There’s a phrase I’ve been using called “intellectually arousing.” It’s rather difficult to get people to actually discuss this term with people because they just hear the last part and loudly muttering to themselves, “pervert.” I can hear you. However, this is nowhere near a bad thing.
These are the types of movies that work your brain during its entire duration and it doesn’t feel like schoolwork. These types of movies are like a puzzle. Typically puzzles are solved by tangibly working through it. Either you are filling in 3-across or you’re finishing up the edge pieces as you work your way into the middle. In those puzzles, you play by your own time and can movie things to your liking. Films are not like that. You play by their schedule and they give you the pieces at their own liking.
There is the kind of intellectually arousing movies that challenge you just to figure out what is going on with the plot. Christopher Nolan has developed a specialty of creating these types of movies. Memento blew people away when it first came out because it was such a unique concept. This was a mystery movie that had one timeline that went backwards in time and one timeline that was a flashback moving forward in time. Revenge is worked out at the beginning of the film, but the mystery still continues. With every scene, the audience needs to work out where it places in the timeline, where the information came from and what this all means. There is no time to zone out during Memento and that is what makes it exciting.
Nolan continued to shock and surprise people with The Prestige and The Dark Knight. His latest film, Inception, blows all of those out of the water in terms of creative complexity. The film is full of invention, but one of the real reasons why it challenges the audience is because Nolan does not fall back on regular story structure. Memento is an obvious example, but The Dark Knight caught a lot of people off guard when The Joker unveiled his boat plot near the end of the movie. With Inception, there are no typical antagonists and not even the usual level of stakes. Every moment of that movie requires full cerebral attention and that is the kind of movie I love. Its lack of cheap storytelling shortcuts and unpredictable nature makes for some of the best film experiences.
Yet films can also intellectually inspire without having challenging plots. It’s how the film was made and what the film is trying to say that leaves your brain racing afterwards. The first time I felt that was after the movie Blow-Up. This is the beloved Michelangelo Antonioni film that depicted the swinging social life of England during the 1960s. Its plot is often secondary to the feel of the movie, but it still teases at something more beyond the surface. This was an effective use of metaphor in film. Having a director tell you afterwards “Did you catch that his car keys was a metaphor for the War in Iraq?!?!” is ineffective and silly. Metaphor works when it services the story but also stirs discussions hours after the movie ends. Movies like Barton Fink and The Fountain also created this type of dissection.
Whenever I pick apart a bad film and mock its plotholes, dialog, or just overall execution, I occasionally get criticized for thinking too much about a film. I think too much about films because I love films. Some of my favorite films are the ones I can watch again and again and “pick apart” new and exciting layers to it. Sometimes it’s finding nuances in the screenplay like Kicking and Screaming or maybe it’s finally noting that behind the desk of the doctor of the Mayo Clynic in Airplane! are dozens of jars of mayonnaise.
If you turn your brain off during a movie then you are excusing it for its shortcomings. Those are the movies that will be forgotten, but these intellectually arousing ones are the films that will positively last for years and years. Those are the ones that make me love the cinema.
So what other films turn your brain on?