Top 10 Brain Melting Films


Sometimes the best feeling to experience from a film is confusion.  While mainstream Hollywood loves to churn out countless hackneyed formula-followers, which tell us precisely when to cry or laugh or release tension, having everything spoon-fed and laid out so predictably is a very traditional approach to film.  Sure each has its place, a comedy for when you need a good laugh or a romance for when you’re on a date and aren’t paying attention to what’s actually happening on-screen, but to be truly engaged by a film, it needs to take you on a ride through murky territory.  Here, such prickly feelings as paranoia, insecurity, and apprehension can take hold as you wonder what could possibly come next sequentially. A good filmmaker leaves his audience in the dark, and not just because of cinematic conventions.  For those who fancy disappearing at the bottom of that stimulation-filled abyss, exploring and beholding the various dissonant textures which lie within, these titles will be undoubtedly familiar.  For everyone else, these are the top ten brain-melting films guaranteed to rub you all but the wrong way:

10.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

How early a film, yet how un-fairy tale-like of an ending:  the earliest precursor to any psychological thriller in which you witnessed a narrative through the eyes of the protagonist/mental patient only to find that he has deceived you/himself.  The fact that it is a silent film, not to mention German, adds to the atmospheric creepiness, alongside the demented scenery and characters (notably the begrudging Caligari and his murderous mind-slave Cesare the Somnambulist).  This film has to be included for its being the origin of all “what is reality?” arguments posed by film to challenge-fearing audiences.  We are not in Kansas anymore…more like a postmodern haven for Gothic architecture.

9.  Altered States (1980)

Be careful with this one: the freak-out imagery in this film has an effect not unlike a strobe light, epileptics be warned. Reason is reduced to a low minimum as twitchy acid trips are presently favored, though acid is something likely never desired in the wake of watching such a powerfully dissuading film.   Talk about a harshed mellow, those who strive to avoid slipping into a spiral of negative thoughts better stay away.  Otherwise, there is some beautiful imagery between the seizures and distortions.

8.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-fuelled epic gets a treatment onscreen that no rehab facility can provide.  The narrative is completely twisted, albeit nonfiction, and is only so ludicrous for how the otherwise commonplace occurrences are given all-new meaning by a trunk full of mind-altering chemicals.  Watch a straightforward journalism assignment become absolute mayhem, rife with bowie knives and lizard tails, as director Terry Gilliam leaves in all the wildly-amusing hallucinations and flooded hotel rooms.  An attempt at sense is made of Thompson’s deluded stream-of-consciousness while we get to sit in the back seat, beside the hitch-hiker.

7.  Naked Lunch (1991)

The film version of a book in want of a lucid narrative by author William S. Burroughs, this movie quickly goes from straight-forward to very abstract as typewriters animate themselves as bugs and metaphors are all made literal.  It is evident by such frequent happenstances that the protagonist’s drug-induced hallucinations are not being screened from the audience’s perception; we are watching this film as Bill and consequently being forced to decide what is and isn’t real for ourselves.  The task proves quite inundating, but wholly worthwhile.  And way better than an actual addiction to that exotic, yellow centipede powder.

6.  Videodrome (1983)

Long live the new flesh.”  How about a line like that concluding a film?  It does in David Cronenberg’s apparent satire on the causal effects of violent visual entertainment.  This film, dubbed as mere sci-fi, goes to great campy length to illustrate the dramatic results of being exposed to, or rather bombarded by, violence-filled media, all of which are negative and completely surrealistic.  James Woods makes love to a television set and grows a gun out of his hand/pulls one out of his chest, which he later shoots up a building with, followed by himself.  One idea to be taken away is that his character is delusional, and his inability to differentiate between the real world and his imagination has, and can have, very real-world consequences.  See Cronenberg’s eXistenz to see similar logic applied to video games (making for an easy allegory to such occurrences as Columbine, Virginia Tech, etc.).  The fact that we watch the film without present clarity as to which is which is very difficult to endure, yet interesting to contemplate.  Unfortunately, the very-80s special effects remove all serious intentions and make this film a sweet, tongue-in-cheek indulgence of cornball proportions.  Bonus: Blondie-era Debbie Harry plays the hot-and-bothered television set with ostensible nerve-endings.

5.  Inland Empire (2006)

A typical David Lynch film, this film is not supposed to be understood, only speculated about; as such, the film is very much like a dream sequence.  Linear logic defies most of the chaotic scenarios that occur in the film, and continuity is kept to an abstract minimum: reoccurring vignettes only loosely tie together, but not for very long.  It’s as if the phantasmagoric imagination of the narrative is too great to settle for any single story-line, one dismissed for another for the sheer sake of maintaining interest.  The ensuing ride makes you feel very sticky in your own skin and unable to cage the elicited emotional responses, as guilty pleasure is soon confronted by absolute horror.  That is to say, you see this film much less than you experience it.

4.  Pi (1998)

What’s great about this film is how much it relies on internal monologue and focusing almost exclusively on the inner-stirrings of a central character, for better or for worse, making everyone else appear almost as intruders.  Why this film makes the list over a (perhaps) more enjoyable Requiem for a Dream is its heavy appeal to the criteria; Pi makes you feel just as insecure as the central character and has some scenes that are just too damaging to be taken matter-of-factly.  Not a lot of comforting moments to be had, but a lot of dizzying concept and cinematography (heavily mathematical).  This is, at the very least, a beautiful example of why Darren Aranofsky’s name is important and why the director of Must Love Dogs is not.

3.  Eraserhead (1977)

An earlier work of Lynch’s, this film is especially drenched in his unique brand of unrelenting absurdity:  Miniature bleeding chickens, an alien baby, a crater-cheeked lady singing in the radiator, awkward dialogue, and a hairdo that embodies the cloud of confusion experienced all the while.

2.  Memento (2000)

Before Inception (and the Dark Night), Christopher Nolan made the ultimate brain-tickler, one which juxtaposes time sequences in a very transcendent way, which also makes for a jarring viewing experience.  Following the film and piecing together its elements requires utmost attention, and, if you had trouble, it goes like this: the most immediate events, from the most recent “present,” are presented in reverse order and interchanged with black-and-white scenes from the protagonist’s past, which are presented in correct chronological order and show Leonard before he developed his short-term amnesia.  Time plays a huge factor in this film, both in the chronology of scene juxtapositions and the fact that Leonard can only remember a day’s worth of memories at a time.  The various twists and kickers revolve around this very essential concept and leave us, the audience, with more questions and hypothetical “what-ifs” than simple, satisfying answers.

1.  Inception (2010)

This film develops a linear plot dependent upon entering “dreams-within-dreams” for the sake of completing a mission, assigned by an agency that may or may not have been created within a greater-encompassing dream.  The nagging question throughout: beyond how deep you can sleep, how lucid can you dream?  What’s conceptually amazing is the idea in how such dreams can be used for creation like the ultimate self-contained artistic medium.  The ending: very disturbing.  Try leaving the theater with a settled stomach.  However, dreams do seem a lot more fun as a result of seeing this movie.

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  1. I wonder whether Constantine would qualify. Incredible Keanu Reeves Movie. I had to watch more than twice to get a hang of the plot. I guess it is one of those movies which can be argued over the plot from viewer’s perspective. Had watched Momento.. Absolutely stunning. I would rate it above Inception.

  2. The main character in Memento remembered a lot less than a day. The scene in the bar where she spit in his beer, among others, showed that he basically had about a few minutes memory, if that. Also, he forgets he’s being chased in the middle of it.

    • You just reminded me of one of the funniest scenes from the movie. He forgets he is being chased and then thinks he is chasing the person that was chasing him. Here is that scene from Momento.

    • Eyeless Dog Pawless Dog Loveless Dog on

      They’re not here cos yanks don´t know there’s movies around the world too 🙂

  3. I haven’t seen a lot of these. I think Primer really deserves a spot on this list. Brain melting time travel goodness. I’ve seen it several times and I’m still not exactly sure what is going on.

  4. Really? Inception is #1? I was expecting it on this list but not #1. Oh well. Perhaps I should watch the other movies before coming to my own conclusion. I’ve been meaning to see Memento for ages.

  5. I remember ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ starring Tim Robbins being a real mind-melter.

    ‘Memento’ is an amazing film, one of my all time favourites.

  6. Prospero’s Books is a good candidate for brain melting, as is the movie Brain Damaged (with Bud Cort). Dark City is mildly so…

  7. I was wondering if “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover” would qualify. It is an incredible movie and years ago we had a f’d up film fest and it was one of our choices, no one could speak after seeing it.
    also liked Blue Velvet

    • I’ll have to check that one out. But Blue Velvet is surprisingly linear, even while it is a cinematic wonder. Not as “Brain Melting” as some of his others. Could’ve thrown in Lost Highway but David Lynch already accounts for 1/5 of this list.

  8. I just saw Leonardo in Shutter Island which was mildly brain melting, but not quite fully formed. I am looking forward to watching Inception but I was waiting for the DVD so I could watch more than once, which I am told I will want to do. 😉

    • Yeah it’s a highly conceptual film. And the high-flying “James Bond-meets-Matrix” action sequences kind of distract you from every single plot point and meaningful nuance. It’s kind of like Usual Suspects in that respect: the first time you watch it you are getting it to it by way of the constant twists and turns, but when you give it another go with all the plot points in mind, all the symbolism and foreshadowing becomes very overt. The intro sequence especially: makes no sense the first time because it starts in media res, being a means to cannonball right into the movie. I feel a lot of people were alienated by this movie if they didn’t absolutely love it the first time, but it stands to be viewed multiple times, if for clarity’s sake. It really is a gorgeous movie, not your run-of-the-mill, mindless action.