Sometimes you watch movies to be entertained. You pop in Bridesmaids (for the fifth time this month) because you just want a good laugh on a Friday night and can’t be bothered with movies serving up maze-like plots and putting M.C. Escher’s works to shame.
But sometimes you might be in the mood for something a little more challenging, something that’ll get your gears spinning. Films so complex and densely plotted you’ll watch them with hawk-like observation and Sherlock-levels of attention to detail. If you ever find yourself in that kind of mood, look no further. Below, we’ve compiled a list of mind-bending films available on Netflix that will really mess you up big time.
Mind you, we didn’t limit this list to the sci-fi genre. We’ve covered all the bases here for you. That’s because we know a film doesn’t have to throw dramatic twists and turns every minute to be called mind-bending. Take the quieter and more understated films here, for instance. Like I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Moon, and The Invitation. They actually aren’t mind-bending in the traditional sense. They don’t have a super intricate plot or a high-concept premise.
Rather, they keep building an atmosphere underneath that grows stranger and stranger the longer you watch. And by the end you’re grasping at straws; fascinated, intrigued, but desperately seeking for answers. Donnie Darko, for example, doesn’t explicitly invite you to decode its bizarreness. It’s simply bizarre in the ways that dreams are: fleeting, vague, unpredictable. What can be a more mind-bending experience than that?
So, without further ado, let’s get started with the mental gymnastics. Here we go:
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If there ever were a movie category called “WTF,” Donnie Darko would be at the top spot. Actually, let’s not kid ourselves — it’ll probably be alone up there. This box office bomb turned cult classic serves up one of the most tantalizingly eerie and mysterious experiences in cinema. It’s terrifying and strangely irresistible in equal measure.
A huge part of what makes Donnie Darko unsettling is its unreliable narrator. He may or may not be able to tell the real from the illusory. We follow Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), a sharp and charming high schooler who bores a dark and eccentric side. This persona is very scornful of others and ravishes at challenging the authority of the adults around him.
To make matters more creepy, he’s also recurrently visited by a six-foot rabbit named Frank. He looks less like a cute pet bunny and more a rag doll put through a threshing machine but miraculously survived. Frank often coaxes Donnie into doing terrible deeds, most of them juvenile but some downright dangerous.
All changes when Frank tells Donnie the world will end in less than a month. Sure enough, a jet aircraft engine comes crashing down Donnie’s room shortly thereafter. Which then leads him to think there might be more to Frank’s crazy talk after all.
You’ll be scratching your head after the first viewing. Then you’ll likely play it a second time immediately afterward. And perhaps even a third time after that. Here’s the thing: You probably won’t get what it’s about even after 25 repeat viewings, and that’s perfectly fine. “Getting it” is not even the point of Donnie Darko. You watch it to feel mesmerized, to keep unspooling its infinite enigma.
Director: Richard Kelly – Screenplay: Richard Kelly – Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell – Run Time: 1h 53m
In this 2009 sci-fi film by Duncan Jones starting a pre-Oscar Sam Rockwell, an astronaut miner is on a moon mission. He;s there to to extract the precious gas that apparently can remedy the energy crisis back at good ‘ol Earth. Sam Bell’s three-year contract is almost up until he makes a startling discovery.
There are liberal amounts of thriller elements at play here. Which ultimately turns Moon from a sci-fi rehash to a taut and tense psychological study on isolation. Unlike its cinematic forebears in the vein of Star Wars and Star Trek, Moon creates a bleaker vision of space.
The epic lightsaber battles are missing. So, too, are light-speed travels and elaborate spacecraft that blindingly zoom through galaxy after galaxy. Space in this scenario is a terrifying place to be in.
The film may not entirely make sense by the time you finish watching it, sure. But you’re nevertheless left grappling with a million questions. That is after you’re done poring over the little details of its breathtaking cinematography.
Director: Duncan Jones – Screenplay: Duncan Jones, Nathan Parker – Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott – Run Time: 1h 37m
After the sudden and very violent death of their best friend, a group of young men decide to reunite for a hike through the wilderness, but all hell breaks loose not too long after, and the men find themselves trapped in a whirlwind of psychological chaos.
That’s because the ancient Scandinavian woods they decided to infiltrate are actually home to a sinister deity that wants to drive them insane by forcing them to face their inner darkness.
The Ritual is a film potent with an unsettling atmosphere, as if tragedy awaits and could strike any minute. The film’s villain is so terrifying because it isn’t a lone figure, but an all-encompassing spectre of devilish danger that looms over the film’s entire run. Style, sound, and production design are all topnotch, making for a sophisticated yet still highly entertaining horror fest.
Director: David Bruckner – Screenplay: Joe Barton – Cast: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier – Run Time: 1h 34m
They Call Me Jeeg
A little-known Italian film that’s technically a superhero movie, They Call Me Jeeg splits its homages into two — the anime and manga series Steel Jeeg, plus the classic spaghetti western They Call Me Trinity.
Which is why its eccentricity is no surprise. You’ve got two of the farthest genres in the scope of cinema rolled into one film. What’s surprising, actually, is that it works very well. This stylish and inexplicably delightful mashup turns the superhero genre on its head in its telling of a lonely criminal who, after exposure to radioactive waste, gains superhuman strength.
If you’re squeamish with violence, do be aware that They Call Me Jeeg has plenty of it, and they’re very brutal, not to mention realistic. Certainly not the kind of epic brawls you see on Marvel and DC popcorn pleasers. Even still, you’ll have a heck of a time.
Director: Gabriele Mainetti – Screenplay: Nicola Guaglianone, Menotti – Cast: Claudio Santamaria, Luca Marinelli, Ilenia Pastorelli – Run Time: 1h 52m
Trust us, The Signal is one of the films where the less you know going in, the better. Stop reading now, pop this in your Netflix queue, and don’t look for any other information — you’ll thank us later. But if you’re stubborn and wish to know more, keep reading.
This dark and twisted story begins as a found footage thriller that follows two hackers trying to track a mysterious online presence. But soon after the film becomes something else entirely, more bizarre and increasingly disturbing, which starts as soon as the two are captured by a highly suspicious government agent.
The Signal is a fast-paced, paranoia-induced thriller-mystery powered by fantastic visuals and one of Laurence Fishburne’s finest performances of his career. By the end you’ll wish Hollywood made more like it instead of the usual sci-fi cookie-cutter fare. See also: Arrival, another film that ferociously subverts stereotypes of the genre.
Director: William Eubank – Screenplay: Carlyle Eubank, William Eubank, David Frigerio – Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp – Run Time: 1h 37m
One of the more recent films in this list, Psychokinesis is South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho’s follow-up to the immensely popular zombie thriller Train To Busan. This film was picked up by Netflix shortly after its successful commercial run, and it’s easy to see why audiences loved it.
Psychokinesis is a superhero tale, like They Call Me Jeeg elsewhere in this list, about a security guard who receives telekinetic superpowers after drinking water from a spring touched by a meteor. We follow a father who sets out to help his estranged daughter, at risk of losing everything.
Just like any superhero blockbuster, it’s got heapings of action in its DNA. However, Psychokinesis doesn’t just use them for brainless, high-octane eyecandy. At the core is a heartfelt story of connection, and possibly even love.
You’ll likely squirm at the initial violence. You might even find the pace quite uneven. But if you stay along for the ride, you’ll see it affectingly unravel its superhero genre and offer something more emotionally grounded.
Director: Sang-ho Yeon – Screenplay: Sang-ho Yeon – Cast: Seung-ryong Ryu, Eun-kyung Shim, Jung-min Park – Run Time: 1h 41m
The Cube Trilogy
Comprised by Cube in 1997, Cube 2: Hypercube in 2002, and finally Cube Zero in 2004, this trilogy is one of the finest, most taut psychological thrillers you will ever watch.
The first one, simply titled Cube, is what started it all. A gorgeous, minimalist thriller about a group of people who find themselves inside a room, then manage to escape, but devastatingly find out the situation is far worse that they had originally assumed.
We’re being vague on purpose here, because we encourage you experience its twists and turns for yourself, to let it unspool before your very eyes. We won’t say anything about the other two films that comprise this trilogy. But trust us, you’re going to have a blast. One of the best mind-bending films of all time.
Directors: Vincenzo Natali, Andrzej Sekuła, Ernie Barbarash – Screenplay: André Bijelic, Graeme Manson, Vincenzo Natali, Sean Hood, Ernie Barbarash – Cast: Various – Run Time: Various
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
Sick and tired of douchebags she sees in her daily life, Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) reaches her breaking point after her home is burglarized, which in turn sets her off to a path of vengeance. She enlists her martial arts nut neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood) and off they go to exact some much-deserved reparations.
But soon the duo suspects they bought off far more than they could chew, and Ruth and Tony finds themselves neck-deep in a world where they know practically nothing about. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is not just a plain revenge story but also a sharp examination of our worst assumptions about humanity.
The film makes caricatures out of Ruth and Tony initially, but the high-concept premise soon unfurls into a more subdued and tender portrait of realistic people just trying to navigate this cruel world without losing themselves along the way.
Director: Macon Blair – Screenplay: Macon Blair – Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Chris Doubek, Marilyn Faith Hickey – Run Time: 1h 33m
One of three TV series included in this list, Dark is a German-made slow-burn thriller slash sci-fi noir that’s both tense and terrifying. The whole story unspools via ten hour-long episodes, each excruciatingly horrific and leaves you wanting more.
A town in Germany faces the sudden and unexpected abduction of young boys who turn up dead years later. Or maybe years earlier. Something strange seethes the center of this dark and malevolently twisted series. If you love heapings of supernatural flavor in your thriller-mysteries, this one is right up your alley.
Season 1 debuted in 2018 to near-unanimous acclaim from critics and overwhelming enthusiasm from fans, pushing Netflix to greenlight a second season, for which release date has yet to be announced.
Creators: Baran bo Odar, Jantje Friese – Screenplay: Various – Cast: Oliver Masucci, Karoline Eichhorn, Jördis Triebel – Run Time: Around 1h
A truly mind-bending Netflix Original series. The OA immediately opens with an inexplicable resurrection: A young blind woman who’s been missing for seven years resurfaces, but now with the power of sight. Plus some strange scars on her back.
The return of Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling, also co-creator and co-writer) stuns everyone, and not too long after a group of misfits start orbiting around her mysterious persona, and she tells them the story of her abduction.
What a ride it is. The OA is so ambitious and so off-kilter that it’s sometimes hard to describe exactly what it is, and which genres it fits in. But that’s the beauty of challenging work: they escape simple categorization.
This series isn’t perfect (it calls its episodes “chapters,” bordering on pretentious), and at times its tendency to put unnecessary facades around certain details gives way to mystery that seems almost artificial.
But it is genuinely engrossing, has a big heart, and will leave you thinking for days after finishing the entire thing. A second season is in the works.
Creators: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling – Screenplay: Various – Cast: Brit Marling, Jason Isaacs, Scott Wilson – Run Time: Around 1h
Some shows portray dystopian futures with zombies, artificial intelligence gaining sentience, and intergalactic travel. Black Mirror just needs a smartphone to show you how damning the future could be, how society could end up too reliant on technology to the point where we lose what makes us human in the first place. In many regards, that is already happening.
In this anthology series — these are standalone episodes, meaning you can watch in any order — the future could be either one of these:
A mother who, so keen on protecting her daughter, monitors her every move using a highly advanced tablet hooked up wirelessly to the child’s brain; a reclusive programmer so bitter about not getting recognition from his colleagues at work he creates digital clones out of their DNA and takes them to Star Trek-like hijinks across a made-up world where he reigns supreme; a society in which people can record everything they see and play it back on command.
Obviously, what these episodes have in common is their bleak portrayals of the future — but what makes them truly terrifying is that they’re grounded in psychological fears that feel authentic, concerns very urgent in this day and age where most of our intimacies occur facing a screen. Whis is all to say Black Mirror’s portraits of dystopia seem only a few steps away from our real present.
The show is intelligent, thought-provoking, and comically sinister, a modern-day Twilight Zone. It takes on a prescient voice without in any way sounding preachy or didactic. It is, after all, called “Black Mirror,” which could be referring to us seeing dark and twisted reflections of ourselves in trying times.
Creator: Charlie Brooker – Screenplay: Various – Cast: Daniel Lapaine, Hannah John-Kamen, Michaela Coel – Run Time: Various
Under The Skin
One of the most acclaimed sci-fi films in recent memory, Under the Skin, by Jonathan Glazer, follows a woman of unknown origin (Scarlett Johansson) who takes to highways in search of dark men who are either lost, isolated, or forsaken.
She seduces them at first, and traps them entirely in her ethereal lair. Once she finishes stripping them of their humanity, these men are never heard from again. Adapted from the novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin waves a tale of fracture and experimentation, a dark, dizzying, but ultimately mesmerizing story of an entity who enjoys borrowed human skin a bit too much. One of the best mind-bending films you shouldn’t miss.
Director: Jonathan Glazer – Screenplay: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer, Milo Addica – Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay – Run Time: 1h 48m
Beware: Cloud Atlas is one of the densest, most confusing stories you’ll ever encounter. There are lots of characters here, plus layers and layers of story. But in some stroke of otherworldly magic, these stories come to be intertwined.
Eac action has a consequence in Cloud Atlas, affecting not only the future but also, consequently, the past and the present. Time here isn’t a line; it’s strands of entanglement telling a story of fate, connection, and humanity. In this life, a person is a hero. But in another life, a monster. A single act of kindness can bleed across centuries and even trigger a revolution in the future.
Made by the ever-reliable Tom Tykwer, Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski trio, Cloud Atlas is at times too confident about the coherence and singular purpose of all human life and experience. It often forgets there’s beauty, too, in the arbitrary and mundane. Raw and affecting, Cloud Atlas nevertheless creates a beautiful mythology of time, anchored in how we shape other people and how they shape us.
Director: Tom Tykwer, Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski – Screenplay: Tom Tykwer, Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Chris Lindsay – Cast: – Run Time: 2h 52m
ARQ tells the story of a young couple tasked to protect a revolutionary new energy source. Only they find themselves caught in a time loop where they go through a very hostile and violent home invasion on repeat. Together, they must come up with a plan to not only protect this energy source, but also escape the time loop.
Made by Tony Elliott and released on Netflix in 2016, ARQ was overlooked in its time but has since gained a small following. The post-release popularity is no surprise, given ARQ’s unique spin on tired old formula.
Although not as philosophically loaded as shane Carruth’s Primer, to which it bears a striking resemblance, ARQ is plain good fun; something you want to tune into if you want to a bit of challenge in one of your movie nights. There are far and away more dynamic movies about time traveling, but this one is still worth a watch just for the fun of it.
Director: Tony Elliott – Screenplay: Tony Elliott – Cast: Robbie Amell, Rachael Taylor, Shaun Benson – Run Time: 1h 28m
Before he made the deeply moving film about time called Arrival, Denis Villeneuve made a little-known picture called Enemy. It’s a surreal and hypnotic thriller that follows down-in-the-dumps history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal).
When he spots a look-alike in a movie, Adam decides to track him down. Upon meeting, their lives turn a crazy corner and find that they’ve become suddenly intertwined.
Enemy shines resplendent thanks to a fantastic performance by Gyllenhaal, who shows enormous range by evincing both tenderness and apprehension as he embodies two distinct personalities. As a whole, Enemy is a tautly weaved story that takes place in a bizarre but fascinating world which, while very much unlike our own, seems uncannily familiar still. From start to finish, you will be mesmerized by its imagery, astonished by its psychological underpinnings.
Director: Denis Villeneuve – Screenplay: Javier Gullón – Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon – Run Time: 1h 31m
There’s a young boy standing on a station platform as the train prepares to leave. Caught in the interlude between arrival and departure, he contemplates going with his mother or staying with his father. Either decision will ripple through time like a butterfly’s wings. But what if he doesn’t makes a choice?
Mr. Nobody is a loose tale of time travel, only here one travels around time, not through it. The premise seems silly and derivative of all that has come before, sure. But Mr Nobody, despite its nondescript title, still carries enormous heart. It is ridiculous and bordering on impossible even for film. But also at times profound and affecting.
You will likely hate its rough parts, and there are many of them. Still, you’ll be in a forgiving mood. Because, in spite of its delirium and scattershot imagery, it still manages to translate emotion clearly.
Director: Jaco Van Dormael – Screenplay: Jaco Van Dormael – Cast: Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger – Run Time: 2h 21m
The Discovery takes places in a future where there is an imbalance between life and death. Once Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) discovers the existence of an afterlife, dying promptly becomes just another chapter of life, not the bitter end. In turn, death loses its significance and impact. Death loses its inherent tragedy, and the hope of a vague afterlife comes in.
We follow Dr. Harbor’s son, Will (Jason Segel), who arrives at an isolated compound with Isla (Rooney Mara), a mysterious young woman with existential questions of her own. Much like the rest of the world chose to stay rather than “reset” their lives, Will and Isla are looking for meaning. What does life mean if there’s no death?
The Discovery starts off with an intriguing premise. It never quite reaches its potential, however. The existential dread drones on for far too long, stretching any hints of plot thin. Still, in its most affecting moments, the film shines. There’s a quiet confidence here. There’s an optimism that roots for life and its pursuit despite unanswerable questions.
Director: Charlie McDowell – Screenplay: Charlie McDowell, Justin Lader – Cast: Robert Redford, Mary Steenburgen, Brian McCarthy – Run Time: 1h 42m
As far as conventional psychological thrillers go, The Invitation is quite unlike any other. It manages to make you feel tense all throughout its first and second acts, for starters. But all thrillers do that. Only this film doesn’t give you any clue on what it’s about. You’ll be grasping at straws the entire time, and you’ll stay until the end for answers. Yes, even if it means having to sit through a bizarre but ultimately emotional story about grief.
We first follow Will (Logan Marshall-Green) who shows up to his ex-wife Eden’s (Tammy Blanchard) dinner party. Other friends eventually show up to join the soiree. But things start getting weird as soon as Will senses that the invitation has a hidden agenda.
The Invitation is not scary so much as it’s terrifyingly scant in its parsing of information. That’s the worst feeling — knowing so little but feeling so uncomfortable. In that regard, The Invitation is one of the most astonishing examples of the genre. With pitch-perfect pacing that sees conviviality evolve to utter terror.
Director: Karyn Kusama – Screenplay: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi – Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman – Run Time: 1h 40m
What Happened to Monday
Imagine you have six other identical sisters. Then imagine you’re in a future where overpopulation has triggered severe famine. So much so that governments enforce a strict “One Child Policy.”
That’s the premise behind What Happened To Monday, which follows the sisters, who are each named after each day of the week (Noomi Rapace plays them all). To skirt the government’s overpopulation policy, they take turns going outside depending on their names. One day, Monday doesn’t come back.
What follows is a clever thrill ride, and a wild cat-and-mouse chase with a heart. A loud but ultimately empty political aspect muddles the narrative rather than improve it, however. Even still, that blemish is forgivable in this almost-provocative apocalyptic setpiece. It’s not mind-bending in the traditional sense since it ties up all loose ends by the time credits roll.
Despite that, there’s plenty to enjoy in What Happened To Monday, including Rapace’s fantastic performance as all sisters.
Director: Tommy Wirkola – Screenplay: Max Botkin, Kerry Williamson – Cast: Noomi Rapace, Glenn Close, Willem Dafoe – Run Time: 2h 3m
We follow a grifter named Julia (Maika Monroe) in this violent and suspenseful mystery. Kidnapped as part of a hostile experiment, her only chance of escaping is Tau. The centerpiece of this film, Tau is an artificial intelligence Alex (Ed Skrein), Julia’s captor, developed.
Julia, displaying wit and cleverness in the face of peril, must use Tau to her advantage. That is if Tau is willing to cooperate.
A thriller with questionable narrative choices, Tau is rife with inconsistencies and a somewhat odd pace. That and an intriguing premise that never ends up particularly compelling. Still, it’s enjoyable for the elements it gets right, down to the AI and worldbuilding.
Director: Federico D’Alessandro – Screenplay: Noga Landau – Cast: Maika Monroe, Ed Skrein, Gary Oldman – Run Time: 1h 37m