When the stay-at-home orders were first issued in places like New York and Chicago, we asked our writers what they would recommend for readers to watch while they’re stuck at home. We thought the time was right to turn that around and ask our writers what they have watched while being stuck at home. The responses are a wonderfully eclectic crew of shows and movies, including classics and current hits. Here are our favorite personal viewings of the last couple weeks—maybe you’ll like them too.
"Twin Peaks" - Yeah, I know. I'm very, very late. Maybe others are, too. Here, we decided to sign up for the free 30-day trial of Showtime and when I saw "Twin Peaks: The Return" among their selections, I immediately thought, "Now's the time." For 30 years, friends have been singing the praises of David Lynch's first foray into television while others shrugged it off as "more weird for weird's sake." I missed the first episode when it premiered back in 1990 and didn't have the means to catch up, so I never jumped in. Later, I clearly missed out on what many said was the best "film" of 2017. When I posted a confession on Facebook that I was watching "Twin Peaks" for the first time, I got instantaneous replies of encouragement and envy. How lucky I am to see everything with fresh eyes! I'm halfway through Season 2 and am enjoying it immensely (I've been told that around here is where it jumps ship, depending on what kind of a Lynch fan you are). The thing is the fans I knew undersold just how damn funny it is. So far, it's damn good coffee! But you most likely don't need me to tell you that.
Seasons 1/2: Netflix/Hulu
"Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me": The Criterion Channel for subscribers/Amazon Prime for $2.99
"Twin Peaks: The Return": Showtime
I’d like to say that I’ve used this time to catch up on all of the demanding, complex classics I always told myself I’d get to as soon as I had the time. But I haven’t. I’ve been watching movie comfort food, old familiar favorites and some new-to-me '30s and '40s films on the channel I always start with when I turn on the television, TCM. And that’s where I’ve found what I’ve enjoyed the most over the last three weeks, the interstitial features on TCM. I’ve always appreciated the behind-the-scenes reminiscences and the tributes to the big stars. But they’ve added some really thoughtful and illuminating short features on other topics. My favorites have been noir host Eddie Muller talking about the importance of the fedora in old movies and which stars he thought knew how to get the most of a hat, a serious look at the history of blackface in movies, and a tribute to one of those familiar faces you see in everything, a character actor named Edward Brophy. It’s fascinating to see this kind of background and it deepens my appreciation for all of the movies I watch. To feel connected to other people who love to think about movies, their meaning and their history and the people who make them, from the smallest details and the supporting characters to the touchstones that reveal major cultural shifts, that is nourishing, in this strange, sad, isolated time, and reassuring, too.
I find that in the current deep-seclusion mode, the most comforting mode of movie-watching is to binge on the work of a single director. In a time of chaos, there are comforts to be found within the intricacies of a singular vision. Personally, I decided upon the great master of Indian cinema, the late Satyajit Ray. I'm eight films in—and reeling in astonishment. So far, my favorite is "The Hero" (1966), available to stream on Criterion Channel. The story of a blasé matinee idol (pitch-perfect Uttam Kumar) taking a train from Kolkata to Delhi (to accept yet another award he couldn't care less about) is a masterclass in multi-character storytelling. It is as light on its feet as it is piercing in its depiction of the inevitable dissatisfaction with the shape of one's life. As the great Pauline Kael said of Ray in 1970: "His films can give rise to a more complex feeling of happiness (...) than the work of any other director." To discover that they still work this way at the current moment of deep anxiety is a joyous experience indeed. (Available on the Criterion Channel)
By far the best new show that has been keeping my girlfriend and I company over the last few weeks is Liz Tigelaar’s Hulu drama, “Little Fires Everywhere,” a splendid eight-part adaptation of Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel that is every bit as enthralling as the first season of HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” both of which were executive produced by their star, Reese Witherspoon. Here she plays Elena, a wealthy socialite whose comfortable family life is disrupted by Mia (a ferocious Kerry Washington), a mysterious new inhabitant in her affluent town. Issues of racial and socioeconomic division spark fiery confrontations that threaten to set the screen ablaze, particularly during Mia’s altercations with her bewildered daughter (played brilliantly by Lexi Underwood). The show has thus far featured some of the finest direction of Lynn Shelton’s career, re-teaming her with “Your Sister’s Sister” star Rosemarie DeWitt (in a riveting turn as a woman craving motherhood after a series of miscarriages), yet it is the sixth episode just released this week that elevates the show to a new level of intrigue, deepening all that came before. Director Nzingha Stewart elicits phenomenal work from AnnaSophia Robb and Tiffany Boone, who uncannily channel Witherspoon and Washington as their respective younger selves. Each hour is an acting masterclass and I cannot wait to see what happens next. (Available on Hulu)
“The Innocence Files”: As a big fan of murder mysteries, cold cases and forensic files style documentaries, I find this limited series about people who were exonerated by the Innocence Project a must-see. I raged, I cried, and I learned a thing or two. I may have to re-evaluate a few episodes of “NCIS,” “CSI,” etc. (Premieres Wednesday, 4/15, on Netflix)
When “Into the Night,” the offbeat 1985 comedy-thriller from director John Landis, first came out, the only thing that most critics wanted to discuss was his decision to populate the cast with a number of fellow filmmakers in cameo roles, a move that they seemed to feel was the ultimate in cinematic self-indulgence. It is too bad that they focused so much on that aspect, partly because it presumably would not have made too much of a difference to the average viewer and partly because it led them to overlook the film’s genuine charms. Jeff Goldblum, taking his first lead role after years of scene-stealing supporting turns, stars as Ed Okin, a neurotic aerospace engineer with a chronic case of insomnia that leaves him feeling as if he is drifting through his life. After coming home from work early one day to find his wife having an affair, he drives out to LAX with the vague idea of taking the late flight to Vegas to break out of his shell. He is interrupted from his reverie in the parking lot when a mysterious woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) jumps in his car and begs him to help her get away from four gun-wielding Iranians who are chasing her. He does and thus kicks off a long night of misadventure that find them encountering an assortment of oddball characters and situations while trying to avoid all of the people who are after the valuable package that Diana is holding. The precursor of the brief vogue for films in which Yuppies found themselves taking a walk on the wild side (like “After Hours” and “Something Wild”), “Into the Night” is one of those movies that unfortunately fell through the cracks when it first came out but which has more than stood the test of time. (Available on Amazon Prime)
Among the numerous specifically ’90s Hollywood movies that I’ve focused on during this time, I’ve found great solace in returning to Molly Stinson’s house for the cinematic high school bash that is “Can’t Hardly Wait” (now streaming on Netflix). This 1998 film from debut writer/directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont isn’t just a time capsule so much as lightning in a bottle, including its full class of ‘90s teen actors whose parallel arcs unfold with the charge of screwball comedy. It only starts with the puppy-eyed neuroses of Ethan Embry’s Preston, scrambling to get independent spirit Amanda Beckett (Jennifer Love Hewitt) to read his love letter; it’s also the unlikely bathroom bond experienced by class rebel Denise (Lauren Ambrose) and horny dork Kenny (Seth Green); the popularity ascendence of socially liberated nerd William (Charlie Korsmo); Vicki (Melissa Joan Hart) trying to get all 522 signatures in her yearbook; and so much more going on with all the teenagers popping up in the background. All the while, genre pastiche band Lovebürger (which includes Donald Faison and Breckin Meyer), just wants to start their first gig. Like how Denise states to her friend Preston when the party's over, and everyone’s life is changed before their next chapters begin, “Can’t Hardly Wait” is about how fate “just works in really f**ked up ways sometimes.” Leave it to an earnest teen classic to mix such fatalism with the deep, comforting belief that we’ll be OK come daybreak. (Available on Netflix)
I’ve actually been unable to watch too much simply for pleasure during the quarantine but I’ll pick something I’ve seen in the last couple weeks for work that simply blew me away, John Stahl’s “Leave Her to Heaven,” released in a Criterion edition last month. I had heard of the film but never caught up with it, and was still simply stunned at nearly every scene of this flat-out masterpiece. Gene Tierney is mesmerizing as Ellen, a gorgeous woman who seems to be the answer to all of Richard Harland’s (Cornel Wilde) problems. He has one of those romantic meet-cutes on a train that ends in romance, and Stahl’s film starts out like a traditional “women’s picture,” feeling more like Sirk than Hitch, before it starts to shift. Especially on this Criterion transfer, it’s filled with gorgeous, bright compositions that won the film the Oscar for Best Cinematography. But this is no traditional women’s picture. It is a pitch-black noir set in bright sunlight, a study of jealousy and sociopathic behavior that contains one of the most blood-chilling murders I’ve ever seen. Tierney’s femme fatale is like no other, and this movie feels like a gift to someone who had somehow let it slip under his radar for way too long and now has a new entry on any list he produces of the best films ever made. (Available on Criterion Blu-ray)
It's always fun to go back and watch the debut films of acclaimed and established directors, and I guarantee you Nick Rowland will be in both of those categories. For a first picture, “Calm With Horses” is brimming in confidence, from the moment it starts with our introduction to Arm, who we see brutally beating a man in his own living room, to the end of his story which we know from the early moments will end in tragedy. Like so many crime films, “Calm With Horses” is about conflict within loyalty, which manifests itself here with Arm, an ex-boxer balancing being an enforcer for a crime family in a sleepy part of Ireland with trying to do best for his autistic son, two relationships that are tested when he's asked to cement his loyalty by making his first hit. Rowland is restrained enough to let his actors own the film and they really do, with incredible performances by Niamh Algar, Barry Keoghan, and the stunning Cosmo Jarvis as Arm. There are moments of shocking violence peppered throughout, but it's Arm's emotional journey that stands out, a truly compelling and heartbreaking story propelled with nuance by Jarvis. Stunning.
Showtime’s “Homeland" quietly returned two months ago for its eighth and final season, but didn’t become part of my weekly streaming routine. Now, after getting caught up, I feel shame for walking away, if only briefly, and for eyeing more appealing series. “Homeland” season eight features tight storytelling as usual, along with elite acting from Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin, but it’s the filmmakers’ willingness to go BIG that stands out most. To be clear: “Homeland” season eight certainly isn’t traditional “comfort viewing,” as bad things happen to Americans overseas. But for streamers willing to engage with a fictional storyline that closely mirrors reality—at least in terms of international conflict—the time investment will hopefully pay off. For newbies, I recommended a proper binge from the start, but “Homeland” season eight does indeed work as a standalone installment given the focused narrative. (Available on Hulu and Showtime)
Like everyone else susceptible to cuteness, I’d felt an "aww" at the big almond eyes of The Child (aka Baby Yoda), but I hadn't watched “The Mandalorian” until now. This new “Star Wars” “spaghetti Western” on Disney+ thrilled our family in ways that “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” hadn’t, with taut and suspenseful storytelling and emotional setups and payoffs throughout its nine half-hour episodes. (To our credit, we didn’t binge it, either, watching one episode a day.) Creator Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “The Jungle Book”) doles out plenty of Easter eggs for this galaxy far, far away, but he also weaves a compelling tale around the title character, an armored Man with No Name (Pedro Pascal, “Narcos”) who works as a bounty hunter but is surprised to discover that he still has a heart and a soul. There are action sequences reminiscent of “The Wild Bunch,” beleaguered settlers in need a la “Pale Rider,” and a Magnificent Seven that’s more like five, including a former shock trooper (Gina Carano) and a freed alien slave (voiced by Nick Nolte) coaxed away from farming for a moral cause. Venerable director Werner Herzog (“Fitzcarraldo”) and Giancarlo Esposito (“Breaking Bad”) add heft and menace as the forces in their way. I may be extra sentimental these days, but “The Mandalorian” is a rousing adventure as well as a testament to how community is where you find it. (Available on Disney+)
I am not ashamed to say that what has given me the most consistent joy and calm in these wild times is a children’s television show: “Shaun the Sheep: Adventures from Mossy Bottom.” The series on Netflix consists of ten 13-minute episodes set on the English farm Mossy Bottom, and features the same “Shaun the Sheep” characters used in creator Nick Park’s other romps in this universe. The lively stop-motion animation and the clever slapstick comedy style are powerful enough that you won’t mind there’s no dialogue, and each episode is split into two self-contained stories, so the viewing experience is engaging and briskly paced. Led by the crafty Shaun, the other sheep on the farm get up to all sorts of hijinks—commandeering the Farmer’s pottery oven to set up a popular pizza place, producing a viral dance video, battling polluters who dump their trash in the community pond—and although the episodes don’t necessarily have explicit messages, they’re always about friendship, loyalty, and the importance of engaging in the world around you. Most of us are stuck inside right now, and I revel in the escape to Mossy Bottom—where the farm is verdant, and where Shaun might convince you to join him in some sort of snack-focused heist. It’s basically a paradise for our times. (Available on Netflix)
Two flawed individuals cross paths in the physical realm to then discover that their dreams are in synch. Somehow the depth of their connection defies the boundaries of reality in Ildikó Enyedi’s heart-stirring “On Body and Soul.” Although this surreal Hungarian romance won the top prize at the Berlinale and was nominated for an Oscar, it never crossed over mainstream awareness. Its melancholic approach to human connection, as experiences by two slaughterhouse workers each with their own disabilities, thrives on the smallest of kind gestures and a loving acceptance. In the flesh they are imperfect, but at night, while sleeping, they become deer galloping through the snow in unrestricted freedom and unvarnished beauty. In looking for reassurance about being tied to others despite being apart, this subtle marvel awakened hope in me upon revisiting it. It’s been available on Netflix, its global distributor, since 2018. I’d recommend it any time, but even with more enthusiasm right now. (Available on Netflix)
I made a plan, but you know the old joke about making plans (for those who don’t, the set-up is: How do you make God laugh?). When sheltering in place went into effect, I imagined I would finally get to that stack of New Yorkers under my desk (I may have issues dating back to the Carter administration). I imagined I would buckle down and finally get past chapter seven of Moby Dick. As for movies, I imagined I would at last break the seals of my VHS editions of “The Mother and the Whore” and “Julie and Celine Go Boating.” I also imagined I would use this time to take a deep dive into the Criterion Collection. That hasn’t happened. Yet. But I did get the opportunity to preview “Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Movies of All Time,” a three-part documentary available on VOD starting on April 21. If you are a Chicagoan of a certain age, it will stir treasured memories of a bygone era of midnight movies at the 3 Penny Cinema, the Biograph and the Playboy Theatre. Watching “Eraserhead” on your phone on the bus just doesn’t cut it. These gems that Hollywood abandoned owe their second lives to passionate word of mouth. As director Alan Arkush observes, cult films are like beloved record albums that you play over and over to recapture that experience of hearing them for the first time. Hear: John Waters on “Pink Flamingos”; Rob Reiner on “This is Spinal Tap”; Penelope Spheeris on “The Decline of Western Civilization”; Jeff Bridges on “The Big Lebowski”; Lori Williams on “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! P. J. Soles on “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” Actually, they had me at P.J. Soles. (Premieres April 21, on VOD)