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; the ones that leave you with a message that leads you to living life in a different way.
Loneliness and Despair in the 21st Century — ‘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 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.
What If You’re Being Watched? — ‘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 craziness of the outside world.
A Cinematic Expression of Modern Existentialism — ‘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.
An Artist’s Obsession With Themselves — ‘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.
Reconstructing Life in the Face of Death — ‘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.
What Does It Mean to be a Person? — ‘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 crazy.
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.
The Universe Is Bigger Than You Realize — ‘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 (Michelle Yeoh) 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.
The Nature of Being — ‘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.
When Faith Disappears — ‘Stalker’ (1979)
In the world of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpiece 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.
The Ultimate Trip — ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
Stanley Kubrick is considered by many the single greatest filmmaker in history; and watching 2001: A Space Oddyssey, which also happens to be widely considered his 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.
KEEP READING:Stanley Kubrick’s Interpretation of the Ending of ‘2001: A Space Oddyssey’