7 mind-bending movies that will force you to question reality

Robert Downet Jr. as a druggy bug hallucination in "A Scanner Darkly"

Quick status report from way up north: Winter is coming. As a flipside to all that Finnish midnight sun during summer, we spend the better part of winter in a miserable state of mid-afternoon dusk. In these conditions, what better use of time is there than to curl up in a couch and dreaming yourself as far away as you can get?

At Ink Tank, we believe that one of the better forms of escapism is smart, challenging movies. So we’ve picked out a few that will leave you grasping for the nature of reality itself. These ambitious and artful mind-bending movies all aim for a special state. One where you’re no longer sure if you’re dreaming or tripping balls. Or both.



Either way, after one or two of these, you might just feel the need to defy any foul weather with a quick walk outside, just to get back to reality.

We’ll start with a couple fairly easy ones. Have no fear of lameness: we’ll be climbing the steep rock wall of Mount Bizarro as we progress.

1. Being John Malkovich (1998)

Struggling puppeteer Craig (John Cusack) finds himself stuck with a dead career and a stalling marriage with Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Forced to take a random office job, Craig discovers a portal through which anyone can travel into actor John Malkovich’s body. But the real puppet master turns out to be office queen bee Maxine (Catherine Keener). Maxine manages to sexually ensnare both Malkovich, Craig and Lotte while also innovating with hedonistic ways of exploiting Craig’s incredible discovery.

With “Malkovich”, director Spike Jonze truly pulled off a timeless home run. Set in lively New York City, the whole package manages to stay approachable and funny throughout an amazingly complex plot rich on symbolism. Also, worth noting is the movie’s under-appreciated gender-bendy twists and rich cameo lineup of Hollywood stars poking fun at their own public images.

2. A Scanner Darkly (2006)

If you’re into sci-fi novels, you surely know that Philip K. Dick’s stories tend to get a bit weird and paranoid. This one is no exception. In a story based on a novel with the same name, “A Scanner Darkly” takes us on a trip with a Orange County undercover narcotics agent (Keanu Reaves). The agent descends into a looser subculture plagued by a new drug and is forced to face the true nature of a surveillance state gone far beyond Orwell. The film, originally shot digitally, is traced to look animated with a rotoscope technique that literally glows. “Glowing” is also a fair assesment of the movie’s cast, includes Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson.

3. Mulholland Dr. (2002)

In his undisputed masterpiece, director David Lynch takes a playful, but not entirely friendly bite at Hollywood, the hand that feeds him. The story begins with Betty (Naomi Watts) arriving to LA with high hopes of a career in the movies. Betty quickly gets drawn into sorting out the business of Rita (Laura Harring), an amnesiac car crash victim. Things eventually descend into a nightmare of jealousy and an orgiastic look at the darker traits of Hollywood itself.

As they interact, characters make frequent bows to an omnipresent, uncaring showbiz machine that renders everyone disposable.  The feverishly tense soundtrack is a blanket of sound and sways like a pendulum between soft, dreamy and cold, psychotic eeriness. You’d expect nothing less from composer Angelo Badalament, known for the Twin Peaks theme.



4. The Holy Mountain (1973)

This is a test. I repeat: This is a test. The Holy Mountain is a spiritual escape from the shackles of industrial civilization, as visualized in saturated 70’s colors. Nothing can prepare you for this journey. If you pass this test, chances are you will be able to enjoy the rest of the movies on this list.

5. Pi (1998)

Pi is an early masterpiece of mind bender extraordinaire Darren Aronowsky. Obsession is the fuel of the movie, as a mathematician portrayed by Sean Gullette gets lost in himself. The suffering genius abandons scientific conventions and approaches ancient mysticism trying to find a master key for the universe. The soundtrack is a who’s who of 90’s cool, spanning from Clint Mansell’s iconic Drum and Bass theme to Massive Attack, Autechre, Orbital and Aphex Twin.

6. Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

Swedish director Roy Anderson works like a painter. In this piece, he portrays contemporary society by stalking his main character, a desperate entrepreneur and people in his vicinity through a grey, overworked mid-life coma. “Songs from the Second Floor” bangs a prophetic sledgehammer straight on the first visible cracks in the Nordic welfare state: looming fears of diminishing returns in the face of accelerating globalization.

One of the picture’s glacially moving, yet breathtaking shots culminates in an act of reverse Ättestupa: a young girl is ceremonially thrown down a cliff surrounded by hordes graying spectators. It’d be hard to think of a less subtle way for Andersson (born 1943 ) to point a finger at his own generation’s gluttonous consumption and democratic stranglehold over younger generations.




7. Primer (2004)

Two young entrepreneurs abandon their friends’ garage startup for a huge discovery. As vapid as the hype and buzzwords surrounding tech inventions may seem, this one’s indeed both disruptive and extremely dangerous. No, not Bitcoin or Soylent -dangerous: rest assured that you’re not in for an episode of “Silicon Valley”. Rather, these two guys have discovered how to bend time.

Produced with a budget of only 7,000 dollars, Primer is a stunningly complex series of tubular non-linearity and recursive interconnected rabbit holes. It calls for frequent rewatching and may leave you a note taking, trivia-googling mess. As an puzzle and intellectual challenge, Primer is cinema at its best.

For more fascinating cinematic art, consider familiarizing yourself with our list of noteworthy modern Finnish movies.

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2 replies

  1. Just watched Scanner Darkly the other day. Truly epic movie and you look at the cast you can see why. Strong 9 out of 10

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