18 Best Existential Movies of All Time

“Existentialism” is a term coined by late 19th and 20th-century European philosophers who believed that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. As per them, people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook. Yeah, I know it’s complicated. But to put it simply, “existentialism” is philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility.

Listed below is the list of top existential movies ever through which their makers have tried to make a sense of what existing in this world means. How much does our experiences shape our beliefs? And is life truly meaningless? These are a few of the many questions these films ask. Which of these best enlightenment movies is your favorite. By the way, you can stream some of these best existential movies on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.

18. Birdman (2014)

Bursting and bristling with raw energy, ‘Birdman’ plays around with the art of movie-making as you know it, and gives a new dimension to it. It surprises, challenges, and dazzles; sometimes all at once. It is zany, exhilarating, and an experience that you, in all likelihood, would have never had at cinemas. A caustic, and darkly funny look at the instant fame culture and celebrityhood in this day and age of Facebook and Twitter, it mocks at those who are prisoners of their own image. Ultimately, it is a film about an actor going through an existential crisis.

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17. Synecdoche, New York (2007)

‘Synecdoche, New York’ is a difficult movie to watch, and even stomach. It is not something which needs to be understood; movies like this need to be observed, felt and reflected upon. Intensely cerebral, often-times shocking, ‘Synecdoche, New York’ would not appeal to everyone; it is a celebration of everything an artist aspires to be, and yet it is ultimately a tragedy, showing the flip-side of artistic ambition, where the real meets the unreal, plunging the artistic mind into the dark depths of uncertainty and depression.

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16. Persona (1966)

It is difficult to add a film like ‘Persona’ in any genre-based lists because of the sheer depths and ambiguities of the themes dealt in the film. ‘Persona’ is a film that is open to numerous interpretations and is still widely discussed, debated and analyzed by critics, scholars and cinephiles across the world. The film tells the story of two women, a nurse and her mute patient and the eerie bonding of their strange personas. The film explores human identity, blurs and shakes our perceptions of dreams and reality and plunges into the deepest and darkest aspects of the complex human psyche and the bizarre fantasies that encompass it. ‘Persona’ is a profoundly intimate and personal experience and is a pure piece of cinematic poetry.

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15. Taxi Driver (1976)

‘Taxi Driver’ tells the story of a Vietnam veteran emotionally wrecked by his life clouded with loneliness and misery. A heavily character driven film, ‘Taxi Driver’ features an astonishing acting feat by Robert De Niro who portrays a man’s descent into madness as we see him being pulled by the extremities of human darkness. Maybe Travis Bickle was once a lovely, charming guy and it was war that made him feel alien to a world that was once his home. His inability and desperation to come in contact with people and the perpetual struggle to fit in a bizarre, freakish world ridden with murders and misdemeanors is a deeply, disturbing dark portrait of a human soul.

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14. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003)

Billed as the best piece of work from the stables of South Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk, ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring’ is a story that narrates the life of a Buddhist monk as he passes through the different stages of life. The film can be considered to be a metaphor for the perpetual continuity and cyclical nature of human life. Along the way, it also explores the themes of love, sacrifice, devotion, seclusion and fidelity. Known for featuring very few dialogues, the movie is deeply contemplative in nature and takes the audience along on a serene trip.

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13. The Seventh Continent (1989)

Calling Michael Haneke’s ‘The Seventh Continent’ a horror film sounds very wrong to me, but that is how it is referred to by most people who have seen it. It’s hard to argue with them, because a viewing of this film leaves one feeling hopeless, depressed, and frightened. Having to do with a family who hates the world and life in general, this 1989 classic takes a cold and distant stance to further isolate the three players from the rest of society, which slowly but surely causes the audience to feel deeply for them as their existence takes a dark turn. Being one of the most disturbing films to ever grace the silver screen, Haneke’s debut piece taunts the viewer and never lets go. If the audience call it a horror film, then they do it referring to a scary movie that is unlike any other. Covered in ambiguity and realism, The Seventh Continent is a personal, intimate, and terrifying retelling of a true story that leaves you in silence, because for at least a couple minutes after it ends, you become unable to utter a single word.

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12. Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Spanish master Victor Erice made just three feature films before retiring. Still alive today, its movies like El Sur, Quince ‘Tree of the Sun’ and especially Spirit of the Beehive, his indefinable debut, that make us all wish he was still making movies. A parabilic tale of two children, one exploring his existence with innocent, often bewildering fascination and the other obsessed with the film ‘Frankenstein’ which played in their local theatre. Its mystifying portrait of the Spanish heartland is left in alluring ambiguity by Erice’s characteristically neutral direction- rarely venturing in for cinematic method in favour of silent observation. The resultant work is perplexing, engrossing and will leave you wondering about the intrinsic enigma of life itself: Its unanswerable questions, its great mysteries and their baffling unassailability. To leave you utterly devastated or incomparably moved, there is no doubt that to either extreme ‘Spirit of the Beehive’ will be an important experience.

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11. Sátántangó (1994)

I was hypnotized by Béla Tarr’s sprawling, prodigious masterpiece when I first saw it. Its pragmatic sense of the real world and its patience are its defining qualities. It observes more than it reflects and contemplates more than it deliveres neatly formed statements. Its mythical, bleak realism is too good to be true and far too brutal to have been realized with such an eye for beauty. All I wished to do by the end was to shut all my windows and envelop myself in the darkness because the film to me had been like that madman in the church and its wailing had made too much sense. I’m elated to report that ‘Sátántangó’s’ sagacious social and political reflections have begun to make themselves clear to me as I have returned to it repeatedly.

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10. La Dolce Vita (1960)

Fellini’s cautiously, patiently and poetically softened virtuoso is on full display in his Palme d’Or winner that in its soulful and shadowy glamour captures a way of living that seems too elusive and in some ways, far too real. Its pace underlines the protagonist’s sense of aimlessness and compels us to bathe in the symphonic arrangement of the vibrancy of life and how fleeting it all is. This protagonist is played by a career-best Marcello Mastroianni, who employs this gift of time to fill his eyes with an irresistible world-weariness. Questioning the significance of certain sections of ‘La Dolce Vita’ that may seem devoid of philosophical import or narrative relevance is to reject the possibility of letting the piquant details wash over you and then contemplate the consequences. As Nino Rota’s heavenly score carries us into the dizzying world of Rome, as seen through Fellini’s illusory eye, you see only what he wants you to see and it swiftly becomes what you want to see too.

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9. 8 1/2 (1963)

Exploiting the shaded gravitas of Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s sheer electricity can be overwhelming. You hang on to your perception of a particular moment and recognize its sultry richness only to discover that the filmmaker has moved on to another fluttering, delectably poised sequence. His ideas about artists and their perplexing, ridiculous obsession with themselves may seem dated – or worse, irrelevant- but the audacity of their construction and expression is never lost on us. It bewitches and beguiles us, never allowing us to take our eyes off it and then slips through our fingers as it dawns on us that we never had it in our grasp. Fellini is not much different from the clairvoyant Maya in the film who seems to know what everyone is thinking: a skill attributed by her assistant to telepathy. When our protagonist, Guido, questions the assistant about how she does it, he plainly notes, “It’s partly a trick, and partly real. I don’t know, but it happens.” No words could be more apt to describe the film with.

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8. The Seventh Seal (1957)

From the very first images of Bergman’s iconic document on faith, fear, and contentment, there is a spell cast on you. The stark, grainy look at the sea, the coast and on it a courageous knight and his fateful encounter with the personification of death defines the film’s clarity of objective, even if it leaves scope for a seductive, almost terrifying ambiguity to be present constantly. Benefiting from a magnetic performance from the incomparable Max von Sydow and a band of actors who elevate Bergman’s astonishing material, based on his play, “Wood Painting”, to unexpected levels, ‘The Seventh Seal’ in its meager 90 minutes has the influence of an old fable passed down through generations that propels imagination far more expansive than it itself can hope to contain. Gunnar Fischer’s sparkling, crisp black-and-white ensures that the harrowing intensity crawls under our skin. The stream-like fluidity is a result of a narrative unfurled with sublime confidence and a tangible levelheadedness. It may be a thoroughly simple story, that nonetheless harbors valuable ideas in its bosom, but it is sewn with a fabric so intricate and bold, you can’t help but look at it over and over for it to translate into a lasting memory.

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7. Stalker (1979)

Keeping its lesser descendants, which include the hugely successful television series ‘Westworld’, at bay, ‘Stalker’s’ colossal influence on visual storytelling cannot be overstated. Ideas – philosophical, spiritual and scientific – as well as their deft, glorious cinematic exploration in ‘Stalker’ have found their impressions on many a science-fiction to come after it. It’s not so much the gliding, trance-inducing and at points, abstract pacing or the soul-stirring use of monochromatic sepia outside the “Zone” and the imprinting colors of the locations in Estonia, that have been mirrored in the work of filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Lav Diaz, to name a few, but the enduring patience and humility. Largely handing over the philosophical reigns to the audience, Tarkovsky leaves so much room for the viewers to discover multiple metaphysical facets of the film for themselves, that even its unrivaled literal and visual poetry seems as much a figment of our fabrication as it is of his and his collaborators’.

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6. Apocalypse Now (1979)

A war film might come off as an unlikely choice. But as I said, great films break from the hurdles of their genres. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is widely regarded as the greatest war film ever made. But at its core, it is a film that also explores existentialism. Captain Willard’s journey into an obscure village in Cambodia to assassinate an enigmatic renegade army officer serves as a visual metaphor for a human being’s gut-wrenching voyage into the abyss of existence. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is about Willard’s quest for answers. With him in his journey, we question the moralities created by a civilized society masked with hypocrisy and megalomania. His strange, mysterious fascination for Colonel Kurtz culminates in his discovery of the extremities of war that could turn a man into an uncivilized beast.

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5. The 400 Blows (1959)

François Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ is a true piece of art stems from real pain. A truly sincere and deeply personal piece of work, Truffaut dedicated the film to his spiritual father and internationally acclaimed film theorist André Bazin. Distinctly autobiographical in nature, Truffaut’s own childhood was troubled, and that’s very distinctly reflected in the film. On the outside, the film is about juvenile and adolescent delinquency that is often driven by societal and parental neglect. Look a little deeper, and you will find a film about hope; hope that is both intense and therapeutic. Antoine Doinel, the protagonist, is someway a stark representation of the society itself, a society that hides its own failures behind rules, punishments and judgements. The film flows like a river and takes the audience along a journey of hope, despair, empathy and even sheer anger. If you ever you wanted to see what a masterpiece looks like, look no further than ‘The 400 Blows’.

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4. Tokyo Story (1953)

‘Tokyo Story’ is what every filmmaker wanting to tell a meaningful story aspires for. Obviously, all of them fall short! There is no better example of a film that renders an epic story in such simple but masterful, effective and unforgettable way. With ‘Tokyo Story’, Yasujiro Ozu achieved something that is the dream of every living filmmaker: to forever reside in audiences heart and mind. Anyone who has seen ‘Tokyo Story’ will know what I am talking about. The film tells the story of an an aging, traditional Japanese couple who visit their children in Tokyo only to come to the harsh realization that their children are too busy with their lives to care for them and have grown immensely distant from them, culturally and emotionally. What is also so great about the film is its universal theme that anyone, anywhere can relate to. Ozu’s filmmaking style also ensures that you are engrossed in a tale that offers profound insights into the changing human psyche with changing times. Simply brilliant!

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2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The genius of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ lies in the fact that the spiritual journey that it takes us along doesn’t subscribe to theism or agnosticism or anything in particular — it is totally up to the audience on how they want to interpret the film. That ranges from the belief of a theist in the existence of an ever-so-kind, loving God to the cynicism of an agnostic to the depressing pointlessness of life that a nihilist might choose. Nevertheless, at the very least, Kubrick establishes how insignificant we are and how teeny tiny our so-called technological advancements are! We have got light-years to go forward before we get the answers to any of the existential questions that arise in our mind.

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3. The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick never questions the existence of God in ‘The Tree of Life’. Though, his real sense of wonderment doesn’t arise out of it; rather he rejoices in the magic that life itself is. In an era where God has become a means to prove superiority and an excuse to harm and even kill, ‘The Tree of Life” presents a beautiful, yet reasonable way of looking at God. In the end, ‘The Tree of Life’ is a cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition. It doesn’t just ask its audience to observe, but also, reflect and feel. At its simplest, ‘The Tree of Life’ is a story of the journey of finding oneself. At its most complex, it is a meditation on human life and our place in the grand scheme of things. In the end, ‘The Tree of Life’ might change the way you look at life — it changed me.

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2. Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

This French avant-garde feature starring Delphine Seyrig as the title character is no mere cinematic experience. It is closer to an exercise – a test, and affects you in ways that few other films have done before or since. The independent piece focuses on three days in the life of a lonely, troubled homemaker, as she goes through her strict schedule filled with mundane household chores. She is a mother and a widow who performs sex work for gentlemen in the evening-time so as to earn a living. Problems arise when, on the second day, her routine is slightly disturbed, leading to a sort-of domino effect that is reflected in the hours following it. Jeanne Dielman pulls one into its slow and meditative world with Akerman’s distinctive directorial signature, involving diegetic atmosphere, and a hypnotic aura brought on by the calm, subtle, and patient personality of the masterwork, which is a painful celebration of the monotony of existence.

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1. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Robert Bresson’s desolate masterpiece is an exercise in feeling. It steers away from defining a clear protagonist or a central theme unless you count the miraculous force of nature that is Balthazar and if you take the film on face value, you don’t. But if you allow him to be your point of access to the film’s emotional and thematic landscape, it’s hard to return from it unrewarded. Balthazar’s peculiar, lean and cool visual style seems almost glamorous in retrospect; its placid fragility wrapped in a resigned, singularly wise sense of control. Even its palpable honesty conceals a studied effort to hold back a little, to nourish in its simplicity of setting and character a richness left to the audience to discover and in some breathtaking instances, imagine. Assigning significance to each moment in ‘Balthazar’ doesn’t depend on whether we assume its contents to be allegories of a social or even political nature, but the way they make us feel by relishing their complexity and quietness, instead of relying on the mindless exposition most films resort to. It makes perfect sense, then, for the protagonist to be the eponymous donkey.

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