From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Existential themes have been evident throughout 20th century cinema. Many films portray characters going through the "existential dilemma" or existential problems. Existential movies are those which have plots that deal with subjects such as dread, boredom, nothingness, anxiety, alienation and the absurd.
A number of 1940s and 1950s-era films explored existential themes, including the US film noir genre, which explored the ambiguous moral dilemmas of people drawn into the gangster underworld. Film noirs tend to revolve around heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another. The characteristic heroes of noir are described by many critics as "alienated" and "filled with existential bitterness." (Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style). Film noir is often described as essentially pessimistic. The noir stories that are regarded as most characteristic tell of people trapped in unwanted situations (which, in general, they did not cause but are responsible for exacerbating), striving against random, uncaring fate, and frequently doomed. The movies are seen as depicting a world that is inherently corrupt. Classic film noir has been associated by many critics with the American social landscape of the era—in particular, with a sense of heightened anxiety and alienation that is said to have followed World War II.
Existentialist themes were also present in other genres. The French director Jean Genet's 1950 fantasy-erotic film Un chant d'amour shows two inmates in solitary cells whose only contact is through a hole in their cell wall, who are spied on by the prison warden. Reviewer James Travers calls the film a "...visual poem evoking homosexual desire and existentialist suffering" which "... conveys the bleakness of an existence in a godless universe with painful believability"; he calls it "... probably the most effective fusion of existentialist philosophy and cinema."
Stanley Kubrick's 1957 anti-war film Paths of Glory has been said to illustrate existentialism by examining the absurdity of the human condition and the horror of war. The film tells the story of a fictional World War I French army regiment which is ordered to attack an impregnable German stronghold; when the attack fails, three soldiers are chosen at random, court-martialed by a "kangaroo court", and executed by firing squad.
On the lighter side, the British comedy troupe Monty Python have explored existential themes throughout their works, from many of the sketches in their original television show, the Flying Circus, to their last major release and the 1983 film The Meaning of Life. Of the many adjectives (some listed in the introduction above) that might indicate an existential tone, the one utilized the most by the group is that of the absurd.
Some contemporary films dealing with existential issues include Fight Club, Waking Life, and Ordinary People. Likewise, films throughout the 20th century such as Taxi Driver, High Noon, Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, The Seventh Seal, Ikiru, I ♥ Huckabees, and Blade Runner also have existential qualities. Notable directors known for their existentialist films include Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Woody Allen. Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York focuses on the protagonist's desire to find existential meaning in life as he sees its end.