I don’t recall the first time I felt loneliness. Chances are, it’s probably been present since childhood… chances are it’s probably been present for everyone since childhood. But around my middle school years, I do have memories of binding myself closer to book characters than peers, finding more solace and camaraderie within fictional relationships than real ones. Despite how anti-social this sounds, I promise you I’m not, I emplore you to look around and muse of how many others share this ‘quirk’— that is, finding sanctuary in fiction.
Fiction is our coping mechanism to dealing with strife, anger, and loneliness among other emotions that we prefer to sweep under rugs during daylight hours. It can be an escape to a better place or a reflective document on our internal turmoil. At the very minimal, good fiction is, in some way, revealing of some quirks of the human condition that we have yet to understand. Loneliness, perhaps one of the most universal of these feelings, pervades in almost all cinema and through and through comes across as human sadness when it is but a small facet of that sadness—a more muted and diluted facet, but nevertheless very present.
Perhaps not for everyone, films with a more central theme of loneliness move slower. They blur colors more, sometimes, and contain a starker display of emotion. What makes them so enjoyable, however, is that they are, in essence, an extension of feelings we’ve all had at some point. There’s a tenderness to the acknowledgement that we are all susceptible to loneliness… that there is a communal sadness.
What cinema is able to do so well, however, is amplify these emotions with colors, sounds, focusing and defocusing of the lens all to create cinematic effects that further heighten what the viewer may already be feeling. Color scheme is incredibly important in this regard—whether the film retains a more realistic color palette, like Brokeback Mountain, or a more color enhanced palette, not rare in recent day cinema where color correcting and saturation have grown in popularity. The cinematography often dictates whether or not a film will make it or not. Story line and content aside, a picture, or a moving picture, is worth 1,000 words.
Now, I’m not going to attempt to answer the question of why we are fundamentally so vulnerable to loneliness—that’s something centuries of literature has attempted to uncover and it’s still a work in progress. Orson Welles famously said “we live alone. We die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create an illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” What cinema has to offer, similarly, is merely an illusion that we are going to be ok. And perhaps we will.
Most films, even comedies, will infringe upon themes of loneliness at some point throughout its run time. Some are more blatant than others. Below is a compiled list of 31 films that are fundamentally about lonely people and lonely times.
- Paris, Texas
A man is found by his brother after having left his son four years ago in search of a town called Paris, Texas. After being brought back to his son, Travis learns that his wife, who similarly disappeared years ago is still depositing money into their son’s bank account and so Travis and his son leave across Texas to find the mother. Of course, no story is resolved cleanly, and inherent vices and age old inadequacies arise as the search draws to a close giving the story both a sense of closure and insufficiency.
- Cinema Paradiso
The true prices of success—it’s lonely at the top. Salvatore is a mischievous kid who finds an outlet for his mischiefs in cinema. As he becomes a teenager he befriends Alfredo, who runs the local theatre. Years later, upon returning home to the small town after having achieved considerable fame in the world of cinema Salvatore realizes just what, exactly, he has left behind and the price he paid for the success. Cinema Paradiso by Giuseppe Tornatore is an Italian classic.
- Lost in Translation
Charlotte in Lost in Translation is not only linguistically lost as she traverses Japan, she is both lost within herself and her relatively new relationship—all these, heightened by the cultural barrier between her and the Japanese. The layers of miscommunication translate to loneliness for her, stuck in a luxuriously sterile hotel room with no one to explore the city with. This is until she meets Bill Murray’s character, Bob, who offers her temporary relief from her solitude. But the friendship is as fleeting as their time there and (no spoilers) they are soon forced to part. A beautifully subtle take on isolation, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation remains a recent day classic.
One cannot forget Spike Jonze’s Her which many refer to as Jonze’s reply to Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Viewers call it his take on the deterioration of the relationship, however taken out of context to Coppola’s work, Her stands alone as a jarring reminder of the tech-obsessed direction our generation is headed to whereby consolation is found more frequently in the virtual realm than in person to person interaction. Hauntingly accurate at points, yet tender at others Her is a masterpiece of a prediction for our futures—of what could happen, and what can be avoided.
- Where the Wild Things Are
Yet another Spike Jonze piece—he seems to have knack for picking up stories with generally misplaced and dissatisfied protagonists. Max, a young boy is stuck in a cycle of lashing out on his family for lack of friends his age. During a fight with his mother he runs away to an island inhabited by beasts who, unbeknownst to him, reflect the roles him and his family, mimicking a similar dynamic that ultimately results in disaster. Both volatile and tender at the same time, Where the Wild Things Are is a film for both kids and adults—one to be understood differently at different points of life.
- Mystery Train
Jim Jarmusch’s style is distinct in Mystery Train as he continues with characters who possess run off the mill protagonist qualities. Three separate story lines come together in Memphis, a teenage couple from Japan obsessed with blues music, an Italian widow stranded in the South and a floater named Johnny who ties the story together.
- Dear Frankie
Lizzie is a single mother living with a deaf nine year old son. She struggles to give her son what he needs to lead a normal childhood but is insufficient when her son asks for his father. She then hires a man, stranger, to play the role of his father. As the bond between the boy and the stranger grows, the bond between mother and stranger grows as well, alleviating all their burdens of loneliness for a small amount of time.
- Fish Tank
Living in a rundown ghetto in East London, Mia, a destructive 15 year old with seemingly no friends tries to propel her dream of becoming a dancer while sorting through personal relationships with her mom, mom’s boyfriend, sister and Billy, a potential love interest that develops later in the storyline. Fish Tank is no uplifting Disney flick with a happy ending, rather one with a brutally realistic portrayal of life stuck in the lower income class of London.
- The Conversation
A psycho-thriller, The Conversation is Francis Ford Coppola’s musing on the decreasing privacy our society has grown to have due to the increased amounts of public and private surveillance techniques. Harry Caul works for a surveillance company in San Francisco and is hired by a client to record a conversation between a couple who believe they are being hunted. The more he observes the couple and the recorded conversation he has taped of them, the more paranoid he grows in his own world about being watched himself.
- The 400 Blows
A French new wave classic, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows pinpoints childhood loneliness as the protagonist, Antoine, is repeatedly isolated and put down by his mother and other figures of authority. Unable to relate, he gets himself into trouble with another mischievous kid in class and is sent to a disciplinary school on the outskirts of Paris where he is forced to mature.
- Three colors: Blue
The first of the critically acclaimed French trilogy, Blue is a heartbreakingly tender portrayal of a mother who lost both her husband and daughter in a fatal car accident and how she deals with the aftermath of it all. Rated as one of the best French films of all time Three Colors: Blue is a film for those with an eye for detail and a soft spot for films that are mutedly somber.
Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t disappoint in one of his most critically acclaimed films, Magnolia, which follows the separate lives of strangers who cross paths with each other at various points, and their individual struggles that manifest into great world issues by the film’s end. With a wide color palette and a beautiful score Magnolia reigns a recent day classic.
- Taxi Driver
Travis is a lonely insomniac driving taxis at night instead of sleeping. He floats through life attempting to win the heart of a woman he likes, Betsy, and save the life of a young prostitute he meets along the way. Taxi Driver is a rich portrayal of loneliness in New York City and the kind of toll it takes on an individual’s mentality.
- Night on Earth
Jim Jarmusch doesn’t disappoint with Night on Earth, his five story classic about taxi drivers in five different cities around the world in the ungodly hours between midnight and twilight. Each story is strikingly humorous and painfully true as the struggles of each cabbie and rider is exposed through the brief journey of the cab ride.
- My Blueberry Nights
Wong Kar Wai is one of Hong Kong’s brightest directors never failing to capture universal emotions and hardship in his mainly Chinese-language films. My Blueberry Nights was his first English language feature film and while rather cliché in the plotline, still manages to convey, beautifully, the debilitating quality of loneliness in the big city, and the universal loneliness that is the human condition.
- A. I. (Artificial Intelligence)
Taking place in the latter half of the 21st Century, where artificial intelligence technology has grown exceptionally, A. I. survives in a universe where scientists have artificially created robots programmed to possess human like qualities such as love, hate and anger. David, a young A. I. is given to a family who’s only son is placed in suspended animation (a vegetable state) from a rare disease, to replace the son. When the human son is returned, and David, abandoned into the woods, he spends the rest of his existence (eternity, because robots don’t die) searching for his mother, encountering other lost souls along the way.
- I’m Here
Perhaps a precursor to Her, I’m Here is yet again a Spike Jonze sci-fi classic. This short revolves around two robots who, isolated from the human race and other robots, find solace in one another despite short comings and inadequacies.
- Moonrise Kingdom
Two kids in a small town, both experiencing summer time boredom begin to create a play universe together where they are the rulers of a sea side kingdom. When adults try to encroach on their territory and universe, the two children fight back to both preserve their kingdom and their childhood.
- The Virgin Suicides
Four sisters are kept in lenient captivity by their parents who hope to preserve their innocence. As their teenage years approach each sister begins to delve into a rebellious streak causing the parents to lock down on the sisters even more. Isolated and only in the company of each other, the sisters begin to experience delusions and dangerous habits. Virgin Suicides is a gross depiction of normal adolescent urges, suppressed, turned to perverse nightmares.
- New York Stories
Having three notable directors, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Woody Allen chip in to one movie is one recipe to make it a lasting classic. Each director is given a short and about 1/3 of the run time of the film to make a short story about an individual’s life in New York. All are hilariously charming and brutal but a tark representation of life in New York.
- Out of Africa
Originally adapted from Karen Von Blixen-Finecke’s novel, Out of Africa is a love story between a baroness from Europe, relocated to Africa, and a local hunter. Their love exists on the plane that both are outsiders in the environment and estranged from their loved ones back home. Both seek solace in each other briefly, but as we’ve seen as a growing trend on this list of movies—it does not last.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a New York City executive with a serious sex addiction. Seemingly less harmful at first, the issue escalates with the development of the film to where Brandon has isolated himself from friends, family and colleagues all the suppress his addiction.
- Yi Yi
A Taiwanese classic, Yi Yi takes place in a small town in Taiwan where the inhabitants each seem, on the surface, to lead normal lives but experience internal turbulences individually. The main focus of the narrative, one family in particular, tells of a father who is dissatisfied with his job, a daughter who is stuck in a three way love triangle and a son who is have trouble at school. The story amalgamates as all these conflicts develop and wrap up, by end.
Yet another sci-fi film Steven Soderbergh, Solaris examines deep space and the psychological backlashes of being isolated in an enclosed space for so long. The protagonist, Kelvin, is forced to both deal with the despondent crew of a space ship that was missing in action, and the revived carbon copy of his wife, who had committed suicide several years back.
- Brokeback Mountain
One of Ang Lee’s most famous films, Brokeback Mountain is a story of two gay lovers who are forced to abandon their relationships for lack of support from their communities. Both men experience one intense summer together, while younger, at the foothills of Brokeback mountain, and forever look nostalgically back at the area as representative of their dying youth and love.
- Wild Strawberries
Perhaps one of the earliest films to have dabbled in post modern territory, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries treks across Sweden picking up a series of hitchikers along the way that force the senile protagonist, Isak Borg to question his mortality, lifestyle and ultimately reexamine his life and past. A good road trip and some existential undertones are all it took to make this one of Bergman’s most revered pieces.
- The Motorcycle Diaries
Following the journey of Che Guevara in his stint around Latin America via motorcycle, the protagonist is not so different from Jack Kerouac in his adventures. Guevara runs into people from all walks of life and ultimately works and befriends a leper community. The Motorcycle Diaries documents the trip that inspired Che to become a leader in the communist revolution, and one of the most noble men in revolutionary history.
- Harold and Maude
Harold and Maude takes the cake as one of the best pieces that has incorporated loneliness into black comedy. Harold is a 20 something year old loner who never had much luck in love. Maude is a free spirited senior citizen. The unlikely pair make for a beautiful couple, but one that experiences troubles different from other couples of similar age. Maude teaches Harold how to be young again, giving him both the gift of love and youth.
An Italian neorealist feature drama, Stromboli tells of a Lithuanian woman who marries an Italian fisherman and elopes to a strange island between Italy and Sicily. The island, far from paradise, begins to leave her yearning for her own home, as she speaks little Italian and adjusts poorly to the environment. A classic example of neorealism, Stromboli incorporates documentary style segments about fishing and utilizes real citizens as extras in the film.
An 90’s classic, Philedalphia came out shortly after the AIDS scare was reaching its climax. It follows a gay man, who was recently diagnosed with AIDS, and his lawyer who fights under the pretense that the sick man experienced work place discrimination. Considering the time stamp and context of this film, it is a truly revolutionary movie that depicts isolation of a man in two fringe groups, looked down upon by society—homosexuals and the ill.
A post modern masterpiece, Crash is a film that spans across the city of LA depicting snippets of different character’s lives as they each experience their own troubles and come to their own revelations. By the end, nothing is more clear than the message that everyone experiences pain, everyone tries to alleviate it, but few succeed eternally.
Did we miss any? Let us know what you think should be included on this list in the comments below.