Happy birthday, Timothy Leary! The world’s premiere self-styled psychedelic guru and Richard Nixon’s “most dangerous man in America” (No, really; that was once the label used by Nixon to describe Leary) was born on October 22, 1920, and even if he didn’t live to see the wonderful transhumanist utopian future he’d always dreamed of — he died in 1996 — he did manage to inspire many to turn on, tune in and drop out… and, as a result, create a great many movies that could best be described as “better watched while in an altered state of mind.”
To that end, what better way to celebrate Leary than to offer up ten movies that promote the mindset that Elliott Smith once summed up as “a distorted reality is now a necessity to be free”? Maybe save these until you don’t have an early morning the next day, just in case, though.
Almost immediately, we veer from our own premise by admitting that Jan Švankmajer’s very, very loose version of Lewis Carroll’s original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland might be the kind of thing that could be terrifying if not watched entirely sober and straight. Then again, with its surreal and spooky mix of stop motion animation and live action, it’s possible that there’s no way this movie wouldn’t unsettle all in its path.
FUNNY GAMES (1997)
On the face of it, the story of a family held hostage by two sadistic visitors might sound like something more like a traditional horror flick, but the blurring between fiction and reality — and the way in which one of the characters in the movie seem to be talking directly to the viewer at times — make this a far less comfortable and straightforward experience than you might be expecting.
ENTER THE VOID (2009)
What happens after death? According to this French psychedelic noir — don’t worry, subtitle-phobes, it’s in English — you get to follow your own story via out-of-body experience, with the world becoming a very trippy place, at least in terms of visuals, thanks to some interesting camera techniques and additional CGI imagery. If this is what the afterlife looks like, prepare to be dazzled. And maybe a little nauseous.
MR. NOBODY (2009)
Time is meaningless — or, at least, surprisingly complicated and somewhat non-linear — in this sci-fi movie which follows the life (in fact, lives, seeing as we get to see the ones that didn’t really happen either) of the titular character, played by a surprisingly good Jared Leto. If you haven’t really thought about the narrative possibilities offered by the multiverse (which is to say, many parallel worlds all telling variations on the same story), then… this might come as a bit of a surprise, shall we say. Pay attention.
HOLY MOTORS (2012)
Abandon traditional thoughts about what a film should be like, all who enter here. For those thrown off by this purposefully obtuse, surreal cinematic outing — beloved by critics, of course; it was nominated for the Palme D'Or in Cannes, took plaudits at the LA Film Critics Association, Toronto Film Critics Association and Chicago International Film Festival — can always hold on for the sight of Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue, but otherwise… this is one wonderful, wonderfully-weird experience.
JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)
Spoilers: the title may or may not be true, which is emblematic of the way in which this sci-fi horror romp gleefully throws expectations about itself up in the air and dances around as the pieces fall. There are zombies, psychics, the best phantom limb joke you’ll have heard in awhile and all manner of other possibilities thrown at the viewer as a reminder that, as Leary’s old comrade in arms John Lennon once put it, nothing is real.
UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)
At once beautiful and deeply disturbing, Shane Carruth’s movie is an almost indefinable metaphor for… something that’s not entirely clear. Addiction? Parenthood? A love affair? Perhaps all three at different times, as a woman gets mind controlled and fed something that grows inside of her before birthing piglets, while being drawn to a man whose experiences curiously mirror hers in some inexplicable fashion. Of all the movies on this list, this might be the most of a mindfuck.
THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS (2013)
Another genre film — this time, a modern-day giallo, which is a particularly horrific subsection of the crime genre — that goes way beyond its parameters, this story of a missing woman and her husband’s attempts to find her ends up transforming into something wonderfully, gleefully nonsensical and disturbing.
THE DOUBLE (2013)
Recommended viewing for anyone and everyone who’s ever been convinced that they’re not living up to their own potential comes in the form of this paranoid dark comedy that introduces a meek Jesse Eisenberg to his more confident, gregarious and ultimately threatening colleague… who just so happens to look like him, sound like him, and even have a very similar name. Except that, of course, his colleague is better at everything.
THE ONE I LOVE (2014)
Much like The Double, Couples therapy takes a strange twist in this thriller that turns a weekend retreat into something that gets far more uncertain about the nature of identity and what makes us “us.” How can you work through differences with your spouse? Why, hang out with (and seduce) their doppleganger, of course.