Straight-shooting narratives are for suckers. Some of our all-time favorite movies refuse to follow the line from A to B … or from A to Z, for that matter. Taking things completely off the chart has yielded many movie classics over the years. And we’re not just talking last-minute twists, like the one in ‘Psycho’ (though that is a pretty awesome trick Hitchcock pulled there). We’re talking about movies that leave you scratching your head and asking, “What the f— did I just see?” They’re total mind-f—s, and they know it. These 10 Great Movies That Mess With Your Mind pull you back again and again to uncover their mysteries, and every single time you’ll ask, ”What the f— did I just see?” There are tons of spoilers ahead, so watch out.
Loosely (very loosely) based on Susan Orlean’s ‘The Orchid Thief,’ Spike Jonze’s second collaboration with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman after ‘Being John Malkovich’ (see below) is a self-referential, supermeta plunge into absurdity. It basically chronicles Kaufman’s struggle with adapting Orlean’s nonfiction work for the big screen. But it turns into something else entirely. In fact, it steers so off course that Kaufman’s made-up twin brother figures heavily into the plot. He was even credited as a co-screenwriter of the movie, which resulted in a very real Oscar nomination.
‘Being John Malkovich’ (1999)
Like ‘Adaptation,’ ‘Being John Malkovich’ was directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman. And it’s a total mind-f—. The ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ star plays himself, sorta, and John Cusack plays the puppeteer who finds a portal to the actor’s mind. But that’s just the launching point of this messed-up movie, which takes so many turns toward the surreal that Cusack ends up living inside of Malkovich, turning him into one of the world’s greatest puppeteers.
‘Black Swan’ (2010)
Director Darren Aronofsky is all about blowing your mind with this classics-inspired tale of a young dancer (played by Natalie Portman) who pretty much sacrifices her life for the role of her career. Is her transformation at the end of the movie supposed to be taken literally? Who knows? And who really cares? ‘Black Swan’ is a visual treat as well as a mind-bending drama about the line between madness and art.
‘Donnie Darko’ (2001)
‘Donnie Darko’ is lots of things, but primarily it’s a time-travel movie with a plot so convoluted that multiple viewings and an extended cut of the film won’t make things all that much clearer. But once you lock your head into its rhythm, it reveals itself as a powerful meditation of time, death and eternal sacrifices. Give it some time — this one’s way deeper than you may think.
‘Fight Club’ (1999)
Like many other directors found on this list, David Fincher rarely plays by the usual rules. For his best movie, he adapts Chuck Palahniuk’s beloved and nihilistic novel about one man’s struggle with himself. And with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton as the dual personalities at the center of the story, he creates a visual masterpiece that f—s with your mind every step of the way. And like all the other movies on this list, it holds up on repeated viewings.
This is probably the twistiest film on our list of 10 Great Movies That Mess With Your Mind. And, truth be told, if we were to pick it apart, a lot of it most likely wouldn’t hold up to heavy scrutiny. No matter. The tale of a team of dream chasers sinking deeper and deeper into a subject’s subconscious is mind-blowingly original and a thrill to watch. Endlessly debatable too.
Christopher Nolan — who directed two other great mindf— movies, ‘Inception” (found elsewhere on our list) and ‘The Prestige’ — made his reputation on this great screwed-up thriller about a guy who’s lost his short-term memory. So he tattoos clues to his wife’s murder all over his body. And oh yeah, the movie plays out in reverse, just to keep you on your toes.
‘Mulholland Dr.’ (2001)
David Lynch is no stranger to weird-ass projects — from his breakthrough ‘Eraserhead’ movie to ‘Twin Peaks,’ surely the most f—ed-up TV show to ever land a prime-time spot. In one of his best films — probably influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’ (see below), but who knows with Lynch? — a struggling actress and a woman who’s lost her mind slowly reverse roles, characters and yes, personas, over two-and-a-half brain-warping hours.
The granddaddy of all mind-f— movies was made way back in 1966 by Swedish art-house icon Ingmar Bergman, and it’s a precursor to two other movies on our list: ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Mulholland Dr.’ A stage actress stops speaking in the middle of a performance, so she’s sent away to recover and cared for by a woman who just won’t shut up. By the end of this dark, complex and twisted movie, the two women’s roles have tangled and reversed.
‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999)
The big twist here — Bruce Willis’ character is dead — is no doubt the linchpin of this great movie, which helped spur the influx of great mind-f— movies over the past 15 years. But go back and watch it (again and again), and you’ll spot a pattern of longing and sadness that cuts way deeper than that gotcha! moment lets on. An original, brilliant and influential piece of filmmaking.