The Greatest Mindf*** Movies of All Time
Some movies inform. Some movies entertain. And some pry open your skull and punch you in the brain. Matthew Baldwin gathers up the films that have caused him to clutch his head and moan.
By Matthew Baldwin / Source: The Morning News
There's a certain brand of movie that I most enjoy. Some people call them "Puzzle Movies." Others call them "Brain Burners." Each has, at some point or another, been referred to as "that flick I watched while I was baked out of my mind."
But the phrase I find myself employing, when casting around for a succinct term for the entire genre, is "Mindfuck Movies." It's an expression I picked up from a college roommate of mine, an enormous Star Trek: The Next Generation fan who adored those episodes when the nature of reality itself was called into question, usually after the holodeck went berserk or Q showed up and hornswoggled everyone into thinking they were intergalactic dung beetles (or whatever… I never really followed the show myself).
Mindfuckers aren't just Dadaism by another name - there has to be some rationale for the mayhem, even if it's far-fetched (orbiting hallucination-inducing lasers!) or lame (it was all a dream!).
And they are not those movies where the audience (and the characters) think they know what's happening, only to discover in the final moments some key twist that turns everything on its head. (Bruce Willis was balding the whole time?!) I love those films as well, but that's not what we're discussing. In Mindfuck Movies you know that Something Is Going On. It's just not clear what.
Here are 16 of my absolute favorites from this rarefied class of motion pictures. And, really, the phrase "Mindfuck Movies" is too crude for such works of arts. These films are sophisticated. They make love to your mind.
The central narrative of Spellbound hews the conventional Hitchcockian template—innocent men on the lam from the law and the beautiful women who love them—but Spellbound heaps on psychoanalytical shenanigans until there's an enormous question mark after the aforementioned "innocent."
Note: This movie is in black and white. If the film you are watching is in color and features quirky kids striving to spell the word "smaragdine," you put the wrong DVD in your Netflix queue.
But this isn't CSI: Kyoto, where every additional detail brings the big picture into sharper focus. Instead, the accounts are muddled, contradictory, and self-serving—and that's before everyone starts changing their stories. Rashômon will force you to rethink everything you know about the movie several times before it's over, and force you to rethink everything you know period well after its over.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Yes, it's a meticulously crafted and imminently rational three-course meal of a film. For the first two hours, anyhow. And then, in the final 30 minutes, it serves up a steaming bowl of WTF for dessert.
Why is the ending of 2001 so hard to comprehend? Because it doesn't make a goddamned lick of sense—unless you read the book, that is. And this is by design. Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke intended the film and the novel to serve as companion pieces, to be consumed one right after the other.
Here's another fun fact: The title sequence makes you feel like you can punch through walls!
Director Andrei Tarkovsky loved making these kinds of movies—his 1979 film Stalkers is equally fantastic, in both the adjectival and superlative sense. And he could also create a meditative, haunting, and beautiful sequence like nobody's business, as the clip here demonstrates.
It's fitting that Videodrome and the word "cyberpunk" were introduced in the same year, because the former is steeped in the aesthetic of the latter. It's a film that skillfully raises not only questions (foremost among them: How did a film this fucked up get greenlighted?) but also your lunch, and watching it is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Recommended!
The Quiet Earth (1985)
Bruno Lawrence's portrayal of a man alone in the world (and slowly going mad) rivals that of Charlton Heston in Omega Man. And there are more plenty more surprises in store for our dear, deranged doctor.
Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Is he suffering from PTSD? Did he inhale some verboten chemical on the fields of war? Has he started traveling through time, Slaughterhouse-Five style? Or is he just plain nuts? His hairstyle provides compelling evidence toward this last possibility, but you be the judge.
The Game (1997)
It also provides an answer to the age-old question of what to get the man who has everything. And that answer, it turns out, is HOLY SHIT TERROR! After being enrolled in The Game, Douglas spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out if the people trying to kill him are just pretending to do so to give him a thrill, or if something has gone wrong and they actually want him dead. Sounds fun, but you can just get me Cranium, thanks.
Abre los ojos (1997)
The overall premise is executed better in Vanilla Sky, the 2001 remake [editor's note: you have got to be kidding, what a piece of crap! Please watch the original Spanish version and never mention the remake again], but that film manages to come across as soulless despite being an almost shot-for-shot remake of the original. Abre doesn't hide its secrets as well but feels more authentic, and though every character is flawed, you truly care about their fate.
But, no: That's just how Cube rolls. If you want answers, feel free to watch Saw instead, which borrows liberally from Cube's traps-and-puzzles formula and then tacks on an ending to appease the masses. But if you'd rather just spend an hour and a half staring slack-jawed at your screen and wondering what in God's Green Earth is going on, then Cube is the film for you. My buddy can even loan you the tape.
Dark City (1998)
Among its many other virtues, Dark City is also a masterful blend of a whole host of genres, from fantasy to science fiction to film noir. Indeed, figuring out the kind of film you're watching—let alone what is happening within it—is half the fun.
"You can't understand anything about the film if you miss the first five minutes," she told me with a roll of her eyes. "We've had late-comers charge out here after the end and demand that we explain the whole thing to them."
Writer/director Christopher Nolan's yarn noir tells the tale of a man with no short-term memory, searching for the man who killed his wife. It's an intriguing premise made all the more engrossing by the unusual mode of presentation: The story is told backwards, with each scene only as long as the protagonist can hold in his head before he forgets all that came before it.
Confused? Don't worry, it'll all make sense when you see it. Unless you miss the first five minutes, apparently.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
It's amazing that this film isn't a mess. David Lynch originally filmed the story as a pilot of a television series, then re-shot some scenes and cobbled together a feature-length film after the studio executives took a pass. And yet somehow this rejected half-breed wound up as Lynch's finest work to date. ("Better than Dune!" raves Matthew Baldwin of The Morning News.) Watch the trailer here...
Donnie Darko (2001)
And then they invent…something. The viewer doesn't know exactly what they've invented, primarily because the protagonists themselves don't know what they've invented. In fact, much of the film's remaining 60 minutes focuses on their efforts to figure out what this thing does and how they can capitalize on it.
If the films in this list were arranged in order of ascending awesomeness rather than chronologically, Primer would still occupy the final slot. Made on a budget of $7,000 (seven! thousand!), Primer is one of the few movies I have ever watched twice in a row—and certainly the only movie I've ever watched at 8 a.m. after having watched it twice in a row on the evening prior. It's like a deep-tissue massage for your brain—afterwards you may hurt like hell, but you'll also feel strangely invigorated.
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