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The 30 Most Confusing Movies In Cinema History

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

10. Even Dwarves Started Small – Werner Herzog

Even Dwarves Started Small (1970)

Legendary writer/director Werner Herzog’s second feature length film follows the ensuing chaos after a secluded institution is overthrown by its residents. If the increasingly bizarre acts of anarchy did not add enough “weird” factor, Herzog cast the entire film with dwarves.

The band of little people start off their rebellion by breaking dishes, committing random acts of arson and generally just running amok with their newfound freedom. Soon the madness takes a disturbing turn. The dwarves start torturing the weaker links among themselves and even ritualistically crucify a monkey… all for no apparent reason.

Even Dwarves Started Small has no plot. This movie is one of the most confusing ever because one cannot get a logical grasp on why… why the chaos, why dwarves, and why does the leader never stop laughing demonically? The movie is not for everyone, especially those who’d require some kind of explanation for the random pandemonium exercised in its 90 minutes. Herzog provides no respite. Even Dwarves Started Small is nightmarish and impenetrable. It’s a masterpiece of the macabre.

 

9. Primer – Shane Carruth

Primer (2004)

Of all the movies out there featuring time travel, Primer just might be the most confusing. Writer/Director Shane Carruth’s debut was made on a shoestring budget with no name actors. It has since become a modern cult classic for its maddeningly intricate plot that demands subsequent viewing.

Look up “Primer Explained” on YouTube and watch as dedicated fans have drawn up diagrams on the different time threads and paradoxes that occur in the story. The great thing about this film is that the information to understand Primer is in fact present, buried beneath the exposition for those patient enough to excavate it.

 

8. Naked Lunch – David Cronenberg

faust-naked-lunch

Based on the novel by William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch is about exterminator William Lee who suffers wild hallucinations after having too much exposure to “bug powder.” Lee is convinced he is a secret agent whose contacts are an alien called a Mugwump and an insect-like typewriter. After killing his wife under the direction of the typewriter, Lee embarks to a place called “Interzone” where he writes a book called Naked Lunch.

Adapting William S. Burroughs seminal novel to the screen was undoubtedly a daunting task. Director David Cronenberg takes narrative from Burroughs work, along with other of his writings to create the universe of the movie which more or less keeps with the surreal, dark tone of the novel.

Peter Weller does an excellent job embodying William Lee in a dry, disparaging manner that is at once uncomfortable to watch but undeniably compelling. Early on, the narrative unravels from any traditional form and forces the audience to experience the outlandish world on its own terms. Naked Lunch is a must watch if you’re a fan of Burroughs novel or just a glutton for weird cinema.

 

7. Cloud Atlas – Larry and Lana Wachowski, Tom Twyker

tom-hanks-cloud-atlas-movie-image

Tom Hanks, Halle Barry, and Jim Broadbent star in this sprawling sci-fi epic that spans centuries. Each time period features the actors in various modes of costume and dialect, as they each play numerous roles throughout.

Larry and Lana Wachowski of Matrix fame, along with veteran German filmmaker Tom Twyker have concocted in Cloud Atlas one of the most ambitious and puzzling science fiction films in history. While one could become hopelessly lost in Atlas’ disjointed narrative and dozens of reoccurring characters, there’s a strong theme in this movie that permeates throughout.

Its thesis revolves around the idea that actions of each individual echo throughout the past, present, and future. One act of decency or cruelty in this life could spawn a revolution ten generations from now. There’s a lot to chew in the three hour-long opus that is Cloud Atlas.

 

6. Holy Motors – Leos Carax

Holy Motors

The film follows a strange man riding in the back of a limousine to “appointments” where he dresses up in costumes and performs puzzlingly random deeds. His costumes include a homeless beggar woman, a motion capture suit, and a violent leprechaun among others.

The enigma that is Holy Motors captivated audiences for its audacious surrealism and cryptic plot. The narrative is not bound by a traditional story arc in any way, but it still hints toward a profundity just out of reach.

Even if you’re completely lost in the peculiar characters and world Holy Motors creates, it’s still a marvel to behold for the unabashed creativity and gorgeous camerawork on display. There may not be a proper way to analyze this cult classic with traditional logic, but that’s what makes it one of the most confusing films of all time.

 

5. Hausu – Nobuhiko Obayashi

house-hausu-japanese-horror-movie

A teenage girl travels with her friends to visit her aunt in a big, creepy mansion. Almost instantaneously the story devolves into a weirdly funny/disturbing mix of phantasmagoric surrealism masquerading as a haunted house movie. Or is it the other way around? In Hausu, images and mood, not plot or character are the most important aspects of telling its story.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi once said Hausu is really a meditation about the generational difference in Japan since the atomic bombs dropped. Notice in the beginning of the film, there’s a 2 second image of a nuclear blast and one of the girls describes it as “cotton candy.”

Also note the reoccurring motif of flashes of light (character’s eyes, cat’s eyes) specifically after the click of a camera, suggestive of the same instant the bomb flashed and destroyed hundreds of thousands of people. With these little details in mind, one can somewhat unearth a theme from the absurd, overwhelming, controlled chaos that is Hausu.

 

4. Inland Empire – David Lynch

inland empire

In 2006 David Lynch made Inland Empire, his first film since the famously enigmatic Mulholland Dr. Upon its release, Inland Empire garnered some critical praise for Laura Dern’s incredibly intense performance as well as its inventive, increasingly nightmarish tone. Others argued the movie is so convoluted and bizarre it literally defies logic, or for that matter any traditional means of narrative structure. Just how confusing is it?

Inland Empire makes all other Lynch movies look formulaic. it’s really, really weird. That said, David Lynch is a master of atmosphere; and Inland Empire’s labyrinthine plot, disturbing images, and creepy sound design have a way of burrowing under the skin and staying there. It may be hard to follow, but it’s a waking nightmare of a movie that’s worth the price of admission.

 

3. The Mirror – Andrei Tarkovsky

The Mirror

The Mirror is a non-linear film from Russian director Andrei Tarkovski. The movie is an autobiographical account of Tarkovsky’s childhood, and is widely regarded as one of Tarkovski’s most difficult movies but also one of his best and most beautiful.

The story unfolds as memories from the mind of a dying poet. These images are sometimes loosely connected, sometimes not at all, but always in a kind of stream of coconsciousness rhythm. The cinematography is stunning, periodically shifting between color, sepia and black and white tones.

The Mirror; like all of Tarkovsky’s works has excruciatingly long takes, slow pacing, and loaded symbolic imagery throughout. Those familiar with his other films will find much to admire in this movie. For those not familiar, it’s a gorgeous visual poem that’ll either blow your mind or bore you to tears.

 

2. Holy Mountain – Alejandro Jodorowsky

The Holy Mountain

A beggar/thief who resembles Jesus Christ climbs a tower to meet an alchemist, who takes in the thief as his apprentice. Eventually a handful of other despicable characters join their group to ascend the Holy Mountain, where immortal masters reside.

During the course of their journey led by the alchemist, the characters are subjected to different rituals designed to help them transform themselves. When they reach the top of the mountain, the thief is instructed to go home and the alchemist breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience to go home.

Alejandro Jadorowsky’s films and notoriously hard to understand. They’re overflowing with ideas, with mysticism, with revelations about mankind. There are few directors in the history of cinema that are as fearless and as willing to confound their audiences as Jadorowsky. Holy Mountain is the epitome of cult classic. While it might not make much sense to anyone unfamiliar with the tenets of tarot cards and mysticism (which is most everyone), this movie is still a timeless masterpiece and the work of a true artist.

 

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Stanley Kubrick

2001 A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1968 space opera changed science fiction films forever. From the audacious opening scenes of prehistoric man’s first encounter with otherworldly intelligence, to the iconic final image of man reborn into some kind of ultra-evolved space baby, 2001 will forever stand as one of the most interesting but confounding cinematic experiences.

While there are threads in Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke’s story that tie somewhat into a cohesive narrative, there’s little debate that the final 30 psychedelic minutes are not meant to follow a traditional story arc. What really happened and why is anyone’s guess. If you haven’t already seen this masterpiece and you like thought-provoking science fiction, 2001: A Space Odyssey is required viewing.

Author Bio: Kent Reason is a screenwriting major at Chapman University. His favorite things are coffee, camping and cats.

 

 

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  • Mullholland Drive?

    • Unkle Amon

      Lost Highway will do the trick.

      • Tristan Reed

        Agreed – Lost Highway still baffles me, I don’t find Mulholland Drive confusing at all!

        • Carl Edgar Consiglio

          Lost highway is about a guy in jail imagining stuff and remembering things the way he would like to.

          • Tristan Reed

            I generally understand that – but I feel it is a more ‘confusing’ watch than Mulholland Drive which I feel is actually pretty straightforwards!! In fact – I feel a lot of the films on this list are more creative/surreal rather than ‘confusing’ 🙂

    • MICHAEL MILLARD

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

    • Ana

      I think there was the danger that any list with this title with contain all or Lynch’s work.

  • 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

  • Fernando Arenas

    Last Year in Marienbad beats them all.

  • Thomas Yiannis

    Enemy…

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    Not all these films are confusing. That said I would like to add The Shining, nobody seems to know precisely what it’s about. Madness? Ghosts?……

    • Louiselle Pace Gouder

      Madness; you would be familiar with that hehe; first impressions are always right! ghidt jien …

  • JacqMike77

    Sharknado confused me.

  • Zoltán Sándor Varga

    OK, let’s make it clear:
    Kontroll is not dystopian and not in the future; it’s simply an overstylized satire of an everyday practice of work in Hungary

  • Frag Wall

    Enemy
    The Wailing
    Vanilla Sky
    Adaptation
    Eraserhead
    Mulholland Drive

  • Raymond Benson

    No way is “2001” the #1 most confusing movie. It makes perfect sense compared to a lot of the others on this list. The story is right there in front of you, told *visually* and not through dialogue. I was 13 when I first saw it with my father upon release, and I explained it to him afterward. I always got it. Folks who complain they “didn’t understand it” are not paying attention. I don’t think it should be on the list at all (however Kubrick’s “The Shining” perhaps does!). As others have commented, Bergman’s “Persona” or Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” are more deserving.

  • Ted Wolf

    what about The Big Sleep?