Streaming Recommendations: Surreality in Place

Contributor: Grant Kerber

I’m starting a new series of streaming film recommendations united under a common theme. First up: Surreality in Place. Whether it’s role reversals, unfamiliar vantages, or oaths taken to the extreme, the films below all capture a subtle yet profound shift in reality that is either evocative or suspends our disbelief. In some way, each film reminded me of the unreality of quarantined life. I wouldn’t recommend watching all these movies in a row, but I’ve listed a variety to suit different moods.

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Wim Wenders, 1985
Criterion Channel

I’ve always felt this documentary is underappreciated. In it, Wim Wenders attempts to find the Japan of legendary filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu some twenty years after his passing. As Wenders scours Tokyo for inspiration, he focuses on tangible elements of Japanese culture that are often overlooked but blossom when we’re fully exposed to their methodical pace. Sections on the manufacturing process for plastic food displays and an evening spent with a pachinko machine repairman illuminate experiences we don’t usually see. It’s a great film to remind us of the sprawling ways we interact with the world as we’re all trapped inside.

Koker Trilogy

Abbas Kiarostami
Where Is the Friend’s House, 1987
And Life Goes On, 1992
Through the Olive Trees, 1994
Criterion Channel

The beauty of Kiarostami is the way he blends reality with fiction, and these three films are an excellent demonstration of that. The loosely-connected trilogy begins with Where Is the Friend’s House, a story of trust and social responsibility in the rural Iranian city of Koker. After an earthquake decimated the region in 1990, Kiarostami returned to Koker for his 1992 pseudo-documentary And Life Goes On, which dramatizes the filmmaker’s search for the child stars of Where Is the Friend’s HouseThe trilogy closes with the even more meta Through the Olive Trees (1994), which dramatizes a further fictionalized filmmaking process for And Life Goes On. As we go through the surreal experience of coronavirus quarantine, these films offer a similarly bizarre perspective on reality.


Monte Hellman, 1974
Amazon Prime

Don’t let the name fool you: this is an incredibly inventive movie that features one of the best performances in Warren Oates’ career. The story centers on Frank Mansfield (played by Warren Oates), a cockfighter whose penchant for running his mouth has cost him everything. Recognizing the error of his ways, Mansfield takes a vow of silence until he’s reclaimed his rightful place and earned the Cockfighter of the Year award (seriously). Boasting tender, lived-in cinematography that is synonymous with the American New Wave, this movie captures a different world in a different time.

The Decameron

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1971
Criterion Channel

Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” is a celebration of being human, and The Decameron captures the trilogy at its most vibrant. Indulgent, childish, and stuffed with absurdity, this mid-career masterpiece shows Pasolini’s love for those who live life with a reckless abandon. With cinematography that bounces between poverty and stunning opulence, the film is a great reminder of the treasures of life that we can’t experience while trapped indoors.

[Fun fact: this movie was so popular in Italy that it spawned a series of knock-off pornography “sequels” that Pasolini was deeply embarrassed of. If that doesn’t get you to watch it, I don’t know what will!]

Paris Is Burning

Jennie Livingston, 1990

A landmark documentary about the New York ball scene that explores themes of gender, race, and belonging. Offering insight into a culture that was woefully underrepresented at the time, Paris Is Burning shows a subset of New York’s LGBT community as they use fashion to embrace roles that weren’t typically available to them in society. An entertaining and important look at a still-marginalized group who are likely experiencing hardship due to the quarantine. Consider donating to an organization like Trans Lifeline at this difficult time.