3 Existential Films You Must Watch At Any Cost

An existential movie often deals with a perplexing struggle to find personal meaning in an absurd world that presents no trace of it on its own and such a film is also the one that deals with a world that is devoid of any preordained meaning, rules, or justice. The characters in such films are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook.

Without getting into too much of a philosophic argument and splitting hairs on different aspects of what existentialism is, (ex: nihilism, etc.) in order to avoid the opening of a very large and different can of worms, let’s go ahead and give it a blanket explanation and definition as to what an existentialist movie basically is for the sake of this list. Listed below are the three best existential films through which their makers have tried to make a sense of what existing in this world means. Is life truly meaningless? How much does our experiences shape our beliefs? These are a few of the many questions these films ask. Checkout:

Birdman (2014)

The movie surprises, challenges, and dazzles; sometimes all at once. It is unconventional, exhilarating, and an experience that you, in all likelihood, would have never had at cinemas. Casting a caustic and darkly funny look at the instant fame culture and celebrity-hood in this age of Facebook and Twitter, the movie mocks at those who are prisoners of their own image.

The film happens to be a quasi-religious fable about a man haunted by the past and facing a profound moral and existential crisis in the reality; there are struggles to quell the visions of his eponymous alter-ego who chides the ageing actor about his artistic aspirations. Alternating between emotionally-charged scenes and flights of fancy, the script satirizes show-business in general and Hollywood in particular, (as the Birdman voice inside the lead character’s head reminds us, sometimes viewers crave pure entertainment, not just “talky, pretentious, philosophical bullshit.”)

Bursting and bristling with raw energy, ‘Birdman’ plays around with the art of movie-making as you know it, and gives a new dimension to it. The entire film is shot as if it’s one long take in a cinema verité style. In this existential swirl, the film had time to make parallels between the protagonist’s struggles and the obsessions of going viral, dictated by society and affecting the youth. The other characters too dig at narcissism, ambition, insecurity, the wages of celebrity, and the “cultural genocide” of Hollywood verge on the indulgent. “The play is starting to feel like a deranged, deformed version of myself,” says the protagonist at one point. Yet Birdman isn’t just a parody or commentary, as the movie’s subtitle “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” indicates. Everyone in this movie is aware of how little their life and achievements seem to mean, realizing that they didn’t find the happiness that seemingly comes with success.

Taxi Driver (1976)

With its existentialistic overtones, this film portrays the sense of deep-seated anxiety that is characteristic of the existentialist sensibility. Taxi Driver tells the story of a Vietnam veteran emotionally wrecked by his life which is clouded with loneliness and misery. Some 23 years later, the existential plight of Travis Bickle, “God’s lonely man,” continues to pack a hard emotional punch. Everything is seen from his point of view, with occasional voiceovers recording his diary notes or letters that he sends to his parents, who are far removed from his existence. Travis is cut off from everything and everyone, with no meaningful relationships in his life.

The universality of Taxi Driver makes it a character study that deeply examines the root of the human condition. It ostensibly seeks to discover answers to questions about human experience; such as, “what makes us tick?” and “where is the edge?” A heavily character driven film, ‘Taxi Driver’ features an astonishing acting feat by Robert De Niro who portrays a man’s descent into madness as we see him being pulled by the extremities of human darkness. The protagonist’s inability and desperation to come in contact with people and the perpetual struggle to fit in a bizarre, volatile world ridden with murders and misdemeanors is a deeply, disturbing dark portrait of a human soul. Scorsese injects a real understanding of the place and a real sense of foreboding into even the earliest scenes. He inserts clever and meaningful shots into scenes that other directors might just have filmed straight and his choice of scene and shot compliments the script depicting Travis descending into madness.

Similar to the protagonists in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and Albert Camus’ The Stranger, with the first two being told exclusively through journal entries, Travis excessively chronicles his everyday life and strong disdain, or at the very least, indifference towards his fellow man.

Fight Club (1999)

Whilst the title of this film would seem to suggest a testosterone-fuelled high action thriller, there’s much more to this venture than just an outlet for aggression and violence. Fight Club explores the solutions to the veritable sleepwalking existence that plagues modern life. Fight Club presents the vast emptiness of modern existence-ridden reality as society slowly adapts itself with shallow values and rampant consumerism.

Following the story of an ordinary man who becomes embroiled in an underground fight club scene, events take an ugly turn when some members try to disrupt mainstream society. Exploring different views of freedom and happiness, existentialist theory is rooted in the very heart of this film. Blistering, hallucinatory, often brilliant, the film by David Fincher is a combination punch of social satire and sociopathology. Fight Club may be iconic and technically proficient, but it’s more distant than perhaps any film to attain “modern classic” status.

Brad Pitt’s character questions what kind of household frippery would define who he is as a person, and the stark statement that comes later ‘the things that you own will end up owning you’ ties in neatly with Buddhist principles about dharma. The trajectory of Fight Club is baffling. In its first hour or so, this picture appears to be a gloriously spiteful and well-acted satire of our bogus contemporary “crisis of masculinity”: self- pitying guys hugging in groups and claiming victim status – modern consumer society having allegedly rendered the poor dears’ hunter- gathering instincts obsolete. But, by the end, it has unraveled catastrophically into a strident, shallow, pretentious bore with a “twist” ending that doesn’t work. And it is a film which smugly flirts, oh-so-very- controversially, with some of the intellectual and cultural paraphernalia of fascism but does not have anything like the nerve, still less the cerebral equipment, to back this pose up.

That’s all folks!

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