Best Mind-Bending Criterion Movies

by David MacDonald

Created 07/13/12

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There are plenty of warped perspectives on the world that are represented in the Criterion Collection; questions about Life and God and the Universe which raise eyebrows and set our minds to work unraveling what we've just seen. These are my favorites.

  • It starts out in one place and ends somewhere completely different, both literally and figuratively. A synopsis of Kiarostami's best piece to date (in my opinion) makes it sound as though it would alienate its viewers with the warped storyline and shifting characters, but the male/female archetypes are so universal that it instead becomes immediately accessible to anyone with a brain.

  • One of the most quoted lines from the movie is "Exterminate all rational thought," which should also double as advice for the viewers themselves, because going into this movie with any sort of expectations is just foolish.

  • Whatever you do, don't turn away from the movie screen.

  • A mixture of documentary, improvisation and Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," this might not seem like it fits in with the rest of the movies on this list at first, but watching it is certainly an experience both awesome and strange.

  • In my opinion, this is the lesser of Bruce Robinson's two Criterion movies. However, that's not to say it isn't brilliant. Full of beautiful prose, powerful acting and full-on insanity, this is the story of a man and his boil, and the epic struggle between them.

  • Another partial documentary, a slightly dramatized depiction of a true story acted out by most of the actual people it happened to, Abbas Kiarostami gives us a piece that's at once very confusing and thoroughly engrossing.

  • A surprising number of Terry Gilliam films deal very heavily with insanity or other forms of brain malfunction, and this is perhaps his best work on the subject. (SPOILERS) Set in a bleak English future where bureaucracy reigns supreme, one man tries to turn around and go against the current, and fails miserably.

  • These three films off of Robert Downey Sr.'s Eclipse set, when watched all at once without stopping, will cause temporary insanity.
    Babo 73 is the closest thing to a live-action political cartoon I've ever seen, with comical politicians stomping around and yelling obscenities at one another, giving preposterous speeches and crying out phrases about America full of both humor and truth.
    Chafed Elbows is a shockingly raunchy comedy told mostly in still photographs, made an even stranger experience by the fact that all the female characters are played by the same woman.
    Putney Swope is surely Downey Sr.'s masterpiece; the hilarious and endlessly watchable story of an advertising agency led by the title character. The ads (which are in color) are enjoyable to watch, even just by themselves, and the movie is full of entertaining asides thrown every which way.

  • One of Godard's best works, this movie meanders throughout the relationship between a man and a woman, not often making sense, but always having fun (the movie has fun, not the characters).

  • Christopher Nolan's first film, while not his best, acts as a harbinger of his later cerebral work such as Insomnia and Memento.

  • David Lynch really knows his head trips, and this one takes so many twists it's foolish to even try to keep track.


  • By Joseph Garza Medina
    July 13, 2012
    11:21 AM

    I didn't know you dug Godard. Good to know. Definitely loving that collection you've got going, btw.
    • By David MacDonald
      July 13, 2012
      11:24 AM

      Thanks dude, so am I. I'm not one of those Godard fanboys who drools over all his stuff, but I can get into most of his movies.
  • By Joseph Garza Medina
    July 18, 2012
    02:28 PM

    I'm not a Godard fanboy either, but he is among my four favorite directors.
  • By Craig J. Clark
    August 07, 2012
    10:26 AM

    Very surprised not to see Schizopolis on your list. As good as those Robert Downey Sr. films are, I would have sacrificed one (probably Putney Swope) to be able to include it. Another good candidate would be Bob Rafelson's Head.
    • By David MacDonald
      August 07, 2012
      01:48 PM

      Ah, see, I have yet to see Schizopolis. I do agree that head would be a good addition though.
  • By johndorman
    August 07, 2012
    09:04 PM

    How about anything Criterion has to offer from Lars von Trier? Picking any one of the three films of his would be better than half this list in my mind. Antichrist blows my mind every time I watch it, and The Element of Crime is just amazing, yet Europa has that crazy Max von Sydow voiceover that gets one every time, as well.
  • By Patrick
    August 13, 2012
    07:21 AM

    A mind-bending list with no Last Year at Marienbad?
  • By Manish M.
    October 18, 2012
    09:20 PM

    great list, looking forward to checking some of these out
  • By Mark
    July 15, 2013
    11:50 AM

    Theres a noticeable absence of "F For Fake" on this list. Otherwise, great choices!
    • By David MacDonald
      July 15, 2013
      01:52 PM

      That one's been on my list of things to watch for YEARS. I hope to get around to buying it during the B&N sale.