LOS ANGELES—"Inception" is about dreams, and dreams within dreams. It's about plundering the subconscious for secrets and, perhaps, planting a few ideas there, as well.
But writer-director Christopher Nolan has done so much more than just recreate the sensation of what happens when we fall asleep. He's built a complete and complicated world, one that constantly shakes you up and makes you work -- makes you stop every once in a while to find your bearings. In a good way.
It's the most superbly crafted mind trip, and it follows a great tradition of challenging, innovative films.
We're not talking about movies with a twist like, oh, Bruce Willis is actually dead or Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are really the same person or Jaye Davidson has a penis. That's a whole 'nother discussion for another time. No, these are films that ask you to free your mind, and the rest will follow. Hopefully.
-- "The Matrix" (1999): The first one, that is, and not the inferior, back-to-back sequels. This clearly influenced Nolan, with its depiction of an alternate reality in which characters can drop in together and interact with each other -- a place where the usual rules of time and space don't apply. This futuristic action thriller was just hugely cool and, in retrospect, so influential, from the "bullet time" effect to the bold, S&M-style wardrobe aesthetic. Despite drawing from various religious and mystical sources, the Wachowski Brothers truly created their own original world here.
-- "Mulholland Dr." (2001): It could all be a dream. That's one way to interpret it. David Lynch will never tell you what his movie is about, of course, and that's what makes him -- and his work -- simultaneously intriguing and maddening. Disarming visuals, shocking imagery, cryptic proclamations -- they're all there, and they require repeated viewing, and even then "Mulholland Dr." may not make sense. Here's what's certain: Naomi Watts gave a star-making performance in two different roles in this Hollywood mystery, and a haunting feeling will linger with you long afterward.
-- "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968): Vintage Stanley Kubrick: visually striking, mentally baffling, artistically unlike anything else. The questions it raises may never be answered, and that's part of the film's beauty. This much we know: There's a monolith, and HAL 9000 won't open the pod bay doors for Dave, but he will sing "Daisy." Still, it's duly one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made -- at once enormous and intimate, balletic and even melancholy. As a bold piece of filmmaking, it's very much of its time, yet it still grabs hold of its audience just as ferociously as ever today.
-- "Being John Malkovich" (1999): Really, you could list any movie Charlie Kaufman's written here. Many would choose the wistful "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," with its vivid, dreamlike imagery. Others love the sprawling, existential "Synecdoche, New York." But this was Kaufman's first, and it's my favorite of his. Merely the idea of entering a portal that takes you inside Malkovich's mind is inspired in itself. It's where Kaufman and director Spike Jonze go with this concept -- an absurd exploration of love and identity -- that makes this movie so irresistible and strangely sweet.
-- "Memento" (2000): And now we're back to Nolan again, and the movie that put him on the map. With its screenplay-in-reverse (which Nolan co-wrote with brother Jonathan), this was an early indicator of the kind of intricate, intelligent puzzle-building that would become one of Nolan's trademarks. Like "Inception," "Memento" makes you work. But watching it unfold is a thrill as Guy Pearce pieces together his past through notes and tattoos to hunt down his wife's killer. You could analyze it to death to see if it holds together (it does) or you could just go with it and enjoy having him toy with you.
Think of any other examples? Share them with AP Movie Critic Christy Lemire through Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/christylemire.