Over the course of the last week, day-to-day life around the world has come to a grinding halt in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19.
As it stands, the United States is seemingly on the verge of a mandatory lockdown: In one breathtaking measure declared Monday, officials in the San Francisco Bay Area have ordered all residents to “shelter in place,” meaning millions are now expected to stay inside their homes indefinitely, leaving only when absolutely necessary. Similar lockdowns in China and Italy were previously regarded as “draconian”; now, they feel inevitable.
In an attempt to slow the virus’s spread, I have voluntarily isolated myself inside my apartment — as should anyone else who has the ability and means to do so. These last few days in quarantine have provoked fear, sadness, anger and, worst of all, cabin fever. In my restlessness I have done laundry, washed dishes, cooked meals, overeaten, played video games, watched some T.V., practiced sketching and been practically glued to my phone; work is touch-and-go, done mostly out of immediate necessity. The gulf between today and tomorrow feels enormous.
In times of sadness or fear, I have never found solace in religion; instead, I turn to movies. (And while I revere the holiness of a movie theater communion, that is currently out of the question, so my Roku TV and DVD collection will have to suffice.) Whether it’s an arthouse film that moves me to tears or a stoner comedy that makes me laugh until my belly aches, movies have always been (and always will be) what heal me spiritually.
So, here’s a list of movies I’m reaching for in this moment, to add to the ever-growing pile of recommended quarantine media. “Contagion” is bad, as is “The Happening” (as is every M. Night Shyamalan movie) — frankly, most films about pandemics are terrible, and there’s a reason they’re parodied to better effect on T.V. It’s an understandable urge, indulging in media that helps us interpret our current reality and come to terms with it, but there’s also a case to be made for full-fledged escapism; as such, I’ve divided my recommendations along those lines.
Stay safe, stay sane and happy watching:
I don’t want analogies for our current situation
“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)
Rent on Amazon
I recently rewatched the episode of “Glee” that’s “Singin’ in the Rain”-centric and, as if that fact alone isn’t embarrassing enough, I learned that I have something in common with the ever-clownable Mr. Schuester: We both watch “Singin’ in the Rain” when we’re under the weather.
Released in 1952, it’s a period piece of Hollywood at the turn of the ‘20s, when “talkies” took sound stages by storm and booted silent movies to the curb. A musical shot in brilliant technicolor, “Singin’ in the Rain” is the definition of “feel-good” — the song and dance numbers instantly spread a smile across my face, as does Gene Kelly’s enduring charm and sheer comedic talent. It’s bottled happiness that we get to indulge in whenever we want to, and by God, there’s no better time to be serenaded by beautiful people than the present.
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“Funny Girl” (1968)
Stream on Prime Video (with ads)
Another musical and another “Glee” reference to be made, which I will resist making. (Clearly, there is something seriously wrong with me.) “Funny Girl” stars Barbra Streisand as real-life actress and comedian Fanny Brice and follows the trajectory of her life, from her time with the Ziegfeld Follies to her tumultuous marriage to entrepreneur and gambler Nicky Arnstein.
It’s hard to believe this is Streisand’s film debut — she dominates the musical numbers, her striking features and up-swept hairdos pulling the focus of each frame, and she moves with grace between the excitement of show business and new romance and the gravity of a failing marriage and aging career. And, aside from being full of larger-than-life performances, “Funny Girl” is flat-out funny, cementing Streisand’s adeptness as a screwball comedian alongside her skill for histrionics.
“Funny Girl” sweeps you up and doesn’t let you down until you’re beaming and crying like an idiot — and that, I think, is an incredible feat.
“Best in Show” (2000)
Rent on Amazon
My four-year-old, seven-pound cavapoo named Daisy is my world. She is a dog, but I love her like I love my friends and family, only more, because she has no choice but to worship me in return. Perhaps this is why Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show” is one of my go-to comfort films — a mockumentary, it follows a group of dog owners as they prepare for a prestigious conformation show, whose unyielding obsession with their pets eclipses even my own. Every last one of them is a lunatic, played masterfully by underused gems like Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. One dog owner was literally born with two left feet; a husband and wife both have adult braces; a campy gay couple gossip about their fellow dog handlers.
“Best in Show” raises the stakes for the whole debacle, intimately capturing the rabid, win-at-all-costs mentality of an adult invested in pageantry; it is one spectacle after another, each more bizarre than the last. The actors reportedly improvised the majority of the film, which allows “Best in Show” to be a darkly funny and at times touching character study, free to explore the depths of their idiosyncrasies without the constraints of narrative cinema. For 90 minutes, your world shrinks to the size of a dog show, and it’s a delightful place to be.
“Paper Moon” (1973)
Stream on The Criterion Channel or rent on Amazon
“Paper Moon” is a perfect movie, warm and fresh and brilliantly unsentimental. Ryan O’Neal stars in the Dust Bowl-era period piece as confidence man Moses Pray, who forges a partnership with a precocious young girl named Addie (played by O’Neal’s daughter, Tatum). The neighbors think Addie is Moses’s kid, which he vehemently denies, but it is immediately apparent that she’s his carbon copy: Addie is a scammer, too, turning on the charm when she needs it and flying off the handle when she doesn’t. This, of course, makes for some beautifully smart-mouthed banter, elevated by the real-life father-daughter chemistry between the O’Neals.
As far as New Hollywood films go, “Paper Moon” stands out from its peers — while it is stripped free of nostalgia and artifice, its charm is never ending, and it is never afraid to veer into seriously heartwarming territory. Now eat your Coney Island!
Please give me all the analogies
I typically hate science-fiction movies. At worst, you get total bores like “Avatar”; at best, you get “Blade Runner.” I have, however, always enjoyed movies about outer space — especially films like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Solaris” and “Gravity,” which all document the crushing solitude and uncertainty of space travel. “Moon” lives in the same vein, featuring Sam Rockwell as a scientist who oversees a highly-automated mining operation located on the far side of the Moon, and whose only company is an artificially intelligent assistant named GERTY.
On the surface, the easy thematic comparison to make to the present times is the banality of isolation, the overwhelming loneliness and fear of living lightyears away from home, the anxiety over what comes next. But it’s also a story of the grotesque and alienating future (and, arguably, present) of late capitalism, wherein everything is optimized and streamlined for maximum efficiency — including our own personhood. As we deal with the fallout from a global pandemic, it’s critical to understand the role profit-making plays in fracturing our infrastructures and utterly failing the American working class. (I will now descend from my soap box.)
Plus, David Bowie’s son directed it. It doesn’t get much better than that.
“The Shining” (1980)
Rent on Amazon
Duh. Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining” is the quintessential point of reference for going absolutely bonkers from cabin fever. Jack Nicholson stars as Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer who makes the questionable decision to become the caretaker of an isolated hotel after it’s been abandoned in the off-season. He brings his wife Wendy and his son Danny along for the ride, and boy, does it go off the rails.
“The Shining” has become iconographic in the horror genre not because of its gore or jump scares, but in spite of them; it is the dread, which settles in your stomach as soon as the the film opens on the Torrances driving up the Rockies toward the Overlook Hotel, the haunting score reverberating in the background, that viewers remember from the film. Bone-chilling, frightening and deeply mesmerizing, all at once.
Here’s hoping your isolation is more productive than Jack’s.
Stream on The Criterion Channel or rent on Amazon
The obvious Spike Jonze pick here is his masterful 2013 film “Her,” which more forcefully grapples with the emotional and physical isolation wrought from a tech-saturated world. But “Adaptation,” his sophomore venture as a filmmaker, taps into the intractable frustration of writer’s block, which slowly leeches its way into all corners of your life until it drives you mad. Not too different from the present, hm?
Nic Cage — yes, Nic Cage — stars as the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Jonze’s debut, “Being John Malkovich,” as he struggles to adapt a novel for the screen. Kaufman wrote this script as well — what the viewer ends up watching is a hybrid of docufiction and straight adaptation, allowing Kaufman to weave between representation of his own experience at the time of writing the script and snippets of the adapted source material.
It’s quite a bit to wrap your head around. Kaufman also writes himself a twin, which means we get not one, but two Nic Cages on screen at once, and Meryl Streep falls in love with a redneck Chris Cooper, which is a delight in and of itself.
“World of Tomorrow” (2015)
Rent on Vimeo
Don Hertzfeldt is a one-of-a-kind animator. He primarily draws stick figures in sparse, simplistic settings, but he imbues them with depth and immediacy through compellingly drab narration; I first realized this when I watched “World of Tomorrow” and a character droned in a flat, robotic candor, “I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive.” I was immediately moved to tears.
“World of Tomorrow” is a brief 17 minutes, but it overflows with humor, melancholy, horror and beauty. A young girl named Emily is visited by a clone of herself from 227 years in the future; the clone refers to her, the original, as Emily Prime. Emily takes Emily Prime on a journey through her neural network to revisit moments from Emily’s past; she eventually reveals that in 60 days, a meteoroid will connect with the earth’s surface and destroy it. She takes a memory from Emily Prime, in which she and her mother are walking together, and says it will bring her much comfort in the face of the impending doom.
Before she leaves, Emily tells Emily Prime this: “Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead.”
I can’t think of a better paragraph to leave you with.