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.
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.