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15 Complex Movies From This Century That Were Too Smart For Mainstream Audiences

12 March 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Josh O'Neill


When used as an adjective to describe a film, the word “complex” usually means one of two things. The most common use refers to a movie with an intricate plot structure that defies conventional storytelling; think of the non-linear narratives of Pulp Fiction (1994), Memento (2000), and Michael Clayton (2007).

These films are all original and brilliant in their ability to break down chronological stories and create a cinematic puzzle. However, once the viewer figures out how the pieces fit together, the stories are relatively straightforward and easy to follow.

The second connotation that comes with the word “complex” is often used in a negative context, referring to films that are so convoluted or abstract, that the average filmgoer considers them illogical and pretentious. This second type of films are not made for everyone, they do not break box-office records or garner universal acclaim. They are polarizing, closer to art than entertainment.

There is a kind of underground cult of film lovers who crave these films; they watch a movie with the hope of being challenged psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually. These people consider this second type of “complex” films as masterpieces of cinema that demand multiple viewings in order to discover the elusive deeper meanings.

This group makes up only a small percentage of the general film going audience as reflected in the fact that Fast and Furious and Transformers have developed into movie franchises, while filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman and Shane Carruth struggle to get financing. The following list includes the latter type “complex” films from the 21st century that, for better or worse, are too smart for mainstream movie audiences.


15. The Place Beyond The Pines (2012)


Derek Cianfrance’s second feature is a 2-hour plus movie starring two of the biggest actors on the planet. Yet, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper only share one scene together and one of them doesn’t even make it past the first third of the film. The storyline takes the three-act structure to another level, bringing three different stories together to form a tale of sins and forgiveness.

Set in Schenectady, a city in upstate New York which gets its name from a Mohawk word that means “beyond the pines” (this city may appear again on this list), the film is about legacy, specifically how a son is affected by the relationship or lack thereof with his father.

Audience members who see this movie expecting a fun, heartening movie with the stars from The Notebook and The Hangover will leave feeling deceived, while others may consider the film too ambitious or cite the unbalanced structure as its main a weakness. Still, the film is able to capture a realism and rawness that most movies do not even attempt.

Cianfrance’s background in documentary filmmaking shows with the intimate handheld camera work and improvisation not unlike his first film Blue Valentine (2010). The freedom the director gives to his talented actors allows them to create memorable performances and authentic characters that drive this underrated modern epic.


14. L’Intrus (2004)

L'Intrus (2004)

Released in English speaking countries as The Intruder, this film comes from French writer/director Claire Denis. Based on an autobiographical essay by Jean-Luc Nancy, the story revolves around a dying old man who leaves his home in search of a heart transplant and a chance to reconnect with an estranged son. Slim on plot and dialogue, Denis relies on intricate shot designs and mesmerizing visuals to captivate the audience’s attention.

Jean –Luc Nancy was influenced by the great existential thinkers of the past, so it makes sense for a film based on his writing to be more philosophical than to have a clear, set in stone narrative. Denis is much more concerned about the viewer’s emotional journey rather than having them fully understand of the plot, which will frustrate those who are seeking a simple story to follow. L’Intrus is a cinematic poem that audiences will either tune out and ignore or give in and surrender to its philosophical spell.


13. Enemy (2013)


Filmed before but released after their box office hit Prisoners (2013), Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s lesser known film tells the familiar story of a man who meets his doppelganger.

Shot in Toronto, Villeneuve uses a drab color palate of yellow and brown tones as the story alternates between Gyllenhaal as a college history teacher and Gyllenhaal as a small-time actor with a pregnant wife. The film never explains whether one character is the imaginary creation of the other, if they are both separate individuals, or if any of what we see on screen is real at all.

With Enemy and his latest film Nightcrawler (2014), Gyllenhaal has really grown as an actor, shedding his pretty boy image and choosing more challenging roles of psychologically tortured characters in the same way Christian Bale did years ago with American Psycho (2000) and The Machinist (2004). He brings subtle nuances to each one of the identical characters in Enemy, which allows the story to move back and forth between the two without confusing the audience too much.

Finally, there is the ending. One reviewer called the film’s final shot “the scariest ending of any film ever made” while others consider it a storytelling cop out and unsatisfying. Either way, the film sparks debate and raises question about what it all means, specifically the spider metaphor that constantly creeps in throughout the film. If the viewer can keep from getting tangled up in the web of what’s real and what isn’t, this film rewards with an original and innovative vision of the old story of “The Double”.


12. Cloud Atlas (2012)


The Wachowski siblings only know how to make films one-way: big. They changed the sci-fi genre with their mind-bending Matrix films, so if there was anyone up to the task of adapting David Mitchell’s thought to be un-filmable novel, it’s these two.

The film features six separate plotlines from various time periods with the same actors portraying different characters throughout. Filmed with a budget over $100 million, it failed at the American box office and did not even crack $30 million domestically. Some see it a sprawling visionary masterpiece while others consider it a nonsensical mess of a movie.

After receiving a ten-minute standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, there were almost 40 cuts made before being released nationwide. This may explain some of the problems people have with the film; a lot of material left on the cutting floor could help connect some of the dots.

There are rumors that a 4-plus hour director’s cut of the film could be released soon and word from those who have seen it is that will blow everyone away. Still, in the era of short attention spans and formulaic storytelling, it is unlikely that the Wachowski’s ambitious epic will receive universal acclaim anytime soon.


11. La Nina Santa (2004)

La Nina Santa (2004)

Argentinian writer/director Lucrecia Martel’s second feature focuses on an adolescent girl’s struggle with her spiritual faith and newly discovered sexuality. Translated in English as The Holy Girl, the film is loosely based on Martel’s own upbringing in conservative Catholic region in northern Argentina. By forming the main character and her surroundings from her own childhood memories, the director is able to convey authentic feelings towards religion, family, and sexuality in this coming-of-age story.

The plot revolves around 16 year-old Amalia (María Alche) and her quest to save a doctor from sin after her inappropriately gropes her. As the film progresses, she battles the psychological contradiction that comes with religious faith and human sexuality.

Martel’s seemingly minimalist style of filming with few camera movements and lack of establishing shots between scenes also incorporates dense mise-en-scene and disorienting framing techniques that show the distressed inner psyche of her conflicted protagonist. The film forces the audience to pay close attention as the straightforward story quickly develops into an elaborate character study on female adolescence.


10. Shutter Island (2010)


Dennis Lehane’s novels have shown they translate very well to the big screen: Mystic River (2003), Gone, Baby, Gone (2007), and most recently The Drop (2014).

Shutter Island proved no different when Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio teamed up for their fourth film together and adapted Lehane’s novel about a U.S. Marshall with a mysterious past named Teddy Daniels, who is sent to investigate a missing patient at an insane asylum. Although well received and a hit at the box office, many consider the film below the usual brilliant work of Scorsese and more of a fun B-movie with a clever twist than a thought provoking thriller that improves with multiple viewings.

The secret to the film’s brilliance is in the details. Obviously, re-watching the film after knowing the big twist will reveal certain things missed during the first viewing, but the movie is deeper than that. The use of an eerie soundtrack, violent war memories, and unreliable authority figures the film captures the sense of paranoia that penetrated American citizens during the Cold War period of the 1950’s.

The fact that the main character is a former WWII vet with constant flashbacks to Nazi concentration camps is not just for back-story, it explains his possible insanity. Add references of German doctors to the use of drugs and mind control techniques; the film raises questions about government power and whether or not those in charge can be trusted. Also, Daniels’ final line in the film was not in the book and further opens up the debate about whether or not the main character was actually crazy.


9. Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin (2013)

The most recent film on this list, director Jonathan Glazer’s symbolic sci-fi head-trip took one of the most beautiful, recognizable actresses in the world Scarlett Johansson, and turned her into a seductive, man-eating alien from another planet. Based on Michael Faber’s novel, the film keeps dialogue and explanation to a minimum and relies on Johansson’s facial expressions and Mica Levi’s hypnotic score tell the majority of the story.

Glazer mixes the striking imagery of an open Scottish landscape with personal interior shots of Johansson driving around stalking out her prey. Interesting to note is the scenes of her in the car talking to random strangers were shot with hidden cameras and the men did not know they were being filmed, which makes the interactions between the characters seem more realistic and natural. Glazer even chose to cast a man with a facial disfigurement in real life rather than settling for prosthetics and make up to create that character.

The pace is slow and the ideas may seem too arty for some, but Glazer’s ability to tell his story through visuals and music is a refreshing cinematic experience for those who are tired of the typical overly explanatory dialogue dependent movies of Hollywood.



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  • Brian Lussier

    Good list, though the title is pretentious. But The Place Beyond The Pines? Really?! How ’bout Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life instead? Too bad Eyes Wide Shut was released in 1999…

    • FilmFanBoy

      What’s wrong with The Place Beyond The Pines?

      • Brian Lussier

        Just didn’t feel it was complex to the point of deserving a place on the list. I like the film, just don’t feel it qualified.

        • Brandon Moore

          Maybe you are one of the smart people then 🙂

        • Michael George

          Maybe Place Beyond is not bigger picture like Tree of Life, but it has complex and detailed sociological and criminological themes. Or, if not themes, then tid bits

    • thegoddamnbatman

      Almost any Kubrick film could fit this, if not for the century criteria.

      • Brian Lussier

        Yeah, I just mentioned Eyes Wide Shut because it was released just one year shy of qualifying for the list.

        • Joe Montoto

          I just don’t understand the enmity EYES WIDE SHUT gets. It’s wonderful. I can’t flip through channels without stopping if I see it’s playing.

    • trashmyego

      Eh, The Tree of Life was gorgeous, up until it failed itself with its final act. After one of the most conductive expressions of American childhood and family life mirrored by nature, I feel like it cheated everyone in the audience with its fairy tale fulfillment of a Christian afterlife. I’d put Melancholia on the list far before it. Either that or A Serious Man.

    • William Mceachern

      im surprised mr.nobody wasnt on the list.

      • Catalin Nicanov

        Yes, I agree. It’s my favorite movie!

  • FilmFanBoy

    Only god forgives?

    • El Mariachi

      Underrated one.
      Deserved to be in this list.

    • Lewis C

      Nah I am a massive Refn fan and dont consider myself in the slightest bit “a mainstream audience member” but the film was a total mess. The cinematography was stunning but the film just failed, yes I got what Refn was going for on the symbolism and meaning of the film but it just didnt come off well, for the most part. Some sequences were great but many of them were tedious. I like my films to have ideas and concepts but execution of the ideas is just as important.

      Also I would replace “Place beyond the Pines” with “Tree of Life” and probably swap “Shutter Island” with something else – most mainstream audience members and friends I know who saw that understood it pretty well.

  • marcel

    Thanks for this list! Loved a few of them. Gotta see about the others.

  • Bryton Cherrier

    Thank you for not putting Tree Of Life on the list.
    And while the title may be a bit pretentious, strongly agree with number one.

  • Xanian

    Really good list. 21 grams should have been here instead of Amores Perros. AP is too hamfisted with its symbolism while 21 grams is a little more nuanced. But that’s me.

    • António Mendes

      Amores Perros is hamfisted while 21 Grams is nuanced? Well, that’s a thing I never expected to hear coming out of anyone’s mouth.

      • Xanian

        I concede that you might be right. I watched 21 grams before AP, and there was quite a bit of gap in between them. So, yeah.

  • Robert Wright

    Synecdoche New York too smart? Maybe. Too depressing? Definitely.

    • Johnny Anderson

      This makes sense since the project initially began as a horror film, so Charlie Kaufman started writing about the aspects of life that frightened him the most: death, failure, loss, etc.


        Dead mans shoes

    • Joel Zachariah

      i personally feel its one of the best movies of the decade … its a shame it wasnt very well received …

  • Alex Simpson

    Having a desire for complexity does not equate to being smart, as exemplified by the second sentence of the Place Beyond The Pines piece.

  • Charles Barnes

    This is probably the worst list in the history of this website. How could David have allowed this publishing?

    Furthermore, you’ve gone ahead and claimed Cloud Atlas, The Fountain and Shutter Island were complex (let alone worthwhile and so I’m just going to have to go ahead and presume you have too much to learn to justify your publishing of a film list of any kind.

    • Johnny Anderson

      Film critic Roger Ebert praised the film for being “one of the most ambitious films ever made”, awarding the film four out of four stars. He wrote “Even as I was watching Cloud Atlas the first time, I knew I would need to see it again. Now that I’ve seen it the second time, I know I’d like to see it a third time … I think you will want to see this daring and visionary film … I was never, ever bored by Cloud Atlas. On my second viewing, I gave up any attempt to work out the logical connections between the segments, stories and characters.” He later listed the film among his best of the year.

      Glenn Kenny of Premiere wrote of the film, “The Fountain is probably the deftest stories-within-stories narrative film I’ve seen … By The Fountain ’s end, the multilayered meta-narrative… resolves (or does it?) into a kind of diegetic Möbius strip, to stunning effect.” Kenny called the film “as demanding as it is dazzling” and compared Aronofsky’s direction to Stanley Kubrick’s “in terms of conceptual audacity and meticulousness of execution.” He concluded, “It’s a movie that’s as deeply felt as it is imagined.

      Lawrence Toppman of The Charlotte Observer gave the film 4/4 stars claiming “After four decades, Martin Scorsese has earned the right to deliver a simple treatment of a simple theme with flair.” Writing for The Wall Street Journal, John Anderson highly praised the film, suggesting it “requires multiple viewings to be fully realized as a work of art. Its process is more important than its story, its structure more important than the almost perfunctory plot twists it perpetrates. It’s a thriller, a crime story and a tortured psychological parable about collective guilt.” Awarding the film 3½ stars out of 4, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote “the movie is about: atmosphere, ominous portents, the erosion of Teddy’s confidence and even his identity. It’s all done with flawless directorial command. Scorsese has fear to evoke, and he does it with many notes.”

      In conclusion, cinema is a subjective art form, so saying the writer has “too much to learn to justify your publishing of a film list of any kind” just because your taste in films does not match with every choice on the list is arrogant and illogical. If you do not agree with the choice of films on the list, offer what you would have chosen instead and provide some evidence rather than criticizing someone who took time to research and write about their chosen films.

      • Charles Barnes

        Well of course cinema is a subjective art form, just as areas relating to cinema criticism are subjective.

        In my subjective, personal, opinion (since clearly that’s what we all pretend to care about when something we love is under threat) those critics are wrong. They have fallen for the illusion of quality those films have, again ‘in my opinion’ posited.

        My initial comment was actually intended as one of those fabled subjective musings (without the apparently mandatory stating toward it being my opinion) too, actually. Only, you didn’t see it as that because you disagreed with it (thus you need clarification that my view is just an opinion, and, to you, the opposing viewpoint could emerge as the more valid if you argued hard enough).

        And research. What research? In today’s day and age, he didn’t even have to leave Rotten Tomatoes for his research. How am I supposed to be impressed with that? I did a similar list on polarising filmmakers (yet to be published on here) that deals with critical consensus heavily (obviously). I went through a similar process of analysing critics, opinions and the changing consensus regarding certain films. As someone who went through similar ‘research’, I can attest that it is not particularly difficult an ability.

        I hold the viewing process of seeing films as they are, from the ground up, as though they are on a mission, directed toward me, to argue their worth. I don’t reach different conclusions or opinions than what I normally would, it just gives me a frame of mind wherein it is easier to articulate my true feelings for it (and I pride authenticity and truth in one’s opinions more than the opinion itself sometimes). If a film appears to be promoting its filmmaker’s intellectual or technical filmmaking extraordinaire rather than the actual film’s substance, I usually deem it a failure, because therefore the film’s point is either inherently stupid or shallow, or the film’s potential point has been wildly avoided due to enormous creative ego.

        And that is just my opinion too.

        • Johnny Anderson

          If you view style over substance as a failure, your last post failed miserably.

          • Charles Barnes

            Actually, I do not automatically view style over substance as a failure. I never used that term whatsoever to describe how I felt toward those films.

            On the contrary, material typically deemed ‘style over substance’, crafted by men like de Palma and Argento, are among my favourites, and I loved Snyder’s rendition of Watchmen, a common name-drop during such discussions regarding 21st century work.

          • Johnny Anderson

            What didn’t you like about the three films you called out from the list? Just curious, I’m still not sold on Cloud Atlas, but I think The Fountain and Shutter Island are both impressive pieces of filmmaking that deal with deep, complex issues beneath their surface story lines.

          • Charles Barnes

            Cloud Atlas felt like a film more concerned with being considered important than exploring the sort of content that would allow it, through the hands of talented maestros, to be inherently significant and innovative in its thematic existence. We wind up with an artificial piece of shallow, pseudo intellectual epic filmmaking that is centred around revelatory ‘moments’ rather than consistent mediations upon its ideas. I firmly believe an attitude and ideology, wrongly imbued, can kill a film. This is one of the finest examples.

            The Fountain, frankly, could replace Cloud Atlas’ use in the preceding paragraph, although it was less dedicated to the cliche ‘powerful moments’ motif that infected the Wachowskis’ (and Twyker’s) exploration. I don’t consider a film’s message to be any kind of indicator toward its quality. Rather, the integration of the message (successfully) as imbued within the film’s artistic/technical success (along with whatever other means with which one attributes a title’s success) is what I primarily care about. The Fountain (Cloud Atlas too) contain narratives that feel secondary to (faux, from my perspective) intellectual, metaphysical pursuits. I found it forced, obvious, baiting, and ultimately shallow and self-important. (I am not overly fond of Aronofsky, if that makes my feelings any more understandable or ‘valid’.)

            Shutter Island contains a simplistic, one-note supernatural detective story, one that may as well have been written by Marty’s teenage son, presented through the lens of a filmmaking seething in gritty, mean-spirited realism. Scorsese is more adamant his film be considered frightening, atmospheric (and it is highly immersive in this regard, I admit) and, occasionally, emotionally flexible rather than letting his product’s quality (if any) speak for itself. I find it an overly-produced, uninteresting (especially in talking of its meagre content) and valueless piece of filmmaking. That being said, I would lean toward naming it a ‘mixed bag’ rather than an outright failure, as I would claim Cloud Atlas and The Fountain of.

      • Brian Lussier

        Roger Ebert is also the guy who initially gave 2 1/2 stars out of 4 to A Clockwork Orange and called Peter Jackson’s King Kong superior to his Lord Of The Rings trilogy, as well as awarding “two thumbs up” to both Charlie’s Angels movies, so I’d say he’s far from always being right.

        • Charles Barnes

          I feel as though calling Ebert the single greatest film critic of all time is a mistake. One of them? Sure, but to the extent wherein people treat his filmic opinions like gospel? That would be a thorough celebration of stupidity.

          The greatest (and highly admirable therefore) example of a film academic finding an audience appeal through an accessible writing style, persona, and a lack of scrutiny for mainstream properties? Certainly.

        • Johnny Anderson

          I did not mean to use Ebert specifically, I just quickly went to those films’ Wikipedia pages and copy/pasted the reviews that acknowledged them as brilliant, complex films. I do not even necessarily agree with all of those reviews, the only point I was trying to make with my post is that calling out a writer saying he has “too much to learn to justify publishing an article” just because you are not in agreement with a few choices on a list-based article is unwarranted and futile.

          • Brian Lussier


        • bourgeoisie scum

          Ebert, was prone to overrating films that agreed with his politics regardless of merit (especially in his latter years)

    • Matthew Allen


  • John Davidsson

    Great list! I’d add Ichi The killer, The tree of life & Antichrist

  • FlyteBro

    Anyone who claims Shutter Island is complex, is making an argument for their own stupidity. There were no clever twists, as everything was obvious from the getgo, and a bit insulting that the film went with the old “oh, the main character is chasing himself”-shtick, even after having spent two hours spoon-feeding you that this was what was going on. Just like the terribly patronizing Predestination, Shutter Island was a long trail through a maze that had been cut too low, and you could easily see over the walls and figure out where it would end.

    • HCHD

      Yep. Thought it was utterly lacking in complexity.

    • FlixtheCat

      Dead on analysis.

  • Vincenzo Politi

    Thank you so much for this list! Yesterday evening I watched “Enemy” and I liked it a lot. This evening I watched “Cloud Atlas” and I LOVED IT! How can people get confused and call it a mess of a movie is beyond me. A great celebration of freedom and human spirit. Thanks again.

  • vance9281

    I began to read the first review & got to this part of a sentence in the first paragraph: “…only share one scene together and one of them doesn’t even make it passed the first third of the film.”

    I stopped reading since the writer does not know the difference between “past” & “passed”. This is horrid and truly frightening.

  • Pavel Dumitrescu

    Great list! I’d also add The Tree of Life, Inland Empire and von Trier’s Depression Trilogy.

    • Ioana XC

      Couldn’t agree more. Especially Tree of Life & Melancholia

  • Anya

    This was so poorly written and unedited. It’s hard to take your opinion seriously when words are transposed. Oh, you want to be a screenwriter? Neat. Throw $20 at someone to edit your pieces for grammar and continuity.

  • Joel Zachariah

    guys Beyond the black rainbow ?? how could you miss it -_- ??!

  • Wild3rramaReturns

    No Vanilla Sky?

    Come on, it’s THE misunderstood brilliant complex movie of the 2000s

    • Vincenzo Politi

      Not if you already watched “Open your Eyes”, the Spanish movie of which “Vanilla Sky” is a disastrous and unnecessary Hollywood remake.

  • Rit Lokman

    Something about the movie “The Brothers Bloom” makes me feel good everytime I see it but I just can’t seem to place the eerie and sombre mood that’s apparent throughout it. Also, anybody see Wristcutters, that one needs to be here somewhere too. What about Francis Ford Coppola’s severely underrated film-noir “Tetro?”

  • Rit Lokman

    Also forgot “Rescue Dawn” by Werner Herzog. The criteria focuses too intently on movies for which people lack a certain patience in uncovering, whereas, there are movies that hide a profound depth in their meanings but effortlessly show it in plain sight. These are the movies that always make me feel good.

  • El Mariachi

    I didn’t like “Upstream Color” and “Under The Skin”. 🙁

    • Kari Kachinske Brandt

      I HATED Under the Skin. I don’t understand how so many people can like it.

  • Qwerty

    What about Drive with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan…that was underrated and a brilliant movie, especially the end scene.

  • Ioana XC

    Upstream Color, i died seeing it here!!! It’s such a beautiful different movie. So humane and smart, really smart and psychological. Watch this movie, because it’s something very particular.

  • Adam Jones

    Synecdoche, New York and The Master. So happy to find these on here! Probably could have put Birdman and The Tree of Life on here, but I Birdman kind of appeals to mainstream audiences…..

  • bulgrin

    Cloud Atlas was made by the Wachowskis AND Tom Tykwer!

  • vaguely
  • rapulliam2010

    Where is Tree of Life? A lot of these movies aren’t “complex”. They’re just ” bad” Fountain was trash, Cloud Atlas was trash and there was nothing hard to understand about Place Beyond the Pines. Where is Only God Forgives? Do you actually watch movies?

  • Rutam Goswami

    I thought films like Mr.Nobody would also be included.

    • Naresh Hegde Dodmari

      I second that… Also ‘Primer’ and ‘Inland Empire’ …

  • Lucas Charrier

    The Immigrant is not a complicated film in his narrative structure but it is a very underrated film that I hope will one day be seen as the masterpiece it is. So I think it coul be in that list. Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster was also very underrated, and it certainly was complex.

  • Aaron T. Starks

    I was hoping this wouldn’t devolve in the ever-pretentious “film aficionados” attitude of “we’re the only people smart and refined enough to enjoy these films” type of discussion. I simply can’t stand snobbery and film snobbery is one of the most maddeningly annoying.

    A lot of these films aren’t “complex” but confusing blobs of uninteresting storytelling while some are just good movies that aren’t complex at all. You just can’t pick a bunch of smaller, character-driven movies that most people haven’t seen and call them “complex”.

    That being said, the two films on the list I enjoyed the most was The Fountain and Cloud Atlas. I’ve had The Master on blu-ray for a while and have yet to watch it, but I like all of Anderson’s other films so…

  • Stirling Myles

    Love the list. Sadly, to me, Synecdoche, New York was one of the most pretentious movies I’ve ever seen. Love everyone involved in the film, so it was a shame to see everything blown way out of proportion.

    • Dave

      It was beyond pretentious and devolved into whiney self-indulgence

  • Ian Agoncillo

    cloud atlas..i don’t think the movie did the book justice…it’s visually spectacular, but the movie, sad to say, had whittled the book down to its mainstream parts with the gimmick…

  • Pedro Enrique Casique Duran

    Melancholy. ….

  • squint9

    Saw #9: Goofy IMHO. Lots of wandering for no apparent reason. Ending, well, goofy as well. Was going to see #12 until I read the parental warnings; to be honest, that kind of “reality” is just plain garbage and I keep it out of my head. If that is the new smart, I’m fine with the old smart. The rest just aren’t on my film preferences radar.

  • haha ok

    AY Lynchian is NOT an adverb you shit-stick. What gives you the right!? Anyway cool list. Mostly. Not a big fan of David Mitchel or Cloud Atlas, though. (WOW all the stories are like interconnected symbolically by a BIRTH MARK??? Shut up, David Mitchel.)

  • Unkle Amon

    “Too smart for mainstream audiences” Shutter island, really?

    • Bill Thompson

      I thought the same thing. That must mean you and I are smarter than the author of this article.

      • Unkle Amon


    • Ioadum

      My unpopular opinion is that shutter island is crap disguised as brilliant mind games and guess what? It got so popular precisely among mainstream audiences.
      I’m aware I phrased it in kind of an offensive manner and I don’t mean to troll, but come on… if Shutter Island didn’t appeal to the mainstream, I don’t know what does.
      #186 on imdb, what more to say.

      • Unkle Amon


      • Pica Lima


  • Hatim Jaffal


  • Bill Thompson

    Filmmaking is art, and it’s storytelling.

    Your art can be whatever you want and some people might like it and others might not. There is no smart art. You are placing a definitive value on art. Each individual decides the value of each piece of art.

    With storytelling, you have an objective to communicate. Communication. You want your audience to go on your journey and have them follow you. They need to understand the story you are telling them. If they have to watch/read/listen to your story two or three times to understand what the story is, you haven’t been an effective storyteller.

    But that might be part of your art, a choice you made. Maybe you made a choice to tell a story that people won’t understand after one viewing. Some people like that art and others do not. If most people don’t like it but you do, that does not mean you are smarter. That means you enjoy that art.

  • Livergirl

    Mind Walk

    • Cygnifier

      1990, not 21st century. Compelling film though!

  • Akash Mohimen

    Cloud Atlas has a 3rd director, Tom Tykwer who has himself made two mind numbing films like Run Lola Run and Perfume. It would do you well to mention his name in the list.

    • kinch’s edge

      Can’t speak for Perfume, but I wouldn’t say Run Lola Run was “too smart”; in fact, I’d argue that its status as a foreign import is the only reason it was lumped in with the arthouse. The film it took its structure from, Blind Chance, will always be superior for me.

      • Akash Mohimen

        That’s a fair opinion. But my point is the author of the article should have mentioned Tom Tykwer in the name. It’s rather unfair because he directed 2 of the 6 stories in Cloud Atlas. The author is showing partiality towards Hollywood filmmakers.

  • Ted Wolf

    I think mainstream audiences are smarter than most people will give them credit. Siskel and Ebert really proved that in the 1970’s and 1980’s when, just by championing some really strong albeit complex movies, those films became commercial successes. That being said I’m not sure that Shutter Island qualifies in any way as complex.. The twist was telegraphed early on. I found it very much like one of the EC comic books i used to read as a child, like Tales From The Crypt. Also other movies while complex, were also uninteresting to me.

  • Abhishek

    where is Coherence?

  • Aadesh Puthran


    • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

      Great, smart film. But I don’t think it would fit on this list because it did great numbers at the box office, which means it was actually a hit with mainstream audiences.

  • Telast

    Yeah, this list looks as if it were written by a film student. The Fountain was great. Cloud Atlas was garbage. But you know what they say: art takes time; shit takes forever.

  • Alexandra Jones

    “Lynchian” is an adjective.

  • Radu Ungureanu

    Complex does not equal smart. In fact Einstein said that if you can’t explain something simply then you didn’t understand it. The so called ‘complexity’ is in fact the incapacity of the director to make a coherent movie and to showcase complex and thought provoking ideas in an accessible manner.

  • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

    Loved the list.
    One quick thing: by Mexican and international standards, AMORES PERROS did quite well. Critically, on the box office and during awards season.
    I don’t know if it fits well with the rest of the list being that it did receive a warm welcome from almost everyone.
    But still, nice to see it amongst so many other smart films.

  • Hernan Paz

    Interesting list. I loved The Fountain and I still find it hard to believe that the film isn’t widely appreciated (same with The Master). I think that Tree of Life and Melancholia are obvious choices for the list. I would also like to mention some indie films like The Trotsky, Coherence, and the Argentinian cult classic El Aura. And what about Z For Zachariah? I think it’s quite an interesting allegorical film.

  • Vian Ruiz Üs

    I think that Only God Forgives could be on this list

  • Dave

    My biggest problem with Cloud Atlas is that I thought it was completely miscast. But your argument seems to make the case that some books would fare better with television serialization than a straight up film.

  • prudhvi eluri

    what about all david lynch films, dog tooth, enter the void, 81/2 , the mirror, upstream color, primer, rashomon and few indian films like (admi ki aurat unki kahani, love sex aur dokha , the girl in the yellow boots, gandu,)

  • Claireday

    Synecdoche, New York –
    Charlie Kaufmann.

  • Daniela R. Guardado

    What about The tree of life and Holy Motors?

  • ttt

    what about the “movie about a guy in the boat” called Life Of Pi or Antichrist ??

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    What a list..May I add The Partisan?

  • Darren

    Your No.1 choice is amazing, but overall being too ‘smart’ does not equate to being too ‘good’

  • Raphael Bruckner

    A Most Wanted Man, all three of the Matrix movies…….

  • Jeff Jordan

    Predestination was fine too…

  • Steven Hall

    Actually, I’m too smart for The Fountain.

  • Raphael Bruckner

    Cloud Atlas and The Fountain should have been at the top of the list

  • Ted Wolf

    I can’t get behind this list. Most of these were complex movies. Not all. Some of these were really good. Not all.

  • Predestination?