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The 20 Most Complex Movies of All Time

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

7. Jacob’s Ladder


“Jacob’s Ladder”, a mystery-drama directed by Adrian Lyne, is disturbing, dark and terrifying, pushing the conventions of modern filmmaking. The magic of the film lies in its eeriness present in both psychological and supernatural levels, and that magic produces an eagerness in audiences to solve the ‘’mystery’’, as we begin to sympathize with Jacob’s character, played to perfection by Tim Robbins. It’s one of those movies that rolls through your mind before giving you a bitter conclusion that turns everything upside down.

“Jacob’s Ladder” takes you on a journey that’s so intimidating yet wonderful, brutal yet beautiful, an experience that is unparalleled to this day. It takes control of its audience’s mind, making you unable to think, feel and believe anything other than the intense feeling this movie inspires. This film creates a sense of dread and foreboding atmosphere that increases the spectator’s curiosity.


6. Fight Club


“Fight Club” is a 1999 cult classic directed by David Fincher, starring Ed Norton and Brad Pitt, and based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name. Finding somewhat mainstream success now, “Fight Club” intimately couldn’t find its audience, failing at the box office. Norton plays a depressed insomniac who feels alienated by the world around him. In his desperation to feel something, he starts going to support groups. Oe day Norton’s character meets Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) and, immediately fascinated with his devil-may-care attitude, he forms a friendship with him.

The film is dark and disturbing, making bold statements about our consumer-driven society, and its structure is extremely playful as it messes around with linear time to an incredible degree. “Fight Club” is a cinematic masterpiece as it challenges the status quo and offers a wakeup call to people immersed in this materialistic society. With a tightly held script, brilliant direction, amazing acting, great cinematography and a superb soundtrack, “Fight Club” is a feast for both our eyes and our mind.


5. Blade Runner


“Blade Runner” is compelling science fiction, as it examines the impact of technology in the nature of human society. It is a timeless classic, with its power coming from its dark deception of futuristic cityscapes and its philosophical themes. The climax wonderfully brings all explored themes in the movie together.

Despite a rich theme of science fiction and futurism covering this adventure, there are distinct elements of film noir are present primarily in the bluish haze that the film uses to depict a gritty urban atmosphere. Harrison Ford plays a cop, Rick Deckard, in a decrepit Los Angeles; the film requires audience participation as it’s a visually-driven story that doesn’t rely on special effects. “Blade Runner” is an impeccable film crafted by a true cinematic visionary, Ridley Scott.


4. Moon

“Moon” is a story about astronaut Sam Bell, played by Sam Rockwell, the only inhabitant of an automated lunar mining base extracting Helium -3 from lunar rocks to be shipped back to Earth. As his three-year posting is about to come to an end, and as Sam longs to end his solitude, something goes wrong.

“Moon” is a thought-provoking narrative that touches on issues like corporate greed, humanity, compassion, and most importantly, the role of ethics in science. Rockwell beautifully carries this film, making viewers experience his isolation and loneliness. It is an independent science fiction film that doesn’t rely on CGI and works effortlessly to make this movie a feast for our eyes. “Moon” is an excellent piece of art that provides its audience an effective, entertaining cinematic experience.


3. Primer

“Primer” is a challenging film, one that takes few viewings before you get the what the movie wants you to understand. It’s is not your traditional film in any sense; the settings are drab, out of focus, cheap, and rushed, but it doesn’t take away from the fantastic plot. In fact, it works in these disadvantages rather beautifully into the story. Where some movies gloss over the paradoxes of time travel, “Primer” jumps right into it. It pulls off an incredibly believable story, forcing the audience to concentrate to keep up, working out the logical implications of what’s happening.

“Primer” is a story of young scientists who work to create an error-checking device; they end up creating a time machine, and they also discover dark consequences of their invention. It is an entertaining and honest intellectual film and it just blows its audience away. In a genre where visual impact and flashy graphics are key, “Primer” uses ideas to achieve the same effect.


2. Mulholland Drive


Listed as one of the best films of the 21st century, “Mulholland Drive” is a masterpiece, and it is best to look at this film thematically rather than as a straightforward narrative. David Lynch wants the audience to draw up their own conclusions, giving them freedom to use their own perspectives.

“Mulholland Drive” is constructed in a way so the meaning will always be open to interpretation. No matter how much experience you have with mind-bending films, comprehending “Mulholland Drive” will leave you scratching your head and more confused than ever. The studio was aware of this to the extent that they had Lynch write ‘’10 clues to unlocking this thriller’’ and they put it the back of its CDS.

Lynch makes an unusual use of sound and includes brilliant color schemes with important symbolism. Subtle clues throughout the film helps to unlock the meaning. The film starts when a dark-haired woman is left amnesiac after a car crash; she is discovered by Betty, a woman seeking fame in Los Angeles as an actress. “Mulholland Drive” is cinematic gift filled with beautiful cinematography and fantastic acting, creating a dreamlike world for its audience.


1. 2001: A Space Odyssey


“2001: A Space Odyssey” is a film made with incredible special effects, camera work and set design. This Kubrick masterpiece was way ahead of its time, leaving viewers with a lot of thoughts. “2001” is not just science fiction, but the journey about humanity’s evolution. It has the most infamous transition cut in cinema’s history where it cuts through humans first tool (bone) to the most complex tool spaceship.

“2001” requires you to relax. It requires you to enjoy strange and beautiful images without feeling guilty about there not being a detailed characterization. Upon its release, the critics panned the movie due to its lack of dialogue and Kubrick’s lack of explanation. “2001” refined the cinema and its scope, and is a movie so complex and filled with subtle clues that it boggles the mind of moviegoers to this day. It follows a straightforward path until the last 30 minutes or so, when the movie turns into something that can’t be simply comprehended. Like all great directors, Kubrick gives his audience the freedom to come up with their own interpretation.



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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?