During this time of global uncertainty and self-isolation, some of our frequent contributors share their top five “comfort movies” that help them get through troubling times. Peruse our list, revisit an old favorite, and perhaps even discover a new movie that may provide some solace. Share your favorite comfort movies with us @BigPicFilmMag.
Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)
Laughter is the best medicine, and the laughs rarely come as frequently as when you spend some time with Monsieur Hulot. In the tradition of Chaplin and Keaton’s creations, Jacques Tati’s iconic character bumbles from situation to situation, becoming entangled in the problems of a world out of his control; Mon Oncle follows his visits to a relative’s well-off family and his struggles with their high-tech household. As the best physical comedy does, the jokes transcend time and geography, and it’s easy to forget about the real problems outside as Hulot grapples with his rather more wacky situations. Even better, there’s a whole series of films starring this character – enough to pass a few evenings with.
Hail, Caesar! (The Coen Brothers, 2016)
If anxiety about the state of the world has reduced your attention span, what you need is a film that has everything – Clooney, Swinton, McDormand, Johansson, singing cowboys, religious epics, Red Scares, and countless other shenanigans. This energetic screwball comedy is both a homage to and affectionate satire of 1950s Hollywood, more upbeat than most of the Coen brothers’ filmography. With a plot more rambling than that of The Big Lebowski, it’s more a sketch show than a single character-driven narrative, but this hardly matters when every sketch hits its comedic mark. If only all films could be this entertaining – ah, would that it were so simple.
Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016)
Many of us are stuck indoors with our families right now, which will inevitably result in some disagreements, but count yourselves lucky to not be as dysfunctional as the Cash clan. Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) insists on raising his kids survivalist-style in the woods, but, consumed by grief for his late wife, he’s losing his grip on them, and various outside voices and unfortunate events bring the children to question whether their father’s regime is doing them more harm than it’s worth. But Matt Ross’s film is able to see the good in all its characters, the title referring to the father as an everyday superhero who’s just trying to do his best for the kids. Not only is this one for your Uplifting Movies schedule, but its cover of “Sweet Child of Mine” can go on your Uplifting Songs playlist.
My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Studio Ghibli’s landmark animation is not without its underpinning tragedy – it begins with two young girls having to upend their life and move to the country to be near the hospital where their mother recovers from a long illness – but that only makes its charming elements all the more heartwarming. As is common in Japanese narratives, solace is found in nature, and the forest spirits that the girls befriend help them cope with the new circumstances while taking them – and us – on a colourful adventure. Sometimes what we need is a big hug, whether from a friend or a giant cat thing with a leaf on its head, but when that’s not possible, this film is the cinematic equivalent.
The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
Stranded on Mars after a mission gone wrong, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) needs great resolve and some clever solutions if he’s to survive this ultimate self-isolation. But he’s not truly alone, as back on Earth, NASA and its international peers work together to formulate a rescue plan. Drew Goddard’s script is optimistic without being sentimental or dumbed-down; there’s no self-pitying from Watney or schmaltz about the human spirit, just a belief that if humanity works together to solve its problems, and trusts in science, we can win. As Watney says, “At some point, everything’s gonna go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. You do the math. You solve one problem, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009)
Y’know how much you like your friends? Well, do you remember that they’re even better when they aren’t six inches tall, made up of pixels and dropping daily, Justin Timberlake dance TikToks on their Insta Stories. (John, please take a break, we’re worried about you, you need to sleep.)
I Love You, Man knows just how good it feels to find your one, your one other than ‘The One’. John Hamburg’s 2009 comedy sets Paul Rudd on a mission to “find some… friends” and it’s not a challenge to be taken lightly. Finding friends as an adult human being is an odd prospect, and is nowhere near as much fun as Rudd and eventual soulmate Jason Segal end up having. It’s a film to remind you how lucky we are to have people who invest in us, even if you’re not getting another hug until Autumn.
A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 2014)
Comfort comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes you need something to snuggle down with, and sometimes you’re in need of a kick up the butt, a reminder why you do the things you do and how you want to do them. For me, that butt-kick is A Most Violent Year.
J.C. Chandor’s anti-gangster gangster picture is full of wisdom, wisdom that makes me feel better in my head and stronger in my heart. It reminds me that opportunity is scary, but tackling that fear is the only way to move forward. It reminds me that we can’t always control what happens, but we can control the person we are and the actions we take. It’s a thrill ride with a lot to say, and even if you don’t take any advice from it, you’ll be reminded that, despite whatever you’ve got going on in your life, at least you can still watch Oscar Isaac do Oscar Isaac things.
Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)
It’s in the thrill of the hunt, the ripple of biceps, Jesse Ventura’s moustache; there’s something about Predator that sets it apart.
Maybe it’s the wildly-entertaining lead man, the streamlined singular story, the ruthless, cold-blooded creation hunting his prey like my little brother scouring the garden for that last Easter egg. Maybe it’s the insignia I want to tattoo on my neck, the hunter’s quiet before its noise, the lack of time to bleed. Or maybe it’s all of it. Maybe it is all that Predator is that leaves me feeling exfoliated and reinvigorated. Maybe.
12 Rounds 2: Reloaded (Roel Reiné, 2013)
What’chu gonna do, reader, when IsolationMania runs wild on YOU? I know what I’m doing, and that’s watching all the WWE Studios pictures I can get my eyes on. From the old school (I’m all out of bubblegum) to the Recently Added (sitting down with WWE’s kids’ Netflix film on release day) there’s little that gives me the soft, warm, guilty, guilty, no-guilt-about-it pleasure that World Wrestling Entertainment’s products do.
The one that makes me the fuzziest? Randy Orton’s film lead debut. A huge improvement on the first 12 Rounds, it’s tense, got a time limit and Orton methodically kicks the spit out of some bad guys. Pure b l i s s.
When Harry Met Sally… (Nora Ephron, 1989)
No, Carrie, he’s never going to leave her, and No, world, I’m never not going to watch this. Nora Ephron’s seminal, wicked and brilliant, never-to-be-topped rom-com is a one-off. There’s never been anything so well-written, anything so endlessly-quotable, anything so bitingly-cutting. You’ll fall head over heels for Billy Crystal’s charisma, feel every part of Meg Ryan’s humanity and be brought to tears by every couple’s stories to camera. That’s been my experience, anyhow.
There’s little more that needs to be said for this, this true classic, except that unless you’re having what she’s having, then I doubt you’ll have a better 95 minutes than with Harry and Sally.
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
It was only a few months ago I wrote about this film on these pages but it feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? If you haven’t, may I recommend spending time in the melancholic haze with Doc, Bigfoot, Shasta et al. PTA’s achingly sad and searching LA Noir is one of a group of movies on a spectrum that I routinely return to for comfort (The Big Lebowski, Get Shorty etc.) But whereas I go to those films to get the comfort of the same I return to Inherent Vice for the comfort that comes from not knowing, but seeing anew and the comfort of feeling and being swept along by something singular and beautiful.
The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999)
Some films I return to with the purpose of being slowed down and seeing differently. Kiarostami’s film is about being forced to slow down and what can be seen when confronted by what is unseeable. It has a lightness of touch and a philosophy that never feels didactic or shouty. It makes me laugh and smile and reminds me that the bustle of everyday life as mostly experienced is not the only way to navigate time on the planet. There are other things, other joys, some forgotten and others yet to be discovered. The irony of a film where people have a thwarted wait for the death of someone in order to capture it and learn about the value of living and of a cinematic object where so much that is meaningful is un/half seen, grows deliciously with each viewing.
Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
Whenever I feel doomed as a film teacher or filmmaker who constantly extols the belief that there are a billion ways to make a film and that the dominant ‘Hollywood’ way is merely one way, that filmmaking doesn’t have to be a volatile, toxic process, I turn to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. I feel that I may also do the same with the similarly Alexander and Karaszewski scripted Dolemite Is My Name from 2019. Ed Wood gives me comfort that Johnny Depp used to be an essential screen presence but also that success and meaning can come from a belief in doing things for their own intrinsic sake, believing in art, and wanting to make cool shit with people you like.
This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
I live a long way away from my younger brother and I miss him. He’s a policeman so my worry about him is always higher than average but especially now. There are a few films we love equally and share quotes and memories from regularly. One is The Other Guys, but at the top is the Reiner/Guest masterpiece mockumentary. I love getting a random message from him that might say something like ‘Smell the Glove’s here…hello Janine’ and I instantly dive back into this endlessly rewarding and utterly hilarious movie.
The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg, 2011)
A weird one, right? There can’t be many who find this Spielberg movie not only essential viewing, but beautiful. I have never analysed it but the exhilaration and warmth I get from watching this animated spectacular is real. It calms me (weirdly because it’s so kinetic) and it’s one of those movies where watching it instantly makes everything exterior in life and the world disappear for the duration. I revisit it regularly and marvel at its grace and construction. I can’t articulately defend it but if you could see my heart while I’m watching it you’d see it does something special to me.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)
Neck and neck with Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (1987) as John Hughes’ masterpiece, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) is certainly his funniest, most exuberant film. I recently watched it with my students via Netflix Party, and we all agreed that despite its title, the film really belongs to Ferris’ best friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck), and sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), who both learn to take ownership of their lives and stop worrying so much about things they can’t control. It’s a simple, but important lesson, especially for teenagers, and especially during a time like this. The story is also something of a roadmap to everything I look forward to doing in Chicago again once this is all over: wandering The Art Institute, going to a nice restaurant, though one not as snooty (snotty?) as the one Ferris and company visit, maybe taking in a Cubs game, and, yes, even going back to school.
Billy Madison (Tamra Davis, 1995)
I’m no Sandler apologist, but Billy Madison (1995) is one of those rare instances in which his recurring persona – the obnoxious, borderline sociopathic manchild – actually makes me laugh. Objectively speaking, there’s nothing remotely funny about yelling at a bathtub faucet (“Stop looking at me, swan!”) or making fun of a stuttering child (“T-t-today, junior!”), but such lines never fail to make me laugh just as much as they did when I was twelve. What comes across as mean-spirited in so many other Sandler vehicles somehow just feels harmlessly stupid here. Irreverent, endlessly quotable (I’m only slightly ashamed to admit I can probably recite the entire thing), and (unlike later Sandler schmaltz) lacking any half-assed sentimentality, Billy Madison remains my go-to turn off your brain and just laugh movie.
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
The Shining (1980) is easily my favorite horror film and quite possibly my favorite film in general, if I’m being honest with myself. One of my most cherished movie going experiences was attending a midnight screening of it at Chicago’s landmark Music Box Theatre (God, I miss going to the movies…). It’s one of those films that you sink into, hypnotized by its dreamlike logic and pacing. I can sit down and carefully watch it (some new detail always manages to catch my attention each time) or just have it on as background. The Shining is certainly not a “feel-good” film, but I get an odd sense of calm from watching it for the umpteenth time. So much has been said and written about this film, and I eat it all up (Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed 2012’s insane Room 237. No, I don’t actually think Kubrick faked the moon landing.). It’s simply a masterclass, from beginning to end. What more could be said?
Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)
Brian De Palma was really on a roll in the early eighties. While Blow Out (1981) may be a “better” movie (less derivative, more thematically rich), Dressed to Kill (1980) is the writer-director at his smutty best. All of his trademarks are excessively, bombastically on display: the split diopters and split screens, the showy tracking shots and camera movements, the gratuitous sex, the garish lighting, the shameless Hitchcock references. Pino Donaggio’s superb score would feel equally at home in both a slasher movie (booming synths, electronic sound effects) and a “classy” thriller (melodramatic piano, piercing violins); in other words, it perfectly complements De Palma’s unique blend of lurid trash and Golden Age Hollywood. And the film is replete with colorful supporting performances, most notably Dennis Franz, at his smarmiest best as Detective Marino. As with most things De Palma, you either love it or hate it. I love it.
Hollow Man (Paul Verhoeven, 2000)
Paul Verhoeven has made so many genuinely great films (RoboCop, 1987; Total Recall, 1990; Starship Troopers, 1997; Elle, 2016), that I’m almost ashamed to write about 2000’s Hollow Man instead. But here we are. Many complain that its impressive special effects (they still hold up pretty well) are wasted on what’s ultimately a genre exercise, but that is precisely why I enjoy the film so much. Hollow Man is what happens when you give one of our great auteurs a huge budget and a shoddy horror script: a grade-A slasher film. The last act, in which Kevin Bacon’s invisible man runs amuck and slashes his way through a herd of strangely clueless scientists, is pure, schlocky entertainment. Being a Verhoeven film, there is no shortage of horrific gore (Greg Grunberg’s death still makes me wince), and Kevin Bacon “fake dies” so often that I suspect it would make for a great drinking game at home.