Self-isolation is in some ways the movie lover’s idealized state: How often have we longed for more time to hunker in the bunker, with all the time in the world to brush up on our Fassbinder or Ozu, or rewatch that beloved trilogy? (Am I talking about Peter Jackson, Richard Linklater or Abbas Kiarostami? Yes, yes and yes.)
That time may be more theoretical than actual for many of us confining ourselves at home for the next several weeks; life in a pandemic, after all, does not mean a shortage of work to do, meals to cook and for some, children to look after. But I hope this personal list of recommendations and suggestions — all of which can be found on at least one or more streaming services, including Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, Netflix, Kanopy and the invaluable Criterion Channel — will be of use if and when you need it.
Real-world anxieties can have a strange impact on our viewing habits: Some of us like to lean into horror by embracing one of George Romero’s worst-case scenarios, while others prefer the restorative properties of a classic MGM musical. Most (though not all) of the movies on my list have been chosen for reflecting, in some way, the tensions and anxieties of the present crisis. All of them are worth watching, no matter the mood or the moment.
1. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Tom Hanks is the highest-profile American movie star to announce that he tested positive for the coronavirus, as did his wife, the actress and singer Rita Wilson. I wish them both a swift recovery — and also recommend that you watch Hanks’ justly Oscar-nominated performance as Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller’s perfectly directed ode to grace, forgiveness and the quiet interdependence of all human lives.
2. “Code 46.” We have never lacked for dystopian fictions, for movies that chart the instabilities of a fast-changing world or posit a grim totalitarian society with some eerie resemblances to ours. But if you have already thrilled to the beautifully dark visions of “Blade Runner” and “Children of Men,” do take a chance on Michael Winterbottom’s gorgeously moody and melancholy 2004 feature, set in a future where social inequality reigns, comings and goings are ruthlessly monitored and empathy is such a dangerous aberration that it has become, quite literally, a virus.
3. “Green for Danger.” Sidney Gilliat’s crisp and memorable 1946 adaptation of Christianna Brand’s classic World War II-era detective novel brings together not just the usual whodunit conventions — a closed circle of suspects, an ingenious murder weapon — but locates them in a world already fraught with peril: an overrun English hospital where nerves are fraying and supplies are dwindling, but the passions of the human heart remain fierce and undiminished.
4. “Hospital.” Speaking of hospital movies: This 1970 must-see from Frederick Wiseman, master of the observational documentary, offers a riveting and ever more timely reminder of the difficult, invaluable work that medical professionals do — and the obstacles they face in a system that often seems stacked against them. You can watch the film, and the rest of Wiseman’s staggering body of work, on the free streaming platform Kanopy.
5. “It Comes at Night.” Pandemic movies are all the rage at the moment, and by all means join the many viewers watching “Outbreak,” “Contagion” and “28 Days Later …” for the first or fifth time. This tense and unnervingly intimate 2017 feature from the gifted Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha,” “Waves”) is chilling not for its depiction of the physical ravages of a deadly infection, but for the vicious psychological residue it leaves on a world gone mad.
6. “La Flor.” Mutating among a ridiculous range of genres and styles at will for nearly 14 hours, this progressive feast of a movie from the Argentine writer-director Mariano Llinas is for those of you with more than a little extra time on your hands. I can’t promise you’ll love every hour, but you will be astonished by how many spellbinding possibilities Llinas juggles, how much freshness he wrings from stories and templates that once seemed moribund and exhausted. It’s available for streaming through Grasshopper Film.
7. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” Was there ever an American director more wonderfully resistant to the notion of social distancing than Robert Altman? If you’re in need of a movie so full of life that the proportions of the screen can barely contain it, I wouldn’t blame you for opting for the teeming canvases of “Nashville,” “Short Cuts” and “Gosford Park.” But Altman’s 1971 masterwork remains in a melancholy class by itself: a swirling social panorama that is also an evanescent, heartbreaking portrait of love and loss.
8. “Meek’s Cutoff.” If you missed your chance to see Kelly Reichardt’s exceptional “First Cow” in theaters, you can whet your appetite with her earlier Oregon western, starring Michelle Williams as a frontier woman whose true grit shames the arrogant, foolhardy strongman in charge. Many interpreted this measured but gripping 2010 drama — reductively, but understandably — as an indictment of President George W. Bush’s leadership in the Iraq war; to no one’s surprise, it’s malleable enough to suit our present national crisis as well.
9. “My Neighbor Totoro.” It would be hard to go wrong with any selection from the Studio Ghibli treasure-trove, but Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 animated wonderment may be the purest and sweetest of its many classics. There are worse moments than the present one to introduce children — and adults! — to this deeply resonant film about the difficulties of family upheaval and the consolations of real magic.
10. “Rio Bravo.” The great American movie? That’s a claim to trigger a brawl in any cinephile saloon, but Howard Hawks’ 1959 masterpiece is certainly one of the greatest (and least gung-ho) movies ever made about community solidarity — the way deeply flawed individuals must embrace those flaws, within themselves and each other, to overcome a looming threat.
11. “Safe.” I rewatched Todd Haynes’ 1995 breakthrough on the Criterion Channel just the other night for the first time in close to 20 years. It remains a quietly haunting stunner, a movie that begins as an environmental chiller and ends as a portrait of self-isolation, but which remains unnervingly precisely because its sense of malaise is so endlessly suggestive and ambiguous. It makes a logical double bill with Haynes’ gorgeous ode to 1950s melodrama, “Far From Heaven” — another movie starring a triumphant Julianne Moore as a woman who has defined her identity almost entirely by her toxic surroundings.
12. “Singin’ in the Rain.” Stanley Donen died last year, but his greatest gift will never leave us. Watch this early and often, returning as many times as necessary; it’s like mainlining pure joy.
13. “Three Colors: Blue.” This one remains my favorite of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s magisterial 1993-94 trilogy — for Zbigniew Preisner’s stunning choral epiphanies, and for Juliette Binoche’s shattering performance as a woman isolating herself from everyone and everything in the wake of tragedy. But you will want to move on to “White” and “Red,” too, with which it dovetails harmoniously to forge a wrenching, eternally relevant elegy for a divided Europe.
14. “The Turin Horse.” Purportedly the last film from the Hungarian master Bela Tarr, and fittingly the last, last, last word on apocalyptic despair. And yet this movie’s bleakness of spirit is so rigorous and totalizing that it has the strange effect of leaving you feeling cleansed, even refreshed — and ready to face this broken world anew.
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