21 of the Best Introspective Movies to Watch Absolutely Alone

21 of the Best Introspective Movies to Watch Absolutely Alone
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I’ve always been perfectly content to watch movies by myself. It’s all well and good if it’s 2 Fast 2 Furious or Uncharted, but there are movies that demand a little more attention and reward careful attention — and kids, partners, and even friends can be, frankly, distractions.

So these are some the best movies to get quietly lost in, without many of the typical attention-grabbing entertainment elements. They’re relatively quiet and generally thoughtful, which isn’t to say boring — though mileage will certainly vary on that count.

There are a lot of American films represented here, in part because quiet introspection is a bit more novel the closer you get to Hollywood. A list of introspective Swedish films, for example, or even Russian ones, would go on for much too long.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Charlie Kaufman’s film about a theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who lives his life within the context of a theatrical mock-up is seen as either assertively pretentious or utterly life-changing. Much of the film’s appeal is in the desire, made real here, to pull ourselves out of our own miserable lives and view them from a more objective place.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Waking Life (2001)

I’m not sure that Waking Life’s experimental animation style is strictly necessary, especially given the rotoscoping that required the bodily presence of actors — but there’s enough in the film’s discussions of free will and existentialism to make for an enjoyably thoughtful film about a man on the verge of a full-scale existential crisis. The ambitious visual style, though, does add a dreamlike quality that makes it harder to see as some sort of cinematic bull session.

Where to stream: Disney+

Arrival (2016)

There have been quiet, contemplative alien invasion movies before — but it’s not exactly the style we’ve come to associate with the form. The movie that solidified Denis Villeneuve’s reputation as a maker of smart, heady genre films deals with the universal challenges and rewards of communication, topped with a unique sci-fi twist.

Where to stream: Netflix

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Marketed as the sexiest movie you’d ever see in major movie theatres, Eyes Wide Shut is, instead, a dreamlike walk through a twilight world of joyless, mechanistic sex: the message being not “sex is bad,” but, instead, that sexual obsession can be as dehumanising as anything else in a Stanley Kubrick movie.

Where to stream: Stan

Pi (1998)

A bit more intense than some others here, Darren Aronofsky’s feature directorial debut involves a mathematician who becomes obsessed with the idea that maths can entirely elucidate the world’s underlying meaning, even as his own mental health struggles as an imperfect and irreducible human make that quest increasingly quixotic.

Where to stream: Stan

My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre has a fanbase to rival many more obvious cult classics in American film history; fascinating in that it’s a movie about two actors playing themselves (they share names, anyway) chatting at a cafe for nearly two hours. Yet people watch it over and over. The material veers from funny to despairing, but it’s always surprising, with the two actors selling their stories at least as well as any special effects could.

Where to stream: Digital rental

George Washinton (2000)

On one level, George Washington is the story of an unintentional murder by a school kid and the efforts to hide the evidence…but that synopsis doesn’t in any way capture the feel of this deliberately-paced and beautifully shot tone poem.

Where to stream: Digital rental

The Lobster (2015)

As offbeat dark comedies go, they don’t get much more offbeat than this: in Yorgos Lanthimos’ dystopian dark comedy, single people get exactly 45 days to find romantic partners — otherwise they’re turned into animals. It’s definitely weird, but no weirder than the modern courtship rituals it satirizes.

Where to stream: SBS On Demand

Being There (1979)

Hal Ashby’s film is, on one level, a particularly biting satire involving a (very) simpleminded gardener (Peter Sellers) whose every banal, plant-related utterance comes to be seen as a piece of wisdom by a world desperate for meaning. While it mocks our willingness to see what we want to see, it centres the gentle presence of Chance the gardener, and invites us to ask whether his innocent view of the world is really such a bad thing.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Slow and sometimes baffling, Uncle Boonmee is also a funny and beautifully meditative story about a man’s final days, and about the literal and figurative ghosts that haunt our lives.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Stalker (1979)

After the apocalypse, a guide sets out with a writer and a scientist across a distinctive and highly stylised wasteland in search of The Room, the one place left on earth where someone’s desires might still be fulfilled. There are elements of political and religious metaphor, but no one meaning really satisfies here, and it’s precisely that slipperiness that makes it so haunting.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Valhalla Rising (2009)

Our leading man here is a non-speaking, one-eyed former prisoner (played by Mads Mikkelsen), who begins a long, hypnotic journey over the sea when the Norseman falls in with Christian Crusaders in the nasty, brutish middle ages. There’s blood and battle here, but the idiosyncratic director is more interested in the silences in between.

Where to stream: Digital rental

A Ghost Story (2017)

A ghost (Casey Affleck) returns to the home he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara), only to discover that he’s untethered in both time and space, forced to view events in seemingly random order. Desperate to connect, all he can do is observe.

Where to stream: SBS On Demand

Tree of Life (2011)

Though early reviewers saw it as pretentious, there’s no mistaking the quiet ambition of Terence Malick’s gorgeously rendered exploration of the meaning of life itself, with a stopover in 1950s Texas. It’s probably the closest any director has come to the scale and scope of 2001 since that movie’s 1968 release.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Russian Ark (2002)

What starts out as a novelty gradually builds to something breathtaking as director Alexander Sokurov’s follows a mysterious narrator through the walls of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, encountering different moments and historical characters from the building’s history as he goes. It’s mostly a film about philosophical conversation, but Sokurov filmed the movie in one continuous cut, with no false cuts, choreographing a cast that, by the end, is in the thousands.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries has some of his most nightmarish imagery, but ultimately it’s the most humane of all his works. Its story of an old man recalling his past is as sad as it is sweet, but builds toward something very nearly celebratory.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Pariah (2011)

There are some big emotions in Dee Rees’ semi-autobiographical coming-out story Pariah, and so, in that sense, it’s not the most quietest of quiet dramas. In its performances and visual style, though, it’s utterly hypnotic, conjuring a world that, for all its turmoil, I could get lost in forever.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Under the Skin

An alien seduces men by the side of the road in this languid and elusive study of sex and power relationships. With a stroking visual style that evokes Blade Runner (just a bit), Under the Skin is as haunting as it is tough to pin down.

Where to stream: SBS On Demand

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Bafflingly dreamlike — but so beautiful that it’s hard to care — Alain Resnais’ masterpiece takes place at a luxury hotel and involves two lead characters who seem to have become completely untethered in time and space, and who might have met at Marienbad once before. It plays much like a ghost story, minus the horror-movie trappings.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003)

Kim Ki-duk’s story follows a Buddhist monk (O Yeong-su) from young apprentice to old age, with the different seasons representing phases of life and the circular nature of existence. It’s appropriately meditative, without extraneous or excessive drama, and not even much dialogue. It’s (nearly) as quiet as filmmaking gets, but rather lovely and rewarding.

Where to stream: Digital rental

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)

With a deceptively simple art style and a stunning sense of design, Don Hertzfeldt’s film chronicles the disintegration of a mind — belonging, in this case, to Bill, suffering from an unnamed neurological disorder. It veers from moments of humour to profound sadness, but builds to a climax of extraordinary beauty. (An earlier short carries the same name; the feature version runs just over an hour).

Where to stream: Vimeo

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