Occasionally a movie comes along that burrows into your brain and stays with you long after you leave the theater. These are the types of movies that demand repeat viewings, frequent discussions, and in depth analysis. While many movies are content to just be disposable entertainment (and there’s nothing wrong with those movies in small doses), we here at Screen Rant occasionally want a movie that will really make us think.
We’ve put together a list of movies that stay with you long after the final credits roll. Some of the films on this list are speculative sci-fi, some are psychological thrillers, and some are just remarkably intelligent, well thought-out comedies or romances. Whatever the genre, these are the movies that left us scratching our heads (in a good way!) If you’re looking for a movie to discuss with your friends, this list is a great place to start. Here are 15 Movies That Really Will Make You Think.
15 Ex Machina
This fascinating little thriller from last year picked up some very positive buzz during its theatrical run, and went on to land a surprising win for Best Visual Effects in the 2015 Academy Awards. Ex Machina tells the story of a Caleb, a young computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a contest to visit the CEO (Oscar Isaac) of his company in his remote cabin in the woods. Once there, he learns he will be participating in a Turing Test administered by the CEO himself, to determine if Caleb can distinguish a new artificially intelligent robot (Alicia Vikander) from a real human.
This thriller plays it’s cards close to its chest. For most of the film, we can tell something is slightly off with the eccentric CEO and his bizarre test, but we’re not quite sure who to trust. The twisty plot and dialogue heavy script also raises fascinating questions dealing with what it means to be human, and the ethics of creating a “life”. The shocking ending leaves viewers questioning who was right all along, and what comes next for the characters. Written and directed by Sunshine scribe Alex Garland, Ex Machina is a thought provoking thriller you don’t want to miss.
14 The Fountain
Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain struggled to make it to theaters, then was met with a shrug when it finally arrived. Originally intended as a starring vehicle for Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, the film languished when the stars pulled out. Aronofsky replaced them with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, and slashed the $70 million budget down to a sparse $35 million. The film that was released may be just a shadow of it’s former self, but it still holds the power to captivate and perplex audiences.
The loose, rambling plot wanders over time and space, focusing on a conquistador searching for the Tree of Life, a doctor trying to save his wife from cancer, and an astronaut adrift in space and hallucinating. The different characters are all played by Weisz and Jackman, and it is just as insane and confusing as all of that sounds. But repeat viewings are extremely rewarding for viewers. There are lots of thematic elements to dive into and discuss, and the open-to-interpretation ending will leave you perplexed and wanting to dig deeper.
13 Shutter Island
Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo play two Federal Marshals assigned to investigate a disappearance on the titular island, an asylum for the criminally insane. This spooky, single location premise sets the stage for thrilling story twists and complex plotting. While the final twist does somewhat diminish what came before it, the brilliant storyline that precedes it is completely worth your time. DiCaprio is at the top of his game as a stranded Marshal questioning his sanity, and fantastic supporting turns from Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow heighten the paranoia and claustrophobia. Shutter Island is the type of movie you want to rewatch the second it’s over.
12 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
What if you had the ability to erase all past memories of a former lover? Would you do it? This is the question that Michel Gondry, using a script written by Charlie Kaufman seeks to answer. In the process, the film explores the idea of memory, love, and how we color past memories based on present experiences. These are fascinating and complex ideas for a romantic drama to tackle, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind weaves them together with a heartbreaking poignancy.
A remarkable and understated Jim Carrey plays Joel, a man who chooses to erase all memories of his former girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) after he learns that she’s undergone the same procedure. In the process however, he learns that maybe holding onto painful memories is part of being human. Kaufman’s nuanced and tender script honestly explores the highs and lows of being in love, with a sometimes uncomfortable frankness. The movie asks us what it means to be human and to be in love. We can’t ask much more from a romantic drama.
11 Stranger than Fiction
Stranger than Fiction has an immediately interesting and engaging premise: what if, one day, you started hearing a narrator recounting every event of your life, real time? Even worse, what if that narrator started predicting your quickly approaching death?
Will Ferrell stars as the man who begins to hear his own life’s narration, and sets out to break free of the path fate has chosen for him. It’s a deliciously clever idea for a film, and the movie pulls it off with an open-hearted sweetness that is impossible to not like. Ferrell’s scenes with his crush, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, are especially tender. Watching the movie, it’s hard not to begin thinking about your own life. Are you forging your own path, or are you simply going along with the path fate has laid out for you? These are heavy questions for a comedy to tackle, but director Marc Forster pulls it off with aplomb. This is a comedy that will make you think about your own life, and the story that’s being written about you.
10 Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky makes his second appearance on this list with Black Swan. This Oscar nominee stars Natalie Portman as a dedicated ballet dancer named Nina living in New York City, who begins to feel her reality crumbling around her as a rival dancer (Mila Kunis) joins her troupe.
Black Swan follows the conventions of many psychological thrillers, making us question the reliability of our protagonist as events around her become more and more surreal. But Darren Aronofsky never descends into cliche or self parody. The total control he displays over his story is impressive. Through skilled cinematography and tour-de-force performances from Portman and Kunis, we become totally invested in the Nina’s story. We experience the terrors that Nina experiences first hand, and like her, we question what’s real and what’s in her mind. In our eyes, Kunis’ character becomes more and more devious, and by the time we’ve reached the final ballet dance, our fears have culminated in a horrifying spectacle that literalizes the movie’s title. Aronofsky loves to allow his audiences to connect the dots on their own, and Black Swan absolutely leaves us doing just that.
9 Barton Fink
Barton Fink may contain one of the best final shots in cinematic history. For those who haven’t seen the Coen Brothers’ brilliant fourth film, we won’t spoil it here, but we will say that the shot remains in your mind for days afterwards.
Barton Fink follows the titular playwright (John Turturro) as he is sent to Hollywood to write his first screenplay. Once there, he meets his mysterious hotel neighbor, played by John Goodman. As with most Coen movies, things around Fink quickly devolve into absurd madness, leaving Fink and the audience questioning their own existence.
The Coens are masters of open-to-interpretation plots. You can argue for days about the “meaning” behind Inside Llewyn Davis, No Country for Old Men, or Miller’s Crossing. Barton Fink may be our favorite of theirs though. From the playful jabs at Hollywood culture, to the nightmarish, fiery hotel sequence, this movie shows two master filmmakers in complete and total control of their craft. Barton Fink is one movie that, once you’ve seen it, never truly leaves your mind.
8 2001: A Space Odyssey
One of the most famous thought-provoking movies ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey still holds the power to captivate and perplex viewers nearly fifty years after it’s initial release. The movie acts as a blank slate for Stanley Kubrick to project his insecurities, his musings, and his philosophies onto. Entire books have been written on the film. That’s how you know you’ve created a movie that really makes people think.
The now iconic opening scene featuring apes worshipping at the altar of a giant space monolith has acted as a cultural touchstone since the movie premiered in 1968. The movie then employs the most famous smash cut of all time, as we transition from a thrown bone to a space ship floating through the cosmos. In the harrowing third act, we join two astronauts as they attempt to reason with the terrifyingly logical onboard computer, HAL. The film climaxes in a trippy and surreal adventure through space and time. These disparate plot threads are interwoven together seamlessly. Thematic elements arise, leaving us pondering the universe and our place in it as humans. This is heady stuff, and it’s one of our favorite “thinky” movies ever made.
7 The Master
The Master, like most later Paul Thomas Anderson features, is a movie that almost dares you to like it. With The Master, the famously cerebral filmmaker offers a movie with almost no satisfying narrative tricks. Anderson almost defiantly refuses to conform to dramatic conventions. The result is a beautiful, messy, frustrating masterpiece.
Joaquin Phoenix turns in a career best performance as the animalistic Freddie Quell, a former soldier looking for purpose in his meandering, miserable life. Phillip Seymour Hoffman offers that purpose in his new cult/religion, where he takes Quell under his wing as a new convert/project. The movie really dives into the notion of religion, while never feeling preachy or judgemental. While supposedly based on L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, Anderson avoids specific criticisms, instead focusing on the relationship between two men. Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd complete each other in ways that go beyond merely teacher and student. The Master is a romance between two troubled, lost men. It’s a fascinating, complex, mysterious film that begs to be watched multiple times.
6 12 Monkeys
Movies dealing with time travel are always going to be thought provoking. The mechanics of time travel, and the physical ramifications of it, are so fascinating to humans that scientists have entire schools of thought on the theoretical ramifications of it. One of the most brilliant explorations of the results of time travel is Terry Gilliam’s deliriously trippy 1995 film, 12 Monkeys.
Bruce Willis stars as a convict who is chosen for a time travel mission sometime in the 2030s. The purpose of the mission is to gather information about a devastating plague that is released in the 1990s. Once back, he crosses paths with a manic mental patient played by Brad Pitt. The film really pushes the audience to question the merits of time travel, and examine the ramifications of twisting space and time in your own favor. Featuring one of Brad Pitt’s best performances, the film is an insane, trippy adventure through space and time. Ultimately, the movie reinforces the idea of fate and the unshakeable nature of time. There’s so much thought-provoking material to unpack in this film, a new series premiered on SyFy in 2015 to further dive into this fascinating universe.
5 Mulholland Drive
Mulholland Drive is infamous for it’s “thinkiness.” The movie is so dense and mysterious, director David Lynch even released a series of hints to help viewers unpack the film as they watch it. He has assured viewers that all the clues are there to unravel the mystery of the film, if they pay enough attention.
The “answer” to the movie is obviously less important than the journey of attempting to reach that answer. In that respect, Mulholland Drive is undisputably a classic. Director Lynch tells the story of recent LA transplant Betty (Naomi Watts) as her life descends into a nightmarish landscape. Lynch’s control over the camera keeps us grounded even as the events of the film become more bizarre and outlandish. The famous diner sequence is a masterclass in sustaining and releasing tension, resulting in one of the scariest moments in any movie, horror or otherwise. The brilliance of Mulholland Drive only reveals itself more and more upon each subsequent viewing. If you haven’t yet experienced this American classic, rent it as soon as possible, and prepare to ponder it for weeks afterward.
4 Being John Malkovich
It’s nothing short of a miracle that a movie as unflinchingly weird as Being John Malkovich was produced by a major studio and released into theaters. Spike Jonze’s singularly bizarre vision was made during a time of studio shake-ups in the late 90s, resulting in several offbeat and experimental films to be released, including David O. Russell’s Three Kings and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. While many of these films are now recognized as the classics they are, Jonze’s story of a sadsack loser who learns he can inhabit the body of actor John Malkovich stands out as one of the most unapologetically weird, cerebral movies ever released.
John Cusack stars as that sadsack loser, who finds a portal in a building that leads directly into John Malkovich’s head. This insane plot then leads to mistaken identities, morally questionable sex acts, and a surreal dream sequence. In the meantime, the movie explores the nature of celebrity, identity, and personality. It’s heady, brilliant, unwieldy stuff, and Jonze handles it with grace.
The third and last Darren Aronofsky feature on this list, Pi is a high point for Aronofsky in terms of cerebral weightiness. The fact that this is Aronofsky’s first feature film as a director is frankly astounding. The themes at play in this bizarre, surrealist movie are profound, and Aronofsky juggles them with the dexterity of a veteran filmmaker.
The loose plot follows a loner played by Sean Gullette as he attempts to unravel the mysteries surrounding the eternally fascinating number pi. His paranoia heightens as he is beset with government officials interrogating him about his research. The movie descends into black and white anarchy, resulting in some of the most grotesque imagery featured outside of a David Lynch film. Lynch is clearly a major influence on the young Aronofsky, and this black and white tribute to that famed filmmaker is a respectable, cerebral enterprise in its own right. After seeing the movie, you’ll never look at 3.14 again the same way.
Christopher Nolan is a polarizing filmmaker, but no one can say he’s not ambitious. With Memento, he attempted to tell a detective story starting from the middle and working it’s way to the beginning. That’s fairly complex for a relative newcomer filmmaker. The fact that the result is a gripping and engaging neo-noir thriller, let alone coherent at all, is astonishing.
The story follows the amnesiac Leonard (Guy Pierce) who is unable to generate new memories. He is on a mission to track down his wife’s killer, so he must tattoo the clues he learns on his own body. This high concept plot would be enough for most filmmakers, but Nolan also makes the bold choice to present the movie in non-linear fashion, to better replicate for the audience the sensation that Leonard must experience at all times. That is, short vignettes of scenes, told in reverse order, so that we never know exactly what is going on at the top of the scene, just like Leonard. This is an ambitious and clever concept that results in a shocking payoff. While Memento may not be perfect, it does invite lengthy analysis and discussion. Nolan is never content merely presenting a story to an audience. He forces us to engage with the film, and to draw our own conclusions. With Memento, he did just that.
Does anyone really understand Primer? One of the most notoriously complex and confusing films ever released, Primer is the quintessential example of a movie that really makes you think. It’s no surprise that Shane Carruth, the man who directed this independent feature on a palty $7,000 budget, holds a college degree in mathematics, and previously worked as an engineer. The screenplay shows an absolute refusal to talk down to the audience, speaking in realistic terms about lofty scientific concepts.
Carruth himself stars as a man who stumbles into an accidental means of time travel. The resulting story is told in non-linear fashion, making it nearly impossible to completely decipher the actual timeline of events. Watching it, you’re constantly wondering which timeline you’re in, and at what point in time the events before you are unfolding. None of this takes anything away from the enjoyment of the film, however. The movie is like a Rubix cube, begging to be rearranged and puzzled over. Audiences cannot watch Primer impassively. It requires full attention and deep analysis. And, if you have it, a degree in theoretical physics wouldn’t hurt either.
What are some of your favorite movies to puzzle over and discuss? Let us know your favorite movies that make you think in the comments below.