What’s thought-provoking for one person might not be all that thought-provoking for another. I’m not saying I’m smarter than you, but I’m obviously a pretty big deal. Sometimes a movie plays with a very simple idea but makes it much more complex, or going the other way, many movies take complex issues and attempt to make them more manageable for the masses, breaking them down into bite-sized pieces so that everyone can enjoy them. So which way is better? For me, the most thought-provoking films are the ones that make you think about the issue at hand in a new way, one you’ve never even considered. The best movies will show many sides to one issue, no matter how simple they may at first seem. These films force you to look at all sides, no matter how uncomfortable one side is to face; they make you consider how you would deal with the situation at hand, ponder why or how that issue comes about. I think there also has to be real potential for this issue to actually exist, otherwise, why bother?
For many of the movies on this list, it all starts with a really interesting, even far-fetched premise or context. Yet, rather than simply highlight how cool this idea is, the filmmakers use it only to develop an issue that would possibly stem from this premise. This combination causes the audience to think about the existence of this fictional world and then think about the different issues that would grow from within it. It’s a beautiful relationship that the best science fiction stories have benefitted from since the origin of the genre. Showcasing a world that seems wonderful on the surface but one that would be infested with the same or similar issues that we face on our world or in our time. It’s not enough to envision a new world. You need to populate that world with complex issues or it isn’t real. If it isn’t messed up, we won’t recognize it as real life.
Moon plays with the concept of cloning and individuality, but above all else, it is a movie about the human condition and what it means to be alive. Led by Sam Rockwell, the film looks at the lonely life of an astronaut nearing the end of his mission. He realizes that nothing is really as it seems and he goes on a mission to discover what’s really going on up there. Like any good science fiction, the premise behind everything is plausible and interesting to behold and consider. It doesn’t have flashy action sequences or overblown CGI, but it builds slowly and methodically to a nice conclusion. Too often people expect a twist to be the big revelation in this film, but that’s not the point here, not at all. It’s what happens before and after the reveal that matters.
14 The Prestige
Simply for the fact that this movie is like watching and trying to piece together a real magic trick that a real magician could pull off, it truly deserves a spot on this list. Sure, once you know the ending, it may feel like there is no need for further analysis, but I don’t think that’s really the case here. There are several questions of why throughout. Motivations, reasoning, explanations, these are all things that are left a little fuzzy in the end, things that we are meant to piece together ourselves, and for those reasons, The Prestige lands the 14th spot on this list.
Another neat science fiction premise is the backdrop to Snowpiercer, a film that deals with a plethora of philosophical questions without necessarily bludgeoning you with them. Living in a geo-engineered world that has backfired and left it virtually inhabitable, except on a train that runs continuously. The poor side of the train tries to overpower and overcome the wealthy side, working their way through each of the different levels or stages of their contained world. The film raises questions that address global warming, alienation, class struggles, self-destruction and many more. It can be simple or it can be complicated, it depends on how much you want to look at. The movie gives you the choice to deal with what you want.
A movie about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman struggling to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief, is the result of the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman struggling to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief. I once heard that writing a script about writer’s block is a major faux-pas in the industry, but, before you say this is a lazy meta move that has been done before, shush up, because it hasn’t been done like this before. As the plot of Adaptation progresses you realize that the events of The Orchid Thief and the events of adapting The Orchid Thief are coming to a head, sure to overlap. Don’t ask how, at least, not yet. The film not only brings up a great discussion of metatextuality, but it keeps you guessing throughout as well. Plus, it’s backed by amazing performances from some incredibly talented actors.
11 A.I: Artificial Intelligence
When this movie came out, it was met with some mixed reviews. How could a movie written by Stanley Kubrick and directed by Steven Spielberg be bad? Well, the short answer is, it couldn’t be; it isn’t bad. Over the years, this film has begun getting the recognition it has always deserved. It may never reach the place it should be, but it’s come a long way from the failure it was pegged as. This is a transhumanistic movie that explores the idea of A.I. with all its intricacies. It’s a modern approach to the Pinocchio story with some really deep commentaries on the self-destructive nature of humankind, family and love.
10 Children of Men
The concept itself in Children of Men, that no new children are born any longer, is not new at all. However, the way that Children of Men looks at the birth of children, as emissaries of hope and promise, is refreshing. Without new children, people are more mortal, there is no one to live beyond them or for them, and that is a sobering thought. In this chaotic world where no child has been born for the past 18 years, people have all but given up and they are completely controlled by the government. It’s a bleak look at a world that is uncomfortably close to our own. It’s frighteningly easy to see this world as a reality at some point in the future, and that’s likely why it’s such a powerful film.
Anomalisa is a character study of human beings, but hits the issues home by using puppets. It looks at how we define ourselves and how we define everyone else around us. The main character, Michael (David Thewlis), has been drowning in the mundanity of his life. He’s bored, angry, regretful and he’s at a point in which he’s simply going through the motions, that is, until he meets Lisa, an anomaly. To him, Lisa is different, she’s the spark he needs to revitalize him and restore his zest for life. But what happens when she becomes like everyone else, normal. What does that say about Michael or Lisa? The strength of the film is that the main character might not be the character who experiences the most growth. It makes you ask yourself, what type of puppet are you?
8 Under the Skin
I really love the film, Under the Skin. I’ll just start with that. But I also don't think it is as subtle as it's said to be, at least in terms of how it goes about dealing with its primary issues. Don’t get me wrong though, the issues at hand here, those dealing with superficiality, what it means to be human, the minutiae of humanity and the most attractive features of it all are all great talking points. I just think that Under the Skin kind of beats you over the head with them. I think the study of humanity overall is a bit heavy-handed, but maybe that’s what it makes it so discussion worthy; everyone who watches it can enjoy its message.
There’s something that makes Primer special, but I can’t quite put my finger on what that "thing" is. There’s the complex science, frustratingly complex, that everyone in the film pretends you understand and are in on it. There’s the morality issues that are opened up that the audience can chew on. There’s the “what would I do in this scenario” feelings, the fun concept, the realistic feel to the whole thing. There are a few several things that are great in this film that always seems to hover just below perfection. All together though, it can’t be denied that this one certainly makes you think.
6 The Road
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel from Cormac McCarthy, The Road, the film looks at the relationship of a father and son occupying and traveling through a post-apocalyptic world. More than anything else, despite Oprah’s claim that this is a “love letter to [McCarthy’s] son”, it’s a story of dependence and hope. Throughout the film, it appears to be the story of a boy relying on the man to get him to where they need to go. He requires him to get food, protection and shelter. The man warms the boy, coaxes him and teaches him, but the man has an unspoken reliance on the boy all the while. The boy is his motivation and his reasoning. It’s a really beautiful movie full of great, albeit minimalistic, dialog. A true road movie, the encounters that take place throughout show the different stages and faces of hope and drive in humanity and it’s a treat to see it all unfold.
Maybe the most interesting bit of Interstellar is that it tries to make sense of space-time, zero gravity, blackholes and all the complex science of space in between. While many scientists have been quick to say there are some issues, most have been fairly positive about it all. Sure, there’s going to be some iffy science and fictional elements involved here. It is, after all, a movie, a motion picture meant to make money. But for someone who has no knowledge of how space works (at least the space elements covered in the film), Interstellar provides a basic, working understanding of it all. I’m not saying you should skip school and learn from Interstellar, just that it does a serviceable job. The attention to detail on the landscapes and the equipment are also top notch. All of this doesn’t even touch the surface of the plot, either. There is a really interesting premise at the core here, and it’s not as fantastic as it might appear at first. Just because it hasn’t happened yet (and may never happen at all), doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.
The issue at the core of Her may feel a little silly to anyone who hasn’t sat down and considered it. Falling in love with an A.I. without any real physical form shouldn’t be all that crazy. Long distance relationships, online dating, pen pals—these are all bonds that don’t require physicality. Our online avatars, whether they are a picture of us or not, are not truly us. They were us, sure, in a particular moment in time. But even our online selves, our filtered and manicured presentations of who we are, are not really us. We might have started considering them to be us, but it's much different than who we were before the internet. We’re not responding in the moment anymore. In a way we’re hiding. Yet, the issue here isn’t all about that. Rather than man getting bored of the A.I., the A.I. system gets a little bored with man. Man doesn’t offer enough for her, or it, because she sees blanks in our language and thought, blanks that are filled by other A.I. Maybe that’s what makes humans connect so easily with each other. We can understand the language in between and in spite of spoken word, a skill that A.I. do not and may never have.
3 Mulholland Drive
Critics and viewers tend to get lost within David Lynch films, throwing up their arms and giving up in many cases. Many say that Lynch has no end game in mind when he makes a film, a claim that I believe is unfair. Mulholland Drive might be the most approachable of Lynch’s films, but it’s also the most underestimated. Its twisting and turning plot has been dissected and it appears somewhat straightforward, but there are bends and sharp turns throughout that are left unanswered, written off as nothing more than Lynchian red herrings. It’s tough to say what it’s all about, but one thing this film will do is have you talking and thinking after it’s finished. My advice for viewing almost any Lynch films is to save your analysis for the end, otherwise you might miss or unintentionally ignore an important detail.
2 Ex Machina
An A.I. mousetrap, that’s what Ex Machina really is, but there’s so much more going on here. There are questions about gender, what it means to be female or male, what it means to be human, questions about love and humankind’s dependence on it, questions about creation and free will, so many questions, so many questions. As you watch the film, you’re never quite sure who’s playing who, who knows what, and where it’s all going to end up. It’s a mental exercise on trust and deception. By the end you may have a grasp on what happened but there is never any definitive answer as to what it all means. That’s up for debate and that’s the beauty of it all.
1 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, in my most humble opinion, one of the best movies ever made. I think it deals with the issue of love, loss and memory better than anyone or anything else. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are simply brilliant, and the film forces you to confront your own life and past, whether you want to or not. It puts relationships under the microscope, looking at what they do to two people, how we change when we’re in them, and how two people can become one thing over time. The film looks at the imagined process of stripping back the influences of one person from another, but it also looks at how complicated that process is and what it leaves behind.