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The 30 Most Confusing Movies In Cinema History

06 October 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Kent Reason

The Holy Mountain

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

Mr Nobody

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

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

eXistenZ

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

pi-1998

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

12 monkeys

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

Coherence

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

tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-review

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

memento

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

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

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

only-god-forgives-ryan-gosling

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.

 

 

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  • Mullholland Drive?

    • Unkle Amon

      Lost Highway will do the trick.

    • MICHAEL MILLARD

      That was my response. How could Mulholland Drive not make this list?

  • Xanian

    Good list. Cloud Atlas and Coherence have no business being on this list though. They were not confusing in the least, and this is not some stupid braggadocio. Both these movies were plain and meant to be understood easily. They could have been replaced by much better films.

    • Rudi

      Cloud Atlas continiously jumps back and forth between six time periods and deals with characters reborn into several bodies. A quick search on Google learns there are complete maps explaining how the puzzle works. It’s probably the most confusing (and the greatest) movie in this list.

      • Xanian

        You’re actually telling me that Cloud Atlas is a greater film than Paprika, Synecdoche New York, Under the Skin, Satyricon, Holy Motors, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Holy Mountain or the Mirror? Surely you’re joking?

      • George Georges

        That doesn’t make the story complicated, it’s all perfectly explained in the real book story, The Wachovskis version is just a stunning visual achievement but doesn’t do much in terms of story, the novel actually has a sense of closure.

    • William Bernard Freeman Pogrun

      I can relate your point for cloud atlas, althought it’s a great piece of film making, For coherence, well I was realy confuse untill the plot began to unfold, and even there, well I realy couldn’t tell where it would lead.

  • sirnaber
  • Grunge

    Memento wasnt confusing.. Maybe in the beginning but once you get the flow of the story, which is backward story telling, you eventually get it. It is in fact one of my favorite movies for its unique approach.

    • Harshit Harlalka

      Watch Following

  • Lynn Kitty Frey

    The Matrix Trilogy was directed by the Wachowskis. Not the Wachowski “brothers”. Fix your shit, author.

    • Rudi

      Actually it WAS directed by the Wachowski brothers. She officially became Lana after the release of Speed Racer, so during The Matrix trilogy she was still a man.

      The author also seems to understand this, since he doesn’t refer to the brothers in the Cloud Atlas entry.

      • Lynn Kitty Frey

        Trans women are always women. Invalidating little shits like you keep them from coming out of the closet.

        • Rudi

          Consider this discussion closed. I don’t argue with keyboard heroes.

        • CAPSLOCKMAN

          HOLY SHIT, HE JUST SAID BRO THE DURING THE TIME THEY ADVERTISED THEMSELVES AS THAT. STOP BEING SUCH A LOSER

        • Jacob Lyon Goddard

          Well you’re certainly winning hearts and changing minds with your sunny disposition.

          • Melinda Beil

            Widdle Miss Kitty seems a widdle upset. :/

        • Melinda Beil

          Why u so butthurt, bro?

  • Dagarar

    Come on! The End Of Evangelion. What do you have againt Hideaki Anno?

  • David Borja

    3 Women by Robert Altman has to be in the list.

    • Steve O’Rourke

      I’d substitute Altman’s Quintet (1979).

    • williamdais

      Love that film. Hypnotic and surreal! Good call.

  • Ana Claudia Praconi Rodrigues

    Tree of Life and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives are the most confusing ones, for me at least. 🙂

    • Chelsey Lee Bishop

      Tree of Life…definitely confusing!!

  • Stephen Romano

    The Fountain, in a beautiful way

    • kreason

      I love The Fountain! Do you think it’s more confusing/enigmatic than Pi though?

  • News Nayr

    Last Year at Marienbad???

    • Fernando Arenas

      That one takes the prize. By far.

    • kreason

      Haven’t heard of it until now, but will definitely check it out. Thanks!

    • Reckoner

      Definitely, but that’s the beauty about this film

  • Luis Miguel

    what about Zardoz?

  • NGboo

    Interesting list, even though I’d never put Cloud Atlas this high. Also, there should be more Japanese titles, such as Izo, Neji-shiki, Dogra Magra or some film by Shuji Terayama…

  • Andy Kubica

    Any David Lynch especially Eraserhead!

  • Sinan Yassen

    stay

  • Ivan Rokošný

    oh come on. Eraserhead?!

  • Jacob Lyon Goddard

    Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Sweet Movie, The Monkee’s Head.

  • Klaus Dannick

    Persona and its drug-informed counterpart Performance are missing. I don’t find Pi or Twelve Monkeys particularly confusing (in fact, Gilliam’s Brazil seems a better fit than Twelve Monkeys). A better descriptive term for the films on this list might be “enigmatic” rather than “confusing”; and Peter Greenaway’s films (like Zoo and Prospero’s Books) are conspicuously absent as well. Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing should be here as well.

    • William Bernard Freeman Pogrun

      I agree On Brazil, I would even find The Adventures of Baron Munchausen or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus more confusing than this one.

    • kreason

      Haven’t seen Zoo or Prospero’s Books yet. Kinda wish I would’ve made room for “The Pillow Book” by Greenaway though. Oh well.

      • Klaus Dannick

        The Pillow Book ia a great film, but it’s a rather straightforward narrative next to Zoo (original title: “A Zed and Two Noughts”), and Prospero’s Books is less of a narrative than it is an impression of a setting in which narratives may occur.

  • RiSky RahmaLia Sofyan

    Every aspect of The Room left me dumbfounded.

  • Klaus Dannick

    Oh, and Apocalypse Now.

  • Melinda Beil

    “Look Who’s Talking 2” was very confusing. Also “Pubert, the Magic Anal Troll” was confusing to me.

  • mohragk

    What about Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’?

  • The Master

  • ELBSeattle

    ‘Under the Skin’ wins the award for Worst Screen Adaptation Ever.

    EVER.

  • Harris K Telemacher

    Nice list. Although neither 12 Monkeys nor Memento are confusing, just complex. And The Matrix trilogy was confusing by accident. I don’t think they belong here.

  • Speaking of Lynch—where’s “Mulholland Drive”?!
    A spectacular, hypnotizing masterpiece (which leaves one feeling as if they need Cliff Notes to view it)!

  • What is more confusing and mind-bending than Eraserhead?

  • Gökhan A.
  • Akshay chandra

    trash humpers ?

  • Charlemagne

    Stay (2005) is the most confusing movie i have watched. I still have no clue what was going on there for real.

  • Maia Jintcharadze

    Wicker Park (2004)

  • williamdais

    2001: A Space Odyssey? Really?
    Right on target with Holy Mountain, Holy Motors and Lynch’s utterly self indulgent Inland Empire. Thanks for mentioning one I’d never heard of: Hausu. I look forward to tracking it down and getting befuddled.

  • Joe Montoto

    ERASERHEAD and EYES WIDE SHUT

    • royal nass

      what is so confusing about eyes wide shut?

      • Joe Montoto

        Well, for instance, what’s real and what’s a dream? Where exactly in the movie’s timeline does the dream begin?

        What are the meanings of the character and location names (Nick Nightingale, Over The Rainbow Shoppe)?

  • Dimitri Poenaru

    Lol. Mulholland Drive. Also Vertigo and Persona.

  • Agnimitra Sharma

    I believe Inland Empire is as simple & funny as it gets if you understand it..
    It’s about how we all are busy vomiting our own stories while no one is hearing none.
    It’s a comment on how we all are trying to understand & make sense of this rather meaningless world by constantly telling rather meaningless stories that fit our narrative but always failing to hear that everyone else has got the same amount of stories which are equally meaningless..

    Oh god, I hope it made sense.

  • Dr. M. Renoir

    Why is “Last Year at Marienbad” not on this list?

  • Spacehead2000

    Predestination?

  • Lag00n

    ‘Brazil’ or ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ by Terry Gilliam should’ve been closer than ’12 Monkeys’.
    Barton Fink by Coen Brothers,
    2046 (2004) Kar-wai Wong.
    and Un Chien Andalou (1929)?

    • royal nass

      there is nothing confusing about fear and loathing in las vegas. the movie is pretty straight forward. just because somebody is using drugs in a movie does not making it confusing neither is barton fink. barton fink is not confusing its just boring and sort of sucks as a movie

      • Lag00n

        Thanks for the recommendation nass, I’ve already watched most of his work (David Lynch) including his short films and you’re pretty much right about fear and loathing too, I never considered it confusing because of drugs but that’s my point of view.
        But i don’t understand why you said “Barton Fink sucks as a movie.”?
        Is there something specific you want to share?

        • royal nass

          i just thought barton fink was boring for the most part

    • royal nass

      watch some david lynch movies then you will see confusing and you will it difficult to follow the movie. recommend eraserhead, lost highway, blue velvet, inland empire

  • Douglas Couto

    Larry Wachowski and Lana Wachowski are the same person.

    • Andrew Morris

      They probably meant lana and lily

  • Denny

    I really must have a knack for understanding and following non-linear and fairly non-narrative types of films, because I don’t find any of the films on the list confusing or hard to follow.

  • João Aquino

    How could you do this list without any Adam Sandler’s movie?

    • jamesmerendino

      lol

  • corvus coraX

    Gummo?

    • Daniele Concina

      All of Korine movies to be honest

  • Jerzy Tyszkiewicz

    southland tales…

  • Before I watched Inland Empire, a friend of mine described it as, “Really good, up until the last hour which consists of a continuous shot looking out from the front of a boat on a lake at night”. I love weird movies but that sounded just plain bad so I avoided it for several years. Then I broke down and watched it and kept waiting and waiting for the boat scene…

  • royal nass

    when i watched blue velvet by david lynch i got confused after he found the severed ear on the ground. i asked myself how the heck did the character know which apartment to do some investigating in?

    lost highway is just one big ball of confusion and lack of a plot. some of david lynch movies just suck and lost highway is one of them but although blue velvet was a little bit confusing it was still a good movie and worth checking it out