Most movies labor under a strict three-act structure that is almost never deviated from in mainstream cinema. The following includes movies that either attempted to re-invent the narrative structure wheel; or followed traditional structure while still managing to confound through surrealism, non sequitur, or just plain weirdness.
Some films require multiple viewings for audiences to even begin to grasp their profundity while others don’t need to be understood, only experienced.
30. Mr. Nobody – Jaco Van Dormael
Jared Leto plays Nemo Nobody, the oldest human on an Earth filled with immortals. Nemo recounts his 118 year life with a psychiatrist and a journalist, both eager and curious about life before immortality. The story unfolds as the unreliable narrator Nemo describes numerous parallels lives that he lived; none of which anyone can extrapolate as the truth.
Mr. Nobody has one of the most complex plots ever conceived, far more intricate than similar parallel-reality movies like Run Lola Run and Sliding Doors. There are also profound philosophical ideas involving quantum theory, “the butterfly effect”, and chaos theory. At its core, Mr. Nobody is an intensely elaborate epic that, while confusing, is never less than fascinating if you’re into thought-provoking science fiction.
29. Kontroll – Nimrod Antal
Kontroll follows a dystopian future where the mostly subterranean population rides on rickety subways controlled by insane ticket takers that insist people always buy tickets, but likewise admit they hardly ever check to see if travelers have one.
The movie is an impressive feat considering how effortlessly it juggles comedy, horror, and just plain weirdness into a truly singular vision from then first-time director Nimrod Antal. Kontroll belongs on any list of strange, complex, and disturbing films.
28. ExistenZ – David Cronenberg
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller, a famous videogame designer whose newest virtual reality game requires its users to attach an umbilical cord-like device into their body. During a focus group showcasing the new technology, there is an assassination attempt on Allegra but she survives and is escorted to safety by Ted Pikul played by Jude Law. After winning her trust, Allegra convinces Ted to delve into the virtual world in tandem with her to test the system’s efficacy.
At first glance, ExistenZ may appear to be something like The Matrix’s creepier; body-horror obsessed little brother. While one might find thematic similarities between these two films about virtual worlds, Cronenberg really went for a more psychological approach with this story. The characters in ExistenZ have an intimate, biological relationship with their virtual reality that manifests subconscious tendencies during the player’s experience… thought provoking stuff.
The deeper Ted and Allegra journey into this “reality” the less the audience can be sure of what is real and what isn’t, or for that matter, what they’re capable of controlling as opposed to what their combined subconscious intentions might be taking over. ExistenZ starts on flat footing and completely pulls the rug out from under you.
27. Pi – Darren Aronofsky
The debut film from Darren Aronofsky follows Max Cohen, a number theorist who suffers from crippling headaches and an insatiable need to understand everything in the world through numbers. As Max is in the midst of a watershed finding involving patterns in the stock market, his world begins to fall apart. Shadowy corporate entities and Hasidic Jews close in on Max, deeply interested in his new discovery and willing to do anything to get him on their side.
Originally released in 1998 to wide critical acclaim, Pi straddles the line between surrealism and psychological thriller as its protagonist descends deeper into madness. The plot framework is not difficult to grasp, but thematically Pi is a mystery. Why does Max have headaches? What is that growth on his skull? Why are there ants crawling all over his computer? These questions among others are never answered, which is why Pi is one of the most confusing films ever.
26. 12 Monkeys – Terry Gilliam
Bruce Willis plays a prisoner from a dystopian future who is sent back in time to gather information about a virus that is destined to wipe out almost all of humanity. Meanwhile, Willis’ character is plagued by visions/dreams of a violent airport shooting. The film is based on the groundbreaking 1962 French film La jetée.
While both Twelve Monkeys and La jetée do hold thematic and narrative similarities, they’re wildly different in style, as jetée is told only through still photographic images. Director Terry Gilliam infuses Twelve Monkeys with a dark and whimsical atmosphere that feels markedly more grungy than his previous dystopian masterpiece “Brazil.”
This movie is insanely confusing; chiefly because of the constant shifting of time periods, locals, and characters. Nonetheless, Twelve Monkeys manages to pack a lot of ideas and themes into its two hours. It’s imaginative, thought-provoking science fiction, and one of the most confusing films of all time.
25. Coherence – James Ward Byrkit
Six friends meet up for a dinner party on the occasion of a rare comet passing. They begin with completely normal commiseration until their cell phones lose power, and shortly after the entire house goes dark. Circumstances get stranger as two of the men leave to check if the neighbors lost phone reception too, instead they discover a box on the front porch left for them. Inside of the box are pictures of the six friends and numbers written on the back.
The six friends realize that every house in the neighborhood is identical to theirs (as are its inhabitants.) Soon the once average evening turns into a nightmare of paranoia and confusion, and the friends are pitted against each other (and themselves) in a desperate fight to survive.
Coherence is a rare cerebral science fiction film that does not use special effects or massive production values to remain interesting. The story explores how the convergence of parallel universes would demonstrate the fragility of our sense of identity. While Coherence is confusing, it never feels as though you’re not in the hands of an expert storyteller. One could easily find themselves contemplating the numerous philosophical questions posed in this film for days afterward.
24. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Thomas Alfredson
Based on the novel by John Le Carre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy tells the story of British intelligence officials as they work to root out a Soviet double agent in their midst. Alfredson and crew do an expert job honing the dense book material into a 2 hour movie, however Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still a horrifically difficult maze to decipher.
That said, with enough concentration the narrative will congeal… maybe… after two or three viewings. If you’re in the mood for a British Intelligence story that’s not of the James Bond persuasion; rent this movie, have one or two or ten shots of espresso and enjoy one the most confusing movies of all time.
23. Memento – Christopher Nolan
In 2000, Christopher Nolan burst into mainstream cinema with his sophmore film Memento. Guy Pierce plays Lenny, a man who suffers from short term memory loss after an attack that resulted in the death of his wife. Now Lenny, armed with intricate notes, body tattoos, and his thirst for revenge scours the streets for his wife’s murderer.
What makes Memento confusing is that in the first viewing especially, one might not be aware of Memento’s reverse-order storytelling. It works its way from the end to the front through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards until we meet Lenny’s destiny. The structure works great in putting the audience into Lenny’s ever diminishing state of mind. It’s a maddening effort to piece together but nevertheless Memento remains a modern masterpiece.
22. Synecdoche New York – Charlie Kaufmann
Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard, a theater director whose ambitious new play requires him to built a miniature replica of New York City inside of a warehouse. As the years go by, and the production becomes more and more complex, the lines between reality and fiction blur.
This film is an overwhelming experience, perhaps one of the best efforts in cinema history to illustrate how feeble and insular the individual human experience really is. It would be nearly impossible to unpack all the loaded images and thematic elements in one viewing of this masterpiece, but if you’ve yet to see Synecdoche New York watch it immediately if you like the feeling of your brain overheating.
21. Only God Forgives – Nicholas Winding Refn
Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an expatriate living in the seedy underbelly of Bangkok Thailand. When Julian’s brother Billy kills an underage prostitute, he’s immediately captured by the police and then killed by the girl’s father. When Julian’s mother arrives to identify Billy’s corpse, she demands Julian enact vengeance against his brother’s killer.
Nicholas Refn has never shied away from controversial subject matter in his films. Only God Forgives might be his most violent, disturbing work to date. The most interesting thing about this film is its complete disregard for narrative cohesiveness. Nothing the characters do or say makes any sense, nor does the strange, incestuous nature of Julian and his mother’s relationship.
The whole thing exists as more a fantasy story than anything else. As one critic wrote “The film’s characters are non-people; the things they say to each other are non-conversations, the events they enact are non-drama.” Even so, Only God Forgives is definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of Refn’s previous work.