The COVID Movie Watch List (Films That Champion the Power of Imagination)
To say that COVID-19 has changed our lives is, to put it mildly, an understatement.
It has utterly, radically transformed everything from where we go to how we meet to whether or not (and in what manner) our kids went to school this past September. Workplaces, stores, gyms, restaurants, movie theatres, and places of worship have all been hit. It has affected if and how we celebrate holidays, seek out entertainment, get an education, visit our doctors, and occasionally, whether or not we can even relieve ourselves when we're out and about.
To be fair, it hasn't been all bad. Working from home (those of us who were able to, anyway), spending more time with family, and slowing down in general to quietly reassess what matters most has been for a lot of us not just nice but something we've dreamed about doing for a long, long time. Some of us feel guilty saying it too loudly or too often, but I submit that it is okay to admit that COVID has had more than a few silver linings.
In fact, I would say it is imperative to acknowledge the good that has come over the past nine months. Anti-maskers and conspiracy theories aside, this has been one of those exceedingly rare moments in history when the entire human race has been focused on one thing at one time, looking out for each other, prioritizing our health, minimizing by default our impact on the environment, and re-evaluating how we want to live our lives moving forward.
But for others, this pandemic has been a source of sometimes deafening isolation, ennui, anxiety, family stress, and economic hardship. For far too many, it has also been been a cruel agent of unspeakable tragedy and heartbreak.
How have we gotten through it? How have we made it this far? And how do we navigate the months ahead - especially given we don't really know when it's all going to end or what "normal" will look like once we get back to it?
While there is no single answer, no global vaccine if you will, for the emotional wear and tear that comes at times like these, one thing is clear: popular forms of entertainment have become, as they did during the Great Depression, increasingly important not just as way to kick back but to our collective psycho-emotional wellbeing. (After all, coronavirus isn't the only things that has made 2020 feel like a fever dream voyage down Willy Wonka's chocolate river of horrors.)
In February, for most of us, movies were largely just a way to have fun. Since March, they've functioned more like therapy. While working with writers, filmmakers, teachers, and students since spring has made this more obvious than ever, I haven't needed to go any further than my own living room to see just how much movies, television, books, and video games have pulled people through some of the wildest and wickedest months in history.
Movies that showcase the power of the imagination to transcend adversity have been especially meaningfiul to me lately. Stories in which people face traumas big and small - from lost jobs and sudden moves to hurricanes or the Holocaust - and still find a way to cope, adapt, and even thrive.
Here are thirteen films that I and my family have taken courage from recently.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012), written and directed by Benh Zeitlin, tells the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy trying to stay alive with her dad in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Brand new actor Quvenzhané Wallis nailed her audition and blew audiences away in this bittersweet story about family and what matters most. It’s a tough but insightful reminder that our reality is, in the end, what we make it.
Following a young girl’s move with her mother into a new home and nightmarish relationship with her Draconian stepfather, PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006) by Guillermo del Toro explores the sometimes magical places we go to deal with loneliness and personal trauma. Hypnotic, terrifying, and bittersweet, it’s another gorgeous reminder that our reality is not limited to what's happening immediately around us.
Starring, written, and directed by Roberto Benigni, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997) follows an Italian father and son’s experiences in a Nazi concentration camp as dad tries to lift his boy’s spirits by convincing him they are on holiday. Sweet, funny, and heartbreaking, it’s another reminder that our reality is ultimately defined by how choose to frame it.
Terry Gilliam’s THE FISHER KING (1991) spins a dark fairy tale about a radio shock jock searching for forgiveness after unintentionally destroying another man’s life. Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams give performances of a lifetime in this Monty Pythonesque reminder that our reality is not necessarily defined by our past.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) follows a struggling writer engaged to be married as he disappears each night into the past to draw inspiration from the Lost Generation writers of the 1920s. Magical, uplifting, and with one of the best soundtracks of all time, it’s a reminder that life is often full of wonderful surprises - if our eyes are open to see them when they come.
THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984) follows young Bastian as he dodges bullies and finds refuge in his school’s attic, where he dives into the book-bound world of Fantasia to rescue the Empress and her people from the sinister Nothing. A fantastical reminder that the future is not written and we get to choose where the story goes from here.
JAKOB THE LIAR (1999), based on the book by Jurek Becker, takes place in a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, 1944. Robin Williams plays Jakob, a shopkeeper who decides to spread hope among his neighbours by claiming to hear good news stories on his “secret radio”. Encouraging to know that our reality is one that we can build together.
Alfonso Cuarón’s A LITTLE PRINCESS (1995), based on the beloved children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, tracks the emotional journey of an emotionally isolated young Sarah at a boarding school when her father heads off to World War 1. Grieving the death of her mother and sister while enduring the Draconian discipline of headmistress Munchin, she finds hope and adventure in unexpected friends and their collective imaginings. A kinder, gentler Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s a beautiful reminder that our reality is a uniquely personal mix of what has been, what is, and what can still be.
Richard Linklater’s animated WAKING LIFE (2001) is more dream than movie, drifting from one ethereal conversation to another about life, fulfillment, and what matters most. A colourful reminder that our inner lives are often revealed through dreams, clarified through dialogue, and shaped by the ideas and feedback of others.
In BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (2007), city girl Leslie and country boy Jess create and rule a magical world together, which later helps Jess cope with tragedy. AnnaSophia Robb, Josh Hutcherson, and Bailee Madison give knock-out performances in this inspiring reminder that if we value what we have while we have it, we'll have memories to last a lifetime.
BIG HERO SIX (2014) is, in my opinion, one of Disney's most underrated films. Winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, it walks with 14 year-old Hiro as he mourns a terrible loss and discovers a new future alongside his robot, Baymax. A heartwarming reminder that life goes on and we can endure anything with the love and support of good friends.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (2005), based on the beloved series by C.S. Lewis, follows four siblings at the height of the Second World War from their war-ravaged home in London to the fantastical world where Aslan is king and good triumphs over evil. A timely reminder that our reality doesn't have to come crashing down, even if it feels like it's the end of the world.
SPIRITED AWAY (2001), Japanese anime legend Hayao Miyazaki’s masterwork and another Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature, the film follows 10 year-old Chihiro as she explores a strange and mystical world en route to a new home. A reminder that our reality is shaped by our willingness to go in new directions and do what it takes to get what we want.
Any favourites of your own to add to the list?