Everyone loves big summer blockbuster movies with big explosions and huge special effects budgets. But those movies tend to be entertaining because of the spectacle they provide, and not necessarily the substance they bring. Sometimes you just need to watch a dense, complicated movie in order to feel really satisfied. Something so layered and convoluted that you’re not quite sure if it’s a masterfully crafted story full of symbolism and hidden meaning or just a load of abstract randomness the writers and directors figured would be accepted as creative genius. Either way, audiences can take what they will from these 10 perplexing movies.
11. 2001: A Space Odyssey
From the epochal opening scene of primitive human’s first encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence to the wondrous final image for man reborn as some sort of super-evolved space baby, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal space opera forever changed the face of science fiction movies. However, it still remains one of the most confusing cinematic experiences ever, due in large part to the 30 minute psychedelic cosmic roller coaster that takes place after you think the movie has reached its conclusion. What really happens to Dave after he defeats Hal and goes through the stargate wormhole thing is open to wide interpretation, but it’s exactly this sort of thought-provoking storytelling that has made 2001: A Space Odyssey required viewing of cinephiles.
10. The Matrix Revolutions
With the first movie becoming an iconic science fiction classic, the Wachowskis probably figured it would be ok if they dialed up the cyber-biological metaphors and theological undertones for The Matrix sequels. This is especially true of the third installment where, by the end of the movie, all we can do is wonder and speculate about all the baffling questions we’re left with. Do humans have free will? Do robots and programs have free will? Is the war with the machines truly over? Did Neo really die after his final battle with Agent Smith? Or did he actually become ‘one’ with the source code? I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised considering the first introduction of the series to audiences was a provocative movie poster with the simple tagline: “What is the Matrix?”
With a confusing-as-hell narration told from the perspective of a protagonist with an inability to form memories, Christopher Nolan’s Memento is a murder mystery that’s as confounding as it is cool. As Leonard Shelby continues on his hopeless mission to avenge the mysterious rape and murder of his wife, his amnesia, while an interesting plot device, certainly doesn’t lend any sort of clarity to a story that’s told in non-chronological order to begin with. But one of Nolan’s greatest strengths as a director is his ability to structure movies in unconventional ways, and it’s arguable that the real confusion in Memento stems less from artistic direction and more from the peculiarity of the character’s mental state. Anyone interested in filmmaking should see this movie simply for its exemplary implementation of inventive storytelling.
Much like the majority of Darren Aronofsky’s movies, Pi is so difficult to understand you feel like you’d have an easier time solving differential equations. The grainy, black and white film is about a mathematician named Max Cohen who becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that everything in nature can be explained with numbers. Throw in a social anxiety disorder, some religious mysteries, a few paranoid hallucinations, then wrap it all up in a soft tortilla shell of quantum physics, and what you’ve got is a giant five layered WTF burrito with guacamole. The guacamole, of course, being the scene in which Max performs a little home surgery using a power drill.
7. The Tree of Life
Ostensibly, Terrence Malick’s 2011 film Tree of Life seems like a simple story about a family living in Texas. However, things quickly get muddled when the story starts tying into things like the creation of the universe, the origin of life, and the destruction of the Earth resulting from the sun going supernova. We’re pretty sure there’s actually an enlightening intelligible movie here amidst all the visions of death and cosmic imagery, but if you determine something more conclusive in your own viewing, please let us know.
6. Donnie Darko
With schizophrenia, time travel, falling jet engines, and a six-foot-tall nightmare bunny rabbit named Frank all playing prominently into its story, Donnie Darko is definitely one of the most unusual films for its time. Most people who have seen it will tell you they love it, but actually understanding it and then explaining the story to another person would feel like a feat of mental gymnastics worthy of a degree in theoretical physics.
Luckily, a director’s cut was released in 2004 which makes the whole multi-dimension, time travel plot a little easier to grasp. But regardless of how difficult it is to understand, Donnie Darko is still a cool movie that’s fun to talk about.
5. 12 Monkeys
In this work from off-beat director Terry Gilliam, Bruce Willis plays a prisoner from a dystopian future sent back in time to gather information about a virus that will eventually wipe out most of humanity. However, things don’t go exactly according to plan, as he gets sent back to the wrong time and ends up in an insane asylum.
This movie is pretty confusing, primarily because of the incessant shifting time periods, locations and characters. Trying to decipher the paranoid ramblings of Brad Pitt’s character is enough to discombobulate audiences on its own. Nevertheless, 12 Moneys is loaded with interesting themes and ideas that stem mostly from its paradoxical conclusion. It’s definitely an imaginative piece of thought-provoking science fiction, but it’s pretty hard to follow the first time around.
4. Mulholland Drive
Mulholland Drive is one of director David Lynch’s most acclaimed films. But this tale of an aspiring actress who befriends an amnesiac hiding in her aunt’s apartment certainly isn’t the easiest thing to follow. Characters are played by multiple actresses, there’s an explosion of identity issues, and some theories even suggest that the first three quarters of the movie are all just a dream sequence. In addition, the disjointed narrative is loaded with sequences that seem completely unrelated and highly open to interpretation. Especially the ending, which Lynch has repeatedly stated he won’t explain or comment on—perhaps because not even he can’t make any sense of it.
To say that Primer is complicated would be a gargantuan understatement. In fact, the movie, made on a budget of only $7,000, is so jam-packed with details that it should come with a disclaimer stating that multiple viewings are mandatory for comprehension. Of all the movies ever made featuring time travel, Primer could very well be the most confusing. It has since become a modern cult classic for its infuriatingly intricate plot that has had fans contemplating and scrutinizing it more than 10 years after the film’s release. Look up “Primer Explained” on YouTube and you’ll be amazed at the way dedicated fans have drawn up diagrams of the different timelines and paradoxes that pop up throughout the story. But the truly excellent thing about this film is that, if you pay close enough attention, you can actually suss out all the all the information required to understand it. It might be deeply embedded within the story composition, but it’s there waiting for those patient and thoughtful enough to dig it up.
2. Cloud Atlas
Tom Hanks, Halle Barry and Jim Broadbent lead this mammoth sci-fi epic that spans centuries. There are multiple time periods in which the actors dawn various and exotic modes of costume and dialect, as they each play numerous roles throughout movie—some of which make them completely unrecognizable.
The Wachowskis, along with German filmmaker Tom Twyker, have created in Cloud Atlas one of the most puzzling and ambiguous science fiction films in history. But also one of the most ambitious. While you could easily get hopelessly lost in the movie’s jumbled narrative and reoccurring actors playing different characters, there’s a strong principal theme that permeates throughout. It centers around the idea that the actions and convictions of each individual echo through the past, present and future. Therefore, a single act of cruelty or decency could be the seed that grows into a revolution 300 years later. It’s certainly a lot to digest, which is probably why the movie is three hours long.
You could call this an experiment in filmmaking for actor and aspiring writer/director Anthony Hopkins. Though such endeavors often end in failure, experiments are meant to be a learning process by which you accumulate knowledge on your way to hopefully discovering or proving something meaningful. While we’re not exactly sure what Hopkins was trying to prove when he made Slipstream, it’s fairly safe to assume the experiment was a failure. This has to be one of the most bewildering and unwatchable movies ever made. Most of the movie takes place inside the head of Hopkins’ character, Felix Bonhoeffer, who’s starting to notice that characters from his written work are popping up in his own life. If properly handled with care this could have been a pretty interesting plot device, but, sadly, Slipstream digresses into a careless dumbfounding rollick where the audience becomes more of victim subjected to the self-indulgent whims of a director whose style is a compendium of avant-garde techniques and narrative tricks wielded haphazardly in an attempt to suggest deeper meanings and subtext. If there even is a real story in this movie, trying to find it isn’t fun, it’s downright aggravating.