And… FADE OUT! End credits roll. Theater lights ethereally flash on. But wait a minute. You and your friend turn to each other with gawking faces, unhinged. What was that all about? That can’t be right. Or are we just dumb? And you are still glued to your seat as your swirling head demands for answers.
A movie, nonetheless, should have three parts – Act One: characters and conflicts are introduced. Act Two: characters fight to resolve the conflicts. Act Three: characters’ actions determine their fate leading to conclusions. However, there are films aimed to put your wits to a test. You suddenly realize that your brains might be in danger of intelligent cells’ extinction all because of the mind-games that they have intentionally swooped you into. So just keep blowing the trumpet, Justice must be served! I deserve to know the truth!
Here’s a list of mainstream movies that will forever command your brainpower. Some contain elements that – [if your cerebellum hasn’t caught them at all, then you’re one of the odd ones-] – trail-blaze you to disputes that can never measure up with your genius. While others will entirely shake your mind and retreat into your acumen to cram for theories that hopefully will make sense – but to no avail, of course. Regardless of their narrative techniques and genres, these films have fulfilled their purpose to mess with your head.
Attention: Spoilers ahead
20. The Green Mile 
Prison guards witness the supernatural healing powers of a death-row inmate.
The year is believed to be 1999 when Paul Edgecomb [Tom Hanks] narrates his past to a friend, Elaine, at a nursing home. From the opening scene until the execution of John Coffey [Michael Clark Duncan] in 1935, your heart is catapulted with the most harrowing emotions that you might have never even felt before. Being a Math savvy that you are, the film has nothing for you to orb into Einstein. Until Elaine wonders about Paul’s son who was already ‘fully grown’ at the time the story befell, and Paul was 44 years old then. Paul, outliving all his loved ones and even those at the retirement home, keeps your sagacity where it belongs somehow. But having a ‘fully grown’ son at 44? Even Paul himself affirms that the Math ‘doesn’t add up’.
Doesn’t 44 already sound ‘fully grown’ to you? How old would his son be? You might wanna dig deeper into your knowledge in entropy to crack this one.
19. Mystic River 
Three childhood friends reunite when one’s daughter is murdered.
So, it’s a murder case of Jimmy’s [Sean Penn] daughter, Katie [Emmy Rossum]. Sean [Kevin Bacon] is the detective solving the crime. Now Dave [Tim Robbins] is accused, and forced to confess by Jimmy, who kills him hereafter. Clueless about Dave’s disappearance, Sean informs Jimmy that the murderers have just been captured, then asks if he has seen Dave as he needs to question him about a pedophile whose remains have been found. All along, you are wrapped inside a pity-and-fear blanket. And just when you are already sure that you’re only supposed to comfort yourself out of such despair, Sean makes an I will shoot you hand gesture to Jimmy, who casually opens his arms and shrugs his shoulders as a response.
No, you’re not jumping off of your seat yet because it takes a little while before it sinks in. Once it does, questions prey on your mind. Sean is a cop. Jimmy’s reaction means, Go ahead. Do it. So who would take who down first? And was mystic river supposed to be a crime disposal? Should the title support this argument? After all, mystic river doesn’t appear to be that significant all throughout the film.
18. Se7en 
Two detectives are out to hunt for a killer who does his crimes based on the seven deadly sins – pride, sloth, greed, gluttony, lust, envy, and wrath.
This movie keeps on offending your pulse, checking on you with tenacious phrases, I’m worthy of it. Trust me. And then you are faced with the insolent stratagem of the sadistic killer which leads you to the cryptic desert area. Now you are officially trapped to find out why. And all of a sudden, it has become a personal propaganda. Detective David Mills [Brad Pitt] is the target for wrath, and John Doe [Kevin Spacey] being envy – with a shallow vindication.
Is it all a conspiracy against Detective David Mills? Try jumping into John Doe’s and Detective William Somerset’s [Morgan Freeman] heads. Perhaps, the answers are stored somewhere in there. Detective William Somerset is about to retire, and leaves you with muzzy phrases and a quote… Around. I’ll be around. The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for. I agree with the second part… Was he connected to John Doe? Or did he even mean to retire?
17. Fight Club 
An insomniac and a soap-maker team up to create an underground fight club.
So you’re expecting thrill-seekers beat each other up. Done deal. Perhaps, thirty-five percent out of one-hundred percent running time, you may have inspected your jaw if its bones are still in the right place. Tyler Durden [Brad Pitt] even scares you off with a challenge to become who you want to be in 6 weeks, otherwise you’re dead. And you’re in the game. But uh-oh. You clench your fist now after an ultimate revelation is bashed in your face.
The narrator [Edward Norton] is, in fact, the menacing Tyler Durden himself. And it compels you to rewind the movie from the opening credits just to actually see all the what-ifs smacked into your head since the shocking turning point has busted in. Although you have seen some flashbacks as to how he has conceived Tyler as his ego-self, they’re still not convincing enough for you to stop beating yourself up over it. Can you picture it though?
16. The Fountain 
A scientist/doctor is eager to find a cure for his ailing wife.
And the log line speaks for itself. Oh, it should be worth to watch. It should go beyond your grasp and astonish your ignorance in Health and Sciences. Having the Mayans is impressive. Perhaps, they hold the key. Multiple narratives set in different centuries with spectacular visuals stagger that part of your neuro-anatomy. And you keep on waiting for culminating moments. Then Izzy [Rachel Weisz] dies. Recurring events smoothly proceed. Then back to a compelling scene in Act One. Only to find out that Izzy has already passed on by then. And you are being attacked with more symbolic images or scenarios.
So now you sprawl in a pensive mood. Not to mention disappointed and confused. Which part has Tom [Hugh Jackman] exactly done something to look for that medical breakthrough? Before Izzy dies? Or after.
15. Identity 
A murderer is on the loose, killing off strangers at a remote motel.
As the rising action bloods up a storm, your only concern is how they’re going to catch the criminal. Ed [John Cusack] is suddenly darted into a room, where his fate lies in the hands of authorities, and learns that his real name is Malcolm Rivers and that he has multiple personalities, who are presumed to be responsible for all the crimes that he has committed. He says that in his block-out, he sees people being killed off at a motel. All those strangers share the same birthday, May 10th. As the movie is about to conclude, you realize that since Malcolm has 10 different personalities, he could be all those strangers. Timmy, the kid, is now concluded as the killer when he reappears to supposedly complete his task by attempting to slaughter Paris [Amanda Peet]. The story happens in the present time. Notice how Timmy is dressed differently. Perhaps, his major trauma originated around that age. In one of your absorbing theories, those murders have only whirled around Malcolm’s head to slay off his demons.
Now give yourself an award for being the best movie hacker of the year. You’ve finally got something to brag about to your friends on a Friday-night flock. But… Where’s Ginny? Her body is never found. Where does she swing into your theories? Now you are being stripped off of the award. Give it back!
14. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 
A couple undergoes a scientific method to erase each other from their memories.
So a crucial decision – no matter how deviant it may be – has been made. As it has bolted on, Joel [Jim Carrey] and Clementine [Kate Winslet] spend their time catching each other instead, relishing every romantic moment. Aah. You are falling in love. Oh, but then you get distracted by Lacuna workers’ interventions. They, too, have an important story to tell. And you have to run to the bathroom. By the time the last few scenes of Act Three marvel before your eager eyes, Lacuna recordings shatter your hopes.
Joel and Clementine do not know each other, nor have they ever been together at all – even before they go through mind erasures! Whoa. No. No way. Uh-uh. So you have to recount the events from the very beginning… regardless of a rather happy ending. Isn’t there even a clue? Not even one frame rate.
13. The Jacket 
A Gulf war veteran has been put into a criminally insane hospital, and discovers that he can see – and even experience being in – the future.
Jack Starks [Adrien Brody] has just miraculously come back to life when another tragic incident happens, sending him to the institution. Once he is placed inside the drawer, he is fetched off to the future wherein he reconnects with the older Jackie [Kiera Knightly], who he met when she was a little girl. And you must be quick-witted enough to pace along with the past-future bounces so as not to miss out on some tiny details. Your mental dynamism is now used to this exercise, therefore, in some cases, you murmur uh-huhs to yourself. Yeah, keep on blowing that horn.
Suddenly, your brows wrinkle in pother by the time the ending buzzes into your disturbed thoughts. When Jack is reading his letter to Jackie’s mother in a voice over, montages slip by. Dr. Becker [Kris Kristofferson] is seen popping in a hand full of pills and chasing them with alcohol, then looking like he’s about to pass out. Is he killing himself out of guilt? The year is 1993. Yet Jack has also met him in 2007. When Jack and Jackie reunite in the end – him being a total stranger to her this time – in a voice over, she asks, How much time do we have? It was the same enigmatic question that she has thrown at him in the former future, which means that whatever has happened then… is just about to begin… again. And yet her mom is alive now?
12. Birdman 
A former movie superhero struggles to reclaim his fame, and be taken seriously as an artist.
Riggan Thomson [Michael Keaton] invests his life into a play – literally – which he hopes would lead him to a major comeback into his showbiz career. Meanwhile, Birdman, the superhero character that brought him to stardom over two decades ago, keeps on plaguing him with brutal remarks, encouraging him to portray him again. As he is superciliously focused on the play to earn the critics’ nods, he shoots himself with a real gun. The wish has been granted. Despite Riggan’s magical powers that you have seen from time to time, nothing has flurried your mind yet except that you can only feel his frustrations and even pray for his triumphant moments. Until Riggan jumps off of the hospital window ledge. Samantha [Emma Stone], Riggan’s daughter, enters and finds the window open. Worried, she slips her head out and looks down. Something heart-stirring up in the sky catches her eye. And she smiles.
What has Samantha seen? A flock of birds? Her father flying around like the superhero character? If the latter were not a possibility since you had only entered into Riggan’s illusions, what could have happened to him or where did he go?
11. The Shining 
A family moves into a hotel for the winter and encounters horrific and evil phenomenons.
Jack Torrance [Jack Nicholson] is an ambitious writer who takes a job as the caretaker of an isolated hotel in order to focus more on his project. His wife Wendy [Shelley Duvall], becomes more agitated and concerned about their son, Danny [Danny Lloyd], who has a premonition gift. Bizarre incidents invade the family, and Jack is now out to murder his wife and his son. He fails to accomplish it and dies of hypothermia. Just before the film ends, you see a haunting photograph of Jack Torrance dating back to July 4th, 1921. As all these devilish and gruesome happenings put you into shock and terror, a lot of complex situations clamor for answers.
Did it all happen in Danny’s mind? Was it all simply a result of Jack Torrance’s masterpiece written at the hotel about their move? Or the man in the photograph could also be a writer, and was responsible for creating the entire story himself. If all your speculations were wrong, then how did it all transpire?
10. Vanilla Sky 
The owner of a highly successful publishing firm is accused of murder, and suffers from a mental disorder.
It hammers your consciousness away like, I’m keeping up since Act One, what in a world is going on now? It bounces off from beautiful reality to the grotesque nature of yet another reality, from the ghastly truths to the meaningful ones, from dreamy memories to tormenting nightmares. Even your popcorn is thriving its way down into your stomach as your I.Q. struggles to answer this question, what’s the whole point of all this?
Lucid Dream. Life Extension. You have to be frozen to choose your own reality and live again. Which David Aames [Tom Cruise] decides so. And your brains are forever frozen over it.
9. Shutter Island 
A US Marshall is determined to capture a murderess who escaped from a mental facility.
Really, it’s that straightforward, huh? Teddy [Leonardo DiCaprio] and his partner, Chuck, [Mark Ruffalo] must outwit the doctors to find clues as to what, how, and why she vanished from the institution while exploring the island to hopefully bring her back into the mad house. Then Teddy’s hallucinations race your brain motor – There’s gotta be a reason for all this. There’s gotta be! – And with much conviction, you whisper to your bewildered friend, I got this, man. I got this. And two confounding twists creep in. Once they’ve been answered, you budge in your seat, winding down your brains. Whew. But…
Yes, there’s a but… just when you think you have already spared yourself from thoughtfully explaining the entire movie to your friend, Teddy and Chuck startle you with their unfathomable last scene. Was it all an act? Which of it was real? Then your friend, who’s now officially locked into the mentally challenging plot, asks, So we should discuss it over coffee. I need to hear what you gotta say about this. And you gulp in panic.
8. Twelve Monkeys 
A man is put into a mission to find out about a virus that will eradicate human population.
A mental institution, ta-ta! There you are, ladies and gentlemen, a place for volunteer duties where an extensive training to become genius virus-trackers is about to make history. The year is 1990, but Cole [Bruce Willis], is snatched off from 1996, and the army of twelve monkeys shall take their revolutionary plan to fruition in 1996 and 1997. And then you are being switched back and forth for more lunatic jaunts and guessing-game delights as to which particular years most psyched-out scenes are taking place.
While Jeffrey [Brad Pitt] engrosses you and Kathryn [Madeleine Stowe] is there to bring out the hero in Cole, your mind-check is knocking in to validate your sanity.
7. The Butterfly Effect 
A young man retrieves old painful memories and alters them in an effort to protect those he cares about.
Shoo, time machine. This is one for time travels that only a deliriously relentless mind can do – with the help of journals, okay. It doesn’t matter if the amiss adventures cause nose-bleeding and brain damage, it shall be done! And all you gotta do is sit back and watch until you get traumatized.
So there you are figuring out which incident has occurred, who the real bad guy is, when is Evan’s [Ashton Kutcher] present time, how is he saving the ones he loves, if he even knows these people from his childhood, and – [press the memory button to a halt]! You are so disturbed that you wanna scream at the screen, Is this supposed to play tricks on my head or what’s the real deal here… REALLY!?
6. Stay 
A psychiatrist is in a desperate pursuit – to rescue a patient from committing suicide.
Here is when you are psychologically assaulted with clues in illusory scenes. At one point, you snap your fingers, whooping a eureka moment. Then you poke your forehead and attempt to activate your genius. Nope. Not happening. Sam Foster, the psychiatrist [Ewan McGregor], is presumed to be Henry Letham, the client [Ryan Gosling]. Lila [Naomi Watts] is known throughout the film as Sam’s girlfriend. And in the dying scene, you startlingly learn that Sam and Lila are strangers to each other. So is Henry to them.
Whose story exists told through one’s mind? Sam’s or Henry’s? Or even Lila’s. And what about Beth? Who is she, really? Now how’s your mental state going?
5. Inception 
A highly skilled thief extracts a CEO’s subconscious mind for corporate control.
Riotous events arise. Your mind is already indulged. Then you are hauled into a dream – exiling you into yet another dream – and these erratic realms instantaneously develop into – more dreams being in more colossal dreams that prompt you to – all right, STOP! Just stop! You have to give yourself a breather at some point as you fear for your consciousness to wear out.
Though despite all that, you are overwhelmingly entertained that you can’t even afford to blink! Then in the end, you gasp out of it with incredible relief and literal madness. Just don’t even attempt to plant it in your head before you go to bed. You deserve a good sleep after witnessing such wondrous tumult.
4. The Prestige 
Two magicians compete against each other for the highest trick endeavors.
You are taken to the back stage of how magic shows work. The two rivals are both obsessively coming up with their own extraordinary illusions that the world is yet to see. You have listened to the wheedle-lies, sensed some harbingers coming, and experienced the catastrophic repercussions. Your wits augur on all the tricks these two pull off regardless of however they outwit each other or stealing each other’s secrets. You grin at your intellectual prowess and probably even yelling at the writers in your head.
Borden [Christian Bale] and Angier [Hugh Jackman] face off. The Borden who has just been executed is Fallon, Borden’s identical twin [you’re fine with that]. Then flashbacks hit on the screen. Angier [who is thought to have been dead, leading to Borden’s/Fallon’s execution] shoots his duplicate. If he deliberately switched places with him during the show to drown him to death to make the authorities believe that it was him, then how did he get away with it? Magic? Borden eventually kills him. As the ending skulks in, Borden is seen walking along rows of tanks, each appears to have a submerged body-silhouette. And right before it snaps off to black, you see Angier drowning in the tank.
So Angier is drowned in all those tanks? Excuse me. Is that supposed to be another magic trick?
3. Memento 
A man with a short-term memory crafts himself out to avenge his wife’s death.
Forget about tattoos as personal expressions. Leonard [Guy Pearce] has fiercely invented the strangest way to remember significant memories – tattooing notes. Carefully whipped up sequences elapse before your eyes – some in black and whites, the rest in color. And repetitive events unravel with a bit of clues – maybe, just maybe. So it has been proclaimed that he has already killed his wife’s murderer a year ago. Then it zooms you back from where it’s supposed to begin.
And where does Sammy [Stephen Tobolowski] fit into the story? After watching it with a circus-mind, you hear yourself echoing along with Leonard’s final voice over, where was I? … before this?
2. Mulholland Dr. 
Two women plunge into a series of inscrutable events while investigating one’s car accident.
The mind-racing film with juxtaposing clues told with symbolism, interchangeable characters, or even dreams and reality. A car accident, a wanna-be actress, a woman who suffers from insomnia, the Hollywood mafia, a hit-man, the blue key and the blue box, stacks of money, a successful young director, a waitress whose name changes, a cowboy with a logical ultimatum, a troubled woman intruding into Betty’s night, the dead body of an unknown female laying inside an apartment, an odd Mexican theater show, the landlady who turns out to be the director’s mother, the fluky appearances of a man with ambiguous character, and an old couple prancing out of the blue box attacking Diane, which leads to her apparent suicide – then a mystical middle-aged woman at the Mexican theater who utters silencio in the end.
You are presented with dots, leading to a possible dead end. Perhaps, you may hypothesize that it’s a story of ex-lesbian lovers who are both Hollywood actresses – one is famous and the other one is only a mere shadow of her partner just to get her parts in movies. The latter hires a hit-man to kill her ex-girlfriend as she is losing her to the director. She fears that her movie career is now at stake. That theory doesn’t even rationalize the rest of it as it is all a hazy attempt for you to connect the dots. Hence these dots will always remain invisible.
1. Cloud Atlas 
Stories of the past, the present, and the future are intertwined in an attempt to bring light to the heart and soul of humanity.
Calling all the gods hidden in all corners of the world – the god of philosophy, the god of justice, the god of truth, the god of kindness, the god of noble love, the god of mortality, the god of – what else… EVERYTHING ELSE! That’s how much help you need in order to decipher this most vibrant, most intricate, and most ostentatious film of all time. You give up. It’s like you need an extensive brain surgery to understand it all. Though it has touched your heart and soul in some ways, you have to spend the rest of your life analyzing its truism yourself as your mind now becomes fallible.
The only thing that the film will ask from you is live by R.U.L.E. – respect, understand, love everyone. That’s simply what your brains will gather out of it. In that department, my friend, your heart, your soul, and your brains are on the right track… after all.