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8 movies for the uncertain moment

It's a strange time with few answers, and there's no clarity on when it will end. These movies double down on that anxiety.
Credit: Oscilloscope / IFC / Sony Pictures Classics

The ironic thing about spending our summer largely indoors – amid a coronavirus surge in many states and health authorities’ continued guidance on social distancing – is that while we’ve had to trade visiting the theater for more Netflix nights and chatting excitedly with friends in the cinema lobby for watch parties via Zoom, there have never been more films easily accessible for a two-hour distraction. 

It’s hard to think it was only a few months ago we would make plans for which of the dozen movies showing at the theater we’d buy a ticket to. Now you can spend a full afternoon browsing the hundreds of options on whatever streamers you subscribe to.

As the questions about our immediate future pile up faster than answers can be provided – and as our wondering if there will be a summer movie season gives way to wondering if there will be a fall/winter movie season – no one can be blamed for whatever film-watching habits they’ve taken up. What we’re choosing to watch these days can also indicate our current state of mind amid an ongoing pandemic most of us thought – or wished – would be over by now in the U.S. You’re catching up on those Bogart blind spots? It’s as good a time as ever to stretch our movie knowledge. You’ve watched the same escapist Spielberg adventure 20 times in a month? Routine is all the rage these days. We might have to wait a little longer for Bond and Black Widow and Nolan. But you can watch offerings from Spike and Reichardt and Samberg right now, and they’re each as different as the next.

There's also something to be said for the film that’s taken on renewed significance in this time of uncertainty. A few months after our mass revisiting of Steven Soderbergh’s prescient “Contagion” this spring, other movies feel eerily tuned to the anxieties and ambiguity of the current moment, even if they don't intend to. And some of us – me included – might have found ourselves turning to those stories and their strange ability to comfort and contextualize…even as the trait linking them is a definite feeling of the indefinite. 

In that spirit, here are eight contemporary films set around uncertain circumstances and ambiguous outcomes, all of which are available to watch right now.

“Meek’s Cutoff” (2010, dir. Kelly Reichardt)

“We’re not lost. We’re just finding our way.”

So says one of the members of a small caravan moving – desperately, slowly, doubtfully – through a section of unconquered American West sometime in the 1800s. Where they left from and where they are trying to get to are superfluous. If director Kelly Reichardt’s exasperatingly deliberate filmmaking is any indication, though, searching for a way through the barren landscapes only accentuates how lost they really are.

“Meek’s Cutoff” does for Westerns what “Chinatown” did for the classic noir detective story—subvert the traditionally tidy Hollywood ending for something that cuts much closer to the agony of the real world. Except Reichardt’s movie adds an extra dose of uncertainty. Will this ever end? Is the prevailing question we and the characters of “Meek’s Cutoff” have. We don’t get a definitive answer, but the implication of the movie’s final moments – more of an insinuation than an ending – is torturously memorable.

Stream it now on Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, The Criterion Channel and Kanopy. 

“It’s A Disaster” (2012, dir. Todd Berger)

A movie that came out long before the current pandemic – indeed, long before the start of the Trump administration – the ultra-cheeky “It’s A Disaster” revolves around a group of people who must stay inside in order to prevent exposure to a potentially deadly agent that’s mysteriously lingering in the air. Yep, there’s even a guy in a hazmat suit.

Despite the nihilistic premise (and that apt-for-2020 title), “It’s A Disaster” is a breezy watch, and it often manages to remain breezy while staring down its nihilistic core. Todd Berger’s comedy takes care to promptly follow any whiff of existential questioning with a big laugh (the biggest of them coming from America Ferrera, the standout of an excellent ensemble) and the suggestion that no one’s going to have the guide book for when we think we’ve arrived at the end of the world. The thought is equal parts consling and terrifying—and the movie’s gobsmacker of an ending drives it home with hilarious, defiant aplomb.

Stream it now on Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and Kanopy. 

“Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro)

The daring Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro finally won an Oscar for 2017’s “The Shape of Water,” but his most audacious work came 11 years prior, in the form of a dark fairy tale suggesting fantasy and reality can breath the same air. It’s wartime in 1940s Spain, and young Ofelia shares a roof with the cruelest of the cruel—so she escapes into an imaginative made literal, starting a journey with uncertain ends and she desperately strives to maintain her humanity in the face of cataclysm.  

Del Toro has built his reputation on, among other things, an enthusiasm for the use of practical effects over CGI. That may not be more vital elsewhere in his filmography than in “Pan’s Labyrinth”; its ancient monsters and roughly hewn environments are more than just tangible. They’re elemental, and make Ofelia’s journey feel far more treacherous than if she were making her way through green-screen settings.

Stream it now on Netflix.

RELATED: “Pan’s Labyrinth” and a pandemic: Guillermo del Toro’s surreal fairy tale takes on new meaning in surreal times

“The Rider” (2017, dir. Chloé Zhao)

Should the string-pullers over at Marvel loosen up and allow Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao to exercise full creative freedoms – and that remains to be seen, given how tightly Kevin Feige runs things at the world’s biggest franchise – the upcoming “The Eternals” will be like no other MCU production before it, if “The Rider” is any indication.

Zhao’s uber-introspective sophomore feature is about a young cowboy whose singular rodeo-legend aspirations are bucked off course – perhaps permanently – by unfortunate injury. But the movie is also about wrestling with a fractured sense of self, and having to navigate the uncomfortable terrain of being forced to find a new purpose when the future seemed so etched in stone.

Despite the devastating emotions that drive it – and ultimately because of them – the climactic ambiguity of “The Rider,” a Western with cosmic significance, hews closer to triumph than any other film on this list. But even that, perhaps, is up for debate.

Rent it now on various digital platforms. 

“45 Years” (2015, dir. Andrew Haigh)

A movie that’s extraordinarily deft at bartering modesty with grueling psychological claustrophobia, “45 Years” tip-toes right up to the edge of thriller territory despite being devoid of knife-wielding stalkers or diabolical motive. It’s the arrival of a simple letter to the idyllic Kate and Geoff’s home, days before they celebrate 45 years of marriage, that leads to an inkling of doubt that simmers and simmers until it’s become a rolling boil of world-shaking despair. The movie is just 90 minutes long, but the implications extend far beyond the showstopper of a final shot—to the point of making nearly half a century of marriage feel moot.

I’d suggest you pay close attention to the smallest change in how Charlotte Rampling’s Kate walks, talks, stares. But her Oscar-nominated turn makes it impossible to fix your eyes on anything else in the frame.  

Stream it now on The Criterion Channel. 

“Personal Shopper” (2016, dir. Olivier Assayas)

It would be futile to try and categorize Olivier Assayas’s haunting treatise on navigating grief in the Digital Age. And yet, the shapeshifting French director’s ghost story/psychological thriller/contemporary Gothic drama is so thoroughly aware about the contradictory permanence offered by our screens that what haunts Maureen (an excellent Kristen Stewart) after the death of her twin brother ends up feeling uneasy in its familiarity.

There’s much that goes unexplained in “Personal Shopper,” and fewer things that provide the clarity Maureen needs as a grieving sister and that we crave as a knowledge-hungry audience. That’s part of what makes the film so memorable—Assayas allows us the same limited space as Maureen is afforded to construct closure. And it’s worth contemplating whether the final, spellbindingly emotional moments are as cathartic as Maureen has spent the whole movie wishing they would be.  

Rent it now on various digital platforms.

RELATED: Movies in the 2010s largely captured, and warned of, our moments of reckoning

“Parasite” (2019, dir. Bong Joon-ho)

The newly minted Best Picture winner thrives on thrilling storytelling and precise narrative construction, but it’s the movie’s gut-punch coda involving a son separated from his father that puts Bong Joon-ho’s satire in devastating context. There’s a reason we insist on debating whether the end sequence is a brief peek into the future or merely a version of events that are never meant to be, even though the answer is clear.

It’s a testament to Joon-ho sneakily ensuring we’re invested in the lives of his characters, but also in how the spiraling situations of the Kim and Park families represent the worst of socioeconomic inevitability. Uncertainty provides leaky shelter from reality’s tragedy.

Stream it now on Hulu.

RELATED: What the historic triumph of 'Parasite' means for right now, and what it could mean for the future

RELATED: 'Parasite' Review: Bong Joon-ho's critique of socioeconomic systems is exacting, exciting and endlessly entertaining

“House of Hummingbird” (2020, dir. Bora Kim)

One of the best movies halfway through one of the strangest years in recent memory, “House of Hummingbird” manages to find empathy in the rocky teenage years of a girl growing up in 1994 Seoul. Home doesn’t provide comfort from school, nor does school provide comfort form home. A new tutor’s genuine and gentle offering of friendship stands out in stark contrast to her abusive family. Is this the long sought-after connection that could push Eun-hee through to self-actualization?

Director Bora Kim’s lyrical feature debut is light – very light – on moments of victory for its young protagonist. The more dismay, neglect and tragedy come Eun-hee’s way, the more we wonder if the events we’re seeing will be foundational to a lifelong search for understanding and purpose. Kim’s movie ends up providing a reason to hope that Eun-hee will find that path, however, even as we’re made privy to little more than the first step. “House of Hummingbird” is a tender and true example of a storyteller knowing when to leave her character, and allow the audience to fill in the spaces of what comes next.

Watch it now via virtual cinema options. 

RELATED: ‘House of Hummingbird’ Review: Tender South Korean drama finds empathy in harrowing moments of teenagerdom

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