17. Straw Dogs (1971)
Many people wouldn’t consider Sam Peckinpah’s notorious and controversial “Straw Dogs” a mind-bending film. The first half is quiet at a relaxed pace that’s mostly set up to get us acquainted with the characters, relationships, situation and location.
We meet a newlywed couple who’ve moved to the English countryside to get away from the violence that engulfed America at the time. The second half, which plays out like a night of terror, has them finding a different kind of violence that is just as brutal as the one they were trying to get away from.
“Straw Dogs” takes a deep look at the two traits that commonly represent males and females: masculinity and sexuality. There are no easy answers as the film intricately weaves between, into and around them. Liberation and degradation, freedom and entrapment can come from them in the split of a second.
A rape scene is not just a rape scene? A violent act is not just simply a violent act. By the time that violent finale that’s been slowly but surely promised comes along, we’re left feeling like the characters: exhausted, violated, strong and forever changed.
16. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Bless the filmmakers for turning a relatable concept on relationships into a relatable mind-fuck film on relationships, because at their worst, relationships can be the biggest mind-fucks. Every triumph, milestone, awkward encounter, and regret of relationships is beautifully captured and transcended. Following an estranged couple who have erased each other from their memories only to fall in love again, the film shows us that it wouldn’t be all sunshine and ignorance if we could forget.
From the cast’s pitch-perfect performances, Charlie Kaufman’s tight script that mixes intelligence with his trademark surrealism and weirdness, and Michel Gondry’s impeccable direction, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is refreshing in that it doesn’t get violent, gratuitous, dark or twisted. Heartbreaking, yes, but it’s also sweet, honest and real.
15. mother! (2017)
Darren Aronofsky has made many notable films that would be at home on this list: “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain” and “Black Swan,” which would’ve occupied this spot if “mother!” didn’t come along like Mila Kunis in ballet shoes. No film from 2017 has polarised audiences like this one, which will undoubtedly prove the naysayers wrong in the near future when it’s looked upon as a classic.
At its simplest, it’s about a young newlywed battling to adjust to married life with her cold and distant (but genius) husband, and the onslaught of unwanted guests that show up unannounced. At its biggest, it’s about religion, humanity and the earth. There’s nothing like watching it for the first time and not knowing what to expect and then suddenly (if you’ve read the Bible) it clicks and makes sense. But that doesn’t still pull away from the experience.
14. Donnie Darko (2001)
Shooting the Gyllenhaal siblings’ careers up the stratosphere, “Donnie Darko” is a modern cult classic that’s both charming and engrossing. A troubled teen tries to understand his visions and the cryptic words of a man in a bunny suit who tells him the world will end in 28 days. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but boy is it entertaining to watch.
Director Richard Kelly is able to do so much with a small budget from its 80’s setting, pop-rock songs, and dreamy sequences. The film avoids the pratfalls of many high school films with horny teenagers with issues. It’s a time-traveling, mysterious, romantic, comedic, dramatic science fiction film that balances its many cogs, characters and storylines masterfully. And when it ends, it leaves you with a question mark of WTF, but a satisfied one.
13. Holy Motors (2012)
Leos Carax’s bizarre art house extravaganza is perhaps the craziest film made in the last 10 years. It follows the escapades of a day in the life of Mr. Oscar, who cruises around in a white limousine to different locations where he engages in different scenarios as different characters. It’s pure joy watching it for the first time, and that moment where you realize not just what’s going on but what it’s all about makes it worthwhile.
Denis Lavant throws himself headfirst into a role that requires the actor to commit to various strange performances and scenarios. “Holy Motors” is a cinephile’s wet dream that brilliantly captures cinema’s history, present, and future. It’s a testament to the talent and hard work of the cast and crew that they were able to pull everything they set off to do perfectly. It’s batshit crazy but also sad, hilarious, fun, touching – basically all the emotions cinema can offer.
12. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
This underappreciated and underrated psychological horror starring Tim Robbins packs a punch that has rightfully seen it live on through its cult following. Concerning the titular character whose experiences before and during the Vietnam War leave him suffering from severe hallucinations, where he sees faceless creatures and has distorted flashbacks.
With the confirmation of Jacob’s former platoon member’s hint that maybe it’s not just all in his mind, there may be something more going on here than a man just losing his sanity. Director Adrian Lyne soaks every aspect of the film with gloom and dread and Robbins’ performance gives it the dramatic weight it needs to be a cut above similar and less successful works. There is an abundance of memorable scenes that bends genres and makes it a masterpiece that must be seen.
11. Oldboy (2003)
A man is snatched from the streets after a night of drunken escapades and is imprisoned for 15 years without knowing why or by whom. Suddenly, he’s released without warning and sets out on a quest for revenge and answers. None of which play out the way he had hoped. A powerful bit of filmmaking that, thought it answers the questions it set up, still leaves you with more.
Park Chan-wook’s acclaimed masterpiece completely changes our views and thoughts on revenge. No, we don’t expect anyone in a revenge-seeking film to leave completely unscathed, but not like this. “Oldboy” works on multiple levels of intricacies that combine revenge, regret, romance, violence, family, and nostalgia into one delectable meal of live octopus. Unpredictable and featuring one of the most gut-wrenching endings ever, this sort of twisted and perverse hybrid shouldn’t be so much fun to watch.
10. Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film established the many themes and tropes that the director would frequently revisit. Things like broken protagonists, the search for and the price of justice/revenge, fractured realities, nonlinear storytelling, and a lot of dead wives/girlfriends. “Memento” is told in two sequences: one chronological and the other in reverse order. It’s about a man with anterograde amnesia who’s searching for the man who caused his condition and killed his wife.
His short-term memory and inability to make new memories make his life and search extremely complicated. Who can he trust? What’s real and what’s not? Why hasn’t Nolan worked with Guy Pearce again? Those questions and confusions are projected onto the viewer with the film’s use of a structure that helps us understand the protagonist’s state of mind better than we want to.
9. Under the Skin (2013)
When people question Scarlett Johansson’s credibility as an actress, this is one of her films that should prove them wrong. Johansson plays an alien “woman” who roams around Scotland preying on men while trying to understand the strangeness of the human race. Beautifully shot and masterfully directed with a reverting score, “Under the Skin” is a fascinating watch that stays with you.
It’s refreshing to see a woman being the hunter for once, and while it isn’t quite the same as men hunting women, it’s an interesting look at seduction. While it’s not a hard film to figure out, a few questions go unanswered and are left open to interpretation.
There are a few mesmerizing sequences (you’ll know them when you see them) that stand out as some of the greatest filmmaking this side of the century. It’s a film that pulls you into its world for a viewing experience like no other.