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The 20 Most Complex Movies of All Time

04 August 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Akansha Tokas

14. The Fountain

The Fountain

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” wasn’t appreciated by both the critics and audiences in 2006, but in the coming years it has gained cult following. In this film, Aronofsky rejects the conventional style of storytelling. There can be various understandings of the plot; the beauty of the film lies in its nuance and subtlety that allows the viewers to interpret their own personal perspective.

“The Fountain” follows three different parallel timelines where protagonist Tom, played by Hugh Jackman, takes three different forms. The first timeline showed him as a conqueror in the 16th century trying to find the tree of life; the second timeline is set in the present where Doctor Tom is trying to find the cure for his wife’s (played by Rachel Weisz); and the third timeline is set in the year 2500 where astronaut Tom is trying to find the planet Xibalba. “The Fountain” is a feast for the eyes with one of the best film scores ever. The plotlines are seamless and visually blend in together creating a unique and somewhat confusing movie experience.


13. Vanilla Sky

Vanilla Sky

“Vanilla Sky” is a psychological thriller with some aspects of science fiction in it. The film, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, is a remake of the Spanish film “Abre Los Ojos” (“Open Your Eyes”). “Vanilla Sky” takes its audience on an emotional journey, and it leaves audiences frightened, sad and with a distorted sense of reality. Tom Cruise gives an exceptional performance as Dave, who has it all.

The movie has an eclectic yet emotional score, creating a dreamlike theme. “Vanilla Sky” is one of those intelligently made films that each time you’ll see the film, you’ll catch something new. It’s a very clever film with amplified emotions of love and sadness, and it keeps its audience on the edge of their seats, leaving them with an understanding of life. Telling them you can’t appreciate the sweetness without tasting the sour.


12. Shutter Island

Shutter Island

“Shutter Island”, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a neo-noir psychological thriller where two US Marshals investigate the disappearance of a murder who escaped from a mental institution for the criminally insane. The film is filled with many twist and turns that might leave the cinemagoer feeling dizzy. Faithfully adapted from a book written by Dennis Lehane, this film beautifully attacks the senses of the audience, leaving them with all the pieces of the puzzle. And with the end leaving you terribly surprised, “Shutter Island” features acting greats Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo.

“Shutter Island” demands a second viewing so you can comprehend all the little details you missed out on the first time. It’s one of those rare films that completely changes your understanding of the film’s narration when you watch it a second time. “Shutter Island” is a dark film that will make you question your own sanity.


11. Memento


“Memento”, written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan and directed by Christopher Nolan, is an intense, suspenseful, and brilliantly unique thriller. Leonard Shelby, played by Guy Pearce, is a man who can’t form new memories after the murder of his wife.

An exceptional achievement in modern day filmmaking, “Memento” forces the audience to participate in the storytelling as they, like the protagonist, have no idea what going on. It became an instant classic with its revolutionary narrative style and groundbreaking dramatic undertones.

“Memento” will frustrate you and scare you with every changing scene. Nothing in this film is as it seems, nothing is certain, nothing is real. It leaves you straining and watching from scene to scene, searching for the truth. “Memento” is a challenging film that leaves you with a tantalizing experience.


10. Donnie Darko


“Donnie Darko”, released in 2001 and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is a movie about a troubled teenager who has visions of Frank, a man in a bunny suit, who manipulates Donnie to commit a series of crimes. The film has an incredible emotional range; it manages to inspire hope, love, dread, laughter, and tears at different points throughout the movie.

“Donnie Darko” is a work of art, with depth and complexity to the story that requires multiple viewings. The sound score is hauntingly beautiful, perfectly complementing the visuals. It comes with a thought-provoking story that leaves one pondering the possibilities offered by its characters. “Donnie Darko” is a mind-blowing experience, with its ability to incorporate different genres so effortlessly.


9. Inception

Inception ending

With “Inception”, Christopher Nolan created something that blew the audience’s mind away for ages. The movie takes you on a thrill ride with exceptional cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s score is beautiful as ever. All the actors are fantastic as well, featuring Tom Hardy’s breakout performance.

High-end criminal Dom Cobb, with the help of his team, works his way into peoples’ subconscious and steals what people value the most – their ideas. “Inception” has a multi-layered plot that thrusts its audience into multiple levels of an action packed storyline, while also taking them on an emotional journey with the protagonist Cobb. “Inception” can leave you awestruck with its breathtaking visuals, engaging story, and technical brilliance.


8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a quirky drama mixed with science fiction, with Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet giving fantastic performances and showing their wide range as actors. The film deals with a man and a woman who erase each other from their memory when their relationship goes sour. The film has a lot of poignancy and nuance that gives the film a romantic depth, leaving the film goers with a bittersweet farewell. The film dazzles us with complexities of human mind and all its glorious possibilities.

Written by the brilliant Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, the weird narrative combines with an emotional impact that manages to touch the audience’s heart everywhere. This eccentric story with a surreal dream world never goes overboard. “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind” takes you on a smooth ride into a fantasy world, making you see the immense power our subconscious holds.



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  • Tiago Couto

    This list is rmoviescirclejerk material

    • Alain


    • fark


  • colonelkurtz

    Expected films that make me think/wonder, instead found mostly films with plot twists. If Shutter Island is complex, then every film with a plot twist is pretty damn mind-blowing.

    • Mad Butcher

      BTW Shutter Island’s plot twist is not that original. «Total recall» (yeah, I know it’s not «ART») featured similar ending.

  • Balthazar Matony

    Coherence (2013)
    Patema Inversed (2013)

    • Jérôme

      Coherence was a real mesmerizing piece of art

  • Alain

    Only Hollywood makes complex movies…?

  • Zwei

    Ghost in the Shell (1995)
    Sacrifice (1986)

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    For films to unravel, I’m not sure any of these have much on something like Last Year in Marienbad or The Holy Mountain. I mean, I think quite a lot of them are wonderful, just straightforward to comprehend and hardly dense in their themes.

    • Alec Dawson

      You beat me to it!

      • fark

        you two need to get a room and beat each other off

  • Why the mention for Vanilla Sky? It’s overrated. Why can’t you just use Abre los ojos which was the better film?

    • fark

      it sucked get over it

  • Adam Schmersal

    I’d like to add Borgman, Perfect Blue, and Paprika

  • bd

    Almost none of these — I mean an exception of like 3 or 4 out of the entire 20 — are anywhere near profound in their complexity, let alone warrant mention on a “most complex films of all time” list. A handful of these films are just straightforward suspense/thrillers with a plot twist and/or great visuals… And the lack of international films is very telling here: either this list constitutes the depth of your film knowledge (I hope not), or you were just looking for an easy piece to write so you can tell other people you have work published on the internet.

  • bd

    Not one film in this list by Theo Angelopoulos, Alain Resnais, Peter Greenaway, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Alexander Sokurov, Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luis Bunuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Miguel Gomes, Matthew Barney, Robert Altman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Hong Sang-soo, Robert Altman, Michael Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami, Sion Sono, anyone from the Dogme 95 era, etc, etc…

    I’m dumbfounded.

    • Zachary Merlino

      agreed. I thought this page was about film!

    • Hélène Husson

      I agree 100%

    • Relf

      Most of these films in ToC’s list are pretty easy to understand. This article has been written by a 12 year old

      • fark

        too bad you have the mental capacity of a retarded snail

        • Relf

          I just said these films are easy to understand… it seems you are too dumb to comprehend an easy sentence. Maybe your brain has become so tiny because of the decades of inbreeding. Might explain it. Ah well, carry on dummy

    • THomas

      I would add people like Jim Jarmusch, Akira Kurosawa, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Alexander Kluge, ….. and a lot of Mexican, Central American, South American, Européan Middle Eastern and Asian Directors …and a lot of independent Directors from the United States (Cassavetes comes to my mind).
      Most of the films on this list are quite simple and only relay on a plot twist : for me a plot twist doesn’t makes a film complex, you should define more what you understand under complex : for me it’s the notion that the thémes,plot actions and characters are difficult (or impossible) to understand easily, and that the film needs a lot of thinking to understand.
      i would also say that most shakepeare adaptions are way more complex than any films (exept perhaps Mulholland Drive and 2001,but even than ) you give in this list..
      I am not saying that the films on this list are bad films, just they don’t go under the heading “the most complex movies of all time” because their as many as 100 more complex films out there.

    • fark

      You guys are a bunch of pretentious pricks, get over it and yourselves!!!

  • Exit Exit Quit

    Predestination is simple. It can be described in three words: Go f**k yourself.

  • Zachary Merlino

    Good list. The one inclusion I would make is Europa by Lars Von Trier, an utterly mind-bending flick….

  • David Haig

    I avoided watching Cloud Atlas for some time due to people noting how ‘complex’ it was and that it made no sense. Then I watched it and was dumbfounded as to why everyone was so confused.

  • Nick Botton

    This list was freaking stupid. I might not be as angry if you had at least put Primer in first place.

  • Darren

    Primer yes, all the rest no.

  • Adrian

    Although a lot of other directors come to mind, the first two movies I thought of are Tarkovskij’s Stalker and Solaris.

  • David Pollison

    If this was the best I could come up with, I would not want my name and reputation associated with such an inane list either.

  • Fred Madison

    Little people know that vanilla sky is, in fact, a remake of a spanish film called “abre los ojos”, wich is MUCH better

    • fark

      nobody cares about a fuckin spic movie

  • jann1k


  • Ekraj Pandit

    Grow up !

  • Afrikoka

    Usually I complain about the complainers but this time I agree. Of all time? Hanging rock? Marienbad? Any other movie on the watchlist I haven’t seen yet but I know is more complex than predestination or shutter island..

  • Ashley Bristow

    Hello Akansha. Thank you for taking the time to compile your favourite list, even though there are some problems with your choice of listed material, the first and foremost being the title you chose, but I will reply with constructive criticism in the hope that this will not discourage you from expanding your horizons. Your list is basically Hollywood biased and so doesn’t represent the wide world of film making. There are a great many fine directors outside of Hollywood, both in independent American film making and around the world. I think you need to spend some time getting to know the work of others, in order to truly appreciate the craft and what makes a ‘complex’ film. You also need to ask yourself what you wish to convey to your readers and how to do that in an engaging form that will make people want to read it. So, expand your horizons – take a look at the works of directors as suggested in bd’s post. Also it’s worth looking into who influenced which director to make his or her film – for instance were you aware that Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ was heavily influenced by the works of Satoshi Kon and in particular his 2006 anime feature film ‘Paprika’? It might be interesting to compare how the two directors approached a similar subject. So don’t be disheartened by the many negative responses posted below. The world of film is a complex one and that is why it is so fascinating to us. Thanks for your efforts.

    • fark

      blow it out yer ass

  • sadburbia

    Since when is Fight Club complex

  • Relf

    Is this list compiled by a 12 year old? Inception and Memento aren’t complex. Nolan is such a poor writer and he treats his audience, rightfully, like a moron by explaining EVERYTHING. Every moron understands a Nolan flick

  • Mauricio Escobar Smith

    “Un chien andalou” Dir: Luis Buñuel – Script: Salvador Dali – Genere: Surrealism – Year: 1929 – Time: 21 minutes

    • fark

      no, no, no, sorry not sorry but no

  • Vincenzo Politi

    I think that, by now, the Hollywood- and English-language-bias of this page should be clear to all. Only English spoken movies in what is supposed to be a list about “The Most Complex Movies of All Time”. And this travesty of a list we even find Vanilla Sky. I mean… Vanilla Sky??? Seriously????? That movie is an awful and unnecessary remake of the Spanish movie Open your Eyes, which is actually much much better than Vanilla Sky. But, you know: why putting he Spanish movie in the list, when we can actually talk about its Hollywood version? (Funny thing is: the author even mentions Open your Eyes… but why isn’t THAT movie in the list, rather than Vanilla Sky? Is the author implying that Vanilla Sky is more complex than Open Your Eyes? I mean, honestly!)

    • giorgio palmas


  • taustin

    With the exception of “Primer” … what on earth is complex about these films?

  • Amer Attila

    Donnie Darko as “most complex” all the time’? Sorry I need to laugh.

  • jeyaganesh rajamanickam

    The Shining?