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Mindfuck Movies

At The Morning News today I quantify and enumerate my favorite brand of film: movies during which you have no freakin' idea what the hell is going on.

Pretty much any list of this sort is going to provoke violent "this list is worthless without ______?!" reactions. (Ha! Halfway through writing that sentence someone IM'd me the link to this Metafilter thread). The last minute addition of Donnie Darko to the list was an acknowledgment of this fact, but I had to draw the line somewhere.

I decided early to not include more than one film per director. Scanners and eXistenZ and absent because Videodrome is there; Mulholland Dr. precluded Eraserhead and Lost Highway; and so forth.

There were a fair number of other movies that I skipped because of the "premillennium problem"--that is, the huge spate of remarkably similar films released just prior to the year 2000 (e.g., The Thirteenth Floor) Given that, you may wonder how The Game got on there. Well, first of all, it perfectly fit the criteria I set out in the introduction, so it wins on a technicality. And I quite enjoyed it. It's also significant because it sort of forecasts the rise of ARGs, but I somehow neglected to mention that in my review.

Here's some others I considered adding to the article ... and that you should consider adding to your Netflix queue:

Also, if you haven't watched the 1967 BBC series The Prisoner ... yeah. You should do that.

Thanks to this site for cluing me into La Jetée, and Fipi Lele who provided a ton of great suggestions.

Feel free to mention your favorites in the comments.

Posted on February 12, 2009 to Elsewhere, Movies


I saw this on the Morning News and forwarded the link to my husband via email, thinking he might see something to add to our Netflix queue. I received the following automated reply:

This sender alert message is generated by PureMessage because it has encountered the following events.

Event(s): Offensive language detected
Message action: Message quarantined...

He works for the State of () so I hope he doesn't get into trouble. But now I feel so dirty...

Posted by: Anonymous on February 12, 2009 10:09 AM

The moment I saw the headline, I immediately thought of Primer. My next thought was, "No way that will be listed."

I haven't seen many of these movies, but I loved The Cube, Dark City and of course, 2001. Primer, though, is an entirely different type of story, and watching it three times in four days didn't help me understand it all that much. The best result of watching this movie was watching it with my geeky friends and completely screwing with their heads. It's the ultimate.

So, thanks for including Primer. And, great list over all.

Posted by: Sabrina on February 12, 2009 10:44 AM

Just like it is obligatory to watch the first five minutes of Memento, it is also required to watch Primer a minimum of two times in one sitting.

Posted by: Bred on February 12, 2009 11:02 AM

Hiya Matthew,

Just read your article in The Morning News and it pleases me to see that I've seen just over half of the mentioned movies. Well, actually, it scares me, since it implies that my mind has been gradually but thoroughly fucked over.

But I'm really missing one in the list, namely Eraserhead, which is IMHO the übermindfuck to rule them all. Please see it if you haven't already.

And, if non-fiction documentaries could be included, how about Zappa's Baby Snakes? The animation there is mind blowing.


Posted by: Wim on February 12, 2009 11:06 AM

Hah! I thought I was the only person who had ever seen Primer. I'm a freakin' physicist and I still don't get that movie.

Posted by: Lorien on February 12, 2009 11:25 AM

The movie "House of Leaves" is missing from your list. Or are you one of those people who still think its only a novel?

Posted by: Zampano on February 12, 2009 11:32 AM

^ lol

Posted by: Matthew Baldwin on February 12, 2009 11:37 AM

Oh, you totally anticipated my 'but you missed out..' comment. I feel so totally humbled and juvenile. Shutting up now.

Posted by: Wim on February 12, 2009 11:44 AM

What about Naked Lunch?

A movie so completely strange that after a while pretty much anything can happen and you'd find yourself thinking "ok, that fits."

BTW: if you like Rashoman, be sure to check out Hero.

Posted by: RJL on February 12, 2009 12:18 PM

Hitchcock's Stage Fright is more of a mindfuck than Spellbound, as he breaks a moviemaking convention that I won'y spoil by mentioning. It's no Vertigo, but it ought to be better remembered than it is. I'd also add The Thin Blue Line, in which Errol Morris puts the Rashomon technique to good and just use.

Incidently, which local arthouse did you see Momento at? It played forever at the Metro, where I was nominally in charge, and I know for sure I would have had to have it removed.

Posted by: Mr Nick on February 12, 2009 12:27 PM

Videodrome!! Thank you! I was trying to remember the name of that film just the other night as I tried to reach into my husband's stomach and pull out a gun.

I swear he is always "this close" to having me committed.

But he just has never seen the movie.

Posted by: elfini on February 12, 2009 12:33 PM

I've seen most of these and now have some new ones for the queue...thanks for this great list...and including The Quiet Earth, it is one of the best and doe snot get mentioned enough, IMHO

Posted by: zosa on February 12, 2009 12:36 PM

Even though it was inspired by La Jetee, I think Twelve Monkeys should be on the list. I'm surprised Brazil isn't, as well. Although maybe that's not mindfuck material, as much as it's just weird.

Posted by: Shawn on February 12, 2009 1:27 PM

I would definitely have had Twelve Monkeys and possibly Brazil on that list.

Posted by: dazza on February 12, 2009 1:28 PM

Oh I loved Primer! I'll have to add it back to my Netflix.

And Cube! I've been trying to come up with a theme party for watching Cube. Something everyone would have to bring that we could all puzzle out, or something we would have to solve while watching it.

Posted by: Carissa on February 12, 2009 1:37 PM

Hi there, saw your list on The Morning News via reddit.com. Just like to say it's one of the best I've seen in recent memory. Some great selections, including many off the beaten path (I'll look past Donnie Darko...), and your write-ups for them were hilarious. Thanks for giving me a bunch of new movies to seek out. :)

Posted by: Mark on February 12, 2009 2:00 PM

Cube 2! Cube 2! Cube 2! With even more cube!

Wily, wily Canadians...

Posted by: Diablevert on February 12, 2009 2:16 PM

Yeah, I know disagreeing with lists like this is the ultimate in nerdly behavior, but too bad.

--"Eraserhead" makes "Mullholand Dr." look like "Herbie Goes Bananas."

--"Performance". I don't know if I should include a movie I really didn't like, but it did fuck with my head. And Mick Jagger's.

--"Naked Lunch". To quote Nelson Muntz, "I can think of two things wrong with that title."

--"The Devils", if only for the bizarre love scene with Jesus and a humpbacked nun.

Posted by: Mike Konczewski on February 12, 2009 2:51 PM

whenever someone asks me my favorite movie, i demur and instead offer my biggest mindfuck movie, which always satiates them. however, the movie i always think of is not on the list! The only way this can be explained is that you have not seen "The Usual Suspects". Keyser Soze, anyone?

Posted by: Corey on February 12, 2009 3:34 PM

LIQUID SKY!!!!!!!!!!!

I have the soundtrack on VINYL.

ah yes...a truly immortal line of dialogue:

"I kill with my c * * t.

Posted by: operagal on February 12, 2009 4:02 PM

Fantastic list. Wow. I've seen most of these (and will definitely check out the ones I haven't). I wholeheartedly agree with your selections.

Just wanted to mention the William Peter Blatty-directed "The Ninth Configuration," which your article made me think of. I'm not sure it quite qualifies, and it may even suck, as I haven't see it since I was a teen, but maybe you'd want to give it a watch if you haven't already. In any case, I'm inspired to re-watch it myself, having quite enjoyed it oh so long ago.


Posted by: Mike Barron on February 12, 2009 4:14 PM

About that 1967 BBC series The Prisoner: Because AMC is remaking it (with Ian MacKellan and James Caviezel), they've also got all the full episodes of the original version up at their web site.
Perhaps worth linking to in some way from the recommendation in the post.

Posted by: Steve Ely on February 12, 2009 5:26 PM

+1 The Prisoner. That series should be required viewing.

And RIP Patrick McGoohan, who passed away just about a month ago.

Posted by: Craig on February 12, 2009 5:37 PM

gotta comment... lost highway is more mysterious than mulholland drive. but i guess thats like arguing that hersheys kisses are chocolatier that hersheys bars. oh well.

Posted by: gaston monescu on February 12, 2009 5:59 PM

great list! as a fellow fan of mindfuck films i thought i'd share this short with you all: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=La6T8Bq6CsU

Posted by: Doug Z on February 12, 2009 6:17 PM

(Second shot at this, first didn't go through?)

Recommendations from the otaku-sphere:

The End of Evangelion: It's like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but much, much, much, much bloodier. And with more nudity. And the final act makes even less sense.

Cat Soup: "The surreal black comedy follows Nyātta, an anthropomorphic kitten, on his travel to the land of the dead and back in an effort to save his sister's soul." -Wikipedia

FLCL: Six-episode miniseries (~30 mins. each). Robots begin to grow out of the 12-year-old protagonist's forehead after he is run over by a girl on a Vespa and is hit there by her bass guitar.

Posted by: Brendan on February 12, 2009 6:48 PM

Great list.

I would have to add "eXistenZ" (1999) and "Seconds" (1966).

Posted by: chris on February 12, 2009 7:56 PM

I'd add "À la folie... pas du tout" (He loves me... he love me not), starring Audrey Tautou. I can't watch her in Amelie after seeing this.

And kudos for mentioning Liquid Sky, featuring the only mention of Kremlin, Montana on film!

Posted by: Dan on February 12, 2009 7:57 PM

What, no Luis Bunuel or Michelangelo Antonioni or even Ingmar Bergman? These were all the rage among my intellectual friends back in the '70s and I certainly found them pretty mysterious. Kind of like Rashomon.

Posted by: gruve on February 12, 2009 8:27 PM

Maybe Bergman's "Persona," but I feel too snobby saying that. Or "In The Company of Men." Or Jodorowsky's "Holy Mountain" - that was more mindgangbang, at least until the main dude pooped into the jar and it turned into gold, at which point I went into a coma.

Posted by: mw on February 12, 2009 10:43 PM

Stalker... Ah, hours of my life I will never regain and never understand.

Posted by: lizarooski on February 12, 2009 10:44 PM

Maybe I'm cliché, but what about, "Naked Lunch"?

Posted by: Louis G on February 12, 2009 10:50 PM

Zardoz! Zardoz! Zardoz!

A movie that opens with a giant flying stone mask - hard to top for mind fuckability.

Posted by: Lung the Younger on February 13, 2009 1:16 AM

I think there should be a special warning about Audition. I don't exactly have delicate sensibilities, and the trauma from that one still hasn't worn off.

Posted by: Sami on February 13, 2009 4:30 AM

Identity with John Cusack.

Posted by: waterloo.bob on February 13, 2009 6:35 AM

Being John Malkovich. Saw this one in college with my friends. We were the only four in the theater, which made the experience even more surreal-ier.

Posted by: Tim on February 13, 2009 6:57 AM

Sami, there is a special warning on Audition: it's called "Takashi Miike" which roughly translates from Japanese into English as "I will make Tarantino look like Disney".

(FYI search for "Takashi Miike's intro to Dead or Alive" on youtube. Be warned this clip has extreme sex and violence and is definitely not safe for work and probably should not even be on youtube at all!)

Posted by: Soil Creep on February 13, 2009 8:02 AM

Greenaway's "Baby of Macon" is probably the most cerebellum-screwing chunk of squirm ever filmed.

Posted by: phooky on February 13, 2009 8:16 AM

Mr. Baldwin, you are a boon to the interwebs. And don't tell my mom i've seen it, but I might suggest adding trouble every day to your list.

Posted by: ingridgladys on February 13, 2009 8:48 AM

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of my favourite movies and books - of course I am Australian so a TOTALLY GET IT!

It scared me out OF MY MIND when I was little though and I kept being reminded of it because my Dad had all these LPs of James Galway playing the damn panpipes ....


Posted by: Alexandra on February 13, 2009 9:51 AM

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of my favourite movies and books - of course I am Australian so a TOTALLY GET IT!

It scared me out OF MY MIND when I was little though and I kept being reminded of it because my Dad had all these LPs of James Galway playing the damn panpipes ....


Posted by: Alexandra on February 13, 2009 9:51 AM

You incomprehensibly ridiculous cad! Pi is the best of these movies, and you leave it on your b-list!? It boggles!

Posted by: Brantley Harris on February 13, 2009 9:59 AM

I have no idea why you listed "City of Lost Children" here - it's a completely straightforward story. It's just weird (and wonderful), that's all.

Posted by: Tumbleweed on February 13, 2009 10:56 AM

Have we ruled out documentaries? If not, I would add the Errol Morris film, "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" to the list.

Posted by: Soil Creep on February 13, 2009 11:31 AM

I'm totally revealing my anciency here, but I'd have to include "Last Year at Marienbad."

Posted by: Winslow Junker on February 13, 2009 12:03 PM

I'd like to nominate "The Company of Wolves", Neil Jordan's 1984 adapation of Angela Carter's retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood myth, told in the form of stories and dreams within a tale told in a dream...atmospheric in the extreme, and you frequently find yourself wondering WTF is going on!

Posted by: Sean on February 13, 2009 12:36 PM

Picnic at Hanging Rock is brilliant because it looks like one of those crap PBS productions of a Bronte novel, but is in fact more like a prequel to the Blair Witch Project.

Posted by: jstar on February 13, 2009 1:44 PM

You are being featured on Five Star Friday!

Posted by: schmutzie on February 13, 2009 3:55 PM

You thought Le Jetée messed with you as a series of still shots? You must have missed the fact that there are at least two very subtle moving picture images buried in the mix.

What's so amazing is that when they happen, your mind has become so accustomed to filling in the blanks between each image that when the picture moves a little you just assume it's your own brain doing it once again.

I won't tell you where they happen, because figuring it out is half the fun. (If I were really diabolical, I would have said there are four, and you'd spend the rest of your life searching, but I'm pretty sure there are only two.)

Posted by: Matt on February 13, 2009 5:30 PM

Stalker was infinitely better than Solaris, which sucked. Tarkovsky's Mirror is also awesome (but not scifi, unlike the other two).

The Quiet Earth was pretty uninteresting.

The Cube just plain sucked. It had potential, as it tried to mix of Borges and Kafka. But potential is as far as it went. Atroceously amateur execution made it a dud.

Donnie Darko was ok... but barely deserves mention with the rest of the films which you list in your Morning News article, which are excellent.

Check out some Alexandro Jodorowski movies (in particular "The Holy Mountain" and "El Topo", though "Santa Sangre" is also quite good and worth watching) to see the ultimate master of mindfucks (though not necessarily "puzzle movies") at work.

"Last Year at Marienbad" is also a must see... especially if you can bear to watch movies which move at the pace of Stalker or 2001 (ie. glacially slow).

Posted by: aaa on February 13, 2009 8:28 PM

I second the recommendations of Naked Lunch, The Devils, Brazil.

Naked Lunch was the last good Cronenberg movie. Virtually all his films before it are worth seeing. Everything after and including Crash is simply awful... and that includes Existenz, which looked like it was made by a nerdy Cronenberg fan who'd just discovered MUDs. I swear, sometimes I think a slimy worm from one of Cronenberg's movies must have sucked out his brain around the time of Crash... same worm that sucked out Oliver Stone's brain after Natural Bron Kilers (but that's another rant..).

Ninth Configuration was definitely worth watching, though ultimately disappointing because of its low budget and consequently poor acting talent.

I haven't seen Greenaway's "Baby of Macon", but many of his other movies, of which I'd rate "Zoo: A Zed and Two Noughts" as the best (and most mindfuckish).

But, speaking of low budget mindfucks, I'd add "The Rapture"

"Repulsion" and "Revolution #9" are higher budget mindfucks, and also well worth seeing.

Zardoz was surprisingly decent.... though I would never put it in the same league as the rest of the movies above.

Twelve Monkeys was pretty good, but it's definitely no Brazil.

Eraserhead is one of the worst of Lynch's movies... down there with Lost Highway.

I know it's cool to like the The Prisoner, but I think it's is really overrated. It has very little substance behind the surrealism and barely convincing paranoia.

Bunel is also overrated. Watch Salvador Dali's "A Soft Self-Portrait" and Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon", for surrealism done right... (oh, and, of course, Jodorowsky!)

Posted by: aaa on February 13, 2009 8:51 PM

This is a great topic and a great list. I'm not sure why Matthew says "House of Games" doesn't quite belong - I think it fits into this genre, as would several other David Mamet movies (such as The Spanish Prisoner and Heist, both of which you'd probably like if you like House of Games).

Also, Matthew says of Dark City: "Indeed, figuring out the kind of film you’re watching—let alone what is happening within it—is half the fun."

In this vein, has anyone ever seen the strange French film "Le Pacte des Loups" (Brotherhood of the Wolf)? To this day I can't decide whether it was awesomely awesome or awesomely bad, and I just have no idea what *kind* of movie it was. It certainly crossed (jumbled?) a ton of genres.

Posted by: DavidNYC on February 13, 2009 9:38 PM

Funny, I just watched Primer tonight. I might need to see it again, at least once more.

Posted by: Phill on February 14, 2009 3:58 AM

I'd have to add "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Everything's Gone Green".

Posted by: Lori on February 14, 2009 7:32 AM

aaa: "A Zed and Two Noughts" may win just for containing several segments of a David Attenborough documentary which doesn't actually exist.

Posted by: phooky on February 14, 2009 9:22 AM

Just another fan of Primer - your description is the exact way I talk about the movie to people who haven't seen it..."The only film I've ever watched watched back-to-back."

Posted by: Jason on February 14, 2009 2:30 PM

I had to stop reading the metacritic link well before the halfway point... I wanted to light most of those people on fire. Talk about being hazy on the concept. Anyway, I second, third, seventh the suggestion of The Man Who Fell to Earth. I bought the director's cut for my former gf because we're both huge David Bowie fans. It was so effing strange that we both looked at each other about mid-way through with a convo that was a strange combination of "what the hell is going on?"/"are you enjoying this?/"should we stop the DVD?" and our answers were all "I don't know!"

Posted by: Ondioline on February 14, 2009 7:11 PM

May be we need to have a virtual Jodorowsky film-fest.

I could make this happen...we could do it "live"...Matthew, what do you think?

I would love to see El Topo again.

Posted by: operagal on February 14, 2009 7:31 PM

A third call for Marienbad, a fourth for Jodorowsky (seconding Santa Sangre). And since it's finally on DVD, Simon of the Desert.

Posted by: J on February 15, 2009 1:00 PM

Under the Tuscan Sun.

Haha. Just kidding.

But you gotta admit Diane Lane is hot.

Posted by: Steve on February 16, 2009 9:09 PM

After all this years silently reading you, glad to know you enjoyed some mindfuck movies as I do.

But the most mindfuck so far for me was this simple movie about some Chinese immigrant to Holland and how they adapt to the life there.

However it got more clueless, cause for fuck sake I still do not remember the title of the movie because I sat there thinking why I was left dumbfounded why the movie was made in the first place and forgot totally to remember the title.

God help me.

Posted by: vlad on February 17, 2009 12:23 AM

Liquid Sky is one of the only movies I've ever walked out of. It was in college, on a first date (double feature with "The Gods Must Be Crazy"). We left right after the "I kill with my c... line. I'd like to go back and watch it all the way through, just to have done so. I've seen, and agree with, many on your list, and I look forward to hitting the rest.

Posted by: ahtitan on February 17, 2009 2:23 AM

Fourth for last year at Marianbad

Also cheers for picking two of my favorites, City of Lost Children and Dark City: sidenote, the sepia /saturated color palate and cinematography in both of those makes them for me.

In the Kaufman genre just wanted to mention: Synecdoche New York, I loved it and would only would recommend it to someone who doesn't mind being simultaneously disturbed, confused, anxious, and depressed. Got to appreciate all of those layers.

I also found 2046 pretty disorienting and fabulous.

Posted by: breadboxb on February 17, 2009 5:52 PM

Thank you ever so much for adding Oldboy to the list. I have been recommending this movie to friends/coworkers/relatives/fellow bar patrons for years now, and I'm glad to think that this will get some more people to watch. There is but one word for this movie and it is: PWNED.

Posted by: Greyface on February 18, 2009 7:24 AM

A fourth for Marienbad!

Posted by: Ali on February 18, 2009 10:27 AM

What about Immortal by Enki Balil? That movie is... well... it just is.

Posted by: Michael on February 18, 2009 8:08 PM

Another thing about that 1967 BBC series The Prisoner -- it's not a BBC series. It's an ITC series. (There *are* other TV stations in England, actually .... )

Posted by: Michael Montoure on February 19, 2009 7:49 AM

You want a mind fuck? I was watching the movie La Jette that appeared on the list. I saw a this.
This is my friend Erik.
The movie deals with time travel.
Oh yes, you'll shit bricks.

Posted by: Lunchbox on February 20, 2009 9:39 PM

oooh, your 'these are films you should watch but I didn't include' list pretty much fits the kind of slightly odd stuff that I love watching but can never explain to friends. I mean, Audition? Oldboy? A Scanner Darkly? Fantastic films, but honestly, try to explain to someone why you like them. Particularly the batshlt ending of Audition!!

Posted by: Nick on February 21, 2009 3:53 AM

Of David Mamet movies, IMO The Spanish Prisoner is the only one that meets the threshold of mindful-- House of Games comes closed, but those two and Heist are above all movies about cons, and in HoG and Heist, the audience gets let in on the last con. Meanwhile the Spanish Prisoner leaves room for doubt, if one is sufficiently paranoid.

I salute the rest of the list, and I'm queuing up the ones I haven't seen. I'm especially glad at the inclusion of Solyaris. Sadly this story has never been directly translated from the Polish novel directly to English (the book was translated via French) and I think Tarkovsky has the best interpretation-- he improved on the book's ending, which is rare. Clooney and Soderburgh's attempt is visually beautiful and IMO not bad, but it's a remake of the Tarkovsky movie, not a movie of the book.

As for a Terry Gilliam movie, geez. Brazil is good, but dystopia's not mindfuck. I think it's a close one between the causation and coincidence bits of Time Bandits and Twelve Monkeys, and since I'm a grown-up I'd say Twelve Monkeys, but there's a 8-year-old boy in my head that's still a little terrified of those chunks of evil at the end of Time Bandits. "Don't touch it, it's Evil!"

Posted by: LAN3 on February 21, 2009 11:03 PM

I'm surprised not to have seen Ringhu/The Ring on the list yet. I received a telephone call on the last land line I ever owned during the viewing, which vaulted this to the top of my mind fuck list.


Posted by: Mark on February 22, 2009 10:17 AM