We stopped keeping count of how many days we’ve been sheltering in place two weeks ago—or was it three? Oh, well, doesn’t matter. With little clarity about when shelter-in-place orders will be lifted in states across the U.S., or if it’s even safe to go outside in areas where they’ve already been lifted, we’ve decided that it’s time to make friends with the monster living in our closets. That monster’s name is claustrophobia, and even the most introverted among us are starting to feel it scratching at our legs like a demonic cat after months of staying at home.
And so, with a nod of thanks to those who don’t have the luxury of staying home, we’ve rounded up 21 streaming picks that will either allow you to escape into the great wide open, or feel better about being stuck in tiny places. All of them are available to watch on either subscription or free-with-ads streaming services—except for one digital rental we included because it’ll make you feel smart the next time you see a popular meme. And when the other biggest thing that happened in your house that day is that your toaster was acting weird, feeling smart on the internet is a big deal.
Remember outside? Remember the wind tickling your unmasked cheeks as you gazed upon a sweeping vista that can’t be seen at a city park or supermarket? We can’t guarantee that watching these films featuring stunning cinematography and adventurous spirits will fully scratch the itch to get out into some wide-open spaces and commune with nature once more. But we can guarantee that there are some cautionary tales mixed in with all the rugged individualism that may make you happy to stay inside for just a little while longer.
Ah, the beauty of wildlife in its natural habitat, where animals can kill you without fear of reprisal. Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s documentary about Timothy Treadwell’s ultimately tragic quest to live among his beloved grizzly bears remains a fascinating window into the worldview of a zealously earnest, if misguided, man—the sort of subject perfect for Herzog’s patient, non-judgmental lens. Never romanticizing the expansive splendor of Katmai National Park (quite the opposite; Herzog maintains his “nature is harsh and unforgiving” mindset to the bitter end), the film is a compelling document of wild animals and the sometimes fatal sentimentality we can attach to them. [Alex McLevy]
Free Solo rules for so many reasons, not the least of which being the spectacular sense of awe we get from seeing Alex Honnold’s tiny body against gargantuan slabs of rock. Honnold’s 2017 quest to scale Yosemite’s El Capitan without any ropes or harnesses says plenty about human will, fear, and athleticism. But, watching Honnold dangle hundreds of feet above the ground, it’s hard not to also consider nature’s role as a bemused bystander in the climb, a godless and unfeeling participant that offers beauty and danger in equal parts. [Randall Colburn]
Compared to Grizzly Man and Free Solo, Jane offers a gentler model for humans of how to relate to the natural world. But make no mistake: Its protagonist is just as obsessed with the animals to which she’s devoted her life, if less driven by testosterone. Previously unseen 16mm footage of Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking, years-long observational study of chimpanzees in the wild (footage shot by her future husband, National Geographic photographer Hugo van Lawick) makes up the mesmerizing first third of this 2017 documentary, which then pivots into a more conventional—but equally inspirational—biography of the famous primatologist. [Katie Rife]
Whether it’s the rice fields of Vietnam or a front yard in Texas, director Terrence Malick and his equally legendary cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have a special gift for capturing the spiritual dimension of humanity’s relationship with nature. And the opening sequence of 2005’s The New World is among the most awe-inspiring in the pair’s filmography, depicting the moment when Europeans first landed on the shores of what would eventually be known as Virginia. The film that follows is both intimate and epic in its scope, using the love story of Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell) to dramatize not only a clash of cultures but also a fundamental shift—for the worst, mostly—in the way we see the world around us. [Katie Rife]
Leave No Trace is less about the tension between the indoors and outdoors so much as it is the circumstances that can pull one person to isolation and another to community. Debra Granik’s 2018 next feature after her Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone follows a father and daughter (Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, respectively) struggling to live off the grid in the Pacific Northwest; that they both prefer the “simple life” is clear, but it’s how they choose to share it that slowly distances them from each other. Leave No Trace is a testament to the joys and difficulties of sustainable living, but also to the idea that nature’s pull manifests in myriad ways. [Randall Colburn]
Not much happens in Kelly Reichardt’s second feature film, Old Joy, and that’s as it should be. Following a pair of estranged friends (Will Oldham and Daniel London) as they reunite for a getaway camping weekend, the film unfolds mostly without dialogue, and the occasional snippets of conversation are often less meaningful than the silences—both awkward and surprisingly moving—that constitute the majority of the men’s encounter. Lingering on their experience with the lush forest through which they traverse, the film lets natural beauty serve as a means of getting in touch with our emotions, whether they need to be articulated or not. [Alex McLevy]
Sometimes you just want to watch people wander into the Swedish countryside, get lost, and have unspeakable evil befall them. As The Ritual begins, four men meet up to honor their recently deceased friend by taking a weeklong hike in his memory. But after an injury spurs them to take a shortcut through the forest, they’re forced to take refuge at an abandoned cabin, which is when the supernatural goings-on really start to accelerate. Lost, confused, and seemingly being hunted by some unknown animal, the friends start to fracture both collectively and in their own psyches. But, hey, you can’t beat the scenery or the fresh woodland air. [Alex McLevy]
Hunt For The Wilderpeople sets a madcap odd-couple adventure against the forests, foothills, and volcanic plateaus of New Zealand, where it was shot on location by What We Do In The Shadows and Jojo Rabbit director Taika Waititi. Sam Neill and Julian Dennison star as mismatched heroes Hector and Ricky, with the latter playing a city-dwelling delinquent who finally finds a motherly mentor in Hector’s wife. After she dies, however, the two find themselves accidentally on the run from the local authorities, some jerk-ass hunters, and a ferocious boar, all of whom force Ricky to soak up the fierce ingenuity of Neill’s grizzled outdoorsman. [Randall Colburn]
The teeming city full of people standing awfully close to one another that opens Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) seems equally exotic after months spent inside. But the fact remains that the Australian Outback where most of the story takes place looks very different from the temperate forests we’ve discussed thus far. Hot, dry, and full of poisonous animals, it’s a harsh place to be—even if your dad doesn’t try to kill you while out on a family picnic, as happens to an unfortunate, unnamed English girl (Jenny Agutter) and her little brother (Luc Roeg) at the end of the first act. But the Outback also has a strange beauty all its own, one that shifts from wonder to fear and back again as the siblings learn to survive with the help of a teenager played by Aboriginal acting legend David Gulpilil. [Katie Rife]
Sydney Pollack’s 1972 epic about leaving everything behind to find yourself in the wilderness occupies a middle space in terms of revisionist Westerns. In what was a progressive stance for the time, the film posits that, hey, maybe it would be cool to, you know, respect the Native people already living on the land Mexican American war veteran Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) claims as his own in 19th-century Colorado. That said, the film still has dregs of influence from the classical Westerns of the ’40s and ’50s, reflected in such old-fashioned touches as the orchestral overture that opens the film. Ironically enough, Jeremiah Johnson has since been immortalized in thoroughly 21st-century fashion in the form of a popular GIF; keep your eyes peeled 58 minutes in, meme archaeologists. [Katie Rife]
Or maybe you’re the type of person who runs toward their anxieties. It can be difficult to articulate why, but sometimes being exposed to the thing that scares you the most lessens the fear—whether that fear is snakes, serial killers, or the creeping feeling that the apartment is getting a little bit smaller every single day. If you’re one of these stir-crazy, risk-taking individuals, then we’ve got good news: Due to their efficiency for filmmakers on a limited budget, films set in small, enclosed spaces are plentiful in many genres.
You can’t have a list of claustrophobic films without including the granddaddy of them all, Rear Window. Hitchcock’s classic experiment in limited perspective is as good as you’ve heard (or remember). Jimmy Stewart plays Jeff, a photographer whose leg injury leaves him in a wheelchair in his Manhattan apartment. A heat wave lets him spend his days peering through his many neighbors’ open windows, until a suspicious scene leads Jeff to believe he’s witnessed a murder. Tense and nervy to this day, it’s a must-watch of close-quarters suspense. [Alex McLevy]
Those “why I left New York” pieces are insufferable, aren’t they? If you feel guilty about fleeing the city for your palatial country home while millions of people are pacing studio apartments like tigers in a zoo, that’s your problem, not The New Yorker’s. Anyway, if such essays fill you with irritation at any point during the stay-at-home period, let Luis Buñuel’s absolutely savage surrealist satire The Exterminating Angel (1962) serve as a balm. It’s about a dinner party full of bourgeois social climbers that quickly turns vicious after the guests realize that they physically cannot leave the room where the party takes place—which is to say that its parallels to our current situation are striking. [Katie Rife]
Indoor kids love to say they’ve been prepping their whole lives for this COVID-19 lockdown. But nobody would have thrived more in quarantine than Grey Gardens’ Big and Little Edie, the singing, cat-chasing castoffs of high society that headline Albert and David Maysles’ 1975 documentary. The film, equal parts tragic and droll, follows these two women—who happen to be the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy—as they wither in a crumbling East Hampton mansion where relics of their past successes disappear in piles of trash. Sure, it’s a metaphor for the emptiness of wealth and the ephemerality of beauty. But you can also see it as motivation to mop the floors and throw a fresh coat of paint on the wall—better that than losing yourself in bygone regrets, which always seem to surface when you’ve got nowhere else to go. [Randall Colburn]
Sure, it can feel isolating being stuck inside your home for days on end, scared to venture out into the world. But take solace in knowing you’re not 238,900 miles away from Earth. Duncan Jones’ 2009 sci-fi mind-bender, Moon, follows a solitary astronaut (Sam Rockwell) who’s nearing the end of his three-year shift on an alternative lunar fuel-mining base when he begins having strange visions of a young girl and bearded man. To reveal more would ruin the immensely fun twist; but it’s safe to say, sometimes your own mind can mess with you. [Alex McLevy]
The Man From Earth (2007) unfolds almost entirely inside a single cabin, but its claustrophobia comes less from the setting than the story being spun by John Oldman (David Lee Smith), a university professor who semi-casually posits the possibility that he’s a 14,000-year-old Cro-Magnon. So thorough and studied is John’s story that his colleagues can’t help but oscillate between worry and fascination, unable to abandon their friend despite feeling like their brains will crater if they hear one more word. [Randall Colburn]
It’s hard to miss the outside world when you never knew it to begin with. That’s only one small part of the strange setup to Dogtooth, the first feature from Oscar-nominated oddball auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Favourite). A pair of fiercely authoritarian parents prevent their son and two daughters from leaving the house, claiming only the loss of a dogtooth will permit their exit—and only then by car. From those strange circumstances are birthed a fascinating series of events, all driven by Lanthimos’ alien-like facility with language and a commitment to showing just how unusual one’s behavior can become if untethered to any sense of a larger society. [Alex McLevy]
Get past the dated opening monologue and you’ll find a closed-quarters thriller for the ages in Phone Booth. Most of the film takes place in a phone booth—a dying breed, even in 2002—in Times Square, depicted as still being in its sleazy prime. That makes it the natural habitat for a man like Stu (Colin Farrell), a seedy PR agent who’s placing a call he doesn’t want his wife to know about (thus the booth) when an unseen psycho, voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, calls him up and tells him, “If you hang up, I will kill you.” Suddenly, a 200-square-foot studio apartment doesn’t seem so bad. [Katie Rife]
Coherence isn’t confined to a single home so much as it is a single—how do you put it?—dimensional quadrant. Still, James Ward Byrkit’s clever, under-the-radar sci-fi indie is plenty suffocating, in both its themes and execution. Byrkit’s intrusive camera threatens to swallow its rattled subjects, who find their dinner party ruined by a passing comet that frays reality as it exposes the narrowness of human existence. But it’s the Schrödinger’s cat stalking the story that truly boxes you in. How easy is it to feel as if you’re trapped when a happier reality is right there? [Randall Colburn]
There’s nothing like watching someone get stuck in a suffocatingly narrow crevice hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth to make your own enclosed environs feel not quite so bad. Honestly, by the time the ancient cave-dwelling monsters show up in Neil Marshall’s modern horror classic The Descent (2005), it’s almost icing on the anxiety-inducing cake. Six women reunite in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains for an adventure in spelunking, but after an accident traps them underground, it’s not long before they discover that the other occupants of the cave system are less than friendly. Watch with the windows open in case you need to crawl out. [Alex McLevy]
Al White’s indie sci-fi debut, Starfish, is one of those movies that seems eerily prescient in retrospect. Although it was released last spring, the film’s palpable, crazy-making sense of isolation and alienation seem perfectly calibrated for the present moment. And like several of the films recommended here, it also makes you grateful that all you have to do is avoid human contact for an indefinite period of time. Things could be worse: You could be alone and mourning your best friend, like main character Aubrey (Virginia Gardner). Or you could be alone, mourning, and trying to save the world from hostile aliens with only a series of mixtapes as your guide—also like Aubrey. It’s quite the complicated situation, is what we’re saying. [Katie Rife]
[REC] wouldn’t work as well without the apartment building where most of it takes place. Like a rectangle placed on its side, the boxy lobby gives way to a tight staircase that leaves little room to maneuver. Every apartment is filled with narrow passages and cluttered tables—which, as you can imagine, makes evading the film’s bounty of crazed, flesh-eating demons a tad difficult. Add to that the swarm of authorities preventing escape and the tight frame of the sole camera, as well as the pitch-black attic where the movie’s nerve-shredding climax unfolds, and it’s hard not to long for the sprawl of an open field. Just avoid the dubbed version—bad voice acting, it turns out, can go a long way in killing the tension. [Randall Colburn]