Though it's hardly the most important issue facing the world during a pandemic, one of the many things that will change during the next few months, perhaps irrevocably, is the way we watch movies. Whether you're self-quarantined or simply having second thoughts about spending two hours in a dark room with a few hundred other people, you're probably going to be spending more time watching movies at home. As I write this, most theaters remain open, but they'll soon be facing a shortage of new releases. Most of the major titles scheduled to open in the spring has been delayed. That new James Bond movie? You may see it in November. The latest Fast and Furious? Wait until next year.
Where does the ardent cinephile turn while ensconced in their tent made of Clorox wipes? My first choice is The Criterion Channel ($10.99 monthly, $99.99 annually), the streaming service from the home video company already renowned for its library of international classics. Their selections — not limited to Criterion's own collection — change from time to time, but most films remain available for a few months; You can also download to watch when you're offline.
However you choose to watch, their library is never less than overwhelming. Catching up on old masters? Right now you can find ten films by Fellini, a dozen Bergmans and no fewer than 25 Kurosawa features. And the selection doesn't stop at arthouse classics.
This month's highlights, alongside Godard and Tarkovsky retrospectives, include Peter Bogdanovich's early feature Targets, eight films starring Rita Hayworth, fifteen films scored by Quincy Jones and collections devoted to Max Von Sydow, Burt Lancaster and Danny Kaye. You can also find critical discussions by the eminent David Bordwell, loads of background "special features" and a weekly family-oriented Saturday Matinee offering that ranges from Jason and the Argonauts and The Thief of Bagdad to A Hard Day's Night and the work of Czech animator Karel Zeman.
My second most-visited source is the on-line annex to Turner Classic Movies. If you don't have time to watch TCM's consistently excellent outpouring when it's being broadcast, almost every film they show is available for a few weeks through their mobile and smart-TV apps (provided that you're a cable/satellite subscriber or have a friend who will share their password). Accordingly, their library changes daily, with about 150 films of every length and genre imaginable. Right now, you can catch Top Hat, Bonnie and Clyde, 8-1/2, Lolita, Monterey Pop and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But wait, there's more: four Frankie-and-Annette beach movies, Burt Reynolds' back-to-back Gator films, an Anne Frank documentary, Max Fleischer's animated Gulliver's Travels, Pennies From Heaven, and for the truly curious, The Cool Ones, a misguided musical comedy starring Roddy McDowell as a Phil Spector-like mogul and featuring songs by cult-minstrel Lee Hazlewood. The playback control is limited, but occasionally you can even opt out of listening to the introductions from TCM's unctuous hosts.
With Criterion and TCM, you usually know what to expect. The Amazon Prime user who chooses to ignore its upfront selection of current releases and television can occasionally unearth a few obscurities if they're willing to dig around through its clumsy search system and tolerate occasionally dodgy print quality. Recent discoveries include a handful of B-movies, obscure noir and randomly selected classics, as well as The Driver's Seat, a 1975 psychological drama with Elizabeth Taylor playing a suicidal woman on the edge, and Allen Funt's What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, an almost unwatchable X-rated version of Candid Camera. Digging deeper reveals Ginger in the Morning, a pretentious 1971 drama written by Erich Segal, and Poor Pretty Eddie, a lurid piece of Southern creepiness involving Leslie Uggams, Shelley Winters, Slim Pickens, Ted "Lurch" Cassidy and an Elvis impersonator. (My suggestion list currently offers a handful of Bunuel and Polanski films, Blaxploitation, campy British spy films and an assortment of amateur music documentaries). There are a few worthwhile discoveries as well — I recommend Stanley Donen's Movie Movie and Monte Hellman's western Ch Liberty 37 ina 9, — but the quality ones are rare. Amazon Prime is the place where deservingly forgotten movies go to hide.
We're facing a scary new world of confusion, distrust and social distancing, but you can't spend all of your time hoarding paper towels and staring at the Johns Hopkins charts. Catch up on a few classics. Spend a few hours watching Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire dance. Discover Harold Lloyd and Preston Sturges, the westerns of Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher. You can finally get around to those classic films you've heard about but never seen. If you thought you would never have time for all fifteen hours of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's masterful Berlin Alexanderplatz, this is your opportunity. (It's on the Criterion Channel, of course).