There are a myriad of films on art, culture, and philosophy for the movie buff or average viewer who wants to listen to experts tackle tough questions. Philosophy films often deal with themes like existentialism, ethics, and even pop culture.
But not all philosophy films are created equal, and some viewers without an academic background in the subject may have to take what they learn with a grain of salt. However, some films stand out for the brilliant way they depict complex philosophical subjects in a visually stunning or even humorous way.
ten What the beep do we know !? (2004)
Quantum physics and consciousness come together in What do we know about the beep?, a 2004 documentary-style film directed by William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente. They postulate that the physical universe is a construction of the mind, matter and thought being codependent.
It’s a mind-blowing great movie that can make viewers question their own realities, but not always in a good way. What do we know about the beep? is a philosophical exercise that is rooted in pseudo-science more than anything else, because although it uses real interviews of chemists and physicists, their words are often elaborate and taken out of context. Fans of quantum mysticism may appreciate it, but audiences who have never encountered the concepts of the film may find it wacky.
9 When Nietzsche Cried (2007)
Written and Directed by Pinchas Perry, When Nietzsche cried is a moving dramatization of the life and philosophical ideas of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The 2007 film follows her tumultuous love affair and eventual friendship with acclaimed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
Between the events of Nietzsche’s life are explanations of his most important contributions to the philosophical community. His famous statement that “God is dead” as well as Freud’s initial ideas on psychoanalysis are portrayed in the film. When Nietzsche cried is an enjoyable film for philosophy students, but its low production value, tacky acting, and questionable editing can annoy moviegoers.
8 Being in the World (2010)
Be in the world is a 2010 documentary that attempts to explore and portray German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s key philosophical idea about “Dasein”. Through interviews with contemporary philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus, Taylor Carman, Mark Wrathall and many others, director Tao Ruspoli is able to explain the complex phenomenological concept in a way that laymen can understand.
The talking heads style the film uses is nothing new, and neither is the smooth jazz and dramatic B-roll that plays over every interview. The way the documentary exposes Heidegger’s concepts is somewhat basic, but will likely still leave most viewers with at least a better understanding of his life and work.
seven I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Fans who enjoy dark humor will likely find I heart HuckabeeIt’s take on the refreshing existential comedy. The 2004 film is an underrated comedy that revolves around two “existential sleuths” as they try to help clients find meaning in life, whether in their careers or relationships.
Director David O. Russell does a great job of portraying the absurdity of life, especially for those who least expect it. The separate storylines all converge together, at the end, to help both the characters and the viewers achieve a satisfying cosmic understanding that everything is connected. Some audiences may find the disparate story arcs too chaotic, but those who enjoy the original films on hard-hitting philosophical concepts should definitely check them out.
6 Goodbye to the language (2014)
Director Jean-Luc Godard Goodbye language is one of his most enigmatic works, which speaks volumes for fans familiar with his films. The 2014 experimental 3D film tells a love story from two angles, allowing viewers to experience the excitement and heartbreak repeatedly throughout the film.
Artistic film tells more than a romantic story, as it uses layers of images and sound to distort reality, or rather present it as it is meant to be. Godard invites audiences to see life from a new, more interesting perspective – it’s a unique perspective that may not be for everyone, but those who can appreciate it will find the film and all of its idiosyncrasies gratifying.
5 The Ister (2004)
Viewers are taken across a long stretch of the Danube in The Ister, where directors David Barison and Daniel Ross interview contemporary philosophers on a variety of topics. The 2004 film seems convoluted at first, but concepts about war, poetry, technology, and more come together to deliver a surprisingly poignant message at the end.
Audiences who don’t have at least a superficial knowledge of Heideggerian thought may feel a bit lost throughout the film, as they don’t shy away from intellectual matters and academic theories. Those who can forgive its somewhat rudimentary cinematography will find it a difficult but satisfying film.
4 Sisyphus (1974)
Sisyphus is a must see short for anyone familiar with the character myth. Director Marcell Jankovics masterfully portrays the struggles of the Greek figure in a brilliantly minimalist way. With a simple art style consisting mostly of dark brushstrokes on a white background and absorbing sound effects, viewers will find moments from the 2-minute film almost too painful to watch.
The fact that the 1974 film is difficult to understand is precisely the point, because the story of Sisyphus is one of endless toil and at the same time of contentment. It might not be an impressive or elaborate philosophical film, but it gets its main point across in a simple and meaningful way.
3 The Guide to the Ideology of the Pervert (2012)
Director Sophie Fiennes captures the personality, humor and intellect of Slavoj Žižek in her 2012 documentary, Guide to pervert ideology. Like its prequel, The guide to perverted cinema, it transports the philosopher to recognizable popular film scenes.
The emphasis on ideology is further highlighted in the sequel, as Žižek talks about the dominant thoughts and hidden ideological layers of pop culture. Movies like The sound of music, Full Metal Jacket, and even The black Knight are featured in the movie. Depending on the political and philosophical leanings of the fans, the film can be either enlightening or problematic – most of its scenes, however, are almost always entertaining.
2 Life Examined (2008)
Director Astra Taylor Life examined is often considered one of the best philosophical films of all time, thanks to its creative take on the talking heads format. Instead of interviewing contemporary philosophers in their homes or offices, the 2008 film shows them walking among other people on busy streets and interacting with their surroundings.
Famous figures in the philosophical community such as Judith Butler, Peter Singer and Avital Ronell provide an understandable explanation of the fundamental concepts of their works applied to modern life. Some might say that the documentary dilutes complex subjects, but most fans would say it’s a great example of how people can use philosophy to better understand and live their lives.
1 Awakened Life (2001)
Anyone with even a little interest in philosophy should consider director Richard Linklater’s film Waking life as essential viewing. The 2001 experimental film has stunning visuals, as it is fully rotoscope. The resulting aesthetic harmonizes perfectly with the central themes of the film, dreams, consciousness, death and existentialism.
The film is anchored in the experiences of a young man as he walks through a dreamlike landscape full of eerie personalities. He meets philosophers, friends and strangers, who talk to him about everything, from lucid dreams to the meaning of life. It’s a captivating film from start to finish and leaves a lot of its concepts open to interpretation.
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