#EK – Top 20 Movies for Philosophy Students

There are plenty of jokes made at the expense of philosophy students. (My favorite goes: “The Italian word for philosophy major is ‘barista.’”) But the truth is that studying philosophy is one of the most rewarding and eye-opening ways there is to get a better understanding of the human condition. A lot of people spend years avoiding the questions that philosophy students tackle head-on, which gives students an intellectual bravery that’s increasingly rare.

If you’re a college student with a passion for philosophy — or if you’re just an enthusiastic newcomer to the field — these movies provide the perfect starting point for explorations of morality, reality, justice, and the nature of life.

The Big Picture

These films deal with the big questions about existence.

Fight Club:

Eleven-year-old spoiler alert: The movie’s main character (Edward Norton) and the charismatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) are one and the same. David Fincher’s film, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, is a bracing attack on consumerism as well as an indictment of the dangers of groupthink of any kind. What’s more, it’s a fantastic exploration of action and human nature.

Being There:
“Life is a state of mind,” according to one of the characters in Being There. Peter Sellers is fantastic as a simple gardener named Chance who’s grown up in a sheltered home and knows almost nothing of the outside world. His comic, subdued adventures culminate in a stirring image that seems to defy explanation and underscores just how much our worlds are constructed by choice.

The Razor’s Edge:
An interesting chance to see Bill Murray do dramatic work, this 1984 drama is adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s novel about a man who returns from war and becomes determined to find a better, more transcendent meaning of life.

The Trial:
Orson Welles’ film is based on Franz Kafka’s novel, and it revolves around a man persecuted by an unfeeling governmental body for a crime that’s never explained. Not a masterpiece, but still a great starting point for philosophical discussions of what it means to create and live in a just society.

I Heart Huckabees:
David O. Russell’s 2004 film is the breeziest treatise on ontology ever made, as well as one of the funniest. Billed as “an existential comedy,” the film follows two men (Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg) as they go about very different ways of trying to understand the mysteries of the universe.

Nature of Reality and Identity

Pretty self-explanatory: These movies are all about how you define “you.”

The Matrix:
The movie that launched a thousand pot-fueled conversations about reality, The Matrix offers plenty of intriguing questions for philosophy students to chew on. For instance, if what we perceive as reality is nothing but electrical signals in the brain, how do we know that reality isn’t being faked for us?

David Cronenberg’s movies often deal with identity (The Fly and Dead Ringers come to mind), and eXistenZ is no exception. The story deals with how people interact with each other via video games and virtual constructs, and the questions of reality and nature are even more applicable in the age of social media.

Open Your Eyes:
This Spanish film (titled Abre los ojos) from Alejandro Amenabar was met with such acclaim that it was remade for American audiences by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky, but the original remains the best. A young man who becomes disfigured in an accident finds his world slowly coming undone as hallucinations and other twists make it tough to determine what’s real. A great movie for starting discussions about perception and truth.

One of the smartest action flicks in recent years, Inception takes place almost entirely within the subconscious minds of its main characters. The story is loaded with twists and what-if moments that are great fodder for those interested in epistemology, the study of knowledge.

Waking Life:
Richard Linklater’s rambling film about a man caught in a lucid dream winds its way through a number of philosophical fields, including determinism, free will, and existentialism. It’s like having a 100-minute discussion with your smartest friends.

Another Christopher Nolan film, and his best. This unique film centers on a man who cannot make new memories and is forced to keep notes and tattoos so he knows who and where he is. In addition to the basic questions about identity, the film also broaches more complicated subjects, like a person’s willingness to erase their identity for a cause.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi film is very deliberately paced (a slowness that was repeated in Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake with George Clooney), but that gives it room to breathe and to thoroughly explore some interesting psychological and philosophical problems. The inhabitants of a space station discover that the planet they’re orbiting can read their minds and create copies of their loved ones, copies that soon become self-aware. A great film for examining issues of identity.

The Soul

Is the soul embodied, or the body ensouled?

Blade Runner:
There have been multiple versions of this sci-fi classic released on home media, so be sure to get a later cut. Ridley Scott’s film is a cerebral thriller about humans, androids, and what it means to be a thinking, living creature. Perfect fodder for term papers.

Being John Malkovich:
Writer Charlie Kaufman’s dazzling screenplay takes place in a world where a run-down office building holds a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, allowing strangers to inhabit his body and literally become someone else. When Malkovich himself goes through the portal, though, things get even weirder. One of the smartest comedies in recent memory, and a brilliant discourse on the nature of the soul.


“Conscience do cost.” These movies examine theories of justice and human interaction.

Crimes and Misdemeanors:

One of Woody Allen’s most subdued and accessible films, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a compelling tale about the dark moral choices people can make, raising the issue of just how great the divide is between control and destruction.

Why We Fight:
Taking its title from U.S. propaganda films released during World War II, this 2005 documentary from Eugene Jarecki is a harrowing look at the nation’s military-industrial complex, which has only grown more massive and dangerous since President Eisenhower warned of its potential evils in his farewell address. It’s a fascinating examination of the moral quandaries of military power.

The Cider House Rules:
The title refers to an antiquated list of rules posted in a work house built for migrant apple pickers. The rules, feared by the illiterate workers, turn out to be clueless warnings that have no bearing on their lives. A must-see for philosophy students eager to investigate how moral codes change over time.

Steven Spielberg’s drama revolves around the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and Israel’s subsequent retaliation via a top-secret group of covert assassins. It’s historical fiction that asks important questions about what constitutes justice and how people can be destroyed by their quest for vengeance.

The Green Mile:
Based on Stephen King’s novel, parts of the story aren’t exactly subtle — a character with the power to heal the sick has the initials J.C. — but The Green Mile makes up for minor flaws with a heartrending story about murder, retribution, and atonement.

The Seventh Seal:
Ingmar Bergman’s classic drama gets a lot of mileage from its high-concept premise in which a knight returning from the Crusades plays a chess game with Death personified, with his life and freedom tied to his winning the game. The film becomes a meditation on faith and spirituality that’s simple in its allegories and fantastically detailed in its executions. There’s a reason it’s been parodied endlessly since its 1957 release; some classics are born that way.




About Eddy Kimani

Kenyan living in Nairobi, taking it a day at a time...more to follow!

Posted on October 29, 2012, in Eddy's Picks. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The Spirit of the Beehive – In contrast to the relatively light-hearted approach employed by Tati in Mon Oncle, Spirit of the Beehive is a haunting drama that is considered a high water mark of Spanish cinema. In fact, many consider it to be one of the best films ever made. It’s quite hard going – the atmosphere is consistently haunting and it deals with childhood in Franco’s Spain. However, it is an absolute must-see for those that wish to get started with world cinema. Thankfully, it’s available to purchase today from Blockbuster online.

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