A Quick Guide to Streaming Movies While in Quarantine

You don’t have to wander the overwhelming vaults of Netflix and Hulu to find something to watch.

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A week ago, it made sense to watch Outbreak. The film sat in my Netflix queue, among the most-watched movies of the week according to the app; what better preparation for weeks of social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic? Outbreak was a cable classic of my youth, with serious stars, satisfying procedure, and a happy ending that’s a little too neat. It’s perfect for streaming in the background as you get ready for bed.

I’m a film critic; the point of the job is watching movies, and I watch a lot of them. In 2019, I saw 154 new releases and watched more than 400 movies total, though plenty were along the lines of my casual rewatch of Outbreak. But now I’m staying inside for the foreseeable future, working from home in New York to help “flatten the curve,” which should be any movie lover’s dream. Like many people, I subscribe to multiple streaming services, countless films are available to me at the touch of a button, and I’ve literally been ordered by the government to not go out. Here are just a few approaches to movie streaming that I’ve tried over the last couple of weeks.

Make it a Project

Amid these stressful circumstances, choosing a movie to watch suddenly feels overwhelming, and playing something in the background seems like a waste of time. It’s the same principle that governs my decision to shower and dress every morning even though I have nowhere to go and no visitors. I still want to feel like I’m using the day for something. In a time when people are looking for small ways to claim control over their lives, and maybe be distracted, I decided to assign myself a project: tackling a list of movies I’ve never seen before. You might try something more specific, such as watching every movie by a certain director (maybe Hayao Miyazaki, the Wachowskis, or Nancy Meyers).

Let the Algorithm Guide You

My first few days at home in front of my TV were aimless. Like every Netflix subscriber, I’m at the mercy of the service’s algorithm—there’s no easy way to plumb its catalog, no A-to-Z list of every single movie available on the app. I flitted around the many genre carousels, settling on movies such as Outbreak because of their passing relevance to the news of the day. Next, a hunger for comedy led me to Gillian Robespierre’s charming Obvious Child, which summoned nostalgia for a particular era of life in Brooklyn and the chunky little iPhones we all used to have. Anxiety over the loss of live sports had me flick on Miracle, the Disney dramatization of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s journey. Utter laziness brought about a viewing of the Netflix original Spenser Confidential, a forgettable two-hour dose of Mark Wahlberg landing punches on any corrupt Boston cop he can find. But such browsing can get old, quickly. I craved newness, and the theaters in my city were shut down indefinitely.

Try Your Shelves

So I moved on to my shelves, going through the various films I own (digitally or on Blu-ray) but that I’ve never seen, including most of the Friday the 13th horror series and some Criterion Collection box sets. Chances are you have some unwatched movies tucked away in your home, too. Consider digging them out and whiling away an evening or two with them. There’s an undeniable endorphin rush that comes with crossing items off a list—isn’t that good for the immune system?

There’s More Than Just Netflix

Once I’m done with my shelves, the internet is a treasure trove of cinematic stockpiles waiting to be raided. And I’m not just talking about the swirling morass of content offered by sites such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Personally, I’m fond of the Criterion Channel, which at $11 a month has a robust and rotating selection of curated classics, cult favorites, and less well-known international films. Criterion creates lists based on story theme, cinematic movement, and director’s filmographies, a series of mini film schools to make watching movies feel a little more practical. Mubi is another great service that’s the closest we can get to art-house cinema right now, cycling in a new film every day and giving subscribers 30 days to view it. Other solid options include Kanopy, which is available for free through many public libraries; Shudder, a horror-focused site; and, of course, Disney+ and similar services from big studios.

Just Look for the Serendipity

I wonder sometimes whether I’m overthinking my project-oriented approach. Maybe streaming services are most useful, in this strange moment, as nostalgic providers of therapeutic familiarity. With every bit of world news prompting dread and frustration, what’s the harm in watching the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries for the millionth time before you head to bed? As I wrote this piece, I had a live-stream of the Monterey Bay Aquarium playing on my screen, and every few minutes I’d pause to soak in the images of jellyfish floating by. I will continue my cinematic projects and try to make each viewing experience feel like more than just a way to pass the time. But sometimes I might just need to gaze at a jellyfish.

Need help deciding what to watch? Choose your own viewing adventure with these streaming-friendly picks from David Sims:

  1. Midsommar is a culture-clash comedy, a breakup movie, and an homage to The Wicker Man all rolled into one, bursting with bright colors and wild, engaged acting.” (Prime Video)
  2. The Farewell[weaves] an empathetic tapestry of a family that’s been spread around the world.” (Prime Video)
  3. “A blazingly funny and energetic romp, Booksmart seems destined for instant cult status, retaining the adolescent anxieties of its forebears while updating its worldview for the weary ranks of Generation Z.” (Hulu)
  4. “For all [the director Harmony] Korine’s trademark provocation, The Beach Bum somehow manages to be an upbeat, triumphant tale of creativity and free-spiritedness.” (Hulu)
  5. American Factory charts the wave of exultation that greeted the arrival of Fuyao [in Ohio], followed by culture clashes, growing pains, and eventually forms of internal and external pushback that had been largely unknown to the company.” (Netflix)
  6. The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard’s beautifully strange travelogue of death and rebirth on the wild frontier …  speaks to a uniquely American darkness.” (Hulu)
  7. “The thrill of [Logan Lucky] isn’t in whatever mortal danger the Logan brothers might be in, it’s the goofy joy of watching their plan come together, and witnessing Jimmy and Clyde side-step obstacles with grace.” (Prime Video)
  8. Lady Bird is “an incredible portrait of youth—intense, sometimes callous, always emotional—[and] a film that’s undoubtedly among the best of the year.” (Prime Video)
  9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is “a film that every other comic-book movie needs to take notes from, one that’s exuberant, inventive, and thrilled by heroism in a way that many of these films forget to be.” (Netflix)
  10. Burning is the best film adaptation of [Haruki] Murakami’s work I’ve ever seen … a movie about men who simmer with anxiety, resentment, and creative desire, and how those feelings can boil over in unexpected and horrifying ways.” (Netflix)