Existential is a big word—not in letters, but in definition. It literally includes all of existence and what it means to exist. So, of course, you can expect existential movies to be aptly big, deep, and meaningful.
The all-encompassing philosophy of existentialism is too big to sum up in one sentence, but it essentially comes down to the meaning of life.
Existentialism is commonly associated with negative feelings of dread, anxiety, and emptiness—hence terms like "existential crisis"—but it's not always bad. Shift your perspective and it could easily be seen as living a meaningful life where you're free to express your individuality.
Here are the best existential movies that are surprisingly profound yet not so lofty that you end up lost in pretentiousness.
20. I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette
Drama, Thriller (2h 14m)
Like many films on this list, I'm Thinking of Ending Things might end with you popping over to YouTube and searching for an "ending explained" video. It's engaging, but it can be a bit of a head-scratcher.
The snow-dusted square aspect ratio of pretty imagery gives way to a dingily lit room where a woman (played by Jessie Buckley) is thinking of ending her seven-week relationship.
Writer/director Charlie Kaufman is known for tapping into the meta, the existential, and the psychological with past films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He does it again here in this Netflix drama that careens into a huge plot twist!
19. Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy (1h 53m)
Stranger Than Fiction, the title of which comes from a quote by Lord Byron, isn't like Will Ferrell's other slapstick Hollywood movies. This one's a drama-infused fantasy that showed everyone that the actor was capable of more than just Anchorman.
Will Ferrell stars as an IRS agent named Harold Crick, who starts hearing the voice of an Englishwoman narrating his day-to-day life—a life that's, apparently, about to end. (No, Harold isn't schizophrenic.)
Emma Thompson plays the author who's writing a novel about him, reading out his movements and thinking that Harold is actually a product of her imagination.
As surreal as they come, Stranger Than Fiction is a postmodern take on creative imagination, interconnectivity, and identity.
18. Mr. Nobody (2009)
Directed by Jaco Van Dormael
Starring Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger
Drama, Fantasy, Romance (2h 21m)
Mr. Nobody feels like a movie made up of lots of little movies. The scenes are like individual stories that feel quite like a series of grand, complex paintings lined up in a nonlinear row.
Some critics found this to be its unique high point while others saw it as its fractured downfall. Both sides, however, agreed that Mr. Nobody is a mind-bending journey that forces viewers to engage fully.
The general gist of the plot follows Nemo (played by Jared Leto), who's being interviewed as the last mortal on Earth. Beyond that, Mr. Nobody is an unpredictable, dazzling convergence of epochs that asks the unanswerable questions of the universe.
17. Melancholia (2011)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland
Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 15m)
Ah, a countryside castle wedding. How perfectly romantic! Shame about the impending apocalypse, though...
Most people aren't aware of it, but Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) grows obsessed with the rogue planet Melancholia that's inching closer to Earth but apparently not meant to collide, according to scientists.
The homonymous title also refers to Justine's sinking clinical depression that causes her to drift through the limbo of a nocturnal world. Outer space is, after all, deeply existential to many.
It's this astrophysical cross path that Lars von Trier explores in Melancholia, which is split into two enigmatic halves but wholly inspired by Von Trier's own experience of mental illness.
16. Birdman (2014)
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Comedy, Drama (1h 59m)
Birdman is more than just a dramedy about showbiz or a technically experimental film that was entirely shot as a single take. It's also a surprisingly deep soul-search for meaning.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan, an aging actor who's having a midlife crisis of career and identity, which naturally includes existentialism.
Having lost himself in dwindling fame, Riggan tries clinging to his next part in a new Broadway play, but he's stalked by the memory of his past superhero role of Birdman. (A meta reference to Keaton's Batman.)
15. A Serious Man (2009)
Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick
Comedy, Drama (1h 46m)
Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) has spent his whole 1960s suburban life in passivity. People use and abuse him, and things just seem to, well, happen. This leaves Larry with a constant question on his lips: "What's going on?"
Directed by the Coen brothers, everything comes to a head in A Serious Man in their iconic style of domino eccentricity as Larry goes looking for answers in rabbis and religion rather than himself.
A Serious Man evaluates every interpretation of life, every piece of (often clichéd) advice, and every way of coping with existential questions. The conclusion? Well, there is none.
14. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot
Drama, Fantasy (1h 36m)
Existentialism is all about asking questions. It's a thirst for knowledge, for a silver bullet answer to what this whole life thing is about. Unfortunately, God tends to be silent in the face of these questions.
Even so, it doesn't stop the medieval knight Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow) from asking those tough questions.
His search for truth amidst Crusade cynicism brings Antonius face-to-face with the personification of death, where they famously play a game of chess by the sea. Directed by Ingmar Bergman, this chess game with Death is a simple yet powerful metaphor for life.
13. The Matrix (1999)
Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Action, Sci-Fi (2h 16m)
The Matrix made huge waves at the turn of the millennium, and its ripple effects can still be felt today. Just search up terms like "glitch in the matrix" or "the red pill," which are alive and well today.
Keanu Reeves leads as Neo, who's given a choice between taking the red or blue pills, which act as symbols of consciousness. You can either live a life of ignorant "bliss" while rigged up to the Matrix, or you can wake up and see reality for what it really is.
The Matrix became the definitive nickname for simulation theory and/or spiritual awakening, all wrapped up in green-tinted cyberpunk imagery that's absolutely beautiful when viewed in 4K.
12. Donnie Darko (2001)
Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell
Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi (1h 53m)
Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is plagued by hallucinations of a giant bunny called Frank, who warns him that the world will end in a little over 28 days.
Like most movies with an unstable protagonist, it's hard to tell if Frank is just a product of schizophrenia or actually real and telling the truth. By the end of Donnie Darko, we aren't much the wiser.
What could have easily veered into a predictable plot twist instead leaves us scratching our heads and flocking to forums to see if anyone can decipher the meaning behind it all. "Destruction is a form of creation" is the main existential takeaway.
11. The Tree of Life (2011)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Drama, Fantasy (2h 19m)
Most religions and cultures have their own version of the sacred tree of life—usually referring to the biological life cycle and/or the afterlife—that creaks with ancient, divine wisdom.
In that sense, nothing could be more existential than Terrence Malick's experimental art feature The Tree of Life, as it's literally about the creation of existence! (But disguised as a soppy 1950s coming-of-age drama.)
The Tree of Life takes a graceful, benevolent, and spiritual approach to the science of Earth's origins and the cruelty of human nature, looking into eschatology and theodicy with an all-star cast.
10. Persona (1966)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook
Drama, Thriller (1h 23m)
Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal was already included above, but his lesser-known movie Persona is even more existential. Controversial upon release, the avant-garde drama could even be considered horror.
Raw minimalism, morbid themes, and philosophical meditations on death are what mark Bergman as a leading figure in arthouse cinema and film history.
Persona, which blurs the line between two women's identities, is a Jungian examination of the self through surrealist imagery. It would later inspire classics like Vertigo and Mulholland Drive.
9. The Truman Show (1998)
Directed by Peter Weir
Starring Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney
Comedy, Drama (1h 43m)
The Truman Show features something similar to the simulation theory of The Matrix, except simplified into something brighter, funnier, and more romantic, but no less intelligent.
The genre-defying sci-fi satire is about a man named Truman (played by Jim Carrey) who's quite literally living in a simulation—a TV simulation that's broadcast live every day. Without him knowing, of course.
But when a set piece falls through, Truman starts to notice the product placements and extras around him.
The sky stairs at the end of the world serve as a potent symbol of illusion, liberation, and the nature of reality, pushing us to take that faithful leap into the unknown ourselves.
8. Ikiru (1952)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka
Drama (2h 23m)
Famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is known for many films, like Rashōmon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo. It's a shame, though. He's made so many great movies that some of them end up overshadowed.
Such is the case with Ikiru, which is a more uplifting take on existentialism than many of the other films on our list.
Inspired by Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Ikiru (which means "To Live") follows a bureaucrat (played by Takashi Shimura) whose terminal illness prompts him to see the beauty in all things, to share his love, and, well, to live. He's like an existential version of Scrooge.
Ikiru was remade by Oliver Hermanus into a British movie called Living, which actually turned out well and succeeded at instilling viewers with a renewed sense of purpose—but the original still has the edge.
7. The 400 Blows (1959)
Directed by François Truffaut
Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier
Crime, Drama (1h 39m)
Existentialism isn't confined to those who are having a midlife crisis. Young adults, teens, and even kids can experience it, too! And that's what we see in The 400 Blows, François Truffaut's landmark drama that triggered the French New Wave.
Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) is coming-of-age in a family and society that either ignores or constrains him. His curiosity and youthful exuberance are constantly shut down, so he decides to take on the world by himself.
This semi-autobiographical character study is shot in a naturalistic style from the viewpoint of a child, with haunting long takes that echo the film's hollow existentialism.
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester
Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 29m)
The gravitas, innovation, scale, and darkness of Stanley Kubrick's filmography is perfect for an existential movie.
2001: A Space Odyssey is often considered his best work—abstract yet hyperreal, and repeatedly referenced in media.
The epic space opera attempts to look at the universe as a whole, all while dealing with themes of multi-dimensionality; creation, evolution, and apocalypse; alien life; destiny; and the dangers of artificial intelligence.
The kaleidoscopic Star Gate sequence is particularly existential, and the whole film feels like a response to the works of Nietzsche and Homer.
5. Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Starring Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis
Action, Adventure, Comedy (2h 19m)
Everything Everywhere All at Once will make you laugh, cry, and question reality... all at once. Hotdog fingers, world-destroying bagels, and glitter-gun kung fu make for a very modern and entertaining 2+ hours.
But it also feels like an enlightening—if confusing—acid trip that marries absurdist comedy with philosophical science fiction.
Evelyn (played by Michelle Yeoh) is a struggling laundromat owner who finds out that she can jump between versions of herself across the vast multiverse of timelines. With this ability, she must save the world from an evil, alternate version of her daughter.
While philosophers, scientists, and filmmakers have been deciphering for millennia the meaning of life and how to live it, the Daniels hit the nail on the head with one sentence: "Just be [a rock]."
4. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Drama, Mystery, War (2h 27m)
Apocalypse Now isn't your usual war movie. It stands out for its surreal and hallucinatory wrappings that voyage into the underworld.
Captain Willard's (played by Martin Sheen) campaign into Cambodia to seek out an AWOL officer during the Vietnam War is as much a psychological journey as it is a physical one.
Once found, the god-like Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) is always lingering in the shadows, reeling off existential monologues on making a friend out of horror.
In the lawless land of war, humans become capable of the ghastly inhuman. Is this something that lies within all of us? Or is it born from something more ethereal?
3. Solaris (1972)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet
Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi (2h 47m)
Andrei Tarkovsky is a Russian poet of cinema, forever delving into the dreamlike passages of nature, space, memory and the mind.
Soviet sci-fi films of the 1970s were something else, almost an entire niche aesthetic unto themselves—an aesthetic that comes into full bloom in Tarkovsky's thematic Solaris.
Based on Stanisław Lem's 1961 novel, Solaris takes place on a watery planet that turns human inhabitants psychotic and suicidal. A psychologist is sent to investigate the crew reports and finds himself in a lonely ocean of ghosts and hallucinations.
Suffice it to say, existential dread pervades the film's long shots. (Trust me when I say to watch the original over the Hollywood remake!)
2. Tokyo Story (1953)
Directed by Yasujirō Ozu
Starring Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara
Drama (2h 16m)
Tokyo Story takes place on the heels of World War II, centering on an elderly couple who leave the city of Onomichi to visit their children in post-war Tokyo.
It sounds like a dull plot, but the lack of explosive action gives director Yasujirō Ozu room to explore the transcendental. Existentialism rears its head as the family unit breaks down in a broken-down world, a society damaged by massive global conflict.
Tokyo Story is painful and emotional rather than metaphysical, and Ozu shows us how the magnitude of silence trumps the power of dialogue.
1. Stalker (1979)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring Alisa Freyndlikh, Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Anatoliy Solonitsyn
Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 42m)
Building on Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky presents a barren, soulless, and materialistic dystopia in his even-better masterpiece Stalker. A puzzling opening—full of unnamed people and places—moves us through an unusual zone of ruins that don't abide by the laws of science.
Mirroring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which could stir an existential crisis in anyone, the hypnagogic landscapes of Stalker lead the characters to a room that supposedly grants their deepest desires.
Stalker is a phenomenal film that's basically a highly complex and cinematically influential expedition into the human heart of darkness.