20. Upstream Color – Shane Carruth
Writer and director Shane Carruth’s sophomore film is about two people who, after being infected by a parasite lose countless memories and their sense of identity. While clamoring to rebuild their broken lives, they begin to inexplicably remember each other’s histories as their own. Eventually everything leads back to a pig farm where they find records of other people who’ve been similarly affected. They send out copies of a text by Walden to summon all these individuals to the pig farm.
Upstream Color is markedly different from Carruth’s “Primer” in both aesthetics and story. In this film the cinematography is gorgeous, reminiscent of some of the more recent work of Terrence Malick. The narrative is interesting on paper, but nearly impossible to follow on screen. However Carruth has said that like Primer, everything one needs to understand Upstream Color is there for attentive viewers who’re up for the task.
19. Donnie Darko – Richard Kelly
Donnie Darko is a genre-defying cult classic that forever changed the reputation of demonic bunny suits. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie Darko, a teenager with severe mental issues. Donnie has sleep-walking spells where he’s beckoned by Frank (creepy demonic bunny man) to do things (acts of vandalism etc.) Frank tells Donnie that soon the world will end, and thus begins the countdown to Donnie’s demise.
Richard Kelly’s debut film is a true original, even if it’s a bit on the confusing side in the latter half of the story. The writing is tight, the music is fitting, and the acting is solid all around; especially from Gyllenhaal who completely embodies Darko with just the right amount of teenage angst without coming off as irritating. Patrick Swayze is great as well, as the teen motivational speaker/child porn aficionado. Donnie Darko might elude you the first trip you take into its confounding, dark, deliriously funny world.
18. Lost Highway – David Lynch
Bill Pullman is a saxophone musician who’s convicted of killing his wife and sentenced to die. Before his execution he changes into a different person entirely: Pete Dayton, played by Charlie Sheen doppelganger Balthazar Getty. Pete is released from prison and finds himself in a relationship with Bill Pullman’s “dead” wife (Patricia Arquette.)
Lost Highway, like all of Lynch’s strangest films is an overwhelming labyrinth of parallel universes and bizarre characters. Lynch himself said Highway is part of the same universe as the equally strange “Twin Peaks.” With this frame of reference one can feebly extrapolate some kind of logic out of the plot.
However, one could argue with this film (along with Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire) there’s a strong emphasis on what the viewer can figure out intuitively rather than logically. It’s confusing as heck and nightmarish in tone, particularly the scenes featuring Robert Blake’s creepy character “Mystery Man.” You may not understand the road Lost Highway takes you down, but it’s undoubtedly a cinematic journey like no other.
17. Hukkle – Gyorgy Palfi
In a quaint village in Hungary, an old man with a case of insatiable hiccups sits outside his house and watches the towns inhabitants. Hukkle is the first film from Gyorgy Palfi, who gained notoriety for his disturbing and strangely funny sophomore movie “Taxidermia.” In Hukkle, one can see the emergence of an interesting new voice in cinema.
This work has literally no plot whatsoever. The seemingly meaningless actions of the townspeople perplexes from the beginning. Why are we watching a cat get poisoned and die? Why are we watching two men watch with radiant happiness at their pigs copulating? Why does the old man have hiccups? The film is brim with these bizarre mysteries. If experimental narrative is your cup of tea, check out Hukkle. It’s unlike anything else out there.
16. Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer directs this cryptic but endlessly fascinating film starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress who prowls the streets of Scotland for horny young males, only to take them back to her lair and submerge them in a viscous black liquid for unknown purposes. Upon meeting a severely deformed man during her “hunt,” she’s overcome for the first time with a sense of remorse for the man. This experience moves Johansson’s alien to become curious what it’s like to live as a human being.
This is a particularly hard film to pin down. Because of the highly interpretive nature of the disturbing otherworldly images and mostly unknown character motivations, Under The Skin will alienate audiences that need everything spelled out to them. This movie is something to experience, not necessarily understand. The true power of this masterpiece might elude until the strange and deeply moving climax. It’s must-see science fiction, and one of the most confusing films of all time.
15. Paprika – Satoshi Kon
A revolutionary new machine allows therapists to view the dreams of their patients. Soon the entire fabric of reality is pulling apart at the seams as characters begin entering each other’s dreams. Paprika is wildly original and beautifully animated. It’s also quite a dizzying mind trip, one that can easily lose you in its own logical inconsistencies.
The movie never bothers with explaining the rules of its world, and arguably the audience suffers for it. Then again, in a movie that takes place in surreal dreamscapes, logic be damned! It’s worth a watch if you’re into trippy animation or maddeningly confounding storylines. Paprika has both in excess.
14. The Matrix Trilogy – The Wachowski Brothers
Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, and Hugo Weaving star in three science fiction films that will forever inspire thrills, thought, disappointment, and sometimes all-out confusion. This seminal trilogy starts off straight forward enough in its first film, and manages to completely fly off the rails in its second and third installments. How did Agent Smith escape the Matrix? How did he possess the body of hacker Bane in the real world? Why did the Oracle lie to Neo about being “the one?”
These questions are never answered, and yet beneath the heavy special effects and seemingly never-ending fight scenes, the philosophical ideas in The Matrix are worth pondering even if we never understand what the hell really happened at the end.
13. Fellini Satyricon – Federico Fellini
Fellini Satyricon is iconic Italian director Federico Fellini’s take on Petronius’s “Satyricon” a book written in ancient Rome during the reign of Nero. This is hands down the most experimental and all around bonkers film in Fellini’s impressive resume. The episodic structure of Satyricon, coupled with the truly wacky behavior of its characters adds to the utter confusion of this strange masterpiece.
There are really no character or plot arcs to describe in Satyricon, it’s really more of a showcase of a Roman culture drunk on decadence. Fellini uses his mastery of cinematic technique to capture this tone from the opening scenes to the dizzyingly surreal final minutes. When Fellini Satyricon opened in 1969, many theatre-goers dropped acid for the psychedelic, mystifying experience. Watch this film; it’s beautifully directed and shot, it’s weird, it’s one of the most confusing movies of all time.
12. Schizopolis – Steven Soderberg
Schizopolis tells the story of Fletcher Munson, an office employee under the management of Theodore Schwitters, who’s the head of a scientology-like self help group. While Schizopolis is not structured like a normal film, it does have 3 distinctive acts. Each act tells the same story from a different characters perspective.
Steven Soderberg is known for hard-edged dramas like the Oscar winning Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and the hit “Ocean’s” heist franchise. Schizopolis is easily Soderberg’s most inaccessible work; with its non-linear narrative, non-sequitur dialog, and general randomness of the experience. That said, this movie is also compulsively watchable and very funny. Soderberg, acting in the lead role, shows a natural knack for comedic timing.
Upon its theatrical release, Schizopolis was considered too weird for mainstream audiences and only played in a select few theatres. In the years since, the movie has garnered cult status and even secured a spot as a Criterion film. The extreme randomness of this movie may put one off at first, but it’s definitely worth a watch if you’re a fan of Soderberg and want a look at his most experimental work to date.
11. Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson
Joaquin Phoenix is Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pot smoking private detective who is hired by his ex girlfriend to look for her missing lover Mickey Wolfmann. At this, Doc spirals down a maddeningly intricate and confounding mystery that possibly has no resolution.
We meet many bizarre characters along the way; including Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) a straight-laced cop with an oral asphyxiation, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) a cocaine-obsessed dentist, and Coy (Owen Wilson) a heroin addict who as it turns out may or may not be more than one character in the story. Inherent Vice is based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have always teetered between genres and categorizations. In the case of Inherent Vice, one can see the influence of hard-broiled film noir as well as the off-kilter goofiness of a Cheech and Chong stoner movie. This movie weaves so many threads together at a certain point one realizes it’s futile to untangle the plot, just give up and let the beautiful cinematography and hypnotic soundtrack wash over you.
There’s a profundity to Inherent Vice that evade until the last minutes of the film. It is here we get a sense that the confusion and convolution is really making a point about our journey through history, why we as a people drift in one cultural direction over another. As Vice’s narrator puts it: “…the sea of time and forgetfulness.
The years of progress gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to reclaim its better destiny only to have that claim jumped by evil-doers known all too well… taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever.” Even though Inherent Vice is easily the most perplexing detective film of all time, it’s also a visual and auditory feast whose ideas and themes leave much to chew on after.