Some of the best movies ever made have been inspired by loneliness and isolation. There is still something to be said for the film that shines a light on the theme of alienation. By returning to this timeless concept, and taking a look at all the different lonely characters in film, there are lessons to be learned for our own lives.
Here are 10 of the best films that explore human alienation.
1. Taxi Driver (1976)
This is THE definitive movie when people talk about loneliness and alienation in cinema. It was released in 1976, and it’s just as relevant as it was then. You could easily replace the taxi driver with an Uber driver, and the problems Travis Bickle is faced with are very similar.
The film serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen when society lets one of its disenfranchised members slip through the cracks. When the system is broken, we’re all in trouble.
2. The Piano Teacher (2001)
Michael Haneke, the master of illustrating how humans react to feeling marginalized, made a masterpiece here. It’s a slow, quiet story about a lonely woman living with her mother. At first the film sets up a nice rhythm for itself, and we get used to the routine of Isabelle Huppert’s character.
The film eventually takes a turn when we learn that the character feels unfulfilled in life. Despite the fact that she seems to have a job she values, it is clear she has an inability to connect with others.
The Piano Teacher does a great job of seamlessly interweaving the main character’s everyday life, and the darker feelings she has successfully hidden from people.
3. The Master (2012)
A theme in Paul Thomas Anderson’s work is “the family” as a way to cope with life. One of the key reasons for this is loneliness and uncertainty. We see this in films like Boogie Nights, and Punch-Drunk Love; characters are all searching for something, and they tend to fall into relationships they believe will take them out of their misery, or give them a sense of belonging.
This theme can arguably be seen the strongest in The Master: we follow Freddie Quell as he tries to find his way in life. When he encounters “The Cause” and its charismatic leader, he finally feels like he belongs. Freddie will go to any measure to protect his new hero, including violence.
4. Happiness (1998)
Todd Solondz’s film created quite a controversy when it was first released. One of the main reasons it is so effective is because it is really succeeds in portraying its characters as normal.
Despite the fact that the characters are all very dark, we get the impression that these types of people are around us a lot more than we think. Happiness is another film about people attempting to combat loneliness by sometimes extreme measures, but there is nothing else really quite like it.
5. Two Lovers (2008)
Two Lovers begins with the main character Leonard (played by Joaquin Phoenix, appearing for the second time in this list) attempting suicide. As the film progresses we learn about Leonard’s past, and his difficulty in finding another woman after a devastating breakup. Leonard is a tragic figure who is unsatisfied in life, and is barely hanging in there.
When he meets two different women representing different paths, his life takes an interesting turn. This all culminates in one of the most powerful endings I’ve ever seen in a movie. Two Lovers might be my favourite Joaquin Phoenix performance of all time.
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