Have you ever sat through a whole movie and, as soon as the credits started to roll, said out loud to yourself, "What the hell did I just watch?"
Maybe it was a brain teaser from Christopher Nolan, or a self-reflexive mental exercise courtesy of Charlie Kaufman, both of whom have new movies out: Nolan's Tenet, now playing in some theaters, has already been called "willfully obtuse" and "convoluted," while Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things (now streaming on Netflix) has been hailed as "discombobulating."
Before you see those, however, I decided to catalog some of my favorite movies designed to disorient, confuse and freak you out. After all, one mindf—- warrants another.
Altered States (1980)
Director Ken Russell hardly ever made a movie that you could describe as "sane," and one of his weirdest is this horror head-trip. William Hurt stars as a scientist whose experiments with sensory deprivation and hallucinogens seem to send his brain back to the earliest evolution of man, and its spaced-out sequences in which we hurtle right into Hurt's mind are totally bizarre. Streaming on HBO Max; for rent on Amazon and YouTube.
Sometimes a movie is unsettling precisely because you don't understand what's going on, and that's the case with Denis Villeneuve's eerie story of a college professor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who spots his doppelganger in a movie and becomes obsessed. There's also some business with giant spiders and an exclusive gentlemen's club, and even if it doesn't all come together, it's a beguiling, often terrifying experience. Streaming on Kanopy.
High Life (2019)
On a spaceship floating on the outer reaches of the galaxy, a group of ex-cons (including Robert Pattinson and Andre Benjamin) are forced into a reproduction experiment under the guidance of a mad scientist played by Juliette Binoche. Filmmaker Claire Denis tells her dystopian drama out of order, immediately disorienting you before walloping you with weird sex, sudden violence and lots of bodily fluids. Streaming on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.
Holy Motors (2012)
I think it's supposed to be about the transformative nature of storytelling, but this whatsit from enfant terrible Leos Carax is best experienced as a series of truly batshit set pieces. It contains graphic male nudity, a motion-capture CGI sex scene, an all-accordion musical number, cameos from Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue, a man whose wife and kids are chimpanzees, and a garage full of talking cars. Brace yourself. Streaming on Tubi.
Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Mostly ignored upon release, this harrowing plunge into disorientation has since inspired everything from The Sixth Sense to Silent Hill. It's a descent into the fractured psyche of a Vietnam veteran (Tim Robbins), whose PTSD is merging fantasy and reality in disturbing ways, leading him to believe he and his fellow infantrymen were the subjects of shady government experiments. For rent on Amazon and YouTube.
Lost Highway (1997)
A list like this requires a selection from David Lynch, the king of WTF cinema, and I'm going with this noir nightmare of paranoia, identity and sexual intrigue. I don't hear it spoken about nearly as often as his other work, and I'm honestly still not sure if I even like it all that much. But it contains some of the most chilling and inexplicable imagery I've seen in any movie: Pale-faced Robert Blake in two places at once? Shudder. For rent on Amazon and YouTube.
One of the most divisive films of the last few years, Darren Aronofsky's grisly fever dream is supposedly an allegory for climate change or religious extremism or misogyny or... something. But I'm less interested in its muddled metaphorical trappings: I love mother! because it's an absolutely insane vanity project that was inexplicably released in thousands of theaters, and it operates on a frenetic frequency that can best be described as bonkers. For rent on Amazon and YouTube.
The final feature from anime legend Satoshi Kon centers on the creation of a device that can merge your dreams with another person's. When it falls into nefarious hands, a jaded detective, several scientists and a mysterious woman named Paprika are all trapped in various dream states, resulting in some of the most eye-popping psychedelic imagery this side of a Laser Floyd show. It's possible no other movie has better captured the sheer insanity of stream-of-consciousness dream logic. For rent on Amazon and YouTube.
David Cronenberg is known for shockers about bodies being invaded and brains being melted, and arguably his masterpiece is this hallucinatory tale of a craven cable CEO who disappears into the gore and depravity of his own TV station. It's an indictment of the mindless consumerism we've come to associate with early '80s excess, and a wild, prescient depiction of man and media becoming one. Streaming on Peacock; for rent on Amazon and YouTube. ♦