Movie theaters can feel like sacred ground. One goes there because they love films, sure, but there’s also the darkened room, the giant screen, the hopefully not-too-loud noise of fellow audience members whispering and munching on snacks. These are the elements that, when combined, help shut out a distracting and sometimes overwhelming outside world. For a few hours, you can escape the life you know and enter another one thanks to the work of a team of filmmakers that came together to make something to entertain, inspire, or provoke their audience.
As America, and the world, moves into its third month of sheltering in place to slow the spread Covid-19, most theaters (though not all) remain closed. The ritual of the movie theater experience is on pause. You can still watch movies at home, of course, and now you likely have more time for films than you ever did before. But the sunlight creeps in through the window shades, and the ambient noise—suddenly lacking those annoying chewing sounds—is just a reminder that moviegoers are now just movie-watchers, no longer participating in a communal experience. What’s worse? The smartphone, even when it’s face-down on a table just out of arm’s reach, can be a constant source of distraction and general anxiety, offering countless technological reminders that the real world still exists—ultimately making it impossible to escape into whatever universe appears on screen.
For those struggling to put down their device and get lost, a solution: Watch foreign films. Not only are the narratives often more engrossing, being forced to read subtitles means it’s nearly impossible to read Twitter at the same time. In this case, a language barrier is useful, something that forces focus, turning ignorance into a lifehack. Putting on a foreign-language movie means putting away your phone.
Moreover, the farther you travel in your humble journey across the globe via cinema, the easier it becomes to find streamable movies that translate quite well to this place and time. Hulu scored big with the streaming exclusive of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a film about a forbidden romance that doubles as a reminder of how desire manifests itself amid social distancing. Fresh off its four-Oscar win in February, Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece Parasite is also available to stream if you have a Hulu subscription; I can’t think of a better film to prepare for the class war that may arise amid the economic downturn—if you don’t see it happening around you already, that is.
For even more foreign titles, go to the Criterion Channel, which has the bulk of the Criterion Collection’s catalog through its partnership with distributor Janus Films, a godsend for movie buffs and aspiring film fanatics. It’s there that you can find the work of the titans of cinema across the world: Ingmar Bergman, Abbas Kiarostami, François Truffaut, Agnès Varda, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, to name a limited few. If you were to set out to make your way through the canon of international cinema, you can’t find a better place—and its monthly programming is proof that humans are doing the curation, not algorithms.
It’s on Criterion that I disappeared into the bright, colorful, slightly bonkers world of Pedro Almodóvar’s career-making comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which has a straight-forward and extremely accurate title. The bold and beautiful musicals of Jacques Demy have proven to be a comfort, both the swinging and groovy The Young Girls of Rochefort and the jazzy yet mournful The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Another essential classic? Fellini’s seminal and autobiographical satire about movie-making and male anxiety, 8 ½, which is still remarkable nearly 60 years after its release.
There are also the more cerebral and unsettling offerings straight out of the arthouse theaters. This is an anxious time, and often it’s comforting to see that reflected on screen. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 1997 thriller Cure, about a detective hunting a peculiar man who seems to be infecting strangers with the sudden desire to murder others, is ideal for submerging into that kind of quarantine tension. The same goes for Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, in which two people are so overcome by sexual desire for others that they become violent and cannibalistic. (It seems unlikely that Claire Denis memes would ever start trending, but if they do, it’ll likely be because of people posting screenshots from this film after quarantine ends with the hashtag #mood.)