Movies That Defy The Limits of Human Understanding

Movie set clapper
Movie set clapper | Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Sophia White

Though a relatively new medium, films have the ability to fill us with wonder like no other art form. Their combination of scripting and cinematography arguably makes for the most immersive of cultural experiences. They put audiences through the full range of emotions. But some films go beyond this: they stick with you long after, due in part to the difficulty in understanding them. Here are some films that really test the limits of comprehension.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Generally in life, the concept or element that human beings have the toughest time understanding is space and the universe at large. There has recently been somewhat of a resurgence in the popularity of films which take place in space, such as Gravity, Interstellar, and, more loosely, The Force Awakens. Written by acclaimed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and famed director Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey has long since gained the reputation as one of the finest films ever made. It deals with themes around existentialism, human evolution, artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life and human evolution. A film to make you feel small by making space seem so wondrous.

DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2010)
Scientists are very practical people, as is evidenced by the title of DMT: The Spirit Molecule, a film about dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT is a molecule which is found in nearly every living organism and is considered to be the most potent psychedelic on earth. Here, filmmaker Mike Schultz, using the book of the same name by Rick Strassman, delves into the long-obscured mystery of the molecule. Those who have taken it have supposedly been prone to being affected by features of religious experiences, visions, disembodied consciousness, and feelings of overwhelming significance – all from something that is within us all. A film, and research, that makes us question feelings and makes us want to learn more about the science behind everything.

Herzog intro for FATA MORGANA

Fata Morgana (1971)

Any number of Werner Herzog films could really feature on this list. The prolific filmmaker often creates motion pictures that make us question his subjects, and his famous voice-over adds many layers of gravitas to seemingly innocuous things. Fata Morganais one of Herzog’s more hypnotic films. It was shot in 1969, when Herzog traveled to the Sahara to capture images of mirages in the vast desert. The film largely consists of long, ethereal tracking shots, accompanied only by a spoken narration of the Mayan creation myth and songs by Leonard Cohen. Mesmerizing; a film that meditates on truth and reality.

I Heart Hucakbees (2004)

Quite an unexpected film from David O. Russell, who later gained success with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbookand American Hustle, and first-time feature writer Jeff Baena, who would later write the critically panned Life After Beth. I Heart Huckabeesis one of the great philosophical films of this century, and it feels like a film that you could still mine new things from after hundreds of watches. The film follows a husband and wife team who work as existential detectives, hired by people who are looking to have the meaning of their lives investigated. It is an extremely elaborate concept that demands great thought, but is both entertaining and rewarding.

I Heart Huckabees

Ikiru (1952)

Ikiru was partly inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and indeed there are similar strands surrounding morality which run through both works. The film follows a bureaucrat, played by acclaimed actor Takashi Shimura, as he tries to find the meaning of his life after he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Our own mortality is something that we all struggle to come to terms with, and this beautiful, epic film raises a lot of issues that we would normally find too difficult to face up to. A timeless film that moves audiences, makes them think, and is eternally resonant.


Love, Reality and the Time of Transition (2011)

A global development movie which encapsulates an impressively wide range of concepts that affect us in modern life. The topics that are investigated include the nature of love, relationships, the New Age movement, reality-creation, quantum physics, objectivity, and subjectivity. It then goes on to look at how these broad themes relate to conspiracy theories, psychopathy and the importance of self-work. While there is a lot to cover, Love, Reality and the Time of Transition is an inspirational, thought-provoking and positive piece that is both engaging and overwhelming. The music also complements the many themes that are explored in the just-under-two-hour run time, creating an environment for the viewer to really engage with the material: the many facets of modern thinking.

Sans Soleil (1983)

Many documentaries seek to be unique, to have an impact on the viewer in ways that are different to simply hitting them over the head with voice-over, presenters or talking heads. As far as experimental documentaries go, few even come close to the brilliance of

Sans Soleil. It is part-travelogue, part-philosophical discourse, with director Chris Marker taking the viewer on a meditative journey through the nature of human memory and thus how perceptions of personal and global histories can be affected. It consists of thoughts, images and scenes which were predominantly shot in Japan and Guinea-Bissau, far from our normal western comfort zone. A film that blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and makes the viewer question their own perception of each.

Synedoche New York (2008)

Like Werner Herzog, several of Charlie Kaufman‘s films could have been included on this list. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all cover several of the writer’s trademarks, showcasing a sense of fantasy in the real world and dealing with themes around identity and reality. Synedoche, New York, one of Kaufman’s later efforts, and his directorial debut, takes all that he learned from his other films and creates something that is incredibly captivating and is regarded by some critics as one of the best films of the 2000s. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director who works on an increasingly elaborate stage production which begins to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. There are a number of motifs that appear throughout the film, and when explored it is an incredibly challenging work. A film that makes you question, in addition to life, the art of theater and fiction.

The Tree Of Life (2011)

The Tree Of Life is sure to go down as Terrence Malick‘s masterpiece. As with many films that make audiences think, or are indeed possibly too difficult to understand at first watch, the film was initially met with polarized feedback, though it has since been generally declared a masterpiece. Following a middle-aged man in Waco, Texas, the film chronicles the origins and meaning of life. It is an experimental drama film, with linear storytelling being replaced by time jumps, and imagery of the origins of the universe and the inception of life on earth. The cinematography is also among the finest ever produced, and it is this which really adds an extra dimension to the film and makes it stick with the audience long after they have left the theater.

Under The Skin (2013)

What would human life look like to an alien? How would humans interact with an alien? How would an alien survive on earth? On the outset, this is possibly how you would explain the main questions and themes that are raised in Under The Skin, one of the last decade’s finest films. Scarlett Johannson plays an alien – or, visually more accurately, an enigmatic woman – who travels around Scotland and begins to seduce different strangers. The film is highly evocative, with music and set design determining much of the mood, and many scenes being improvised and filmed covertly. Here is a film that showcases a journey of discovery and puts a magnifying glass to the strangeness of much of our daily lives.

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