As someone who has a rather broad conception of philosophy, this could easily become a list of films I like. However, it is written in response to a list of Essential Movies for a Student of Philosophy a friend of mine linked to. Part of what will limit me is I will try to address the flaws I find in that list. Certainly there are good, intriguing films there, but the list displeased me. First, creating a list of essential films is rather foolish. An accurate list would be quite short: there are no films that are essential for a student of philosophy. The same would be true of a list of philosophical books. There is nothing one needs to see or read to be a philosopher. Hence I will stick to films that I think are philosophically interesting. Second, his list has too many films about philosophers. Certainly there can be philosophical films about philosophers–he was right to include Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein. But that is no guarantee of philosophical quality. Hannah Arendt, for instance, is undistinguished as a film and as philosophy. Third, the value of such lists is less to come up with something definitive–an impossible task–but to stimulate thought about and interest in the items on the list. Therefore I will limit myself to one film per director. That way the range of films will be broader. Lastly, his list is not terribly diverse and there is an over-representation of recent American movies. Including, say, A.I. and Little Miss Sunshine on a list of essential films instead of Man with a Movie Camera reveals more about you and what you have seen than what films are essential. Obviously I have my blindspots too (no Indian, African, or South American films), but they are different from his and, I suspect, smaller. As to how I selected these films as philosophically important? This list will display my bias to ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy. Some will be tied directly to philosophies and well-established philosophical problems. But most will not. Philosophy is, to use quote William James, “an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly.” It is not limited to the topics that currently are in vogue philosophically. All of these films count as unusually stubborn and largely successful attempts to think clearly on matters of great import to us as humans. So without further ado, here is a list of 45 philosophically interesting films.
1) Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. Man with a Movie Camera is an astonishingly modern film, one that is still fresh. It is a joyous celebration of modernity and the possibilities of the movie camera–which if you read any of Vertov’s theoretical work he thinks is more accurate than the human eye. This film is one of the best reflections on technology.
2) The Exterminating Angel by Luis Bunuel. Any of his films could be here, but The Exterminating Angel is perhaps his most polished and perfect film, a potent Marxist allegory of how people, especially capitalists and the bourgeoisie are trapped inside capitalism, unable to escape even as it eventually causes their own destruction.
3) Bob le Flambeur is an existential action film by Jean-Pierre Melville. Le Samourai, which stars Alain Deloin as a hitman, is his most well-known, but this film starring Roger Duchesne as a gambler who is planning to rob a casino is perhaps even better.
4) Existential action films are a favorite of mine. There are quite a few, e.g. Runaway Train. But I’ll add only one more, Wages of Fear which is about hauling nitroglycerine somewhere in South America, not because there aren’t a ton of others, but because if I listed them all this list would soon be exhausted. I suspect film, which focuses on the external, is an ideal medium for existentialism.
5) Peeping Tom by Powell and Pressburger. An under-rated duo who probably produced the best British films of all time, this movie focuses on a serial killer who is also a photographer. A controversial flop at the time, it is a far more terrifying and profound film than Psycho, which came out the same year.* The themes it focuses on are voyeurism and self-awareness.
*As evidence that this is a somewhat idiosyncratic list, there will be no Hitchcock. He is, in my opinion, an over-rated hack. See for instance how he turned Conrad’s disconcerting The Secret Agent into a conventional, profoundly schlocky thriller.
6) Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky. One of the most beautiful films ever made, this account of the Russian icon painter examines the relationship of life, suffering, and art.
7) The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin. One of the best examinations, and a nice deflating of, dictators. And the perhaps the overly serious in general.
8) General Idi Amin Dada by Barbet Schroder. A documentary of Idi Amin, this is a nice companion to Chaplin’s film as it conveys the terrific, dangerous madness of dictators. If one is interested in political philosophy or epistemology–especially possible relations between morality and epistemology–this movie is incredibly valuable.
9) The Grand Illusion by Jean Renoir. In another mood, I would choose The Rules of the Game but this deeply humanistic film, which Renoir hoped would prevent another world war, is amazing and profound.
10) The Up Series mostly by Michael Apted. I don’t watch as many documentaries as perhaps I should, but this on-going British series that follows the lives of 14 British children who were born in 1957, checking in on them every 7 years, is one of the most revealing and thoughtful films ever made.
11) Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges. A perfect weaving of humor, philosophy of art (particularly on comedies), and social commentary.
12) 8 1/2 by Fellini. Just as I have a weakness for existential action films, I like films about films. But Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 1/2 is more than that, it is foremost a film about giving up control in one’s life.
13) Rashamon by Akira Kurosawa. This is the obvious choice. I’m not going to dispute it.
14) The Fallen Idol by Carol Reed. This is not the obvious choice (The Third Man would be). And it is rather similar to Kurosawa’s film since it is an examination of truth and falsehood.* Yet its thrust is different from Kurosawa’s and it is as good as, if not better, than The Third Man. It is an under-seen masterpiece and so goes on this list.
*Quick summary: A young child idolizes the house butler, who is married to the housekeeper. Theirs is an unhappy marriage, and the butler has an affair, and the night she discovers the affair, she dies. When the police become suspicious of the butler, the boy’s testimony becomes vital.
15) Night Moves by Arthur Penn. Is the truth worth it? That is one of the themes of this film about detective Harry Moseby (played by Gene Hackman) who investigates a young woman’s disappearance as his marriage falls apart. In many ways similar to The Conversation or even Blow Up.
16) Sukiyaki Western Django by Takashi Miike. This is probably the most idiosyncratic selection. But this samurai western that draws upon The Tale of the Heike and Shakespeare is a wonderful exploration of the influence of traditions and multiculturalism. I know of none better.
17) The Man who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford. A list could probably be made entirely of philosophically interesting westerners. Unfortunately I have not seen nearly as many as I should. A western Oresteia starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne.
18) Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. His entire oeuvre could be included, but this is one of my favorite films, a profound reflection on memory, aging, love, and religious belief as an old doctor travels across Sweden to receive an honorary degree.
19) Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl’s infamous pro-Nazi documentary of the Nuremberg rallies is outstanding. However, if I had seen it, I suspect Olympia would be on this list.
20) Tokyo Olympiad by Kon Ichikawa is an important reason why I would be tempted to put Olympia here. Responding to both Riefenstahl’s film and Japan’s imperialistic past, Kon Ichikawa tells a story of the failures and individuals in the Olympics, producing a film of rare sensitivity and one that gives a much needed re-evaluation of values.
21) Wittgenstein by Derek Jarman is one of the few films about a philosopher–or a thinker–that is very concerned with their thought. All of Jarman’s films are amazing, but given this is a list of philosophical films, this is unavoidable and a film rightly on the Essential Films list.
22) Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara that follows an entomologist as he is trapped by a community that lives in the dunes to replace a woman’s husband and has to join her in digging to keep the dunes at bay. It explores how our life gains significance through associating with others.
23) Touch of Zen by King Hu. Perhaps not as philosophically interesting as others, but I loved Stephen Teo’s discussion of this film, and its Buddhist theme of illusion vs. reality, and how many Hong Kong kung fu (or rather wuxia) films could be on such a list? And it is one of the best kung fu films–probably only Come Drink with Me and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon compare.
24) Pickpocket by Robert Bresson. Bresson’s re-telling of Crime and Punishment is a stunning film. One reason to put this here is that it sells the ending in a way that Dostoevsky doesn’t quite. It is not a mere up-dating of the novel.
25) Danton by Andrzej Wajda. Wajda is my favorite Polish director, though not as celebrated as Kieślowski or Polanski. Danton is one of his best films, and how can any movie about the French Revolution not be philosophically relevant? Actually, it is probably pretty easy but this one is not, especially since it is informed by Wajda’s own experiences in Poland.
26) Unforgiven by Clint Eastwood. This examination of violence borders on the unwatchable. But deliberately so and to a good end. Profoundly disturbing, but about something that should disturb you.
27) Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen. He has better films, but this story about wrong-doing and people’s consciences is one of his most philosophical (also a good choice on the Essential list).
28) Summer by Eric Rohmer. Over the summer, a young man gets involved with three different women. Rohmer’s film explores masculinity and the self-deception sometimes needed to preserve our dignity.
29) Dog Star Man by Stan Brakhage. I don’t know enough about avant-garde films, else Maya Deren among others would be here. But Brakhage’s exploration of birth, death, and our relation to the natural world deserves several viewings.
30) Forbidden Planet by Fred Wilcox. The Tempest in space, with a lot of Freud thrown in. Still one of the most interesting science fiction films.
31) 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick because how could I not include it?
32) The Discarnates by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi. Another idiosyncratic choice, but the story of a man who runs into his long-dead parents–who are now his own age–greatly appeals to me. That the dead do not age, do not change, while the living do and our relationship to our dead are themes that greatly appeal to me and that I think are philosophically significant.
33) Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee. Philosophy of race is something I am becoming more interested in. This film, about the racial tensions and relations in a Brooklyn neighborhood, is still incredible.
34) Ordet by Carl Dreyer. Perhaps more a great religious film than a great philosophical film, this is the first Dreyer I watched. It involves a man who thinks he is Jesus and a Romeo and Juliet-like romance. I have never seen a film of his that was less than perfect and chose this only because it was the first film by him I watched.
35) Avalon by Mamoru Oshii. Most of these sort of lists have The Matrix so in its place I have this similar Japanese movie from the director of Ghost in the Shell. It is thematically similar, but its slower pace and greyer, East European scenery appeals to me more. It deserves to be better known.
36) Two Men and a Wardrobe by Roman Polanski. A short film is sort of an odd man out here, but this film of two men emerging from the sea carrying a wardrobe is one of the most profound films I’ve seen, particularly on man’s inhumanity to man. I understand why people would not want to watch a Polanski film, but his films–like Woody Allen’s–are often wonderful.
37) Zardoz by John Boorman. An overambitious and messy work of science fiction, if philosophy is about thinking clearly, then this probably does not belong here. But this is unjustly mocked and is well-worth thinking about, particularly with regard to the value of mortality.
38) Werckmeister Harmonies by Bela Tarr. A beautiful, haunting, surreal film about what happens to a down when a show starring a dead whale comes to town. This is a movie about order and disorder.
39) Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Either version works, though I prefer the older one. A scathing attack on conformity, it can of course relate to all sort of zombie-related questions. And zombies are an important philosophical topic!
40) Buckets of Blood by Roger Corman. Roger Corman may be the most important man in American movies. He made great films and trained many wonderful directors and actors, such as Francis Ford Coppola. This film is his account of a want-to-be artist who starts making astonishingly life-like statues while people start to go missing. Perhaps more fun than philosophical, it is still very much worth a look.
41) Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau. Cocteau did other, more explicitly philosophical films, but I don’t think any touch this one. It is a perfect fairy-tale, one that also has a great deal to say about relations between the sexes.
42) Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni. This film of a photographer who may have taken a picture of a murder is rightfully a classic. A pointed study in the unreliableness of evidence and how we seek patterns, sense, and order.
43) Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata. Sort of a token animated film, this is also my favorite anime. It is the story of an office lady from the city who goes to the countryside and falls in love. This movie says much about happiness, but also about our relationship to the natural world.
44) Time Regained by Raul Ruiz. Proust is one of my favorite philosophical novelist; this is a wonderful adaptation of his work. If you haven’t read the novels, this may be cryptic. If you have, however, it is wonderful.
45) Videodrome is David Croenberg’s exploration of how we are becoming tied to technology. A deeply unsettling film, but given that we started with a film that portrayed the glories of technology, it is fitting to end on one that portrays its horror.
Final thoughts: Done again, this list could have 45 different films. No doubt anyone who reads this could point to obvious films I missed. Such is the nature of lists. Surprising me are the directors I’ve left off, e.g Robert Altman and Sergei Eisenstein. They are some of my favorite directors, but for one reason or another I could not think of a film of theirs that is as philosophical interesting. The paltry number of silent films is also surprising. Metropolis, for instance, is a great film, but ultimately not, I think, great philosophy. What should not surprise me, but does, is how important self-deception and the value of falsehood is in the movies I recommend. There were several films I thought of adding on this theme but didn’t since I felt it was over-represented. Lastly, I’m also disappointed by my lack of female directors.