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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Five Best: Existential Themed Films

scene from "I Heart Huckabees"
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Philosophy has always been a secret interest of mine. In fact, it led me to take out Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged recently from our college's Interlibrary Loan system, only to decide it was just too daunting to read. One of the more recent themes in the field has certainly been the big "why are we here?" question, which led philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to foreshadow the theory of existentialism, or the belief that all philosophical discussion begins with the living individual; not just what he/she thinks, but what he/she feels and does. Plenty of films have at least touched on this topic (in fact, most films probably have accidentally embedded existentialist themes). So, I fried my brain and came up with the five best (and a few others that more obviously touch on these themes). Here they are in chronological order.

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Ikiru (1952)

Iconic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's film tells the story of a bureaucrat who discovers he has terminal cancer. In the final days of his life, he searches for meaning behind his existence, his death, and his time on this planet. The discussion of a man's purpose on this planet and what he should do with his time is inherently existential, especially in relation to how his coworkers and colleagues respond after his passing. Are we really meant to sit in an office all day and do what really amounts to nothing? It's truly a beautiful film about mortality and purpose.
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The Seventh Seal (1957)

Ingmar Bergman's oft-imitated (but never rivaled) tale of a solider who returns from the Crusades only to be faced with the pestilence of the Black Plague is an allegorical discussion on life, death, and the existence of God starring the great Max Von Sydow (Oscar nominated now!). Most known for the epic chess game between the protagonist, Antonius Block, and Death himself, the questions that surround its meaning are still evident upon repeat viewings. How you interpret what Antonius finds in his ongoing game with Death is up to you, but it's easy to see how facing your own demise can leave you asking more questions than you can answer on your own.
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Groundhog Day (1993)

Hear me out...this Harold Ramis comedy about a man re-living the same day over and over again is focuses on a major existentialist rumination. As Bill Murray finds out, when your surroundings never change, the only way to improve your life is to take control of it and change yourself. A very funny and extremely intelligent script, Groundhog Day's success and lasting legacy is based on Murray's performance and how surprisingly deep the seemingly superficial themes truly are. Trust me: if you had to re-live every day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you would start to question the importance of life, too (seriously...I used to live nearby).
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Fight Club (1999)

David Fincher's insane, scattered film about taking control of your life in a twisted, inefficient world is mind-blowing at first glance and only gets better on every subsequent viewing. Edward Norton stars as an office stooge and insomniac unhappy with his life, only to meet a soap salesman played by Brad Pitt and begin an underground therapeutic group that involves much more than talking, to say the least. Chuck Palahniuk's novel and Fincher's film takes themes of male aggression and expands them into a globally affecting story of frustration with the world as a whole. When your life feels meaningless, what better way is there to fix it than to destroy it and all others?
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Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Probably the most literally "existentialist film" on the list, Charlie Kaufman's exploration about the way we see the world is mind-numbing, but thought-provoking at the same time. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decides to stage an epic play in a life-size replica of New York City, casting actors as his friends and family and, eventually, as himself. A huge discussion about the difference between who people are and who we perceive them as, Kaufman's first directorial effort is a mammoth philosophical analysis and a tough watch, but it's definitely worth it.

Well, there you have it. Films that, for the most part, may make your brain hurt, but are worth your time. In case you want a few others, take a look at the films below that certainly touch on existentialist themes.
  • Blade Runner (1982)
  • The Truman Show (1998) 
  • The Matrix (1999) 
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - I wanted to include this, but felt weird including two Charlie Kaufman written films...I like this one much better, but Synecdoche, New York is so specifically about the theme, it had to make the list
  • Pretty much any Terrence Malick or Stanley Kubrick film

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