Unless you’re watching a film that begins with the words “The Purge”, chances are you’re in a for a pleasurable experience. Due to marketing for films, you know whether you’re hoping to laugh, cry or hide behind a pillow/significant other. The film may spark inspiration in you, pushing you to change the world. Hell, you might even just hear a brilliant joke in it that you can pass onto coworkers the next day (probably crucifying the impeccable comedy timing that it needs). One thing you won’t want is to see the credits roll and be completely lost off with what in the fresh hell is happening.
We’ve all been there, in the comforting new world this movie has created, basking in the familiarity of the new friends we’ve made and everything seeming rosy. Then it happens. You are torn from the warmth only to be thrown into a cold place and slapped around the face. Maybe it was a Shyamalan twist that is thrown at you that completely went over your head. It could be an actor that usually makes you laugh, brutally murdering someone with an axe. Curveballs are thrown at us in movies all the time, but some of them are complete and utter head-scratchers. Here, we discuss (with spoilers for most of these films) fifteen films that will leave you pondering, for one reason or another, “what the hell just happened?”
15. The Matrix Revolutions
The first installment in The Matrix trilogy was a slice of genius. When it was initially released you wore a badge of triumph depending on how many viewings it took for you to understand it and could probably slip itself into this list. When the franchise had sequels announced there was due hype. Unfortunately that hype was met with a mess of convoluted plot points and bizarre robotic fights in order to save the real world… or something?
The second movie, The Matrix Reloaded was entertaining but hard work. It was the final movie that finished the series off (in terms of story and credibility) that was a bit of a trainwreck. Not even one hundred Hugo Weavings taking on a hardcore and fully trained Keanu Reeves could save The Matrix Revolutions. By the end audiences were left scratching their heads for two reasons… 1) They were wondering where the hell their clever and well written movie had gone and 2) The plot became difficult to follow and not in an entertaining way. Unlike the first movie, The Matrix Revolutions left very few people trying to figure out what the plot was about and more about what the hell they had just done with the last two and a half hours.
14. Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom
120 Days of Sodom is based on the book by the same name by Marquis De Sade, so you may feel quite intelligent by watching it. You’d be very wrong. The film is a pure guessing game from beginning to end as to what the motivations were when they sat down and pitched this movie. You know those internet videos that you show your friends specifically to make them feel sick? This is a two hour and twenty-five minute version of one of those. Think two girls, one cup but with more faeces and sniper rifles.
The plot is based around a group of aristocrats that lead a group of teenagers into a castle during World War 2. They reenact the four circles of the 120 Days of Sodom, which includes but is not limited to rape, sodomy, incest, torture and ultimately murder. Watching this with a group of friends will tell you who has the strongest stomach as one by one people will retire from the film, begging to know what they have just watched. If you manage to get past the sh*t-eating scene, you are a stronger person than me! Although this film did well critically, the majority of people are left reeling and wondering what exactly is going on in this movie.
This list wouldn’t be complete without Inception would it? There is an entire episode of South Park that rips into the premise of Christopher Nolan‘s dream-hopping epic and, when that happens, you know you’ve made it. The whole film is striking, there is no argument about that. Take the visuals as an example, the scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page walk through a folding dream city was breathtaking and is one of the only scenes that should be watched in 3D on a screen bigger than your house. Linked in with every aesthetic choice is the story line, which is just as impressive (if at times confusing) as any other element of the film.
The entire story is building to one huge climax, with small bumps in the road along the way. The final scene is one of the most hotly debated cliffhangers in films (MAJOR spoiler warning). At the very end of the film, after running through multiple levels of a dream world, Dom (DiCaprio) returns home. Upon returning he questions his reality and turns to his totem, a spinning top, to tell him whether or not he is still in a dream. If the top spins without stopping he is in the dream world, if it falls he is in reality. Before the audience can know, Dom disregards the totem and goes to enjoy his time with his children. Analyse the video, see if the totem falters. It will leave you as insane as I feel now.
12. Fight Club
Fight Club is the original “what the hell happened” movie. Once you wrap your head around the final revelation that Tyler Durden is a manifestation of the narrator’s mind, you may think that there isn’t that much else to figure out. It is only when you consider the implications of this monumental plot twist that you really start to question just how deep this film goes. You have to watch it again with the mindset that Brad Pitt isn’t actually there and that everything that both he and Ed Norton do… is done by the narrator. Go back and watch the film and try and figure out how that works.
This is the icing on the cake of what is a film designed to leave you questioning what you’ve seen and whether you can trust your own senses. Close inspection of the film reveals four flashes of Tyler Durden before the two protagonists meet. Cue furious rewinding and debates between family and friends of “No you didn’t see anything!” There is also, for the more discerning viewer, an appearance of Brad Pitt in the hotel advert. It’s not made obvious and it takes a little concentration but, for one reason or another, he’s definitely there!
11. One Hour Photo
When the news came through about Robin Williams‘ untimely death, it was devastating to say the least. The legacy he left behind was monumental and most of it was comedic genius. There are elements of Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Morning Vietnam that will forever be ingrained in my head. On top of this, there was his serious work – Dead Poets Society remains one of my favourite films to this day. One genre that Williams very rarely dipped into was thriller films but, when he did, my good god he was creepy.
One Hour Photo was a completely unexpected film in every sense of the word. Much like Jim Carrey in The Number 23, we were used to Williams warming our hearts and tickling our funny bones, not awkwardly avoiding the photo guy at the local supermarket. Sy (Robin Williams) quickly shifts from the lovable, freebie giving SavMart employee to the creepy stalker you would expect to be hidden under your bed wielding a knife. The entire film leaves you with a sense of dread and unease, particularly when Williams’ eyes fill with blood. Seriously, what the hell was that?
10. Donnie Darko
If I’ve said it once I’ll say it a million times: Jake Gyllenhaal does not make run of the mill films. Jarhead, End of Watch and Southpaw are not your typical war, cop and boxing film are they? That is not to say that they aren’t out of this world. Donnie Darko is no exception to this trend. Due to its format and style, Donnie Darko achieved cult status very quickly and the image of Donnie sat with the man in a rabbit suit named “Frank” became iconic. It’s not as if this film is the easiest to follow though.
The film is based around a premonition given to Donnie by his long eared friend that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds (Frank is a very precise rabbit). What ensues is an exploration of existence through the eyes of an apathetic American teenager. The film’s main focus is time travel and how the linear appearance of time could be altered. Throw in dark visions of Frank and, much like Gyllenhaal’s following roster of films, you have a teen drama like no other. This is a film that is guaranteed to leave the viewer rewatching to really grasp what was going on.
9. Freeze Frame
Many of you, particularly if you’re American, will have only seen Lee Evans in the likes of Mousehunt and There’s Something About Mary. In England, however, Lee Evans has been one of the biggest comedians of the past twenty five years. If you have yet to see him, please I beg of you, YouTube him or buy his DVDs. You will not be disappointed. However, much like many of the comedians on this list, he had taken a foray into the weird and sinister. Freeze Frame is a British film that seems relatively unknown. The effort to get an image of it was monumental.
What makes this film so unbelievably head-scratching is the plight of Lee’s character Sean. Sean was accused of the murder of a mother and twin daughters. Becoming paranoid, he is worried he will be accused again and so lives in isolation, filming his every move, shaving all hair to ensure there is no trail of him that could be used against him. The film really comes to life when he is accused again and a tape goes missing. You are drawn into his world, plunged into panic and puzzles. The gritty feel to this low budget thriller will leave you wanting to figure out exactly how this happened to our protagonist.
8. The Machinist
In the space of six films, Christian Bale‘s massive weight shift is well documented. At his biggest, he cultivated 90 kilograms of mass for The Dark Knight Rises, needing every ounce to fight off Tom Hardy‘s Bane. At his smallest, Bale dropped down to a painfully skinny 55 kilograms in order to portray Trevor Reznik in The Machinist. Considering the healthy weight for a man of Bale’s age is around 75 kilos, you have to admire his commitment to the role. Reznik’s dangerously low weight is due to his worsening insomnia, that leads to the films main plot line. The Machinist is a look at the self and what is in our heads compared to reality – that deep, crippling existential dread.
After being fired from his job for causing serious injury to a coworker, Reznick jumps onto a very steep helter skelter ride of paranoia. The best thing about The Machinist is that you are taken in, not knowing what to expect from the get go. Unless you researched into the film prior to its release, the trailer and marketing left a lot to the imagination. Even during the film, you are working on a pure guessing game – a device that puts you into the mindset of the tormented Trevor Reznik. This is a film that you may come to grips with in the first viewing, but that will answer more questions the more often you watch it.
Amnesia is always shaky ground when it comes to movies. It can be such a tacked on “gimmick” of; who am I, where’s my wife, flashback, sudden realisation, I have the skills now that I always had, the end. Thankfully, Memento didn’t follow this overly simplistic and often cheesy plot line. Based on director Christopher Nolan’s book Memento Mori, psychological thriller Memento jumps backwards and forwards as Guy Pearce‘s Leonard attempts to uncover who murdered and raped his wife. The only downside is that Leonard has no short term memory, whatsoever. Sounds like this may be a bit of a no-hoper right? Well, you don’t know Leonard.
If you had a severe form of anterograde amnesia that prevented you from creating new memories, what would you do? Maybe create a series of notepads with colour-coded labels? Memento was released in the early 2000s, so smartphones weren’t around, meaning taking notes on your iPhone was impossible. What about creating a combined system of tattoos and polaroid photographs of things that have gone on? Well the latter is exactly what Leonard does to find his wife’s killer. The mess in your head is created by the fact that the film is shown in two separate sets of scenes that show the plot moving backwards and one moving forwards, coming for one big mind-melter in the middle. I’d be mentally prepared for this one.
6. The Beach
American traveller on a bit of a gap year in search of himself… it’s a story that becomes increasingly more popular in real life – and yet no-one seems to end up in a secret community on an otherwise deserted island. This is what lies ahead for a young Leonardo DiCaprio, when an Academy Award seemed like a bear-battling pipe dream, despite multiple outstanding performances. The film sees a Lord of the Flies style battle for power between the inhabitants of the island, that includes murdering sharks and mercy killings. There is one particular moment in this film which has lodged it securely on this list.
As the group disbands and paradise seems a long time ago, Richard (DiCaprio) begins to lose his sanity, causing him to hallucinate. If there is one thing that director Danny Boyle loves more than a good hallucination scene, it’s Robert Carlyle. Richard joins the recently deceased Duffy (Carlyle) in murdering tourists before hallucinating that he is in a Crash Bandicoot-style video game with computer tigers and spiders to boot. What seemed to be a simple adventure film, with a wonderfully innocent soundtrack by 90s girl group All Saints, has gone a little Playstation. It is the last thing I ever imagined to happen with this film but, my god, I’m glad it did!
5. Goodnight Mommy
This film comes with a bit of a disclaimer. There are some people who don’t want to watch foreign language films, having to read subtitles as well as watch the movie. If this is the case, then this film is not for you. If not, let us continue. The Austrian film Goodnight Mommy was dubbed by some online media outlets as having the scariest trailer ever. While the film was in no way the scariest film to grace the big screen, it is up there with some of the most intriguing. Audiences are given very little in the way of information at the beginning of the film. We know the mother has been in for plastic surgery and that she lives in a relatively, but not totally, isolated house with her twin boys. It also quickly becomes apparent that she is a bit of a bitch.
The last point is not there just to insult the poor woman, as the boys reveal that their mother was not always like this. Their mother was a kind and loving person. The individual who returned from surgery could not be their mother as she is, as previously stated, a bit of a bitch. The boys go on a rather messed up tirade in order to extract this woman’s true identity, considering it could be their mother who is just in a bad mood from having her face operated on. This film is another that will leave you guessing and, although I did warn for spoilers, this is one of the films on this list you should experience for yourself. It will leave you reeling…
4. Ex Machina
With Ex Machina, one of the things that will leave you with your jaw on the floor is how aesthetically pleasing the whole experience is. The magnum opus of the entire movie is the robot body cleverly crafted around Alicia Vikander’s actual human body to create Ava. Ava is the focus of the film, there to have her consciousness tested by a young programmer by the name of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). What follows is a peculiar test set up by Ava’s creator, played by Oscar Issac, and all is not as it seems. What should be a simple Turing test and a week spent with a legend in Caleb’s industry turns into something much more sinister.
The film slowly becomes increasingly cerebral, blurring the lines between human and technology. There comes a point where Caleb genuinely questions his own sentience, with a very difficult to watch scene that involves a razor blade and Domhnall Gleeson’s arm. There is also a scene which I never expected to see Oscar Issac involved in, in which he “tears up the f*cking dance floor.” Maybe it’s to show his dominance over everyone in his house, or maybe it’s just because he loves a good boogie, but Issac busts out some moves in front of a very confused Gleeson. That man can dance, there’s no question about that. There is a question, however, about why?
3. Kill List
For me, British film is something that has gone from strength to strength in recent years. It’s because of this surge forward in popularity and quality that the likes of Kill List can be made. Kill List is the story of two hitmen, who are given the names of three different people that they see off in brutal ways. As they take out their targets, the pair’s characters become evident. The protagonist Jay (Neil Maskell) has serious issues with his anger, displayed in his ruthless treatment of his victims and his wife Shel. Michael Smiley plays the easier going (as easy going as a hitman can be) of the two who, despite getting Jay back in the killing game, attempts to keep his head level.
As the two move through their targets, they are thanked by their victims. There is a moment in the movie in which they experience a cult, practising in the woods, the majority of whom are naked. What happens next has baffled many for as long as the film has been released. Jay is caught by the cultists and forced into a knife fight with a hunchbacked, masked figure who swings at him wildly. After an intense fight, Jay manages to brutally murder his opponent, only to realize that the creature he has fought is his wife and the hunchback? That is his son Sam. With their son on her back, Shel laughs as she dies. To this day, the ending to Kill List has left a question mark hovering over the movie. A special mention goes to director Ben Wheatley’s latest outing High Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston, that will leave you just as confused – but in a brilliant way.
2. Dead Man’s Shoes
Shane Meadows is the king of gritty, raw cinema. This Is England is a brutal story of skinheads in 1980s England and his follow up did not veer away from the style. Dead Man’s Shoes tells the story of a soldier and his mentally-challenged younger brother, who both return to their home town. The return is not a happy one as Richard (Paddy Considine) exacts his revenge on the thuggish inhabitants of the town for abusing his younger brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) while he was away serving in the army. This film is not for the faint of heart and it is not because of the ways in which Richard takes out his fury on the people that made Anthony’s life difficult.
Throughout the film, the action takes place in colour and in black and white; the former representing present day in which Richard and Anthony are together and the latter representing the past while Richard was away. During the flashback scenes, Anthony is forced into situations he simply doesn’t understand. This makes for highly uncomfortable viewing. The film’s biggest “what the hell” moment comes (like many good films) at the very end. I have toyed with the idea of spoiling it for you, as I did warn you, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. The final scene in this film will leave you with your head in your hands. Possibly for it’s almost barbaric realism or the twist you never saw coming, the ending is one to be experienced and will definitely leave you wondering… well, you get the picture.
I would like to level with you as I write this final entry. I prefer to write about films that I have seen all the way through. There are some I may not have seen for a long time but I have made it through. I cannot say the same for Primer. There are some films that are hard to wrap your head around and that isn’t a problem, because it is enjoyable to figure them out. Primer is, at its core, a time travel movie. It focuses on two engineers who create a time machine that begs the question, should you tamper with time? This film does have elements of your “typical” time travel movies. The creators have a falling out over the usage of the machine. There is a moment where they travel back in time to change an event to their liking. They repeat that moment until they get it right. There are, however, some major differences to your regular “The question isn’t where are we but WHEN are we?” movie.
I am by no means belittling this film, Primer won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance film festival, but it is the nature of the film that left me with a bald patch from scratching my head so much. Director/producer/writer/protagonist of the film Shane Carruth was an engineer before he became a multi faceted film maker and has a degree in mathematics – and boy oh boy does that shine through in this film. Carruth refused to dumb down the technical language in the movie. It is a film that you will probably have to take notes for to ensure you’ve got everything right. As a mathematician or engineer you may have an idea of what the hell is going on in Primer but, as for me… I was clueless!
So have you seen any of these films and felt the same confusion? Or is there a film on here that leaves me looking stupid because it isn’t rocket science? Have I missed a film that really left you wondering what the hell just happened? Leave a comment to let us know!
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