Photo: Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock.
WARNING: So many spoilers ahead! Plot twists unraveled. Endings revealed. Proceed at your own risk.
March 16 marks the 15th anniversary of the release of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, one of the greatest mindfuck movies of all time. What makes something a quality mindfuck movie? Sometimes, it’s a twist ending that seems to come out of nowhere and truly shocks you, because the reveal means you have to go back and rethink everything that happened during the course of the entire movie.
Take The Sixth Sense, for example. After you found out that Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) was dead the entire time, you had to recall every scene in which you thought Dr. Crowe interacted with characters besides Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). Nope; it turns out he only interacts with Cole after he gets shot in the beginning of the movie. He really has been dead the whole time. M. Night Shyamalan, you trickster, you.
Other times, a movie fucks with your head from beginning to end. It leads you one way, then swerves sharply to the left. The plot isn’t remotely linear, although it appeared to be (ahem, Triangle). Or you can’t even figure out what’s going on at all. Think Christopher Nolan’s Inception, or Shane Carruth’s Primer.
But when it comes to this magical mindfuckery that makes you wonder what you just watched for hours on end, why would you ever want to want to get out of these moments?
And one more reminder that there are MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD — so major you may as well call them majorettes and stick ’em in front of a marching band twirling batons.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
Directed By: David Fincher
Written By: Gillian Flynn
On the surface, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) have the perfect marriage. But all’s not well in the kingdom of Denmark — or, in this case, we should say Carthage, Missouri. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing inexplicably, and leaves Nick as the prime suspect. As with the novel, the film shifts between perspectives of the two people in the marriage. Things are not as they seem in the disappearance or in the marriage.
Starring: Pepper Binkley, Bill Dawes, Judith Hawking
Directed By: Rania Ajami
Written By:Rania Ajami, Jake Pilikian
In this weird little indie, six people try to escape from the mundanity of their daily lives by checking into a mental asylum. The problem? There’s only room for one of them. They’ll have to compete to prove which is the most mentally unstable, and thus worthy of entering the psychiatric hospital.
Starring: Ed Norton, Jessica Biel
Directed by: Neil Burger
Written by: Neil Burger, Steven Millhauser
This movie is often lumped with Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, since they’re both period piece magician films. But The Illusionist has a twist of its own. Edward Norton plays Eisenheim the Illusionist in Vienna in the year 1889. He was locked in a love triangle with the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary (casual) and a woman named Sophie (Jessica Biel), as he tells the Vienna’s Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who’s inspecting Eiseinheim’s role in Sophie’s death. Uhl thinks he has figured out what happened between Sophie, Leopold, and Eisenheim, but he forgets that he’s dealing with an illusionist. There are things Eisenheim will continue to reveal over the course of his retelling, twists that he designed long ago.
Starring: James MacAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Kevin (James McAvoy) is a handful to deal with, perhaps because he has 23 personalities. He kidnaps three teenagers, subjecting them to the full gamut of his mental state. “Dennis” is Kevin’s dominant personality, but there’s one who has yet to emerge. And that personality wants control.
Of course, since it’s a Shyamalan movie, lots of violent and fascinating twists follow that set Split up for a sequel.
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah
Directed by: Peter Howitt
Written by: Peter Howitt
Sliding Doors is the most philosophical rom-com around. Depending on whether Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) manages to board a London tube train, her life branches off into wildly different directions. In one reality, Helen gets on the train, and catches her boyfriend with another woman. In another, she misses the train, and continues to be betrayed by him. Eventually, these two realities intertwine in a bittersweet way. Sliding Doors is a reminder that our life paths are shaped by insignificant decisions, which eventually have massive repercussions. Think of that next time you get on a subway.
Starring: Javier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Darren Aronofsky
This is a two-hour long mind bend. Aronofsky didn’t make Mother! to give audiences an enjoyable movie experience. Instead, Mother!, the story of a woman married to an older artist in an old house, is designed to make you uncomfortable. As you watch Jennifer Lawrence’s character unspool house’s that’s changing in wild ways, you might lose your grip, too.
Starring: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon
Written By: James Ward Byrkit
Directed By: James Ward Byrkit
A comet flies overhead while a group of friends are at a dinner party. This cosmic phenomenon has big effects on the neighborhood. The comet actually rearranges different realities, so that people can quickly cross from one dimension to another. When the eight party members explore the neighborhood after the power goes out, they don’t realize that they’re actually crossing over into multiple realities, and meeting other version of them selves. Eventually, this intertwining will cease. Which reality will they get stuck in?
Equally astounding is how the film was made. Each day, the actors received a notecard with some rudimentary direction and motivation for their characters. And then, everyone just acted. No script. No special effects. Just real people, acting, and blowing your mind.
A Tale of Two Sisters
Starring: Yum Jung-Ah, Soo-jung Lim
Written By: Kim Jee-woon
Directed By: Kim Jee-woon
This Korean thriller has everything you could want in a mind f*** movie. A beautifully decorated house with skeletons in every closet. A family with secrets. Many, many questions of identity.
The story starts when teenager Su-mi (Yeom Jeong-ah) is released from a mental institution, and moves back home with her sister, Su-yeon (Su-jeong Lim) and their father. Their father has recently remarried the former nurse of their biological mother. The surreal events that follow are based loosely on a traditional Korean folktale.
Starring: William Hurt
Directed by: Ken Russell
Written by: Paddy Chayefsky
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson
While a staple of the horror movie genre, The Shining is, at its core, a mind-blowing movie of the psychological thriller genre — plus some ghosts. After getting the bright idea to move his family to a Colorado resort in winter, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) descends into madness. As he stalks the hallways creepily, his young son begins to have psychic premonitions indicating that the Overlook Hotel itself is preying on its new, unwanted inhabitants.
The Skin I Live In(2011)
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Written by: Pedro Almodóvar
When you see an Almodóvar film, you know to expect a certain level of weirdness — typically in uncommon relationship pairings and deep, twisted histories between people. In his take on a psychological thriller, Almodóvar keeps those elements (especially the deep, twisted histories) and cranks them up to terrifying heights. In the film, Banderas plays a plastic surgeon, Robert Legard, intent on developing a synthetic skin able to save the lives of burned victims, since his own wife had died of burns. With the help of his faithful servant, Legard takes a woman named Vera captive to function as his in-house lab rat. As the movie proceeds, you see that Vera’s relationship to Legard is far more complicated than just prisoner and captive. Unweaving The Skin I Live In ‘s many plot twists would require a thesis. Better to watch and bite your nails yourself.
Sound Of My Voice (2012)
Starring: Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicious
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij
Written by: Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij
This 2012 thriller starring Brit Marling will send you reeling. The film also stars Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicious as two journalists Peter and Lorna who attempt to infiltrate an insular cult in order to take it down. Marling plays Maggie, the leader of the cult. Maggie is from the year 2054, and she’s here to collect a group of people to save the future world. Her followers wear all white and perform a super-secret special handshake. She’s also wanted for several felonies.
The mind fuckery in this movie never allows you to decide if Maggie is lying or not. First, you’re with Peter and Lorna, doubting this snake oil-peddler. But when Peter starts to buy into Maggie’s narrative, you begin to doubt your own conviction. Maybe Maggie is from the future.
The moment of decision occurs when Maggie instructs Peter to kidnap a little girl — the girl is allegedly Maggie’s mother. Will he comply? Yes. And then the big shocker happens: the little girl knows the cult’s secret handshake. Ostensibly, the girl taught it to Maggie at some point in the future.
But before you can say, “gee, that was a whammy,” Maggie is arrested, courtesy of Lorna. And you, the viewer, still don’t know who was lying and who was crazy.
Starring: Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney
Directed by: Gregory Hoblit
A meek, young altar boy with a stutter is charged with the murder of an archbishop. Martin Vail, a Chicago defense attorney who likes a challenge, agrees to take Aaron Stampler’s case — though the evidence is racked up against Stampler. As the case proceeds, Vail uncovers that Stampler was part of a sex ring the Archbishop was running. After years of abuse, Stampler developed a violent alter ego named Roy, who carries out the murder.
After the judge finds Stampler not guilty by reason of insanity, Stampler reveals that Roy isn’t his alter ego. Aaron is. The stutter and the meekness was all a front.
Blade Runner (1982)
Starring: Harrison Ford
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on a novel by Phillip K. Dick
In this distant future, androids, called replicants, are physically indistinguishable from humans. They can only be rooted out through the Voight-Kampff interrogation system, a series of questions replicants are incapable of answering.
Replicants aren’t allowed on earth, but sometimes they escape their off-world colonies and seek refuge amongst humans. People like Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) are blade-runners, and it’s their job to sniff out replicants. While he’s on his biggest mission yet, Deckard falls for a highly advanced replicant — so human he begins to doubt his entire society’s system.
The ambiguous ending implies that Deckard may be an android himself.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
In this dystopian future, all individuals unable to find a long-term relationship are turned into animals. Single stragglers are sent to the Hotel, where they’re supposed to find a partner within 45 days, or be sent into the Woods in their new beastly state. Colin Farrell plays David, a man at the Hotel who decides to join the loners, people who drop out of society and abstain from sex. How you read the film’s ambiguous ending determines how you feel about love, relationships, and sacrifice.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez
Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro
Written by: Guillermo Del Toro
Five years after the Spanish Civil War, a girl named Ofelia becomes pulled into a fantasy world outside her doorstep. In a twist straight out of Narnia, she’s led to a labyrinth, where she meets a wily faun and lots of other unforgettable creatures. The faun swears that Ofelia is actually a princess, but in order to unlock her status, she has to complete a series of tasks.
Meanwhile, Ofelia’s pregnant mother becomes sicker and sicker. Her sadistic army captain of a step-father becomes meaner and meaner. And the fantasy world becomes incredibly dark.
The Truman Show (2013)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris
Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Andrew Nicchol
Truman Burbank has lived his entire life in the quintessence of small-town America. His community is tight-knit and supportive, and everyone plays their roles. That’s because, of course, they’re all playing roles. Truman is the only non-actor in the reality TV show about his life. Slowly, he begins to put the pieces together — and then he’ll do anything to get out, and trod a world that’s much better than he ever could’ve imagined.
Even more mind-blowing than The Truman Show ‘s plot are its implications. What if everyone you know is in on the joke?
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Starring: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
This is an indie film with the mantra, “art imitates life imitates art, and repeat.” In Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Conrad, a troubled theater director who throws himself into a strangely realistic theater piece. In a warehouse in Manhattan, a group of actors live out their fictionalized, constructed lives. Soon, the warehouse takes on the realism of the bustling city outside. The years pass. The plot grows convoluted. Caden hires doppelgangers for the actors to make the endeavor even more hectic. As Caden loses his mind, who will be there to give the play direction?
A Scanner Darkly(2006)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Based on the mind-bending novel by William S. Gibson, this movie uses an uncanny animation technique to capture the interplay between reality and unstable mental states. A Scanner Darkly is set in a totalitarian state in the future, after America has lost the war on drugs. Over 20% of the population is hooked on a drug called Substance D. In response, the government has developed an underground network of informants to try to infiltrate the drug supply chain.
Detective Bob Arctor is a cog in this machine, assigned to immerse himself in the shady underworld. But once he’s in with the addicts, it’s impossible to stop becoming hooked himself. At the New Path recovery center, Bob begins to lose his identity and experience schizophrenic behavior.
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gabriel Byrne
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Patrick McGrath
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fisburne
Directed by: Lana and Lily Wachowski
Written by: Lana and Lily Wachowski
Neo lives through every 1990s kid’s nightmare: finding out that he’s living, essentially, in The Sims. Our trusty protagonist discovers that everything he thinks of as “reality” is actually a video game-esque simulation. Once he realizes that nothing is real, then everything (including dodging bullets) is possible.
But The Matrix recognizes the burden of such knowledge. In one of cinema’s most iconic scenes, Neo is offered the red pill to proceed on his journey, or the blue pill to forget and go back to the way he was. Neo chooses the red pill; the rest is movie history.
The Fountain (2006)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Darren Aronofsky
We can tell you what happens in The Fountain, but we can’t confirm what actually happens.
This intricate magical romantic drama interweaves three storylines separated by centuries and miles. In the first, Hugh Jackman plays Tom Creo, a 21st century doctor losing his wife, Izzi (Rachel Weisz), to cancer. Tom’s consumed with finding a cure using samples from “The Tree of Life,” a species found in South America, and forgoes quality time with Izzi for time in his lab.
While he’s in the lab, Izzi takes to the pen and writes a story about a conquistador, Tomas Verde, searching for the Tree of Life for Queen Isabella. But Izzi doesn’t have time to finish the story — she asks him to finish it. While they stare at the stars, Izzi imagines they’ll meet, once again, the stars. Appropriately, the final narrative is set in deep space, with an astronaut named Tommy.
But we’ve laid things out in an easy way. In truth, nothing is told in chronological order, not even the storylines themselves. The three storylines are confusingly connected and difficult to unweave.
Acknowledging the infinite interpretative possibilities of the movie, Aronofsky said, “[The film is] very much like a Rubik’s Cube, where you can solve it in several different ways, but ultimately there’s only one solution at the end.” He believes the film is about coming to terms with your own death. It’s a beautiful film, if a grim message.
Starring: Emma Caulfield, Michelle Borth
Directed by: Jac Schaffer
Written by: Jac Schaffer
What if you could count down to the exact moment you’d meet your soulmate? People in this alternate reality can opt into just that. When a TiMER device is implanted, a countdown begins to establish just that. Oona O’Leary, Timer ’s protagonist, faces an uncommon quandary: her TiMER is blank, which means her soulmate — whoever he is — has yet to get his TiMER implanted.
Steph, her roommate and sister, has a TiMER that indicates she won’t meet her soulmate until she’s 43. She’s been seeing Dan, a widower who doesn’t have a TiMER so not to cheapen his marriage.
Instead of twiddling her thumbs until Mr. Right comes around, Oona dates off the TiMER. She falls for Mikey, a supermarket clerk with a countdown of four months.
After a while, Oona and Steph decide to get their TiMERs removed irrevocably. At that precise moment, though, Oona’s countdown suddenly starts, meaning that her soul mate has finally gotten his TiMER. It’s the night of Oona and Steph’s birthday, and Dan, the widower, is there. As soon as she sees Dan, her own TiMER goes off. Feelings will be stepped on — what’s a girl to do?
Mr. Nobody (2004)
Starring: Jared Leto, Diane Kruger, Rhys Ifans
Directed by: Jaco Van Dormael
Written by: Jaco Van Dormael
In this sci-fi-meets-coming of age movie, we see the three different paths that Jared Leto’s character’s life could have taken. A nine-year-old boy stands on a platform facing an impossible choice. He chooses to go with his mother; he chooses to go with his father; he chooses to run away. What happens next? Each path has its glories and its difficulties, and Nemo explores them all.
The film is narrated by Nemo Nobody, the man the little boy becomes, on his 118th birthday. In a sexless, ageless world, Nemo is the last living relic of the world as it was, and he’s able to track the permutations of his life. A journalist attempts to get to the truth of his story: which life did Nemo truly live? The answer will surprise you.
Mr. Nobody is an astounding, visually stunning movie that doesn’t shy away from toying with our existential quandaries, and the infinite paths of “what if.”
Shutter Island (2010)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Written By: Laeta Kalogridis, Dennis Lehane
Listen, put a few characters in a hospital for the criminally insane, and some mind-fuckery will occur. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a U.S. Marshall (well) in this Martin Scorsese flick. He and his new partner Chuck (played by Mark Ruffalo) investigate an escapee named Rachel Solando, who once killed her three children.
The plot twist in this series is pretty predictable: the detective is actually the patient. Surprise! Leonardo DiCaprio’s stubborn Boston boss is imprisoned in the mental hospital because he killed his manic depressive wife. Cheery, no? The “investigation” was just an exercise concocted by the doctors at the asylum to help the patient escape his paranoia. The final scene of the movie implies that DiCaprio’s character will soon have a lobotomy, so at the very least, there’s a happy ending.
Starring: Melissa George, Joshua McIvor, Jack Taylor, Liam Hemsworth
Directed By: Christopher Smith
Written By: Christopher Smith
Ah, the best mind-fuckery relies on weird time jumps, and Triangle has time jumps a-plenty. The story opens like any other horror film. A few friends go yachting and end up in dangerous territory. They jump ship — literally — and head to a different ship, which ain’t so friendly.
The big reveal: the “abandoned” ship forces everyone into a time loop. Events keep repeating themselves, and each time they do, a new incarnation of the person appears. As in, by the end of the film, the main character Jess (Melissa George) has at least 10 other Jesses to reckon with.
If you’re still confused after viewing the movie, you’re not alone. There’s a 15-minute explainer on YouTube if you have the quarter hour to spare.
The Prestige (2006)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Rebecca Hall
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Before there was Westworld, there was The Prestige, the movie that made absolutely no sense until it all made sense. Borne from the bananas brain of the Nolan brothers, the film focuses on two magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale.) After coming up together as young magicians, the two engage in a violent rivalry.
Tesla invents a machine that clones Angier. Here’s how it works: the magician clones himself. The original Angier drops beneath the stage into a water tank, where he drowns. The clone appears somewhere else in the theater, wowing the audience. Okay, cool trick, but the cost is high. Every time Angier completes the trick, he kills himself, or a version of himself. The eye-opening visual of the film occurs when Borden chances upon all the water tanks that contain versions of Angier’s dead body. Damn.
Oh, but there’s another twist. Want to know how Angier completed the trick? You may have seen this coming — I certainly didn’t, but my father did. Angier had a twin the whole time, which is the oldest mind-fuck trick in the book. Nolan elevates that particular trick, which can seem a little cheap, by involving two separate women, both in love with Angier. The end of the movie reveals that the two women were actually in love with separate men, not the same man. (Mind. Blown.)
After Hours (1985)
Starring: Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, Tommy Chong, Cheech Marin
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Joseph Minion
Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) just really, really wants to go home. But this is New York City after hours, and only the weirdest and wackiest things happen.
Hackett is a word processor (back in the 1980s, when jobs like that actually existed). He’s bored by the corporate drudgery and the uptown apartment that bookend his days. When he meets a Marcy, a woman at a diner who seems to like the same books as him, he’s intrigued. Later that night, he calls Marcy up and takes a cab downtown to meet her in Soho. That’s when the fun begins.
Everything goes from bad to worse for Hackett. First his cash flies out of the cab window, then he’s freaked out by Marcy’s weirdly intense roommate, Kiki. When he finally gets Marcy alone, she’s busy rubbing some weird burn ointment on her body (but he can’t really tell why). Soon enough he gets fed up and leaves. When he feels bad and returns a few hours later, Marcy has killed herself. So now he’s broke, tired, and kind of on the lam, eventually taking refuge in a dive bar. Just as the Tim, the barkeep, agrees to lend Paul some money, it turns out the bartender’s girlfriend killed herself in apartment in Soho. Yep, that’s right: Marcy.
But Tim is a nice guy, and says that Hackett can have some cash if he runs around the corner to Tim’s apartment to grab his keys to the bar’s register. Twist: there’s been a series of robberies in the building, so when Tim’s neighbors see Paul, they assume he’s the burglar, fresh from a robbery. Paul narrowly escapes their clutches, but the neighbors organize into a witch hunt, putting up posters all around the neighborhood. He then tries to hide out at a Soho nightclub, where Kiki told Marcy she’d head later.
From there, things only get weirder. One woman hits on Paul, another screams at him. When Paul asks a random guy on the street if he can crash at his apartment, the bespectacled man thinks Paul is trying to seduce him.
Finally — finally! — Paul escapes the mob and ends up in the backseat of the van of the real robbers. He’s embalmed in a papier-mâché statue (that’s how he escaped the mob), and falls out of the truck bed. Where does he end up? At the golden gates of his midtown office building.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker
William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a careful, wise detective who is just a few days away from retiring. He’s assigned to take a young rookie under his wing and show him the ropes of the gritty metropolis that’s their turf. The young investigator, David Mills (Brad Pitt), is short-tempered and impatient, but eager to learn and get his hands dirty.
The pair slowly stumble upon a series of murders all bound by one familiar thread: the seven deadly sins. An obese man was forced to eat himself to death (gluttony); a defense attorney has his insides taken out (greed). Soon enough, Somerset and Mills find a good lead. A man named John Doe (Kevin Spacey) has been checking out library books about serial murders. They settle on him as their prime suspect and try to track him down as the murders continue.
After the fifth murder, a bloodied man meets Mills and Somerset at the police station, identifying himself as John Doe. He’s been peeling off the skin on his fingertips all along, so it’s impossible to perfectly ID his prints, but the men are convinced it’s him. He promises to lead both detectives to the final two victims, but under very specific terms or he’ll plead insanity.
Per Doe’s instructions, the two detectives accompany their captive to a remote desert location. A delivery truck meets them, handing Somerset a box. Inside is the head of Mills’ wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). When Doe brags about killing her and says that she was secretly pregnant, and he killed her out of his own envy. Mills weeps and hold Doe at gunpoint. Somerset protests, but he shoots him six times. Doe is the final death of the seven, because he forced Mills to give into his own wrath.
Hard Candy (2005)
Starring: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh
Directed by: David Slade
Written by: Brian Nelson
Patrick Wilson plays Jeff, a photographer with a thing for teenage girls. He’s charming and good looking, but the set up is as creepy as it sounds. Jeff preys on young girls, messaging them online and cultivating fake relationships that he seems to hope will end with real sexual favors.
Hayley is the latest girl talked into meeting him in person. But Hayley, who wears a notable red sweatshirt, has a plan of her own. She knows of Jeff’s past transgressions with his victims, and she’s decided to put a stop to it.
Jeff, it turns out, doesn’t just flirt with underage girls. He also rapes and kills them, according to Hayley’s spying. When he lures her back to his apartment, she drugs and tortures him to get information about a dead teenage girl whose death she suspects he had a hand in.
The tension in Hard Candy mounts with an eerie quickness, mostly because of the shifting power dynamic between Jeff and Hayley (the former thinks he’s in control, the latter always is).
The Invitation (2016)
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Michiel Huisman, Tammy Blanchard, Emayatzy Corinealdi
Directed by: Karyn Kusama
Written by: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
It’s been two years since a tragic accident killed Will (Marshall Green) and Eden’s (Blanchard) young son in their Hollywood Hills home. Their marriage soon dissolved and, in an effort to move on, lost touch with one another. The movie begins with Will driving to his old house with his new girlfriend Kira (Corinealdi) — they’ve been invited to a dinner party, even though he hasn’t heard from his ex-wife or her new husband in months.
Things start out warm enough, even as the stylishly modern house manages to dig up pained memories for Will. Then, out of the corner of his eye Will notices Eden’s new husband David (Huisman) casually lock doors and cabinets. There are other couples there (old friends of Will and Eden’s when they were married), good food, ritzy wine… it’s a nice enough evening, albeit a bit awkward. Suddenly, the tone shifts. This isn’t a reunion, it’s a recruiting session for a cult.
A new, unfamiliar guest arrives. Everyone nestles into the living room and David asks them to keep an open mind as they watch a documentary of sorts. In the movie, a creepy pastor talks a dying woman through the end of her life. The couples all recoil, until the unfamiliar guest gives a kind of testimonial about loving his dead wife so much, and how this quasi-spirituality helped him overcome her death. The twist? He was the one who went to prison for killing her.
From there, Kusama perfectly manipulates the tension. Doors lock and unlock, and Will confronts Eden about blocking out their son’s death between flashbacks of their former life together. In the thrilling climax they sit down to dinner. Eden serves a special drink. Will can’t take it anymore — he demands everyone throw it out, and begs his girlfriend to leave with him. Just as he seems crazy, someone takes a sip and dies instantly. Will was right, the drink was poison.
The “invitation” was really an entry into a murder-suicide pact. Will and his girlfriend run frantically through his old house to escape Eden and David’s wrath.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis
Directed by: Mike Nichols
Written by: Ernest Lehman
Married couple George (Burton) and Martha (Taylor) arrive home from a party. Martha informs George that she’s invited a younger couple that she met there — Nick (Segal) and Honey (Dennis) — over for more drinks. Everyone is already quite drunk, but George and Martha get increasingly more drunk and verbally abusive towards one another.
Honey says that Martha told her about she and George’s son upcoming 16th birthday. This angers George. Honey runs to the bathroom to throw up from drinking too much. The night goes on and on with more upsetting moments.
George and Martha engage in a series of increasingly escalating games of psychological manipulation that makes their guests feel more and more uneasy. Finally, it becomes clear to Nick and Honey that the overarching game is for George and Martha to invent more and more details about their imaginary son, but to never mention his existence to anyone else. It seems that Martha lost this round, because she answers the title question, saying “I am.”
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clark
The question is, though, what are the three monoliths that appear in the film — one one Earth, one on the Moon, and one on Jupiter? Since they have right angles, they aren’t naturally occurring in nature. As Roger Ebert wrote in 1968, “Who put [the monolith] there? Intelligent beings since it has right angles and nature doesn’t make right angles on its own.” The monoliths are merely a device Kubrick uses to advance the plot, Ebert argues.
It’s not just the monoliths’ possible meaning that throws viewers into a quandary. The ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey usually confuses viewers the most. After Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dulles) defeats HAL 9000, the supercomputer that conspired to take over the humans’ spaceship, he receives a signal from the monolith on Jupiter. Bowman travels toward the monolith only to be captured by a vortex of light.
Rather than finding himself in a sort of Gravity situation, which viewers could much more easily understand (we all know that a human left adrift in space would just perish among the glowing stars and big, black holes of nothingness), Bowman winds up in a bedroom. He watches his older self eat his final meal and die in the bed. Bowman becomes one with this older version of himself. After he dies, another monolith appears by his bed. He reaches for it and becomes the “starchild,” a glowing fetus that is transported by float beside planet Earth.
“Now where did the bedroom come from? My intuition is that it came out of Kubrick’s imagination; that he understood the familiar bedroom would be the most alien, inexplicable, disturbing scene he could possibly end the film with. He was right. The bedroom is more otherworldly and eerie than any number of exploding stars, etc.,” Ebert writes by way of explanation.
It’s quite the trip.
Soylent Green (1973)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Written by: Stanley R. Greenberg
Altered States (1980)
Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown
Directed by: Ken Russell
Written by: Sidney Aaron, Paddy Chayefsky
Edward Jessup (Hurt) is a Harvard scientist who starts experimenting with sensory deprivation tanks. He wants to take his work further, though, so he starts working with psychedelic mushrooms — only the type he uses makes everyone who takes them have the exact same trip.
One night while tripping balls in his tank, Jessup reverts back to the state of a Simian man. He climbs out of the tank and wreaks havoc on the lab and the campus security guards. A pack of wild dogs chases him to a local zoo, where he eats a sheep for his dinner. Jessup then returns to his human form.
His experiments transform him into increasingly troubling altered states. In one instance, he’s basically primordial soup; in another, he’s a vortex of light similar to the ones in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The only thing that can bring Jessup back from these states is his wife, Emily (Brown). She starts going through these altered states with him; sort of like the ying to his yang, or the fire to his brimstone.
In Jessup’s final experiment, he becomes a sort of pre-life protoplasm. His wife is the flesh into which the protoplasm fuses, and together, they form human life. It’s through this melding that they emerge whole, and Jessup learns to value his own humanity as well as his wife (they had been on the brink of divorcing).
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: David Cronenberg
Max Renn (Woods) runs a Toronto TV station that airs sleazy shows (softcore porn; hardcore violence), but he’s always looking for the next sensational phenomenon. His coworker Harlan (Dvorsky) is responsible for pirating signals from other broadcast stations, and he picks up a show called Videodrome that he thinks is coming from Malaysia. On Videodrome, anonymous victims are brutally tortured before they’re murdered in a chamber. Then, Randy Jackson says, “A little pitchy, dawg.” (That last part isn’t true.)
Max thinks Videodrome is the future of TV and orders Halan to start pirating it for their station. He also gets Nicki Brand (Harry), a radio host, to sleep with him after she admits she’s turned on by the events depicted on Videodrome. Around the same time, a pop-culture analyst named Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), who only appears on TV but is never seen in real life, predicts that television will one day supplant human life.
Harlan tells Max that the signal had actually been scrambled, and Videodrome ’s broadcast is really coming from Pittsburgh. Nicki goes there to audition to be on the show, which Max actually believes is fake. When Nicki doesn’t come back to Toronto, Max gets in touch with a feminist pornographer (Lynne Gorman), who tells him that Videodrome isn’t fake. It’s not just a TV show, either, it’s a political movement that Professor O’Blivion is behind.
Max finds O’Blivion’s office, The Cathode Ray Mission, and discovers that it provides homeless people with shelter, food, and water as long as they watch television, which was part of O’Blivion’s vision for the future. He’s actually been dead for over a year, though, and what people have been watching are hours of video he pre-taped in the event of his demise. O’Blivion’s socio-political movement, the Videodrome, is a war for the minds of North Americans.
The means of mind control is, of course, television; namely, viewing the Videodrome TV program. The show carries a signal that gives viewers malignant brain tumors. Max, who viewed Videodrome, also starts having hallucinations during which he thinks there’s a VCR in his stomach. O’Blivion didn’t want it to be used this way, though, but when he tried to stop his partners from doing so, they killed him.
Harlan actually showed Max Videodrome in order to get him to put it on the air as part of a government conspiracy to eradicate North America of homeless people. They insert a tape into the VCR in Max’s stomach (which has become real) that makes Max murder his coworkers. When he’s about to kill Professor O’Blivion’s daughter (Sonja Smits), who’s trying to stop the government’s plan to eliminate the poor, she’s able to reprogram him to instead kill Harlan, who’d been part of the government conspiracy to put Videodrome on the air.
Max shoots Harlan, then runs to an abandoned harbor. Nicki shows up on a television, saying that in order to completely defeat Videodrome, he has to “leave the old flesh behind.” On the same television, we see Max shooting himself in the head. The set explodes, but when it does, it leaves behind bloody, human intestines. We then see Max, who watched the version of himself on TV shoot himself, do the same thing.
Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello
Directed by: Adrian Lyne
Written by: Bruce Joel Robbin
The movie starts during the Vietnam War, where an American soldier named Jacob (Robbins), loses most of his unit during an attack. He runs into the jungle and gets stabbed by a bayonet.
When he wakes up four years later, he’s on the subway in New York City reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Jacob is living with his girlfriend Jezzie (Peña) in Brooklyn, but he remembers having a wife and three sons, the youngest of which died before the war.
Jacob keeps having disturbing experiences and seeing demons everywhere, until he’s contacted by a comrade from his old unit who went catatonic during the attack in Vietnam. The comrade recovered and is now living in NYC, but he’s killed when his car explodes. At his funeral, the surviving members of Jacob’s platoon say that they’ve all been having horrible experiences.
They hire a lawyer to investigate what happened to them, but after he reads their military files that say the platoon was never actually in combat, and that the soldiers had been discharged due to psychological reasons, he backs out of the case.
All of Jacob’s comrades stop pursuing the case, but he continues his search for the truth. This gets him thrown in a car and taken to a hospital, where doctors tell him that he’s already dead.
When Jacob leaves the hospital, Michael Newman (Matt Craven), the man who treated him back in Vietnam, confesses that he was a chemist who had designed “the Ladder,” a drug that triggered aggression. A large dose had been given to Jacob’s unit, and they had actually attacked one another. Jacob recalls being bayoneted in the jungle, only this time he can see an American soldier wielding the bayonet.
The Usual Suspects(1995)
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie
While being questioned about his role in a gun battle and drug bust gone wrong, Roger “Verbal” Kint manages to convince police that he should be let off scot-free. After he leaves the station and drops his limp, his interrogators look around the room and realize that the story Verbal concocted was based entirely on objects and names he glimpsed around the room.
Kint is actually Keyser Söze, the mastermind behind the whole scheme that led to the firefight on the ship. As he says, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Starring: Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller
Directed by: Vincenzo Natali
Written by: André Bijelic, Graeme Manson, Vincenzo Natali
Imagine five prisoners being stuck inside a constantly shifting, intricately booby-trapped, complexly mathematical Rubik’s Cube. They have no idea how they got there. They think they need to somehow escape in order to survive.
That’s what Cube is about, except in the end, the sole survivor ascends into a bright light. So, is the cube purgatory? A classic prisoner’s dilemma? Cube will give you a lot to think about.
The Sixth Sense(1999)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Hayley Joel Osment
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
A child psychologist named Malcolm Crowe (Willis) and his wife (Olivia Williams) return home from an event where he was being honored. A former patient of Crowe’s is waiting in their bathroom. He shoots Crowe and then kills himself.
The movie cuts to the following autumn, when Dr. Crowe starts working with 9-year-old Cole Sear (Osment), who claims he can see dead people and also has trouble in social situations. Malcolm works with Cole to develop his gift for communicating with the dead, but the doctor grows increasingly distant from his wife. They never talk anymore.
Eventually, Malcolm realizes what happened. He was actually killed the night he was shot. He hasn’t been able to leave the land of the living because he wants to let his wife know that she never came second to his work, and that he also can’t forgive himself for failing to help the patient who killed both Malcolm and himself. Cole really does see dead people.
Fight Club (1999)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Jim Uhls
The first rule of fight club is, of course, that you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule is that you disregard that one for the purposes of this roundup, with apologies to David Fincher and Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the novel upon which the film is based.
In this nihilistic tale, an unnamed insomniac office drone (Norton) meets a rebellious soap-maker named Tyler Durden (Pitt) on a plane. The two move into a dilapidated house on the edge of town and start an underground fight club that turns into a nation-wide organization called Project Mayhem, which protests capitalism and corporate organizations.
Eventually, the narrator realizes that Tyler Durden is merely a dissociation of his own personality. He discovers that as Tyler, he’s been plotting to destroy credit card companies by blowing up their office buildings. The narrator finally shoots himself in the cheek, killing his projection of Tyler. The film ends with the narrator and his sort-of girlfriend Marla (Bonham Carter) watching the city fall to the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind.”
Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nola, Jonathan Nolan
Leonard Shelby (Pearce) suffers from anterograde amnesia, which means he can’t create or store new memories. This is making it difficult to track down the man he’s certain raped and murdered his wife (Jorja Fox). To make things even more confusing, the film is told through black-and-white and color sequences, and it’s not clear to the audience which come first chronologically. It’s also unclear which characters Shelby can trust — or if he’s even trustworthy himself.
Session 9 (2001)
Starring: David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Stephen Gevedon, Josh Lucas
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Written by: Brad Anderson, Stephen Gevedon
This movie was filmed in a real mental hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts, which just adds to the authentic, chilling vibe you’ll have while watching. An asbestos removal crew (Caruso, Mullan, Gevedon, Lucas, Brendan Sexton III) is tasked with cleaning an abandoned mental hospital. While on the job, they discover a box that contains tapes of nine interview sessions with a patient named Mary Hobbes.
Hobbes has dissociative identity disorder, and she has three personalities besides her own. Of these, she only displays two of them — “the Princess,” who is childlike and innocent, and Billy, who is protective and childlike. Hobbes’ third personality, Simon, is so hidden that the Princess doesn’t know anything about her, and Billy is afraid of him.
Everything starts to unravel when one of the men goes missing, and the ninth session tape is cut short, so they don’t know what happened with Mary, the Princess, Billy, and Simon. Eventually, it’s revealed that there might not be a Mary, and that Simon actually lives inside one of the men tasked with cleaning the asylum, and some members of the cleaning crew aren’t even real — they’re projections of his imagination. He murders some of the real men, though, because of course this movie is terrifying.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring
Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch
Lynch originally wrote Mulholland Drive as a television pilot for ABC. Therefore, there might actually be some storylines in the film that leave questions left unanswered, since Lynch would have been able to get to them in the longer time that a TV series allots for storytelling.
In this January 2002 article from The Guardian, however, five top film critics couldn’t come to a consensus as to whether or not the film was divided into two halves, with one being a dream and one grounded in the reality of what actually happened when Diane (Watts) put a hit on her girlfriend Camilla (Harring). Diane’s actions drive her to commit suicide.
Still, the film might be intended as a larger commentary on how Hollywood places women in boxes, only allowing ingénues to look one way, while women become disposable and easily replaceable when they reach a certain age. That might just be the most important mindfuck Mulholland Drive gives to viewers.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore
Directed by: Richard Kelly
Written by: Richard Kelly
A high school student named Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is woken up by a monstrous rabbit who calls himself Frank. The rabbit leads Donnie outside and says the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. When Donnie returns home, he discovers that a jet engine crashed into his bedroom while he was out with Frank.
When Donnie describes Frank to his therapist (Katharine Ross), she tells his parents that he’s suffering from daylight hallucinations, which can be symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Donnie confesses to flooding his school and burning down a motivational speaker’s (Patrick Swayze) house.
Finally, it’s the day Frank prophesied the world would end. A vortex forms above the Darko house while Donnie is driving in the nearby hills. He watches an airplane fall from the sky. The events from the last 28 days start to replay in reverse chronological order. When they reach day 1, Donnie is back in his bed, laughing maniacally as a jet engine crashes into his room. Donnie dies instantly.
When he dies, all of the people with whom Donnie Darko interacted during the last 28 days start to wake up with disturbed looks on their faces. Characters who met and interacted during the course of the movie revert to being strangers, although they feel as though they know each other. They just can’t remember where or when they might have met.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Directed by: Cameron Crowe
Written by: Cameron Crowe
Roger Ebert described Vanilla Sky perfectly in December 2001, “ Vanilla Sky, like the 2001 pictures Memento and Mulholland Drive before it, requires the audience to do some heavy lifting. It has one of those plots that doubles back on itself like an Escher staircase. You get along splendidly one step at a time, but when you get to the top floor you find yourself on the bottom landing. If it’s any consolation, its hero is as baffled as we are; it’s not that he has memory loss, like the hero of Memento, but that in a certain sense he may have no real memory at all.”
Vanilla Sky plays not only with linear structure, but with mixing dreams and reality, forcing viewers to question what’s real, what’s not, and whether or not reality is entirely subjective and surreal. It’s best to watch it rather than read a plot summary, really, but know that Tom Cruise jumps off a building at one point, and not in his usual badass Mission: Impossible type of way.
Starring: Choi Min-sik, Kang Hye-jung
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Hwang Jo-yoon, Im Joon-hyeong, Park Chan-wook
Business man Oh Dae-su (Min-sik) is arrested for drunken and disorderly behavior in 1988. He misses his daughter’s 4th birthday because he is in jail. While his friend who picks him up from the police station is talking to Dae-su’s wife, he is kidnapped.
Dae-su is imprisoned with no human contact for 15 years in a hotel-like prison. He’s sometimes gassed with a mind-altering drug. Dae-su shadowboxes to pass the time. He has no contact with his captors, nor does he ever learn the reason for his kidnapping.
Fifteen years later, Dae-su is released onto a rooftop. His captor gives him a suit and some money, but he also calls and taunts him. Dae-su then befriends a young chef named Mi-do (Hye-jung), who takes him to her apartment after he collapses at her sushi restaurant.
Dae-su wants to track down his daughter, but all he can find out is that she was adopted by a Swedish couple. He turns his attention to his captor’s identity. He finally learns that his name is Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae). Woo-jin gives Dae-su an ultimatum: If Dae-su can figure out why Woo-jin kept him captive in the next five days, Woo-jin will kill himself. If Dae-su doesn’t succeed in finding out, Woo-jin will have Mi-do — with whom Dae-su has begun an emotional and sexual relationship — killed.
Dae-su remembers that he and Woo-jin went to the same high school, and that he saw an incestutous encounter between Woo-jin and his sister Soo-ah. Dae-su spread the rumor about their relationship around the school, not knowing they were related. Soo-ah committed suicide after the rumor made the rounds.
Dae-su admits to Woo-jin that he drove his sister to commit suicide. Woo-jin tells Dae-su that his revenge has been meticulous and carefully plotted. First, he captured Dae-su and kept him in prison for 15 years, periodically administering hypnotic drugs. Then, he planted the false evidence that Dae-su’s daughter had been kidnapped by a Swedish couple. In reality, Dae-su’s daughter is none other than Mi-do. Woo-jin drove Dae-su to commit incest with his own daughter, and he plans to tell Mi-do what has happened as well.
Dae-su begs Woo-jin to spare Mi-do from learning this information. Dae-su cuts out his tongue to show that he will never convey this information, or any other secrets, himself. Woo-jin says he will heed this request, leaves, and shoots himself.
Dae-su goes to a hypnotist to have the memories of committing incest with his daughter erased, but afterward, Mi-do finds him and tells him she loves him. He smiles when he hears this, but then his smile is replaced by a pained expression, as if he’s remembering what he went to the hypnotist to forget.
The Machinist (2004)
Starring: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Written by: Scott Kosar
A machinist named Trevor Reznik (Bale) is suffering from severe insomnia and has become extremely emaciated. Trevor is also troubled by mysterious Post-It notes that appear on his fridge, which have a game of Hangman on them. It starts to affect his work to the point where one of his coworkers (Michael Ironside) loses his arm in a machine accident. His coworkers blame Trevor for the accident, but he blames a mysterious new machinist named Ivan (John Sharian) that only Trevor seems to know about.
Trevor does have some brief moments of relief. He spends time with Stevie (Leigh), a prostitute, who enjoys his company. He meets a waitress named Maria (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) at the airport diner he frequents and takes Maria and her son Nicholas (Matthew Romero) to a carnival. At the carnival, though, Nicholas has a seizure in a funhouse.
Trevor thinks all of these mysterious events are part of an elaborate plot to drive him insane. His life begins to fall apart even more: He explodes at a coworker and gets fired. He doesn’t pay his utility bill, and the electricity in his apartment is turned off. He thinks blood is seeping out of his freezer.
Trevor thinks that Ivan is the source of his problems, so he goes to the DMV to track him down using his license plate number. They refuse to give it to him, so he goes to the police, saying that he was a victim of a hit and run, and that Ivan was the perpetrator. When Trevor gives the police Ivan’s license plate number, they tell him that the car to which that plate matches is registered to Trevor, not the mysterious Ivan.
The movie ends with Trevor going to the police to confess his crime. They lead him to a cell, and he falls asleep for the first time since the accident.
Starring: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden
Directed by: Shane Carruth
Written by: Shane Carruth
Primer is considered one of the most confusing movies of all time. People have even mapped out the various timelines in an attempt to explain the plot. Writer/director/star Shane Carruth has a degree in mathematics and is a former engineer, so the film delves into complex temporal anomalies.
Two engineers named Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (Sullivan) create a person-sized box in which a human can travel through time. They try to carefully map out rules for their time traveling to avoid meeting their past or future selves and messing up the past, present, or future.
Abe and Aaron’s different personalities lead to confrontations over how they should use the box and the way in which their collaboration in the experiment should play out. They try to use their time traveling ability to make profitable stock trades, but their future selves keep appearing in their present timelines, causing increasingly escalating problems in their lives. They also cause trouble in other people’s lives; for example, Abe’s girlfriend Rachel (Samantha Thomson) almost gets shot.
During an epilogue, it’s revealed that multiple versions of Aaron still exist, and at least one future version is colluding with the original one. Abe, on the other hand, wants to keep his present self in the dark about what Future Abe knows. In the final scene, Aaron is directing the construction of a warehouse-sized box.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind(2004)
Starring: Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey
Directed by: Michel Gondry
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Winslet) meet on a train from Montauk to Rockville Centre on Long Island, New York. What they don’t know is that they’ve met before. They were even in a relationship before, but Clementine hired a firm called Lacuna, Inc., to erase her memories of their relationship after a fight, and when Joel heard about this, he decided to do the same.
Joel doesn’t want Clementine to be erased from his memory, though, and he struggles to preserve the moments they had together by hiding them deep in his subconscious. The last thing he can remember her saying is to meet him in Montauk.
After they meet again on the train, they discover their Lacuna records. Even though they know they dated, broke up, and had their relationship erased from their minds before, they decide to give it another chance.
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Christopher Hampton
This adaptation of Iwan McEwan’s novel of the same name earns a spot on the mindfuck movies list simply because of how it completely rips the rug out from under you at the end. There you are, thinking Briony (played by Ronan at 13, Romola Garai at 18, and Redgrave as an older woman) is writing this story to atone for her huge lie, and there’s going to be a romantic, happy ending. That lie being how she falsely accused Robbie Turner (McAvoy) of raping Briony’s visiting cousin Lola (Juno Temple), which completely ruined not only his life, but that of her sister Cecilia (Knightley).
The incident tears Briony and Cecilia’s family apart, because Cecilia stands by Robbie; knowing he’s been falsely accused. Years later, Briony describes visiting Robbie and Cecilia, who are now married, to apologize. Cecilia says she can never forgive her, while Robbie demands Briony tell both her family and the authorities what really happened. Even if Briony were to tell the authorities; however, nothing could be done, because Lola actually married her rapist (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Decades pass, and Briony is now an author. Her final novel (she is dying of vascular dementia) is called Atonement. She gives an interview about the book in which she reveals that it’s only semi-autobiographical. While most of the beginning is true to life, the part where she visits Cecilia and Robbie is fabricated. Briony was never able to visit them to ask for forgiveness because they never met again after Robbie left to fight in World War II. He died at Dunkirk, and Cecilia died shortly after during The Blitz. Oh cruel, cruel fate.
Starring: Melissa George, Michael Dorman
Directed by: Christopher Smith
Written by: Christopher Smith
One by one, the members of the group begin to die. Some of them are shot by a mysterious masked shooter, who then chases Jess, but she’s able to push the shooter overboard.
After everyone in her group dies, and Jess is left alone, she hears yelling. She sees herself and the others alive again. They’re standing on the capsized boat in the same position they were in before they boarded the ocean liner. Jess realizes that she’s stuck in a time loop, and she’s actually the figure on the ship who killed her friends.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Dominick Cobb (DiCaprio) and his team enter the dreams of executives to steal corporate secrets. In the big heist depicted in the movie, the team has a new type of challenge: plant an idea into a CEO’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious, which the businessman (Ken Watanabe) tasking them with the job calls inception.
Cobb is also struggling with guilt over the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who committed suicide after the two spent 50 years in a shared dreamscape and couldn’t distinguish between dreams and reality when they woke up. Cobb’s guilt causes problems with his team’s current mission, because he keeps projecting Mal into dreamscapes.
As the team travels into deeper and deeper levels of the dream labyrinth architected by Ariadne (Page), there’s more room for error, which obviously occurs. After Inception came out, people spent hours trying to map out the various levels of the dream landscapes into which the team traveled. Finally, Christopher Nolan released his hand-drawn version of the map to help viewers understand.
Audiences were also confused by the film’s ending. The movie’s last shot is of Cobb’s totem — an object the dream-invaders use to determine if they’re still in a dream or back in reality — a spinning top. If the top keeps spinning, he’s probably stuck in someone else’s dream. If it stops, he’s back in reality. Inception ends before we can see what happens to the top. Does it keep spinning, or does it fall?
Nolan finally explained the ambiguous ending during the commencement speech he delivered to Princeton’s class of 2015. He said it didn’t matter if Cobb was awake or dreaming, because he’d been reunited with his children, which is all he really wanted. “He was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care any more, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid,” Nolan said.
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Nina Sayers (Portman) has spent her entire life striving to be a perfect ballerina. It’s an obsession fueled by her stage mother (Hershey). When Sayers is cast as the White Swan in her company’s upcoming production of Swan Lake opposite a more easygoing newcomer (Mila Kunis) as the Black Swan, she begins to have a complete mental, emotional, and physical breakdown.
Starring: Denis Lavant, Édith Scob, Élise L’Homea
Directed by: Leos Carax
Written by: Leos Carax
Monsieur Oscar (Lavant) appears to be a regular businessman until he enters a limo in the morning after having breakfast with his wife and children. Once in the car, he receives a dossier from his driver, Madame Céline (Scob), and takes off his banker disguise. He puts on a different costume; now, Oscar is an elderly beggar who walks the streets of Paris, asking for money.
Oscar is actually an actor, but his roles exist in the real world. Throughout the day, he returns to the limousine for more assignments from Céline. These take him everywhere from a motion-capture studio to a high-fashion photoshoot with a top model (played by Eva Mendes).
Even when Oscar gets physically injured while in character, he’s unscathed when he returns to the limo. At times, he interacts with characters that look identical to ones he played earlier in the day. Towards the end of the day, he meets a woman named Léa (L’Homea), who calls him “uncle.” Oscar pretends to die, and Léa cries.
At this next appointment, Céline pulls the car up next to an identical limo. Inside is a woman named Eva (Kylie Minogue), with whom it’s implied Oscar actually has a child. However, Eva appears to be an actress like Oscar, and she tells him that she has an appointment. She’ll be stepping into the role of a flight attendant who spends her final night in an empty building with a man. Oscar leaves the building so that Eva can meet up with the man, but he then sees the two jump to their deaths. Oscar cries as he runs past their bodies and gets in the limo.
At his last appointment, Céline hands Oscar a dossier saying that he’ll be going to “your house” to meet up with “your wife” and “your daughter.” When he goes inside; however, his wife and child are actually chimpanzees.
Upstream Color (2013)
Starring: Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, Thiago Martins
Directed by: Shane Carruth
Written by: Shane Carruth
Yup, it’s another Shane Carruth mindfuck masterpiece. In this one, a man called the Thief (Martins) kidnaps Kris (Seimetz) at a nightclub and drugs her. He keeps her in a hypnotic state of distraction, using techniques like getting her to transcribe Henry David Thoreau’s Walden on a paper chain. The Thief starves Kris so that he can infect her with a type of live larva that he harvests from blue orchids. He also manipulates her into liquidating her home equity and giving him the money.
When the Thief drops Kris off at her home, she wakes up ravenous with roundworms crawling under her skin, which she tries to remove with a kitchen knife. She fails at this.
A man called the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) lures Kris to his farm so he can transfer the roundworms from her body a young pig’s. Again, Kris wakes up with no memory of what has happened to her. When she gets home, she sees the blood on her sheets from when she tried to remove the worms. Scared, she calls the police, but she hangs up because she’s not sure what she would tell them happened. Kris tries to return to work, but she gets fired after her unexcused absence. She tries to buy food at the grocery store, but the Thief has stolen all of her money.
One year later, Kris encounters a man named Jeff (Carruth) on a train, and the two have an almost telepathic connection. When they spend the night together, they realize they have identical scars — they were both infected by the larva and then had the roundworms removed, but they also have no memory of this happening. Like Kris, Jeff also had his personal funds stolen by the Thief. He then lost his job after trying to embezzle money from his brokerage firm to cover his tracks.
Kris and Jeff also have a telepathic connection with the pigs that received their worm transfusions, although they don’t know this. That’s another part of the worm-pig-orchid cycle, as Shane Carruth calls it. The Sampler is able to check in on people who are telepathically connected with the pig’s lives, and he writes songs about them. He sells these songs through a company called the Quinoa Valley Rec. Co.
When one of the pigs gets pregnant, Kris thinks she’s pregnant. The doctor tells her she isn’t; she actually had endometrial cancer, which was removed, and is now infertile. When the pig gives birth, the Sampler throws her piglets into a sack, which he tosses into the river.
This sends Kris and Jeff into a deep depression. They turn against everyone else in their lives and hunker down in Kris’ house, expecting the worst. While this is happening, we see the sack with the piglet’s corpses, from which a blue substance — the same blue as the orchids the Thief extracted the larva from in the beginning — is traveling upstream into the surrounding waters. Orchids are growing out of the water, and farmers are collecting the blue flowers to sell.
Kris, Jeff, and the Sampler slowly start to remember the things that have happened to them. Kris starts mumbling Walden. In a dream, the three of them sit down together and discuss being aware of each other before the Sampler has a heart attack. Back in reality, Kris and Jeff are on the pig farm. She shoots the Sampler, and he dies.
Kris and Jeff find records of everyone who has been drugged the way they were and get them to come to the farm by sending them copies of Walden. They remodel the farm and start providing a better life for the pigs. No more pigs are drowned, so the Thief has no more blue orchids from which to get larva and start the worm-pig-orchid cycle again.
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