20 Movies That’ll Make You Think About Life, Love, Reality, And What It Means To Be Human

There’s something about movies that fascinates us. Whether we’re laughing, crying, thinking, or heady with longing, we seek these special looking glasses to show us our place in the world.

Enjoy this list of the wonderful cinematic creations that shape, guide, and make us want to be more than who we are. They will truly make you think.

On Life

Life perplexes. Life mystifies. It teases, enraptures, amazes, enrages, and ultimately silences.

The best films to capture the messy grandeur of life do all those things.

The endings may not be clear-cut, the script at times largely improvised, characters will behave in ways we might not have predicted, but we love these movies for the heart they provide in an often uncomfortable world.

Amelie

Everything is chance, even when we plan. Everything is wonderful, even when we cry.

What if you could ensure that a life here and a life there would turn out a little brighter because of something you did? Would you do it?

Amelie, by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is a delightful movie of questions amidst a sense of wonder, one that reinforces that just because life isn’t tidy, doesn’t mean we can’t tidy small corners of it.

Blade Runner

Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of tahe Phillip K. Dick story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is a brilliant meditation on what constitutes being alive.

Is it lifespan? Memories? This tale of androids and humans shakes up perceptions of what is life and who gets to live it.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

“A world of pure imagination”… and also one of endless vices.

If you’re presented with everything you could ever want, will you want more?

Is that all life is, a constant scrabbling to accumulate, possess, steal, or usurp? Knowing the limits of “enough” in one’s life may be the highest reward.

Wings of Desire

Life, death, love, pain, healing, rebirth: the cycles of life whether among angels or mortals.

Wim Wenders’s poetic vision on love and sacrifice is a film for those needing to remember feeling cherished no matter what, which is what so many of us – often without having the words to voice the pang – want so very much.

What, besides a need to connect, would make an angel desire losing its wings for love?

Fresh

Director Boaz Yakin’s 1994 film unfolds like a modern-day Shakespearean tour du force as we follow the machinations of young drug runner and chess whiz “Fresh”, a youngster smarter and wilier than everyone around him.

It’s a story that touches on aspects of life many try to keep separate (race, intellect, class, destiny), shaping each perfectly into the journey of a boy rising above the traps of impoverishment.

On Love

A good romance isn’t necessarily a good love story. Love gets messy.

Shakespeare might have said love wasn’t love that altered when it alteration met, but the following films are here to counter with love being nothing but alteration, a slippery, ill-defined shapeshifter.

She’s Gotta Have It

Spike Lee’s 1986 debut film (now a Netflix series) presents sex, liberation, and inner honesty to the viewer in the form of Nola Darling, a woman who knows what she wants sexually and emotionally, from whom she wants it, and is mystified at those thinking these are only available from a single source.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

If you could erase the memory of loving someone, would you? And what if that person ran into you again?

There are many who would do anything to forget someone they thought they’d love forever, turning the world into a desert of romantic amnesia, but no matter how much we scrub, some spots never come clean.

Don Juan Demarco

“There are only four questions of value in life, Don Octavio. What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same: only love.”

When you think you’re the greatest lover in the world, you ask such questions. You come to a particular answer.

Then you lose the one person you considered the love of your life. A deep chasm opens. You fall inside: do you remain or emerge anew?

Shakespeare in Love

Goal: totally disprove that “love is all you need.”

Result: Shakespeare in Love, a movie that unequivocally declares that love is not an end-all be-all occurring in a vacuum apart from all other concerns, and that respecting and honoring your partner – love’s key elements – sometimes means leaving the one you love.

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love

The sensual world makes heady demands. When given over to it fully, sexuality entwines with sensuality to become duality.

This is one of the most lush, gorgeous, arousing dramas you and a lover might have the pleasure of viewing… even if there’s an urgent need to pause it a few times. For reasons.

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On Reality

Altered States

A scientist finds that the mind has the power to change reality internally and externally, bridging altered states of consciousness from thought to physical form.

This classic from Paddy Chayefsky’s novel of the same name presents consciousness as a force of creation in such as way as to leave you reaching deep within for days afterward.

Cloud Atlas

The interconnectedness of time, space, and thought plays out over 500 years and through the lives of disparate people, showing the ripples individual lives have on who becomes who (and when) in time.

Past, present and future remain in constant interplay in this challengingly brilliant film.

Brazil

Who double-checks the forms needed to ensure reality functions properly?

In this classic from Terry Gilliam, a single typo in surnames throws a man named Buttle into the life of a revolutionary named Tuttle, leading a bureaucrat assigned to clear up the mistake to become trapped in the hellishly comical reality that is human administrative systems.

The Truman Show

When this one premiered, the idea of reality shows taking over our lives was novel. Funny how life follows art.

The titular character in this 1998 film starring Jim Carrey lives his entire life from childhood to adulthood in a fake town (unbeknownst to him) of actors and hidden cameras.

When everything we do is, as musician David Byrne sang in the song Angels, an advertisement for a version of ourselves, what, exactly, is reality?

The Life of Pi

Does fantasy serve reality? Does fantasy become reality? Art as survival tool is the touchstone of this wonderful cinematic experience.

A man, a tiger, a lifeboat, an endless ocean. Who survives? Who lies? What is real? As long as there’s someone to tell a tale, reality marches onward.

On What It Means To Be Human

It’s not surprising that the movies that tend to examine the pegs, cogs, and gears that make up the “human being” fall under the scope of fantasy or science fiction, where, as in real life, the imagination is first and foremost the primary driver of all narratives.

Captain America: Winter Soldier

Sacrifice is uniquely human, and it’s hard to beat Captain America in Winter Soldier going all-out to save a friend even while betrayed and hunted by elements of the country he swore to protect, as an example of human fortitude against overwhelming adversity.

The Incredibles

One of the first things you think of when you think “human” is family, and few movies capture the awesome strengths of family better than this animated gem, yet this one touches on so much more.

When the world no longer needs heroes, what becomes of the hero? Self-worth on multiple levels has rarely been handled so skillfully as in this tale of a super family finding its footing again.

Okja

Humans are the top of the food chain. We eat everything, and we’re constantly looking for more.

Okja, from director Bong Joon-ho, takes humanity’s hubris out of the food chain equation and opens the audience to questions about the relationships between sapiens and beast.

If we are what we eat, why do we so often go out of our way to be willfully ignorant of precisely what we’re eating?

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

In the Star Trek universe, aliens are often stand-ins for some aspect of humanity, none more famously than Spock.

This first big screen treatment of the classic television show grabbed viewers with a question revealed to Spock by a nearly godlike force seeking its creator: “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?”

There are few things more human than trying to grasp the enormity of those prospects.

Wall-E

A lonely robot spends 700 years cleaning up Earth’s trash after humans, who’ve made the world uninhabitable, have departed for the stars.

An alien probe inadvertently carries the robot into space, where it reunites with what’s become of humanity: people who are so lazy they spend their lives in hover chairs, and whose primary means of communicating to each other is via screens even when they’re in the same room.

The robot attempts to rouse humanity from its stupor. This begs the question: Are we still human when machines become more humane than we are?

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