5 Best Mind Bending Movies

5 Best Mind Bending Movies

Alright, lets go looking for the 5 best mind bending movies.  With the release Christopher Nolan’s Inception I have been asked time and time again about other similar movies that mess with your mind. And every time I’m asked I find myself wondering what it is about Nolan movies that make them so fantastic?

Is it the surprising, twist ending?

Maybe its the noir darkness that people enjoy?

Or could it be the LSD mind trip quality?

And when I listed out all the movies I considered to be somewhat relevant I saw a list that was upwards of 30 movies. Each having one of the qualities above. You have other Nolan movies like The Prestige, Memento, Inception which just scream mind bender in every way. But Some were the best con-artist movies ever made – you don’t get better at twist endings than that. A few were stylish noir flicks that were epicly dark and palpable in their feel. And then you had the mind trip, LSD rides that totally messed with your sanity while visiting their worlds. Each of these movies were classics. But they didn’t capture the essence that is the Nolan vibe. The brilliant idea. The epic ending. The crazy confusion of not understanding what is going on. The contained idea that brings you new worlds of possibilities.

So with that I went to hacking away some of the best movies in film history. Movies like Blade Runner (Director’s Cut) – which had 2 of the three but not all three criteria. Noir world. Surprising theory. But it just wasn’t at its core epicly mind bending like a Nolan movie. Sure, we have the discussion around whether Harrison’s character was an android or not. But that wasn’t at the center of the movie. What else? You have con movies like 9 Queens – an Argentinian movie that is at the top of its game in throwing the viewer for a loop as to which way is up and which way is down.

And in the comments below we have just a huge pile of added movies for use to consider. Movies like The Usual Suspects, Donnie Darko, Inception, 12 Monkeys, Shutter Island, etc. etc. Which are amazingly good candidates. Good enough I took stock of my picks and had to reaffirm them all.

So many good possibilities to list here. But instead of going for a long list of commonly known movies I tried to select movies that fit all three criteria but also were less widely known. So that if you are coming to this list looking for other Nolan-like mind bending movies there will probably be one on here that you don’t know. So with that understood – let us begin our countdown, starting with number five in our search for the 5 best mind bending movies.

5 Best Mind Bending Movies - Dark City

5 Best Mind Bending Movies – Dark City

Dark City is a noir Science Fiction movie that will mess with your understanding of reality in an enormously cosmic sense. Are we humans innately good? Are we crafted by our environment or do we redefine the environment to craft it to who we are? Pick it up by clicking the image to the right —->

The storyline is the basic noir plot line. A man wakes up near a dead woman with a knife in his hand. And the next thing we know is that we are on the run. Our hero has no memory of the events but can’t believe he would do something as horrible as what happened. So he begins to try and solve the murder on his own. Soon he realizes that not everything is as it seems when everyone in the city simultaneously falls asleep at the stroke of midnight. I’ll stop there – and let you do your discovery for yourself.

Dark City has an ingenious concept at its heart. And a great reveal. It also has a wonderful texture and dark environs. It takes the noir detective story and turns it on its head with a fantastic sci-fi twist. It definitely deserves its place in this elite list of Nolan-esque mind bending movies.

5 Best Mind Bending Movies - Eternal Sunshine

5 Best Mind Bending Movies – Eternal Sunshine

You either absolutely love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or hate it with a passion. I personally think it is the perfect romance movie. Probably should tell my shrink – probably would explain a ton to him.

The concept here is brilliant. A machine the redacts painful memory – what could go wrong here? And the journey through partially deleted memories is the stuff of legends. What I never understood here is – how does finding your love in your brain equate to finding her in real life? But none the less, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is epic. And could have easily bounced from #4 to #1 in my (spotless) mind. Its that good. If you haven’t seen this gem cease reading and stream it immediately. (I’m thinking this comment goes for absolutely every movie in this list… but I digress).

5 Best Mind Bending Movies - Tape

5 Best Mind Bending Movies – Tape

Even if you are a huge movie buff there is still a very good chance that you have never even HEARD of this movie. So few of you had even heard of this movie i thought I would include a link for you to pick this movie up at a great price.  Just click the image over there —->.

There are only THREE cast members in the whole moviE (Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard).  And I’m including extras here. And there is only one room – a beat down hotel room at that – in this movie. With a cast list as stark as this and a location even starker you better have a great idea to carry this thing off. And carry it off they do.

Tape is a downward spiral of a movie where what appears is not exactly what it seems. And the entropic unraveling that carries the plot forward is absolutely fantastic. But I love a good dialogue movie (like Ethan’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, anyone?) and that is exactly what this movie is. Absolutely stunning dialogue. This is a character driven masterpiece. But of all the movies in the list this one may be the one closest to being disqualified for not exactly being mind bending in the LSD sense of the term. But regardless, I think with its relative unknown nature – it is worth adding to the list.

5 Best Mind Bending Movies - Memento

5 Best Mind Bending Movies – Memento

You know that I had to add at least one Christopher Nolan movie to this list.  You can purchase this great movie by clicking the link to the image to the right —> I definitely recommend the blu-ray version with all the extras.

Nolan’s opus Memento is absolutely the best mind bender of them all (which we deconstruct over here: http://taylorholmes.com/2010/07/28/memento-explained/ . Argue all you want, I wont bend on this one. Prestige seems to be too straight forward. Inception is good – but way too much James Bond. Memento is a brain rush of chaos and jumbled data. Its like shoving your face into a fire hydrant, backwards. Eh? No, more like a tree shredder set on turbo, turned on backwards. Shredded trees go in, whole trees come out.

I’m not making any sense. PERFECT!

Seriously though, Memento is an epic movie that defies logic. When I first watched it – my mouth was on the floor of the theater for the duration. I kid you not. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Was I just lied to the entire movie? Did what I just saw happen, really happen? It was brilliant in every sense of the word.

5 Best Mind Bending Movies - Primer

5 Best Mind Bending Movies – Primer

Much has been made of Primer’s low low low budget. Much has been made of the premise. But I’m here to tell you that Primer is by far and away the number one mind bender movie of all time. Bring your 300 million budget of Avatar and compare it to Primer’s $12k. Bring your big budget special effects of Inception and compare it to Primer’s zero special effects. Bring your amazing Hitchcock-ian writing and concepts. And you still don’t hold a candle to this movie. I here by throw the gauntlet down. If you can prove me wrong on this one I will UPS you a coke. Promise.

And what’s sad is that I’m betting that you haven’t heard of this movie. (“Primer? How do you even pronounce it? Pr-eh-mer? Pr-I-mer? bah.” I hear you say.) I read an interview with Shane Carruth, the director, writer, actor, financier, guru and demi-god of Primer, and he was asked why he didn’t wrap up the movie and rewind it so everyone could end on the same page. What was his response? I didn’t want to talk down to my audience. Hahahah. I love that answer.

The basic premise is that a couple of part time engineers accidentally event a time machine. And it all goes to pot from there. The story is actually a meta-conversation around friendships. Two buddies who would do anything for each other are suddenly doubting each other. Two friends are suddenly second guessing not only each other but themselves. And from there it spirals to really dark areas of the brain that probably show us why we don’t have power over the fourth dimension.

Primer is where I will conclude this list. But I would love to hear your movies that fit this mind bending definition. Send ‘em our way and I’ll add them to the list. Go on, I dare you to beat this list of Mind Benders.

Commenter Recommendations
And beat my list you have tried!! After allowing this post to stew a bit and allow others to comment on their preferred mind benders I have collected them and listed them below for easier consumption than having to read through all the comments. So here we go:

Donnie Darko, 12 monkeys, The Fountain, Identity, Fight Club, Se7en, Shutter island, Inception, Session, Usual Suspects, Jacob’s Ladder, Moon, Pan’s Labyrinth Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Mulholland Drive, Stay, The Ring, Pandorum, Nine Queens, Sixth Sense, Unforgettable, Matchstick Men, One Point O, Cypher, Synecdoche New York, Slipstream, and The Man from Earth.

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41 Responses

  1. Di says:

    Oh this is absolutely wonderful! I watched Memento before I started taking my classes that teach me to dissect every thing I love, so I must watch it again anyways. I love Inception and my mother and I do enjoy thinking films (and the discussions they lead to). I was just running out of ideas on what to watch, and voíla: a list of mindfuck to behold!

  2. Taylor says:

    Hey Di,
    Would love to hear your thoughts on the ones you haven’t seen yet. Especially if you crack them wide open and have the insight into understanding them! Glad you liked the post.

    Are there others that should be added to this list?
    Taylor

  3. Di says:

    Taylor,

    I’ve downloaded them, but yet to watch them. I wouldn’t say Shutter Island be added, if only because I cracked the movie within 15-20 minutes (that was too easy), but it does make you question just what in heaven’s name is going on. I mainly remember repeating the phrase, “He cray-cray. He is bonafide crazy and this is all in his head. Next movie, mom.” The ending did leave me a little unsettled, however, because it seemed like a Catch-22, where he was clearly sane after all, but decided to do opt for the cray-cray option. Well, in SI’s case, he seemed to have finally gotten a grasp on reality but decided to be responsible and go through with the lobotomy.

    I’d suggest a separate list for movies that aren’t terribly “WHOA WTF” and more so, “Hmmm….wtf.” Shutter Island, Catch-22, and Inception would belong on it. But here I am rambling, digressing from the topic. I’ll go watch Tape now :]

  4. Ivan says:

    I would like to add two more: Donnie Darko – crazy, strange and weird movie and The Man from Earth – nice idea with very good final realization. The second one maybe does not belong on mind-job list of movies, but until the end it keeps viewer on ‘the edge’.

    List is good, especially Dark City.

    p.s. 12 monkeys?

  5. Di says:

    Watched Tape. I found it pretty funny, aside from the mounting tension. However, I do think the whole movie was drug-induced. From the insinuations of Hawke and the way Leonard’s character begins to fall for it. It’s a mental game, and I’m not sure what Hawke is trying to accomplaish. Thurman, on the other hand, seems to be playing with both of them. One mind game within a mind game, like a bad case of Inception :P

  6. Taylor says:

    Hey there Ivan!
    Donnie Darko is definifitely out here in the land of complete-mind-job movies. Good catch.

    I’ve never heard of Man From Earth. I will go check it out post haste. And 12 Monkeys is one of the great mind benders of all time. The time travel and the hopelessness in spite of all the efforts was an awesome twist.

    Good movies to add! Thanks!
    Taylor

  7. Ivan says:

    Yeah, 12 monkey have such a awesome atmosphere. Terry Gilliam is a master of that kind of work: he will drag you into the movie, almost as a part of the scenario. For me, 12 monkeys have a ultimate best atmosphere and production design.

    The Man From Earth is a straightforward movie – excellent scenario, one room and few people talking. What more to ask for? :)

  8. Taylor says:

    Hey Ivan,
    Love movies that are driven by dialogue. Good writing is the heart of any movie. Add good actors to say the lines and voila, I am perfectly happy with an entire movie set at a park bench. (Thus my love for Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.)

    I definitely have to watch Man From Earth now. Thanks for the tip amigo!!

    Taylor

  9. Taylor says:

    Di,
    Glad you enjoyed Tape. I totally agree – it was definitely a movie inside a movie inside a movie. But all within the worlds of the characters. Really very cleverly written and acted and plotted. Thanks for coming back through and giving your thoughts!

    Taylor

  10. Ivan says:

    np Taylor ;). I am expecting some feedback for Man From Earth…
    I’ve added Primer and Tape to my “must-watch” movie collection

  11. Taylor says:

    Hey Ivan,
    I just rented it on iTunes to watch on my flight Monday to the Tridion conference Adam and I are attending. Wish I could have brought my favorite Serb along to chat movies! I’ll let you know in a couple days what I thought of it. I’ve read a number of reviews and it looks amazing. Thanks a ton for the recommendation. Can’t wait.

    Taylor

  12. Ivan says:

    Hey Taylor,
    Favorite Serb :), hahahaha, you know couple of them :). Thank you “Dwight” :). We (girlfriend and I) watched ‘Tape’ few nights ago. My personal movie score:5/10. Uma was cool, and in general there was too much arguing throughout movie. Primer is next…

  13. Dustin says:

    Great topic Taylor and not too bad a list. The Fountain (2006) would have to be up there, and have you ever seen Slipstream (2007)?

  14. Taylor says:

    @Ivan –
    TOO MUCH ARGUING?!? hahaha. That cracks me up. Love it. I watched “Man From Earth” on the flight home. I’m going to be really really honest with you. This movie had a LOT of baggage in it for me. Most of these actors are old washed up 80’s sit-com actors. Not sure how they landed an acting gig at this stage in their career. So that didn’t help me at all with swallowing the premise. But otherwise, the idea was clever. And the dialogue was cute. If I had read the screenplay it would have been a lot easier to enjoy I’m sure.

    Which brings me to another blog post idea. THE TOP TEN DIALOGUE MOVIES. Like Tape, Reality Bites, Before Sunset, Before Sunrise & any movie by Woodie Allen… etc. I love a good dialogue movie. Most of my friends throw up when I recommend them though because an idea isn’t enough to sustain most audiences. Can you guys think of other good DIALOGUE DRIVEN MOVIES?

    @Dustin, I absolutely LOVED the Fountain. Goodness and light there. But I’ve never even heard of Slipstream before. And it has Hopkins in it? Amazing I’ve missed that one. Good recommendation amigo. Greatly appreciated!

    Until next time,
    Taylor

  15. hisham says:

    Almost my favorite five. i would move memento to number one. and maybe slide ‘Identity’ in instead of eternal sunshine.

  16. Taylor says:

    Identity absolutely rocked the house. I just completely spaced it. I did have a bit of an issue with the sort of cop out ending. But it was still very very clever. The writing was gorgeous and the acting was nothing shy of stellar. Great call Hisham!! Appreciate your calling it our attention.

    Taylor

  17. Azman Mutalib says:

    My top mind-bending movie list: 1. Donnie Darko, 2. Fight Club, 3. Memento, 4. Se7en, 5. Shutter Island, 6. Inception, 7. Session 9, 8. Usual Suspect

  18. Ken says:

    Of these movies tape is the only one I’ve not seen, It is among very good company, so I will soon see it as well.

  19. Tony W says:

    On the topic of good dialogue movies, Hurlyburly would definitely be on my list.

  20. Kirit Sahgal says:

    absolutely great movies on the list….why don’t you guys check out jacob’s ladder (1990), one point o (2004), enter the void (2009), cypher (2002), synecdoche, new york (2008). i think they are also along the same lines as the ones mentioned here. let me know what you think?

  21. Taylor says:

    Kirit,
    Brilliant list. Jacob’s Ladder is one of my favorite movies of all time. Just love it. Looking back on it and seeing the angels and the demons after the fact makes the movie just ring on multiple levels.

    As for these others – I believe I might have seen Enter the Void, it rings bells, but I can’t say why. I’m going to run off and research them and start watching. I think this is my favorite blog I’ve ever done solely because it is constantly giving me new ideas to consider in my favorite genre of movies. So THANKS for the new movie recommendation Kirit!

    And Azman, I haven’t seen Session. I’ll definitely go get on that. Brilliance.

    Thanks all! And keep the movie ideas coming.
    Taylor

  22. Matt says:

    Didnt read the comments so I don’t know if anyone has mentioned these but I would have MOON and The Man From Earth, both those really got me thinking

  23. Matt says:

    Also Good List! Seen them all except Primer, little put off by reading that its a lot of technical jargon but this is one too many times that I’ve seen it rated as one of the most mind bending films so I’m gonna watch it tonight

  24. Stevie DC says:

    Just re-watched Memento for the first time in about 8 years, and then tracked down and read your fantastic website (and equally fantastic comments) attempting to explain it. That led me to this page – great list!

    Here a couple others I’m surprised no one else has added to the comments: Pan’s Labyrinth, Being John Malkovich and (especially!) Adaptation. The first two may not really qualify as “mind-bending”, but I think Adaptation does!

  25. Joshp says:

    Inland Empire?
    Mullholland Drive?
    Lost Highway?
    Blue Velvet?
    Eraserhead?

    any Lynch fans out there?
    how about some older stuff? Like, Fellini – 8 1/2 or Bergman – Wild Strawberries or Polanski – Repulsion? These guys were mind F*ing audiences way before Inception… that to me is even more mind bending, if you would have seen these movies back then…you would have commited suicide.

  26. dacrum says:

    I find mind-bending movies can be divided into two groups: the concept film and the convoluted film.

    Concept films often incorporates sci-fi elements, is based off a high concept (and is often highly sought after in Hollywood), often surreal or a literal dream. A concept film is mind-bending because the concept is intriguing, complex, and hard-to-follow.

    Convoluted films usually employ an unreliable narrator. They are often more reality-based in setting, but use psychological confusion, deliberate deceit, or incomplete/misleading information to create rabbit trails (Alice in Wonderland, an original mind-bender). A convoluted film is mind-bending because we don’t know what is true and what is a lie or delusion.

    All mind-benders leave the viewer at least partially confused after the first viewing, and may take multiple viewings to determine what happened. Even then, clues and theories are relied upon, but no one true answer can be found because these films are deliberately abstract, vague, and ultimately unknowable. That is the challenge and the appeal of the mind-bender!

    Mind-benders are not to be confused with movies that have a twist ending. While many mind-benders, especially convoluted films, employ one or more twists, a twist in a regular movie explains all and leaves no doubt as to what happened throughout. Mind-benders, not so.

    Also, it’s important to note that many films inspire to be mind-benders but fall short. They may use unreliable narrators, high concepts, dreamworlds, etc. but the quality or execution of the movie lets it down. Others may use these techniques without intending to be mind-benders. It is not the technique that makes a movie a mind-bender, but the ambiguity, both throughout and afterwards.

    Here’s a partial list from my viewing. Some of them could fit into both categories, but most are obviously one far more than the other, although I’ve included one movie on both lists because it used both, I felt, equally. Many of these were already mentioned, but worth a repeat. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about each of these long after watching them. Mileage may vary.

    Concept:
    Inception
    Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
    Donnie Darko
    Eternal Sunshine
    Watchmen
    Dark City
    Being John Malkovich
    The Fountain
    Lost
    Pan’s Labyrinth

    Convoluted:
    Memento
    Shutter Island
    Fight Club
    Adaptation
    Prestige
    Mulholland Drive
    Inception
    Stay
    The Ring
    Pandorum
    The Usual Suspects
    Nine Queens

    Twists, not mind-bending:
    Sixth Sense
    Unforgettable
    Seven
    The Village
    Matchstick Men
    many mysteries and thrillers

    p.s. Great topic. Mind-benders are some of my favorite movies. I wasn’t big on Primer. It was convoluted, and high-concept enough, but I found I just didn’t care, and so it was just confusing and boring. Identity was definitely up there until the cop-out ending which ruined it all. Shutter Island… well, I’m not sure it’s so clearly defined that he was, in fact, crazy, nor that he was sane at the end. That is the popular opinion, and one I lean toward, but not without trepidation. I could argue for each one of these, but this is already ridic long.

  27. lost soul says:

    one of my favourite is mr. nobody.. a good movie to watch… never get bored of it

  28. Rorschach says:

    1) Open your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos)
    2) Altered States
    3) The Science of Sleep

  29. selva says:

    I ve PRIMER in ma WATCH LIST!

  30. Taylor says:

    Dacrum, Rorschach, Stevie, et al.
    Great comments. Not exactly sure how I fell off the distro list for this post – but I think I did! Gah. Anyway, you guys have been having a great conversation over here and somehow I’ve missed out on it. Especially seeing as though I’ve recently been to Florida and California and was dying for good movies to watch (instead I watched John Carter, why exactly?!) So thanks for the pile of good ideas. I think maybe I should just roll up all the recommendations given in the comments and add them to the larger blog… hrmmm.

    But I did want to mention a couple things. Dacrum – there were a couple in your list that just screamed at me (quite literally) that I speak to. The Ring! Brilliant mention. I have been recently been reading House of Leaves (which you can join me for here: ) which totally reminds me of. The Ring was awesome. So much so I went back and watched the original as well – Ringu was it? Can’t remember.

    Others you mentioned that I loved: obviously, Adaptation, Fight Club, ,The Usual Suspects, Nine Queens, Lost (really good TV right there – X-Files too, are there others?),

    The ones you guys have mentioned that I don’t know are: Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, Stay, Pandorum, Unforgettable, Matchstick Men, Inland Empire, Open your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos), Altered States & The Science of Sleep. I’ve heard of most – and have added them to my watch list. Great list though, exciting stuff.

    Taylor

  31. Malik says:

    I second Mr. Nobody, one of my all time faves, and certainly an underappreciated gem

  32. Taylor says:

    By the way – did you guys all see my primer post over here: http://taylorholmes.com/2012/07/27/a-primer-movie-primer/ – I am like DYING to find out what you all thought of it. Come on gang. Chop chop! Throw me under the bus already. I need to know if I’m totally missing it on this movie! hahah.

    Taylor

  33. Matt says:

    Some lesser knowns that I find intriguing:

    Exam
    Fermat’s Room (in Spanish I believe so a subtitled movie)
    Stay
    Deception (with Jackman, McGregor)
    Brick (more of a murder mystery but great)

  34. theauthor says:

    Holy Crap. Are we twins separated at birth?
    Don’t forget Mulholland Drive, Solaris (Clooney version), and Pi.

  35. Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be
    ok. I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

    Stop by my website; reklama Krapkowice

  36. Hey there Reklama,
    Not really. I have a couple accounts, but have let them lapse. Instagram is where I hang out more. And you can find me at @Taylor_Holmes.

    Thanks for swinging by!
    Taylor

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