What to watch week 2 of fall quarter: Puzzle films

Oct. 6, 2022, 9:28 p.m.

Welcome to “What to Watch,” a column dedicated to movie recommendations generated specifically for each week of the quarter. Every week of the quarter has a distinct feeling, from the adjustment period of Week 1 to the chaos of Week 10. This column seeks to explore those sentiments and to provide well-timed movie recommendations to push you through the quarter and past the Finals Week finish line.

Week 2 brings a unique soundscape to campus. Bubbling fountains filled with equally bubbly frosh, the screech of bike brakes in a packed quad and the babble of students who still have the motivation to go to lecture.

This week is for ignorance, questionable optimism and disregarding the impending doom of Week 3 midterms. With the calm before the academic storm and the last glimmers of that foreign concept called “free time,” you may be wondering: What should I watch this weekend? 

Given the higher-than-average attention spans and slightly less severe burnout that you can only really find at the beginning of the quarter, this week’s focus is on a style of film meant to challenge the brain: Puzzle films.

We are all familiar with the typical three-part story consisting of a beginning, middle and end. “Puzzle films” are aware of this order and decide to challenge it. A puzzle film may open with a story’s ending or throw a viewer directly into the deep end of the middle. As Christopher Nolan, a puzzle film specialist explains, films are all about “finding the most suitable order for releasing information to the audience,” which is not always chronological.

Puzzle films can be difficult to grasp. At least for me, they often end in hours-long sessions of watching “[movie title] Explained” YouTube videos. But if you’re looking for an intellectual challenge this weekend, or maybe just a chance to bond through a united feeling of confusion with a new group of friends, these films are made for you.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) Directed by Michel Gondry

Watching “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” feels like someone reaching into your ribcage and holding your heart in their hands — a strange kind of painful comfort. The film weaves the audience through the relationship and separation of Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), constructing an oneiric tapestry of love and loss. In this film’s universe, willing customers can undergo a medical procedure to have their memories of someone erased. After receiving news that Clementine has erased her memories of Joel and their relationship, Joel decides to undergo the same procedure and the film forces us to watch the astonishing and aching experience of intensely remembering before slowly forgetting someone that you once loved.

This sci-fi romance feels like a more angsty episode of Black Mirror with commentary on the role scientific technology plays in our personal lives and musings on the construction of memory and human connection. The direction and cinematography additionally contribute to the illusionary and fever dream-esque sensation of the film.

Director Michel Gondry gained his footing in the industry as a music video director. The visual creativity and image manipulation techniques he developed in these shorter-form projects were put on glorious display in this feature-length film. Gondry even requested only using natural light instead of artificial light for the shoot, which cinematographer Ellen Kuras was able to achieve (for the most part), creating an even more honest and unadulterated feel to the movie. 

Through its deft handling of the interplay between devotion and manipulation, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” asks us where the line is in relationships between destiny and outright human error, ultimately helping us to reflect on our past memories in order to step into future ones.

“Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) Directed by Danny Boyle

I was first introduced to “Slumdog Millionaire” when I was in elementary school. Looking back, I am not certain what my parents were thinking when they chose this film as our wholesome Friday night family movie. What I do know, however, is that since watching the film I have not been able to stop thinking about it. “Slumdog Millionaire” is a package of violence and repulsion all tied up with a ribbon of deep tenderness that is hard to look away from. It leaves you thinking about the moments in your life previously deemed insignificant and the value of persistence in a world seemingly built to knock you down.

Set during an episode of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” half of the film centers on Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) as he consistently answers each trivia question correctly. The other half of the film tracks Jamal from childhood to adolescence and the interactions he has with both the physical world around him and the people in it. The plot is structured on the interplay of these two storylines. For every question that Jamal answers correctly, the film displays a scene from his childhood explaining where he learned the answer to that question. Both the host of the show and authorities do not believe someone with a socioeconomic background like Jamal would be able to answer these questions correctly, and we learn along with these figures whether Jamal is cheating or “winning this show is simply his destiny.”

This jumbled timeline allows a viewer to see the similarities and differences between Jamal in all of his different ages and stages of growth. There is a clear evolution of his personality and judgment, reminding us all that we still have our own long paths of personal development ahead.

“Memento” (2001) Directed by Christopher Nolan

“Memento” is a classic puzzle film premised on a mystery and told in reverse chronological order. It is the second feature film from Christopher Nolan — a director and screenwriter known for his mind-boggling and unconventional film style. The protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffers from an intense form of memory loss, consistently forgetting events that happened mere moments ago. In the wake of his wife’s murder, Leonard seeks to find the killer, an obviously difficult task given his limited knowledge about the murder itself and his inability to retain the knowledge that he does ultimately gain.

Leonard meets many different people throughout the film but none of his relationship histories are clear. A seemingly new character to the audience may be a character Leonard has known for years but because of his condition, we meet ever single character for the “first” time right along with him.

Every scene of the film is overflowing with deceit, mysterious motivations and uncertainty. Without trust in his own brain, Leonard’s passionate hunt for justice leads to an unpredictable whirlwind of events. Each viewer will begin to naturally form their own assumptions about who can or cannot be trusted, screaming at the screen in terror or encouragement as Leonard makes his own guesses about each character’s dependability. Every scene contains new information, new suspects and new predictions, making the truth a gleaming bounty that can only be won by sticking with Leonard all the way to the extraordinary end

Honorable Mentions:

“Knives Out” (Rian Johnson, 2019): The sequel comes out this year!

“Tenet” (Christopher Nolan, 2020): You will end up watching this multiple times)

“Pulp Fiction” (Quentin Tarantino, 1994): Classic

“Fight Club” (David Fincher, 1999): Mind-bending critique on masculinity

“Minority Report” (Steven Spielberg, 2002): Tom Cruise action movie

“In the Mood for Love” (Wong Kar-wai, 2001): Extreme melancholy

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

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