So, how many days have you been home now? Has cabin fever set in yet? Are you getting tired of staring at the same four walls? As we all learn to cope with life during the coronavirus, it’s tempting to fantasize about getting out of our apartment and doing… well, anything. Exploring mountains, diving into the ocean — whatever you can think of, just so long as you’re not cooped up at home anymore.
Well, since you do need to stay indoors, I wanted to offer a list of films you could watch in order to escape — if only in your mind. These movies run the gamut from war dramas to period epics to highbrow documentaries, but what they all share is that they’re transporting in one way or another. They show you parts of the world that you can’t see on your own right now. Maybe they even set you on a journey through the cosmos. Because while you’re stuck on the couch and not going anywhere for a few weeks, these movies can at least help you pretend you’re roaming free.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
“What is it, Major Lawrence that attracts you personally to the desert?”
And in the hands of director David Lean, it’s also massive. Lawrence of Arabia might be the greatest example of the old “The setting is a character” cliché, telling the true story of how mediocre British officer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) was reborn in the Arabian Desert, becoming a hero to the locals as he helps the Arab people vanquish the Turks. Lawrence’s transformation is underlined by the majesty of the sweeping, desolate dunes surrounding him, which tests the young man’s resolve and becomes integral to his legend. In some of the movie’s most incredible shots, the human characters are mere specks — they’re at the mercy of a hostile, wide-open landscape that doesn’t care if they live or die.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Westerns are among the most sprawling of genres, but few were as flat-out visually stunning as Sergio Leone’s. A major influence on Quentin Tarantino — you can feel the Italian director’s DNA in everything from Inglourious Basterds to The Hateful Eight — he made arguably his finest film with this pulpy tale of three cowboys (played by Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef) in search of stolen gold, sometimes working together, other times not. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a world of quiet, empty spaces that nonetheless hum with tension — whenever the characters confront one another, it feels like they’re the only people populating that particular barren stretch of rugged desert. The striking locales echo the operatic stakes, building to an iconic ending in a cemetery that seems to stretch out into forever.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick imagines humanity’s past and future in this overpowering sci-fi epic, which spans 165 minutes and covers approximately 3 million years. Going from the Dawn of Man to our evolution into something beyond flesh-and-blood creatures, 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps the most transcendent of all films, venturing from Africa to the Moon to Jupiter to “Beyond the Infinite.” (A lot of viewers quickly figured out 2001 could be “transporting” in another way, getting stoned during the movie’s light-show finale, which inspired the studio to rebrand the film “The Ultimate Trip” in its marketing.) Lots of sci-fi films take us into the cosmos, but none has ever been more expansive in its vision of our small place in the great, big universe.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Not just a commentary on the Vietnam War but also our fatal penchant for destruction, Apocalypse Now took Heart of Darkness as its inspiration, telling the story of a burned-out soldier, Willard (Martin Sheen), assigned to kill a rogue colonel (Marlon Brando). Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinogenic war film captures the insanity and cruelty of combat, but also its strange beauty. Shot in the Philippines, this Oscar-winner is one bravura sequence after another, turning Vietnam into a druggy Paradise Lost full of lush jungles, sprawling rivers and strafing helicopters that rain hellfire and “Ride of the Valkyries.” There are better war movies, but none that feels as gigantic and otherworldly.
A tone poem disguised as a documentary, Koyaanisqatsi was one of the hippest movies of the 1980s: a film with a radical environmental message scored by revered avant-garde composer Philip Glass. (It felt like an event, an experimental opera and a nature film all wrapped together.) Directed and produced by Godfrey Reggio, the movie (whose title translates to “life out of balance”) shows us soaring, breathtaking scenes of the natural world — deserts, mountains, oceans, rock formations — and then contrasts that with imposing images of huge metropolises teaming with parasitic human beings and their unfeeling machines. Koyaanisqatsi’s point is fairly obvious — look at how much we despoil what’s beautiful about this planet — but in the midst of our current quarantine, even the city scenes, full of hustle and bustle, might make you a little nostalgic for what life used to be like.
Akira Kurosawa was 75 when this volcanic interpretation of King Lear premiered. Few septuagenarians could produce a movie of such scope and energy, chronicling what happens when a vain warlord (Tatsuya Nakadai) turns over his kingdom to the wrong two sons, leading to bloodshed and heartbreak. Ran is a war drama that has a god’s-eye view of the events, and the lengthy, expansive battle scenes dwarf just about anything you’ll see in a comparable Hollywood movie. It’s one of those films made long before CGI — there’s nothing quite like the spectacle of seeing seemingly thousands of extras all engaged in frenzied combat. Ran feels like a dream — or a nightmare — that’s taking place in a realm far, far away from anything we know. The emotions and the ambition can barely be contained by your television.
Winged Migration (2001)
It’s a fun debate: If you could have one superpower, would you rather be invisible or able to fly? For those in the latter category, Winged Migration is a great way to live vicariously through our fine-feathered friends. As its title suggests, the documentary tracks different birds on their migratory paths, giving viewers a wealth of incredible aerial shots as we accompany these creatures on their long journey. Director Jacques Perrin doesn’t turn Winged Migration into one of those cutesy Disneynature docs that anthropomorphize its animal subjects, giving them irritatingly “adorable” human characteristics and casting a celebrity voice actor to “play” them. Instead, the film just soars — literally — while providing audiences with a very different perspective on our planet.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Plenty of Pixar movies take us to wondrous new worlds, but this Oscar-winner may be the studio’s most enveloping. Finding Nemo tells the story of an uptight clownfish, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), who’s a widowed father looking after his sweet but curious young son Nemo (Alexander Gould). When a human diver captures Nemo, Marlin must go on a quest across the ocean to rescue his boy. Directed and co-written by Andrew Stanton (who’s also the mastermind behind Wall-E), Finding Nemo makes its underwater realm look as magical and foreboding as outer space, creating a whole universe of colorful, disparate aquatic life in the process.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
How about a good ol’ fashioned adventure on the high seas? Truman Show director Peter Weir teamed up with Russell Crowe, who plays Jack Aubrey, a valiant British captain during the Napoleonic Wars. His ship, the H.M.S. Surprise, is charged with engaging enemy French forces, which results in some of the most glorious ocean battles ever seen on screen. Forget the cheesy swashbuckling shenanigans of Pirates of the Caribbean; Master and Commander is a wholly superior brand of seafaring epic that makes you feel like you’re right there alongside Aubrey and his crew as they fight for their lives.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The California of this Oscar-winning drama isn’t the present-day one of strip-malls, traffic jams, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. It’s an inhospitable land where greedy prospectors seek their fortune by drilling for oil and screwing over the competition. And the most fearsome figure in this world is Daniel Plainview, played with hideous fury by Daniel Day-Lewis. But it’s writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson who gives There Will Be Blood its staggering vision of a wild, untamed West that contains untold riches just under the soil — if only these would-be barons can find it. Fiery oil wells and impossibly beautiful oceans are just a few of the movie’s incredible visuals. And Jonny Greenwood’s swirling, tormented score only adds to the out-of-body experience — like all the films on this list, it’s a trip.