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Movies for a time of social distancing

Even if you haven’t been exposed to the coronavirus, you surely have felt its effect by now. Governors have declared states of emergency, businesses have shut their doors, and as people prepare to hunker down, toilet paper has disappeared from shelves at such a rate you’d think the coronavirus was a stomach bug. These are unusual and uncertain times, and while our first priority is to slow the spread of the virus, another important task for us all in the coming weeks and months will be to take care of ourselves, to avoid panicking, to turn off the news every once in a while and breathe. If we’re all stuck indoors, we’re also going to have a lot of time on our hands. So here are a few movie ideas to help pass the time.

Christopher Lloyd in “Clue.” (Courtesy photos)

Maggie Cheung stars in “In the Mood for Love.”

If you’d rather be outdoors: “Clue” (available on Crackle, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play), “In the Mood for Love” (available on Criterion Channel, Kanopy, DirecTV)

You might be inclined to watch movies with epic landscapes and panoramic views, but sometimes these movies only serve to remind us of our cramped quarters. A movie that makes creative use of small space, however, can feel just as expansive, without making you resent your living room.

The 1985 screwball murder mystery “Clue” finds a cast of eight supremely talented comic actors stuck in a garishly decorated New England mansion, searching for a killer who might be lurking among them. The cult classic is a longtime favorite of mine for its relentless strings of jokes and gags that build in intensity as the characters spend more time trapped together. One other bonus: With multiple endings, it holds up well for rewatchings.

If slapstick is too light: “In the Mood for Love,” Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 drama about forbidden romance in 1960s Hong Kong. Taking place in tiny apartments with thin walls, the movie is literally very small, but it feels impossibly large thanks to lush music, colorful clothing, and set decorations that make impressive use of every last square inch. As a drama it’s simple but compelling—two neighbors believe their spouses are having affairs, and so begin one of their own—but its course is unexpected, its every scene a textbook example of the many ways film can speak to us and affect us.

If you already preferred staying in: “Parasite” (available on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play), “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” (available on Amazon Prime)

A scene from "Parasite."

Liz Smith and Tim Roth in “The Cook, the Thief, HIs Wife, and Her Lover.”.”

Not all claustrophobic movies make you feel good about being stuck inside, of course; if anything, small spaces more often exacerbate tension, and in a way that feels cathartic. This was certainly the case for the Best Picture winner at this year’s Oscars, Bong Joon-Ho’s satirical thriller “Parasite.” From the beautifully designed house that was built specifically for the film to the most harrowing basement scenes this side of the “Saw” franchise, the movie makes excellent use of space while pulling us toward the screen in bewilderment.

In a similar way, Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is also bewildering, perhaps with less cleverness than “Parasite” but not with any less ambitious use of space. The story of the four titular characters and the restaurant where their lives intertwine is designed to look like a stage production and boasts a script of some of cinema’s most operatically intense drama, calling to mind small spaces but reframing them as larger than life.

For pure distraction: “Spirited Away” (available on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime)

But then, I’m sure many (if not most) people just want to distract themselves from their small spaces, from the anxiety and uncertainty of this strange moment. In truth I find it difficult to make recommendations about what will be most comforting right now, not because comfort is hard to find, but because comfort in times of worry is deeply personal, and everyone has their own go-tos that reliably offer relief. For me, one such movie is “Spirited Away.”

Chihiro, the 10-year-old girl of “Spirited Away.”

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki writes coming-of-age stories that actually make us feel different by the end, and in dreamlike, uncanny ways. In just this manner, his best movie, 2001’s “Spirited Away,” follows a young girl on a whirlwind fantasy involving a bathhouse, a witch, a dragon, and plate after plate of food that looks more appetizing in its two-dimensional animation than the food in most live-action movies. There is a plot, but not one that obeys attempts to summarize. There is a logic to the movie, but it is never clarified, leaving us at the end of nearly two-and-a-half hours puzzling over what we’ve just seen, but calm and refreshed, ready to return right away to watch it again. “Spirited Away” is, to me, a helpful distraction precisely because it’s a fable about distraction, about letting your mind wander and finding respite in your daydreams.

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