My Favorite Mind-Bending Films

Coherence (2013)
Written & Directed by James Ward Bykrit

Not too shabby for a feature directorial debut, though Bykrit had worked alongside Gore Verbinksi on several projects and clearly learned a lot. The premise is perfect for a low-budget flick; eight friends gather for dinner & to watch the elusive Davis’s Comet pass overhead. There’s plenty of history and interpersonal conflict between everyone, which comes out when things get weird. The power goes out, and the neighborhood is pitch black, except for one house with lights still on. A few party guests go over there, and things feel even more off when they return. Eventually, it becomes clear that not everything is what it seems, and some people are lying about their identities. It’s an enjoyable movie that ends on a beautifully dark note.

Read my full review here.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Written & Directed by Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater follows up his rotoscoped philosophy exploration of Waking Life with this animated adaptation of the classic Phillip K. Dick novel. Substance D has overtaken America in the near future, causing people to have profound and disturbing hallucinations. America has also implemented the most severe surveillance system imaginable, constantly watching everyone. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover agent for the feds exploring the underground drug scene. Arctor is becoming addicted to Substance D and tries to hide this from his coworker when he must report in. Leading a double life and having constant hallucinations catches up with Arctor, and he eventually discovers the true nature of his assignment and that the people he has come to trust aren’t really who they claim. The animation adds an extra layer of mindfuckery to this one.

Looper (2012)
Written & Directed by Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson is a director I go back and forth on, loving some of his work and then hating other things. I enjoyed Looper, a time travel story that gets weird with time travel, and though the logic might be hazy, I just loved that I didn’t know what to expect next. In 2074 new technology made it impossible to secretly dispose of a dead body which was a problem for organized crime in that era. A deal has been made with the past, aka 2044, where mob targets are sent back in time with silver bars attached as payment where they are taken out by a hitman living in that period. Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is one of these hitmen and ends up in a difficult situation where his future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back to be killed. Joe doesn’t do it and begins a chain of events that make things worse and worse for himself. What he doesn’t realize is that his actions may lead to changing all of the time forever. The best sequence in this movie involves a man having one body part after another disappear as his past self is being tortured by gangsters. Such a visually trippy moment.

The Skin I Live In (2011)
Written & Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Almodovar is just one of the great living directors, and The Skin I Live In is an interesting divergence from his typical fare. This science fiction film tells the story of Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who has successfully created artificial skin, but when it is revealed he has done illegal experimentation on humans, his funding is pulled. He continues his reclusive life at his secluded estate, holding a woman named Vera captive. He keeps one servant around, Marilla, who is worried about her estranged son Zeca, a criminal. These people’s lives are mysterious at first, but through flashbacks, the audience is slowly shown the pieces that reveal everything. This is an incredibly disturbing & strange story, the sort of pulp science fiction/horror from times gone by but kept fresh & modern through Almodovar’s choices in the script & direction. I don’t want to say much more other than this is a movie that is almost impossible to predict. However, when the truth comes out, it clicks right into place based on the information that has been revealed.

Read my full review here.

Enemy (2013)
Written by Javier Gullón
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a college history professor who lives alone in Toronto. One evening he rents a film and is struck by how similar an actor playing a bellhop appears to him. In fact, they are identical to each other. An online search gives Adam a name, Daniel Saint Claire. Adam becomes obsessed, gets an address through a talent agency, and begins stalking Daniel. He eventually learns Daniel is married, and his wife is pregnant. The life this doppelganger leads is what Adam lacks, and he finds the wife easily mistakes him for her own husband. Denis Villeneuve delivered this and Prisoners in the same year, quite an impressive feat. While Prisoners was a larger picture in scope & distribution, Enemy is a perfect low-budget indie that always feels grand. There are big ideas like glaciers in the ocean here, lots more under the surface. The spider imagery used throughout is never hamfisted but hints at darker, psychological explanations for what is happening to Adam.

Read my full review here.

Videodrome (1983)
Written & Directed by David Cronenberg

Cronenberg’s first Hollywood production was a big box office bomb, but that’s likely because audiences didn’t know what to make of something so profound & ahead of its time. Max Renn (James Woods) runs a UHF television station in Toronto. One night he intercepts a show broadcast from Malaysia that depicts anonymous victims being tortured and murdered, snuff films. Max believes this is the future of television and starts recording the broadcasts to study them closer. He also strikes up a torrid sexual affair with radio host Nicki Brand (Debi Harry), who gets into these twisted broadcasts. Max discovers this show is part of a violent political movement studied by the enigmatic Brian O’Blivion, a media theorist in the city. The deeper Max goes, the weirder things get until the line between what he is watching and his life becomes completely warped. Long before the masses were really thinking about the effects of blasting unfiltered media into your brain 24/7, Cronenberg could already see where Western civilization was headed. Long live the new flesh!

Read my full review here.

Barton Fink (1991)
Written by Ethan & Joel Coen
Directed by Joel Coen

It’s a common thought that transitioning from being a writer who composes what they want to a writer working within the system can be an oppressive transition. Barton Fink (John Turturro) accepts a contract with Capitol Pictures in 1941 that brings him to Los Angeles. He settles into the affordable Earle Hotel and is told to write a wrestling picture. Things in the hotel begin to distract him, and strange noises come through the walls. The source appears to be Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), an insurance salesman who decides he’s a great friend of Fink’s right away. The dread here creeps in, aided by our perspective being tightly hewn to Fink’s. We only see what he sees and know what he knows, so as things around the hotel get more and more bizarre, all we can do is hope the bad stuff goes away. They don’t, and this movie comes to a chaotic, fiery conclusion that is one of the Coen Brothers’ best finales in their filmography.

Adaptation (2002)
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Directed by Spike Jonze

Adaptation is a film written by Charlie Kaufman about Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) writing an adaptation of the nonfiction book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), which is based on the actual book The Orchid Thief by the real Susan Orlean, a writer for the New Yorker. Confused yet? Charlie also has a twin brother Donald (also Cage), who is getting into screenwriting but in a much more corporate-friendly way than Charlie. Also, Charlie Kaufman doesn’t have a twin brother; I mean the real Kaufman, not the Kaufman in the movie. Donald keeps telling Charlie his script isn’t hitting the beat it needs to, and Charlie even attends a talk given by script guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox), who is based on the real-life script guru Robert McKee. It all makes sense if you pay attention. Adaptation is a meta-comedy that no one has ever tried to match, and it remains in a league of its own.

Read my full review here.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Written & Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Its title is difficult to pronounce, and it’s an equally complex & challenging film. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a playwright whose life is unraveling. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him to pursue her art career in Berlin, taking their four-year-old daughter Olive. But the thing is, Caden might already be dead, and this is just his mind trying to make sense of everything in it as he passes away. Or, he might not even be Caden but an elderly cleaning woman who sleeps on a cot in a utility closet living, utterly invisible to the people around her. In the meantime, our protagonist is stalked by a man who wants to play him, and Caden recreates the city inside a warehouse where he hires actors to play the people in his life. This unfolds over decades as the playwright ages and watches the people he cares about come and go. I can’t say that Synecdoche, New York is a life-affirming movie, but it is undoubtedly about life…and death, definitely death. It’s also a criminally-underrated masterpiece that will make you feel something.

Mulholland Drive (2001)
Written & Directed by David Lynch

Possibly the best film David Lynch has ever made, which is saying a lot when you look at his body of work. Born out of a failed spin-off idea for the Audrey Horne character on Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive explores a shiny on the surface but very grimy predatory business of fame & fortune. In the same way, Blue Velvet emerges from Lynch’s thoughts on growing up in white picket fence America; this movie grows from his subconscious as it contemplates his career as an artist in the studio system. Betty (Naomi Watts) is fresh off the plane, ready to begin her acting career, when she meets an amnesiac woman (Laura Haring). The woman takes the nickname Rita from Rita Hayworth, and she & Betty attempt to uncover the truth of her identity. There’s a lot more that happens and scenes that feel disconnected from these two entirely. You have to stop thinking with your analytical mind when you take in a Lynch film and simply feel it. His work comes from someplace much more profound than our conscious mind typically spends time inside, so it will initially feel dissonant with you. But there is something here that is vast & important, something you need to feel and understand why you react the way you do.


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