It is always difficult to whittle down such a list to a mere ten people. Someone will always be left out. With mind-bending cinema, this certainly holds true. So many great films have been made over so many years, that it was difficult to choose where to draw lines when making this list.
I have chosen to limit myself strictly to modern directors, most of whom are still alive today, and still producing films (with one notable exception). I have also chosen to limit myself to directors who make films in the English language.
I expect some criticism for these choices, and a large number of comments about directors that have sadly been left off of this short list. Please feel free to add your comments. They’ll help many people to find great works of mind-bending film that they might not otherwise have discovered, and that’s the whole point of this blog. Comment away! Let me know who I left out. Perhaps you’ll even spark some follow-up articles about other great directors of cinema.
Now, on with the list:
10. Wes Craven
Director Wes Craven is probably most famous for originating the Nightmare on Elm Street series of horror movies, as well as the infamous character Freddy Krueger, or for his tongue-in-cheek mind-bending series of films that began with Scream.
No other director of mind-bending horror movies has been nearly as successful, nor as prolific, as Wes Craven. Craven has a knack for getting inside the head of the viewers, and creating ideas and images that infect the mind, disturbing the sleep of a viewer for several nights, or possibly weeks. He also has a way of telling a story that conceals from even many astute viewers exactly what is coming next. With clever plot twists and turns, and a new scare around every corner, Craven has created some of the most haunting mind-bending motion pictures in history.
Craven has to his credit a number of the better mind-bending horror films made to date, beginning with A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, and followed by The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1988, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994, and the Scream series in 1996, 1997, 2000, and presumably ending with Scream 4 in 2011. He also directed the mind-bending thriller Red Eye in 2005.
I feel the three movies in this group of mind-bending tales stand out as his best: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and Red-Eye.
Whatever else you can say about Wes Craven, either good or bad, you must recognize him as a powerful director simply for what you see on the streets on any given Halloween in the USA. Thousands of people, every single year, will dress as Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare films, or as the Ghostface Killer of the Scream series. They have become two of the greatest and most well-known icons of Hollywood horror, and are loved by fans around the world.
9. Richard Kelly
Richard Kelly is the youngest director on this list, and has only one superb hit to his name thus far. He directed the famous sleeper hit, Donnie Darko.
Donnie Darko has become one of the favorite cult films of those who love mind-bending stories and those who love time travel science fiction. The story featured a phenomenal soundtrack that seemed to fit perfectly with the script. The movie starred Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone. The script, directing, casting, and acting were incredibly well married. This tale features psychedelic dream scenes with “Frank” the giant rabbit, a series of twisted sub-plots that hearken to the theme of evil lurking in wholesome neighborhoods explored in David Lynch films, and one of the most clever takes on time travel to come along in a very long time.
Since Darko, Kelly has written and directed two more mind-bending films. The first was Southland Tales, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar. It featured another tale of time travel, but less skillfully executed in comparison to Donnie Darko. The second was The Box, starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden. It was a tale of strange happenings within NASA, being investigated by the NSA. Despite the clever scripts and plot devices, both of these latter films were flops at the box office, and with the public and reviewers. It remains to be seen if Kelly can live up to the promise of his first hit.
Personally, I found all three films quite good, and would give him more credit for Southland Tales and The Box than he has received from either the press or fans of Donnie Darko. They certainly don’t measure up to Darko, but they do not seem quite as bad as the critics and fans of Darko made them out to be.
8. Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick began his directing career in the 1950’s, and I haven’t seen many of his earlier films, but without a doubt, he has directed four of the most famous mind-bending motion pictures of the 20th century. His 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is one of his best-known works, and also one of the greatest mind-bending films ever made. 2001 was created at a time when the field of special effects for space films was in its infancy, and Kubrick masterfully created believable scenes of outer space. The script and film beautifully captured the vision of Arthur C. Clarke, author of the novel by the same name upon which the film was based.
His next mind-bending film, released in 1971, was the infamous film A Clockwork Orange, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. The movie set a new high bar for twisted tales of evil criminals. The main character, Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, is today one of the most recognizable villains in movie history.
Almost a decade later, Kubrick directed The Shining, based on the novel by Stephen King. The film became a favorite of horror fans worldwide, producing some truly terrifying scenes with Jack Nicholson playing the evil ghost-inspired killer, Jack Torrance.
Kubrick only directed two more films in his career after The Shining, the last of which was Eyes Wide Shut, released in 1999. The film is not a favorite of mine, but was quite popular with his fans, and featured a twisted, mind-bending tale of intrigue and sex.
7. Terry Gilliam
Writer and Director Terry Gilliam is perhaps best known as one of the comedians of Monty Python, but is also one of the greatest creators of mind-bending movies in film history.
Most of the films under Gilliam’s direction can be classified as mind-benders. His films often retain the offbeat sense of humor found in his first major picture, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He’s known for telling an incredibly skilled twisted tale that has a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek.
His first mind-bending picture was the humorous Time Bandits in 1981, a tale of strange dwarven pirate time travelers. It was followed in 1985 by Brazil, a tale of intrigue set in a strange and foreboding dystopian world. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen followed it, released in 1998, then The Fisher King in 1991, 12 Monkeys in 1995, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (based on the infamous novel by Hunter S. Thompson) starring Johnny Depp in 1998, Tideland in 2005, and most recently, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Of these, many would agree that Brazil, The Fisher King, and Twelve Monkeys represent his finest achievements as a director.
Gilliam also wrote the story and script for several of these titles, perhaps also earning him credit as one of the best authors of mind-bending scripts.
6. Roman Polanski
Writer and Director Roman Polanski began his career in the 1950’s in Poland. He rapidly made a name for himself as an accomplished director of short films, and had his first mind-bending hit with the thriller Knife in the Water in 1962.
Some of the greatest and most well known mind-bending films in history were directed by Polanski. These include the thriller Repulsion starring Catherine Deneuve in 1965, the horror Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, the mystery Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson in 1974, the thriller The Tenant in 1976, the Hitchcockian thriller Frantic starring Harrison Ford in 1988, the drama Death and the Maiden in 1994, the horror/thriller The Ninth Gate in 1999, and the thriller Ghost Writer in 2010.
His earlier works remain some of the best things he’s ever created, and his work since 1979 has tapered off in frequency and quality. Nonetheless, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Tenant remain a few of the best mind-bending tales ever committed to film. Repulsion is a twisted thriller depicting a young woman so repulsed by sex that she is driven to murder. Rosemary’s Baby remains one of the best known horror films ever produced, and is an eerie tale of a satanic child being brought into the world. Chinatown is considered by many to be one of the finest films in Hollywood history, and is used as an example in directing and screenwriting classes of an ideally constructed motion picture. It is a tale of intrigue in Los Angeles, and built on some actual history of the region. The Tenant is a tale of the psychological breakdown of an obsessed man, played by Polanski himself, and is a highly unnerving picture.
I remain a Polanski fan, and Death and the Maiden is my favorite of his later films. I have yet to see The Ghost Writer, and cannot report on the quality of it. Some of his other non-mind-bending stories are also quite good.
5. Christopher Nolan
Writer and Director Christopher Nolan has directed four of the best known and best loved mind-bending films of the 21st century. Interest in his first full length picture has also blossomed after the success of those four films.
His first film was Following, released in 1998. Then came Memento, a sleeper hit in 2000, featuring a man who has lost his short-term memory loss and uses notes and tattoos to hunt down the killer of his wife. Next came Insomnia in 2002, a thriller about a murder that takes place in Alaska with Al Pacino and Robin Williams. The Prestige, a suspenseful mind-bending thriller about two rival magicians, was released in 2006. Finally, Inception, a movie about using dreams to invade the subconscious of a target, and steal information from his mind, was released in 2010.
Each of these stories plays with the question of good an evil, and like in David Lynch films, the line between hero and villain is often blurred in a Christopher Nolan film. In essence, there really isn’t a pure “good guy” in any of these movies. They all have major flaws, or are themselves guilty of hideous crimes.
4. Darren Aronofsky
Another relative newcomer to this list, Aronofsky has directed four of the best-known and most-loved mind-bending films of the last decade and a half. His first mind-bending movie was Pi, released in 1998, a story of a man with a gift for numbers who exploits his gift to get ahead, and is then confronted by others who wish to use his gift for themselves. The film was done on a low budget in black and white, but got Aronofsky noticed, and launched him as a director of strange and haunting tales of delusion and fantasy.
His next film was the famous Requiem for a Dream, a mind-bending story of drug addiction gone horribly wrong. The film was released in 2000, and featured one of the most haunting soundtracks in recent films, which itself became hugely popular. It was nominated for numerous awards, and won many of them. This movie is difficult and almost painful to watch in parts, but ultimately unfolds a haunting picture of addicts and addiction in a surreal way that would turn anyone off to the very idea of becoming addicted.
Aronofsky’s next picture, The Fountain, wasn’t released until six years after Requiem. It featured a surreal story about a man searching for the tree of life and biological immortality through several lifetimes, and his lover, who he wishes to grant immortality to. Like Requiem, the soundtrack became very popular. Unfortunately for Aronofsky, The Fountain never gained the popularity nor the notoriety of Pi or Requiem. While I personally find it to be his most compelling picture, many simply despised it. It seems to be one of those “love it or hate it” type of films.
The most recent mind-bender in Aronofsky’s portfolio was Black Swan, released in 2010. It featured Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey as the central feminine characters. The film spurred much online debate, and as has become a tradition with Aronofsky pictures, he has remained fairly tight-lipped about what he intended. It is my belief, and that of many who have analyzed the film, that the primary cause of the madness of the main character, Nina (Portman), is childhood sexual abuse by her mother. Nina exhibits a classic set of symptoms taken straight from the book on abnormal psychology resulting from childhood sexual abuse. Ultimately, her suicidal behavior coupled with delusions are not an uncommon ending for the life of a sexually-abused person.
3. David Lynch
Since he first came on the scene with Eraserhead in 1977, David Lynch has been considered one of the masters of mind-bending cinema. Eraserhead featured a twisted and surreal story filled with raw emotions turned into twisted delusions.
Next for Lynch came The Elephant Man, a story based on an account of the life of Joseph Merrick, a sideshow freak known as the Elephant Man. It had a few mind-bending elements, but doesn’t fit completely with the other mind-bending films that Lynch has directed.
Dune was released in 1984, and was a bit too surreal for moviegoers, and thus was a flop at the box office. It is based on Frank Herbert’s book by the same name, and science fiction fans were hoping for a big budget Hollywood treatment of the film, and did not appreciate Lynch’s surrealist take on the story. Since it came out on video, and different cuts of the film were released for video and television, it has become something of a cult classic of science fiction.
A number of Lynch films have come to epitomize his style and a particular type of mind-bending picture. His stories often feature plots centered on some horrible and terrifying truth about otherwise ordinary characters living in a place that outwardly gives all appearances of being a wholesome environment. These films begin with Eraserhead, but continue with the release of Blue Velvet in 1986, Wild at Heart in 1990, Twin Peaks – Fire Walk with Me in 1992, Lost Highway in 1997, Mulholland Drive in 2001, and Inland Empire in 2006.
His best known and best-loved work is most likely the television series, Twin Peaks, which ran from 1990 to 1991. It featured one of the most original and haunting serialized stories ever to appear on television. While the series had traction with a loyal following, the network insisted that the murderer of Laura Palmer be revealed, and after that occurred, the majority of fans completely lost interest in the show, leading to an early cancellation of the series. In essence, the studio killed the series by refusing to go along with Lynch’s trademark indecipherable and never-solved mysteries! Regardless, the show remains one of the biggest cult series ever to air on television, and one of the best-loved mind-benders in television history.
2. David Cronenberg
Perhaps the greatest director of mind-bending psychological thrillers and horrors, Cronenberg’s first major mind-bending picture was Rabid, released in 1977. Like many Cronenberg films, it featured a story about a person going though a sort of delusional breakdown and separation from normal consensus reality. That theme has become central in many Cronenberg works, whether they are more mainstream pictures, or playing with strange surrealist techniques.
Rabid was followed by The Brood in 1979, and both were lower budget horror movies that did not have great financial success. His first picture to really gain the notice of the public, and make a name for Cronenberg, was the hit and eventual cult film, Scanners, in 1981. The movie featured a story about psychics who can use their powers to kill, and government efforts to confine and control them, and spawned a series of sequels, none of which were directed by Cronenberg, and none of which were particularly successful. Regardless, the film put Cronenberg’s name into the annals of horror history, and helped his career take off.
Next came a rapid release of three more mind-bending tales from Cronenberg. Videodrome, a twisted and hallucinogenic story of sex and violence, was released in 1983, with The Dead Zone, based on a Stephen King novel, following in the same year. While the former was a box office failure in theaters, it gained a cult following which it retains to this day, and it is now part of the famed “Criterion Collection” of great films. It remains one of the most disturbing mind-bending films ever made. The Dead Zone, however, was a financial success, and led to another big-budget science fiction remake, The Fly, released in 1986. Both The Fly and The Dead Zone propelled Cronenberg further up the chain of Hollywood stardom, and opened the way for him to direct more films in the tradition of his most mind-bending film to date, Videodrome.
Over the next 14 years, Cronenberg released six films with content featuring perverted and distorted sexuality, delusional characters, twisted acts of violence, and strange views of the dream worlds found inside the minds of his characters. The first of these was Dead Ringers in 1988, a story of twin doctors with a dangerous and delusional obsession. This was followed in 1991 by Naked Lunch, an adaptation of the hallucinatory novel by the same name, originally penned by William S. Burroughs, one of the masters of surreal fiction. M. Butterfly came out in 1993, a poetic romance featuring sexual deception and self-deception. Crash, a story of people who get sexual gratification by crashing cars, followed in 1996. The cult hit eXistenZ was released in 1999, an unfortunate time to release the picture, which featured a story about a virtual reality dreamworld. The movie was released simultaneously with the blockbuster hit The Matrix, and given their similar settings, was a total financial flop in the shadow of the Wachowski brothers’ massive hit. Personally, I find eXistenZ to be a much more masterful picture than The Matrix, so I find it saddening that it was so heavily overshadowed by The Matrix. Finally came Spider in 2002, a story of a delusional man’s attempt and failure to journey back to the world of the sane.
Since that run of deeply mind-bending tales, Cronenberg has released two more films to a high degree of critical acclaim. A History of ViolenceCrime Movies & TV) was released in 2005, and Eastern Promises in 2007. Both stories featured a twist of fate for the characters and audience, but neither was in the same category as the six epic mind-bending films that preceded them.
Cronenberg’s career has featured primarily two types of pictures: bigger-budget Hollywood vehicles that feature some twist of fate that is generally unexpected by both the characters and audience, and twisted psychological thrillers and horrors that feature truly mind-bending works of surrealism that leave much to the imagination, and up to interpretation by the viewer.
1. David Fincher
David Fincher’s career was launched by the hugely successful Se7en, released in 1995. The film featured Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in a twisted psychological thriller about a serial killer who bases his crimes on the seven deadly sins. This truly mind-bending tale set the tone of Fincher’s later career, which has featured a number of the best and most financially successful mind-bending films in cinematic history.
The Game followed in 1997, featuring Michael Douglas as an uptight businessman who has lost his connection to family along with his vitality, and who is tempted into playing, “The Game.” This game turns his world upside down, bending his mind along with that of the audience, and offering more twists and turns than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Though far less financially successful than Se7en, it became a cult classic.
Fight Club was released in 1999, again featuring Brad Pitt, this time with costar Edward Norton. Without divulging any spoilers, this psychological thriller featured a story of a pair of men who start a notorious “Fight Club,” that somehow manages to ignite the imaginations of men around the country, and begins a sort of revolution. It featured a couple of huge and unexpected plot twists that blew the minds of many viewers.
Next came Panic Room in 2002, a more traditional psychological thriller featuring Jodie Foster. Not really that mind-bending of a picture, it nonetheless was much more financially successful than the two films that preceded it. This seems odd to me, as it is my least favorite film of his, while The Game and Fight Club are two of my favorite films from any director.
Next came Zodiac, a mind-bending tale of the real-life search for the “Zodiac Killer” in the San Francisco Bay Area. Released in 2007, despite critical acclaim, the film was a financial flop.
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, a mind-bending story about a man who ages in reverse, and based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was released in 2008 to much critical acclaim and excellent box office results. The emotionally moving and mind-bending tale captured the imagination of moviegoers around the world, and the film has already gained a cult following.
Most recently, Fincher directed a completely non-mind-bending story, The Social Network, a story about the rise of Facebook. Though not a mind-bending tale in the tradition of many other Fincher films, it was nonetheless an excellent motion picture, and received much critical acclaim as well as phenomenal box office results.
Fincher has several films in various stages of production at the moment, including the English adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Hopefully Fincher will continue to make mind-bending pictures for some time to come. He skillfully crafts his mind-benders with twists the audiences do not expect.