isolation handbook

10 Great Movies With Fewer Than 10 People in Them

The Lighthouse. Photo: A24

So, like everyone else, you now find yourself confined to your home for the foreseeable future. Once you’ve taken care of necessities like securing a healthy food stock, it’s time to address the really important question: What kind of movies do you want to watch? Your first impulse might be to watch a bunch of films filled with pleasures you can’t enjoy at the moment, like travel, eating in restaurants, or standing within four feet of someone who’s not a member of your immediate family. Such movies might offer a pleasant diversion from our new semi-quarantined reality, but they might also just be reminders of happier times.

It could be better to lean into the moment and explore films that deal explicitly with confinement, isolation, and the difficulties of living with others in confined spaces in the midst of crises. And, when doing so, why not choose some that meet the new federal guidelines discouraging gatherings of ten or fewer people? To make it easier for you, we’ve selected ten great films featuring fewer than ten characters that might, in one way or another, reflect the new reality in which we live.

Lifeboat (1944)

As many are now discovering, it’s not always easy living 24/7 in close quarters with anybody, even those you love. Imagine trying it with a bunch of strangers on a boat in the middle of the war. That’s the John Steinbeck–created scenario at the heart of Alfred Hitchcock’s wartime classic Lifeboat, which strands nine strangers (played by Tallulah Bankhead, Home Cronyn, William Bendix, and others) on a lifeboat as the war rages around them. “The more we quarrel and criticize and misunderstand each other, the bigger the ocean gets, and the smaller the boat,” one character states, but the film is anything but a simplistic plea for peace and cooperation. Not everyone’s who they claim to be and some characters learn they have to take ugly steps in order to survive. Few directors could move a camera like Hitchcock, but here he proves himself equally effective in a confined space, creating dread and paranoia with a handful of characters drifting through a sea ready to swallow them up if they can’t work together to survive. Available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Ex Machina (2014)

In some respects, the coronavirus crisis has accelerated preexisting trends. For many, telecommuting and interacting with others primarily through technology was already the norm. But just because something’s been normalized doesn’t mean it can’t distort — or even redefine — reality. With his 2014 directorial debut, Alex Garland explored the implications of artificial intelligence and the point at which our creations achieved a kind of personhood via the story of an eccentric tech genius named Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who challenges Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer in his employ, to find any distinction between his latest creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander) and a human being. But that’s only the start of Caleb’s problems as the experience reveals the full extent of his loneliness and the depth of his need to connect with someone, or maybe something. Using only four characters and an isolated location, Garland digs into the thorny philosophical issues raised by AI while also capturing the ways technology has reshaped the ways we view the world and ourselves, finding little of comfort along the way. Available to stream on Netflix.

Sleuth (1972)

Theater has a long tradition of plays featuring only a handful of actors, but that tradition doesn’t always translate into great movies. Even a great cast can struggle to make material that worked on stage do the same on the big screen. Adapted from Anthony Shaffer’s hit 1970 play, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Sleuth makes a virtue of its smallness, unfolding in the claustrophobic, knick-knack-filled confines of the stately manor occupied by Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), a successful mystery writer with a less-than-successful marriage. He’s joined by his wife’s lover Milo (Michael Caine) and the two embark on a battle of wits whose twists and turns are best left unspoiled. The film cleverly draws on the mechanics of classic mystery stories, but at its heart it’s a nasty character study, brilliantly played by two of the best British actors of their respective generations.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

As of now, we’re all cooped up together for a yet-to-be-determined number of weeks and it’s not always going to be pretty. But, if we’re lucky, the experience will never be as ugly as Mike Nichols’s adaptation of Edward Albee’s groundbreaking play in which the middle-aged couple of Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and George (Richard Burton) play host to young marrieds Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis). Over one long night, the liquor flows, old skeletons come to light, relationships turn tangled, and everyone emerges from a long-dark-late-night-drinking-session-of-the-soul a little wiser, but also bruised and disturbed in ways that suggest some wisdom can be too hard won. Maybe social distancing has its advantages. Available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Antichrist (2009)

Lars von Trier could easily have borrowed the title of the Bergman movie Scenes from a Marriage for this terrifying film, in which a never-named couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe) grieving for their lost child retreat to a cabin in the woods. Attempting to force his wife of her deep depression, the husband subjects her to intense counseling sessions that quickly take a dark turn. Before long, the forest around them starts to mirror her troubled state and their retreat devolves into violence as even darker forces apparently start to take hold. Von Trier’s apocalyptic Melancholia looks positively upbeat by comparison but, as with that film, von Trier’s descent into absolute darkness can feel weirdly cathartic. Sometimes depicting a mutilated fox saying “Chaos reigns” in a spooky voice just feels like an honest expression of how scary the world can turn, and how deep the divide between two people can become. Available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Gerry (2002)

In this largely improvised 2002 film by Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck play two hikers named Gerry who slowly come to realize their wanderings have taken them so far off the trail they might never find their way back. Inspired by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, Van Sant uses long shots and stark landscapes to convey a sense of isolation and mounting fear as Gerry and Gerry’s journey starts to take on an existential quality. With death at hand, their relationship begins to fray as they realize how much they depended on the comforts and dependability of civilization, both to survive and to define themselves. Van Sant’s refusal to cut away from their long desert trudges works both as stylistic bravado and an act of empathy, forcing viewers to consider the experience of human existence when it’s been stripped to its essence. Available to stream on Tubi.

Persona (1966)

Beyond the influence of Tarr, Gerry’s use of blurring identity also owes a debt to Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s quintessential study of bleeding identities. Liv Ullmann stars as Elisabet, a famous actress who’s stopped speaking, either out of inability or desire. When she’s sent to a remote cottage with her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), their relationship becomes by turns intimate and violent. As secrets from their pasts surface, the lines dividing their personalities start to blur, a process Bergman depicts via stunning compositions and aggressive editing as attuned to the French New Wave as his past work. It’s a fascinating study of intersecting lives that works just as well as a kind of psychological horror movie. Pair it with this next film and you’ve got yourself a terrific, disturbing breakdowns-by-the-seaside double feature. Available to stream on Amazon Prime.

The Lighthouse (2019)

As many of us struggle to adjust to telecommuting, it’s probably best to remember that having to work side by side with the wrong co-worker can be hellish. For his follow-up to The Witch, Robert Eggers sends a young 19th-century lighthouse keeper (maybe) named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) to an isolated New England island to work alongside the more experienced Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Once there, Winslow learns the place has an odd history, starts to experience strange visions of tentacles and mermaids, and develops a complicated (to say the least) relationship with Wake. Shot in striking black-and-white and accompanied by a disorienting sound design, Eggers’ film builds in hallucinatory intensity until it’s not clear what’s real, what’s imagined, and how much blame for the ensuing weirdness and its dire consequences can attributed to the difficulty of spending too much time with one person. Available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Gravity (2013)

On the other hand, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the protagonist of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 film Gravity, seems to have a lovely working relationship with Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), her companion on a space shuttle expedition intended to repair the Hubble Telescope. But circumstances beyond their control cut that relationship short, forcing Stone to take extraordinary measures as she looks for a way to make her way back down to Earth. Shot in 3D and widely watched on IMAX at the time of its release, Cuarón’s film is a technical wonder. But it also plays well at home, in part because of Cuarón’s extraordinary command of visual storytelling and in part because of Bullock’s gripping performance. Over the course of the film, we learn of the loss that made it easy for Stone to take to the stars and the lasting grief that now makes it easy to entertain the thought of just drifting away. But it’s ultimately a story of survival, and how the will to live can persist — and prevail — in even the most impossible circumstances. Available to stream on Amazon Prime.

All Is Lost (2013)

In that respect, Gravity bears a strong resemblance to another 2013 film anchored by an exceptional bit of acting, J.C. Chandor’s nautical survival tale All Is Lost. Robert Redford stars as an unnamed man who awakens in the middle of the Indian Ocean to find his boat already pretty far along in the process of sinking. In a virtually wordless performance, Redford captures the character’s deepening commitment to make it out alive and return to a life on shore one reflective scene suggests he’s made a mess of before disembarking. Like Gravity, it’s an impressive technical accomplishment, but also one that would mean nothing without Redford’s deft performance as a man who may not have understood just how much he wanted to live until staring death in the face. Available to stream on Hulu.

10 Great Movies With Fewer Than 10 People in Them