Any email you have been sent in the last month probably mentions how we are living in either “disturbing,” “turbulent” or “unprecedented” times. As clichéd as this has become, it is still true, and as the public health and economic situation in the United States and around the globe deteriorates, it's understandable that many of us are feeling particularly anxious during this precarious moment.
People smarter and more qualified than I am have discussed the specifics of the pandemic and its global effects at length, so I am going to do just the opposite. Here are items from my own quarantine binging that I think can serve as a temporary distraction from the current moment, either due to their enticing world building, consistent humor, warmth, optimism and/or hope for the future.
“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972)
Burned down hotel rooms, musical prehistoric rocks and endless plaid overnight case swaps: “What’s Up, Doc?” is a consistently hilarious, often ridiculous homage to 1930’s screwball comedies. Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand play off each other brilliantly, with Streisand’s sharp and endearing performance leading the way as the story races toward a supremely entertaining 15-minute chase sequence through San Francisco. Pair this with another brilliant modern screwball comedy, “Mistress America,” for an imminently likable and engaging double-feature rooted in farce.
“The Way He Looks” (2014)
“The Way He Looks” is just so easy to like. The Brazilian film follows Leo, a blind, shy high-school student whose life changes when a new student named Gabriel joins his class. The two have incredible chemistry, and the slow-burning love story is told with such tenderness and warmth without ever feeling overly sappy or derivative, despite hitting some similar beats as other coming-of-age films.
“Y Tu Mamá También” (2001)
Perhaps my favorite film from quarantine (alongside Alfonso Cuarón’s next film, “Children of Men”), “Y Tu Mamá También” follows Julio and Tenoch, two 17-year-old boys who convince an older woman named Luisa to come with them on a cross-country adventure across Mexico. This is one of the best shot and most quotable movies I have ever seen, with a stunning performance from Maribel Verdú as Luisa. It seamlessly weaves together themes of class conflict, political conflict, mortality, sexuality and maturity while still being just as fun as any other road trip or coming-of-age film. The ending may be a little downbeat, but the world Cuarón creates is the perfect distraction from our current reality, a world you'll wish you could live in far after the end credits roll.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)
The ultimate David and Goliath story, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is the political equivalent of warm chicken noodle soup. Following the death of a sitting senator, former Boy Scout leader Jefferson Smith is appointed to a U.S. Senate seat in an unnamed Western state. He is selected due to his naiveté and inexperience, with the assumption that he will not disrupt a dam-building graft scheme hatched by Jim Taylor, the leader of the state’s political machine. Smith stumbles upon the scheme while proposing a plan for a national summer program, and he launches a one-man assault on the corrupt politicians and the machine with a phenomenal filibuster sequence — a sequence that excuses the film’s inconsistent pacing and underwritten romantic side-plot. It may be difficult to see a story like Mr. Smith’s as realistic in our current politics, but at its core, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is political idealism at its finest and a reminder that strong, virtuous leadership can defeat the fiercest of opposition.
“The Plot Against America” (2020)
On the other side of the WWII-era political coin is HBO’s new miniseries adapted from a Phillip Roth novel of the same name, “The Plot Against America.” The miniseries is a troubling political fiction where Charles Lindburgh runs for the presidency in 1940, promising to keep America out of the war. Lindburgh’s rise brings the rise of fascism and anti-semitism in the United States, as the country takes a stance that is decidedly more conciliatory toward the Hitler regime. The story focuses on a Jewish family in New Jersey, showing how dangerous political decisions threaten the lives of ordinary people. There is a constant sense of dread in every episode, with the show’s third episode serving as one of the most uncomfortable but well-crafted pieces of television in recent memory.
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The second feature film from Yorgos Lanthimos, “Dogtooth” is a compelling but deeply unnerving story of three nameless adult children who have been isolated in a secluded estate their whole lives by their controlling and manipulative parents. Their parents have changed the meaning of words, convinced them that airplanes fall from the sky and land in the backyard, told them cats are the most dangerous animals alive and even invented a brother whom they banished due to bad behavior and insubordination. Some scenes are legitimately hard to watch, as Lanthimos turns up the heat on this harrowing nightmare. It plays as a black comedy, with the deadpan dialogue and absurd situations creating hilarious moments. Yet, these moments of reprieve still remain couched in a tragic and disturbing story of power, deception and submission.
“Honey Boy” (2019)
“Honey Boy” was written by Shia LaBeouf during his court-ordered rehab as a means to cope with a lifetime of personal trauma. The product of this is as heart-wrenching as one could expect, with the story focused on both LaBeouf’s time in rehab and his upbringing in a grimy L.A. motel under the care of an abusive, alcoholic father. LaBeouf plays his father in the film, to spectacular results, capturing the nuances of a broken man who wants the best for his child but is incapable of providing it. That failure and the fractured- yet loving father-son relationship at the heart of the story leads Otis (the character representing a young LaBeouf) down a similar path as his father. For LaBeouf, family is often inescapable and trauma can be intergenerational.