June 7, 2009

The Top 10 Existential Movies of All Time

Browsing through my DVD collection recently I realized that I have a fairly decent selection of what can be called 'existential movies' -- philosophical films that study the nature of existence and what it means to be alive. It's debatable as to what defines the 'quintessential' existential movie, but ultimately it must speak to the human condition and reframe it in such a way that the viewer gains an enhanced appreciation of their own existence and situation in life. These are the kinds of films that you find yourself reflecting back upon time and time again as you engage in your own day-to-day life, struggles and relationships.

Thus, I present to you the top 10 existential movies of all time:

10. The Quiet Earth

The best of the 'last man on Earth' movies, The Quiet Earth (1985) looks at human nature and the value of social relationships through a post-apocalyptic lens. After a military experiment goes disastrously wrong, Zac Hobson, a scientist on the brink of suicide, wakes to discover that he is the only person left alive in the world. As time passes, his loneliness and isolation leads to psychological despair and a bout of madness that causes him to think he's become God. Zac becomes so lonely that he surrounds himself with cardboard cutouts of people and dresses himself in lady's clothing so that he can feel as if he's with a woman.

Eventually he finds two other survivors, a woman and a man -- a turn of events that immediately creates a love triangle and considerable friction between the three of them. It's grim commentary on the complexities of human society and on human nature itself: Man cannot live alone, yet he cannot live in peace with others.

9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

One of the most revealing and honest films about relationships in recent memory, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) explores the pain of failed romances and their lasting impact on ourselves and the emotional baggage we carry afterward.

In the film, Joel Barish discovers that his former lover, Clementine Kruczynski, has literally had him and the details of their romance erased from her memories. He decides to do the same, but eventually comes to regret it. In this way, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind examines the role that memories play in our lives, how it contributes to our personal development and maturation, and the consequences of suppressing or removing them altogether.

The movie also acknowledges the harsh realities of modern relationships. The film concludes with the couple getting back together again, both of them knowing that it's likely an exercise in futility; they will once again go through all the phases of the relationship just like before and ultimately tire of each other. But they choose to do it anyway -- a revealing and truthful glimpse into the potential short-sightedness and undying hopefulness that's a part of human nature and our ventures into relationships.

8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

A modern tragedy set inside a 1950's era mental hospital, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) offers a scathing critique on society -- but the message is more than just an anti-establishment one; it also touches upon such themes as the madness of social conformity and the relativity of human psychology and what we conventionally think of as mental illness.

The ward is filled with men who have been convinced by society that they're abnormal in some way, whether it be on account of a stutter or sexual fetish. They are berated and humiliated on a daily basis, causing them to regress even further as individuals. It's fascinating insight into the normative nature of 'deviant' behavior and how societal norms have dictated our conceptions of mental illness at certain periods in history.

It's only through the introduction of a new patient, the protagonist R.P. McMurphy, that the ward members start to question their ongoing presence in the hospital and the purpose of their stay. McMurphy continually stirs the pot and challenges the dictatorial style of the head nurse, Mildred Ratched. His path is one of self-destruction, but his sacrifice ultimately proves to be inspiring and liberating to those in the ward.

7. The Truman Show

The Truman Show (1998) chronicles the life of a man, Truman Burbank, whose existence is not what it appears to be -- at least not to him. Truman lives happily in an island community but eventually discovers that he is the star of an all-day TV soap opera, and that his wife, friends and neighbors are all acting their parts.

There are many layers to peel back: the film serves as a commentary on the all-controlling media, the pervasiveness of television in today's society and how everybody wants to appear on it. There's a postmodernist angle as well, with the entire construct of society being portrayed as a facade that can be stripped down and revealed as an illusion.

The Truman Show also serves as a quasi-solipsistic nightmare, with Truman representing the only 'real' person in the world with everyone else contriving against him -- a thought that most assuredly occurs to people at some point in their lives.

6. Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich (1999) examines the reality and limitations of our psychologically locked-in condition and our craving for experiences other than our own. The film follows the exploits of Craig Schwartz, a man who discovers a portal that allows him to spend time inside the brain of actor John Malkovich. He learns to exploit the situation by taking over Malkovich's mind and becomes a wildly and improbably successful puppeteer. He also tries to seduce the beautiful Maxine Lund, but things quickly get out of hand as different interests work to control the situation.

The film raises a number of fascinating questions about love, identity, sex, gender and penetration. Being John Malkovich explores the complexity of human sexuality and attraction, while at the same time acknowledging the hard realities behind the achievement of fame and success. And ultimately it teases us about the ultimate possibilities for vicariousness -- the ability to truly experience someone else's life.

5. American Beauty

Easily overlooked as an existential movie, American Beauty (1999) takes a very literal look at modern life and the human struggle to find contentment and meaning. The film follows the mid-life crisis of Lester Burnham, a suburban husband and father who is emerging from the sleepy malaise that has come to define his life.

It's through the lens of Burnham's existential crisis that we see the true inanity of the modern lifestyle along with the emptiness and banality of the lives of those around him. The film reveals the ludicrousness of conformist society while at the same time suggesting that we can still discover and enjoy the small pleasures in life.

American Beauty also takes a scathing but ultimately sympathetic look at how people can be predictable and weak. Burnham's midlife crisis involves pot smoking, lusting over his daughter's attractive friend, getting back into shape ("I want to look good naked") and the acquisition of a vintage sports car. Even his wife is not immune to this phase in her life; she has lost all attraction for Lester and seeks satisfaction outside the marriage. These are archetypal characters and moments that are disturbingly real and familiar.

4. The Matrix

Aside from being an outstanding science fiction movie in its own right, The Matrix (1999) is a vehicle for a host of philosophical and existential issues. It is first and foremost the modern reintroduction of Cartesian skepticism and the brain-in-the-vat problem -- namely the suggestion that we are living in a virtual reality world but are completely unaware. And given the trajectory and rapid development of our information technologies, it's a scenario that seems disturbingly plausible.

The film raises questions about the true nature of self and the illusion that is reality; the notion that 'there is no spoon' is a very Buddhist sentiment. Indeed, The Matrix suggests that we can peel back the layers and expose society for what it really is -- that we can somehow see the actual matrix that props up our institutions and conventions -- we just need to take a step back and recognize the megastructure and mechanisms that keep everyone in step and oblivious to the deeper reality.

3. Memento

Christoper Nolan's dark and grim Memento (2000) follows the journey of an amnesiac, Leonard, who is trying to solve the brutal rape and murder of his wife. Because Leonard has no short-term memory he must leave clues for himself so that he can pick-up the chase. He does so in the form of tattoos and notes written on Polaroid pictures. The movie itself is presented in reverse chronological order; like Leonard, the audience experiences events without at first understanding their implications, contributing to feelings of extreme unease and uncertainty.

Memento is a treatise on memory and its role in the formation of identity. Leonard's memory stopped forming at the moment his wife was killed, permanently stunting his development as a person at that exact point in time. The only way he can provide context and meaning to his life is by selectively storing memories outside his head. This creates a deeply flawed existence, one in which he deliberately misguides himself to retain a sense of purpose and mission.

From an existential perspective, Memento suggests that it's through our memories that our self is formed, and that it's through the consistent and logical narrative of our lives that we can find meaning in life. Taken as a whole, Memento is one of the finest films of the last 10 years.

2. Citizen Kane

Considered one of the greatest movies of all time, Citizen Kane (1941) is also one of the finest philosophical films ever made. It was one of the first films to portray its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, through a postmodern lens; he is conveyed as an extremely complex, challenging, and ultimately unknowable individual. Director Orson Welles achieved this by structuring the narrative around the perspectives of key persons in Kane's life. The audience comes to learn about Kane only through the individual perspectives and experiences of his family, friends and lovers.

The definitive scene comes at the end when Kane walks between two mirrors and his reflection is bounced back as far as the eye can see; there are as many Charles Foster Kanes in the world as there are people who knew him. And who is to say which iteration is the 'real' or most genuine? We are, after all, a qualitatively different person to every person who knows us. As the reporter Thompson remarks at the end, "I don't think any word can explain a man's life."

1. Groundhog Day

The legacy of Groundhog Day (1993) as a highly philosophical and thought provoking film continues to astound and grow over time. Initially regarded as a light and fluffy comedy, it has come to be recognized as a highly innovative treatise on the human condition, the meaning of life, personal responsibility, and the seemingly endless repetition that characterizes our lives. By having the main character, Phil, re-live the same wintry and overcast Groundhog day over and over again, the film explores a host of life issues.

As Phil struggles to come to grips with his predicament he goes through a number of phases: disbelief, shock, hedonism, scheming, nihilism, depression (including numerous suicide attempts) and social detachment. Ultimately, he learns that his happiness is only attainable through acceptance of his situation and constructive behavior that furthers his own life and those around him. Once Phil gets his personal act together he is able to snap the cycle -- a theme that is very closely aligned with Buddhism and its notions of samsara and the endless cycle of re-birth.

At another level the film explores the topic of personal accountability in the absence of repercussions. Phil knows that no matter what he does he will never have to be held responsible for his actions -- he'll just wake up again with a clean slate. Though Phil learns to control his actions, the film raises an interesting point about our motivations and why we choose to obey the rules.

Groundhog Day's power comes from its remarkable simplicity. By experimenting with one single repeated day the film explores many complexities and intricacies of life and the human condition as a whole. A timeless classic.


djadvance said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
djadvance said...

I love Groundhog Day.

Great point about morality there. Given an infinite amount of time, Bill Murray eventually realizes that what's best for him isn't hedonism or destruction, but self improvement.

Now that's humanism at its best.

G said...

No Bladerunner?


Athena Andreadis said...

What G. said!

George said...

Heh, I *knew* I'd get slammed for omitting Bladerunner. Here are my justifications: 1) both Memento and Eternal Sunshine provide ample commentary on the nature of memories and identity and 2) most of Bladerunner describes a future existential condition -- not one we can really relate to right now.

B7 said...

Groundhog Day is the best!

Alex said...

Blade Runner is overrated anyway. Seen all the different versions, with voiceover or without, still an alright movie about what makes people people. But then why not include I Robot, Stand Alone Complex, Robocop, AI, Bicentennial Man, or The Sixth Day.

Hell, why not Short Circuit?

Get over yourself, this list is perfection.

gene said...

Alex -- that's a great *Sci-Fi* Existential Movie List.

George -- totally agree with Groundhog Day as #1. People tend to think it was just a funny romantic comedy, but when I mention the heavily Buddhist elements they always say, "Ohhhhhhhh, yeaahhhhh....."

Mike Treder said...

No list of the best existential movies could be complete without these:

Aguirre: the Wrath of God
The Ballad of Narayama
The Cranes are Flying
Last Tango in Paris
Pather Panchali
Rules of the Game
Salaam Bombay
The Seventh Seal
The Wages of Fear

Hey, look at that, I just made my own top 10 list! (And I could come up with another 10 or 20 more pretty quickly too.)

But thanks, George, for the inspiration!

Jonathan Fine said...

These movies are all favorites of mine. I guess that says something about my interests and priorities. Great list!

Mac said...

Nice to see someone else likes "The Quiet Earth."

I might add "Miracle Mile" to the list. The movie poses the question: How would you spend your last day in the face of imminent nuclear destruction?

Athena Andreadis said...

Mike, your list is much more inclusive and diachronic. I would also consider Ulysses' Gaze by Theodoros Angelopoulos and Bruce Beresford's Black Robe.

Wildcat said...

Three more "Musts"
Tarkovsky: Solaris
Tarkovsky: Stalker
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (directed by Paul Schrader)

Great list, and yes I second Mike Treder's list as well.

Aric said...

Interesting, I would not have thought of most of those as existential movies. I would definitely add Forrest Gump to the list.

Particleion said...

MY two favs did not make the list :(

The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
Lawnmower man


Pete Lyons said...

This post would be more aptly titled either 'My favorite existential films' or 'The best existential films for people who refuse to watch movies with subtitles.' Have you seen Solaris in Russian or any of Ingnar Bergman's films? How about Akira Kurosawa? You're missing some awesome brain benders.

Athena Andreadis said...

Following up on the comments of Mike Treder and Pete Lyons, I think this is an interesting exercise when extended to other situations.

Here we have a list of the purported 10 best existential films of all time. George clearly put thought and care into his choices. Nevertheless, they turn out to be 1) recent, 2) American and 3) mostly mainstream Hollywood. Mike's list contains films that fulfilled the existential condition and were neither recent nor American -- but this list arose as a conscious afterthought.

Here is the extension: "I wanted to include works by X, but couldn't think of any," or "I wanted to hire X but don't know of any who qualify," where X is non-default (not white, not male, not Anglosaxon, etc). You can see how this permeates the fabric of our existence like an invisible fog.

Go Democrats said...

Here's my alternate list of the top 10 existential movies of all time:

1. Up
2. Wall-E
3. Frequency
4. Man for all Seasons
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
6. Star Wars Episode IV
7. Triumph of the Will
8. Dr. Strangelove
9. Metropolis
10. Modern Times

Incidentally, most good movies that are not just escapist fluff will get you thinking about how you should live your life. They don't have to center around timelines that double back on themselves, or cyborgs, or any of that other stuff.

Holte Ender said...

A Christmas Carol - preferably the Alister Sim version, but the story itself is a marvelous example.

Lee said...

no Jean-Luc Godard

K.Smoraczewska said...

SERIOUSLY - you missed the most blindingly obvious, and probably best, existential movie off this list and that is I heart Huckabees. I can't believe I was the first person to notice this glaring error.

Tom said...

How did you forget The Seventh Seal by Bergman? Or any Bergman, for that matter?

Carver said...

Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo" immediately pops into my mind when I think of existential films I love. Ingmar Bergman, as has been mentioned several times, should be on here. The man plays chess with Death for god's sakes! Seven Samurai is very existentialist and definitely one of the best movies ever made. Waking Life might be the only contemporary one that would make my list. And then there's Monty Pythons' The Meaning of Life. As already said, GODARD! Le Mépris is probably the most famous, and causes me to have a existential crisis every time.

Overall this list gave me something to think about (and the comments have some stuff to see) , but I couldn't disagree more with some of the choices.

Athena Andreadis said...

There are also the coming-of-age existentials: 400 Blows, The Fawn's Labyrinth...

DJeff said...

Songs from the second foor by Roy Andersson is a personal favorite that, I think, would qualify.

Also Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies) or Satantango, both by Bela Tarr.

Red Desert by Antonioni and, obviously, 8 1/2 by Fellini


tyler said...

these descriptions remind me a lot of the information i have been enjoying about "sychromysticism" which not only delves deep into the spiritual and existential meaning behind even seemingly fluffy films, but connects dots about the archetypes that different actors play in nearly every film they are in. its very intriguing nonetheless. look up sychromysticism or check this link. http://video.google.com/videosearch?source=ig&hl=en&rlz=&q=synchromysticism&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=8bgtSt2lKoGEtweUu7WrCA&sa=X&oi=video_result_group&resnum=4&ct=title# thanks.

Darrell M said...

The topic of existentialism is broad (and ill-defined)enough that, as someone alluded to, you can tie almost any movie to it if you're creative about it.

That said, I'm astounded that I haven't seen 2001: A Space Odyssey on anyone's list. Not only one of the great movies of all time, but one that raises profound questions of human identity, consciousness, and ultimate purpose (or purposelessness), not just for individuals, but for humans as a species.

Jinkzt3r said...

You should try Man From Earth

chompist said...

Excellent list...mine would probably be almost identical! I noticed that you have two Charlie Kauffman written films up there...have you seen his latest one yet? It's called "Synecdoche, New York", and it's a profoundly shocking look at a number of things. Mainly, it looks at how people construct their existence in the face of impending death. It rattled me to the core...unlike any movie experience I've ever had. Definitely worth a watch.

Sir Jorge said...

i recently wrote an article on identity crisis in horror films, i think this is a similar topic.

whatever the case is, this is really cool

Jesse Whitsitt-Lynch said...

No love for A Scanner Darkly? I thought it a piercing meditation on Feuerbach's "you are what you eat"; that is, whether identity and personhood is consistent when a great portion of how a person acts and thinks is influenced by what they consume.

And Fight Club, of course, touches heavily on Nietzschean and Foucaldian themes.

The Neurocritic said...

I agree with DJeff, Songs from the Second Floor by Roy Andersson. Existential, surreal, apocalyptic, and part of the new cult canon. Also darkly humorous.

Joan Trujillo said...

Two more that might or might not be into the first 10 but haven't been menctioned
- The Man from Earth
- Children of Men

windhill said...

-All the Days before Tomorrow- an indie just out on DVD-comes close to my #1. Definitely worth seeing.

shavin said...

How did you leave out Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray man?

boomfox said...

What about Waking Life? Brilliant film.

purrlgurrl said...

Six out of ten of these are on my personal list of all-time favorites. These films defy conventional notions of plot and narrative. They are truly original concepts, and ironically, despite having "non-commercial" themes some were major box office hits. Film audiences are much brighter than studio execs believe them to be.

dmarmar said...

My list would include Fight Club.

Michael said...

where the heck is I <3 huckabees?

Matt and Erin said...

"Into the Wild" would be on my list

Sarah said...

Your list is awesome. Not all encompassing, but still a pretty good look at existentialism in mainstream movies - places you wouldn't normally look. But I do have one more suggestion - Joe Vs. the Volcano.

Sound is Vibration said...

I'm confused on why Waking Life was only brought up once in the comments. It is an excellent movie. Watch it on google. Really makes you think.

danmcv5 said...

yea seriously, Huckabees doesn't just have existential "themes"; it is literally a movie about existentialism. And a great movie at that. Really should have made the list.

GAMA-lone said...

how come huckabees and human nature are not on the list.... and Matrix ?!?!? come on

cormac said...

I'd really recommend that you look out Persona, by Ingmar Bergman. I've seen most all of these films, and, for me, none pose quite as serious a challenge to human existence as it does.

Jay Dugger said...

Shame on you for being too (mainstream, Americanized, commericial, Anglophone, etc.) or insufficiently (indie, cult, pro-subtitles, gender-sensitive, etc.).


Seriously, though: No "The Lathe of Heaven?"

ceci said...

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Ken said...

Solaris (the new version, or old...)
Waking Life
Requiem for a Dream
Children of Men

All the movies in the original list are great though!

Rick said...

Cocteau's "Orpheus"(Orphee) is a striking treatment of the immediacy of death, irreparable loss, and regret.

John Frankenheimer's almost unknown "Seconds" is an unflinching look at the futility of escape from this life.

Chris said...

I just happened to watch Groundhog Day for the first time a few days ago. I must say, I was pleasantly delighted by what I saw.

Loren said...

What about Vanilla Sky?

Sam said...

what about synedoche, NY with philip seymoure hoffman? it a newer one. definetly check it out if you haven't seen it yet. it's quite existential.

Sean Tierney said...

Good list. Some additions if it were longer:
-Thirteenth Floor
-Dark City
-Vanilla Sky
-Total Recall
-What dreams may come

Samantha said...

I enjoyed the list and I am glad to see someone finally add "Total Recall". Still, I have to also add "The Unbearable Lightness of Being". It is film that explores the depths of love and human physicality. They are the foundations of existence for mankind.

joeldennison said...

people keep on complaining that there is a lack of indie films/world cinema films, yet pretty much every indie film is too some degree existntial. so a list of
"best hollywood existential films" is probably a more appropriate and intresting title for this blog, and i think (though i haven't checked) that all of theese films are produced by major studios even if on their indie imprint.
BUT i hart huckabee's although not that good a film dfinately needs to be on here as it stars the issue straight in th face.
also djadvance's comment is wrong, humanism is based on the idea that humans don't have an infinate amount of time and the lack of an infinat god.

Paethon said...

Ghost in the Shell !!??

Zytheran said...

Very similiar to my 'Rubber Reality' movie list:

Videodrome (1983)
Brazil (1985)
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Total Recall (1990)
The Truman Show (1998)
Dark City (1998)
Being John Malkovich (1999)
The Matrix (1999)
eXistenZ (1999)
Fight Club (1999)
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
Memento (2000)
Donnie Darko (2001)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Vanilla Sky (2001)
The I Inside (2003)
Butterfly Effect (2004)
Primer (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
The Jacket (2005)

..and yes I realise they are mostly, if not all, mainstream Hollywood but they are easy to get.

CNC-Machine-Shop said...

The Quiet Earth would be my favorite, great list.

carose28 said...

I'd add A Scanner Darkly for sure, but the whole blog/comments has been very inspiring :) I have hours of awesome existential-ness ahead. Thanks.

carose28 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

Many of the movies on the list are all-time favorites of mine. One was noticeably overlooked though - what about Sex, Lies, and Videotape?

Peter said...

Instead of Matrix you should have posted the movie that inspired it (Ghost in the Shell) which poses the same questions and then some (and is a damn sight more inventive in the action department, too ;-) )

penfold said...

funny how the top ten existential movies all come from Hollywood studios...

I like lists, and the comments on each film are great, but it would be good to have a bit more diversity.

fort said...

Um... Jacob's Ladder, and The Life of Brian. Oh, Space Odyssey 2001, and, for those who paid attention to the dialogue, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But wait, A Clockwork Orange - none of these list can truly exist with out this movie.

dafo said...

Foreign Films To Add:
Not One Less (China)
Children Of Paradise (Iran)
Angels & Insects (England)
Proof (Australia)
Rabbit Proof Fence (Australia)
Il Postino (Italy)
Europa Europa (Germany)
Character (Netherlands)
Lagaan (India)
Retour de Martin Guerre (France)

USA Films to add:
Cast Away
Trading Places
City Slickers
Erin Brockovich
Roman Holiday
Terminator (& T2)
The Apostle
People Vs Larry Flynt
A Simple Plan

unanimous1050 said...

If your into "eternal sunshine.." look into the research on memory. Cognitive psychologists have discovered a chemical that, when paired with a memory, weakens the neural connections that create the memory. Preliminary tests in mice imply that the chemical more or less erases memories over time.

unanimous1050 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ko92393 said...

Donnie Darko

ko92393 said...


Alan Davis Drake said...

From most of the film selections shown, I'm wondering if folks know the meaning of "existential." If the meaning here is the simplistic "existence," then any film can go on the list. (And it seems just that has happened.) I'm reminded of the popularization of "Zen" over the past 40 years, which despite current cultural fads, commercialization, and misconceptions, as a specific discipline it maintains a specific view and practice. Likewise, "existentialism" or an "existential movie" in its root as a discipline, or study, should not in any measure include whatever vague definition we might wish to throw at it. There are of course different "schools" of existentialism, and each "school" has it's view. For example, can any of the movies listed stack up to a novel by Albert Camus? Do the movies show the "world's indifference to our suffering"? Are there "anti-heroes" in the classical existential sense? How does "humanism" fit in to these movies? I can see Bill Murray as Sisyphus, yes, but what of the other movies? What about our critical sense of the movies? That in particular is part of choosing "en existential movie," of proposing that any movie is. Where's the critical thinking that is the basis of existentialism? Where is the presumably unresolvable problems?

This by the way, is a challenge to anyone who list a movie title, types a vague sentence or two and then hits the road (clicks the StumbleUpon button!)

Beatmeup66 said...


Michel said...

nice list!
personally i would include
'before sunrise' (1995)
and 'before sunset' (2004)

Billy the Blogger said...

And where praytell is Fight Club???

And an honorable mention to a Japanese Anime OVA "series". FLCL or Fooly Cooly or Furi Kuri however you'd like to call it. Its six, half hour episodes that on first watch will destroy your brain. But with each viewing delivers another deeper meaning.

chompist said...

Alan Davis Drake,

I was thinking the exact same thing as I was scrolling down this list. Not to be elitist, but perhaps a more stringent definition of what "existentialism" is needed before we can classify a movie as being existentialist itself. Honestly, even though I've read Camus and some other existential works, I don't feel I'm the most qualified to make that definition unfortunately...maybe someone with more insight can shed some more light on this?

ricci said...

I would add 'Adaptation' (with Nick Cage)

Peter Allyn Clay said...

Don't forget Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Asks the question: What does God need with a Starship?

And you are minding your own business and someone comes up to you and takes all your pain away.
Are you obligated to follow that person on his quest even though he may being doing wrong things, or do you finally feel free to chase your own dreams?

Rita said...

All great, but I think A Scanner Darkly should also be in there, somewhere! Any movie that accurately acts out a Philip K Dick novel is great. I'd like to see a film version of Ubik!

Vishal said...

Two under-appreciated films ought to make this list
1) Donnie Darko
2) Dark City

Paul said...

2001 SPACE ODYSSEY!!!!!!!!!!!
the list goes on...

It's stupid to make a list of art anyway... especially concerning a topic of philosophy. It would go into the thousands... and the person who posted this list said it came from his DVD COLLECTION! COME ON!

At least it got me thinking though...if that was the objective then congrats!!!

Heather Shayne said...

In addition to those already mentioned, I can't believe nobody has said anything about Harold and Maude or Woody Allen films..

Rigzzsy said...

why isnt donnie darko on this list?

Bryan said...

For anyone interested in existentialism and film, I would recommend the podcasts of the University of California at Berkeley professor Hubert Dreyfus, available here and here (two different semesters). Dreyfus is unpretentious and even frequently funny, but he knows what existentialism is, and relates three excellent movies ("Hiroshima, Mon Amour", "The Third Man", and "Breathless") to the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The going can be at times a little slow, but it is ultimately very rewarding.

omar said...

HOW CAN U FORGET "WAKING LIFE", an Existential movie if therw ever was one. truly a marvelous film

nate said...

no one has mentioned the most profound movie i have ever seen, requim for a dream!!!! that movie will really make you think

Will Ware said...

I'll throw in a vote for Grave of the Fireflies.

sancho said...

I was kinda hoping to see "The Big Lebowski" on there. After all, he just wanted to be the dude.

Stripe said...

Nobody mentioned I Heart Huckabees?

Barbara(aka Layla) said...

Excellent post! Memento is one of my favorite films of all time and I am always surprised at how few people have seen it.

Laura said...

There Will Be Blood

Fast T Friend said...

What a great post and comments, I will definitely spend more time taking notes. My contribution would be:

Alec said...

nice list... I wonder why nobody has suggested:

Being There
The Player

not resp... said...


mjs said...

Lots of wonderful movies are listed here. Samuel Fuller said that (paraphrased) 'the three most important components of a film are emotion! emotion! emotion!' Film lets us witness despair, violence, love, horror (at safe remove) but like a ride at Disneyland it lets us off at the end and says "See? Nothing really happened." But with great films something did happen!

A few more titles to chew on:

Crimes and Misdemeanors
My Life as a Dog
The Hairdresser's Husband
Jesus' Son
The Rapture


adrienne trafford said...

Sunshine, Vanilla Sky, Bladerunner...

adrienne trafford said...

and i mean just "Sunshine" (not Eternal....)

tcolkett said...

You must not have seen "Fitzcarraldo"?

noddi2 said...

Blade Runner
Mulholland Drive
Soylent Green!!!

Great list tho'


noddi2 said...

Have to comment on earlier comments.

Blade Runner is far more to do with the notion of loss of Empathy, and what we are capable of when we lose it. Philip K Dick was fascinated and horrified at the holocaust, and what he believed to be an incredible display of loss of empathy by an entire culture.Call it Racism, but at its heart is our capability to lose empathy.
Ridley Scott actually grants the Replicants more empathy than the 'Humans'. Note how Zhora is shot in the back by Deckard.....


I simply love watching The Matrix........

Ryka Elford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Waterman said...

groundhog day is a classic..

but stranger than fiction would be right near the top of my top 10.

Debbie said...

After reading through the comments on this piece it seems to me that the “existential movie” is in the eye of the beholder. Don’t we as individuals see all things differently than one another? Because we agree on some insights does it mean we had the same experience or reaction to any one movie? There are vast differences of human intellect. What one person considers fluff might be an epiphany to another. Couldn’t we classify any movie to be existential if just one person derives sentient from it?
I agree heartily with everyone’s choices. When I think about it these are a few of the movies that stay in the forefront my mind. I’m sure there are scores of others I just can’t recall at this time.

Of Mice & Men
Sling Blade
Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
A Beautiful Mind

CygnusX1 said...


I can't believe your #1 film is groundhog day !!

I have been driving my work colleagues to despair each day for the last 3 years, with my morning greeting of "wot day is it?"....rhetorically - "its Groundhog day!"

And they still don't get it!

And what a masterpiece it really is, the only way Phil finally escapes his predicament is to understand that change comes from within. Naturally he also gets the Girl as well.

Lets all be the change we want to see in the world.

Here's a toast to you George D, and lets not be forgetting a small nod to world peace to boot.


Erika said...

No David Lynch, David Cronenberg or Jean Luc Godard? That's a shame. Nice list, nonetheless

Dan said...

"A Boy and His Dog"

Nicholas said...

Great List and add-ons.

I'll throw out "The Trip" & "Easy Rider." A weird obscure one is "seize the day"

Leonidas said...

Groundhog Day is a pure classic! That I think successfully illustrates the paradox of hedonism, "In order to be happy, an agent must aim at things other than his own happiness."

stinuh said...

Ok...more existential gems..
-City of Lost Children
-Los Amores Perros
-Donnie Darko (already mentioned)
-The Lord of the Flies
-Amile (? existential)
-Run Lola Run (? existential)
-Blue Velvet
-2010 Space Odyssey

and even though it's a TV show and not a movie, The Twilite Zone (any episode of the original series) gets honorable mention.

stinuh said...

ohh dang.. i knew this would happen..now more great existential movies keep popping into my head...

-the morning after
-the day the earth stood still (original)
prob. more to come..I can't get my brain to let this one rest.

teleomorph said...

While Groundhog is one of my all-time favorites, I think, over time, WAKING LIFE will prove to be one of the best existential movies of all time.

Ben said...

The #1 movie that is missing from the list is without a doubt No Country for Old Men. It is, by all means measurable, an existential masterpiece. Through precise dialogue construction it uses the spectrum of its characters to give a stretching look at the different ways an individual can confront the world, and the world can confront individuals. Ranging from Anton (Javier Bardem), to Tommy Lee Jones father (who's house is inhabbited by cats) each character opts for a different definition of their place in the world and the role of the unexpected (FATE). The sherrif's father sits on one end, letting the way of the world lead him through every day, never fighting. On the opposite end is Anton, the psychopathic master of destruction who dominates all obstacles that come before him, but does so with a calm and awareness/respect for the unexpected that Carson (Woody Haralson) lacks. With unflinching accuracy, the film explores not just one existentialist view but rather melds together many through the well-crafted details that the Cohen Brothers live for.

shh said...

loved all these, I think Groundhog Day owes more to Nietzsche's eternal recurrence than Buddhism though. :D

g said...

a clockwork orange?
fight club?

nice adding the truman show though, really enjoy that movie

medea said...

"Network" from 1976 needs to be on this list.

Bethany said...

Where's "The Fountain"?

Sekhmet said...

Heads up!


Josh said...

Hey, I enjoyed reading this, some of my favourite films are in this list (and some aren't, haha) and I know I'm going to watch the films here that I haven't seen.

The one change I would make is to replace Matrix with Pan's Labyrinth or perhaps Little Miss Sunshine. I don't really agree that Matrix is an existential film.

All the same, great list, thanks.

Austin Kodra said...

I like the list for the most part, but where is "2001: A Space Odyssey"? That movie HAST TO BE one of the top ten if not the absolute best existential movie of all time. Decent list, though.

John said...

In response to "shh", Nietzsche owes like 90% of his philosophy to Buddhism. He was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer who read Eastern philosophy like it was his job. Look at Nietzsche's version of nominalism (if you could call it that) and then read some Buddhist texts and you'll see what I mean. Really interesting shit.

Also, "Alan Davis Drake" totally hit the nail on the head. I'm a philosophy major and have taken numerous courses on Existentialism and I still don't know what it means. I could throw out a bunch of themes and whatnot, but I think i coherent definition of what Existentialism is would be quite useful for this thread.

This is really interesting though, I've got a lot of movies to watch.

mike said...

great list...sure delving into the vault of aging foriegn flicks is going to produce some gems...but these are films we can all appreciate...and more importantly FIND...heres a few more

Synechdoche NY
La Moustache
Southland Tales
Altered States
Lost Highway

Jaycee said...


I'm honestly surprised more peple haven't heard of this movie.

crazyphotoman said...

How about the movie "nothing."
Pretty good... should be in this list.

stephen said...

I would agree that while I think most of the films on the list are very good, it is the list of an somewhat insulated American. I can't see how its possible to not have even some european ones, such as Bergman, or some of the swathe of french new wave films - goddard: weekend, truffaut: 400 blows, robbe grillet: trans-europ-express, resnais: Hiroshima mon amour, Rohmer: Boulangère de Monceau...

Of course that may in itself define my own insularity and biasedness :)

Anyway, if we're talking american films, I would have included "The Thin Red Line" in there - surely better than the matrix.

mistamojo_ca said...

Guy Ritchie's "Revolver."

mistamojo_ca said...

Guy Ritchie's Revolver. Great list by the way. I like Bladerunner too, its not just a robot story, its deeper than that... basically the Frankenstein story set in the future.

MisterFatality said...

Where's Harold and Kumar?

Ben said...

Didn't see this one mentioned yet and it definitely contains all the elements needed to make this list. "ZARDOZ"

Caleb said...

Cool list! And, a fun topic to bring up as we all can think of movies that fit the bill which we really enjoyed.
I would definitely add a very recent movie (most recentest on the comment thread?) in "Up In the Air." I'm not sure if it meets all of the strictly existentialism criteria (should there be a new thread for professors to lecture about what that term means?) but it definitely made me think about my own life, love, and what the heck I'm on this earth for. It's a movie that alternates between funny, touching, poignant, and a great shot of Vera Farmiga's butt (omg is she a beauty or what!). "Up In the Air" definitely found a way to crack my wall of cynicism and get into my heart- but maybe that's because I'm in my mid-twenties and going through my natural melancholy phase. Whether you like existential movies, Vera Farmiga (or George Clooney for the ladies), or just great movies in general, go check this movie out!

Adam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stacy said...

Are these movies made by men about men? Is a woman's perspective represented?

Adam said...

i think Equilibrium should be on this list

cedric said...

I would recommend "Pi" as 11th. Donnie Darko and
Dark City also get a vote from me as well.

Erica Howland said...

Great list. I have a few to add:
Donnie Darko: Well, yeah.
Moon: Sam Rockwell is absolutely awesome in this. Quietly compelling.
Match Point: Great recent Woody Allen film. Shocking twist at the end that really leaves you unsettled.
American Psycho: Christian Bale naked with a chainsaw is not the only memorable part of this movie. This movie kind of eats at you. I didn't like it so much at first.

Zach said...

Synecdoche, New York needs to be here. Anything written by Charlie Kaufman is existentially challenging, and this is his masterpiece.

Lawrence said...

B7 said...

Groundhog Day is the best!

Lawrence said...

B7 said...

Groundhog Day is the best!

Lawrence said...

B7 said...

Groundhog Day is the best!

Doug said...

Two additions:
"Clerks" has all the elements of existential crisis as Dante questions his everyday experience while Randall does not reflect on his experience. Their clash brings out the existential crisis in dealing with others.

"Christ in Concrete" examines the meaning of work, family, and deciding to move forward in life without a god to guide. If you can find it, it will alter your life.

mark said...

How do you leave off fight club? and Waking Life is forgivable if you dont know it but it beats them all in this category.

Honeydew said...

Ever since I was a child I have loved movies like this. My favorite movie of all time is the Truman Show.

A more contemporary movie to add would be Inception, it may be cliche to add this, but it had to be said.

jon said...

Uh.. The 1ungle Book? Why hasn't anyone mentioned The Jungle Book? You've all seen it right?

Its the one in which the anti-hero Mowgli is 'thrown' into an absurd and irrational world in which he struggles for, and ultimately fails to achieve, authenticity. We see Mowgli tragically immured, from one encounter to the next in the objectifying gaze of the Other. A concept poetically and powerfully rendered in the films dénouement where Mowgli eschews his freedom in nothing but an exchange of glances.

More subtle nods to the oeuvre of existentialism can be found in various scenes. Most notably scene 3 in which Bagheera appears to be reading a copy of Les Temps Modernes and also in Scene 6 where the inane Baloo can be seen clumsily retrieving a previously stashed prickly paw-paw from a hollowed out hardback of Being and Nothingness.

You should check it out!

Caleb said...


Well played.

Also, Louis Prima's song is pretty awesome.

Ollie said...

Didn't see anyone mention Orson Welle's adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial. I haven't actually seen the film but read the book and the subtext deals heavily with the fact that however hard we search we will never find the answers to life that we search for.

Good list but it could have done with being longer as there are some notable omissions, such as Blade Runner, Vanilla Sky, Inception, Donnie Darko, A Scanner Darkly, Fight Club, Total Recall and probably a whole heap more.

basketbalbum34 said...

great list, I would add:
12 Monkeys
Fight Club
Vanilla Sky
Dr. Strangelove
Slaughterhouse 5
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Donnie Darko

AnaBabe said...

Comments have not failed me yet.
How is it though, that Requiem for Dream, Into the Wild and Amelie were only mentioned once? Especially Into the Wild.

Todd said...

Runaway Train -- 80's movie starring Eric Roberts and John Voigt. Originally written by Akira Kurisowa. Great existentialist film.

Ambling Man said...

I think "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" should be added to the list it has a very existentialist message.
(strangely enough the original story does not it has more of a fatalist stance). To respond to a previous post I think that is why I did not feel wronged that Blade Runner is not on the list. I love that movie and if actually describe 'what it is to be human better than the two movies mentioned but it is not hopeful (Especially not the book) and it is not clear about free will...that is it posits the issues but does not decide...

Marcus said...

Helloooooooo! What about Fight Club People

Fancis said...

im studying existentialism at school, and as soon as i was able to grasp the understanding of it the first film that came to my mind was "Into the Wild". i think this really looks at key existential concepts such as existence precedes essence and the ubermensch.

another is superbad.. what makes this movie existential is one of the main characters fogell/mclovin. he is ageek among geeks and is completely immune to opinions of othes. in true Nietzchean fashion, fogells self creation is a matter of sheer will, creativity, style and self acceptance.

any thoughts on my views? it will be greatly helpful with my school work in looking at diffeing persepctives.

danny said...

RIDICULOUS to claim this as the top 10 of all time! K.Smoraczewska beat me to "I <3 Huckabees" and others to "fight Club", "A Scanner Darkly" and i didn't see "Waking Life". Citizen Kane is WAY overrated and yes, not a single foreign film included?

josh51 said...

The main ommission I can see is Little Miss Sunshine, which as well as being a beautiful film both thematically and visually, is briliantly funny and each character portrays a different approach to life and it's meaninglessness.

Also; Fight Club and Never Let Me Go (yes, I know it's new) should be on the list.

Das Experiment is also a great film that explores human psychology; even if it can't be said to be existential, everybody who is interested in the human condition owes it to themself to watch it.

tonybigsan said...

It first and foremost the modern reintroduction of Cartesian skepticism and the brain-in-the-vat problem -- namely the suggestion that we are living in a virtual reality world but are completely unaware. --- THIS IS NOT A SENTENCE. where is your verb??

starshinesmonet said...

I was relieved to see Waking Life had made it in the commentary, because it really is one of the quintessential films of Existentialism. I am even sometimes surprised it isn't taught as a reference in University courses on the subject as it really covers a great deal of ground with some of the questions and conversations it brings up.

Miles H said...

Hey really cool list, gotta see some of these movies now....

You know, another film seemingly silly like but truly deep in meaning like Groundhog Day is
"Bad Santa," with Billy Bob Thorton, no joking. Its freakin hilarious, and crude, but its also really telling in terms of purpose and self exploration, really. Heres the greatest line:

Billy Bob Thorton: "I beat up a kid today....but it was for a purpose."

Ben Trovato said...

"What is the perfect human thinking?
Is he thinking about happiness? Death? Love?
About what he is going to do tonight?
We want to see what he can do and cannot do.
Is he perfect enough?
Or not entirely?
Is he free?

The perfect human
that's just something we say
while hoping he can do what we say he can do."


This one most definitely belongs here...somewhere...on some list.

Thanks for the fond memories of some fine movies — both on the main post and the ensuing thread.

Nebris said...

Two observations:

A: I believe this post has the most comments of any post you've ever made here. That shows the power of The Hologram aka Modern Corporate Marketing Culture.

B: The central protagonist in each of these movies is a White Male. [see A above]

doodle02 said...

while i agree with 8/10 of the movies George listed, and a whole bunch of comments are pretty spot on, i find it very hard to believe that nobody's mentioned:

apocalypse now.


I think 'Into the Wild' must be included in the list. Another film, which is remarkable in terms of philosophy and existential truth is 'Altered States'

Perfectly Flawed said...

You forgot "Synecdoche, New York!!!"

LF said...

I'ma let you all finish, but Serendipity is the greatest existential movie of all time. It really makes you think. Also there should be more foreign films. But none of you really understand what existentialism is. How could you forget I Heart Huckabees?

Foo_Dog said...

I thought Rashomon had a pretty existential message.

Of course, that's not how my friends remember it.

Number 6 said...

Thank you for that top-10 list. It prompted me to watch Groundhog Day.
Which certainly is the Number 1 Existentialist movie of all-time - I BEG someone to prove me and the author wrong.

I liked the videos mentioned in the comments with exception to Waking Life, which is not an Existentialist movie. It had Existentialist scenes and speakers, but on the whole it was just trippy artwork.

I also loved how different people kept mentioning the same few titles saying "I can't believe everyone forgot about *this*". Got a good chuckle out of that.

Turner said...

The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick

VioletBermuda said...

Baraka is one of the best movies I have ever seen in my life. I could watch it over and over.
If you need to have a think about your life and the world- this is the film for you!

Kenlay Friesen said...

Is very good for me to reading comments especially I love is Athena Adreadis. You are to me is very good.

Now, what you must go see quickly is movie name The Woman of the Dunes (suna no onna) by Kobo Abe. This is ultimate of existentialist movies and also very funny. Could not stop self laughing too much.

This comments is very good for to is reading. I like very much.


Unknown said...

Why in the ever loving shirt has no one mentioned Cool Hand Luke? Or my all time favorite, Joe Vs. The Volcano. Come on, people. COME ON.

Unknown said...

Where the hell is Cool Hand Luke? And my personal favorite, Joe vs. the Volcano.