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The 14 Greatest Philosophical Filmmakers in Cinema History

05 October 2015 | Features, People Lists | by Ben Wilson

best andrei tarkovsky films

“Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” –Ingmar Bergman

Filmmakers have, since the invention of the medium, been an elite crew. Often well-educated, they ensure that their films carry multiple meanings, have many allusions, and are enjoyable on several levels. This is, I think, true of even the most banal, asinine, and horrific of films and action movies.

In this list, I highlight 14 directors that are particularly thoughtful, whose works are often deeper, allusory, and philosophical in nature. I would even go as far as to call these 14 “Philosopher Kings”, but I want to be sure to welcome other suggestions that I may have overlooked or neglected due to limited space.

 

1. Terrence Malick

The-Tree-of-Life

“Terry” is certainly my favorite living director, and probably my favorite director of all time, so I have to admit bias here. His films are always thoughtful, and it is because of this that he tore the film world wide open in 1973 with Badlands. He studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, studied under Stanley Cavell and Heidegger briefly, and taught philosophy at MIT.

As if these credentials don’t speak enough, his films speak volumes to his education because they are full of philosophical quotes. The Tree of Life and To the Wonder include lines almost directly taken from Kierkegaard, The Thin Red Line talks about Homer, and all of his films strive to create a Heideggerian “poesis.”

Moreover, if you’re looking for beautiful, meandering cinema with thoughtful dialog and voiceovers composed by a new philosopher, Malick’s films will not disappoint. The Tree of Life, an exegetical work on the book of Job, offers his own musings on life, theology, and existence, and won him the illustrious palm d’or at the Cannes film festival in 2011. I recommend starting there.

 

2. Andrei Tarkovsky

The Sacrifice

Similarly, Andrei is a philosopher himself, and all of his films echo this expertise. He has written works about philosophy and film (Sculpting in Time being his most famous here), and composed poetry.

A Voyage in Time is a Tarkovsky film actually documenting this life, as he tours the countryside preparing to make Nostalghia and writes poetry along the way. His background is interesting, in that his mother studied literature, his father was a nobleman and poetry translator in Ukraine, and he himself studied piano, art, and film.

A true renaissance man, his films deal with a variety of topics and span several genres, as he toys with his own thought experiments and musings on life, nature, existence, and free will. A good friend of Ingmar Bergman, he worked to emulate the work of other great philosophical directors like him, Bresson, Bunuel, and Dreyer.

Malick seems to reference Tarkovsky frequently, and I think that is because Tarkovsky served as such a great example of a poetic philosophical director working to sculpt the medium. I recommend watching The Sacrifice or Stalker to see some of his philosophy in action.

 

3. Ingmar Bergman

The Seventh Seal

An unparalleled genius, Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister and chaplain to the King of Sweden. He lost his faith at an early age and struggled with his existence for the rest of his life (this is most visible in his film Winter Light) and so he turned to philosophy as a means to rationalize everything.

He studied art and literature at Stockholm University, and his films focus on a variety of issues ranging from existence and mortality to faith and sex (yes, all of these are related in some sense, too). He alludes to anyone concerned with existentialism, metaphysics, or faith (and yes, I mean anyone), but perhaps most frequently and blatantly to Nietzsche and his philosophy, which Bergman rejects.

Truly though, Bergman is his own philosopher, like Tarkovsky, and his films portray a unique, sometimes absurdist take on life that can rarely be glimpsed elsewhere (Tarkovsky excepting). While he worked contemporaneously with Tarkovsky, it is his films that have influenced more filmmakers and are more well-known thanks to his artful narrative skills and cinematographic mastery. I recommend Fanny and Alexander or The Seventh Seal as a way to break into Bergman’s philosophy.

 

4. Carl Theodor Dreyer

Ordet (1955)

Born an illegitimate child in Denmark, Dreyer bounced around between orphanages until he was adopted by a not-so-loving family. A stalwart conservative, he first worked as a journalist and then became a title-card writer for silent films at age 24. At first, he had very limited success, but after some time his films grew in popularity and quality, with his first major success being The Passion of Joan of Arc. This film follows Joan’s dialectic of faith, and toys with reality as we perceive it and reality as it is.

His later films, Gertud and Ordet are no less philosophical, and are actually more intricate explorations of the same themes. Gertud deals with faith and love, as a woman ends her marriage and falls for another man. Ordet deals with faith as three children, an atheist, a moderately religious child, and a child who went insane studying Kierkegaard and now thinks that he is Jesus Christ, all deal with the trials of life.

Both are deep explorations of faith and individualism, as one individual struggles to bring his reality to fruition against the will of others. Ordet is the most comprehensive and expansive, so I’d recommend working down from it.

 

5. Luis Bunuel

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Born into a wealthy and large Spanish family, Bunuel was a devout Catholic. He went to a strict Jesuit school where he was a top student until he decided to stop attending. He also served in Mass and took the Eucharist daily until he rejected the Church for its illogicality, power, and wealth.

At the University of Madrid, he studied agronomy, engineering, and, you guessed it, philosophy. He became close with Salvador Dali and the lesser known poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and thus became an integral part to the founding of the Surrealist movement.

All of this found its way into his films, which are full of Marxism, absurdism, existentialism, and other schools of critical thought. His best known are The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie, Belle De Jour, Un Chien Andalou, and Simon of the Desert, but I would recommend some of his lesser knowns too, such as Viridiana and Nazarin.

 

6. Jean Luc-Godard

Breathless

Born to wealthy protestant parents in Paris, Godard moved to Switzerland at a young age and stayed there, for the most part, during WWII. In his youth he studied anthropology at the Sorbonne, under writer Jean Schlumberger, and with a group of film critics in the New Wave movement, but all only half-heartedly (in fact, it seems he didn’t even attend class at the Sorbonne).

His real route to film began with film criticism though, as the cine-clubs gained popularity in France. There he met Truffaut and many other key French film critics, and eventually he went on to make films.

Breathless, my favorite, features, as all Godard films do, dozens of pop culture references and a philosophical dilemma as one man tries to face off against government and to be truly free. Reflecting his radical right background, Godard often pushes the limits and questions authority in his films, but the answer is often a more moderate and appropriate response. I’d recommend starting with it to get a good taste of what Godard can offer.

 

7. Woody Allen

annie-hall

Born to a devout Jewish family in Brooklyn, Allen had a rough childhood as he saw his parents fight and had a bad relationship with his mother. He attended Hebrew school and New York University until he dropped out after failing a film class, and briefly attended the City College of New York. He then served as a comedy writer and comedian for the next 20 or so years until his first film, What’s New Pussycat in 1965.

Since then, he has made a film a year, with his most famous being Annie Hall and Manhattan. Not philosophical on the surface, Allen’s films are full of his dry, critical humor which allows him to toss out pithy comments on life, mortality, faith, reality, and everything in between. All of his films are worth the watch, but I particularly recommend these most famous two to those that haven’t seen them.

 

 

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  • Christopher Binder

    You left off Alain Resnais and Chris Marker? Are you f***ing kidding me?

    • Adam Hermansson

      to leave out Alain Resnais is just incomprehensible! … Woddy over Resnais, LOL, seriously laugh or cry!

  • Abhishek

    How are Scorsese, Lynch, and Kubrick philosophical filmmakers. I mean they are awesome but a movie or two would not put them in the list

    • sqnt

      a movie, or two? I don’t think you can relate your comment to Kubrick’s work. “2001”; “Shining”; “Clockwork Orange”; “Full Metal Jacket”; “Eyes wide shut”. That’s almost half of his productions, and all have deep philosophical content. Definitely think he’s well deserved a spot on this list.

      • Abhishek

        They seem to me more of a psychological than philosophical. For example the second half of full metal is war, while the first half could be a mixture of philosophical and psychological. Clockwork is more of a dystopian crime and takes a psychological turn in the end. Shining is absolute example of psychological horror. I dont see any philosophy in 2001 either. Eyes wide shut is more of a erotic thriller than philosophical but could be the closest.

        • Bryan Yep

          If you don’t see any philosophy in 2001, I feel very sorry for you

          • Abhishek

            Okay

        • Adam Hermansson

          I really do agree with your disposition. People must learn to distinguish between psych. and phil. !! … but with 2001 I must respectfully disagree with you 🙂

          • Abhishek

            Heck, even I disagree with 2001 comment I made. I ll have to watch it once more because it has been a long time 🙂

          • Deliana Georgieva

            If you read more academic articles and essays on the Shining for example, you will see it is indeed very philosophical. I don’t mean you can’t be knowledgeable enough to discover it yourself, but his work is usually so layered and deep that you might miss a lot of the hints. And it is interesting to know who helped him write the script!

  • Hatesville

    Like, Jean Cocteau and Resnais?

  • Jalan Telawi

    Christopher Nolan
    Abbas Kiarostami

    Alejandro Amenábar

  • Xanian

    Excellent directors, everyone on your list. But Scorsese and Kubrick shouldn’t be on this list. They are two of the greatest ever, but their work, cannot be easily classified as philosophical. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Charlie Kaufman and most of all, Alejandro Jodorowsky would have been much better additions to the list. Alain Resnais as well.

  • Carl Peter Yeh

    Eric Rohmer. And yes, Francois Truffaut deserves more than just a mere mentioning in a text. Plus I do hope that the Nr. 14 is as equal as the Nr. 1 here on this list. Because no way Terence Malick is greater than a Von Trier.

  • Biswajit Bhattacharya

    Ritwik Ghatak
    David Fincher
    Adoor Gopalakrishnan

  • Rodrigo Liceaga Sota

    KUROSAWA

  • Iván Solorio (SanS)

    Akira Kurosawa. Kim Ki-duk. Park Chan-woo. Alejandro Jodorowsky. Spike Jonze. Jean Cocteu. Carlos Reygadas…?

    • Adam Hermansson

      If Malick is allowed to top the list by being meditative which encompasses so much of the essence of philosophy, then yes film makers such as “especially” Kim Ki-duk”, ought to be on the list!

  • Camilo

    Bela Tarr? Michael Haneke? Alejandro Jodorowksy?

  • Aditya Sane

    Bela tarr
    Abbas kiarostami
    Asghar farhadi
    Michael haneke

  • luke

    Mike Leigh.

  • Tobias Palma

    No argue in the first four, but thereafter the list has many mainly well known directors but forgets a lot of less famous ones which philosophical work is outstanding, specially oriental ones. Besides, how could you forget Akira Kurosawa????

    Andrezj Wajda, Theo Angelopoulos, Raoul Ruiz, Kim Ki-duk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Chris Marker, Eric Rohmer, Abbas Kiarostami, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Peter Brook…

    The list is too mainstream, dude.

  • Klaus Dannick

    Lars Von Trier is kind-of medieval-theological. I don’t see that as philosophical.

  • Cygnifier

    Charlie Chaplin (he wasn’t just about laughs); Akira Kurosawa; Jean Renoir; Fritz Lang; FWMurnau; Jean Cocteau; Max Ophuls. One doesn’t have to be modern to be deeply philosophical.

  • Melinda

    Andrzej Zulawski

  • AЯCHIE MOOЯE

    Ken Russell

  • mars

    of course, film with philosophy can staying in spirit’s deep

  • Clemo LR

    Kieslowski never intended to approach philosophy. Just because his films focus on deep questions doesn’t mean he is a philosophical filmmaker. Don’t believe the bull**** written on wikipedia and read a little.

  • Pingback: Los 14 más grandes cineastas filosóficos, según Taste of Cinema | CANAL CULTURA()

  • juan bastida

    HANEKE

  • Abbas Kiarostami, Kurosawa, Peter Weir (the truman show), Terry Gilliam, David Fincher, Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Wim Wenders, Fassbinder

  • Samuel Ombiri

    Robert Bresson, Bong-Joon Ho, Claire Dennis, Park Chan Wook, Nic Winding Refn to name a few (woody allen shouldn’t be that high on the list imo especially with someone like Michael Haneke himself not making it! This list kind of just feels more dictated by commercial appeal as opposed to inquisitive chops)

  • Kaj E Berg

    Francesco Rosi, E. Olmi, Elio Petri… Many big names missing.

  • Rodrigo Tgz

    stanley kubrick it’s so overrated… one of the saddest list.

  • Deliana Georgieva

    Charlie Kaufman!!! and probably Jim Jarmusch?

  • thelivingmanpart2

    Herzog? Hiroshi Teshigahara? Fritz Lang?
    I expected something different from your list… It’s like your list is pro-Hilary and the comment section is all Sander supporters lmao

  • Emre Kara

    Haneke???!!!

  • Peter Homfray

    Raúl Ruiz

  • Lag00n

    Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, Shirin)
    Akira Kurosawa (Hakuchi based on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Yojimbo, Dreams and…)
    Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, Santa Sangre)
    Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Revenant, Birdman)
    Asghar Farhadi (More Psychological)
    Bela Tarr (Turin Horse)
    Cristian Mungiu (4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days)
    David Cronenberg (Crash, Naked Lunch, Videodrome)
    Dusan Makavejev (Mysteries of the Organism)
    David Fincher (Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Se7en, Others are more Psychological)
    Federico Fellini (81/2, Juliet of the Spirits)
    Hanao Mayazaki (Films from Ghibli Studio)
    Kar-wai Wong (In the Mood for Love, 2046)
    Kim-ki Duk (Filmography)
    Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven, Baran)
    Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimetres per Second and…)
    Michael Haneke (Cache, White Ribbon)
    Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, The Master, There will be Blood)
    Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother, Talk to Her)
    Pier Paolo Pasolini (Mamma Roma, Gospel Acc. to St. Mathew, Salo)
    Richard Linklater (Before Trilogy, Boyhood)
    Satoshi Kon (Including Girl Who Leapt Through Time from Madhouse Studio)
    Volker Schlondroff (Young Torless, Haven’t watched others yet)
    Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire)
    Yimou Zhang (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero and…)

    Your list is fine but it’s too limited, These are few directors i think pretty much qualify for the list, if there are any other recommendation from anyone, please reply.

  • Tjakko Martijn

    I really believe one of the Italian neorealists ought to be on the
    list, in my opinion either Pier Paolo Pasolini or Michelangelo
    Antonioni. The list feels heavy on American cinema as well.Scorsesi,
    Coen Brothers, Lynch and Allen –albeit being fantastic film makers and
    certainly touching on philosophical themes– are not in their essence
    philosophical film makers. The underlying ambition in Pasolini and
    Antonioni movies is in the first place to truly study mankind, culture
    and modernity.