10 Best Existentialist Movies That Will Make You Reassess Life
Films have a kind of power that few other art forms possess. They can make you laugh, cry, bite your nails in suspense, or look away in fear. And sometimes a few very special films can present you with fascinating themes that will make you re-evaluate the way you think about life itself.
Existentialist cinema has been around for a while, and if done right, these kinds of films can be the ones that will stay with you forever; those who leave you a message that leads you to live life in a different way.
Loneliness and Despair in the 21st Century – ‘Anomalisa’ (2015)
Writer-director Charlie Kaufman has existentialist themes in nearly every one of his films, but rarely as strongly as in Anomalisedthe story of a middle-aged man named Michael (David Thewlis) who struggles to bridge the gap between self and other. He hears everyone in the same voice (Tom Nounan), until a single woman voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh come into his life.
A stop-motion adult drama full of Kaufman’s signature surreal idiosyncrasies, Anomalised is a film about loneliness, the difficulty of connecting with others and the crushing weight of subjectivity.
What if you are being watched? – “The Truman Show” (1998)
Everyone remembers their first existential crisis, that weird moment when they started wondering if there was more to life than they first thought. In The Truman ShowTruman Burbank (played by jim carrey in one of his greatest works) has a whole different kind of meltdown as he begins to discover that for his entire life he has been unknowingly the star of a reality show.
In this beautiful coming-of-age, audiences grow and mature with Truman, reflecting on themes like free will, the mundanity of everyday life, and the importance of throwing oneself into the madness of the outside world.
A Cinematic Expression of Modern Existentialism – ‘Ikiru’ (1952)
legendary director Akira Kurosawaone of Japan’s greatest filmmakers, was no stranger to existentialist themes in his films, but few are as life changing as Ikiru (meaning “to live”), a film about a bureaucrat trying to find the meaning of life after discovering that he is dying of cancer.
Besides being absolutely heartbreaking and yet beautifully life-affirming, the film is a moving contemplation of mortality and a reaffirmation that one’s life has the meaning one wants it to have.
An Artist’s Obsession With Themselves – ‘8½’ (1963)
Wonderfully made by Federico Felliniperhaps the greatest Italian filmmaker in history, 8½ sees a director played by Marcello Mastroianni creatively barren at the height of his career, seeking refuge in his memories and fantasies.
Dynamic, visually stunning, incredibly meta and often surreal, the film has been called “the best film ever made about cinema” by renowned critic Roger Ebert. It’s about art, fractured consciousness and what makes life worth living.
Rebuilding Life in the Face of Death – ‘Wild Strawberries’ (1957)
swedish director Ingmar Bergman is known for dealing sensitively and poignantly with dark existentialist themes that most filmmakers dare not touch. Wild strawberriesone of his best works, sees an elderly professor confronting the emptiness of his existence after leading a life of coldness and apathy.
The film beautifully depicts the pain of loneliness and the path taken to correct one’s mistakes. It reminds viewers of the finer things in life and the importance of spiritual growth.
What does it mean to be a person? – “Solaris” (1972)
Andrei Tarkovskyone of cinema’s greatest poets and philosophers, has delved deep into what it means to be human throughout his entire filmography, but rarely with so much emphasis on existentialism as in Solarisa sci-fi film about a psychologist sent to a space station orbiting a mysterious planet to find out what drives his crew crazy.
One of Tarkovsky’s most complex and thematically rich works, Solaris deals with philosophy and love as one and the same thing: love makes us more human, philosophy too. The film celebrates life and nature and questions whether existence is possible without human interaction.
The Universe is Bigger Than You Think – “Everything Everywhere At Once” (2022)
Multiverses are the new big thing these days; and in the midst of this new sensation, the Daniels Everything everywhere all at once came out of. An endlessly complex and ambitious sci-fi drama, the film features a middle-aged Chinese immigrant (michelle yeo) on a mission to save reality by connecting with the lives she might have led in other universes.
The film tackles countless complex themes like nihilism, love, generational trauma, and parenthood, to name a few. It’s hilarious, it’s incredibly moving, and it’s deeply thought-provoking. The film argues that if we’re already here in this massive, insane world, we might as well face it with kindness and positivity.
The Nature of Being – ‘Synecdoche, New York’ (2008)
Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut may well be his most ambitious work to date. In Synecdoche, New Yorka theater director (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the best acting performances of the 2000s) struggles with his work and the people in his life as he attempts to create a life-size replica of New York City as part of his new play.
The film presents the heartbreaking failure to capture life in its entirety through art. Infinitely complex and analyzable, Kaufman’s masterpiece shows the poignant relationship between life and death, and how inherently human it is to want to leave a legacy.
When Faith Vanishes – ‘Stalker’ (1979)
Inside the world of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpiece stalker, faith has disappeared and people no longer believe in anything. In this spiritually barren environment, a man guides a writer and a professor through an area known as the Zone, in search of a room that fulfills his deepest desire.
In this film, Tarkovsky portrays the importance of validation and human relationships. It is a celebration of philosophy and the arduous but ultimately rewarding path to spirituality and transcendence.
The Ultimate Journey – “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
Stanley Kubrick is considered by many to be the greatest filmmaker in history; and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is also widely considered his finest work, it’s not hard to see why. In this two and a half hour sci-fi epic, humanity finds a mysterious object buried in the Moon and sets out to find its origin using the world’s most advanced computer, HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain).
With a minimum of dialogue, 2001 tells a compelling story that spans millennia. It is a daunting but also inspiring assessment of the human condition in relation to the infinity of time and space. Kubrick reminds us that in the grand scheme of things, we still have a long way to go to awaken our minds and consciousness.
KEEP READING: Stanley Kubrick’s Take on the Ending of ‘2001: A Space Oddyssey’
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