I have received word that my previous link to Pajiba’s list of the most confusing movies was lacking in appropriate comment, correction, addendum, and annotation. So, in honor of Inception, a film that is certain to make any future list of confusing movies, I have compiled my own list, though I prefer the word inscrutable to confusing since the latter makes it sound as though the filmmaker had no control over the material. I am also differentiating confusing/inscrutable from incomprehensible. I mean here movies that attempt to tell a narrative story, but do so in an unorthodox, dense, or fractured way. I excluded purely experimental films (because they are not typically plotted) and those that are intentionally unplotted (such as Head). I also excluded shorts (e.g., Eraserhead, An Andalusian Dog).
The movies on this list fall into two main categories: puzzle movies versus existential movies. Puzzle movies are nesting dolls, with one reality wrapped inside another, while existential movies look at the nature of existence. Most of the American films on the list fit in the puzzle category, while the classics of European art cinema go in the existential category, though a few (Cronenberg, Greenaway) belong on both lists. On with the list.
The Thirteen Most Confusing and/or Inscrutable Movies of All Time
13. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001). Hijinks ensue when a jet engine fails to crush Jake Gyllenhaal. Richard Kelly has stumbled mightily in his post-Donnie Darko career, but his breakthrough movie presents a creepily effective time-travel conundrum and deserves a place on the list because its central mystery is essentially unknowable. Yes, one can explain the mechanics of the plot (deep breath: when Donnie misses being killed by the falling jet engine, it creates an unstable splinter reality, which only ‘rights’ itself when the jet engine finally catches up with him, a fate that Donnie comes to welcome after living in limbo for 28 days), but understanding the why doesn’t explain away what’s so disquieting about this movie, even after (or maybe especially after) we discover (SPOILER) that Frank the demonic bunny is nothing more than a guy in a bunny suit on his way to a costume party.
12. Darren Aronovsky’s Pi (1998). Hijinks ensue when a math-whiz successfully gets God’s digits. I go back and forth on this one: pretentious claptrap or perfectly crafted mindfuck. Either way, it makes my head spin.
11. Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004). Hijinks ensue when two guys invent the world’s most confusing time machine. I’ve got to admit: I’ve read the plot synopsis, I’ve studied the diagram, and I still don’t understand the sequence of events in this movie. It’s got to be some sort of testimony to Shane Carruth that I don’t hold him at fault for this; somehow I’m convinced the shortcoming is mine.
10. Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). Hijinks ensue as the white man rapes the land. There is a mystery at the center of this movie, not necessarily the ‘twist’ question of “Is William Black alive or is he dead,” but something deeper and more profound, an unblinking depiction of the true cost of Manifest Destiny and the taming of this continent, as well as a contemplation of our place in the natural world and the passage from one world to the next. Plus it’s got Iggy Pop in a bonnet.
9. Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989). Hijinks ensue as a man turns into scrap metal. Then his penis transform into a gigantic, murderous drill. And yet somehow this is not the strangest scene in the movie. Oddly enough given the plot synopsis, this movie was not directed by David Cronenberg, though the next one was.
8. David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). Hijinks ensue as a game designer retreats into her own imagined world. Or does she? (cue ominous music.) Now that Cronenberg has gone legit with Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, it’s good to go back and remember when his id was still running things. eXistenZ takes the whole ‘are we still in the dream?’ angle that Inception mines so thoroughly and gives it that old Cronenberg kink. So we get gaming bioports that look like orifices, game pods that resemble writhing alien embryos, and organic guns that come hidden in the special of the day:
7. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Hijinks ensue when Dennis Hopper gets his hands on a canister of nitrous oxide and a human ear. Full disclosure: I am not much of a David Lynch fan. Going all the way back to Wild At Heart, I stopped being able to find much of anything in his movies that was recognizably human. That said, ginormous, candy-colored props must be paid to Blue Velvet. When this movie came out in the mid-eighties, there had never been anything else like it. It was a true cultural watershed that instantly raised the stakes on everything that came after. Here was a new style of surrealism, embodied in a film that followed the tropes of a conventional mystery but filtered everything through an entirely unique, obsessive, claustrophobic, and fetishistic personal vision. David Foster Wallace was a huge fan of the film, crediting it with pushing him toward being a writer.
6. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). Hijinks ensue as a medieval knight challenges Death to a game of chess (as Connect Four wasn’t invented yet). Dark, despairing, and uncommonly Swedish, the film ends with the famous and widely parodied Dance of Death, which incidentally is what my family calls the last time I danced at a wedding. Here is a version of the trailer with new subtitles; not sure how close these are to the original as I am not a native Swedish speaker.
5. Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts (1985). Hijinks ensue as twin zoologists set out to study the process of decomposition, working their way up the food chain to . . . themselves. Nearly any of Peter Greenaway’s beautiful and meticulous movies could have made the list, but I went with this one because it seems to most perfectly embody the obsessions that drive his work. Here he is explaining some of the themes that run through this unique and confounding film.
4. Alain Resnais’s & Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Hijinks ensue and then ensue again and then ensue again in a slightly different way as a man and a woman endlessly roam the cold, empty hallways of a vast, soulless estate. Kind of like my last trip to Ikea.
3. Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Hijinks ensue as a bunch of rich people are continually thwarted in their attempt to have a nice dinner. Younger viewers may not be aware of the profound effect this film had upon its release. It so effectively skewered the foibles and follies of the bourgeoisie that entire social class died of shame and embarrassment, thus directly paving the way for the proletarian worker’s paradise that we enjoy today.
2. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). Hijinks ensue as some Soviet cosmonauts orbit a sentient planet that can make their dreams become real. Often billed as the Russian 2001, this existentialist bon bon with a crunchy science fiction crust is not only impenetrable but quite possibly the slowest moving film ever made. How slow moving? Well this is its big action sequence:
Whew! Do you need a moment to catch your breath? Readers should keep in mind that this film was made under the auspices of the former Soviet Union, so its running time of 165 minutes was not excessive since every minute spent in the theater was one minute that the average Soviet citizen did not have to spend meeting their monthly beet production quotas at the local collective farm. Curiously, Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Solaris is straightforward and quite enjoyable, though in the audio commentary for that movie Soderbergh barely mentions Tarkovsky and says that he went back to the Stanislav Lem novel for his treatment. Below is the original Russian trailer for Tarkovsky’s version. Believe me, it doesn’t make any more sense with subtitles.
1. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Hijinks ensue as humanity makes several great evolutionary leaps forward with the help of some conveniently placed black monoliths. This one has to be number one, because it’s not that the ending doesn’t make sense, it’s that it makes sense at a level just beyond our understanding. I get it that Dave exists in this place at three different ages simultaneously, and that, after some period of time has passed (moments? years?), his aged self encounters the monolith and so takes the next evolutionary leap to whatever is beyond humans (no, not Space Homer). Still, questions abound. Why the Baroque decor? What is the significance of the broken glass? Who changes Space Baby’s diaper? And, since there’s only one, how does Space Baby reproduce? Don’t tell me that we as a species can look forward to mitosis in our future. Regardless of what this scene is all about, the first shot of the lunar module in the sitting room is one of the most startling images in the history of cinema. God, it’s beautiful.
Update: Thanks for the comments. Not sure why I remembered Eraserhead (89 minutes) as a short – it just seemed that way in my mind, I guess. I hope they don’t revoke my Internet Movie Reviewer license for that mistake! That said, I would argue for Blue Velvet over Eraserhead because, with Blue Velvet, David Lynch reached the perfect balance between his inner vision/compulsions and the need to tell a coherent story. Eraserhead is certainly ground-breaking, but it doesn’t really try to tell a narrative story that I can discern.
Of course, this is not really a list of “the best” but really just my favorites, or more accurately, “movie’s I’ve seen that are inscrutable.” Also can’t believe I left Nicholas Roeg off the list entirely – looks like it’s time to begin compiling “Even More Inscrutable Movies.”