Memory is a funny thing. It can be forgotten, manipulated, misinterpreted, misremembered—and for many reasons, including illness, drugs, surgery, experimentation, or downright malicious villainy.
Our memories are what make us who we are as people, so losing our memories is akin to losing who we are, where we've come from, what we've learned, and who we were on the path to becoming.
Here are some of the best movies that dive into the disturbed psyches of unreliable protagonists who have lost their memories in all kinds of ways to all kinds of effects.
12. Trance (2013)
Director Danny Boyle loves exploring the subconscious—whether that be the drug-induced nightmares of characters in Trainspotting or the starved hallucinations of Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. Trance may not be his most famous film, but it's still a great movie about the fragility of memory.
James McAvoy stars as Simon, an art auctioneer who steals a priceless Goya painting. Torture methods prove futile when his fellow thieves try to find out where he placed the masterpiece, given that Simon has lost all memory of it due to a head injury.
Simon turns to hypnotherapy in an effort to unlock his mind and uncover the location, but the door leads to more than he bargained for.
11. Click (2006)
Despite being a comedy movie, Click will punch you in the gut quite a few times—especially when everything catches up to Adam Sandler's character and makes him desperate to make amends.
It all begins when Michael Newman (played by Adam Sandler) gets fed up with his daily working life and meets a strange inventor who offers him a ticket out of the present: a time-controlling remote control.
This remote can fast-forward, pause, or even rewind life, meaning Michael can skip out on all the dull parts and focus on the good bits. However, the controller has a flash memory that acts on its own accord during the time periods that Michael ends up skipping over.
Director Frank Coraci renews our appreciation for life in a fun and light-hearted way, teaching us how invaluable our memories truly are.
10. Reminiscence (2021)
Hugh Jackman stars in the sci-fi thriller Reminiscence, directed by Lisa Joy. A dystopian Miami is half-flooded underwater after climate change wreaks havoc, forcing its residents to become night owls.
Private investigator Nick Bannister (played by Hugh Jackman) takes his clients on a journey to relive their fondest memories, which can quickly become addictive. But when one of his clients disappears, Nick tries to find answers in the hidden depths of his psyche.
Joy's neo-noir drama didn't do too great at the box office, but still features stunning neon-lit visuals and superb performances. The dangers of living in the past are put under the microscope, and Joy warns us how easy it is to get lost in your own mind.
9. 50 First Dates (2004)
Adam Sandler plays Henry Roth, a veterinarian who falls for a woman with anterograde amnesia, which means she loses all memory of the last 24 hours every time she goes to sleep.
Her father and brother do everything they can to recreate the same day and prevent Lucy (played by Drew Barrymore) from finding out about her disease. But when Henry decides to take her on first date after first date, they are forced to find a new way around it.
Set in the luscious tropical vibes of Hawaii, 50 First Dates is funny and uplifting, energized by Sandler and Barrymore's natural chemistry. Sort of like Groundhog Day, but with palm trees instead of snow storms.
Although Peter Segal's comedy might not be scientifically accurate to the neurology of amnesia, it does offer an inspiring allegory on the value of love and perseverance.
8. Before I Go to Sleep (2014)
Memory plays a key role in many investigations, as witnesses and victims rely on their experiences to track down perpetrators. In the case of Christine Lucas (played by Nicole Kidman), her inability to form new memories makes her unable to trust anything around her.
Following a car accident, Christine wakes up every day next to her husband—who is, to her, a stranger. As she makes progress through her personal therapy, scraps of memories begin returning to her... and eventually call into question the validity of her accident.
Mark Strong and Colin Firth also star in Rowan Joffé's psychological thriller, based on the 2011 novel by S. J. Watson. Tense, gritty, and well-acted, Before I Go to Sleep will have you second guessing every moment.
7. Total Recall (1990)
The year is 284. Construction worker Douglas Quaid (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) keeps dreaming of a visit to Mars. At least, he thinks it's a dream... but memories and dreams so often blur together.
As it turns out, Douglas' whole life is one huge false memory, implanted by the Rekall company. And they want him dead, which isn't great news.
Paul Verhoeven's classic 90s sci-fi thriller was an immediate mainstream hit. Filled with violent action, humor, and extravagance, Total Recall is perfect when you're in need of a little escapism.
If made to choose between the original and the 2012 remake by Len Wiseman starring Colin Farrell, make sure to choose this one!
6. Big Fish (2003)
Is there anything wrong with embellishing your memories with a little fantasy? Zesting up your past with some creepy witches and circus freaks? Well, Will Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor) thinks so, as he grows tired of his dad's ridiculous stories.
In Big Fish, father and son become estranged—but three years after Will's wedding, Edward Bloom (played by Albert Finney) is diagnosed with cancer. Will returns home to make amends, where Edward recounts his whimsical life story that blurs fiction with reality.
Giants and werewolves litter Ed's tales, which Will dissects to try and uncover the truth. But what he finds is that facts aren't always the point as much as the feelings and experiences behind them.
A charming father-son tale from Tim Burton, Big Fish imbues its one-of-a-kind world with wit, whimsy, and warmth.
5. Still Alice (2014)
Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's indie drama Still Alice was a critical success, bagging an Academy Award for Julianne Moore's portrayal of a professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Having only just turned 50, Alice's life is turned upside-down as her memories (her life, her identity) begin to fade. She leaves her phone in the freezer and doesn't recognize her own family—a harrowing experience for any individual, one that Still Alice tenderly relays.
Alec Baldwin plays her husband and Kristen Stewart her daughter, who must deal with the reality of Alice Howland's corrosive condition. Based on Lisa Genova's bestselling 2007 novel, Still Alice is beautifully told and gracefully performed.
4. The Girl on the Train (2016)
You know when you have a heavy night out and can't remember how you got home? Now imagine if you witnessed a murder during one such hazy drunken state?
Unbeknownst to her roommate, Rachel Watson (played by Emily Blunt) sips on her plastic bottle of vodka every day, aimlessly riding on trains instead of going to work. One day, she notices a girl go missing from one of the trackside houses.
The unreliability of Rachel Watson's memory means her testimony is ignored, so she takes it into her own hands to investigate—and becomes obsessed with solving the case, ignoring her own inner demons.
Tate Taylor's psychological thriller, based on Paula Hawkins' 2015 debut novel, was commended for its strong performances and gritty storyline.
3. The Father (2020)
What's brilliant (and unsteadying) about The Father is the way its cinematography plays on your mind, putting you in the shoes of protagonist Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins).
The aging father suffers from dementia, often forgetting his family and surroundings. At one point, he even believes his daughter is an imposter, which director Florian Zeller portrays in an inventive way on screen.
Viewers are dizzied by uncanny surroundings and plot holes, giving us just a taste of the horrors that dementia brings. Hopkins won an Oscar for his performance as the confused old man who yearns for nothing more than the simple pleasures of his own independence.
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
When the lonely and introverted Joel (played by Jim Carrey) learns that his ex-girlfriend had all her memories of him removed, he decides—on a whim—to do the same.
The Lacuna company offers this mind-altering procedure, but in the middle of the memory-wiping, Joel changes his mind. Lost in the whispers of his subconscious, Joel tries to hide Clementine (played by Kate Winslet) in the deepest vaults of his memory to avoid erasure.
Michel Gondry's surreal and poetic depiction of Joel's internal world is cleverly woven together, turning his mental landscape into a physical world. People and events glitch and blur together as Joel fights against the deletion of his memories, reminding us how precious our memories are to our identity—even the bad ones we'd rather forget.
1. Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan set out his trademark themes of time, memory, and crime pretty early on. Memento was the auteur's first major feature movie, praised for its skillful construction of the puzzle movie narrative.
Inspired by the 2001 short story written by his brother Jonathan Nolan, Memento follows the life of Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce), an amnesiac who covers his body in tattoos, which are clues in his ongoing investigation into the man who raped and murdered his wife.
Memento is told non-chronologically, forcing the viewer to engage and work things out for themselves. Say one thing about Nolan: he never treats his audience like they're stupid. And for this, we thank him.