If there’s one thing movies do better than any other art form, it’s weirdness. The combination of sight, sound, and music make for a perfect cocktail to take the audience away on a wild and spaced-out ride; and in recent years filmmakers have even started using film as a way to explore heady philosophical ideas like the nature of identity, time, and consciousness. With this in mind, the following are ten movies that have some of the most far-out, inventive, and thought-provoking plotlines in film history. There are countless honorable mentions that could have easily made this list, so please feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments section .
10. The Prestige
If you want to mystify an audience, you can’t go wrong by taking a page out of the magician’s book of tricks, which is exactly what director Christopher Nolan did with his 2006 film The Prestige. The story follows two turn-of-the-century magicians who get into a fierce rivalry after one of them invents an extraordinary — and totally inexplicable — new trick. It’s a film filled with twists, reversals, and red herrings, and it asks some pretty lofty questions about the nature of identity and obsession which are bound to keep you thinking. It’s like a ninety-minute magic trick transplanted to the screen—but unlike so many magic tricks, it features a payoff that’s actually worth sticking around for. *Watch the trailer for The Prestige here…
If you’re in the mood for a movie that’s really going to make you think, look no further than Seconds, a little-known gem from the late 1960’s starring Rock Hudson. The film follows the story of a middle-aged banker who is contacted by a shadowy organization that offers a most-tempting service: new life. For a fee, the company fakes the man’s death, sets him up in a brand new career and house, and gives him plastic surgery so that he comes out looking like the famously handsome Mr. Hudson. Not a bad deal, right? Well, think again. These being the movies, things are much more complicated than they seem, and the story soon takes an abrupt turn toward the creepy. Director John Frankenheimer used some truly revolutionary shooting techniques for the movie, and the result is a harrowing and hallucinatory experience that you won’t easily forget. Brian Wilson sure didn’t. According to his biography, seeing Seconds while in the middle of his drug years and teetering on the edge of schizophrenia affected the Beach Boys front man deeply, and he claims that after watching the film he didn’t go to the movies again for almost fifteen years.
8. A Clockwork Orange
When it comes to weirdness in film, Stanley Kubrick is king. From 2001, to The Shining to Eyes Wide Shut, he was a director always interested in exploring the deeper, more twisted reaches of the subconscious. Nowhere is this more apparent than in A Clockwork Orange, his 1972 masterpiece of satirical science fiction. The story takes place in a dystopian future and follows the exploits of Alex, the sociopath leader of a gang of ‘droogs’ who go around terrorizing people on the streets of Britain. Alex is eventually arrested for murder and given a radical treatment that attempts to instill an extreme aversion to violence in him—with somewhat mixed results. A Clockwork Orange was quite controversial upon its release, and was even briefly banned in the UK, but today it has become one of the quintessential cult movies for its bizarre style and philosophical undertones. Mostly, though, it’s remembered for being one hell of a strange ride, at turns disturbing and hilarious—sometimes both at the same time. *Watch the trailer for A Clockwork Orange here…
7. The Man From Earth
Taking your viewers on a wild ride doesn’t always require millions in special effects and a convoluted plot—sometimes it’s just about taking a good idea and exploring it for all it’s worth. Such is the case with 2007’s The Man From Earth, a small independent film that unfolds like a mixture of a well-written stage play and a brilliant philosophical treatise. The story centers on John Oldman, a college professor who, during a party with some friends, makes the bizarre claim that he is immortal. He explains that he was born in Cro-Magnon times, but never aged, and that for 10,000 years he has been walking the Earth, moving every five years so that no one will catch on to his secret. His friends are understandably skeptical, but they are willing to play along with what they think is a game, and what follows is a lengthy dialogue on the nature of time, knowledge, and aging that never ceases to be fascinating. It’s a film that’s confined to a single room and a single subject, but even though it’s shot on the smallest scale possible, the ideas it presents and the questions it raises are bigger and more ambitious than movies with budgets ten times bigger.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Writer Charlie Kaufman has come up with some pretty heavy premises in his time, but his best foray into the realms of the strange and bizarre came in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a sci-fi romance story notable for its mind-bending plot and mesmerizing visual style. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as Joel and Clementine, two former lovers whose dysfunctional relationship leads them to a technology company that specializes in erasing painful memories from subjects’ minds. This ingenious premise allows director Michel Gondry to really have some fun playing with time and space, and in some scenes objects and people will disappear out of the shot as they are systematically being erased from a character’s memory. All this makes for some amazing sequences, but what really makes Eternal Sunshine such a weird trip are all the questions it forces the viewers to ask themselves: are we nothing but the sum total of our memories? Would it be worth it to delete bad experiences from your mind even if you lost a little of yourself in the process? That kind of depth of subject matter is a rare find in movies, and it’s a big part of what makes this film such a strange and memorable experience. *Watch the trailer for Eternal Sunshine here…
Time travel movies are always one of the easiest ways to throw an audience for a loop, simply because of the inherent paradoxes and logical traps that jumping back or forward in time creates. It’s a plot device that’s been used time and again, but rarely has it been employed as effectively as it was in Primer, a 2004 science fiction film about two struggling engineers who accidentally invent a time machine. Primer is a movie that’s notable for two things: being made independently for $7,000, and having one of the most convoluted, mind-blowing, and intentionally dense plot lines of all time. The filmmakers choose not to spoon-feed their audience any information, and the result is a movie that features a good deal of technical banter and hard science. The heady dialogue and twisty plotting is guaranteed to lose some of the audience, but for those that get into it, Primer is ultimately one of the most rewarding and thought-provoking movies of the last few years.
4. Mulholland Drive
Pretty much every movie director David Lynch has made could be put on this list, but if you’re looking for a good intro to the carnival of weirdness that is his career, start with Mulholland Drive, a 2001 psychological thriller that ranks among his best films. The story follows a young actress who moves to L.A. with the intent of breaking into the movie business. She soon meets up with a mysterious woman with amnesia, whom she tries to help recover her identity. From there, the narrative unravels into one of the most unsettling, complex, and downright fascinating movies of the last few years. It’s the kind of movie where each viewer is destined to come away with their own personal reading of what it means, and there’s little doubt that this is what Lynch, who has refused to comment on what he believes it’s all really about, always intended. *Watch the trailer for Mulholland Drive here…
3. The Matrix
What is there left to say about The Matrix? This film was a real game-changer in Hollywood, and when it came out in 1999 it immediately became established as one of the weirdest, most influential, and stylistically inventive movies of all time—and all this despite having Keanu Reeves in the starring role. The film is essentially based around a simple philosophical idea that’s been troubling philosophers since the days of Descartes: how do we know what is real? The filmmakers took this thought experiment and built their story around it, throwing in a dose of heavy firepower and kung fu for good measure, and the result is a movie that is at turns thought-provoking as well as pure, simple fun. It features some of the most eye-popping visual effects and action scenes in recent memory; but what The Matrix will really be remembered for is pushing the envelope of the kinds of subjects that can be tackled in movies, whether it’s the nature of sensation and experience or our ever-changing relationship with technology. *Watch the trailer for The Matrix here…
2. Fight Club
1999 was a big year for mind-blowing movies, and of these Fight Club is the one that still hits the hardest. Insomuch as it can be explained, the story follows a nameless office drone (played by Edward Norton) that comes in to contact with a flamboyant soap salesman played by Brad Pitt. Together the two start an underground bare-knuckle boxing club, and after it catches on, they slowly mold their group of disaffected young men into an unofficial guerilla army that rebels against the status quo by performing bizarre acts of sabotage and vandalism. Anyone who’s seen Fight Club knows this is just a tiny part of the story, but that’s why this film continues to be one of the weirdest experiences you’ll ever have at the movies. The filmmakers keep throwing new curves at the audience, each more preposterous than the one before, and it all leads up to one of the most warped, mind-bending, and truly surprising twist endings of all time. But the film doesn’t just work on a gimmick. It’s also one of the most thematically audacious stories of the last few years, tackling everything from violence and masculinity to advertising and consumer culture. *Watch the trailer for Fight Club here…
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
The late 90s might have been a renaissance of inventive style and bold ideas on screen, but none of it would have been possible if not for the 1968 release of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It might be difficult to understand now, but before 2001, the kinds of ideas that would become the staple of modern mindbenders just weren’t being addressed in mainstream film, and science fiction was certainly not taken seriously as a genre. Kubrick not only spent millions constructing the most realistic vision of space travel then possible, but he matched it all with a story that actually tried to tackle not just the origin of humanity as a thinking species, but also speculated on where our next scientific leaps might take us. I won’t even pretend to know exactly what the final third of the movie means, and I don’t know if anyone really does for sure, but what is certain is that 2001 gave its viewers more food for thought than any movie before it, and forty years later it still hasn’t lost one ounce of mystery or inventiveness.