As we gradually turn the corner of COVID: Phase One into whatever new, semi-immunized second act of the pandemic awaits, I’ve found myself reflecting on the wildly unsustainable pace of media consumption I’ve maintained over the past fifteen months. Watching movies has been one of the few bright spots in the midst of this Top-Three-All-Time Hall of Fame worst year, peaking with a two-to-three-films-per-day pace between December 2020 and February 2021. It felt only fitting to begin my celebration of the best of my Phase One era viewings with a tribute to my top first-time watches since March 2020.
With that, I humbly present:
The Quarantine Starting Five*
*For those who come to MMH exclusively for the music and movies, a “starting five” is the lineup of five players who are on the floor for a team at the beginning (and often at the end) of each game. They are generally the best players on the team. In the case of this article, it’s a metaphor.
-The Quarantine Starting Five is open to any movies watched between March 11th (the day of the first NBA cancellations, my personal pandemic marker) and today.
-A Quarantine Starting Five film may have any release date from the inception of cinema until now; however, only first-time watches may be included in the Quarantine Starting Five, no matter how many times I may have watched them during the pandemic (though you will always have my heart, Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13).
As an added bonus, I’ve included a potential “matchup” for each Starting Five member; in some cases, this is another film by the same director, or featuring the same actor, or from the same series; in others, it is simply a movie I feel pairs well with the Starting Five selection. The same qualifying restrictions (first-time watch during quarantine) apply to films selected as matchups.
Minimal and mostly abstract spoilers for all five films in question follow. Spoiler-sticklers beware!
5. High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
More often revered for his samurai-centric fare, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low represents the best of his of-the-time Hitchcockian thrillers. The film’s conceit is brilliant in its simplicity: a wealthy businessman (astonishingly rendered by Toshiro Mifune) in the midst of a company powerplay is thrust into a deadly moral quandary when a kidnapper accidentally abducts the son of his chauffeur instead of his own.
What distinguishes High and Low is its narrative evolution: eschewing a consistency of perspective or protagonist, the film instead deploys a three-act structure that transports its audience first from the home of the aristocratic victim of the crime in question to the police department as they pursue the case, then into the depths of the city underworld as they pursue their primary suspect (a quite literal descent from the nominal “high” to “low”).
Kurosawa’s ability to marry these perspective changes with kindred tonal shifts is the true genius of the film. The first act envelopes us (claustrophobically so) in the impossibility of our protagonist’s dilemma. The second act mires us within the procedural machinations of detective work, replacing moral uncertainty with case-cracking propulsion. The final segment draws us deep into the unhinged paranoia of our prime suspect as he attempts to evade capture.
In this way, it’s a sprawling delivery of an otherwise contained story. Though not the most prominent Kurosawa film in the canon, it’s a strong recommendation for any crime and thriller fans, especially those looking for earlier installments from the genre.
Matches Up Well With: Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
4. Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
One of a few films on this list that earned a second viewing mid-pandemic. At times, I’ve found myself put off by the sci-fi existentialism sub-genre (Black Mirror episodes have around a 50% success rate for me), but what grounds Ex Machina is the three-dimensionality of its characters even as the narrative careens towards heady, paranoid extremes.
Alicia Vikander’s unsettlingly controlled portrayal of the android Ava, and her steadily unfolding “humanity,” is essential to the success of the story––but a lesser film would have distilled Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb and Oscar Isaac’s Nathan down to their essential narrative functions as in-over-his-head audience avatar and eccentric genius antagonist (respectively) to clear space for the driving future-philosophical intrigue.
Instead, Garland and his performers deliver a more nuanced tale: for all of Caleb’s innocence, there is an arrogance simmering below the surface; Nathan’s unattainable brilliance is grounded by much more familiar (if no less compelling) charisma. As a result, we care about more than simply whatever galaxy-brain pull-the-rug-out-from-under-us reveal lies in wait for us in the film’s final act––and that ultimately makes for a more rewarding viewing experience.
All that said, the real reason Ex Machina makes the list is that it led my wife and me to spend an evening learning the choreography of Oscar Isaac’s Oscar-worthy disco interlude, and that marked the peak of my human existence.
Matches Up Well With: The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
3. Lover’s Rock (Steve McQueen, 2021)
Though more contained than its companion films in the acclaimed Small Axe series, Lovers Rock is the installment that has been the most difficult for me to shake in the months since my first viewing. Narratively confined to a twelve-or-so-hour period between protagonist Martha’s secretive departure from her bedroom to attend a house party and her return home before church the following morning, the 70-minute almost-entirely-party-bound film is immersive in a way that hit like a therapeutic drug at the time of its peak-pandemic release.
Ultimately, it’s the marriage between McQueen’s deliberate framing and the motion of that frame that makes Lover’s Rock such an arresting watch––whether swaying in time with the crowd in the midst of their impromptu acapella rendition of “Silly Games,” or teetering on the edge of capsizing at the party’s most raucous peak, the camera situates us so directly inside the story that we are never left wanting for more narrative detail or dialogue than it’s willing to provide.
Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography throughout (as well as his work on the other Small Axe films) is some of the most kinetically and emotively propulsive work I’ve had the pleasure to see, ducking and weaving across the dance floor with an inebriated grace. Coupled with the brilliantly naturalistic performances by Amarah Jae-St Aubyn and Micheal Ward at the film’s center, the result is a true “I didn’t realize you were able to do this” sort of movie, and easily one of the best new releases of 2020.
Matches Up Well With: Mangrove (Steve McQueen, 2021)
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, 2019)
If the phrase “eighteenth-century French romantic drama” makes you hesitate, never fear: Portrait of a Lady On Fire is more of a haunted love story than a period piece. One of my earliest pandemic viewings, and my first exposure to Celine Sciamma’s directorial work, Portrait has all the essential ingredients of a perfect film: an adrenaline-spiking meet-cute, an “I’m being paid to get close to you but now my feelings are real” plot engine, multiple portraiture scenes that put the Kate & Leo Titanic sequence to shame, a surprising number of startlingly funny jump cuts, and one of the most beautifully rendered literalizations of a film title in recent memory.
No scene from my quarantine syllabus has stuck with me more than the final sequence of Portrait. Sciamma’s masterful control of tone and pacing make even the most overt plot contrivances feel inevitable. Adèle Haenel delivers a performance of the decade without ever dominating the similarly (if more understatedly) phenomenal Noémie Merlant, and both benefit from the film’s precise, poetic script. A genuinely miraculous movie across the board.
Matches Up Well With: Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)
1. In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)
On first viewing, In The Mood For Love jumped into my Top 101 All-Time movies list. On second viewing, it jumped to the top. An absolute masterclass in every facet of filmmaking: in balancing style and substance; in toying with expectations without taunting; in emotionally demolishing your audience without diminishing the moments of joy you afford them.
I’d love to say more, but writing this is just making me want to watch In The Mood For Love again. So I’ll close by saying: Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung over literally any and everything––except this.
Matches Up Well With: Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai, 1997)
For similar content, Sasha also wrote about the films he watched during the pandemic. Click here for The COVID Collection.
You can find the full list of Quarantine Starting Five films and their matchups, as well as a more expansive list Nate’s top quarantine viewings on his Letterboxd.