27 of the Best Introspective Movies to Watch All by Yourself

27 of the Best Introspective Movies to Watch All by Yourself

I’ve always been perfectly content to watch movies by myself. Seeing a movie with a crowd is all well and good if it’s an action flick or a comedy, but there are movies that demand more focus and reward careful attention—and having kids, partners, and even friends in the room with you can frankly be very distracting.

What follows are 27 of the best movies to watch solo and get quietly lost in. They’re all relatively quiet and generally thoughtful, which isn’t to say boring—not that there’s anything wrong with a slightly boring movie.

(Note: There are a lot of American films here, in part because quiet introspection is a bit more novel in Hollywood; a list of introspective Swedish films, for example, would be a heck of a lot longer.)

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Charlie Kaufman’s film about a theater 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.

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.

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.

The Man from Earth (2007)

Written by sci-fi legend Jerome Bixby while on his deathbed, an appropriate mournfulness hangs over this (very) low-budget movie abut a man who might or might not be 14,000 years old. David Lee Smith plays John Oldman (*wink*), a professor having some friends over for a going-away party. Over the course of the gathering, he lets his secret slip, prompting an evening of conversation during which his fellow professors grill him about his life from their own academic perspectives. Heady stuff.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Marketed as the sexiest movie you’d ever see in major movie theaters, 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 dehumanizing as anything else in a Stanley Kubrick movie.

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 math 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.

Paterson (2016)

Idiosyncratic indie director Jim Jarmusch takes “contemplative” to new levels with this film following a week in the life of a New Jersey transit driver played by Adam Driver (hmmm). During breaks from work, Paterson writes small poems with encouragement from his wife (Golshifteh Farahani), but his dreams of publishing them go out the window when a dog gnaws his notebook. With impressive performances from the two leads, this quiet and rather moving film turns on the seemingly minor occurrences that can upend our own small universes.

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.

An Elephant Sitting Still (2018)

There’s very little consolation to be found in the first and only film from novelist Hu Bo, which turns on an anecdote about an elephant in a circus in Manzhouli that remains absolutely still under any provocation: perhaps feeling peaceful, perhaps just surviving without living. The film’s characters determine to visit the elephant, their stories cumulatively speaking of disconnection from and disaffection for life.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Directed by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, Werckmeister Harmonies might be the most approachable of Tarr’s film projects. Which admittedly isn’t saying much, given that his previous film, Satan’s Tango, is over seven hours long. Here, we take a long, languid, and beautifully shot tour of a small village in Hungary, following its residents through their lives as a slightly sinister circus comes to town. The film isn’t much interested in plot or incident, preferring instead to languidly observe its characters.

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.

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.

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 centers 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.

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.

Stalker (1979)

After the apocalypse, a guide sets out with a writer and a scientist across a distinctive and highly stylized 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.

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.

Only Yesterday (1991)

Not many of the films on this list topped the box office when they were released, but director Isao Takahata’s anime (from Studio Ghibli) was the highest grossing film of its year in Japan. Twenty-seven-year-old Taeko Okajima works in the city but takes a train trip into the country side to visit relatives and escape from the hectic pace of Tokyo. The journey conjures memories of her life, some good, some less so, forcing her to reconcile her present with everything she has left behind.

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.

Nomadland (2020)

After Frances McDormand’s Fern loses her job at a gypsum plant, she sells everything and buys a van to live and travel in while she hunts for work (including at an Amazon warehouse). Attachments come and go during her travels, as writer/director Chloé Zhao’s funny, elegiac film considers life within America’s increasingly precarious capitalist system, while also exploring more general themes of permanence and impermanence.

The Whales of August (1987)

A grace note at or near the end of the careers of Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Ann Sothern, and Vincent Price, Whales of August finds two elderly and very different sisters spending yet another summer in the same seaside house in Maine that they’ve visited since childhood. Davis’ bitter Libby is ready to give up on life, while Gish’s Sarah is tired of being a caretaker and is increasingly delighted by the prospect of a romance with local widower Price. The gentle film explores the potential for dignity and liveliness among these octogenarians.

The 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.

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.

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.

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.

Under the Skin (2013)

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.

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.

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.

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