Many of us are dealing with an eerie new normal: working from home to help flatten the curve as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread. It’s obviously a good thing for society to stay in doors for a while, but eventually, you’re going to get a little stir crazy. So what do you do to fill the hours? By now, you’ve seen dozens and dozens of streaming guides; instead, then, I thought it might be interesting to put together a list of movies that speak specifically to the situation we’re all going through — i.e., being cooped up and isolated.
Most films feature action, adventure, romance — or, at the very least, stuff happening. And usually, that stuff happens between many characters. But the 10 films I’ve selected feature (for the most part) only one central character who’s cut off from the rest of the world. He or she is all alone — either because of a disaster or by choice — and now must make the best of it, just like you and me these days. But although all of these films are about isolation, it’s interesting how different they are — and especially how varied they can be in terms of what they have to say about isolation. Some of these characters are lonely, while others are exactly where they want to be.
First, though, a couple of quick, self-imposed rules about this list. I decided to skip some of the obvious choices — Gravity, 127 Hours, The Martian — to spotlight a handful of offbeat picks that I thought were more worthwhile. And I didn’t worry about being too precious regarding what constituted “isolation.” A couple of these films focus on characters who are actually around other people — or one person. But as you’ll see, they’re as alone as anyone else.
Silent Running (1972)
What’s It About? Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a scientist aboard a spaceship during a bleak future in which Earth no longer has vegetation. Assigned to safeguard the ship’s massive greenhouse, he’s shocked to receive an order to destroy the plants and animals and return home — but Freeman has other plans, killing his fellow crew members and piloting the vessel into deep space.
What Does It Have to Say About Isolation? Often, isolated characters are that way because of bad luck, but in Silent Running, Freeman chooses solitude as an act of civil disobedience. (He doesn’t want to kill off Earth’s last remaining semblance of the natural world.) And while Freeman isn’t totally solitary — he has three cute robots assisting him — his commitment to his ecological cause marks him as a man of principle fighting for what he thinks is right. That can be a fairly lonely proposition, but this meditative sci-fi drama gives it a dramatic dimension. If Freeman doesn’t stand up for what he believes in, literally no one else will.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
What’s It About? A single mother named Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) is observed over the course of three seemingly mundane days as she cooks, shops and prostitutes herself out to male clients who visit her at home. But, mostly, she cooks.
What Does It Have to Say About Isolation? One of the most acclaimed films of all time, Belgian writer-director Chantal Akerman’s 200-minute drama is an epic of minimalism, meticulously documenting Jeanne’s daily routine to give viewers a sense of its tedium — and then filming the same things the next day, and the day after that. Akerman’s point was to remind audiences of the crushing loneliness and futility that’s always swimming around us — and how we busy ourselves with menial tasks as a desperate attempt to keep that depression at bay.
“In most movies you have crashes or accidents or things out of the ordinary, so the viewer is distracted from his own life,” Akerman once said. “This film is about his own life. Jeanne has to organize her life, to not have any space, any time, so she won’t be depressed or anxious. She didn’t want to have one free hour because she didn’t know how to fill that hour.”
Embraced as a feminist landmark that highlighted the demeaning roles that are assigned to women — mother, caretaker, prostitute — Jeanne Dielman is a film about social isolation. To be fair, there are a few scenes in which Jeanne is on screen with her son or a john. But even then, she’s still terribly alone.
Three Colors: Blue (1993)
What’s It About? Julie (Juliette Binoche), a wife and mother, has her entire life upended after she survives a car accident that claims the life of her husband and daughter. Grief-stricken, she can’t go through with killing herself, so instead, she systematically strips away every vestige of her old life so that nothing can remind her of what she’s lost.
What Does It Have to Say About Isolation? In the early 1990s, revered Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski made a series of three films — Blue, White and Red — each of them thematically linked to the ideals represented by the three colors in the French flag. Blue was Kieślowski’s interpretation of “liberty,” and it’s indicative of his wry view of humanity that the movie takes such an ironic approach to that idea. For Julie, freedom means isolating herself from the world she once knew, including selling her belongings and moving to a new apartment where she can’t be tracked down. Her husband and daughter may have perished in that crash, but in small ways, she’s trying to die, too. Still, no matter how much Julie tries to block out reality, it keeps knocking down her door, forcing her to come to terms with what’s happened. Isolation can only keep grief at bay for so long.
Cast Away (2000)
What’s It About? Tom Hanks plays Chuck, a FedEx employee who prides himself on his efficiency and time-management skills. But his type-A personality will be tested after he barely survives an airplane crash and is then forced to live on a remote desert island, entirely cut off from the world.
What Does It Have to Say About Isolation? Cast Away would have been an obvious choice for this list even before Hanks revealed that he and his wife Rita Wilson had tested positive for coronavirus, but that knowledge only makes the movie more poignant. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, never the subtlest of filmmakers, this drama is very much about teaching Chuck that he needs to learn to lose his obsession with order and timeliness — and to learn that sometimes life is out of our control. It’s funny to think that this movie came out in 2000, long before we all became addicted to the internet, social media and our smartphones. If anything, Cast Away’s scenario is even bleaker to ponder now: In a world where there are so many ways to contact someone, what would it mean to suddenly be disconnected from everyone?
Of course, Chuck didn’t have to do it all alone. He famously befriended a volleyball, which he named Wilson and treated like a real person. Cast Away suggests that, in the most desperate situations, we will find companionship — even if it’s inanimate. Their bond was so strong in the movie that, ever since, people want to believe that they’re still friends. How else to explain why so many folks got fooled by that fake story about Wilson keeping Hanks company during his quarantine? Sure, that turned out to be false, but the beloved Oscar-winner and the volleyball actually hung out not that long ago.
Touching the Void (2003)
What’s It About? This documentary tells of an incredible survival story involving two mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who in 1985 nearly died during a descent. The most amazing part: Yates had to leave Simpson behind, assuming he would perish after falling into a crevasse, his leg badly broken.
What Does It Have to Say About Isolation? Beyond being the inspiration for a great 30 Rock episode, Touching the Void is a profound meditation on what it’s like to assume that you’re going to die. As Simpson relates in the documentary, not only did he think he was a goner, he was all by himself, without another soul within miles. Somehow, he found the strength to literally drag himself back to base, but his closeness to death forever changed him. Touching the Void touches on one of the scariest things about dying — ultimately, it’s something that all of us will experience on our own.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
What Does It Have to Say About Isolation? The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on a true story, and this Oscar-nominated film explores a particularly frightening example of isolation. Bauby is often surrounded by people, but until he develops a way to communicate with them, he’s imprisoned in his body, utterly cut off from society. Using impressionistic visuals that mimic Bauby’s distorted vision, director Julian Schnabel mimics locked-in syndrome in such a way that we feel the character’s isolation, panic and anger. (Mentally, Bauby was perfectly fine, which made his physical condition all the more maddening.) All of us experience periods of loneliness — but to be walled-off in one’s own body sounds utterly terrifying. That Bauby somehow learned to overcome that obstacle is astounding.
What’s It About? In this sci-fi drama, Sam (Sam Rockwell) works for a powerful conglomerate that’s assigned him to run one of the company’s automated lunar mining facilities. This is incredibly lonely work — Sam has been on the moon by himself for three years — but just when he thinks his contract is nearly up and he can go home, he discovers that there’s a clone of him on the base. Or is Sam a clone himself?
What Does It Have to Say About Isolation? As someone who’s always been fascinated by people who work in solitary professions — truck drivers, say, or the folks on the International Space Station — I’m drawn to Moon’s examination of how extreme loneliness would affect a person. (Sam does have a talking computer, voiced by the loathsome Kevin Spacey, but that’s it.) But what’s especially poignant about Moon is its argument that each of us are just pawns being pushed around by big corporations, doing their bidding in ways we don’t even realize. (I won’t reveal the movie’s twists if you haven’t seen it, but let’s just say there’s some insidious fine print in Sam’s job description that his bosses kept from him.) Ultimately, Sam is less alone when he realizes there’s a copy of him hanging around, but one of the film’s darkest jokes is that none of us really want to be trapped with ourselves.
What’s It About? Paul (Ryan Reynolds), an American truck driver, wakes up, confused. Where is he? Quickly, he realizes he’s been buried alive in a wooden coffin — and he only has a phone and a lighter to break free.
What Does It Have to Say About Isolation? Buried features one of Reynolds’ best performances: He conveys the sheer terror of his horrifying situation in every frame. Not recommended to claustrophobics, the film is entirely set inside that coffin as Paul frantically tries to get help before he runs out of oxygen. For those fearful of being cooped up in your apartment for too long because of coronavirus, Buried is a tense reminder that, honestly, things could always be worse.
All Is Lost (2013)
What’s It About? Robert Redford plays an unnamed man who, while sailing solo in the middle of the ocean, discovers that his boat is taking on water.
What Does It Have to Say About Isolation? We learn very little about this man’s backstory — Redford doesn’t have a volleyball or a robot buddy to talk to — and so All Is Lost is not just an unusual survival story but also a novel way of thinking about solitude. As this enigmatic man works to keep his boat afloat, we know nothing about his inner world — why was he on this trip? What was his life like before this voyage? — and so we’re left to ponder those questions while he’s in the middle of this harrowing ordeal. Rarely has a movie character felt so present and, simultaneously, so separated from us. We’re going through this life-or-death struggle with him but, really, he’s on his own, lost in his thoughts, fighting to stay alive.
The Lighthouse (2019)
What’s It About? Two lighthouse keepers — one young (Robert Pattinson) and one older (Willem Dafoe) — are forced to live and work together in close quarters as a mighty storm rages outside. But is the younger one imagining things, or are mermaids and angry seagulls suddenly invading their lighthouse?
What Does It Have to Say About Isolation? As I mentioned last year, The Lighthouse is a psychological horror film that doubles as a terrific comedy about having a terrible roommate. And especially during our current pandemic, spare a thought for those who are cooped up with other people who aren’t family or loved ones. The worst-case scenario of what that particular brand of cabin fever might look like is The Lighthouse, in which the two characters slowly turn on one another until it becomes clear that both men have gone mad and that neither of them might make it out alive. In situations like this, you’d be better off alone.