Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching the Cloud Atlas trailer nonstop. Sometimes, almost literally on a loop. I’m torn between wanting the film to come out right now and wanting it to never be released, because anything less than perfection might be a traumatic blow to my existence. Everything from the showstopping visuals courtesy of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, the perfect use of M83 song “Outro”, and the various philosophical quotations, are simply spine-chilling. But the real doozy is the premise. Six storylines spanning spanning from the Pacific Ocean in 1850 to a primitive post-apocalypse. Six distinct genres. And, most notably of all, an esteemed ensemble – including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant – playing multiple characters across the epic narrative.
While we wait for the impending collective explosion of brains worldwide, let’s take a look at some other films, both classics and recent hits, that had that special brain-mush-making quality that made audiences go “wuh?” Without further ado, here are eleven (I couldn’t whittle one away to make it an even ten) films that drop the brain in the blender.
Screenwriting deity Charlie Kaufman has two entries on this list, and for good reason. He writes heady, meta works with embedded plot elements – and then plops them on auteur director Spike Jonze’s lap. The duo’s best, Adaptation., is the perfect marriage of writer, director, and cast, which features knock-out performances from Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Nicolas Cage, and Nicolas Cage again. That’s right – not only is Nicolas Freaking Cage actually a great part of a movie, he’s two great parts of a movie. The film attacks adaptation in both a literary and evolutionary sense – Cage plays the neurotic Charlie Kaufman (that’s right, the film’s writer), who’s been hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) bestselling nonfiction book, The Orchid Thief, which is part Unfilmable History of Orchids and part Character Study of Orchid Thief John Laroche (Played by Chris Cooper). Kaufman also has a (fictional, we think) twin brother, Donald, who is everything Charlie is not – confident, successful, and unintelligent. These great performances and the distinctive dialogue fuel the first two thirds of the film, but the final third descends into dizzy Ouroborosian surrealism as the script Charlie’s writing, the script he vowed he wouldn’t write, and the script he’s living collide.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a curious, breathtaking, and virtually spiritual experience. Underappreciated upon its release, Spielberg was derided for allegedly adding his trademark sentimentality to the late great Stanley Kubrick’s project. Though perhaps not quite his greatest achievement – E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Minority Report, and Schindler’s List all edge this one out – it is his deepest. Haley Joel Osment plays David, a robot boy who has been designed to love parents who cannot have children. His mother imprints him, and he responds by giving her eternal love and devotion. But their happy days are not to last, and David is left to fend for himself. Having heard the story of Pinocchio, a puppet who found the Blue Fairy and was made a boy, he embarks on a quest alongside prostitute bot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law). They are hunted by anti-robot protesters and journey from the vice metropolis of Rouge City to the vast sunken landscape of Manhattan, but Joe never fully understands David’s motives. All David knows is love, and all Gigolo Joe knows is sex. But the film’s last thirty minutes are the most daunting and impressive, as futuristic bots that resemble aliens study David’s behavior. We ask ourselves, can a robot ever truly love? In the end, the film asks us if it matters.
Being John Malkovich
“Malkovich! Malkovich! Malkovich!” Of the films on this list, Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s debut feature is undoubtedly the weirdest. Everything from the performances – John Cusack as a creepy puppeteer, Cameron Diaz as his animal-obsessed wife with lesbian tendencies, Catherine Keener as the cruel-mouthed object of passion, and John Malkovich as John Malkovich – to the plot devices, which involve a group of immortal body-hoppers and tunnels inside the mind of semi-famous character actors. The sheer amount of ingenuity and surrealism is admirable, but the film is also iconoclastic and off-putting. There are way too many times I went “what the?” to choose just one, from the love quartet of the major characters to the ridiculous office Cusack works in to Charlie Sheen’s cameo. But the image of a girl marked for possession swimming in slow motion through a pool as the end credits play has stuck with me. At the very least I will never say about Being John Malkovich, “well that was the most formulaic black sex comedy-slash-horror character study I’ve ever seen.”
Sir Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir was largely dismissed upon its initial release. Then the geeks found it and it became a cult classic. By now, it’s a full-on classic and requisite viewing. It’s also incredibly strange. The plot is simple enough: Harrison Ford is Deckard, a Blade Runner hunting down illegal replicants, or robots that look and talk like humans but kill like computers. Of course he must fall in love with one of them (Sean Young), and of course there are elements of mystery and action. But, as Roger Ebert says, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it. ” Blade Runner goes about its shady, sci-fi Chinatown world very… uniquely. What other movie could feature synthetic snakes, unicorn origami, and a man with an aging disorder who builds toys to keep his company? The famous Douglas Trumbull visual effects, along with the production design and cinematography, keep your eyes in a glazed, awed state, right from the shot of the inscrutable shot of a fiery eye to the ending, which, depending on the ending, is sunny and cathartic or murky and ambiguous. The real fun for fans of Blade Runner, of course, is debating whether or not Deckard’s a human. The filmmakers have said both at different times, and there’s enough evidence on both sides to make quite certain we’ll never know.
Christopher Nolan’s 2010 opus is a daring, audacious exploration of how the mind perceives ideas and relationships. It’s a heist movie, in the loosest sense of the word, a sci-fi movie, but only in technicality, and an action movie, but never marketed or labelled as such. Most of all, it’s one of the best and most original movies of the last decade. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a thief who can enter dreams to steal information from his subjects. The film concerns DiCaprio’s One Last Job, in which he assembles a team (played by a cast of award winners including Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and Tom Hardy) to infiltrate the mind of a dying energy baron’s son (Cillian Murphy, who appears as the Scarecrow in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy) and plant an idea instead of steal one. The film asks us to keep up as it throws us a nonstop stream of exposition, often used as character development, and places us in dreams… within dreams… within dreams… within a world made only of dreams. The motifs of paradoxes like the Penrose Steps, the subtle significance of water representing rebirth, and even the toy windmill, all serve to create a deep and thematically intricate mythology. The big existentialist question – is it all real? Does the top stop spinning? – is the best and most twisty ambiguous ending ever made. But never mind if it’s real – what does it mean? Surely it can’t be about filmmaking itself. Try matching up team members’ jobs with filmmaking vocations – and then interchange the words “shared dreaming” with “going to the movies”.
Christopher Nolan’s second feature, Memento, is a haunting noir thriller with a twist. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is hunting his wife’s rapist and murderer, but suffers from a brain condition that makes it impossible for him to create new memories following his wife’s assault. He can’t remember anything beyond the events of the past five minutes, and the plot is so complex that we can’t either. Also, half the movie is chronological and the other half is backwards, with the two alternating until they converge upon the end of the chronological portion and the beginning of the backwards portion… revealing Leonard Shelby to be a delusional, psychopathic serial killer. Visually, Memento is Nolan’s least emotional and visceral, lacking in the gravity and style of Inception and The Dark Knight. But it’s a masterful job of writing and acting, with three incredible performances by Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano. What’s best – and most mind-blowing – about Nolan is his intricate plots, yes, but even more so his love of ambiguity. We don’t know if Teddy is a cop or a rapist, or why the Joker is a psychopath, or if the top falls down or not. But you know what? It’d kind of ruin Nolan’s movies if we did.
The Second Coming of Spielberg the Science Fiction Master came in the early 200s, with A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, followed by the lesser War of the Worlds three years later. This one is a criminally undervalued effort, and a contender for my favorite sci-fi film, ever. Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, the head of PreCrime, a unit in 2054 Washington D.C. that uses the psychic abilities of three drug-addled “precogs” to predict and arrest future murderers. He is haunted by his son’s death and the subsequent divorce. The precogs predict John himself will become a murderer, forcing him to go on the run with a kidnapped precog in an attempt to find his “minority report” and prove his innocence. Minority Report is a action picture, but so much more. It’s a fantastic anti-dystopian noir predicting an ideal version of the future – the city isn’t a dark, rundown Blade Runner, cars fly up walls, advertisements know your name, and there’s no crime! The darkness comes from Spielberg’s camera and the script, which is a twisty and always surprising rumination on free will, morality, and self-perception. There are so many great scenes, from the visit to the eye doctor to Agatha’s psychic demonstration in the mall to the encounter with Leo Crow. The performances are to match – by a surprisingly deep Cruise, Colin Farrell as a slimy corporate climber, Samantha Morton as the precog Agatha, Max von Sydow as the aging PreCrime founder Lamar Burgess, and Lois Smith, whose one scene as geneticist and PreCrime creator Dr. Hineman was worthy of an Oscar nomination. And how about that ending? Too much of a Spielberg sentimentalist “it works out in the end” feeling? Or maybe some people never don’t wake up.
Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece is unlike any of the others on this list. Its complexity is in scale, execution, and emotion, not head-trippy plot developments. Pan’s Labyrinth unfolds like a darker version of the fairy tales it cheekily references, even employing a neat cinematography trick that allows one scene to slide into another as though the film was a storybook mural. For awhile, we feel as though we’re trapped in a Tolkien-meets-Tim Burton nightmare, as a faun instructs a child to complete a series of dangerous and fantastical tasks. Rescue a key from a giant frog’s stomach, steal from the chilling Pale Man, a monster who eats children and wears his eyes on his hands. All storybook stuff, right? Except that this Spanish language adventure is set during the Franco period of the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) has a sick mother (Ariadna Gil) and a cruel dictatorial stepfather (Sergi López) bent on stamping out the rebels hiding in the hills. As the movie progresses, the two storylines intertwine, and we face violence of two forms in both stories: operatic in the fantasy world and gruesomely realistic in the Civil War world. It is for the viewer to decide which is worse, and where reality ends and illusion starts. del Toro asks us to consider that, perhaps, it is not possible to separate them.
The Tree of Life
Of the movies on this list, this is the most polarizing, and the only one I absolutely hate. Terrence Malick’s films are pseudo-philosophical to the extreme, taking a story with emotion and intellect and infusing it with whispered-voice over musings Malick is unprepared to answer. What is the path of nature and grace? How does the circle of life relate to the nature of the universe? The film is supposed to be cosmic and grand, and yet it feels oddly small and poorly rehearsed in themes and executions. Malick’s cinematography is beautiful, of course, and there are images form The Tree of Life I’ll never forget. But after awhile, it’s a bit of burnout. How does one image relate to the next? Is there any particular reason we need to see the sun shining through the trees for the thousandth time, other than that it looks cool on camera? It’s a real shame, too, because what he’s got in the Texas portion of the story is fascinating. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are memorable as a dysfunctional couple, and child actor Hunter McCracken is a revelation. But the hour or so devoted to the creation of the universe, the hierarchy of dinosaurs, and every scene involving Sean Penn – particularly the one in which, after his death, he slowly walks around a beach and greets everyone he ever knew – can be thrown out. But whether it was in awe, confusion, or disgust, admit it: you were sitting in the theater with your mouth held open.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The oldest film on the list, 2001: A Space Odyssey, hasn’t aged a bit to its fans. I count myself one of them. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece plays similarly to The Tree of Life, but it deserves its wonder and mystery. It asks questions, taunts us with possible answers, then simply ends. We are left to piece together the rest. It is an audacious, lasting achievement, the star of which is not an actor but a cosmic, otherworldly force that may be lying just off the screen. Depending on who you ask, the star might also be computer HAL 9000, or Kubrick himself. Whichever answer you choose, this is not a conventional motion picture. We see the dawn of man, or man-apes. A black monolith appears that causes them to evolve and become tool-bearing humans. Match cut to a (futuristic version of) the year 2001. Astronauts investigate a signal from a monolith, though their computer HAL 9000 malfunctions and tries to kill them. One escapes and flies through a time warp filled with lurid, garish colors. He then walks into a room and sees himself at different ages in his life. Then a monolith appears in the room and the man is reborn as a giant floating blue baby in outer space. Fade to black. Say what? It’s called 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects is near incomprehensible, a complaint Roger Ebert famously voiced in his scathing one star review. Bryan Singer’s 1995 film is a bit hard to understand, to say the least. Chazz Palminteri plays a cop interviewing Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint, who’s recounting the story of his criminal team’s encounter with the legendary Keyser Söze. Verbal spins a rich tale of betrayal, murder, and coercion, with an action finale that manages to be intellectually challenging. Singer carefully paints portraits of vivid and layered characters like Verbal and his cohorts (played by Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, and Benicio del Toro) and makes us believe we’ve put our finger on Keyser Söze. And he pulls the rug out from under our feet. The final scene is incredible, and simply too good to spoil. I’ll simply end this entry with this quote. “After that my guess is that you will never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… it’s gone.”