Mentally Challenging Films
September 29, 2009 8:14 AM   Subscribe

What movies have the most difficult plots to understand? Movies that are mentally challenging and require multiple viewings but aren't nonsensical.

I'm thinking of examples like The Big Sleep and Mission Impossible. Films that don't do an excessive amount of hand-holding throughout the plot. Hopefully movies that aren't confusing just due to bad directing or plot development.
posted by FuManchu to Media & Arts (76 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Primer still sort of confuses me.
posted by jquinby at 8:16 AM on September 29, 2009 [16 favorites]

Ah, that link contains several spoilers, by the way. Should have mentioned that up front. Sorry.
posted by jquinby at 8:17 AM on September 29, 2009

Mulholland Drive.
posted by milarepa at 8:18 AM on September 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

The Big Lebowski is fun and confusing.
posted by aabbbiee at 8:19 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Rashomon. Memento. The Ususal Suspects (these last two plots are made "clear" at the end, but unfold further on multiple viewings.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:19 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Fountain.
posted by bfranklin at 8:22 AM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


It all kind of makes perfect sense at the end but there's a point in the film where you're all "WTF? I don't know what's real anymore."
posted by bondcliff at 8:23 AM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

and also Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York
posted by Rhomboid at 8:25 AM on September 29, 2009

Blind Chance
posted by Methylviolet at 8:25 AM on September 29, 2009

eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.

wicker park.

2 viewings is enough to get it all, though.
posted by gursky at 8:25 AM on September 29, 2009

Seconding Memento.
posted by motsque at 8:26 AM on September 29, 2009

Lost Highway
posted by torquemaniac at 8:27 AM on September 29, 2009

David Lynch's Inland Empire.

Heck, arguably anything by David Lynch (other than The Straight Story and The Elephant Man)
posted by magstheaxe at 8:28 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Primer. Probably the most narratively challenging film I've seen.
posted by hydatius at 8:29 AM on September 29, 2009

Yeah, Primer is up there. I'm not at all entirely sure what the fuck happened.

Another good one is Southland Tales. I'm not sure if it's challenging or if it's just doesn't make sense.
posted by kbanas at 8:30 AM on September 29, 2009

Pi - you can 'get it' after one viewing, but man, do things make more sense the more you watch it.
posted by pupdog at 8:32 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dead Man. Not complicated so much as subtle and open.
posted by cmoj at 8:32 AM on September 29, 2009

Donnie Darko: (spoilers included) .
posted by hellogoodbye at 8:33 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Big Lebowski is fun and confusing.

It wasn't until the 5th or 6th viewing that I realized I had difficulty explaining the entire story. In my defense, it could have been the caucasians.
posted by Adam_S at 8:33 AM on September 29, 2009

4thing PRIMER!
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:34 AM on September 29, 2009

TV Tropes has a whole page on the kinds of films that have been mentioned so far, but most of them have purposely non-nonsensical elements that help make the narrative disorienting.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:35 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would think Crash, Babel, Pulp Fiction, and Magnolia would be reasonable additions to the list. Tartovsky's Stalker and or Solaris? 2001?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:35 AM on September 29, 2009

Memento comes to mind. It's not immediately obvious that there are 2 converging timelines.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to find Apocalypse Now confusing. It's a relatively linear story, but maybe because the opening sequence features images from the climactic sequence it throws some people off.

Adaptation can be enjoyed with a single viewing, but multiple viewing brings out many AHA! moments.

By the same writer as Adaptation: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York.

The Prestige

Once Upon a Time in America (the full version, not the shortened one)
posted by The Deej at 8:36 AM on September 29, 2009

A Scanner Darkly.

Run Lola Run.

Back to the Future II.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:39 AM on September 29, 2009

I still don't really get Syriana.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:42 AM on September 29, 2009

Yes, I came here to say 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kurbrik), and maybe his Eyes Wide Shut. Memento is just an entirely different movie the second time you watch it; same with Fight Club. I don't think that you can really "get it" with those two movies for most of the first viewing.
posted by k8lin at 8:43 AM on September 29, 2009

Seconding Syriana.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:47 AM on September 29, 2009

Serial Experiments Lain is five and a half hours of mindfuck about the nature of reality, god, identity, technology and humanity.

Okay, technically it was a television show. It's a complete work that gives you defined breaks every 25 minutes.
posted by giraffe at 8:49 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's too bad some posts are already giving away details of some of these movies if you haven't seen them. :(
posted by jca at 8:51 AM on September 29, 2009

I'd argue that Jacob's Ladder borderline qualifies. And not just because you're trying to figure out why George Costanza is there.
posted by giraffe at 8:53 AM on September 29, 2009

I see The Usual Suspects in a different light every time I watch it.
posted by Jon-o at 8:54 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Before the Rain
Black Book
Point Blank
posted by Iosephus at 8:54 AM on September 29, 2009

Primer, Lost Highway, the original Solaris
posted by plexi at 8:54 AM on September 29, 2009

I don't think Syrianna makes sense, personally.

I really didn't care for Mulholland Drive until I had it explained to me by Dobbs (spoilers obviously). Now I quite like it.

I'll add L'Avventura to the list. And Deadwood (the hbo show).

And I don't think these films are at all confusing but I do believe you'll reap plenty of benefits from repeated viewings:

The Fountain
Five Easy Pieces
Carnal Knowledge
The Passenger
Eyes Wide Shut
Miller's Crossing
The Limey
Fight Club
Monsieur Hire
The Hairdresser's Husband
Rosemary's Baby
The Tenant
Code Unknown
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:55 AM on September 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

Nthing Memento like, a million times, because I thought I thoroughly understood it after maybe the fifth viewing, but I never really got how truly tragic the story was until I got the special edition DVD's and was able to watch the movie forwards.
posted by joshuaconner at 8:56 AM on September 29, 2009

Southland Tales, from what I understand, only makes sense after you read the graphic novels tied to it. Which I still have to do. I wasn't so much confused by the missing background as for my mind trying to substitute Futurama's Mom for Miranda Richardson's character, for some reason.
posted by Iosephus at 9:12 AM on September 29, 2009

Clint Eastwood's film Bird (starring Forest Whitaker and Diane Venora) is a biopic about the life of Charlie Parker that has a non-linear narrative, with flashbacks nested within other flashbacks. If the mention of Eastwood as a director makes you think first of Million Dollar Baby or Gran Torino, you'll be surprised by Bird.
posted by Prospero at 9:13 AM on September 29, 2009

The Element of Crime by Lars von Trier
Blade Runner by Ridley Scott
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:19 AM on September 29, 2009

Donnie Darko - the first time I watched it I thought it would never make sense. The second and third times it did!
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:20 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

12 Monkeys
Blade Runner (not a version with the crappy voice-overs)
posted by hippybear at 9:27 AM on September 29, 2009

Mentally challenging? Welcome to the next level with Last Year at Marienbad. It won several major awards, was nominated for an oscar, and makes most of the movies on this list look like an episode of Cheers. Blew my mind when I was a freshman in college.

Also, Syriana does make sense (except for that final scene sort of), and I really enjoyed it.
posted by history is a weapon at 9:40 AM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Agree with Pulp Fiction; also The Fisher King.
posted by Melismata at 9:49 AM on September 29, 2009

Watchmen may qualify if you're going into it without having read the graphic novel.
posted by quadog at 9:58 AM on September 29, 2009

Burn After Reading
posted by pxe2000 at 10:02 AM on September 29, 2009

Get the run of Twin Peaks on DVD, then try to watch Fire Walk With Me and figure it all out.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:03 AM on September 29, 2009

High Plains Drifter
posted by dortmunder at 10:09 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I didn't understand Syriana until I watched the deleted scenes on the DVD.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:09 AM on September 29, 2009

Total Recall by its nature is confusing to determine what is real and what is imagined.
posted by mmascolino at 10:52 AM on September 29, 2009

Videodrome and/or eXistenZ? They're kind of dated and I have't seen either in a long time, but I remember them both having that sort of what the hell is going on what the hell is real sort of feeling.

I didn't really enjoy Primer, but it's definitely on that list. I don't even understand the spoilers for that movie. But the idea of it is fantastic!

How about Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs? My first time through both I didn't really understand what was happening.
posted by bDiddy at 10:55 AM on September 29, 2009

The Saragossa Manuscript.
posted by misteraitch at 11:03 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

El Topo

posted by anansi at 11:09 AM on September 29, 2009

The Holy Mountain by Jodorowsky.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:01 PM on September 29, 2009

I've seen Miller's Crossing twice and still don't really get it. There are quite a lot of characters, everyone talks quickly and dialogue is liberally splattered with contemporary colloquialisms. I thoroughly enjoyed it both times I saw it though.
posted by Edwahd at 12:06 PM on September 29, 2009

The Falls . (info)
posted by juv3nal at 12:25 PM on September 29, 2009

Beware of spoilers on these links, although even with the spoilers multiple viewings pay off :-)

How about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? It's not so much that the plot is convoluted, as the dialog is so dense that you can't take it all in the first go-round.

If you're willing to read (or go see a play), try Arcadia, Hapgood and/or Travesties, all by Stoppard.

For other movies, what about House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner? Mamet isn't for everyone, but these two are pretty good.

I watched both Usual Suspects and Miller's Crossing recently. I've seen them both multiple times, and still understood things anew with this viewing.
posted by Gorgik at 12:38 PM on September 29, 2009


1987, starring: Ellen Barkin, Gabriel Byrne, Isabella Rossellini, Julian Sands, Alexei Sayle, Martin Sheen, Grace Jones, and Jodie Foster.

Sound track by Miles Davis.
posted by jbenben at 12:39 PM on September 29, 2009

I expected a lot of nthing of Primer, but I have to say that I recently saw it for the first few times, read several explanations online, and don't think it's as "ZOMG Mindblowing so complex have to watch it again well thought out!" as so many people seem to claim. Without giving too much away, the incident with Mr. Grangier is completely bizarre and non-sequiturious, and really contributes to the "confused" feeling you get at the end.

Or maybe I just don't get it yet.

I prefer Memento for the "everything makes sense if you pay attention" genre.
posted by RobotNinja at 1:17 PM on September 29, 2009

I think Homicide and Spartan are Mamet's best films but pretty much anything he wrote or directed has another level you'll catch on the second run. Red Belt and Oleana and Glengarry Glen Ross and the above mentioned House of Games are all great. To me, Spanish Prisoner is his worst film.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 1:49 PM on September 29, 2009

Oh, and if you don't mind another tv recommendation, I think John From Cincinnatti is the most complex single season of tv I've ever seen. I've seen it 3 times and feel no where close to understanding everything. Love it, though. Deadwood's my favorite show but JFC is pretty high up on the list as well.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 1:50 PM on September 29, 2009

Damn, this reads like a list of my favorite movies of all time ever. Favoriting it to come back and find you which ones I haven't seen yet. Thanks!
posted by Xoebe at 2:05 PM on September 29, 2009

Just about anything by Peter Greenaway. My favourites are The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (certainly NOT an easy film), Drowning by Numbers, and The Belly of an Architect.

City of Lost Children, partly because the visuals are so stunning, and partly because there are so many subplots - all of them are bizarre.

Lots and lots of adaptations of William Shakespeare. Verily it doth take five and twenty minutes to bend thine ear around the Elizabethan idiom, and he really could write a dramatic story.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 5:21 PM on September 29, 2009

Canadian: Exotica and The Hanging Garden.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:36 PM on September 29, 2009

This is funny--I was just describing something similar to this class of movie to a friend of mine last night. We were talking about how most people hate art movies. Basically, I was saying that the typical movie watcher wants innovation, but beyond a certain point (the point where innovation changes the fundamental rules of the genre they're in), they're unable to read innovation as innovation and just read it as boring, pretentious, etc. Obviously, there are a lot more things going on than that (particularly on class levels), but the take-away is that for a certain type of viewer, the best movie cannot be anything but something like Pulp Fiction, Memento, Primer, Eternal Sunshine, because these types of films give you the impression that they're subversive or innovative, even though they fundamentally adhere to basic genre conventions. All of these movies, for example, do a lot of work to make sure you're correctly situated in each scene, that you can typically reconstruct the chronology, and that you have every character flagged for you in each scene. Things are rarely ambiguous; the point, after all, to a puzzle movie is that there is a solution--which, in a way, makes many of these movies far less complicated than, say, a morally ambiguous drama.

These are Hollywood cues to essentially make things far less ambiguous that in real life. In fact, if you like these movies, you might want to check out Hollywood screwball comedies in that they have a similar type of speed and density. Alternately you might want to check out classic film noir, like The Third Man or The Lady from Shanghai. However, if you're really adventurous (and this is not a way to answer your question, you might want to check out movies that don't use this sort of cueing. These movies really disorienting. Pass on Primer and watch the Resnais, Greenaway, and Jodorowsky movies that some people have recommended. Some more thoughts:

- Alain Resnais's Muriel at first looks like it's a pretentious structuralist experiment, but it's really a film about the dislocation that happens to normal people (middle-class postwar french people) after war. There's a banal soap opera plot on top and post traumatic stress on the bottom. I don't think you'll get that much more on the second viewing (as Sontag said), but the first viewing you feel like you're straining to catch up. I have a review of it in an upcoming Film International.

- I think Hou Hsiao Hsien is difficult because he fundamentally requires that you understand film in a different way: the image may mismatch the narration (but in an unobvious way, unlike the loud mismatches of Mismento) and a short oblique scene may indicate the death of main character. This article does a good job of explaining some of the things he does. Basically, he says Hou's aesthetic can be defined by the following principles: 1) Historical memory is impersonal; 2) My experiences don't belong to me; 3) The shot's centre of focus is forever drifting out-of-field; 4) We are clusters of signs and affects given form by light. Okay, the last point especially is a little iffy, but the movies themselves are great. CITY OF SADNESS is the hardest one, as far as I know.

- Eugene Green isn't quite difficult in the way you want: he's not structurally complicated the ways these directors are, and is kind of a sopping romantic. But his movie Le pont des arts, more than any other I've seen lately, made me want to talk to other people about what the hell it meant! This is a self-link to a review I wrote about his work.
posted by johnasdf at 6:24 PM on September 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Oh, how could I forget: Le nèg'. All hell broke loose last night; two people are dead; what happened, exactly? Every witness has his or her own version.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:14 PM on September 29, 2009

Clue a comedy based on the board game.
posted by Procloeon at 7:31 PM on September 29, 2009

Cremasters 1, 2 and 5.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 7:52 PM on September 29, 2009

Anything by Fellini.
posted by xammerboy at 8:52 PM on September 29, 2009

Last Year at Marienbad.
posted by brujita at 10:55 PM on September 29, 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Existenze (with Jude Law), Layer Cake, Danika and I also agree with the mention of Adaptation.
posted by gypseefire at 4:08 AM on September 30, 2009

Agreeing on Donnie Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Memento.
posted by t-rex at 6:53 AM on September 30, 2009

Primer, again and again. Also, In the Valley of Elah was not really challenging, but I couldn't get it out of my head. I didn't want to watch it again, but I had to.

I don't know about the Fountain, though. I don't think that was mentally confusing in a good way, just disorganized. It really didn't come together for me.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 10:34 AM on October 1, 2009

A Tale of Two Sisters was frightening but made little sense to me until after I read several explanations on IMDB.

What was confusing about Syriana? How does it not make sense?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 7:55 PM on October 4, 2009

Also, Transformers 2 makes no sense. But I don't think this is intentional.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:04 PM on October 4, 2009

I sorted through this thread to get a list of titles, so just for future visitors:

Top 3: Primer (8), Memento (7), Syriana (6)

Four: Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Three: Donnie Darko, Fountain, Lost Highway, Miller's Crossing, Mulholland Drive, Pulp Fiction, Usual Suspects

Two: 12 Monkeys, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Big Lebowski, Blade Runner, Brazil, Deadwood, eXistenZ, Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club, Last Year at Marienbad, L'Avventura, Solaris, Southland Tales, Stalker, Synecdoche, New York, Twin Peaks/Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

One: 1987, Alphabet, Amputee, Apocalypse Now, Arcadia, Babel, Back to the Future 2, Before the Rain, Being John Malkovich, Belly of an Architect, Big Sleep, Bird, Black Book, Blind Chance, Blue Velvet, Boat, Burn After Reading, Canadian: Exotica, Carnal Knowledge, Chacun son cinéma ou Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence, Chinatown, City of Lost Children, City of Sadness, Clue, Code Unknown, Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover, Crash, Cremasters 1, Cremasters 2, Cremasters 5, Darkened Room, Dead Man, Drowning by Numbers, DumbLand, Dune, Dynamic: 01: The Best of, El Topo, Element of Crime, Eraserhead, Falls, Fisher King, Five Easy Pieces, Frailty, Glengarry Glen Ross, Grandmother, Hairdresser's Husband, Hanging Garden, Hapgood, High Plains Drifter, Holy Mountain, Homicide, House of Games, In the Valley of Elah, Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted, Inland Empire, Jacob's Ladder, John From Cincinnati, Lady from Shanghai, Layer Cake, Le nèg', Le pont des arts, Limey, Lumière et compagnie, Magnolia, Mission Impossible, Monsieur Hire, More Things That Happened, Muriel, Oleana, Once Upon a Time in America (Full, Unshortened), Passenger, Pi, Point Blank, Prestige, Rabbits, Rashomon, Red Belt, Reservoir Dogs, Rosemary's Baby, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Run Lola Run, Sargossa Manuscript, Scanner Darkly, Serial Experiments Lain, Short Films of David Lynch, Siesta, Six Figures Getting Sick, Sound Track, Spanish Prisoner, Spartan, Tale of Two Sisters, A, Tenant, Third Man, Total Recall, Transformers 2, Travesties, Videodrome, Watchmen, Wicker Park, Wild at Heart
posted by WCityMike at 7:09 PM on November 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

How did I miss this thread???

Bergman! Especially Persona (view it alongside Robert Altman's similar 3 Women), but anything else of his would do.

Fellini! and Juliet of the Spirits are the best of his Jungian phase, but even his early neorealist stuff (e.g. La Strada) had a lot of capital-s Symbolism in there.

Speaking of spirits, The Spirit of the Beehive. And Cria cuervos. Also, the thematically similar, but much more explicitly fantastical Pan's Labyrinth.

Malle's Black Moon. Also, while it's not really what you're looking for—you won't really need to watch it more than once to get it, but it is super thinky in as great way—Malle's utterly opposite film My Dinner with Andre.

Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course, but also The Shining, which is chock full of puzzly metaphorical goodness everywhere you look. But not Eyes Wide Shut, because it's mostly not very good IMO.

Literally anything by Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. (Except, yeah, The Straight Story, which is the most aptly named movie ever.) Also, anything by Jan Švankmajer. Any film written by Charlie Kaufman. The Coen Brothers' last few films. Woody Allen's "serious" films.

Finally, I'm going to recommend—nay, demand—that you watch the Monty Python movies Life of Brian, Holy Grail, and The Meaning of Life. Only after you've seen those and understood them to death (keeping an eye out for themes of religion, politics, class, war, and capitalism).
posted by Sys Rq at 9:24 AM on February 28, 2010

...there was more to that last sentence, I think.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:26 AM on February 28, 2010

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