There are a lot of reasons to go to the movies. We want to be entertained, and amused, to laugh and cry. As Nicole Kidman says before seemingly every movie, we want to be “not just entertained, but somehow reborn together. Dazzling images on a huge silver screen. Sounds that I can feel.”
Beyond the dazzling images and heartbreaks that somehow feel good, movies have a unique audiovisual language that allows them to engage us on more than one level. From blockbusters like The Matrix to cult classics like The Truman Show and little-seen gems like Delicatessen, a good number of films want to make their audience think. Below we’ve selected a few of the best, most thoughtful, interesting, and challenging films from around the world.
Updated on August 12th, 2023 by Amira Abdel-Fadil: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
9 My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Probably one of the most famously “philosophical” movies ever made, My Dinner with Andre centers on a single long conversation between two thoughtful characters and touches on numerous philosophical ideas. Director Louis Malle essentially steps back and lets the performances from stage legends André Gregory and Wallace Shawn carry the film.
They accomplish this so well that the movie stayed in theaters for more than a year, with film critic Roger Ebert claiming that the film was the first that came to mind when he was asked to name one entirely devoid of clichés. A surprise hit that remains a cultural touchstone, My Dinner with Andre expertly demonstrates that a movie can be built around two people simply sitting around talking about big ideas.
8 Stalker (1979)
Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky might be the most philosophically-oriented filmmaker of all time, with movies like Solaris, Nostalgia, The Sacrifice, and The Mirror, among others, diving deep into the thorniest issues of existence. Stalker is the best of these, in part because it questions the whole project of philosophy itself. It must have succeeded because it’s listed as the greatest sci-fi film ever made according to Rotten Tomatoes.
The film’s titular “stalker” illegally guides people into a lush, forbidden zone where they will find a room that grants their heart’s truest desire. For almost everyone who accepts this offer, though, this truest desire is also something of a nightmare. The film is Tarkovsky’s argument that maybe we don’t actually know ourselves, or want to know ourselves, as much as we might claim.
7 Monty Python and the Meaning of Life (1983)
The Monty Python crew always had a bit of a philosophical bent, and when the troupe began making movies, this came to the fore. Movies like The Life of Brian wrestle with weighty metaphysical questions with sparks of great insight coursing through the humor. As philosopher Alan Richardson has written: “The principal difference between, say, Terry Jones and Martin Heidegger, is that Jones is aware that he is a comedian.”
For Richardson, Monty Python carries on the tradition of analytical philosophy begun by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell but turns the world’s stubborn refusal to offer logical, meaningful answers into comedy rather than despair. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, though, maybe their most explicitly philosophical, using absurdist humor to tackle very big ideas.
6 A Serious Man (2009)
The Coen brothers consistently give voice to unexpected insights, and in A Serious Man, they take on the meaning of life. The movie’s protagonist, Larry Gopnik, played with hangdog existentialism by Michael Stuhlbarg, is presented with numerous common but unsettling misfortunes and goes in search of an explanation.
The movie delivers far more questions than answers, but like many of the films on this list, we get a number of possible approaches to understanding the mysteries of life before coming to the conclusion that it is, if nothing else, ridiculous. Larry wonders if he’s something of a Job figure, tormented by God or the universe, but his problems, divorce, unhappy children, and stress at work, never quite rise to that level. Indeed, Larry’s suffering is eventually so common as to feel universal.
5 Rashomon (1950)
Akira Kurosawa’s classic film from 1950 still lends its name to ‘The Rashomon Effect,’ where two or more people will remember an event differently, and Kurosawa puts it to good use with a harrowing crime story. By the end of Rashomon, though, the truth is not so much unknowable as unfaceable.
The film’s characters, standing in for humanity in general, are revealed by the end to be actively hypocritical, often deceiving others but constantly deceiving themselves in order to obscure just how deeply selfish they truly are. This aspect of the film hasn’t made it down through posterity to the same extent, but it drenches the movie’s philosophy in more darkness than is usually noted.
4 Being There (1979)
Hal Ashby was one of America’s most interesting directors throughout the 1970s, with movies like Shampoo and Coming Home tackling heady subjects with a lightness and strangeness that set him apart from the easy riders and raging bulls of the decade. In Being There, Ashby sets his sights on no less a figure than Martin Heidegger. The movie’s title refers to Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, usually translated as “Being” or even, yes, “Being there,” which seeks to define the unique experience of being a human being in the world.
As Peter Sellers’ main character, Chance is forced out into the world early in the movie, we see how he not only responds to the world around him but also how the reactions of those around him reveal a tremendous amount about themselves. Sellers’ brilliant portrayal of a naive innocent encountering the world for the first time is one of the smartest, most subtle performances ever given, and the same could easily be said of the delightful, entrancing, and ultimately mysterious movie itself.
3 Requiem For a Dream (2000)
Requiem For a Dream is a powerful film about drug addiction. Told through the lives of four individuals, we are taken onto a journey of their inner delusional world and lives that slowly begin to shatter. The film does not hold back and is extremely graphic to watch. It says the harsh truth about drug addiction and is one of the most honest portrayals of its consequences. It is very hard to watch but is the kind of movie that will have you rethinking your life choices.
Through the film’s editing, you begin to feel the insanity of addiction through shaky lenses, fast cuts, and sound effects. You’ll experience it all, the ultimate seduction and highs of the drugs and the total fall and struggle. People go to great lengths to escape a painful reality, but how long can they run for until they get swallowed whole? Requiem For a Dream is Darren Aronofsky’s work of art that can help many people avoid a very dark path.
2 The Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004)
The Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind is a fascinating film about human consciousness. When a couple’s relationship turns bitter, and one of them leaves the other, they enter an emotionally wrenching journey. When Clementine decides to erase Joel from her memory through a technological device that erases old memories, he gets frustrated and attempts to do the same.
However, as they begin to erase her from his memory, he realizes that perhaps his most painful memories are his most beautiful ones. Does he keep the narrative or does he erase it? The film intimately portrays how our memories and stories make up our lives, even the most haunting ones. Sometimes by reliving the past, we can connect the dots and reach different conclusions. This thought-provoking movie will have you thinking about your identity, your emotions, your story, and ultimately life.
1 The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, The Butterfly Effect is a science fiction film about alternate realities that is a mind opener. Ashton Kutcher (Evan) in one of his more serious roles always suffered from headaches, resulting in him blacking out and traveling back in time. Every time he travels back, he has the chance to change some somber realities from the past in hopes of a better future for himself and his friends.
However, things are not what they seem, and his heroic attempts don’t end up paying off the way he’d hoped. The film like the title suggests it demonstrates how the littlest of details that have happened in our past can have huge implications on our present. For all the times you didn’t understand why something ended up being the way it did or for all the times you wondered about what if’s, this film is an interesting watch.