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The most mind-bending films about memory

Strain your senses with a cinematic trip down memory lane with ten of the best mind-fucks on film

Nicole Kidman plays a woman whose memory is erased each night after a mysterious trauma, making her husband a stranger to her, in atmospheric thriller Before I Go to Sleep, out in the UK this week. From noir amnesiacs to poetic re-imaginings of the past, here are ten mind-bending films about memory.

MEMENTO (2000)

Anterograde amnesia – the inability to recall the recent past – is also central to Christopher Nolan’s tense psychological thriller. It’s structured like a non-linear puzzle, as we struggle along with Leonard (Guy Pearce) to work out the truth of the assault that left him in this condition and another dead with the help of his system of notes, Polaroids and tattoos.


A mysterious brunette with amnesia, who takes on the name “Rita” after seeing a poster for a Hayworth film, befriends a naive actress who’s just arrived in town in this surreal neo-noir of swooning phantasmagoria from maestro of weird David Lynch, which taps the dark side of the Hollywood dream.


Memories can be a burden during a break-up – but what if every one containing your former lover could be erased? In this high-concept, romantic sci-fi, penned by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, two exes (Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey) undergo an experimental procedure.

MIRROR (1975)

Childhood memories merge into hauntingly poetic, dreamlike visions in Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky’s loosely autobiographical stunner, to create some of cinema’s most awe-inspiring images, such as the boy’s mother – who works at a printing press – levitating above a bed, in a house in which it rains indoors.


Paul Verhoeven’s spectacular, violent take on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in his hey-day as a construction worker who visits a company to buy the fake memory of a vacation to Mars for implant – only to find out he’s not who he thinks he is, and time he’s actually spent on the red planet has been deleted from his mind. This leads to a bunch of prime Arnie-isms, such as: “If I’m not me then who the hell am I?!”


Guy Maddin’s charming, bizarre and irreverent vision of Winnipeg, which he calls a “docu-fantasia”, intertwines history and spurious “facts” about his hometown with his own memories. He even rented his childhood home, and enlisted actors to play his family. Darcy Fehr plays “Guy Maddin”, a man trying to “film his way out” of the city, which we’re told is the sleepwalking capital of the world, with all inhabitants carrying around the keys to their former homes in case they return while dreaming.


Israeli director Ari Folman’s strikingly innovative, nightmarishly hallucinatory animated doc, soundtracked by Max Richter, depicts his own search for his lost memories as a teenage soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War. He seeks out others who were in Beirut at the same time and speaks to a psychologist, stumbling upon realisations about his amnesia and the unresolved feelings of guilt it springs from.


“Calcium is in bones and stars alike,” we’re told in Patricio Guzman's innovative documentary. It turns to astronomy for transformative poetry to heal the historical amnesia resulting from the trauma of Pinochet's military dictatorship in Chile, which has left the skeletons of the disappeared buried in the Atacama desert, a place also favoured by astronomers due to the clearness of its skies.


Former Dazed Visionary and Thai auteur, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s thrillingly bizarre but contemplatively serene and magic-infused arthouse favourite, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, sees a dying man in his forest home sift through his memories and face visitations from the deceased in various forms – including his long-lost son, now with glowing red eyes and looking not dissimilar to Chewbacca.


If all these subjectivity-benders are straining your senses, hit up director Susan Seidelman’s screwball comedy for some light retro lols. Madonna at her ‘80s most iconic plays a street-smart hustler who becomes a target of fascination for a bored suburban housewife (Rosanna Arquette), embroiling them both in a mix-up over stolen Egyptian earrings compounded by amnesia from a knock on the head.