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?

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.

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.  I definitely recommend the blu-ray version with all the extras as you are able to even watch the film in “backwards”/”forwards” formats.

Nolan’s opus Memento is absolutely the best mind bender of them all (which we deconstruct over here: https://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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58 Responses

  1. Malik

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

    Reply
  2. Matt

    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)

    Reply
    • Taylor Holmes

      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

      Reply
  3. Ian Scaife

    I would add ‘Enemy’ to the list. The closing shot of the film invokes a reaction that cannot be compared to anything else I have ever seen.

    Highly recommended.

    Ian

    Reply
    • Lauren Pace

      Agree on Enemy! Also: Coherence and The One That I Love. I’ve seen them both mentioned in other spots in your site.

      Reply
  4. IG

    it was my turn to pick a movie and having seen all that i “needed” to see, i walked the parade of posters outside the theatre. i saw the one for Primer and was reminded of reading about this low budget weird time bending film being made in texas. i had forgotten about its release until that moment. i chose it. we saw it. the dude i was with thought it was kind of stupid. i remember thinking, “what?!? What?!? WHAT is his problem? he is sooooooo not the guy for me”. then, i corrected myself internally about being so shallow. i experienced a similar moment with Memento. he had not seen it. like batman, i was determined to correct this mistake in his life choices and rescued him by swiftly swooping in, interrupted my netflix queue flow, and ordered it up. this is love, yes? i was stoked to do movie analysis with my guy one, two, three, four, five days, weeks, months… you know… whatever felt right… balls to the wall throwdown of movie speak battle, yeah? he watched it and said, “that was okay”. even the beautiful work of art, Eternal Sunshine became smeared with a “that was interesting, but what’s the point?” comment. the question is not how do i remember these small polka dots of conversation, but how can i not, right? geeeeeeeeez. turns out those thoughts in the theatre parking lot after the Primer viewing said so much more than i knew at that time. hindsight. ugh.

    to make a long story longer… when i saw the list above, my eyes bugged. combine this with your Z post = i am kinda gobsmacked. i have decided to change up my game. in order to agree or disagree with complete clarity, i am going to mess with my netflix queue and re-watch all things that have been taylor’d. i will then check out what you post before i return the dvd (just in case i need to re-watch again). sound crazy? yes. do you get it? i know you do. project taylor, day1.

    Reply
    • Taylor Holmes

      Yeah,
      I think it’s been mentioned here once or twice. Great movie. I’ve been meaning to do a fullon break down when I get a chance, but like you said, that one is a slippery little bugger. Plan to read your blog and see if your thoughts match up with mine. Definitely an intense movie. I adored it.

      taylor

      Reply
  5. KeeCeez

    I’m surprised no one’s mentioned The 13th Floor. Granted you’re given a solitary character perspective to follow and therefore understand the motivations and story as you move along with the character but it totally maintained a level of complexity that on an initial viewing made it difficult to guess or figure out where it was going. It’s a bit on the cheesy side and kind of namby at the end but it’s definitely in the mind twisty category.

    Existenz is another goodie, next to Primer it’s my favorite. It reconciles at the end but it’s not until the end that you realize what you’ve been watching.

    PRIMER – is the master and the one to beat. No one thus far has come close to pulling off what Carruth has accomplished. I KNEW #1 was going to be Primer 🙂

    I don’t really consider Nolan’s movies to be mind-bendy because you can connect with the perspective you’re given and the fact you’re given a perspective hands you a base to build logic around, interpretations definitely vary but you understand what it is you’re watching. The absence of a clear and solitary perspective winds up isolating like 80-90% of the viewing audience so major theatrical releases tend not to take the route of isolating the greater part of the viewing audience.

    Primer definitely denied the viewer that “out” and forces you to think your way through repeatedly. The scientific and technological dialog does a great job of forcing you out -keeping you disconnected or disoriented in the story, the pacing is spot on too. You really have to want to understand Primer, and even then, you’ll have questions. It’s the best!

    –oh yeah, Total Recall (the 80s version).

    Reply
  6. Sebastian

    I would like to point you to a german mind bending time travel movie. Its only in german with english subtitles available. Its about a guy who loses his daughter in an accident while he cheats on his wife. Later he discovers a hidden door to the past which he uses to try to change history. Later its discovered that he is not the first one who found this door.

    http://www.amazon.com/Door-Region-B-Mads-Mikkelsen/dp/B004OBNWRY

    Reply
  7. Shivom

    Hey, been through the whole thread. I found this blog really interesting. I’m a Hollyholic and love Sci Fies / Psychotic Thrillers / Comedy / Dramas AF… Taylor, you’re cool. Primer’s been one of my favorites and it still takes my breath away everytime I think of it. I preferably go through as many details as possible after I watch a movie. I review all the possibilities and theories the plot might suggest to. I’m damn deep into the space fantasies as well. I have a list of a few movies left unmentioned in the thread so far. I would strongly recommend you guys to watch these all time ‘Mindfuck’ Movies.
    1. Interstellar
    I’m surprised to know that I’m the first one to be coming up with this name here. I bet most of y’all have already watched it. Guess what, its Christopher Nolan.
    2. Edge of Tomorrow
    Time loops, Alternate realities, Alien invasion and Tom Cruise. A perfect mix of comedy, action, science and thrills.
    3. Triangle
    This is seriously one of those underrated films which deserve attention and respect. The references in this suspense thriller Sci Fi are so strong and meaningful.
    4. Predestination
    Simply perfect. Yet another thriller science fiction with time travel which would squeeze your brains out.
    5. Looper
    You can’t miss this one. The plot it extremely fine and screenplay is as amazing as it could ever be.
    6. AI : Artificial Intelligence
    A very emotional and heart melting fantasy. Dramatic and scientific at the same time.
    7. Pulp Fiction
    One of those indie dramas which leave your mouth wide open as the credits roll. Parallel storylines intersect.
    8. 2001 : A Space Odyssey
    Another name I hoped to see up there but couldn’t find. One of the finest space travel movies. Journey to the Jupiter.
    9. Prometheus
    Dwelling in the concept of Gods and our existence, this movie raises very valid and excellent questions of the motive and destiny of our lives. And we even get to meet out creators…!
    10. Project Almanac
    A scholar who just got selected in the MIT discovers an unfinished project of his dead scientist dad which accidentally leads him to be the inventor of a Time Machine. Much like primer. Just not that complicated.
    11. The Butterfly Effect
    Explains the significance and viability of the Chaos Theory. How one simple flutter of a butterfly’s wing can create a hurricane on the other side of the globe.
    12. Identity
    As already mentioned several times.
    Psychological thriller with suspense so killing you’d rather watch it again and again. The End is just overwhelming and one of the greatest WTFs. Just like Shutter Island, the movie has a well written story and climax.

    You can’t miss these movies. Just add them all in your string right away. I bet you won’t regret. Thank me later.
    Also, ‘Mr. Nobody’ has been in one of my best movies’ list. I loved ‘Fight Club’ as much as ‘Inception’. ‘Memento’ sure is a masterpiece. I’m so obsessed with ‘Donnie Darko’. ‘Mulholland Drive’ was unexceptionable. ‘The Prestige’, ‘The Fountain’, ‘Se7en’ and ’12 Monkeys’ were great as well.
    This thread has all the movies worth watching and I’m really thankful to all you folks for sharing your views.

    Reply
    • Taylor Holmes

      Hey there Shivom,
      Great list of movies. I believe I have seen them all and can vouch for their brilliance. Kudos. Shivom, I have long reviews and discussions of many of these movies that you should check out and comment on. But regardless it sounds like we are twins separated at birth with a lot of the same interests. Sending you all the appropriate best friend forms presently.

      Haha – Taylor

      Reply
      • Shivom

        Hello again, I’m so glad to be having this conversation with you Taylor. Yes indeed, we’re twins lol. I’ve had gone through all your reviews and discussion threads. Must admit, you’ve got another fan. Bookmarked the site as one of my favorites, and yes I would love to share my views with the viewers over all those mind-bending movies.

        PS – l forgot to mention a few movies I can’t simply resist to watch over and over.

        1. Lucy
        One of the greatest philosophical Sci Fies which tells you the capability your powerful brain possesses. From telekinesis to time travel, one can be invincible and do anything you can ever imagine with the help of that all-powerful brain which we barely use upto it’s true potential.

        2. Coherence
        Much like Primer, the movie was made with the lowest possible expenses. Underrated like Triangle, but the intensity of plot and meaningfulness unravels and as the timeline starts to loop only to develop even more complex parallel realities as a comet passes close to the Earth.

        3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
        This is a very thought provoking movie with a deep meaning carved within. Life goes backwards for poor Benjamin as he is born old and gets younger all the way back to infancy.

        4. Source Code
        Here again, you get to see the protagonist relive a time gap of 8 minutes multiple times to spot and identify a bomber who is further planning a nuclear explosion in the city. What follows is totally unexpected and leaves the audience gazing up in amazement and deep thoughts as the credits roll.

        That’s it for now, I’m sure my twin might have watched these too.
        Thankyou so much for providing us with these wild theories and open-end climaxes. These threads never get old. Well wishes for the future, dear Taylor.
        – Shivom

  8. Ari

    I found you through Coherence. You haven’t updated this list in this reality! 🙂

    Reply
  9. Taylor

    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

    Reply
  10. Rick

    Good list bro I’ve seen all these & they’re all top notch films. I remember I was at a friend’s house we were watching the Independent Film Channel & ‘Tape’ came on it was so good for such a low budget film. Another film that came on that night was called ‘Street Thief'(2006) it’s like a fake documentary but damn it was so good it’s a must see for sure.

    Reply
  11. Ben

    I sincerely think Ex Machina could get at least an honorable mention. But maybe I am wrong in reading Calebs character in a way he wasnt meant to be read. I dont want to spoil anything, but Caleb in Ex Machina was one of the most amazing mind f*cks for me when I noticed it second time around…

    Reply
  12. Taylor Holmes

    Hey there Ben,
    Yeah – this post was written back in 2011. I should do a new one and include some newer better ones. Ex Machina would make the list, it would just depend on how long the list got. But yeah, I did a post about Machina over here, here, and again here. Pretty big fan of that flick. And if you liked that, you should check out Uncanny. Same ballgame even better mind-job-ness though.

    Taylor

    Reply

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