Now that Netflix and Chill is a vital public health process, not just a plan for a lazy Friday night, we have been streaming more than ever. Theatrical distribution is virtually at a standstill, so VOD releases are our only avenue for new film (BYT will provide reviews of VOD releases in the weeks ahead). We thought it would be interesting to share what we’ve been streaming, not just as a list of recommendations, but as a coping mechanism. We know folks who have seen Contagion five times in the past week, and there are folks who prefer cuddly pet documentaries on Netflix. We asked longtime BYT contributors – Ross Bonaime, Trisha Brown, Svetlana Legetic, and Alan Zilberman – to share their viewing diaries in however they see fit.
As a self-diagnosed Criterion Collection obsessive, not only do I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to Criterion releases, I also try to watch all their new releases to decide what to place on that bookshelf next. But of course, life can get in the way of viewing habits, which puts me months behind their releases. Well, not anymore! Thanks to being quarantined for the last week, I’ve gotten to dig into the newer Criterion releases that I’ve never seen and found some films that took me completely by surprise. I’ve watched the Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn-starring screwball comedy, Holiday, Pedro Almodóvar’s lovely tribute to the women of the world, All About My Mother, and the tremendous drag ball documentary, Paris Is Burning.
But there are three that have really blown me away this week that I’d recommend for everyone. The first, Sidney Lumet’s startling 1964 Cold War drama, Fail Safe, which in hindsight, is as if Dr. Strangelove was played completely seriously. The second, the 1936 version of Show Boat, from James Whale, director of Frankenstein. Whale’s version of Show Boat is a fascinating comment on race and the way white performers have consistently stolen from black music that is decades ahead of its time. Finally, Paul Dano’s directorial debut from 2018, Wildlife, about a family in Montana torn apart by selfishness, loneliness and the fires that spread around the town of Helena. An assured debut that makes Dano a promising new director to watch.
Since I’m trying to look at this whole corona quarantine for its positives and not its overwhelming negatives, I’ve gravitated to entertainment I’ve been meaning to check out as a way to use this as an opportunity to maybe catch up. I’ve watched TV shows I’ve meant to watch for years, and finished video games I’ve had on my shelf for over a decade. These films have been sitting on my DVR and Netflix queue for months now and I’ve finally had the opportunity to check them out faster than I might have, if I wasn’t forced to stay inside. It’s not much, but catching up with entertainment has been a small silver lining that I’ve tried to put on this strange situation.
In the last week I’ve watched: Long Shot (the 2017 short documentary), Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, and I just started Too Funny To Fail: The Life & Death of the Dana Carvey Show.
I’ve been on kind of a documentary kick for a while now, and I think in the last week I’ve started to lean into it a bit. It’s a way for my brain to get some non-fiction information, but it doesn’t require me to read the news. And if there are two things I’ve learned this week, they’re 1) that the news is allllllll about the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2) that I definitely have to take a break from dealing with COVID-19 information.
Maybe more interesting than what I’ve been watching is how I’ve been watching: in small chunks, maybe 15-25 minutes at a time. It’s not how I usually watch films of any kind, but in my experience, a segment or two at a time tends to work fine with most documentaries – it’s a little like listening to a serial podcast one episode at a time or reading a non-fiction book over the course of a month or two. And since my go-to entertainment while I eat dinner or do laundry or tidy my apartment – at least, while we’re not in the middle of a life-altering pandemic – is short late night clips from The Daily Show or Late Night With Seth Meyers, right now I need a substitution. Bits and pieces of documentaries tend to work.
Of course, the other reason the “a little at a time” strategy works is that, like a lot of people, my ability to concentrate is suffering these days. The idea of sitting for 2 hours, watching a movie, and not once pausing to send a text to my parents to make sure they’re staying in, or to Marco Polo a friend or family member about their work from home experience, or inventory my supply of dairy products and wine is, for me, a little hard to imagine right now.
Over the last week, we watched all sorts of stuff. Who hasn’t?
We started the week out with a combination of murder mysteries (I watched all 8 episodes of Valhalla Murders on Netflix in a day or two, because working towards a solution is always a strong move when it comes to calming a brain down). I’ve also watched “aren’t we clever” meta-comedy picks (definitely saw This Is the End and then bought a milky way). Then there’s some true crime (Lost Girls, not too satisfying) and reality TV (Love Is Blind and Goop Lab because… I don’t know why). Since then, I’ve pivoted towards trying to more quality and sanity restoring, mentally nutritious choices.
Some solid picks from the last few days:
- Rear Window – perfect in all the ways you remember, plus a few new ones. Grace Kelly was meant to drape herself over couches in fancy outfits, so this may inspire a desire to not just wear pajamas to WFH this week.
- Day For Night – I may name my first child “Criterion Channel” by the time this is done, and they have a great new collection called “The Film Plays Itself.” It is filled with movies about moviemaking, so it is 20+ hours of pure cinema love and a great project for this time.
- The Hunger is another fresh Criterion Channel addition with Catherine Daneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon. It is an early-80s, hyper-stylish Only Lovers Left Alive precursor.
- The Natural and Moneyball are a great double feature because sports movies can make you feel like anything is figureoutable. I think we may also rent A League Of Their Own soon (because my husband is still not quite over the fact that MLB won’t exist this spring, and also because Tom Hanks).
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was great because again, we all need a project and having eight movies of anything to power through is a bonus, plus the looming 20th anniversary of this series is a great excuse.
- Spy is Melissa McCarthy at her best.
The last week or so has been interesting for me, personally, because I no longer have to keep up with new releases. They are (almost) at a standstill, which gives me free reign to choose whatever I want. Given an overabundance of choice, I find myself narrowing my focus on two types of movies: old movies, and movie “comfort food.” Whenever I watch something from the past couple years, I sometime get annoyed by the ordinary behavior that’s depicted on screen. How dare these characters congregate in groups, or go to parties? When I watch old movies – I’m talking prior to 1970 – they seem so far removed from our current moment that they’re more like an artifact, and much easier to watch on their own terms. As for “comfort food,” I tend to prefer comedies or any film that offers an elegant solution to its conflict. We’re not going to get one of those anytime soon. Some highlights:
The Train (1964) – This is a WW2 thriller starring Burt Lancaster about a French Resistance fighter who stops a train full of priceless art from reaching Nazi Germany. It is full of strong performances, including supporting roles Max Scofield and Jeanne Moreau, plus the set-pieces are pretty stirring given its time period.
Run Silent Run Deep (1958) – This is a WW2 thriller starring Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable about a submarine captain and his first mate in the Pacific. It abandons the tension between its actors for fairly obvious, boringly staged action sequences. Crimson Tide is better, so I recommend this only for completists.
The Professionals (1966) – This is a western starring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin (notice a theme?) about guns for hire who try and “save” the wife of a Mexican revolutionary. It falls into the classic Hollywood trope of characters who are virtuous, not accurate. It’s like a Diet Coke version of The Wild Bunch. Avoid.
Marc Maron: End Times Fun (2020) – The darkest Maron special I’ve seen, but also one of the funniest. It was recorded in 2019, yet he also says, “We’re overdue for something terrible to bring us together.” God damn it.
Knives Out (2019) – It actually gets better with each subsequent viewing (this is my third). It came out last year and feels timeless.
Spy (2015) – This is one movie that makes my wife and I howl with laughter every time we see it. McCarthy is great, but so are Statham, Byrne, and Law. Note: we rented the “unrated” version from Amazon and its dick jokes slow down the plot. Watch the theatrical version only, please.
Moonstruck (1987) – My wife had never seen this one before, and it was delight to watch it with her. At first, it seems so slight and low-stakes. But the plot gets surprisingly involving and complex, to the point where it practically invites your complete, devoted attention. Sure, Cher and Dukakis are great, but Cage deserves credit for reigning in wild tendencies just enough so we remains somewhat plausible.