These are trying times. From an active hurricane season to a whiplash-inducing political climate — remember when people used to say we couldn’t wait for the election year to be over? — it’s increasingly unlikely anyone will get any sleep, ever.
Whether you’re distraught about the nation, or just reliving an argument you had with a family member about the nation, we need soothing, escapist film fare that hopefully doesn’t trigger comparison to any current events whatsoever. Considering the breadth and depth of current events, that’s a tricky spot to find.
I, for one, am not looking to have my thoughts provoked any more at the moment. I need to watch dearly held favorite films and hope no one unearths a deleted scene to disrupt my Zen state of rewatchable reverie. If you rule out films that are about the apocalypse, a weather event or politics, the list gets much shorter, but it can’t be entirely brainless because you must remain engaged. This is my list of reliable mental babysitters.
“Harvey” — James Stewart is the ultimate soothing presence no matter what, even if he is possibly imagining a 6-foot rabbit day drinking with him throughout town. The film grapples oh so pleasantly with the question of whether Elwood P. Dowd’s best friend is a real giant rabbit or a benevolent hallucination, and is a sophisticated, delightful comedy with a tender, magical heart.
“Lost in Translation” — The characters in this Sofia Coppola film are fish out of water, but their disorientation is soulful, wistful and extremely watchable. Bill Murray as a famous American movie star in Tokyo shilling for a whiskey brand launched his much-beloved second act in his real career, and I never get tired of this film. Scarlett Johansson may be a young lady adrift, but she’s still so sheltered that it looks like a rather enviable dilemma. This story makes existential crises glamorous and fun.
“Gosford Park” — This is, unofficially, the superior prototype for the hugely entertaining television series “Downton Abbey,” with Julian Fellowes as screenwriter to director Robert Altman. The uneasy symbiosis between the upstairs and downstairs inhabitants of a vast English estate are richly retailed and vividly experienced in both the film and the subsequent PBS series, but “Gosford Park” has far more bite.
Every character in “Gosford Park” is important and memorable. When you have Richard E. Grant in a rather tiny role that is still entirely unforgettable, that is an embarrassment of riches. Pompous Michael Gambon butts heads with his fabulously imperious wife, Kristin Scott Thomas, and many other major and minor characters are meticulously intertwined.
Bob Balaban provides comic relief as a clueless American movie producer, shouting down the phone most of the film. Clive Owen smolders as a possibly vengeful visiting footman, and there are surprisingly emotional secrets buried among the dozens of closet-dwelling skeletons. And a hateful, philandering coward gets his comeuppance, which just appeals to me for some reason.
“Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides” — If you have never experienced this 2001 documentary, you have yet to experience a truly meditative journey that will provide much-needed solace and communion with nature through the deeply beautiful lens of the artwork of Andy Goldsworthy. The pace, I shall warn you, is extremely slow and quiet; this is a documentary about a British guy who builds incredible sculptures out of sticks and stones and leaves. It is extraordinary, and it is neither fast nor furious. Hunker down with this quiet and beautiful film and let its beauty and ingenuity cure, if only temporarily, what ails you.