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While they can mess with your head from time to time, philosophical movies also compel you to question the dynamics of our existence. These films make us pause and ponder society’s long-held beliefs, impart powerful life lessons, and give new meaning and purpose to our existence.
They make us consider that there may be something beyond the reality that we see and know.
In this article, we’re sharing a curated list of the best philosophical movies of all time. We highly recommend that you watch these films at least once to develop an appreciation for humanity’s attempts to answer questions that are as old as civilization.
What You Will Learn
- 17 Best Philosophical Movies of All Time
- 1. Interstellar
- 2. The Matrix
- 3. Rashomon
- 4. Ida
- 5. The Seventh Seal
- 6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
- 7. Waking Life
- 8. Pan's Labyrinth
- 9. The Sacrifice
- 10. Fight Club
- 11. Little Miss Sunshine
- 12. Persona
- 13. The Tree of Life
- 14. It's a Wonderful Life
- 15. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
- 16. A Clockwork Orange
- 17. GATTACA
- Final Thoughts on the Best Philosophical Movies
17 Best Philosophical Movies of All Time
This movie is lauded for its cinematography and adherence to the science governing various phenomena in space. It won the award for best visual effects at the 87th Academy Awards.
The film was released in 2014, but is set in the year 2067, when crop blights and massive dust storms have caused a great famine that threatens to wipe out human civilization. A NASA pilot turned farmer, Joseph Cooper, is recruited as a pilot for the spacecraft Endurance in a bid to search for an inhabitable planet.
A lot of things go wrong during the mission. Will Cooper’s team be able to find an inhabitable planet for everyone, or is this the end of the human race?
A couple of philosophical questions that you might want to explore through this movie include:
2. The Matrix
The Matrix was released in 1999. Created by the Wachowskis, the movie is set in a near future, when intelligent machines farm humans for their bioelectric energy.
Its dystopian feel, cyberpunk influences, pioneering special effects, action sequences, and philosophical questions it addresses earned this movie multiple accolades from prestigious award-giving bodies, and secured it a spot as one of the top science fiction movies of all time.
Throughout this movie, you’ll be compelled to ponder questions such as whether the world is real, or simply an illusion; are your thoughts your own, or is something else controlling them; and is there such a thing as predestination, or do we chart the course of our lives through the choices we make?
This film was directed by Akira Kurosawa and was first released in 1950. It quickly became a cinematic classic.
In Rashomon, witnesses recount the occurrence of a crime—the murder of a samurai. The narrators include a woodcutter who discovered the dead body of the aforementioned samurai, a priest, a bandit, the samurai’s wife, and the murdered samurai himself (speaking through a medium).
The film explores the nature of truth. It uses several narrators to walk the audience through their own retellings of an event that they witnessed or experienced. During the narrations and various flashbacks, we begin to doubt our convictions of what is true and what’s not.
The movie implies that there is no concrete definition of truth. It also implies that a real world does not exist. Our lives are created based on our perceptions of the events around us.
Award-winning Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski directed this film that won the best foreign language film at the 2015 Academy Awards. It is hailed as a “masterpiece” and received other prestigious awards following its international release.
The movie takes us to post-war Poland and is set in the 1960s. A novitiate is about to take her vows, but before she does, her prioress urges her to visit an aunt who is her only surviving relative. Having been raised as an orphan in the convent, the nun is unary of the aunt’s existence.
The nun’s aunt reveals that the nun’s real name is Ida Lebenstein. They go on a trip to find out what happened to their family during the war, and in particular Ida’s parents. While on the road, they come face to face with grief, guilt, and violence.
Ida is presented with an alternative to the life she was about to enter as a nun, and her choice will determine the course of her future.
The film asks what makes life worth living?
5. The Seventh Seal
via Roger Ebert
This film is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Directed by Ingmar Bergman, it is praised for its striking imagery and bold narrative.
The story opens on a disillusioned knight returning from the Crusades. He finds his country in the grips of the Black Plague. He enters a church with the intention of going into confession, but meets Death in the sanctuary. Death then follows the knight on his journey home.
Some of the questions you’ll be left to ponder after watching this film include:
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This highly acclaimed film incorporates the elements of a psychological thriller, drama, and science fiction to explore the characteristics of romantic love and the workings of memory. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2004.
The film introduces us to Joel and Clementine, a couple whose relationship has gone sour. In the movie, there is a procedure that makes it possible to erase certain memories from a person’s mind. We witness how this procedure affects not only Joel and Clementine’s lives, but the lives of other people as well.
The movie explores several philosophical dilemmas. Some questions you might ask after seeing the film include:
7. Waking Life
Waking Life captured the interest of moviegoers for the philosophical ideas it dished out. It is animated through a technique called rotoscoping, adding to the surreal feel of the movie.
In the film, viewers encounter an unnamed guy who lives in a perpetual dream world. He interacts with characters from different walks of life, including restaurant diners, scholars, artists, and his friends. The discussions frequently touch on topics such as existentialism, film theories, and politics. From time to time, the names of well-known thinkers are mentioned in these dream-state discussions.
The rotoscope technique imbues this film with added visual appeal, and the philosophical questions posed encourage deeper discussions in order for viewers to arrive at their own truths.
8. Pan's Labyrinth
This dark fantasy film by Guillermo Del Toro is lauded for its rich visual effects, the performances of the actors, the quality of the direction, and its cinematography. It won three awards in the 79th Academy Awards (best cinematography, best art direction, and best makeup).
The film is set in 1944, when Spain was in the grips of a civil war to overthrow the fascist government. It follows Ofelia as she and her pregnant mother begin their new lives in the countryside. Ofelia’s stepfather is a sadistic military leader hunting down guerillas.
This film explores the true definition of innocence. Moreover, it questions our blind obedience to authority figures—from our parents to leaders of the government—even when what they are doing is wrong.
9. The Sacrifice
via Film Affinity
This was Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film. When the Russian filmmaker created The Sacrifice, he was diagnosed with cancer. The film was first released in Sweden in 1986, the year he died. It was re-released on what would have been Tarkovsky’s 75th birthday.
In the film, we get to know Alexander, a retired but well-respected actor and journalist. On the day of his 50th birthday, the world is threatened by a nuclear holocaust.
Although Alexander declares that he has a non-existent relationship with God, the war makes him ask God to spare the people he loves. But what must he give up in exchange?
10. Fight Club
Fight Club was released in 1999 and was considered one of the most impactful and controversial films of that year. In the years that followed, it developed a cult following.
This is the story of an unnamed insomniac who narrates the film. The unnamed narrator is unfulfilled in his life, but finds temporary relief from his ennui by attending support group meetings for different disorders and diseases.
In one of these meetings, he meets a woman, Marla Singer, who turns out to also be an imposter using the meetings for her own gains. Later, on one of his business trips, the narrator meets a soap salesman, Tyler Durden. Both Marla and Tyler have a significant impact on the narrator’s life. With Tyler, he forms a fight club, but things quickly get out of control.
The movie touches on the topics of consumerism, rejecting society’s expectations, violence, and self-destruction.
11. Little Miss Sunshine
First released in 2006, this American comedy/drama road trip film was a box office success that earned two Academy Awards—best original screenplay and best supporting actor (for Alan Arkin). The movie went on to win more accolades from other prestigious award-giving bodies.
In Little Miss Sunshine, we join the Hoover family on an 800-mile road trip from their home in Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California. They’re making the drive in support of their youngest child, Olive, who qualifies to join a kiddie beauty pageant. For various reasons, all members of the family must go.
Because of budget constraints, they can only drive to the pageant venue in a Volkswagen T2 Microbus. The family members, already fraught with interpersonal tensions, have to deal with each other during the trip.
This movie deals with society’s expectations and the lengths we all go to meet them. The meaning of life is also explored, as well as the true definition of happiness.
via Film Affinity
The film Persona is considered to be Ingmar Bergman’s magnum opus. It was first released in 1966, and is one of the most analyzed and talked about films of all time.
Persona introduces us to two women: the nurse Alma and the actress Elisabet. In the film, Elisabet is unwell and does not speak. For the purpose of speeding up her recovery, Elisabet’s doctor prescribes that she spend time in an isolated cottage together with her nurse Alma.
In the cottage, the two women must assert their wills to keep their sense of self amidst the merging of their identities.
The movie makes us ponder topics such as identity, sexuality and gender, and the human mind.
13. The Tree of Life
This experimental film by Terrence Malick was awarded a Palm d’Or when it was first released at the Cannes Festival in 2011. It has been praised as one of the best American films of all time. In 2019, Associated Press made The Tree of Life number one in their list of the best films of the decade (2010–2019).
The film introduces us to the O’Brien family. We witness the pain and longing experienced by their eldest son, Jack, who has a difficult relationship with his father. We also see Jack’s recollection of childhood memories in 1950s Texas. Interspersed with Jack’s memories are images of the origins of the universe and the beginning of life on our planet.
Some questions that the film raises include:
14. It's a Wonderful Life
This fantasy drama was created by Frank Capra and first released as a Christmas film in 1946. It flopped at the box office during its theatrical run, but It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered a classic. It is included in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest American movies of all time.
In the movie, we meet George Bailey on Christmas Eve. He is contemplating ending his life, but an angel named Clarence appears and shows George an alternate reality where he is absent from the lives of the people he cares about.
This film compels us to consider the following questions:
15. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
This film from South Korea was directed by Kim Ki-Duk, and released in the United States in 2004.
In Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, we witness the tranquil life of a Buddhist monk and his young disciple. They live in a raft dwelling in the middle of a lake. However, their tranquility is disturbed by the arrival of a woman. The disciple leaves his master to follow the woman.
Years later, the disciple—now middle aged—returns to the dwelling in the middle of the lake. The dwelling gains a new master, a new apprentice appears, and the cycle of life begins anew.
This movie compels us to ask is acts of goodness can lead to evil?
16. A Clockwork Orange
This controversial, thought-provoking crime film was adapted by Stanley Kubrick from the novel of the same title written by Anthony Burgess. The film was first released in 1971. Because of several highly explicit scenes (sex and violence), the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures rated it as “Condemned” at the time of the film’s release. Numerous countries have banned the showing of this movie until quite recently.
In this film, a young criminal named Alex DeLarge narrates his story of crime sprees and his eventual capture. An experimental procedure (the Ludovico Treatment), approved by the government, is performed on Alex, causing him to have a negative reaction whenever he feels extreme emotions such as sexual pleasure and rage.
The movie compels us to contemplate the consequences of free will. It facilitates discussions on the nature of good and evil, and the choices we make.
via Movie Ramblings
This movie was released in 1997, at a time when the world was feverishly focused on the human genome project. It is set in the near future, when eugenics has become the norm. People are categorized either as “valid” (conceived through genetic selection) or “in-valid” (conceived through “traditional” means).
The main character, Vincent Freeman, is an in-valid. His genetic profile relegates him to a menial job. However, he has dreams of going into space and is willing to do all that is necessary to realize this dream.
This movie compels us to ask the following questions:
Final Thoughts on the Best Philosophical Movies
You may already have a favorite from among the philosophical movies on our list today. After all, these films are all masterpieces in their own right.
Their ability to inspire deep thought about commonly held beliefs, our idea of right and wrong, and other topics transforms these movies into portals of truth.
We hope that this collection of the best philosophical movies of all time inspire you to explore the deeper meaning of the things we take for granted in life.
For further philosophical explorations, you can use the philosophical questions found in this post for a thought-provoking conversation.