Have you found yourself pondering the meaning of life more than usual? Have you started to accept that certain things—like life—are fundamentally unknowable? Have you Googled anything along the lines of "What's the point?" in the last five days? Congratulations—it seems that you may be having an existential crisis.
But if you’re one of the few, rare college students not currently experiencing this phenomenon, I say to you—don’t worry, because I’ve compiled a list of the ten best existential crisis–inducing movies.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in 1968 and since then, has been regarded as a milestone in the science fiction genre and one of the best movies of all time. Set in a highly advanced version of the year 2001, the film follows Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), as he and other astronauts embark on a mystery mission into space. After their ship's artificially intelligent computer system HAL begins to behave strangely and defiantly, Dr. Bowman is faced with a man vs. machine showdown that travels from man's rudimentary beginning to its eventual demise. If you're looking for stunning visual effects, a truly majestic score, or a mind–bending trip through space and time—this is the movie for you.
Starring Joseph Gordon–Levitt and Seth Rogen, 50/50 follows 27 year–old Adam Lerner (Levitt) as he learns he has malignant tumors all along his spine and has a 50/50 chance of survival. His best friend Kyle (Rogan), serves as his main support system as he fights for his life and begins chemotherapy. Adam also starts developing unprofessional feelings for his psychiatrist, Katherine McKay (Anna Kendrick), all the while trying to manage his diagnosis and come to terms with his potential fate. 50/50 is a great example of tackling tough subject matter with humor and a light heart.
3. American Beauty
While Kevin Spacey has long fallen from grace, his role in American Beauty as Lester Burnham—a depressed suburban husband and father—is still regarded as a masterful satirical take on American self–fulfillment and standards of beauty. Amidst a mid–life crisis, Lester becomes infatuated with his 16 year–old daughter's cheerleader best friend, Angela. The film focuses heavily on themes of sexual repression, conformity, and standards of beauty. While certainly jarring, and bound to make you uncomfortable, American Beauty provokes questions about how to live a meaningful life and what about people makes them beautiful.
4. Being John Malkovich
The first Charlie Kaufman–written film of this list, Being John Malkovich embodies themes of surrealism and existentialism that have come to characterize much of Kaufman's writing style and work. Starring John Cusack, Katherine Keener, and Cameron Diaz, the New York City–set film follows puppeteer Craig Schwartz (Cusack) and his eccentric wife, Lotte (Diaz). After Craig is hired as a filing clerk, he discovers a portal that allows him to live in the mind of renowned actor John Malkovich. Craig reveals his discovery to his co–worker Maxine, who he has a crush on, and the two begin a business partnership at the expense of Malkovich's mind and life. With a storyline that's as absurd as it is enjoyable, Being John Malkovich is sure to make you question your identity and place in the world.
Starring Justin Long and Emmy Rossum, Comet follows the lives of pessimistic Dell (Long), and optimist Kimberly (Rossum) after they meet by chance during a meteor shower. Comet's use of non–linear narrative allows us to view Dell and Kimberly's rocky, six—year romantic relationship through the lenses of flashbacks and parallel universes. The 2014 film is sappy enough to scratch your rom–com itch, but it's also self–aware enough to remain effectively witty and satisfying. Comet is a mystical exploration of love, loss and fate that will, more than likely, make you cry.
6. Donnie Darko
Out of all the films in this list, Donnie Darko is probably the oddest (and that's no easy feat). Donald "Donnie" Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teenager living in 1988 suburbia. During a sleep–walking episode, Donnie wanders out of bed, narrowly missing a jet engine that has crash landed in his room. He meets a demonic rabbit named Frank that tells him the world will end in 28 days. Frank continues to haunt Donnie as he deals with his erratic family, trouble at school, and the impending doom of the end of the world. Disguised as a horror/psychological—thriller, Donnie Darko is actually a a poignant commentary on self–sacrifice and the power of the hypothetical.
7. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind
Do you believe in soulmates? Regardless of your answer to that cryptic question, Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind is sure to challenge your opinions on soulmates, love, and fate. Charlie Kaufman's second movie to appear on this list stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski, respectively. After painfully breaking up with Joel, Clementine hires Lacuna, Inc. to erase all of her memories of Joel and their relationship. Joel learns of Clementine's decision and decided to undergo the exact same procedure. Like Comet, we follow a non–linear narrative that takes us into Joel's mind as he revisits his fading memories of Clementine and eventually concludes that their love—no matter how imperfect—is worth remembering.
8. Mr. Nobody
In 2092, 118 year–old Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is the last mortal man on Earth, living in a time where humanity has achieved quasi–immortality. The demigod–like humans are fascinated with Nemo and interview him about his mortal life as he is on his deathbed. We follow Nemo as he focuses on three key points of his life—at age nine, when his parents divorced, age 15, when he fell in love for the first time, and at lastly at age 34, as a grown adult. Nemo describes many different outcomes of the events that occurred at these three points in his life. The immortal world is confused as he seems to be describing parallel universes or multiple realities, but Nemo has his own religious explanation for why nothing he is talking about actually exists in the first place. Guided by a seemingly untrustworthy narrator, Mr. Nobody is a trippy exploration of the power of choice and the butterfly effect.
9. The Truman Show
30 year–old Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives a simple and happy life in the small town of Seahaven Island. He has a loving wife, and a stable job, working in insurance. But what he doesn't know is that his perfect world is actually a giant TV set orchestrated by Executive Director Christoph (Ed Harris). The Truman Show began when Christoph's corporation adopted Truman as a baby, created the fake town of Seahaven, and filled it with actors and special effects. Since then, Truman's every move has been captured through hidden cameras and broadcasted live to the American public. When Truman starts to notice uncanny glitches in this man–made simulation, he starts to lose it. And so will you.
10. What Dreams May Come
Robin Williams stars as Chris Nielsen, a man struck by tragedy. His two young children have passed away in a massive car accident, and he and his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) are grief–stricken. Shortly after, Chris also passes away and appears in Heaven, where he meets his children. Annie, unable to deal with such immense loss is unable to cope, commits suicide. Unlike the rest of her family, she is sent to Hell, where she lives in a continuous state of sadness and confusion. Chris decides to risk his place in Heaven with his children to rescue Annie from an eternity in Hell. What Dreams May Come is a profound—and at times, heart wrenching—look at the meanings of life, death, and tragic coincidences.
Ranging from fate–driven romantic comedies to reality–bending science fiction, this list has it all. Rest assured—there’s a movie here for you that’s guaranteed to make you question everything.