Welt am Draht (World on a Wire)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 dysotpian epic – originally produced for German television — imagines an artificial future where a supercomputer controls a group of identity units who are unaware their entire existence is fabricated. Eccentric echoes of Alphaville, Kubrickian visuals, and a compelling, paranoid, labyrinthine trail of vanishing memories and people underlines the Euro sci-fi gem.
David Lynch’s darkly sinuous tale of shifting identities and dream worlds is a tragic noir that hypnotizes. A disturbing glimpse behind the Hollywood façade reveals betrayal, desperation, obsession, and nostalgic daydreams that never come to pass. The memory loss narrative, which finds one woman’s identity melding with another, owes a great deal to Ingmar Bergman’s fractured film, Persona.
Memento isnt’ Christopher Nolan’s only alternate reality scenario, but the 2000 thriller was where the director’s abstract, filmic language — that mimics the way memories and identities are formed and function — really started to take shape. Parallel storylines — one that moves forward, the other back — puzzle a man who is unable to build new memories, but desperately tries to solve a murder. Nolan orchestrates an impressive and dramatic mystery that film noir enthusiasts can wholly appreciate.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry likes scrambling brains — his characters and ours. The Science of Sleep filmmaker (another movie that could have easily made our list) composes a uniquely visual story about love — frenzied, all-consuming, crazy love that is beautiful and devastating. A Philip K. Dick-esque corporation erases the memories of one couple’s relationship, but subconscious fragments start to return, a change of heart occurs, and the two are drawn together again. “I wanted to show how dreaming influences life,” Gondry said in a 2006 interview. “Emotion is what ties memory together. And since we feel very strong emotions in our dreams, they are recorded in our brain like proper memories and it’s very hard sometimes to differentiate them.”
A meditative fever dream, Tarkovsky’s 1972 film follows a group of scientists orbiting a remote planet. A heartbreaking story emerges when one man’s struggle with a crushing memory materializes aboard the ship. The emotional journey poses questions about perception, collective memory, and the unconscious depths we go to in order to cling to the past.
Terrifying beings control a nightmarish city devoid of sun where they stop time and toy with people’s memories and identity. They set their sights on a man with a unique gift who has forgotten his past. The endangered race of ghostly creatures race to imprint him with their collective memories so they can learn the secrets of humanity in Alex Proyas’ visually stunning fantasy.
Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes)
Skip the 2001 Tom Cruise remake Vanilla Sky and stick with Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 film about intersecting realities. After a handsome man survives a disfiguring accident he tries to regain his lost life, and we’re dramatically plunged into a bizarre and disturbing mystery. The dream anxiety thriller that manipulates memories is a gripping tale of twisted internal logic. The nod to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s César is a fitting touch.
Vietnam Vet Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) lives a reclusive life in New York City. Troubled by his divorce and the death of his young son, Jacob starts to see demonic faces everywhere. We quickly become immersed in his strange psychic stasis that seems to hover between life and death. The film quotes 14th century German mystic Meister Eckhart to explain Jacob’s fractured recollections:
“The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they’re not punishing you, they’re freeing your soul.”
Kathryn Bigelow depicts 1999 Los Angeles as a horrifying war zone where chaos reigns. A former cop-turned-memory racketeer peddles a virtual reality experience on the streets. The memories are recorded from real events rather than computerized ones, making them a most-wanted item for the ultimate experience. His hustle goes bad when he accidentally uncovers a criminal conspiracy, which may or may not involve those close to him. The movie’s gritty realism is a striking contrast to its alternate reality twist, making the events all the more intense as they unfold.
Chris Marker’s La Jetée emphasizes its fractured narrative about a time traveler haunted by an obsessive memory almost entirely in still photographs, insinuating the images are open to interpretation and reflecting the unreliability of remembrance. The stunning, 28 minute-long movie challenged genres and inspired other experimental story lines, including Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.