Movies 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 reevaluate the way you think about life itself.
Existentialist cinema has been around for quite some time, and if done right, those kinds of movies can be the ones that stay with you forever; well-made existentialist films can leave you with a message that leads you to live life in a different way.
Updated on March 16, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
If Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s historic Oscar win is anything to go by, there’s enduring interest in movies about existentialism, as the philosophical subject is inextricably linked with life and the search for meaning. The best existential movies manage to tackle these hard-hitting subjects in thought-provoking, intriguing, and even disturbing ways, presenting a mirror and forcing audiences to confront the difficult questions about their own lives.
20 ‘Like Someone in Love’ (2012)
Director Abbas Kiarostami‘s final masterpiece, Like Someone in Love, is also among the best examples of existentialism in film. Set in the bustling streets of Tokyo, the movie follows sociology student Akiko (Rin Takanashi), who is also a high-end sex worker. When she’s sent to the elderly former professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), she’s surprised at how he’s more interested in dinner and conversation rather than sex.
Akiko’s story may not seem like an existential one at first glance, but a closer look at Kiarostami’s subtle approach to her narrative highlights the protagonist’s feeling of being trapped and ashamed. Viewers are forced to watch Akiko’s burden of loneliness as she struggles to reach out to her grandmother, which is such a simple yet frustratingly impossible task for her. The underrated film is a delicate examination of freedom, falsehood, and identity.
19 ‘Anomalisa’ (2015)
Writer-director Charlie Kaufman has existentialist themes in pretty much every single one of his films, but rarely as strongly as in Anomalisa, the story of a middle-aged man called Michael (David Thewlis) who struggles with crossing the gap between the self and the other. He hears everyone with an identical voice (Tom Noonan), until a unique woman voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh comes into his life.
A stop-motion animated adult drama full of Kaufman’s typical surreal idiosyncrasies, Anomalisa is a film about loneliness, about the difficulty of connecting with others, and about the crushing weight of subjectivity.
18 ‘Synecdoche, New York’ (2008)
Charlie Kaufman’s directing debut might just be his most ambitious work to date. In Synecdoche, New York, a 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 tries to create a life-size replica of New York as part of his new play.
The film presents the heartbreaking failure of capturing life in its entirety through art. Endlessly complex and analyzable, Kaufman’s masterpiece shows the poignant relationship between life and death, and how inherent to human nature it is to want to leave a legacy behind.
17 ‘Birdman’ (2014)
Another great example of the continued popularity of existentialism in movies, director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Birdman is a film that showcases the flaws of fame. It’s centered on Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a Hollywood has-been known for his titular superhero role who is now trying his luck with Broadway.
Frantic, stressful, and somehow relatable, it’s impossible not to feel what the protagonist does as he tries and fails to rebuild relationships, revive his career, and generally deal with the difficulties that come with life. Of course, Riggan’s perspective is unique as a faded actor, which only makes his entire ordeal more interesting.
16 ‘Stranger than Fiction’ (2006)
A criminally underrated comedy film directed by Marc Forster, Stranger than Fiction follows an IRS auditor named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who lives a mundane life. One day, he begins to hear a bizarre voice that seems to be narrating his life story. As he tries to uncover the source of the narration, he learns that he’s a character in a book that’s bound to end at some point.
While it’s billed as a gut-busting comedy, Stranger than Fiction is also a dread-inducing existential movie. As Harold attempts to fight back against his predetermined fate, viewers are forced to question their own predictable daily routines and even the very concept of free will.
15 ‘Sideways’ (2004)
Based on Rex Pickett‘s eponymous 2004 novel and directed by Alexander Payne, Sideways is a road film unlike any other. It’s centered on two men in their forties, Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) and Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church), who go on a wine-tasting trip to California. Along the way, audiences learn more about Miles’ struggles as a failed novelist living with depression. Meanwhile, Jack is anxious about getting married and hopes to get one last fling in before he ties the knot.
One of the great films where not much happens, most of the movie is just two middle-aged men finding purpose and adventure in their lives through wine (just not merlot) and sex. Their flaws, fears, desires, and need for purpose are brilliantly spliced into drunken conversations and funny mishaps on their road trip. Its existential themes are painfully relatable.
14 ‘Wild Strawberries’ (1957)
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman is known for sensitively and poignantly dealing with dark existentialist themes that most filmmakers don’t dare touch on. Wild Strawberries, one of his best works, sees an elderly professor confront the voidness of his existence after leading a life of coldness and apathy.
The film beautifully portrays the pain of loneliness and the journey of correcting one’s mistakes. It reminds viewers about the good things in life and about the importance of spiritual growth.
13 ‘The Truman Show’ (1998)
Everyone remembers their first existential crisis, that weird moment when they first started to wonder whether there was more to life than they originally thought. In The Truman Show, Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey in one of his greatest works) has a whole other kind of crisis as he begins to discover that for his entire life, he has unknowingly been the star of a reality show.
In this beautiful coming-of-age, audiences get to grow and mature along with Truman, pondering themes like free will, the mundanity of everyday life, and the importance of throwing oneself onto the chaos of the outside world.
12 ‘Melancholia’ (2011)
Anyone looking for a good dose of existential dread doesn’t need to look further than Melancholia. Directed by Lars von Trier, the apocalyptic film revolves around the messy relationship between two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine, who is living with depression, struggles to believe that the star supposedly about to pass earth isn’t actually going to hit it, while Claire deals with keeping the wedding reception organized amidst the chaos.
The movie explores the various reactions people can have to their impending deaths and mortality in general. Its artful slow sequences evoke an almost visceral fear and understanding that death is never truly far away. The film’s ultimate message about acceptance and the value of human connection makes the wholly unique movie worth watching at least once.
11 ‘The Great Beauty’ (2013)
Director Paolo Sorrentino‘s The Great Beauty is a gorgeous art drama that follows Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a 65-year-old seasoned journalist and theater critic who spends his days attending the social events of Rome and appreciating its beauty and history. Jep begins to have a crisis after his 65th birthday, though, and looks beyond mindless parties and mundane activities to find “the great beauty.”
The award-winning movie is rarely cited alongside other existential films, but it should be. Jep’s growing discontent with his social circle, questions about his own identity, and incredible search for meaning in the absurd encapsulate a version of the existential journey most people eventually take.
10 ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ (2022)
Multiverses are the new big thing nowadays; and in the midst of this new sensation, the Daniels‘ Everything Everywhere All at Once came out. An infinitely complex and ambitious sci-fi dramedy, the movie shows a middle-aged Chinese immigrant (masterfully played by Michelle Yeoh in her Oscar-winning role) on a mission to save reality by connecting with the lives she could have led in other universes.
The film tackles countless intricate themes like nihilism, love, generational trauma, and parenthood, to name but a few. It’s hilarious, it’s incredibly emotional, and it’s profoundly thought-provoking. The movie argues that if we’re already here in this massive and senseless world, we might as well face it with kindness and positivity.
9 ‘8½’ (1963)
Wonderfully directed by Federico Fellini, perhaps the greatest Italian filmmaker in history, 8½ sees a film director played by Marcello Mastroianni creatively barren at the peak of his career, looking for refuge in his memories and fantasies.
Dynamic, visually stunning, incredibly meta, and often surreal, the movie was called “the best film ever made about filmmaking” by the famous critic Roger Ebert. It’s about art, about fractured consciousness, and about what makes life worth living.
8 ‘Solaris’ (1972)
Andrei Tarkovsky, one of cinema’s greatest poets and philosophers, dove deep into what it means to be human across his entire filmography, but rarely with as big a focus on existentialism as in Solaris, a sci-fi film about a psychologist who’s sent to a space station orbiting a mysterious planet, in order to discover what’s driving its crew mad.
One of Tarkovsky’s most complex and thematically rich works, Solaris deals with philosophy and love as one and the same: Love makes us more human, and so does philosophy. The film celebrates life and nature, and it asks the question of whether existence is possible without human interaction.
7 ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)
One of the best war movies of all time, Apocalypse Now is a timeless classic and a masterpiece by director Francis Ford Coppola. Set during the Vietnam war, the film follows Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who is given a top-secret task up the Nung River to track down and kill the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). In the process, Willard begins to understand precisely why Colonel Kurtz has started his own cult-like murderous group deep in the jungle.
While it may not be the first thing viewers think of when considering existentialism, Apocalypse Now is so much more than a war film. It’s a surreal, disturbing, and hallucinatory voyage into the jungle, but also an unsettling trip into the worst of humanity. It will make audiences contemplate the unimaginable horror individuals are truly capable of given an inhuman context like war.
6 ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957)
Another legendary film by director Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal is an important work of art that depicts the journey of a disillusioned knight – Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) – who comes back from the Crusades in the 14th century to find more devastation from the Black Death in his community. Soon, he meets the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot) and plays chess with him in an attempt to find out the purpose of his life and faith.
Despite being almost 70 years old, the film has held up incredibly well and is worth watching today. The protagonist’s search for meaning in the face of chaos, violence, and death gives the movie an atmosphere of existential dread. As with any great masterpiece, it doesn’t directly answer any of the questions it poses, instead inviting audiences to contemplate those ideas themselves.
5 ‘Stalker’ (1979)
In the world of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s classic sci-fi movie Stalker, faith has disappeared and people don’t 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 grants one’s innermost desire.
In this film, Tarkovsky depicts the importance of validation and human connections. It’s a celebration of philosophy and of the arduous but ultimately rewarding path to spirituality and transcendence.
4 ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
Stanley Kubrick is considered by many the single greatest filmmaker in history; and watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also happens to be widely considered Kubrick’s best work, it’s not hard to see why. In this two-and-a-half-hour-long sci-fi epic, humanity finds a mysterious object buried in the Moon and sets off to find its origin with the help of the world’s most advanced computer, HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain).
With minimal dialogue, 2001 tells a rousing story spanning millennia. It’s an intimidating but also inspirational evaluation 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 rather long way to go in awakening our spirit and consciousness.
3 ‘Waking Life’ (2001)
Waking Life is a mind-boggling animated film that should never be excluded when discussing existentialist movies. The experimental animated film primarily follows the ethereal experience of an unnamed young man, who meets random passersby, philosophers, thinkers and more. They each impart important bits of knowledge from their respective fields and personal experiences.
Its stunning rotoscoped trippy visuals only serve to emphasize the heaviness, range, and depth of subjects it covers in a way that’s both enthralling and easy to follow. Viewers can expect to think about topics like free will, consciousness, the value of dreams, and, of course, the meaning of life over the course of the film.
2 ‘Fight Club’ (1999)
Director David Fincher‘s Fight Club is a cult classic that needs no introduction. It tells the story of an unnamed protagonist known only as the Narrator (Edward Norton) who lives with insomnia and depression. He attends support groups for comfort and eventually meets fellow fraudster Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). Not too long after, his life changes when the anarchic soap salesman Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) talks him into starting an underground fight club.
A powerful commentary on consumerism and alienation, the renowned classic is full of visceral twists and turns. The message ends up becoming a question about whether “the things you own end up owning you.” Coupled with an explosive ending, the movie inspires existential dread and a reevaluation of one’s place in the consumerist world.
1 ‘Ikiru’ (1952)
Legendary director Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers, was no stranger to existentialist themes in his movies, but few of them are quite as life-changing as Ikiru (which means “to live”), a film about a bureaucrat trying to find the meaning of life after discovering that he’s dying of cancer.
Aside from being absolutely heartbreaking and yet beautifully life-affirming, the film is a moving contemplation of mortality and a reaffirmation that one’s life holds whatever meaning one wants it to hold.
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