Mind-bending movies – stories that deliberately target the audience’s brain as their plaything, either by making us work through their abstract mysteries, or by pulling the rug from underneath the audience in its final moments, or taking us on a spiralling dream-like journey like no other film could.
Let’s examine the best of the best from this exclusive sub-genre, with a criteria of only one entry permitted by its director (otherwise this would just be a David Lynch and Christopher Nolan list). Prepare your mind…
25. Altered States (1980)
Ken Russell was already Britain’s ‘Enfant Terrible’ before he went to the United States for this troubled production that quickly killed his chance of working there again. Based on the novel by Paddy Chayefsky (disowned by him as well), the film follows a Harvard scientist (William Hurt) who becomes obsessed with finding human nature’s true role in the universe. How does he set about doing this? By locking himself in an isolation chamber and taking hallucinatory drugs – as you do.
The film devolves into silly nonsense as Hurt’s physical state regresses to primal form as a reaction to this ordeal, yet where the film flourishes is with its incredible ‘vision’ related imagery; here Russell is truly in his element as he creates an awe-inspiring world that likely stands as the most stunning and elaborately made hallucinogenic sequences put to celluloid, as well as his strongest work in that specific field (which is saying something). The plot is interesting even if some of the execution is flawed, yet it’s more than worth your time for its trippy mise-en-scene and hellish imagery.
24. Triangle (2009)
This strong little thriller from underrated director Christopher Smith makes for a loopy and memorable experience that squeezes the most out of its premise – a group of travellers are stranded on an empty cruise ship within the Bermuda Triangle. It isn’t soon after that they’re all stalked by a hooded axe-wielding killer – yet things aren’t all that they seem.
Playing with the standard ‘slasher’ tropes Smith knows so well, “Triangle” plays up the facade of the familiar and then slowly strips away those elements and introduces a cracking labyrinth-like plot that will leave most dumbfounded by its conclusion. It’s helped by some gripping direction and a game performance by its lead Melissa George, in what is a must-watch for genre fans in the mood for something different with their kicks. Just be prepared for something closer to “Donnie Darko” than “Friday the 13th.”
23. Predestination (2015)
One of the more recent and overlooked entries in this article, Ethan Hawke reunited with his “Daybreakers” directors, the Spierig brothers, for this sci-fi mystery with a hell of an end twist that stands as one of the best in recent memory.
Ultimately, to discuss this film in high capacity would to do it a giant disservice, so in simple terms, Hawke is a time-traveling enforcer on an adamant mission to hunt down the “Fizzle Bomber,” a terrorist who attacks specifically in 1975 New York. Sounds high concept enough? Well things get suitably strange when his story intertwines with Sarah Snook’s, a young woman with a troubled past and even more complex gender issues.
A tense and clever thriller with juicy sci-fi elements and a nutty third act. Slickly directed by the Spierigs and anchored by two fantastic central performances by Hawke and Snook, resulting in the best time travel thriller in recent times (sorry “Looper”).
22. Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher’s masterpiece satire on the pre-millennial male deserves a spot here, regardless of carrying one of cinema’s most known twists.
If you didn’t know already, Edward Norton’s aimless office worker has his life flipped upside down as he becomes involved with a dysfunctional love interest (a hilarious Helena Bonham Carter) and, more importantly, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an enigmatic yet frightful mentor.
Fincher’s source material was already chock full of Chuck Palahniuk’s vivid opinions and acidic humour, yet the director is able to add to the colourful text in an incredible exercise in take-no-prisoners style, balancing its black comedy within an insane mind puzzle. Every moment of the movie is building up to its third act twist in such an eclectic manner that on repeat viewings it’s amazing you didn’t see it coming – it’s the most famous ‘mind screws’ in celluloid, but it can back up all that the hype with a cracking (if often referenced) piece of cinema.
21. Abre los Ojos (1997)
In the late 90s, filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar had a penchant for twisty thrillers that bitch slapped your brain, with no better example than with this buzzworthy hit – an impactful morality tale of a wealthy playboy (Eduardo Noriega) who beds the wrong lady and ends up mutilated in car crash for his troubles. With his physique and mind severely traumatised, things dive into paranoid thriller territory with a helping of sci-fi.
Beautifully and carefully made with an airtight script to match its far-flung twists, “Abre los Ojos” still stands as Amenabar’s best work, so much so that even when Hollywood did a big budget Tom Cruise remake (“Vanilla Sky” in 2001), it could only feel like a decent copy shrouded by the shadow of the original. This just helped assert that it’s a mission impossible to replicate the magic of something this fresh, original and balls-out weird.
20. Identity (2003)
A typically dark and stormy night where a handful of strangers end up stranded in a musty motel. A mysterious killer picks them off one by one, and then they all realise they’re connected in more ways than one. So far, so Agatha Christie, right?
Well, therein lies the fun factor with this piece – as formulaic genre fodder, it’s solid and executed way better than it deserves, directed by James Mangold with a loving handle on genre tropes and moody atmospheres, plus a cracking good cast (John Cusack, Ray Liotta, John Hawkes). Yet what really pushes this one to ‘mind fuck’ levels is its third act, which opens a door to very fresh and completely unexpected territory. To delve into it too much would do a disservice but for those who’ve missed this one, give it a look for a wonderfully pulpy yet equally clever horror/thriller.
19. Mind Game (2004)
Anime has a great tradition of making completely insane movies that can fascinate yet confuse, and none would be more appropriate than this mid-2000’s effort that should’ve changed its title to ‘mind fuck’ since it so definitively manifests that category.
Nishi is a dorky aspiring manga artist whose infatuation with his high school crush eventually leads him on a crazy journey where he ends up everywhere, from a gangster’s car to a whale’s belly, to even the afterlife itself (before being resurrected, of course).
Director Masaaki Yuasa throws a shed worth of concepts and thematics at us at once, all felt even more schizophrenic by its constant flippant styles of animations, from floaty hand-drawn to CGI, to even live-action melding. Thankfully it lacks pretension somehow and manages to be a hilarious and sometimes touching adventure that, well, happens to be weird as all hell.
18. Primer (2004)
This indie has split several opinions on it – some feel it’s a refreshingly mature take on the sci-fi genre, whilst otherwise feel it’s an unnecessary complicated mess with amateur acting and boring direction. To be honest, both could be true, but somewhere in the middle lies a gripping mind puzzle, one that sheds any high-concept gloss for its subject in a stripped bare examination of how someone could realistically build a time machine, and the dire repercussions it would have in turn.
Shane Carruth’s directorial debut can feel frustrating at times, as it purposely makes the plot difficult to follow. The first 30 minutes are fairly make or break, as we have tech talk thrown at us at a rapid overlapping pace, with a jarring handheld style and non-conventional plot structure. Does it feel unnecessarily dense? Perhaps, but the work the audience does becomes satisfying as things pay off in its third act, and unravels a whip-smart plot in what might be the definitive film on the mechanics of time travel.