review trailers often reveal everything that will happen in a movie. Plots are getting more predictable and repetitive than the sun's rising, and simpler to describe.
What does it take to be gloriously confused by a movie these days?
We're not talking about movies with stunning last-minute twists, like The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects and The Crying Game. We're talking movies that climb inside your brain and rummage around for two hours, forcing viewers to reconsider what is really happening on screen — and perhaps real life when the show's over.
Movies that mess with your head by clawing deep inside someone else's, as Shutter Island did earlier this year, and Christopher Nolan's Inception does this weekend. We haven't seen this much mind-bending in megaplexes in nearly a decade. It took only one Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to flop in theaters for Hollywood to return to mostly business as usual.
The following six films — all released between 1999 and 2001 — can frustrate viewers to the brink of dismissal. Don't dare to give up. Those jolting payoffs when fractured narrative pieces click into place are worth the extra cognitive effort. — Steve Persall, Times Film Critic
THE MATRIX, 1999
What if everything in your life is an illusion? Andy and Larry Wachowski posed that question in a sci-fi setting that raised the bar for visual panache as the plot thickened with circuitous, Zen-like conundrums. (What do you mean there is no spoon? It's right there.) Keanu Reeves was perfectly cast as the hero Neo since he always looks confused. Just keep repeating to yourself: There were no sequels. There were no sequels.
FIGHT CLUB: 1999
The first rule of Fight Club (the movie) is: Don't tell anyone that consumerism terrorist Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is actually the violent alter ego of the nameless narrator (Edward Norton). Oh, darn. Director David Fincher did a masterful job of keeping the secret under wraps, at once creating a 21st century antihero and a case study in masochistic split personalities.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH: 1999
A crawlspace leads a puppeteer (John Cusack) inside the mind of Malkovich, who sends up his "serious thespian" persona and the ego it suggests. Director Spike Jonze has a ball with the fantasy — including a classic scene in which Malkovich "sees" everyone in a night club as versions of himself, speaking only his name — while sneaking in the contemporary reality that anything worth discovering is worth making money from.
Inception isn't Nolan's first psycho-rodeo. He literally turned the murder mystery genre inside out with Memento, about a man (Guy Pearce) devoid of short-term memory, searching for his wife's killer through clues he jots on paper — or his skin — to have any chance of remembering. Nolan's brilliant strategy is opening with the final pieces of the puzzle and chronologically working backward, so the movie's last scene is actually the story's beginning.
DONNIE DARKO: 2001
Taking the "troubled teen flick" to its brain-cramping limits, writer-director Richard Kelly blends time travel, air safety, psychosis and a 6-foot-tall rabbit named Frank into a movie getting better (and clearer) with each viewing. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie, who learns from Frank that the world will end in 28 days. Surviving a freak catastrophe is only Donnie's first mental speed bump on the path to something like the truth.
MULHOLLAND DR: 2001
No listing of mind-bending movies is complete without at least one David Lynch flick. This is one of his trippiest, starring Naomi Watts as an aspiring starlet and Laura Elena Harring as her new friend, an actor who already made it in Hollywood. Don't like that story? Don't worry, it alters constantly with Lynch seeming to make up the plot as he goes along merrily, scarily; life is but a dream.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.