Home Alone

Steven Soderbergh, Contagion, 2011, HD video, color, sound, 105 minutes. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle).

TO PARAPHRASE X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene: “Oh Anxiety, Up Yours!” Although some readers believe I’m an early ’80s punk, I’m actually eighty-one years old, and find myself in an increasingly dismaying demographic. As of late, I wake up several times a night in a panic, which deep breathing does not alleviate. The only way I can suspend dire thoughts about mortality—my own and that of people I love—is by watching movies on my home screens. Putting aside my preference for dark theaters, where images are big if not always beautiful, I’m amazed at how easy it is to get lost in moving pictures that are smaller, rather than larger, than life. I suspect that at the end of our plague times, people will rush out to cinemas with the excitement they felt before their eyes became glued to personal devices. If I’m wrong, it will be the end of movies as they’ve existed for more than a century. Start with some homeopathic remedies—the idea that you treat the actual-life terror by introducing a dilute version. (It’s only a movie. . . .)

Steven Soderbergh, Contagion, 2011, HD video, color, sound, 105 minutes. Right: Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow).

CONTAGION (Steven Soderbergh, 2011): Terrifying nine years ago and more so today, although the virus in this disaster film/medical procedural hybrid is a far more lethal strain than COVID-19. We aren’t in Contagion territory yet, but it may come. In the meantime, one of Soderbergh’s most gripping movies delivers sardonic LOL humor mixed with humanist liberal politics and attractive actors playing brilliant, courageous medical professionals who speed walk while they talk. Just because everyone else has finally discovered it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t as well. (All titles are available on Amazon Prime Video unless otherwise noted.)

Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds, 1963, 35 mm color, sound, 119 minutes. Mitch Brenner and Melanie Daniels (Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren).

THE BIRDS (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963): One of the greatest and most enigmatic of Hitchcock’s Hollywood pictures. The birds are very angry, and they far outnumber humans, or at least they did in the mid-1900s. Maybe they understood the urgency of martialing an army to strike before their ranks were decimated, although I doubt that Hitchcock was ecologically motivated. More likely, he enjoyed fooling with the eye-of-God camera position.

David Cronenberg, Videodrome, 1983, 35 mm, color, sound, 87 minutes.

SHIVERS (David Cronenberg, 1975): Cronenberg’s first feature and the most directly analogous to the COVID-19 pandemic, although it’s also the most crudely made film in a corpus in which the anxiety around mortality is always out front. Maybe better to skip ahead to VIDEODROME (1983), which will have the unfortunate side effect of making you worry about the impact so much home viewing is having on your psyche and body. So perhaps it’s actually best to start with the greatest Cronenberg, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005), in which the heritage of a toxic patriarchy becomes the occasion for absurdist humor as it threatens and terrorizes a model nuclear family. (A History of Violence is also available on Netflix.)

HERE ARE SOME SUSPENSE FLICKS that have nothing to do with pandemics but will sublimate your attention and anxiety and engender the pleasure that elegantly crafted, complex narratives do. They will make you glad to be alive at a moment when technology gives you instant access to great movies. And as we know, pleasure boosts the immune system.

ZODIAC (David Fincher, 2007): An unpredictable, uncontainable serial killer terrorizes San Francisco in the 1970s. What begins as a deeply twisted murder mystery becomes a tale of obsession as two journalists (Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal) and a cop (Mark Ruffalo) pursue dwindling leads and lose themselves in the process. 

David Fincher, Zodiac, 2007, DCP, color, sound, 162 minutes.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (Tomas Alfredson, 2011): Not the BBC series with Alec Guinness, but the movie, also based on John le Carré’s Cold War novel about the infiltration of MI-6 by Russian spies and the exiled agent, Smiley (Gary Oldman), called back to ferret out his traitorous ex-colleagues. With its grid-enclosed visuals, attenuated erotic yearnings, superb pacing, and brilliant performances, this was one of the most neglected movies of the decade. (Available on Amazon Prime Video, also free with Starz subscription.)

TOP OF THE LAKE (Jane Campion, 2013): Season one comprises seven hourlong episodes that, together, have the scale and dynamics of a Greek tragedy. Set at the edge of a vast New Zealand wilderness, it pits a policewoman (Elizabeth Moss) against entrenched small-town patriarchal corruption in her effort to save a pregnant twelve-year-old and come to terms with her own history of abuse. Season two, TOP OF THE LAKE: CHINA GIRL (2017), moves Moss’s character to Sydney and involves her in a more intellectually sophisticated milieu and child abuse gone global. 

Agnès Varda, Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7), 1962, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes. Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) and Cléo (Corinne Marchand).

CLÉO DE 5 À 7 (CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7) (Agnès Varda, 1961): A pop star wanders around Paris as she waits for the results of a breast cancer test. Subjective time, drenched with anxiety, slows and quickens as real time is marked with titles at the beginning of every scene. It’s the first great feminist film of the French New Wave. (Unavailable now, but before this crisis is over, it will stream on the Criterion Channel.)

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (Curtis Hanson, 1997): A policier set in midcentury Los Angeles that is at least as chilling and darkly romantic as Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974). (The first is available on Vudu.)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Pulse, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 119 minutes. Harue Karasawa (Koyuki).

PULSE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001): Starting to enjoy all this personal-screen viewing? Here’s the movie to decimate whatever complacency you have left. Still the scariest and quietest internet horror film, it concerns a rapidly spreading computer virus that presents users with ghostly emanations that leave them no option but suicide.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.

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