Indie Films to Watch During a Pandemic

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Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, 2018(Film still)

A round up of some of our favourite indies and underrated gems to help you stay sane during coronavirus self-quarantine

It’s a strange time on our planet right now. We’re staying inside for the good of the world – many of us away from our friends and family, away from our jobs, away from our stabilising normalcy. Which means we’re also, many of us, facing an existential racket. “How do I pass the time?” your brain, like mine, might be shouting. “How do I stay sane?”

Movies are an obvious balm: in confusing, chaotic, isolating times, it can be helpful to escape, to remember our once-buzzing and hyper-social existences. It can also be vital, for our emotional wellbeing, to maintain a feeling of connection: while we’re distant, movies can remind us of the weird and lovely slate of experiences we still share. Below is a round-up of some of our favourite indies and underrated gems from the last few years – movies you may have missed, but now have ample time to stream at home for the sake of humanity (and for your sanity, too).

If you forgot what life is like on Earth, documentaries:

  • Hale County, This Morning, This Evening2018 (Available to stream on Amazon Prime): RaMell Ross constructed this arresting, lyrical, anti-formulaic portrait of African-American life in Hale County, Alabama, out of, reportedly, 1,300 hours of footage. Footage detailing normalcy – babies bouncing on knees, droplets of sweat on a gymnasium floor, people sitting on their porch swings – which, assembled together, makes a kind of cinematic collage, or poem. “I began filming,” Ross writes in a title card, “using time to figure out how we’ve come to be seen.” Read Another Man’s article about the film here.
  • Honeyland2019 (Available to rent on BFI Player): “Not all honey is a remedy,” says Hatidze Muratova, one of the last of Macedonia’s wild beekeepers. “People add sugar to make more of it, but mine is raw.” Honeyland documents Hatidze’s rural rhythms in a remote mountainous region – she hews to a lifestyle that is, in most places, long extinct – and her reverent belief in the purity of an ancient beekeeping process. When new neighbours take up beekeeping with less respect (to make a buck), it produces fallout with ecological implications as well as narrative ones: this is an intimate argument for protecting certain ways of life, human and animal alike.
  • Cameraperson, 2016 (Available to rent on Amazon Prime): Another collage project, from Kirsten Johnson (of this year’s Sundance favourite Dick Johnson Is Dead). Johnson wove 25 years of her own footage into this 2016 epic, reaching across time and space from Bosnia to Darfur to her mother’s home. What results is a meditation on the art of filmmaking itself, and a question (not necessarily an answer) about what it means to document at all.

If you need dark comic relief in a dark time:

  • Sorry to Bother You2018: (Available to stream on Netflix UK): Boots Riley succeeded in making the rare film that is absolutely impossible to predict. It begins by following a black telemarketer – played by an excellent Lakeith Stanfield – who discovers he can excel at his job if he adopts a “white voice” on the phone. But it soon becomes a labyrinthine, outrageous satire about race, class, and capitalist exploitation, with the kind of hard left turn somewhere in the middle that comes around only once in a cinematic blue moon.
  • The Death of Stalin, 2017 (Available to stream on Netflix UK): The power vacuum left by the death of a Soviet dictator may not seem the most obvious cause for raucous slapstick, but Armando Iannucci isn’t one for taking the most obvious route. The Death of Stalin is one of the most critically beloved satires of the past few years, and was a perfect opportunity for Iannucci to take his comic ravagement of political systems – which, through Veep, he became known for – to a whole other level.
  • Tangerine, 2015 (Available to rent on Amazon Prime): Sean Baker, who went on to direct The Florida Project, shot this narrow, day-in-the-life film on an iPhone 5S. Tangerine follows a trans prostitute recently released from prison, as she angrily searches, over the course of one Christmas Eve, for her ex’s new girlfriend. This is an entirely original look at intersecting lives on the streets of Los Angeles – everyone knows each other, everyone’s been in the same cab – and remains funny, refreshing, and heartfelt.
  • The Lobster, 2015 (Available to stream on Amazon Prime): “A lobster is an excellent choice,” says Olivia Colman from inside Yorgos Lanthimos’ strange, deadpan dystopia, a world in which single people must match and fall in love in a hotel within 45 days, or else be turned into an animal of their own selection. This film has a bleak and brutal undercurrent, which may not be your coping cup of tea right now – but in times like these, a particular brand of smart, pitch-black absurdism can be an excellent choice in its own right.

If you need a cathartic cry:

  • Pain And Glory, 2019 (Available to rent on BFI Player): Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent film has a deceptively simple premise: a film director, played by Antonio Banderas, is waning and self-medicating, looking back on a life and career dogged by his chronic pain. But it is a sumptuous, complexly emotional film, told in part in hyper-saturated flashbacks – childhood scenes from a small northern Spanish village, on the banks of the river Turia. Read our article about the art in the film here.
  • The Rider, 2017 (Available to rent on Amazon Prime): In The Rider, Chloé Zhao offers a slow and ponderous close look at rodeo culture, life on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and modern masculinity in the Dakota Badlands (all of them tenuous, in their different ways). This is an excellently made film, notable for its feats of dramatic acting by non-professional actors – actual Lakota bronco riders, playing lightly fictionalised versions of themselves.
  • The Place Beyond the Pines, 2012 (Available to stream on Amazon Prime): You’re hard-pressed to find a movie quite so full-body-sob-inducing as Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 look at the broad span of an unravelling marriage. His follow-up, a crime and family drama set in Schenectady, New York, is similarly sprawling, pensive, and melancholic (it’s also, as many critics noted at the time, ambitious: just watch the opening unbroken sequence). Ryan Gosling plays a motorcycle stunt rider who turns to robbery as a way to provide for his infant son, in this story interested in desperation and intergenerational consequences on the far outskirts of the financial capital of the world.

If you want to remember another crazy time – adolescence:

  • Skate Kitchen, 2018 (Available to stream on Amazon Prime): Crystal Moselle, of the 2015 documentary The Wolfpack, listed only gently into fiction with this feature. It centres on a group of teen skateboarders, all girls, based on a real skate collective (many of whom are in the movie, playing versions of themselves). Moselle’s film is an ode to young female friendship, to New York City, and to that particular kind of unhurried teen world we all remember – just on wheels.
  • God’s Own Country, 2017 (Available to stream on Netflix UK): This is a sensual, slow coming-out drama about sheep herders directed by a man named Lee, and it is not Brokeback Mountain. It’s set in Yorkshire and is refreshingly less tragic than that earlier film, with two leads – Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu, as the son of a farmer and a Romanian migrant worker hired to help with lambing season, respectively – delivering layered performances.
  • 20th Century Women, 2017 (Available to rent on BFI Player): This is a pseudo-coming-of-age story, a beautiful and quirky film but kind of a category cheat – though it revolves around teenaged Jamie (a stand-in for auteur Mike Mills, whose project here is to understand the women who made him who he is), its real lifeblood is his single mother and the two young women she enlists to help her raise Jamie into a good man. It’s steeped in 1979 Santa Barbara – oceanscapes, punk raves, Jimmy Carter, lemon-yellow kitchen cabinetry – when everything seemed on the brink of change or disaster. Much like adolescence. Read our interview with Mike Mills here. 

If there’s someone you wish you could hug right now:

  • Paterson, 2016 (Available to stream on Amazon Prime): Adam Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, with a secret poetry practice (is that the perfect film premise?). He has a sense of lovely, quiet normalcy. He has a hunger for, and a propensity toward, beautiful things – all of which, during chaos, is maybe exactly the vibe we need.
  • The Farewell, 2019 (Available to rent on Amazon Prime): Quite beloved last year, and still too overlooked. Awkwafina plays the American-born Billi, a writer struggling with her extended Chinese family’s lie-by-omission to her terminally ill grandmother: as tradition dictates in certain parts of China, they’re not telling the dying person that she’s dying, for her own sake. To ponder these complexities of ethics and cultural (mis)translation, while also laugh-crying through awkward family dinners, is definitely worth the £4.
  • Gloria Bell, 2019 (Available to stream on Netflix UK): Julianne Moore is perfect much of the time, as she is here, in the role of the titular divorcée Going Through It. She does all kinds of not-socially-distant things: goes out dancing, sings in her car on the way to her office, hates her yoga classes, has dinner with her kids, dates John Turturro. I was on the fence about putting this in the “cathartic cry” category; it has a catharsis to it, as things that are joyful but bittersweet often do, but it may have just been me who sobbed helplessly as this movie’s credits rolled. In any event, Gloria Bell is deeply human, and deeply worth it.