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Self-isolation film guide: comfort movies 

click to enlarge A scene from "I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story."

PHOTO COURTESTY COPPER POT PICTURES

A scene from "I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story."


More than a month on, shelter-in-place measures are still in effect and people are getting a little stir crazy. I’ve gone longer without setting foot inside a movie theater than at any point in my entire life. Between the coverage of small but vocal bands of self-centered protestors around the country demanding an end to stay-at-home restrictions and the impending dread of watching Georgia prematurely start to reopen the state beginning this weekend, the mood around my apartment has been pretty grim to say the least.

As I often find myself doing in times when I feel troubled, I’ve been coping by turning to movies for an escape. I’ve always loved how movies can both challenge as well as comfort us, depending entirely on what we’re looking for. But there’s no question I’ve been favoring one significantly more than the other lately.

Any movie can provide comfort if it’s one you love, but these days I’ve found myself gravitating toward low-stakes stories with conflicts that have nothing to do with the end of the world, the collapse of civilization, or systemic societal issues (for all that I just log onto Twitter or read the daily news). Looking through my list of titles, it seems I’ve been craving sweet, funny stories about flawed-but-good-at-heart people simply trying to do their best. Would that we all do the same.

The titles listed here are available digitally on most major rental platforms, or if noted, one of many subscription streaming services.

"Amélie" (2001)
A Parisian waitress (Audrey Tautou) carries out small acts of kindness in order to spread happiness to those around her in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's fantastical, gorgeously-shot romance. A lovely reminder to keep one’s eyes open for the everyday magic in the world.

“Big Night” (1996)
In this generous ode to food and family, Stanely Tucci and Tony Shalhoub star as Primo and Secondo, two immigrant brothers who hope to save their struggling Italian restaurant by staging a lavish banquet honoring singer Louis Prima. One of the best foodie movies ever. Stream on Amazon Prime.

“The Birdcage” (1996)
The beloved American remake of French farce “La Cage aux Folles” finds Robin Williams and Nathan Lane playing a gay cabaret owner and his drag queen partner who agree to play it straight at the request of their generally awful son, so he can introduce them to his fiancée's conservative parents. Some of the film’s depiction of the LGBT community shows its age, but there’s such affection and good-natured humor in its story about what it means to be a family, that it’s hard to hold those faults against it. Stream on Amazon Prime.

“The Edge of Seventeen” (2016)
Kelly Fremon Craig’s criminally underseen coming-of-age comedy is about a self-involved teen (Hailee Steinfeld) who learns to be slightly less so after her best friend starts dating her older brother. Steinfeld is great at straddling the line between lovable and infuriating, and the scenes between her and Woody Harrelson (as the history teacher who becomes her often unwilling confidant) are comedy gold. Stream on Netflix.

“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)
Sometimes a splashy Technicolor, Golden-Age Hollywood musical just hits the spot, and now is definitely one of those times. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are marvelous as two showgirls on the hunt for rich husbands while on a cruise to Paris. Watching them is pure, glamorous joy.

“Hearts Beat Loud” (2018)
In the heartfelt indie drama, Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons play a father and daughter who form a songwriting duo during the summer before she leaves for college. I promise you’ll have the film’s title song stuck in your head for the rest of quarantine, and you won’t even mind. Stream on Hulu.

“I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story”
This sweet slice-of-life documentary chronicles the life of Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Sesame Street's Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. A true talent who only wished to bring a bit of happiness to the world. Stream on Amazon Prime.

“One Cut of the Dead”
One of my favorite films of last year, “One Cut” follows the crew of a low-budget zombie film as they wind up caught in a real-life zombie outbreak, while their determined director fights to keep the camera rolling. It's a loving tribute to the communal nature of filmmaking, and one which takes on an even deeper resonance now. Stream on Shudder.

“Paddington 2” (2017)
Directed by Paul King, the continued adventures of the sweet, marmalade-loving bear from the darkest jungles of Peru is an open-hearted and imaginative ode to decency, and an emphatic rejoinder to the xenophobic mindset that gets us humans into such trouble.

“Paterson” (2016)
A poetry-writing bus driver (Adam Driver) searches for love and creative fulfillment. And that’s pretty much it. Director Jim Jarmusch creates a quiet, unassuming ode to the pleasures of a comfortable daily routine — something most of us would treasure right now. Stream on Amazon Prime.

“Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” (1997)
Two underachieving best friends (Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow) head off to their ten-year high school reunion after deciding to lie about their lives in order to impress their classmates. Sorvino and Kudrow make an impeccable comedic duo, and any movie that includes a three-way slow-dance (with Alan Cumming!) set to Cyndi Lauper is automatically one of the greatest movies ever.

“The Straight Story” (1999)
Retired 70-something farmer Alvin Straight (the great Richard Farnsworth) learns that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke and may not recover. Without a car or driver’s license, Alvin decides to set off on his trusty tractor to make the journey from his Iowa home to his brother in Wisconsin. Sweet and strange, this isn’t as much of a departure for director David Lynch as you might assume. Stream on Disney+.


Besides movies, I’ve also found myself turning to some my favorite television for comfort, and these two recently concluded comedy series in particular have been in heavy rotation.

“The Good Place” (2016-2020)
More and more this show is beginning to feel like it should be mandatory viewing for anyone living on this planet in 2020. Created by Michael Schur (“Parks and Recreation,” Brooklyn 99”), the series follows four recently-deceased human schmucks (Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto) through the afterlife, and in the process grapple with what it takes to be a good person in a world as complicated as this one.

“Schitt’s Creek” (2015-2020)
I’ve recently started rewatching this Canadian comedy series about the wealthy Rose family, who after losing everything, are forced to live in the titular podunk town patriarch Johnny purchased as a joke. Watching these characters evolve from punchlines to full-fledged human beings has been one of the most pleasurable things on TV. It’s got a silly title, but miles of heart.

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