The end of the US election is approaching terrifyingly quickly. While it may be tempting to stay up the night of November 3rd and absorb every anxiety-inducing moment, what good would that do? The implications of tomorrow’s results will be dealt with when they’re dealt with, but no amount of election night doom-scrolling will help.
But I get it, it’s hard to avoid staring at social media, fretting about every tweet and status. A distraction is necessary. This is not about ignorance — you’ve done your part. So why not watch a film instead? This list is for when you need a movie that doesn’t have very much action nor much intellectual involvement, but rather allows you to dissolve into the world and emotions created by the film. Here are my recommendations for movies that are calm, quiet, and absorbing, but still carry emotional weight.
10. On the Beach at Night Alone
Hong Sang-Soo, 2017
Much of Hong Sang-Soo’s filmography could fit on this list, as he primarily makes light, enjoyable mumblecore drama films. His characters are relatable and entertaining, and his filmmaking style draws the viewer into the intricacies of realistic conversation. His films are pleasant and, on a superficial level, uncomplicated. “On the Beach at Night Alone” is no exception, perfect for when your brain needs a break but still offers plenty to absorb.
9. Leave No Trace
Debra Granik, 2018
“Leave No Trace” is a film that has probably often been referred to as “understated.” It’s a peaceful, calming film, while also managing to be quite subversive, full of twists and turns that don’t interrupt the flow or tone of the film. It’s a meditative and emotional piece with fantastic performances.
8. When Marnie Was There
Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014
It may seem odd to mention this film at all when bringing up a Studio Ghibli film. While it’s true that there are several films from the renowned animation studio that exceed this one in several regards, in many ways I feel that “When Marnie Was There” embodies the spirit of this list better than any other film in the Ghibli filmography. In fact, I believe that is part of the reason the film is so underrated. It carries a wistful melancholy that more than earns it a spot among its acclaimed fellow Ghibli films, yet it is often overlooked. The film’s subdued tone and relentlessly real characters allows it to fit in perfectly among the other films on this list.
7. Still Walking
Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008
Like Hong Sang-Soo, Kore-eda is a filmmaker that could appear on this list several times. His style of filmmaking is realistic and comforting, with characters that aren’t nearly perfect but are so naturally characterized that their complex motivations seem almost like they weren’t written into a screenplay. “Still Walking” especially feels like merely a snapshot into some family’s reality, with every emotion primarily being conveyed beneath the surface.
6. An Elephant Sitting Still
Hu Bo, 2018
This is a bit of an unconventional pick for this list (even based on my own conventions). This film could be described as depressing and full of self-aware cynicism, and requires a bit of mental effort to get through. However, anyone looking for a long, slow film that allows the time to fully step into the shoes of multiple fleshed-out characters should look in the direction of “An Elephant Sitting Still.” It requires a time commitment, but upon reaching the end I almost felt like the 4 hours that the film fills weren’t enough. It’s a thoroughly engrossing character-driven film that I would deem essential, even if it takes a while to put aside the time to watch it.
5. Kaili Blues
Gan Bi, 2015
Between his debut film “Kaili Blues” and his controversial masterpiece “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Gan Bi has been slowly making a name for himself the latter half of the past decade. While the latter is his more mature and fully realized effort, his debut offers a calm keyhole into lives that feel real, which makes it more appropriate for this list. It’s dreamlike and transcendent and beautifully sets the tone that Gan would later alter for his sophomore film. If you’re daring enough, make it a double feature.
4. A Ghost Story
David Lowery, 2017
This film carries with it some very heavy themes and messages, but it cares more about effectively delivering the emotional resonance of its subject to the viewer. It’s positioned to either give the viewer a mental breakdown or offer them catharsis, through its methodical balancing of nihilistic and anti-nihilistic messaging.
3. The Farewell
Lulu Wang, 2019
The characters of “The Farewell” are so delightful and pleasant that my first reaction upon the credits rolling was that I wish there were more. It balances sadness and humor beautifully, and it’s a film so full of love that it can almost serve as a replacement for a hug from a loved one. It’s a very sweet film, and its warmth can thaw both external and internal coldness, if only temporarily.
2. Minding the Gap
Bing Liu, 2018
A film that begins as a relatively unassuming documentary about skateboarding young adults, “Minding the Gap” evolves into one of the greatest explorations of family, trauma, and growing up ever put to film. Its masterfully fluid editing and impressive cinematography allows the stories of these boys to shine through wonderfully, creating an engaging and emotionally rewarding story.
One of my favorite films of all time, “Columbus” epitomizes this list. It’s a simple story about two confused, lost souls finding each other, and helping guide one another through difficult transitions in their respective lives through an excess of empathy. The tone that this film captures is absolutely unreal, and I could go on and on about how the film affected me. But for now, I will just say that the gorgeously tranquil nature of the movie is sure to put anyone watching it at ease, full of understanding and hope.
If you want to read about the tangentially related subject of empathetic cinema, I wrote a piece that goes a little more in depth about this form of filmmaking than this list. The films mentioned in this essay would also fit well with this list, but I wanted to avoid redundancy.
Additionally, an earlier article I wrote explores ambiguous storytelling and the comfort it can bring us. I mention Kore-eda and Gan Bi (whose films feature on this list) in the piece.