In the last few weeks, articles about movies to stream while quarantined during the coronavirus pandemic have proliferated across the internet almost as fast as the virus has spread around the world.
What makes this article different? Five principles went into the picks below:
- To begin with, I wanted to avoid titles that were obvious and especially those most often listed elsewhere. There are lots of lists to tell you where you can watch the latest Mission: Impossible, the best Disney or Pixar animated features, your favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, etc. You don’t need another one.
- Since this crisis has struck in the heart of the liturgical year, the seasons of Lent and Easter, I wanted to focus on movies with notable religious and moral themes, especially those with a Passion element.
- At the same time, the need for sheer escapism is particularly pressing right now, so I added a second list of just-for-fun picks.
- Since money may be tighter than usual, I included no rental movies — just those you can watch with a U.S. Amazon Prime, Netflix or Disney+ membership. One caveat: I did include a few movies you can watch with a free trial to an Amazon channel.
- Finally, since many of us are cooped up in our homes with our kids, I included a variety of family-friendly options along with challenging mature fare.
Lent and Easter Movies
The Face: Jesus in Art (2001) The riches of Christian art, above all the art of Christ, are a spiritual treasure trove, and Craig McGowan’s documentary, funded in part by the Catholic Communication Campaign, is a treasure map. With narration by Ricardo Montalban and Mel Gibson, among others, The Face explores both the religious and the artistic significance of the portrayal of Jesus from the earliest Christian images in the catacombs to the Sistine Chapel and beyond. (As of April, The Face is no longer available via Amazon. You can still watch it in eight 15-minute installments on YouTube. Kids and up.)
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) Cast with unknowns and filmed in southern Italy in stunning black and white, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s neorealist-influenced adaptation of the First Gospel is unique in its approach: word for word as regards the dialogue, but with narration replaced by visual storytelling. Dedicated to Pope St. John XXIII, whose 1962 visit to Assisi to meet with artists inspired the film, it’s richly deserving of its place among the 15 films in the “Religion” category of the 1995 Vatican film list. (Amazon Prime. Italian with subtitles. Not for kids, but nothing problematic.)
Into Great Silence (2005) My ultimate into-the-desert Lenten film is Philip Gröning’s transcendent documentary pilgrimage to the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, the motherhouse of the Carthusian Order. So many spiritually aware films are about God’s silence or seeming absence; this one is about the presence of a God who is found by those who seek him with their whole hearts. You may never have a better opportunity to set aside two and a half hours to spend (in one sitting, ideally) in prayerful silence with the monks. (Amazon Prime with a seven-day free trial for MUBI. Subtitled Latin and French. Not for kids, but nothing problematic.)
Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Like the Gospels themselves, Franco Zeffirelli’s epic, ambitious small-screen Jesus movie, starring Robert Powell as Jesus and Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary, is often experienced in bits and pieces, and is commonly better known in its parts than in the whole of its sprawling six-plus hours. Our family watches most of the first two hours every year in the last week of Advent; the last two weeks of Lent are a perfect time to wade through the last two or three hours. (Amazon Prime. Older kids and up.)
Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) Along with The Prince of Egypt, our family usually watches DreamWorks’ direct-to-video animated prequel during Advent (I call this the DreamWorks animated Torah). Still, the story of Joseph (Ben Affleck) going down into Egypt as a slave and into prison before rising to save his family as well as Egypt has Christological and Passion resonances that work for Lent, too. (Amazon Prime. Kids and up.)
Longford (2006) Jim Broadbent plays Frank Pakenham, the seventh Earl of Longford, eccentric leader of the House of Lords in the 1960s and a convert to Catholicism. Tom Hooper’s fact-based drama focuses on Lord Longford’s moral crusade for penal reform and his work visiting prisoners, especially the notorious “Moors murderess” Myra Hendley (Samantha Morton). (Amazon Prime. Mature viewing.)
The Mill & the Cross (2011) The world of Pieter Brueghel’s 1564 painting The Way to Calvary is brought to surreal life in Lech Majewski’s enigmatic art-house Passion play, which is at once about the creation of the painting, the Passion of Jesus, and the stylized 16th-century Flemish landscape in which Brueghel’s painting placed Jesus carrying his cross. The result is a haunting meditation on the power of art, particularly sacred art, to capture the eternal in the midst of mundaneness and horror. (Amazon Prime with a 30-day free trial for Fandor. Mature viewing.)
The Miracle Maker (2000) Our family watches this under-appreciated gem every year during Holy Week. A collaboration of Welsh and Russian animators, The Miracle Maker boasts an astonishing script by Murray Watts that brings the story of Jesus to life in a way that’s simple enough for children but sophisticated enough for Bible scholars and theology students. The all-star cast includes Ian Holm, Miranda Richardson, and Ralph Fiennes as Jesus.
After years of streaming on Prime, The Miracle Maker has sadly left Amazon, but you can watch it for free on YouTube from the Church History Channel. (Testament: The Bible in Animation, a series of 25- to 30-minute adaptations of Old Testament stories from the same collaborators, is still on Prime. Both are fine family viewing.)
Miracle of St. Thérèse (1952) The best movie about the spirituality of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is still André Haguet’s reverent, old-fashioned docudrama, with documentary-style footage of Thérèse’s cause for canonization (the original French title is Procès au Vatican or Cause in the Vatican) bookending a fine dramatization of Thérèse’s life. Unfortunately, the quality of the print is poor and the French dialogue has been dubbed into English. (Amazon Prime; also on YouTube. Kids and up.)
Molokai (1999) St. Damien De Veuster, the 19th-century “Apostle to the Lepers” on the Hawaiian leper colony of Molokai, is dramatized in this decent Belgian/Dutch/Australian co-production, which features an impressive cast, including Sam Neill, Peter O’Toole, Kris Kristofferson, Derek Jacobi, Leo McKern and David Wenham (Faramir in The Lord of the Rings) as St. Damien. (Amazon Prime. Tweens and up.)
The Ninth Day (2004) Ulrich Matthes, who played the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels in Downfall, and August Diehl, who played Blessed Franz Jägerstätter in my favorite film from last year, play for the opposite teams in Volker Schlöndorff’s loosely fact-based World War II drama. Matthes plays a priest imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp “priest block” who is mysteriously given a nine-day reprieve; Diehl plays a young Nazi officer who cross-examines him. (Amazon Prime. Mature viewing.)
Romero (1989) Raul Julia plays St. Óscar Romero in John Duigan’s fine biopic, the first feature film from the Paulist Fathers’ moviemaking division. Written by West Wing writer-producer John Sacret Young, the film focuses on how Romero is gradually transformed by responsibility and circumstance from a timid, bookish caretaker into an impassioned crusader for justice. (Amazon Prime. Teens and up.)
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) The last six days in the life of 21-year-old anti-Nazi activist Sophia Magdalena Scholl, executed in 1943 with her brother Hans and Catholic fellow conspirator Christoph Probst, is dramatized in Marc Rothemund’s tense cat-and-mouse procedural. (Amazon Prime. German with subtitles. Teens and up.)
Just for Fun
All things Aardman! Amazon Prime has Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Collection (that’s the original three stop-motion masterpieces — A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, and A Close Shave — along with the later A Matter of Loaf and Death), plus the mini-short anthology Wallace & Gromit’s Cracking Contraptions. (You can also watch the just-okay 2008 feature Early Man.)
Five seasons of Shaun the Sheep are also on Prime, while Netflix has the sixth season, subtitled Adventures of Mossy Bottom, plus the charming A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (the sequel to Shaun the Sheep Movie, not currently streaming for free). (Kids and up.)
The Court Jester (1956): I’m going to come right out and say it: The best Robin Hood movie and the best Zorro movie of all time is a musical comedy that technically doesn’t feature Robin Hood or Zorro, but does have Danny Kaye at his hilarious best in a whimsically labyrinthine tale of derring-do about a usurper king, a band of merry outlaws in the forest, a masked hero called the Black Fox, and Basil Rathbone himself as the villain. It couldn’t possibly better be! (Amazon Prime. Kids and up.)
Jodhaa Akbar (2008) If you love Golden Age Hollywood musicals and costume epics but aren’t familiar with Indian Bollywood cinema, Ashutosh Gowariker’s sweeping romantic historical epic is a fine place to start. Brilliant colors, opulent costumes, epic battle sequences and magnificent sets, a grand love story between a 16th-century Muslim emperor and a Hindu princess is dazzling, old-fashioned spectacle — with plenty of singing and dancing. (Netflix. Stylized battle violence. Older kids and up.)
Love & Friendship (2016) Whit Stillman has been called “the Jane Austen of indie film,” and his most recent film, an adaptation of an early Austen novella, is Stillman at his Austen-est. Stillman’s trademark hyper-articulate dialogue meshes perfectly with Austen’s own witty language, making it impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. (Amazon Prime. Teens and up.)
The Mark of Zorro (1920) Among other silent films coming to Amazon Prime on April 1 is Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s breakout role in possibly the first superhero movie of all time, a Catholic-friendly swashbuckler in which priests are “soldiers of Christ” and Zorro is a defender of the faith as well as of natives and women. The penultimate reel, as Zorro takes on all his enemies at once, shows off Fairbanks’ athleticism and daring in a series of some of the most jaw-dropping stunt work I’ve ever seen. (Amazon Prime starting April 1. Kids and up.)
Much Ado About Nothing (1993) Kenneth Branagh’s giddy romp through one of Shakespeare’s frothiest comedies is irresistible, in no small part to Branagh’s comic chops, but also to his and Emma Thompson’s astonishingly expressive facility with the Bard’s language — I’ve simply never heard anything like it. Keanu Reeves is miscast, Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale are fine, as is Denzel Washington, and Michael Keaton is a hoot. (Amazon Prime. Brief nonsexual nudity; a fleeting sex scene [nothing explicit]. Teens and up.)
Phineas and Ferb (2007-2015) It’s astonishing how consistently smart and clever this show is, but even more astonishing is how good-natured and genuinely nice it is. Drain 95% of the rudeness and cynicism from lightning-quick animated comedies like The Simpsons and Dexter’s Laboratory, add an infusion of Julie Andrews benevolence and some amazing songs, and that puts you in the ballpark. (Disney+. Kids and up.)
The Rocketeer (1991) Years before the likes of Ant-Man and the Wasp or Doctor Strange, possibly the first Hollywood studio superhero movie with a non-A-list comic-book hero was Joe Johnston’s Nazi-era swashbuckler starring Billy Campbell, an attempt to blend the 1980s successes of Indiana Jones and Batman. It holds up surprisingly well, aided by a terrific cast, including Jennifer Connolly, Alan Arkin and Timothy Dalton. (Disney+. Comic-book violence. Older kids and up.)
The Sound of Music (1965) Speaking of Julie Andrews, obviously Mary Poppins is on Disney+, but did you know that (thanks to Disney’s 20th Century Fox acquisition) Andrews’ other iconic 1960s role is as well? Joyous, gorgeous, full of (mostly) delightful songs, it’s cinematic comfort food for the whole family. (Disney+. Kids and up.)
Strictly Ballroom (1992) Baz Luhrman’s frothy debut is a nearly perfect film, starting as an edgy, in-your-face mockumentary before morphing by degrees into an unexpectedly complex and poignant tale about creativity, tradition, compromise and family history, ultimately turning in a crowd-pleasing fairy-tale ending that leaves me verklempt every time. (Netflix. Teens and up.)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) I’m sorry, am I breaking my own rule with an overly obvious recommendation? I can’t help it, Into the Spider-Verse is just so awesome, on so many levels — visually, conceptually, narratively, structurally, thematically. (Among many other things, it’s a rare contemporary animated film that subverts the tired “Junior Knows Best” trope.) It might be the best superhero movie ever made. (Netflix. Older kids and up.)