The human mind is a peculiar and fascinating thing. Inside one’s head, the possibilities and capabilities are interminable, and this begs the question of whether it will ever be possible for science to truly understand everything that goes on inside with complete and utter illumination.
Perhaps the only thing more intriguing than the human mind itself, is how this organ and its behaviour is depicted in film. Characters with damaged memories have long been favourite picks for a variety of movies across the world of cinema.
After all, to lose one’s memory is to lose oneself as a person, and this potential for (re)discovery of a past life offers all kinds of potential for exciting cinematic viewing. To align an audience with a similarly unsuspecting protagonist is smart filmmaking – and helps to merge that space between screen and viewer, splicing the two entities together to create the best possible cinematic experience.
Film is perhaps the most appropriate medium to regenerate and project sensations experienced by the human mind; rekindling the sort of lurid imagery and flashes of memory that otherwise occur only in our heads.
Recalling a recent dream or nightmare with accuracy is somewhat impossible to accomplish through vocal articulation, and difficult through written word. But through use of inventive editing sequences and imaginative imagery, cinema is able to beam up the kind of sights and sounds that otherwise exclusively reside inside our minds with incredible accuracy.
This list depicts 10 very different films that consider the notion of human memory and make an examination of the human mind. Composed of a variety of classics, a couple of hidden gems, and some films that achieved somewhat middling commercial success – each movie has something a little different to offer, and every single one of them is worth your time.
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
Charlie Kaufman remains one of the most intelligent and skilled screenplay writers in the world of movies, and his characteristically multi-layered script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remains one of his very best contributions to cinema yet.
Kauffman’s bright idea here is Lacuna Incorporated: a company who are able to localise the memories of former lovers in patients’ brains and erase them forever in order to ease the pain of heartache.
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as Joel and Clementine – two such lovers who seek out the experimental treatment – and much of the movie appears to take place in Joel’s mind whilst he undergoes treatment. During the process, Joel tries to hide Clementine away from the erasing procedure by hiding her in the far corners of his mind.
An enthralling examination of how the mind handles the emotion of love and gut-wrenching sensation of heartbreak, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an intellectual look at the concept selective and unselective memory.
Directed with venerable control and just the right amount of razzle-dazzle from Michael Gondry, the movie avoids becoming convoluted and flies right for its duration, offering glowing displays across the board from Carrey and Winslet, as well as fine selection of supporting players that include Elijah Woods and Tom Wilkinson.
9. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
A blank-faced Guy Pearce propels forward a heart-pounding memory-muddle movie in Memento: a narratively complex thriller told with the sort of confidence and coherence that has come to act as director Christopher Nolan’s very own watermark.
The movie portrays Leonard Shelby (Pearce), a man who witnessed his wife get brutally murdered but seems to recall nothing after that incident. Waking up every day with a blank memory, he snaps Polaroid pictures and gets tattoos scrawled across his skin so to remind him of what step he needs to take next to catch the person who destroyed his life.
Telling a story in reverse can throw up all kinds of roadblocks, but Memento is shot with the typically enthralling narrative gusto that Christopher Nolan seems to inject into each and every one of his projects.
The movie is made up of boundless energy despite heading backwards, offering a very different kind of puzzle to solve by aligning us with an untrustworthy and genuinely perplexed protagonist. Thrilling and engrossing from start to finish, Memento remains a fine piece of cinematic mind-work that offers a whole new interpretation on the aspect of “being whoever you want to be” in life.
8. Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945)
The facet of fragmented memory and amnesia act as perfect ammo for a suspenseful, mysterious thriller film, and there was no man more fascinated by this genre than director Alfred Hitchcock. The acclaimed British filmmaker thrived on creating characters that were never quite who they appeared to be on the surface, and Dr Anthony Edwardes in his 1945 feature Spellbound is a prime example.
Played rivetingly by Gregory Peck, Dr Edwardes – a brand new employee at a mental asylum in Vermont – is exposed as an imposter by his colleague Dr Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), who subsequently questions Edwardes about who he really is. Edwardes claims that he cannot remember, and after the authorities get hold of information that the real Dr Edwardes may have been murdered, Peck’s imposter character is forced to flee.
Spellbound proceeds to lead into analysis of suppressed memory, as Dr Peterson attempts to use her skills acquired in the mental asylum to unlock the mind of the imposter and reveal who he truly is. Including a dream sequence fashioned by no other than the pioneering surrealist Salvador Dali himself, Spellbound is a tense and thrilling adventure into the mysteries that lie within the depths of the human mind.
The movie is typical Hitchcock from beginning to end, and remains one of his finest suspense pieces across a long and fruitful career in filmmaking that generated some of the best films to ever beam out from the big screen.
7. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
The mind’s ability to bury disturbing memories into the subconscious in order to protect itself from trauma is a fascinating trait that’s worthy of intense cinematic portrayal and investigation. Waltz With Bashir explores this aspect of psychological repression first-hand, with director Ali Folman filming his own attempts to recapture lost memories of his time in the Israel Defence Forces during the Lebanon War in 1982.
If the intriguing, self-assessing documentary concept of Waltz with Bashir doesn’t seem enough to tempt you, then the glossy comic-book style animation of the movie will surely reel you in instead. A feast for the eyes that haunts the mind, Folman’s production style allows the director to take sharp turns into more surrealistic images that can be conjured up by the brain, all-the-while remaining in the investigative documentary genre.
Much like the condition of psychological repression, everything about Waltz with Bashir is incredibly unusual, but completely captivating nonetheless. Folman eventually makes discoveries about his buried past which do indeed turn out to be disturbing, forcing him to re-examine himself as a person right there on the screen in glorious, animated form.
Waltz with Bashir is an invigorating look at cinema’s capability as medium to recoup and reproduce images that might otherwise have been lost forever in the far corners of the mind, and deserves and demands to be seen by all.
6. Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942)
Adapted from the classic James Hilton novel in 1942, Random Harvest tells the tale of a former British soldier (Ronald Colman) a man whose mind has been scrambled after being subjected to horrific torture during WWI. After wandering away from his prescribed mental asylum he encounters singer Paula (Greer Garson) in a nearby town, with whom he eventually falls in love with and marries.
After being struck by a vehicle, Colman’s memory from before the war is somewhat restored, leading to a perplexing saga of strange revelations as he attempts to piece his life back together. Random Harvest takes endless amounts of twists and turns as Colman’s character proceeds to scratch his brain and jog his memory, and all the while his wife Paula attempts to win and retain his affection once again.
Random Harvest is a tender love and heartbreak movie interwoven with crippling memory loss. Considered by many to be a seminal amnesia movie that inspired classic identity crisis pictures in later years, it’s one of the more moving films about the human mind and emotion that you’re ever likely to see. It remains worthy of the many plaudits it received upon its original release, and is also deserving of the fondness that so many critics regard it with in the modern day.