It goes without saying that movies can be a great source of escapism and entertainment, but sometimes the viewing experience can be a little more complicated. Psychological movies are those which leave you feeling embarrassed, confused and/or disturbed, lingering on your mind long after you’re finished watching them. That’s why we’ve decided to compile a list of the best psychological movies, to help you get to grips with all of the strangeness that cinema has to offer – starting right now.

What Makes a Movie ‘Psychological’?

Before we get into the list itself, it’s worth considering what makes a movie ‘psychological’ in the first place. Psychological movies present the viewer with unsettling themes, characters who struggle with mental health issues, and a sense of paranoia and dread throughout. Rather than presenting us with a clear conclusion, these movies can often leave us feeling as if we’re just scratching the surface – and that’s when we really know that the movie has been successful in what it set out to do.

The Greatest Psychological Movies of All Time

  1. Donnie Darko (2001)

Donnie Darko is one of the most iconic movies of the last 20 years, often referred to as a cult classic. Directed by Richard Kelly, the film tells the story of a troubled teenager who falls under the spell of a mysterious figure known as ‘Frank’, and it’s through Donnie’s journey that we gain a deeper understanding of the universe and our place in it. Donnie Darko is both visually impressive and mentally stimulating, as we’re asked to grapple with questions of science, religion and self-identity throughout the film.

  1. The Shining (1980)

As a horror film, The Shining is regarded as one of the greatest of all time. But it’s its psychological themes which make it so impactful, unsettling our expectations of what film can do. Adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Kubrick manages to make something truly terrifying out of what could’ve been a straightforward supernatural film. By manipulating our sense of time, space and reality as we know it, The Shining is a modern horror classic that leaves viewers uneasy long after the credits have rolled.

  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Like Donnie Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind presents us with a struggle between science and sentiment as its central theme. Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, the film follows its protagonists as they battle to come to terms with the idea of erasing a past relationship from memory, and its unpredictability makes for a thrilling yet emotionally harrowing ride for viewers.

  1. The Machinist (2004)

The Machinist tells the story of Trevor Reznik, an industrial-age machinist so obsessed with his own paranoia and guilt that it slowly starts to erode his sanity. Christian Bale gives a truly remarkable performance as Reznik, slowly slipping further and further into psychological despair. What makes The Machinist so memorable is its heavy use of dream sequences, employed to disorientate and confuse viewers, creating a sense of uncertainty that’s hard to shake.

  1. Mulholland Drive (2001)

Widely considered one of the best of its kind, Mulholland Drive is a film full of secrets and surprises. Directed by David Lynch, the movie follows two mysterious characters struggling to make sense of their place in Hollywood, but it’s the use of dream-like imagery throughout that keeps viewers guessing as to what it all means. Everything from the script to the soundtrack is designed to keep us guessing, and the end result is a classic movie which deserves its lofty reputation.

  1. The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense was the film that launched M. Night Shyamalan into superstardom, and it’s easy to see why. The film follows a haunted child psychologist who’s struggling to come to grips with the supernatural, blurring the lines between the physical and the metaphysical. What makes The Sixth Sense so memorable is its use of one of cinema’s oldest tropes, playing on viewers’ expectations and delivering a twist ending that’s genuinely unexpected.

  1. The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook is a psychological horror film with a difference. It follows single mother Amelia who, after being terrorised by a monster known as the ‘Babadook’, is pushed to the brink of insanity. Rather than simply being a horror movie, however, The Babadook is an insight into Amelia’s struggle with her own mental health, and how it affects her relationship with her son.

  1. Primer (2004)

Primer is a shining example of low-budget filmmaking at its finest. Written and directed by Shane Carruth, the film tells the story of two ambitious engineers who invent a machine that can travel through time, but the consequences of their experiment quickly prove to be more than they can handle. Primer is an exploration of scientific progress and its effects upon individuals, and its convoluted narrative has proved to be difficult for viewers to make sense of – so much so that it’s even been referred to as “the intellectual’s horror film”.

  1. American Psycho (2000)

American Psycho is another film that’s often referred to as a cult-classic, telling the story of financial executive Patrick Bateman and his descent into violent madness. Taken from the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, Mary Harron’s adaptation expertly blurs fantasy with reality, leaving viewers with the uneasy feeling that Bateman’s psychosis may well be a reflection of our own society. In doing so, the movie plays on our own fears and anxieties to great effect.

  1. The Viral Factor (2012)

The Viral Factor is a Hong Kong action-thriller directed by Dante Lam, focused on a biochemical threat to Hong Kong which only a duo of estranged brothers can stop. Both siblings struggle to come to terms with their relationship throughout the film, alongside the overwhelming burden of their mission, and the way the film builds towards its resolution is truly fascinating.

All of these movies offer us something a little different, allowing us to explore the depths of our own psychology as we try and make sense of what we see on-screen. Whether their stories leave us disturbed, confused or just thinking deeper about the complexities of life, these psychological movies sit nicely in the pantheon of cinema’s all-time greatest.