Inception may not be the biggest money maker of the summer but it’s success still may be the most impressive. The film is a monument to smart movies that require the viewer to pay attention. The fact that it’s done so well and been received so positively proves that sometimes American audiences want more than to just to sit down and turn off their brains for two hours. For the viewers that enjoyed feeling their brains tingle and walking out of the theater still thinking about what they saw there are plenty of smart films on DVD to keep the mind active. What follows is a list of some of the best movies to stimulate the mind as well as entertain. This list is in no particular order.
In an indeterminate future there is a virtual reality game known as Avalon. The combat game is outlawed due to it’s potential to leave players in catatonic states. This does not diminish it’s popularity and the best players are highly revered. Amongst the best players in the game is Ash. Ash may be the best player in all of Avalon but her goal is more than just amassing the most kills. She’s tracking down an elusive ghost within the game in hopes of reaching the fabled “Level Real.” This heady film is a mix of European and Japanese approaches. Japanese writer and director Mamoru Oshii better known for his work in anime (best known for the Ghost in the Shell films which came close to making this list.) However for this story he opted to shoot this film live action in Poland with Polish actors in the Polish language. The film toys with notions of reality and purpose and it’s carefully constructed conclusion leaves many things to be decided by the viewer.
Hector is just an unremarkable man living with his wife. One day through his binoculars he spots a woman undressing in the woods. When his curiosity gets the better of him Hector soon finds himself fleeing from a bandaged man brandishing scissors. Hector’s efforts to escape land him inside a machine that sends him back several hours in time, now he must to do everything he can to make sure events play out as they are meant to. What’s probably the most interesting thing about Timecrimes is that unlike nearly every other time travel movie it’s not about trying to change the past, instead it’s about desperately trying to preserve it. Hector is made aware that he has to ensure that nothing he does changes what has already happened and the film folds back in on itself at several points. These sorts of stories are usually riddled with plot holes but writer/director Nacho Vigalondo conceived what may be the most air-tight script ever to use time travel. Everything fits into play perfectly in a way that is simply astonishing.
Leonard (Guy Pearce) is a troubled man with a mission. He’s seeking revenge against the man who broke into his house and murdered his wife. However this is not just a simple tale of revenge, because the break in also left Leonard with brain damage. Short term memory loss leaves Leonard unable to make new memories, he forgets things after only a few minutes. Forced to keep extensive notes, take constant polaroids and even tattoo vital information on his own body Leonard inches ever closer to the elusive “John G.” Christopher Nolan, the mastermind behind Inception, takes an already unique story and makes it even more fascinating with how it is told. The majority of the scenes in the film are shown in reverse chronological order, so it begins at the end and works backwards. This has the effect of putting the audience in the same mind frame as Leonard, they know what’s happening now but have no idea what events lead to it. This amazing narrative device gives the viewer an instant understanding of Leonard’s dilemma and allows the story to unfold in a way that is totally unique.
The premise is simple: two freelance inventors create something amazing by accident in their garage. However the execution is unlike anything else out there. There are movies that require the viewer to pay attention and think and then there’s Primer. To be blunt this movie will make most viewers feel stupid, but not because it talks down to them. In fact it’s the exact opposite. Writer/director/star Shane Carrouth refused to dumb down the ideas or the dialog and also refused to insert any real clear exposition into the film. The result is a film which trusts the audience to be smart enough to follow the massively complicated ideas being dealt with and talked about in highly technical terms. A viewer not paying close attention may even miss the fact that it’s a time travel movie since those words are never actually uttered at any point.
Max (Sean Gullette) is a mathematical genius trying to use complex equations to predict the stock market. When his computer crashes from a bug it prints out a random string of 216 numbers which Max quickly discards. However talks with his mentor and other people he encounters leads Max to believe that the number created by his computer is not just a random jumble of digits, but something of much deeper meaning and purpose. Filmed in stark black and white, Pi is the still impressive and highly cerebral debut film of Darren Arinofsky (Requiem for a Dream.) The juggles a number of deep concepts ranging from mathematics to religion and all are delicately balanced to play off of each other. Max risks descending into madness as he tries to unravel the meaning of what he’s found and his journey is both intense and ultimately very rewarding to watch.
12 Monkeys (1995)
In a bleak future a disastrous plague has wiped out most of the human population, and those who remain were driven underground. Cole (Bruce Willis) is a criminal who has been sent to the surface several times to collect specimens for study as part of his sentence. Cole is promised a pardon if he can go back in time to before the virus broke out and acquire vital information on the Army of the 12 Monkeys who unleashed the plague. Visionary director Terry Gilliam (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) brings his unique style to this intriguing story. Cole is never trying to prevent the plague, he can’t change the past because it’s already happened. More to the point it’s already happened with him in it. So nothing is changing and instead it all fits together like a puzzle. The narrative takes a few cyclical turns that are great fun to think about. Another highlight is Brad Pitt who stole the movie (and earned an Oscar nomination) as a mental patient Cole keeps encountering.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
A docked boat in Los Angeles is the site of multiple murders and arson. There are only two survivors, one is in a coma and the other is small time criminal Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey in his Oscar winning role.) Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) trying to interrogate Verbal and unravel the series of events that lead to the bloodbath in the harbor. While most of the other films on the list have sci-fi elements to them this is a much more straight forward crime story. Or rather it would have been straight forward had it not been for director Bryan Singer (X-men) and the Oscar winning script by Christopher McQuarrie. The film is told in a series of flashbacks as told by Verbal. Kujan is constantly questioning whether Verbal is being honest with him and when the specter of a mysterious crime lord named Keyser Soze starts to loom in the background the mystery grows even deeper. The story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion that manages to be intriguing and not overly confusing. The ending is legendary and for good reason.
In the near future the energy crisis has been solved by the discovery of helium-3. The precious element is mined from the moon at a base that is almost entirely automated. Sam (Sam Rockwell) is the sole human occupant of the base and he’s counting the days until he can return to Earth again. The isolation of his time on the moon starts to get to him and soon Sam encounters something that will change his life forever. The brainchild and debut film of writer/director Duncan Jones, Moon centers around very natural performance of it’s star while juggling some deep ideas. The story unfolds in a very matter of fact way, reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are quite a few philosophical and moral questions raised by this film that make the already original story even more intriguing for viewers to take in.