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—Richard Lin­klater’s Wak­ing Life, 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, 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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Comments (87)
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  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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:


  • Micha says:

    Spring, Sum­mer, Fall, Winter…and Spring

    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


    der name der rose


    the foun­tain


    bit­ter moon



    fried green toma­toes

    a face in the crowd


    the man who was­nt there

    before the rain


    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



    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:


  • 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.
    No way Out
    The Dark Cor­ner
    In a Lone­ly Place
    Armored Car Rob­bery
    On Dan­ger­ous Ground
    A Woman Secret
    Fol­low me Qui­et­ly

  • Mason says:

    Ago­ra by Ale­jan­dro Amenabar. About Hypa­tia of Alexan­dria.

  • bon says:


  • bon says:

    *Ugh- above com­ment was in reply to jamie, who sug­gest­ed ‘My din­ner with Andre’.It’s a goodun.

    Why do replies end up at the bot­tom of the com­ments rather than direct­ly below the com­ment to which we replied/ clicked ‘reply’? ( on of the more impor­tant philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions of our times )

  • G. Farrell says:

    The Lives of Oth­ers

  • Matthew Hays says:

    Please don’t for­get Mar­shall Mcluhan’s bril­liant cameo in Annie Hall

  • rema murphy says:

    Don’t for­get The Razor’s Edge. Saw Bill Mur­ray’s depth in that one.

  • Liz says:

    Films about Han­nah Arendt:

    “Han­nah Arendt”: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1674773/

    “Vita Acti­va: The Spir­it of Han­nah Arendt” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5358370/

  • Yamilet Reyes says:

    Wim Wen­der’s, Wings of Desire is a must for any phi­los­o­phy stu­dent.

  • Acrillic Figa says:

    Maybe Log­ic: The Lives and Ideas of Robert Anton Wil­son.

  • Roman Gorlewski says:

    Has any­body ever watched Trea­sure Of The Sier­ra Madre?

  • Jugu Abraham says:

    Syber­berg’s 7‑hour film “Hitler‑A film from Ger­many”

  • Kat says:

    San­ta San­gre
    Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky

  • abdulbasit says:

    I am very need­ed to see the 44 movies of phi­los­o­phy.

  • sri says:

    The Leg­end of Bag­ger Vance (a retelling of Bha­gavad-gita).

  • James Biehl says:

    The City of God (ethics) .. I sec­ond fight club (exis­ten­tial­ism)

    Also some movies by Bela Tar, such as “Satan­ta­n­go” and “Turin Horse” which is about Niet­zsche’s last days, albeit an artis­tic film, much bet­ter than the one list­ed. Lookup the scene from Satan­ta­n­go “Order and free­dom” which is an excel­lent philo­soph­i­cal stint some­what about exis­ten­tial­ism, will, pas­sion, and jus­tice.

  • Tania says:

    The foun­tain

  • Cheryl says:

    Ex machi­na

  • Ginny says:

    “Being There” and “Babet­te’s Feast”

  • Harry T. says:

    Is “I Heart Huck­abees” too on the nose?

  • soclose says:

    “Ter­mi­na­tor 2” and “Alien 3”.

  • La Que Sabe says:

    Philo­soph­i­cal films are the type that make you ask your­self through­out “What am I watch­ing?” and leave you with­out an answer as they draw to a close, so that you must ask your­self also “What did I just watch?”:

    Cos­mos — Andrzej Żuławs­ki
    Stalk­er — Andrei Tarkovsky
    Anom­al­isa — Char­lie Kauf­man

  • Mitchell says:

    “Pater­son”, by Jar­musch, 2016

  • Ron says:

    Meet­ings With Remark­able Men
    The Con­formist
    Inland Empire

  • Michel says:

    Embrace of the Serpent.2015

  • Lion Goodman says:

    I just watched Sam­sara again two nights ago, and it cer­tain­ly put me into a philo­soph­i­cal spin. Ron Frick­e’s films, includ­ing Bara­ka, are visu­al­ly stun­ning, with­out dia­logue or char­ac­ters, sim­ply a visu­al feast of nature and the human con­di­tion. In Sam­sara (which means the suf­fer­ing from delu­sion), there are images of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Moslems pray­ing around a big rock, Jews argu­ing with God at the Wall, Bud­dhists med­i­tat­ing and doing cer­e­mo­ny, Mate­ri­al­ists going to work to earn the Almighty Dol­lar, and African tribes­men dec­o­rat­ing their bod­ies, and hold­ing auto­mat­ic rifles. It is con­fronting to see it all up close and per­son­al, as if you’re there. It spun me into thoughts of how absolute­ly crazy human­i­ty is, and how pre­cious human­i­ty is. High­ly rec­om­mend­ed ther­a­py for “nor­mal” thoughts.

  • angela pearson says:

    Yes the incred­i­ble light­ness of being, I would say.….…

  • ladythornfield says:

    I sec­ond ‘The Turin Horse’ and ‘Ago­ra’

  • ChuckyBill says:

    Woman in the Dunes

  • Maurelia says:

    Meet­ings with remark­able men (1979)

  • Jo says:

    cher­ry blos­soms (Ger­man film)
    On Body and Soul
    Talk to Her
    Cap­tain Fan­tas­tic
    Great Beau­ty

  • Mike in Houston Texas says:

    The Qat­si tril­o­gy is the infor­mal name giv­en to a series of non-nar­ra­tive films pro­duced by God­frey Reg­gio and scored by Philip Glass:

    Koy­aanisqat­si: Life Out of Balance(1982)

    Powaqqat­si: Life in Transformation(1988)

    Naqoyqat­si: Life as War (2002)

    The titles of all three motion pic­tures are words from the Hopi lan­guage, in which the word qat­si trans­lates to “life.” 

  • lyndsay says:

    Poet­ry! this film! such a ful­ly real­ized onto­log­i­cal beau­ty!

  • lyndsay says:

    women and WOC and LGBTQ2S !

    i’d love to watch more philo­soph­i­cal films writ­ten and direct­ed by women+, or films fea­tur­ing women+ thinkers. a cou­ple on this list but ask­ing the dig­gers out there for more sug­ges­tions?

  • Earl in Vancouver says:

    Zelig.….…..adapting to your envi­ron­ment
    Two For The Road.….…..how your per­spec­tive changes as you age

  • Zhish Zhek says:

    please don’t for­get Zizek’s appear­ance in the excel­lent “Laibach: A Film from Slove­nia”

  • Luca Menato says:

    Decon­struct­ing Har­rry … for giv­ing us an “out of focus” Woody Allen if noth­ing else

  • aryan says:

    I have seen some some of these movies which are very good like The Pervert’s Guide To Cin­e­ma, The Ister

  • Paul says:

    Lol. The won­der of the inter­net. A lit­tle late to the par­ty, but yes Bill and Ted came out when I was in high school. I was­n’t in high school in 2001. Also, The Last Days of Imman­u­al Kant is off by a cou­ple years too depend­ing on the ref­er­ence…

  • Evy says:

    Enlight­en­ment Guar­an­teed

  • Massar says:

    Film about Plato’s ide­al­ism and Pythagore­anism at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GJ6-n-RJQdY

  • massar says:

    There is a good com­e­dy film about ratio­nal­ist philosopy, Balt­haz­ar and I. You can watch it online on youtube

  • J.Natale says:

    Three Colors:Red/Blue/White and Deka­log by Krzysztof Kies­lows­ki

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