44 Essential Movies for the Student of Philosophy

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “philosophical film”? The Matrix, most likely, an obvious example of a movie—or franchise—that explores timeless questions: Who are we? What is reality? Are our lives nothing more than elaborate simulations programmed by hyperintelligent supercomputers? Okay, that last one may be of more recent vintage, but it’s closely related to that ancient cave allegory of Plato’s that asks us to consider whether our experiences of the world are nothing more than illusions emanating from a “real” world that lies hidden from view. Another influence on The Matrix is Rene Descartes, whose dualistic separation of consciousness and body receives the maximum of dramatic treatment.

But The Matrix is only one film among a great many that concern themselves with classic problems of philosophy. In a 2010 post for Mubi, Matt Whitlock compiled a list of 44 “Essential Movies for a Student of Philosophy.” Along with The Matrix, other films of the past couple decades get mentions—The Truman Show (“the true home of Plato’s Cave in modern movies”), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, Being John Malkovich, Inception. Also appearing on the list are classics like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal—which illustrates, Whitlock writes, “The Angst of The Absurd.” All of these films appear under the subheading “Famous thought experiments or discussion of a famous philosophical problem.”




Another category on the list is “Movies featuring a philosopher.” The media-savvy Slavoj Žižek gets two mentions, for 2006’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and 2005’s Žižek! (excerpt above). Since Whitlock compiled the list, Žižek has received yet another feature-length treatment—2012’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Astra Taylor, director of Žižek!, also included him in 2009’s The Examined Life, alongside Peter Singer, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, Sunaura Taylor, and Cornel West. After the documentaries, we have “Movies with philosopher as a character,” including Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein, with Clancy Chassay as the irascible logician (at the top of the post), Roberto Rossellini’s 1958 Socrates, starring Jean Sylvere in the title role, and, of course, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, with Tony Steedman as “So-Crates.”

The final three subcategories in Whitlock’s list are “Movies featuring the ideas of particular philosophers,” “Movies based on Novels written by famous philosophers,” and “Other.” In the last basket, Whitlock places the PBS string-theory documentary The Elegant Universe and Finnish performance artist M.A. Numminen’s bizarre adaptation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Whitlock narrows the field by ruling out “movies that make you think deep crazy stuff” or those with “some new ‘existential twist’ on common topics.” Instead, he sticks to those films “that (seem to be) incarnations of classic philosophical thought experiments or movies that have a major philosophical problem as a main theme… that include topics that a serious student of philosophy needs to understand.”

Like most such lists, this one doesn’t claim to be definitive, and the four years since its compilation have produced several films that might warrant inclusion. Yet another reference from 2010—William G. Smith’s Socrates and Subtitles: A Philosopher’s Guide to 95 Thought-Provoking Movies from Around the World—casts a wider net. But Whitlock’s list seems to me a very useful starting point for thinking about the relationship between philosophy and film. Below, see the first ten films on the list:

Zizek! (2005)
Examined Life (2008)
Derrida (2002)
The Ister (2004)
The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (2009)
Being In The World (2010)
Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (2001)
When Nietzsche Wept (2007)
The Last Days Of Immanuel Kant (1994)
The Alchemist Of Happiness (2004)

Take a look at his full list here, and by all means, offer your own suggestions for films that fit the criteria in the comments section below.

Related Content:

Wittgenstein: Watch Derek Jarman’s Tribute to the Philosopher, Featuring Tilda Swinton (1993)

Watch The Reality of the Virtual: 74 Minutes of Pure Slavoj Žižek (2004)

Watch The Idea, the First Animated Film to Deal with Big, Philosophical Ideas (1932)

Daniel Dennett and Cornel West Decode the Philosophy of The Matrix in 2004 Film

Two Animations of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: One Narrated by Orson Welles, Another Made with Clay

The Drinking Party, 1965 Film Adapts Plato’s Symposium to Modern Times

Download 100 Free Philosophy Courses and Start Living the Examined Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

 


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  • Edward Ramsay-Morin says:

    Mindwalk
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100151/

    Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100519/

  • jamie says:

    My Dinner With Andre

  • umesh says:

    waking life and the man from earth.

  • Beth Carruthers says:

    Steppenwolf (1974) Fred Haines, Dir. Screenplay written with Herman Hesse

    Wings of Desire (1987) Wim Wenders, Dir.

    Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy (Blood of a Poet 1930, Orphee 1950, Testament of Orpheus 1959) Jean Cocteau, Dir.

    Possible Worlds (2000) Robert LePage, Dir.

  • Beth Carruthers says:

    The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976 – but find the uncut version) Nicolas Roeg, Dir.

  • Michael Benton says:

    Jodorowsky’s 1973 film The Holy Mountain

  • Beth Carruthers says:

    THX 1138 (1970) George Lucas, Dir.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066434/reviews

  • funny..i was just about to write
    Holy Mountain…so i concur…
    99 Francs
    Un Chien Andalou
    Enter The Void
    Waking Life
    My Dinner With Andre
    The Complete Works of Jan Svankmajer…for starters

  • kim says:

    Bill and ted came out in 1989.. Not 2001

  • Robert says:

    Tarkovsky’s movies:
    Andrei Rublev
    Stalker,

  • Gerry says:

    Viva La Muerte by Fernando Arrabal
    I Stand Alone by Gaspar Noe

  • Joaquin Rua Coll says:

    Good article…

  • CLJ says:

    Locke (2013) by Steven Knight
    -written based on philosophy of John Locke.

  • Joshua Chalifour says:

    First thing that came to mind was Mindwalk and My Dinner with André… so nice that other people noticed those two, too.

    How about adding The Widow of St Pierre (La veuve de Saint-Pierre)? Excellent piece for thinking about ethics, law, right action, etc.

  • PA says:

    Orson Welles’ The Trial and Monty Python’s Life of Brian

  • Dawn says:

    I feel that Paris, Texas would be a good movie for this list. It’s a heart-wrenching tale of bad love, but it shows the redemption of a man who destroyed himself and those around him, and he saves them too.

  • Petra says:

    Wonder Boys and Dead Poets Society

  • Perry says:

    As usual, this stuff is probably over my head, so that leads me to anything by Bunuel. I am also surprised that Being There and Bladerunner didn’t make the list (not to mention they are aesthetically superior to Truman and AI, respectively).

  • Steve says:

    And let us not forget Forrest Gump, for it likely remains a definitive example of Taoist theory set within a popular film.

    Similarly, many of Ang Lee’s films share a consistent thread which can be traced to his own beliefs as a Buddhist. Crouching Tiger, Life of Pi, etc.

  • melanie h. katragadda says:

    Chocolate

  • Micha says:

    Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0374546/

    Beautiful movie.

  • Dionysodorus says:

    Recomend Philip Warnells “Outlandish: Strange Foreign Bodies” staring Jean-Luc Nancy, about Nancys thinking which certainly makes it fall under both “Movies featuring the ideas of particular philosophers” as well as “Movies featuring a philosopher”. Also Claire Denis films inspired by Nancys philosophy is a treat. Safaa Fathys documentary about Derrida from late ninties is also alot better than the american one.

  • Assyouti says:

    I think many things “philosophical” come to mind when watching the worst films. All bad films can be resources for philosophical discussion. And of course, the much fewer good films are richer material for the philosophy. And the filmmaker does not have to even name a character after a philosopher as in Antonioni’s The Passenger, Fellini’s 8 1/2 and others did. But a slight reference to a philosophical issue — as in Tarkovsky’s Rublev or Antonioni’s La notte or even Tarantino’s Kill Bill can re-frame the entire filmic discourse as a philosophical quest.

  • Albert Hoffmann says:

    I think, there is a bit of a misconception concerning movies which are important for a philosophy student: It doesn’t mean that if a movie has as its explicit topic philosophy or philosophers, that this movie is philosophically very important.
    I would rather say a really great movie always is a philosophical movie, always opens the path to important philosophical questions. (By the way, this is what you can learn from Zizek: his movies are on the list, but VERTIGO for example, which he considers a philosophical masterpiece, is not!)

  • Israel Plata says:

    El hombre mirando al sudeste, an argentinian film that explores about madness and common sense.

  • Saffron says:

    Fight Club 1999 Dir David Fincher
    eXistenZ 1999 Dir David Cronenberg

  • Heather Iger says:

    The Sacrifice
    Aguirre: The Wrath of God
    Fantastic Planet
    The Idiots
    Jagal: The Act of Killing
    The Hunt

  • Gabriela says:

    Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? by Michel Gondry. It must be for philosophers, because I understood none of it.

  • Nawab says:

    I would suggest Richard Linklator’s “Waking Life”; Jill Sprecher’s “13 Conversations About One Thing” and Philipp Saville’s “Metroland”.

  • thesoundofthings says:

    Three of my favorites are from South Korean director Lee Chang Dong: Oasis, Secret Sunshine, and Poetry. I consider these an existentialist “trilogy” on perspective, the problem of evil, and the problem of world collapse or dying.

  • Ted Morgan says:

    Play It as It Lays
    Enemies, a Love Story
    The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  • orpheus says:

    das leben der anderen

    daisies

    der name der rose

    dogville

    the fountain

    network

    bitter moon

    gattaca

    urga

    fried green tomatoes

    a face in the crowd

    agora

    the man who wasnt there

    before the rain

    brazil

    blade runner

    the life of david gale

  • Jared Javalar says:

    –Character (Karakter) dir. Mike Van Diem
    –Come And See dir. Elem Klimov
    –Miller’s Crossing dir. Coen Bros. (Johnny Caspar: You double-cross once – where’s it all end? An interesting ethical question. And again: Johnny Caspar: I’m talkin’ about friendship. I’m talkin’ about character. I’m talkin’ about – hell. Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word – I’m talkin’ about ethics.)

  • Aaron says:

    Monty Python & the Holy Grail (1975)
    Monty Python & the Life of Brian (1979)
    Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
    Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

  • Brian says:

    Waking Life

    Maybe Logic: The Life and Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson

    Why Not Now? The Alan Watts Documentary

    Baraka

    Samsara

    The Tao of Steve

    What the Bleep Do We Know

    One: The Movie

  • Stacey Remick-Simkins says:

    I recommended The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Alex Baldwin (1998 I believe) to a professor who was looking for a film to launch a discussion on philosophy in literature in film. It truly is one of the most powerful films.

  • robert ferrell says:

    Latcho Dron
    One Eyed Jacks

  • Guido says:

    Tarkovsky.

  • Papagena says:

    Groundhog Day

    F for Fake

    Into Eternity

    Anything by Chris Marker, especially, The Last Bolshevik, Sunless, and La Jetée

    Harun Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscription of War

  • sar says:

    You cannot forget any film by Jean Luc Godard and Max Ophuls, both have created films touching on desire, infatuation,love, being, freedom, death, commodities and an endless list of other crucial philosophical issues.

  • RB says:

    Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” extensively featuring philosophy professor Robert C. Solomon.

  • Sourav Roy says:

    Ship of Thesus, by Anand Gandhi

  • Angie C. says:

    During the time of Film Noir( black film)in America ,the movies made after WW11 reflected the works of this two Philosophers:Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre Existentialism ,including the works of Sigmund Freud.
    Cornered
    No way Out
    Caged
    The Dark Corner
    In a Lonely Place
    Detour
    Armored Car Robbery
    On Dangerous Ground
    A Woman Secret
    Follow me Quietly

  • Mason says:

    Agora by Alejandro Amenabar. About Hypatia of Alexandria.

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