While most modern blockbusters reliably deliver stories that hum with a certain familiarity, these hit films did just the opposite. Abandoning the comfortable status quo of more traditional tales, these are some of the most notable films that have left audiences bamboozled as they tried to wrap their heads around what they had just watched.
The fact is that some films insist upon being viewed twice — or three, or four, or twenty times — to be understood. Featuring complex stories that demand repeat viewings to be digested and shocking twists that suddenly become clear as day when revisited, these are the best mind-blowing movies that left viewers’ heads spinning when the credits rolled.
Updated on July 25, 2023, by Ryan Heffernan:
There are few things in cinema which can achieve the cultural staying power of a truly great mind-bending movie. From sci-fi spectacles which leave audiences scatterbrained to mystery thrillers so layered with twists and turns that a repeat viewing is necessary to see how it all fits together, these movies have forged their own legacies with their mind-boggling nature.
25 ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)
Genre mashes of science-fiction and romantic drama are all too rare, as they often result in thought-provoking films which excel at making audiences care deeply for their characters. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the pinnacle of the subgenre with Charlie Kaufman’s Oscar-winning screenplay unafraid of a chaotic journey through the human psyche rutted with emotional turmoil.
It follows a couple in the wake of a sour breakup who each attempt to have a medical procedure done which will erase all memory of their time together. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet put in powerhouse performances and the film’s beautiful yet deft story requires repeat viewings to be fully appreciated.
Watch on Starz
24 ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995)
Boasting one of the most famous movie twists in cinematic history, The Usual Suspects relied on smart storytelling to captivate audiences only to leave them completely fooled at the very end. The basic plot follows a criminal recounting the events that led up to a deadly shootout to a U.S. Customs agent looking into the case, telling him of the legendary crime lord Keyser Söze.
Utilizing the unreliable narrator trope to its fullest potential, the movie’s shocking finale would have had many first-time viewers rewinding and watching again to see all the hints they missed the first time around. It also crafted a legacy that sees the film remain popular decades later and has cemented it as one of the defining pictures of the 1990s.
Watch on Hoopla
23 ‘Cloud Atlas’ (2012)
The Wachowskis are certainly no stranger to mind-boggling stories. Released in 2012, Cloud Atlas may be their most underappreciated release – at least since The Matrix – as an ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel which follows six different stories in completely different eras, suggesting a connection between souls over time.
Using the same cast members across the differing tales within the film certainly didn’t help audiences get their heads around what was happening as the story leaps from the Pacific Islands in the 1840s to the distant future beyond societal collapse. It proved to be fiercely polarizing in the eyes of critics with some celebrating its ambitious scope while others criticized it for being overly complex.
22 ‘Donnie Darko’ (2001)
Donnie Darko is a classic sci-fi psychological thriller that chronicles the journey of the titular protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a disturbed teenager living in a suburban community who begins to have dreams of a huge rabbit named Frank. As Donnie begins to follow Frank’s directions, strange and terrible events occur, and he realizes that he may be living in a parallel reality, and that his visions may be a warning of an inevitable catastrophe.
Directed by Richard Kelly, the film received critical acclaim for its thought-provoking story and its exploration of themes such as time travel and parallel universes. It has an uncanny ability to inspire apprehension and fear in viewers through its atmosphere and pacing. This, along with the film’s non-linear plot and jarring ending, places it among the mind-blowing movies that require more than one viewing to fully grasp.
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21 ‘Inception’ (2010)
Among Christopher Nolan’s most popular films, Inception tells the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a talented thief who is given the opportunity to redeem himself by accomplishing the impossible: implanting an idea into a person’s subconscious. Cobb and his crew infiltrate their target’s dreams, employing a range of modern technologies to plant the idea and control the dream. As the team goes deeper into the target’s psyche, they are forced to confront their own guilt and regrets, which builds to a dramatic and mind-bending ending.
It was an instant success thanks to its uniqueness, mind-blowing action sequences, and complicated and thought-provoking plot. Its impressive visual effects and sound design perfectly complement its blend of action, science fiction, and psychological aspects. The film’s use of nonlinear storytelling and dream logic, as well as its treatment of issues like the nature of reality and the power of the mind, make it challenging but rewarding to rewatch.
20 ‘TÁR’ (2022)
Director Todd Field‘s TÁR rightly gained recognition during the recent awards circuit, particularly for Cate Blanchett‘s remarkable performance, which earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. The film is centered on the fictional renowned composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Blanchett), who is soon thrust into the spotlight for her questionable interactions with mentees.
Subtle, daring, and bold all at once, TÁR will catch viewers off-guard with its wholly original perspective and nuanced storytelling. There are so many clues and small details throughout the film that absolutely demand a second (or even a third) viewing of what is sure to be among the great movies of this decade.
Watch on Prime Video
19 ‘The Prestige’ (2006)
Throughout his illustrious career, Christopher Nolan has regularly proved that he is at his absolute best when he is at his most ambitious. Based on Christopher Priest’s novel, The Prestige tracks the violent rivalry of two 1890s magicians and their relentless endeavor to perform the perfect trick and best the other in the process.
Ego and deceit define the two characters as the story’s twists and turns continually fool the audience, seeing the narrative drift from a period-piece, character-driven thriller to a convoluted web of science-fiction mystery. It’s surprising how neat and satisfying the film’s conclusion ends up being, making it worthy of multiple rewatches where audiences see so much more, from overarching plot points to how relationships between characters evolve.
18 ‘Synecdoche, New York’ (2008)
Ever a master of opaque storytelling, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut can only be described as truly surreal. Something of a cult classic, Synecdoche, New York offers a challenging viewing experience for those who like something to contemplate while they watch a movie.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the stellar cast do a lot of leg work to hook the viewer in if the surreal atmosphere and intriguing plot didn’t already do that. Ultimately, it’s a film that demands multiple viewings to be wholly dissected and understood.
Watch on The Criterion Channel
17 ‘Predestination’ (2014)
Well, there’s mind-boggling. Then there’s Predestination, a contained, paradoxical sci-fi mystery that turns the WTF dial up to eleven. Following a time-traveling agent tracking a criminal known as the ‘Fizzle Bomber’ through time — and the perilous journey of self-discovery his inexperienced partner goes on — it is a great and underrated sci-fi gem that disturbs as much as it intrigues.
The twists pile on top of each other in unrelenting fashion as the characters make one shocking discovery after another. While a second watch is essential to understanding Predestination, it could also entice viewers to think deeper about the film and leave them even more confused after the first viewing.
16 ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (1990)
A harrowing and deeply tragic journey through the psyche of a disturbed man’s mental decline, Jacob’s Ladder is a rattling viewing experience, to say the least. It follows Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam War veteran who begins to lose his grasp on reality as his life is overrun by flashbacks and hallucinations.
The grueling tale of paranoia and panic has the ability to linger on the audience’s minds long after the credits have rolled with its uncanny ability to make viewers feel what Jacob experience. An engrossing, nerve-shattering psychological horror film, it demands to be rewatched to be understood as a whole, but once was more than enough for many audience members.
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15 ‘Caché’ (‘Hidden’) (2005)
Austrian director Michael Haneke is no stranger to thought-provoking dramatic thrillers that disturb their audiences, with his 2005 French film Caché (Hidden) one of his most revered. The suspenseful mystery flick follows a Parisian family targeted by an unknown assailant who leaves videotapes of their residence on their front porch, sometimes accompanied by disturbing drawings.
The unsettling film pries into audiences’ own fears as the tension mounts, not only as the mystery grows but also as the happy family begins to unravel and falter. Rich in atmospheric dread, psychological torment, and boasting a thematic heft, Caché commands the full attention of its viewers and has so much going on that it necessitates at least one re-watch to be not only comprehended but fully appreciated.
Watch on Mubi
14 ‘Shutter Island’ (2010)
The fourth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio made for a winding mystery thriller with one of cinema’s most memorable plot twists to boot. In the quintessential mind-blowing movie, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) journeys to a psychiatric hospital on a remote island to investigate a missing patient who he believes is responsible for his wife’s death.
Shutter Island is incredibly enticing, rich with an ominous atmosphere that lends itself to chills and tension while allowing the stellar cast to shine. The reveal of who exactly the missing prisoner was has burned the film into the minds of viewers, many of whom had to rewatch the film to see how the whole story pieced together.
13 ‘8 ½’ (1963)
Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ is one of the most iconic foreign-language films ever made. A thought-provoking masterpiece that also managed to be both funny and visually breathtaking, it follows a successful filmmaker’s creative block as he struggles to find motivation for a new picture.
The film takes on a gorgeous dreamlike quality as the line between Guido’s (Marcello Mastroianni) exuberant reality and fantastical memories and desires gradually blurs. While the presentation of its narrative can be a lot to digest on first viewing, its entrancing style and Gianni Di Venanzo’s mesmerizing cinematography make revisiting the film a welcome journey.
Watch on Max
12 ‘Waking Life’ (2001)
A young man, played by Wiley Wiggins, goes through a succession of dream-like sequences in Richard Linklater‘s rotoscope-animated film, Waking Life. As the protagonist interacts with a wide array of characters, he examines many philosophical, political, and existential ideas. The movie delves into themes like the nature of reality, individual autonomy, identity, and the state of humankind.
The mind-bending film has a dream-like atmosphere thanks to the use of rotoscope animation, adding to the sense of unreality and the feeling of not knowing what is real and what is not. Waking Life is a mind-blowing existentialist movie that takes repeated viewings to completely comprehend and appreciate. Its non-linear storyline and abstract images make it difficult to follow the narrative and understand its significance in a single viewing. Furthermore, the film’s themes and ideas are complex and frequently open-ended, encouraging audiences to reach their own conclusions and interpretations. It’s a must-see for fans of experimental films and those interested in philosophical ideas.
11 ‘Memento’ (2000)
Christopher Nolan’s confusing yet ground-breaking thriller introduced moviegoers to many tropes that would become core components of the filmmaker’s illustrious career. Memento follows Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man on a mission to avenge his murdered wife despite his short-term memory loss.
Most of the story is told in reverse, which ingeniously allows viewers to feel Leonard’s confusion while grasping what exactly is happening around him and how others are using his condition against him. From the high concept premise to the time-bending narrative structure, the film is pure Nolan in what is the filmmaker’s most underrated achievement.
Watch on Hoopla
10 ‘Primer’ (2004)
Noteworthy for its meager $7,000 budget, complicated scientific dialogue, and its winding time-travel narrative, Primer has become a cult classic of indie sci-fi. It follows two engineers who accidentally invent what appears to be a time-traveling device and modify it to suit humans only to then discover the disturbing consequences of their creation.
Shane Carruth, a former engineer with a degree in mathematics, served as the writer, director, and lead actor of the film with his refusal to simplify the technical dialogue and keep the narrative relatively grounded giving the movie a raw and compelling edge. It became an award-winning hit at the Sundance Film Festival and at just 78 minutes long offers a compact mind-bender that needs to be seen (multiple times) to be believed.
9 ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999)
Arguably the most soul-shattering iconic plot twist in movie history, The Sixth Sense was a compelling drama that immortalized Haley Joel Osment as the kid who saw dead people. The film’s final moments not only saw director M. Night Shyamalan forever define himself as a master of plot twists but left audiences no choice but to rewatch the film again immediately.
They say the sign of a great twist is all the clues seem to slap you in the face when you revisit the movie, and The Sixth Sense is no different in that regard. However, a second viewing allows the audience to see just how ingenious the set-up of the twist was and allows Bruce Willis’ performance to shine in a more tragic light.
Watch on Fubo
8 ‘The Fountain’ (2006)
Presenting Darren Aronofsky at his weirdest and most wonderful, The Fountain is an ambitious labor of love that has no reservations about challenging its audience. Split into three thematically interwoven stories, it follows a modern-day scientist desperately searching for a way to cure his wife’s brain tumor, a Spanish conquistador tasked with finding the Fountain of Youth, and a futuristic traveler safeguarding a life-giving tree’s passage to the heart of a dying star.
It has become something of a minor cult classic despite critics’ taking aim at its unwillingness to reach clear conclusions and its endeavor for symbolism over effective storytelling. While two viewings might still not be enough to grasp the film’s spontaneity, the convoluted narrative surrounding the quest for eternal life does become clearer each time the film is revisited.
7 ‘Arrival’ (2016)
Denis Villeneuve is the biggest name in cerebral science-fiction filmmaking right now, with Dune and Blade Runner 2049 as his most recent releases; however, he’s been no stranger to mind-melting drama either, with such films as Incendies and Enemy in his repertoire. Arrival may be the point in his filmography where his two styles meet in a perfect marriage of hard sci-fi and head-scratching narrative.
Amy Adams stars as an accomplished linguistics professor tasked with finding a way to communicate with one of a dozen alien crafts which have landed on Earth and brought the world to an interspecies standoff. What audiences first thought were memories are eventually revealed to be something else entirely, and the twist gives the movie a tragic new light which is best appreciated upon a rewatch.
Watch on Pluto
6 ‘Interstellar’ (2014)
Christopher Nolan’s films are widely praised due to their creative narrative structures and heart-pounding sequences. The director’s 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar delivered all that in spades, following a small crew tasked with traveling to a different universe to find a new home for humanity as Earth becomes unlivable.
With hard science — particularly the mind-bending concept of time dilation — integral to the plot, it doesn’t take long for audiences to feel their brains overheating as they try to keep up. Even if the story doesn’t make more sense to some viewers upon rewatch, Interstellar is always worth another look for its breathtaking visuals and Hans Zimmer‘s awe-inspiring score.
Watch on Paramount+