeniably frustrating experience. But viewed the way Glazer intended it to be watched, as a deep exploration of what it means to be human — the experience is a richly rewarding one. That doesn’t mean we get it.
Richard Linklater once said, "I think anything can be a story." He wasn’t lying. In 2001, he released "Waking Life," an epic rotoscoped masterpiece that depicts a young man’s ethereal existence, as he floats through scenes of investigative philosophic discussion with a variety of characters (including Steven Soderbergh, Adam Goldberg and Robert C. Solomon). The film shows scenes without the protagonist and even deleted sequences from "Before Sunset." These conversations touch upon matters of existentialism, lucid dreaming, social philosophy, etc. and really pack a punch, confusing and challenging the bejesus out of you. The protagonist also slowly grows aware that he is in some kind of limbo — a perpetual dream state where he constantly awakes from dreaming into a new dream — and learns that he must come to terms with the unified nature of all life. It’s not all that clear what’s going on most of the time and certainly requires multiple viewings to be all together comprehended. It is worth it though. "Dream is destiny."
"What the BLEEP Do We Know!?" Dirs. Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente
How much do you know about quantum physics? Yeah, that’s what we thought. "What the BLEEP Do We Know!?," which is part documentary, part fiction, and part spiritual journey, delves into the realm of quantum physics and explores its relationship to consciousness and human agency. Through interviews with contemporary scientists and mystics, the film builds the case that we create our own reality: we project our subjectivity onto the material world, which is inherently chaotic and unstable. Thus, we have the power to commandeer our lives, and we must take responsibility for our own existential quests. Pretty inspiring stuff. The film is also a "Beasts of the Southern Wild"-esque indie success story: Though it was made on a shoestring budget, the filmmakers utilized intense viral marketing techniques and it was picked up by a major distributor. It went on to gross more than $10 million.
[Editor’s Note: Emily Buder, Eric Eidelstein, Brandon Latham, Oliver MacMahon, Zach Sharf and Nigel M Smith contributed to this article.]