Quarantine Escapism (Vol. II): 10 Immersive Tales of Humor, Pathos and Fervent Adventurism
1. Exit Through the Gift Shop
"Exit Through the Gift Shop" (2010) is an immensely entertaining British documentary about the phenomenon of street art, ostensibly focused on world-renowned artist Banksy though told largely from the perspective of beguiling amateur filmmaker/artist Thierry Guetta. A French immigrant residing in Los Angeles, Guetta becomes immersed in filming the shadowy night-time activities of covert guerrilla artists including the mysterious and illustrious Banksy. The storyline follows Guetta's eventual evolution into the realm of street art himself—his surprising success ultimately leaving Banksy baffled and questioning the very nature of artistry and celebrity-hood altogether. Some have questioned the authenticity of the film in it's documentary form, accusing Banksy of fabricating an elaborate hoax here—perhaps inventing Guetta/Mr. Brainwash altogether. It's an enticing accusation that only adds to the allure of the material, lending a vibrant air of intrigue to an already wonderfully-crafted escapade. It's all enormous fun not to be unduly dismissed or overlooked. View the trailer here.
2. The Motorcycle Diaries
“The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004) is an inspired Spanish-language drama set in 1952 and starring Gael Garcia Bernal as a young Ernesto "Che" Guevara as he travels the lengths of South America by motorcycle alongside his close friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna). With one semester remaining in medical school, Guevara chooses to recruit Granado for a South American odyssey by motorcycle—a 8,700 mile expedition from Beunos Aires to Peru where they intend to volunteer at the San Pablo leper colony. Their trek is initially intended as an indulgence of youthful adventurism, but ultimately proves to be dramatically influential for the idealistic and impressionable Guevara. Directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (“Central Station”), “The Motorcycle Diaries” is an effervescent, wistful and often pointedly amusing adventure film underscored by a profound sense of human empathy. As a glimpse into the early exploits of a burgeoning revolutionary bound for worldwide recognition as a symbol of rebellion, it delivers a candid and enormously heartening paean to a remarkable historical luminary. View the trailer here.
3. Being John Malkovich
“Being John Malkovich” (1999) is a wildly unconventional and wonderfully transgressive dark comedy-fantasy starring John Cusack as Craig Schwartz, a failed puppeteer who manages to secure employment at the cryptic LesterCorp. Working as a low-level file clerk, Craig inadvertently stumbles upon a porthole behind a file cabinet that leads into the very mind of actor John Malkovich. Allowing for 15 minutes of occupancy before ejecting visitors onto the New Jersey Turnpike, the famed thespian’s mind soon draws the interest of Schwartz’s co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) as well as his flighty wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Their dual incursion serves as the prelude to a wildly sordid love triangle, with authority over Malkovich at the heart of their oddly entangled conflict. Written by Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”) and directed by Spike Jonze (“Her”), “Being John Malkovich” is an extraordinarily innovative conception that wholeheartedly, unapologetically embraces its own outlandish absurdity. Flawless, highly amusing and surprisingly thought-provoking, it’s a true classic of late-20th century cinema. View the trailer here.
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (2011) is a thrilling Cold War-era espionage thriller starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a retired British intelligence operative brought in to ferret out a Russian agent within the British intelligence Service (aka "The Circus"). Ongoing suspicion that a high-level spy for the Kremlin exists within The Circus is spurred by newfound evidence from a former British agent-in-hiding, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). Smiley is soon entangled in a byzantine web of an investigation that leads to the identification of five key suspects from among its ranks, nicknamed the "Tinker" (Toby Jones), the "Tailor" (Colin Firth), the "Soldier" (Ciarán Hinds), the "Poorman" (David Dencik) and the "Beggarman" (Oldman). Based on the novel by John le Carré , "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is an elaborate and absorbing return to the darkest days of The Cold War, given a major shot in the arm by director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In"). His stylized treatment of the material gives the challenging plot-line an invigorating and intoxicating appeal, delivering highly rewarding and wonderfully immersive cinematic escapism. View the trailer here.
5. What We Do in the Shadows
“What We Do in the Shadows” (2015) is a roundly amusing pseudo-documentary about a coven of vampires residing in New Zealand who allow a film crew to capture an in-depth documentation of their lives. The four residents of the house include Viago (Taika Waititi), a 379-year-old dilettante, Vlad (Jemaine Clement), an 862-year-old autocrat known as "Vladislav the Poker”, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), a 183-year-old former Nazi, and Petyr (Ben Fransham), an 8,000-year-old recluse. The former three spend their time humorously struggling to share daily chores and employing non-vampires to provide fresh blood. The group’s dynamic is ultimately reshaped by the introduction of a new vampire, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), whose callousness toward his newfound condition causes great consternation amidst his brethren. Written and directed by Waititi and Clement ("The Flight of the Conchords"), “What We Do in the Shadows” is a spirited and highly original spoof of documentary storytelling, delivering wonderfully wry absurdity and fresh comedic stylings—formulating an enormous treat for those who appreciate roundly sardonic dry comedy. View the trailer here.
6. The Florida Project
Coming on the heels of his breakout hit "Tangerine" (2015), writer/director Sean Baker shifted his focus in 2017 from the sordid streets of Los Angeles to the seedy motels on the periphery of Orlando’s Disney World, and captures one momentous summer in the life of 6-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Precocious and mischievous, Monee leads a ragtag group of young friends in and around the tourist-trap motels adjacent to the world’s most famous amusement park, scaring up varying degrees of trouble while endlessly frustrating motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, in a wonderfully sympathetic performance). Equal parts heartening and harrowing, "The Florida Project" is an honest, unflinching yet tender look at marginal lives struggling through day-to-day existence, contrasting the weight of adulthood with the unbridled enchantment of childhood. Young Brooklynn Prince is an absolute revelation as Moonee, delivering as assured a performance as you will ever see from a child actor. She alone makes the film an absolute must-see. View the trailer here.
7. The Wrestler
“The Wrestler” (2008) is a stunningly sincere human drama about a professional wrestler named Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) at the tail end of his career, grinding through amateur matches while trolling away at a local supermarket job on weekends. His spare time is spent largely at a local strip club where he has befriended an aging dancer named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) who urges him to reconnect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). His efforts to engender favorability with Stephanie, however, are hampered by a debilitating heart condition as well as the irresistible opportunity to engage in a historic rematch with his long-time rival “The Ayatollah”. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, “The Wrestler” is a brilliantly assured creation, delivering a heart-wrenching depiction of desperation and yearning for past glory. Rourke brings “The Ram” to remarkable cinematic life, enacting a momentous comeback for one of Hollywood's more unique stars of yesteryear. It’s a rousing and wonderfully naturalistic formulation, replete with just the right combination of subtly, humor and utter sincerity. View the trailer here.
8. Hustle & Flow
“Hustle and Flow” (2005) is an urgent and compelling drama starring Terrence Howard as DJay, a hustler operating on the streets of Memphis who becomes inspired to turn his life around and pursue his dream of becoming a hip hop star. Working as a pimp and drug dealer yet increasingly dissatisfied with his lot in life, DJay is urged by his friend Key (Anthony Anderson) to explore musical production—summarily crafting "flow" tracks as expressions of his frustrations with the criminal lifestyle. As the film plays out the dynamics of the creative process, replete with myriad complexities and emotional turns, the storyline puts DJay on course for a dramatic convergence with famed hip hop icon “Skinny Black” (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges)—a landmark opportunity in his fervent pursuit of professional breakthrough. Written and directed by Craig Brewer (“Black Snake Moan”), “Hustle and Flow” is an emotionally enthralling human drama highlighted by Howard’s soulful portrayal of a man fixated on personal growth and transcendence. It’s unique, resounding storytelling—one of the most impressive urban films of the 21st Century. View the trailer here.
"Frank" (2014) is an undeniably strange yet highly enjoyable comedy about a struggling singer/songwriter named Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) who joins an eccentric band lead by the enigmatic “Frank”, an absurd persona prone to outlandish behavior and abstract creativity—yet never shows his face beyond the enormous papier-mâché mask he wears religiously. Narratively, 'Frank' evolves along its 96-minute running time from a highly quirky depiction of the band’s creative process to a wry satire on the social media world, and ultimately finds itself in a place of melancholy and heart that touches an unexpected emotional nerve. Gleeson plays the lead role to comic perfection, full of discomfort and blind ambition, while Michael Fassbender is utterly superb as Frank, the wildly idiosyncratic leader of “The Soronprfbs”. Directed by Lenny Abramson ("Room"), “Frank" is a film that will really catch you off-guard with it’s wacky sensibilities and grin-inducing absurdity—all the while making you wonder if you’ll ever see Fassbender’s face behind that huge mask. Alas, you’ll have to watch it to find out! View the trailer here.
10. Buffalo Soldiers
“Buffalo Soldiers” (2001) is an intense and wildly enjoyable military satire starring Joaquin Phoenix as Ray Elwood, a U.S. Army Specialist stationed in West Germany in 1989. Dispirited by mundane peacetime activities, Elwood immerses himself in the criminal underworld, stealing and profiteering on black market materials and cooking heroin that he sells to the corrupt military police on base. Elwood’s world is subsequently shaken up by the arrival of a new, no-nonsense First Sergeant (Scott Glenn) and his alluring young daughter (Anna Paquin)—both of whom quickly come to see through Ellwood in highly consequential ways. Strikingly well-directed and co-written by Gregor Jordan ("The Informers") from the book by Robert O'Connor, "Buffalo Soldiers" is a resoundingly winsome dark comedy and an undeniable gem of a cinematic experience. Phoenix is utterly superb as the deceitful yet touchingly humane Ellwood, carrying a story that evolves in intensity from darkly humorous to jarringly perilous. Highly underappreciated upon initial release, it's a major sleeper-film recommendation destined for repeat viewing. View the trailer here.