Fourteen Philosophical Films (That the Lists Missed)

Fourteen Philosophical Films (That the Lists Missed)

Fourteen Philosophical Films (That the Lists Missed)

philosopher-movies

If you scour the internet for “philosophical films,” you’ll come across some perfectly satisfactory lists that include the must-sees: the metaphysical labyrinth of The Matrix, the ethical feast of Groundhog Day, the Sartrean existentialism and alienation of Taxi Driver, and so on.

But many of these lists scarcely mention, or don’t mention at all, what I consider some classic philosophical films. So I concocted my own list of fourteen – by no means comprehensive or a “top fourteen” – just some films that, in my opinion, are also must-see movies for philosophers and philosophy students.

Feel free to add any other recommendations for philosophical films in the comments section below!

1. The Addiction (1995): While the acting in this black-and-white vampire flick by Abel Ferrara (King of New York) leaves something to be desired – it’s one of the most philosophical films ever made, and the one that other lists most often leave out. References to Kierkegaard, Sartre and others abound as a philosophy student-turned-vampire prowls the streets of New York for blood and meaning – a search that culminates in a creepy Christopher Walken quoting Nietzsche.

Memorable Quote:
“Your friend Feuerbach wrote that all men counting stars are equivalent in every way to God. My indifference is not the concern here. It’s your astonishment that needs studying.”

 addiction
2. Love and Death (1975): Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors often makes the cut (and rightly so); arguably, any number of Allen’s films could squeeze their way onto philosophical films lists. But this 1975 comedy is especially philosophical – not to mention uproariously funny.

Memorable Quote:
Sonja: “Judgment of any system, or a priori relationship or phenomenon exists in an irrational, or metaphysical, or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.”
Boris: “Yes, I’ve said that many times.”

loveanddeathh
3. The Fountain (2006): Again, Aronofsky’s film Pi is often his only work that makes the cut – but this classic film starring a stellar Hugh Jackman is a veritable stockpile of philosophical problems dealing with time, death, reincarnation, and immortality.

Memorable Quotes:
“Death is the road to awe.”

“Death is a disease, it’s like any other. And there’s a cure.”

thefountain

4. My Dinner with Andre (1981): It’s hard to sell a movie that consists of little else than two inquisitive men discussing experience, reality, and art over dinner – unless, of course, you’re a philosopher. This 1981 cult classic featuring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (“inconceivable!”) is brimming with philosophical stories and meditations, particularly revolving around the theater and social mores.

Memorable Quote:
“They all act as if they know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment. And they all seem totally self-confident. Of course, privately people are very mixed up about themselves. They don’t know what they should be doing with their lives.”

andre

5. Barton Fink (1991): This lesser-known Coen Brothers neo-noir is matched only by A Serious Man in its masterful depiction of existential dread and anxiety. When a New York playwright determined to write of the plight of the “common man” sells his artistic soul to write a wrestling flick for Hollywood – he begins a slow and steady Faustian descent into an oppressively tedious and violent world that lacks substance, clarity, and meaning.

Memorable Quote:
“I gotta tell you, the life of the mind…there’s no roadmap for that territory. And exploring it can be painful.”
fink

6. Eraserhead (1977): Speaking of existential dread – we dare you to set foot in the black-and-white industrial wasteland of David Lynch’s cult classic Eraserhead, where babies are born aliens, a deformed demiurge operates everything with levers, and a creepy 50’s singer croons about “heaven” just when you’re quite sure you’ve been thrust into hell. David Lynch has yet to reveal the true meaning behind this notoriously creepy film (although he insists it was all tied together by a line he read from the Bible) – but philosophers will no doubt have plenty of theories.

Memorable Quote:
Mr. X: “Well Henry, what do you know?”
Henry Spencer: “Oh, I don’t know much of anything.”
eraserhead
7. Before Sunrise (1995): Directly opposite the mood of Eraserhead is this Richard Linklater romance, which is usually overshadowed in terms of philosophical weight by his 2001 animated film Waking Life. Although Before Sunrise isn’t quite as steeped in rigorous questions, many of the dialogues between the main characters about the meaning of life and love are priceless. Don’t miss the sequel Before Sunset – but, like any good philosophical movie, it only raises more questions.

Memorable Quote:
“I had worked for this old man and once he told me that he had spent his whole life thinking about his career and his work. And he was fifty-two and it suddenly struck him that he had never really given anything of himself. His life was for no one and nothing.”

before
8. The Machinist (2004): This underrated 2004 psychological thriller stars an emaciated Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik, a haunted insomniac and industrial worker who plows through Dostoevsky novels, courts a prostitute, and befriends a single mother to pass the long sleepless hours. Soon, mysterious co-workers begin to plot against him at work – and the metaphysical conundrum of “what is real” reaches a paranoid fever pitch that unexpectedly redirects into questions about ethics and human nature.

Memorable Quotes:
“I know who you are…”

“If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.”

machinist
9. The Philosopher Kings (2009): At first glance, the only philosophical thing about this documentary following the lives of custodians is the title. As the film unfolds, its brilliance is manifest: “philosophy” has been hijacked. It has come to mean the esoteric squabbles of academics echoing in the ivory towers these custodians scrub down and sweep. But it means, literally, “the love of wisdom”; and these insightful custodians show us, better than any PhD ever could, the joy of being alive, the dignity of human person, and the attainment of wisdom through suffering.

Memorable Quotes:
“I think it’s a miracle that we’re here. I think it’s a miracle that life exists, even if this the only place in the universe it exists.”

“If you’re miserable every day, you’re doing something wrong.”

kings

10. Iris (2001): There aren’t many films about philosophers that double as wonderful, well-made movies; but Iris is an exception. This romantic drama follows the brilliant and at times bawdy life of writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch, from her rollicking life as a young writer (played by Kate Winslet) to her battle with Alzheimer’s disease later in life (played brilliantly by Judi Dench).

Memorable Quote:
“Every human soul has seen, perhaps before their birth pure forms such as justice, temperance, beauty and all the great moral qualities which we hold in honour. We are moved towards what is good by the faint memory of these forms simple and calm and blessed which we saw once in a pure, clear light being pure ourselves.”
iris

11. The Thin Red Line (1998): The Tree Of Life may be Terrence Malick’s magnum opus, but The Thin Red Line, a World War II film with an all-star cast, dishes up quite a lot of food for thought. This isn’t surprising once you learn that Malick taught philosophy at MIT. Reportedly, Malick didn’t complete his PhD at Oxford because he had a disagreement with Gilbert Ryle over his dissertation on the concept of “a world” in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein – something he’s still clearly hammering out, much to the enjoyment and enlightenment of moviegoers.

Memorable Quote:
“This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known…Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”
thinred
12. Unbreakable (2000): While M. Night Shyamalan’s status as a premier director has faltered in recent years, we’ll always have his first few films. Unbreakable, perhaps his best, explores the great ethical questions of man in a thriller about very human heroes and villains. As Thomas Hibbs notes in Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption, there is a “will to meaning,” a “quest for purpose and greatness” in the life of the villainous Elijah Price – but his “contravention of all moral standards” to achieve it raises fundamental questions about human morality, and the price of going “beyond good and evil.”

Memorable Quote:
“It’s hard for many people to believe that there are extraordinary things inside themselves, as well as others. I hope you can keep an open mind.”

unbreakable
13. The Lord of the Rings: Trilogy (2001-2003): Many will balk at our inclusion of the film version of Tolkein’s classic fantasy. Great movie, sure. Great book – undoubtedly. But is it really philosophical? Pick up Peter Kreeft’s wonderful The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings, and you’ll see that LOTR addresses fundamental questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, like: Are Platonic Ideas real? Does God exist? Are we both fated and free? Is knowledge always good? Is evil real? Does mercy trump justice?

Memorable Quote:
“Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

lotr

14. THX 1138 (1971): Last but not least is George Lucas’ directorial debut. While sci-fi flicks like Blade Runner and Inception pop up on philosophical films lists, THX 1138 is conspicuously absent. This is surprising, considering that Lucas’ dystopian film raises essential questions about technology, political authority, mass consumerism, the exploitation of religion, and the nature of the person. Though their philosophies are somewhat mixed and muddied, Lucas even pays homage to Plato, Sartre, and Nietzsche through characters PTO, SRT, and NCH – and the film on a whole, particularly the ending, is reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave.

Memorable Quote:
“How shall the new environment be programmed? It all happened so slowly that most men failed to realize that anything had happened at all.”
thx1138

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8 comments

  1. Great list.

    For ages I was going around recommending The Addiction (as well as The Funeral) to people and never running into anyone else who’d seen it. Glad to finally find someone else who enjoyed it.

    Lots of other great choices here too.

  2. @Darwin Thanks Darwin – I’ve never seen The Funeral, but will definitely be on the look-out for it now.

    Yes – I can’t quite remember how I came to see, or even hear about The Addiction. But I’m very glad I did. It may not be Oscar-worthy material, but it’s a must-see for any philosopher or philosophy student.

  3. @Anonymous Well, this list wasn’t intended to be a “top 14” or even “essential 14” list – just 14 films I found missing from other lists I encountered.

    Thanks for the recommendation – I’ve never seen or heard of Mindwalk, but it looks great!

  4. @Anonymous I actually haven’t seen “The Man From Earth,” but I have seen it referenced in several lists. I’ll definitely look into this film!

  5. @the Monk Love the Dark Night, and I do think it’s a very philosophically relevant story. But it had already popped up on many a list online!

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