Now that theaters are closed and basically everyone is reduced to home viewing, it’s easier than ever to see what those viewing trends are. And interestingly enough, a whole lotta people are gravitating towards fictive epidemic narratives like the very good 2011 Contagion or 1995’s thriller Outbreak, as well as dystopian-future sci-fi. Well, choose your own poison, but what may seem amusing while this crisis is still a novelty may just exacerbate mental health issues everyone will be at risk for as the coronavirus situation drags on.
Ergo, we’ll be focusing this column—which, needless to say, isn’t going to be about new theatrical openings for a while—on viewing recommendation lists designed to lift your mood, fight claustrophobia, and otherwise provide some distraction from the news and from the tedium of self-quarantining. As for me, I tend to have a high tolerance for art that may seem unduly depressing or harsh to others. But we’ll be giving that stuff a wide berth for the time being, in the interest of making life a little more positive, fun, or at least diverting while your entertainment options are temporarily reduced to in-house screens.
For the vast majority of Americans, being on lockdown doesn’t mean traipsing off to one’s vacation home, or some other place where isolation is really more an indulgence than an unpleasant necessity. For many urban dwellers in particular, without even a backyard to safely mosey into, the potential for going “stir-crazy” is high—oh, not to the “I hacked my gerbil to pieces in a blackout” level, but certainly to a depressed, lethargic, sleeping-too-much degree.
So this first annotated focuses on armchair travel: Movies that broaden your physical horizons, whether through exotic locales, travel narratives, or other means. I’ve tried to avoid the obvious “luxury vacation porn” (typified by the sort of story in which some movie star as an ordinary Yank discovers romance and joie de vivre in Tuscany, southern France, a Greek island, whatever), already-familiar “sweeping epics,” upscale travelogue eye candy a la Baraka, and titles that you’ll see on every other list of this thematic type. (In addition to a lot of lesser films, that unfortunately means no Y Tu Mama Tambien.)
Many of the recommended features below can be found through free library or commercial streaming services, if not posted gratis on YouTube and such. Just do a little online searching—you’ve got the time.
The Lost City of Z (2016)
Most large-scale period “quest” narratives are either triumphant or tragic, but James Gray’s fact-based film finds something oddly inspiring in a dogged failure that sprawls across decades and continents. Charlie Hunnam is very good as an early 20th century British soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett, who became obsessed with finding a supposed lost ancient city in the Amazonian jungle. A delightful Robert Pattinson plays his adventuring sidekick, Sienna Miller the wife forever left behind, and Angus Macfayden a wealthy patron whose inability to endure the rigors of the journey he joins has disastrous consequences for all. Deliberately old-fashioned in many respects, this uneven, episodic two-and-a-half-hour saga is nonetheless quite richly rewarding in the end.
The Lost World (1925)
Likewise seeking something of fabulous South American legend—but this time finding it—are the protagonists in this recently restored silent-era blockbuster adapted from a novel by Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Their expedition from London journeys to a remote, hidden area so isolated from time that dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts still roam its plateau. The precursor to King Kong (not to mention Jurassic Park), complete with innovative stop-motion creature animations, this splashy entertainment holds up very well, and is quite shockingly close in gist to many of today’s multiplex fantasy-adventures nearly a century later.
Alone Across Australia (2004)
Though a celebrity in his native land, Aussie mountain climber and world traveler Jon Muir is also something of an amiably shaggy loner whose often record-setting adventures—from sea kayaking voyages to the North Pole via Siberia—are also often solo ones. This diaristic, self-filmed documentary account of his lone walk (well, with equally adaptable Jack Russian terrier Seraphim for company) through the continent’s geographic center encompasses three deserts, 1600 miles, 128 days, and almost no other human contact. Traveling with very few resources, largely living off the threadbare land, he suffers some serious perils, and one cruel twist of fate that may well reduce you to tears. But he’s so endearing, we root for his success—though it’s hardly a trip you’d want to emulate.
The World Before Your Feet (2018)
Entirely different yet oddly similar in spirit is the obsession of former civil engineer Matt Green, a gregarious sort who’s walked across the US (in just five months), but is seen here embroiled in a project that may never end, if he can help it: Walking every block, nook and cranny of NYC’s five boroughs, from central Manhattan to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn, Governor’s Island, et al. En route he uncovers a whole lot of buried history and diverse humanity. This delightful documentary by Jeremy Workman underlines how many surprises the everyday world we take for granted still has in store, if we just take the time to look closer.
Russian Ark (2002)
While Green’s one-man study of NYC accumulates years and thousands of walking miles, Russian master Alexander Sokurov’s extraordinary feature crams three centuries of history into one building and a single 90-minute shot. Involving over 2000 costumed performers, this feat of camera movement and crowd choreography travels through the Winter Palace of the Russian State Heritage Museum, each room bringing to life a different period from the building’s past. Though not driven by a conventional narrative, and lacking this director’s usual transcendental lyricism (see 1997’s Mother and Son), Russian Ark is enveloping as a kind of cultural-identity summation combining elements of museum tour and live spectacle.
The Necessities of Life (2008)
Travel is a mental as well as a physical state—no one journeys farther than the agoraphobe who ventures outside. This lovely French-Canadian feature by Benoit Pilon (whose prior ones were mostly documentaries) makes the familiar seem startling by viewing it through wholly inexperienced eyes. Tivii (Natar Ungalaaq) is an Inuit man diagnosed with tuberculosis by traveling government medical authorities in 1952, where there was a Canadian epidemic. Speaking only Inuktitut, and having never been beyond his sparsely populated homeland of mostly-frozen tundra, Tivii is endlessly baffled and amazed by the simplest norms at the Quebec City sanatorium where he’s housed for long-term treatment. He forges tentative bonds with a kindly nurse (Eveline Gelinas) and an orphaned, bilingual young patient (Paul-Andre Brasseur), though even with them, the cultural divide is vast. It’s a quiet but deeply moving story that arrives at a beautiful affirmation of what we all share as humankind.
We’ll continue with Part Deux of this travel-oriented movie roundup later in the week…