Cinematic twists are extremely volatile plot tools – while they may be incredibly effective in the hands of a skilled filmmaker, they may also ruin an entire movie if they are too obvious or far-fetched. Some of the most unique movies of the past decades are recognized for their skillful scenario construction and often acquire cult status shortly after their critical acclaim. Such films provoke awe and surprise in their audience with the use of effective plot mechanisms, ranging from a stunning final revelation to a well-placed twist. Additionally, these movies provide additional layers of depth during a second or third seating, allowing for different levels of interpretation and various perspectives. Overall, these films offer a durable viewing experience. They can be watched over and over again, while still providing novelty and the satisfying recognition of foreshadowing details.
This list does not have the pretension to list the most mind-blowing movies of the past two decades; however, it regroups films that achieve viewer astonishment through different means. The following movies make use of intricate and overarching timelines, complex plot mechanisms, stunning revelations or even simple final twists. They all amaze spectators in their own ways by effectively using an arsenal of plot tools. Lastly, it is important to note that this list does not use any ranking, is completely spoiler-free and is not exhaustive, but rather eclectic. On that note, let’s blow our minds.
THE ONE WITH THE CONVOLUTED PLOT
Donnie Darko (2001), Richard Kelly
By far the most incomprehensible and confusing movie of the list, Donnie Darko is a type of film that you only get to witness every few years. This sci-fi flick ingeniously combines parallel universes and time travel, with a pinch of temporal paradox and prophetic predestination. The story takes place in the town of Middlesex, Virginia, and centers around Donnie Darko, a sociopathic and eccentric teenager. Darko narrowly escapes death when the fallen debris of a plane, which passed through a spatio-temporal rift, crashes into his bedroom. The event puts two parallel universes in disequilibrium – Darko must establish order within twenty-eight days, or else the world will come to an end. Because a summary of the movie’s plot could easily take up entire pages, I won’t dive into details. Donnie Darko is intricately complex, with prevalent themes of choice, consequences and destiny. When the movie finally comes full circle, all the pieces of the puzzle start interlocking to slightly unravel the complicated and overarching timeline. However, some aspects of the scenario are intentionally left blurry, and thousands of viewers have elaborated complex theories for the past decade. While the low budget and sober design of the movie might repel some spectators, you should give Donnie Darko a chance. Its “indie” feel, eerie atmosphere and talented cast (kudos to a young Jake Gyllenhaal) are a breeze of fresh air in a sometimes-redundant movie industry. Even though most people don’t get the plot on the first seating (I personally did not) and have to desperately search for explanations online, Donnie Darko will haunt your mind, even days after you’ve seen the end credits roll.
THE ONE WITH THE AMBIGUOUS ENDING
Inception (2010), Christopher Nolan
Yes, it’s not surprising to include a Christopher Nolan movie in a mind-blowing film list. But hear me out – Inception might be his most complete work up to date. It’s a riveting and sometimes poetic thriller, incredibly compelling in the depth of its world-building and breathtaking in its visual creativity, all sublimated by Hans Zimmer’s masterful soundtrack. The movie takes place in a world where one’s dreams and subconscious can be broken into in order to implement thoughts, or more simply, to perform an inception. Dominick Cobb, the film’s main protagonist, has a mission to infiltrate the mind of the son of the deceased CEO of a big conglomerate and persuade him to dissolve the company. The rules of the game are complex; dreams can be imbricated like nested dolls and navigation through each subconscious level proves tremendously complicated. Furthermore, when death occurs in a dream, there are various consequences and time does not flow constantly between each level. The viewers’ challenge resides in following the characters through this cerebral maze as they battle against the manifestations of events happening on the upper ranks and adapt to rising complications. Inception’s effectiveness stems from its ability to lose viewers amongst these intricate rules and mechanisms. Even though the movie is relatively straightforward, at least up until the last few seconds, one may easily doubt previously stated facts. Nolan’s masterpiece closes on an open-ended note, which is mainly why Inception has played with our minds for the past years. Elaborate theories are formed, but none can be confirmed.
THE ONE WITH THE SHOCKING FINAL REVELATION
Oldboy (2003), Park Chan-wook
Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy (not to be confused with Spike Lee’s mediocre 2013 remake) mimics the modern wave of Korean thrillers – it’s a dark and gritty tale of revenge, sublimated by gorgeous cinematography and impressive acting. Quentin Tarantino actually pushed the movie to win a rightfully deserved Prize of the Jury at the 2004 Cannes Festival, an ultimate seal of approval by one of the most iconic filmmakers of the past decade. Part of Park’s trilogy of revenge, Oldboy tells the story of Dae-Su, who is abducted and imprisoned in a hotel room, cut off from any human contact. After fifteen years of containment, he is released on a building’s roof without any explanations, which triggers a murderous quest for answers. The movie is a masterfully choreographed ballet of violence, in which hammers meet gangsters’ teeth and surprising revelations stack on retributions, all leading up to one of the most stunning finales in recent film history. Some praise the film for its outstanding cinematography, while others criticize Oldboy for its supposedly gratuitous use of violence, but no one can deny the audacity of the movie’s final revelation. Sublime in the elaboration of its plot and splendid in the way all its narrative elements connect up to the striking explanation of its ending, Oldboy is the flagship of a new generation of Asian movies that are not afraid to take risks. For that reason, it’s worth the two-hour runtime. And yes, that one-shot corridor fight was awesome.
THE ONE THAT PLAYS YOU FROM THE START
The Sixth Sense (1999), M. Night Shyamalan
In the case of mind-blowing movies, the best scenarios are usually the simplest ones. Efficacy often comes in the form of a simple, but effective final twist. The Sixth Sense is a perfect example: its plot is neither extravagant nor flashy in terms of on-screen action, but the simplistic plotline helps to generate an impactful ending. The Sixth Sense is the movie that propelled M. Night Shyamalan to stardom. The film is both moving and slow-paced, masterfully directed by one of the most controversial directors of the past two decades. The distinct atmosphere, soaked with melancholia, mystery and shades of horror, as well as its touching performances, all contribute to the movie’s success. However, the centerpiece of the film is the final twist; the gut-wrenching revelation provides an additional layer of depth and offers an entirely new perspective. While the movie would still be worth watching without that central element, the plot twist transforms The Sixth Sense into an iconic and memorable movie. If you ever get to watch the film for a second time, Shyamalan’s attention to detail proves quite satisfying.
THE ONE WITH ALL THE TWISTS
The Game (1997), David Fincher
Some movies hold their viewers to the edge of their seat during intense scenes. Well, The Game does so for its entire runtime. The Game stars Michael Douglas as Nicholas, a banker who participates in a real-life game for his birthday. The movie mimics a rollercoaster, in which bumps are replaced with plot twists and “the unexpected” waits just around the corner. The Game is definitely not the best movie of the list nor the most mind-blowing, but this film might be the most intense. The scenario’s peculiarity is the absence of idle time. Viewers can only helplessly witness as the game becomes increasingly extreme and personal, while David Fincher masterfully orchestrates each revelation behind-the-scenes and playfully turns the viewers’ assumptions on their heads. The movie’s ingenuity resides in its ability to make the viewers doubt the on-screen action, to a point where far-fetched theories might appear reasonable. Up until its last five minutes, The Game is a fascinating spectacle of frantic action and unbridled craziness, smartly rhythmed by a downpour of plot twists, which few movies have been able to replicate.