By Reid Ramsey
A few weeks back, I watched Sling Blade for the first time. The 1996 Billy Bob Thornton flick tells the story of Karl Childers, a man who has spent most of his life in a psychiatric hospital after murdering his mother and her lover when he was a child. The story begins with him telling the story of his crime right before he will be released to continue his life as a free man. Once free he wanders back to his hometown in an attempt to restart his life as an adult.
I initially planned to discuss Sling Blade as part of a series of essays about “coming home” here on Southern Sights. The series began with Crue Smith on Walking Tall and then featured Abby Ann Ramsey on Sweet Home Alabama. My plan was to finish up this pseudo-series with the eeriest of the three: Sling Blade.
On the subject of “coming home,” Sling Blade is rich. When initially released from the hospital, Karl walks back to his small Arkansas town and can barely comprehend the place. This is twofold: first, a lot has changed since he was last there, and second, he only lived there for about twelve years in physically and emotionally abusive circumstances. Suffice it to say, it’s barely a home. In fact, his instincts tell him to turn back around and head to the hospital that has been a consistent place of care for him.
Beyond Karl’s transient situation — he goes from living in the body shop in which he works to living with Linda and Frank, a mother and son whom he has befriended — he also at one point goes back to his original home. He walks past the backyard shed in which his parents exiled him, into the house fit for a hoarder only to find his father rocking in a chair as if nothing had changed. It’s a profoundly sad moment that could be overlooked when looking back on the totality of the movie. Karl looks at his dad and says, “I’m your boy,” to which his dad replies, “I ain’t got no boy.” This moment accelerates Karl’s complete isolation from any community he’s ever known, even an abusive community.
While my plan was initially to write on this more, I’ve found it increasingly hard to have the energy to write lately. Even as an optimist I’ve found it near-impossible to be optimistic in the face of a global pandemic. We are faced with a time in which we can accept isolation and forget about the rest, or we can be hopeful and embrace various ways in which we can connect. We’re also faced with a time in which we can bring about change and venture to help those most vulnerable.
I think movies help people. They helped me through my most isolated period of my life thus far and provided me with a connection to others in a time of desperation. And so I made a guide. I did this partly to process my own feelings, partly to force myself to write something, and partly to help anyone who may be struggling to find a way to connect in this isolating time. These aren’t all Southern movies, but I don’t really care.
I’m not naive enough to think this will help everyone, but I hope it helps a couple people. My anxiety is already subdued just from writing this out.
So all y’all take a deep breath, turn off your phones and other screens, and let’s watch some freakin’ movies.
For The Realist
You may be one of those people who turn to movies to see a reflection of reality. This idea is great when it’s stuff like finding Boyhood relatable or the films of Kelly Reichardt and Sean Baker eye-opening, but when a pandemic is coming, you’re the first to rewatch Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Well, if this is you, bless your heart because I could never do it, but seriously, here’s some movies (other than Contagion) to watch:
Relaxer (2019) By Joel Potrykus
In the lead-up to Y2K Abbie (Joshua Birge) must prove his brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) wrong by not moving from the couch until he beats an unbeatable Pac-Man level. It’s the ultimate story of social isolation as Abbie essentially loses his mind as he decays and the world around him decays. It’s one of the grossest movies I’ve seen, but it’s provocative and entertaining even as he never moves from the couch.
Available on Kanopy or to rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.
The Happening (2008) By M. Night Shyamalan
The Happening may not be one of Shyamalan’s best movies (I’d venture to call it one of his worst), but one thing’s for sure: this story about an airborne sickness that induces its victims to kill themselves is oddly prescient at our current moment. If you didn’t relate to a group of people literally running away from infected air in 2008, you might now if you rewatch The Happening.
Available to stream on Starz or rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.
Freaks (2019) By Adam B. Stein & Zach Lipovsky
This deceptive premise of a young girl being held captive at home by her father quickly turns into one of the most surprising indie films in recent years. Freaks will make you wish even more for that glimpse of connection in the midst of social distancing.
Available on Netflix.
For the Southerner
This one should be pretty obvious. I had to put in a category like this to make it more worthwhile for this site. If you aren’t familiar with Southern Sights, you can read our entire archive of essays on Southern films by going to our home page.
The Righteous Gemstones (2019), Vice Principals (2016-2017), Eastbound and Down (2009-2013) By Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green
The greatest southern works of the last decade all came from the same team: the filmmakers initially behind Eastbound and Down. While these three TV shows may not depict the *most* realistic version of life down South, they depict an honest and always hilarious version of Southern life. Here, they skewer sports, public education, and religious institutions, all to great success.
Available on HBO.
Mudbound (2017) By Dee Rees
If you’re wanting to scratch the period piece itch this quarantine, Dee Rees’s Mudbound will do just that. Far from being a heartwarming, white-savior focused Southern film, Mudbound examines the complex struggles of two men returning to their hometowns after fighting in World War II.
Available on Netflix.
Shotgun Stories (2007) By Jeff Nichols
It never hurts to watch a Jeff Nichols movie. The Arkansas-born filmmaker tells deeply personal stories of family life in the South, specifically family life complicated by feuds, religion, race, or aliens (only in Midnight Special, which is still really, really good). His debut movie, Shotgun Stories is his smallest scale and also one of his most effective. Two sides of one family at war following the death of their patriarch, a build-up that seems destined for violence, and strong performances from lesser-known actors shape Shotgun Stories into a tense but rich thriller.
Available on Hoopla.
For The Escapist
Alright, now that we’ve gotten those movies that force us to dwell on our current situation out of the way, let’s find some movies out there for those of you who need to escape from your present anxiety. This is primarily why I visit movies these days. In fact, over the last few months, I’ve set up a mini marathon for myself of gambling and mob movies, as even the bad ones have brought me a tinge of comfort lately. I’ll get to those in a bit. But for now, here are some movies that get you out of your head for 90 minutes or so.
(Just a note on some programming I’m planning for myself: There’s several Jerry Lewis movies currently on Hulu including Cinderfella, The Bellboy, and The Patsy that look entertaining.)
The Other Guys (2010) By Adam McKay
Before Adam McKay swung his pendulum farther to the side of American docu-satires such as The Big Short and Vice, he lived squarely in between complete farce and political satire, which is where his masterfully-stupid The Other Guys thrives. Teaming up Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as disastrous, wannabe macho cops: check. Let them destroy a city as a critique of laughably incompetent government structures that fail to do what they set out to: check. Mostly, it’s just hilarious, and I guarantee the idiocy will help you escape any current anxieties for at least an hour and forty-five minutes.
Available on Netflix.
Tootsie (1982) By Sydney Pollack
Dustin Hoffman’s best performance came in this early-80s comedy. Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is an unsuccessful actor who dresses as a woman to land a soap opera role. It may not play as well in 2020 that it did in 1982, but the idea of a man being able to land even a role meant for a woman can carry a different level of dark comedy to a more socially-aware audience. And for what it’s worth, if you came to this category, you’re trying to escape, and this laugh-a-minute comedy will help with that.
Available on Netflix.
Some Like It Hot (1959) By Billy Wilder
The best movie on this list? Definitely. The best movie on any list? Probably? If you don’t believe me, then please go watch this Marilyn Monroe vehicle focused on two musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) fleeing from the mob by dressing as women and joining a touring, all-female band as they make their way to Florida. It’s truly one of the best experiences life has to offer.
Available on Amazon Prime Video.
For the Romantic
Maybe you’re distancing with your partner or maybe you’re by yourself. Either way, a good romantic movie is always good to lift the spirits.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) By Sharon Maguire
The story of Bridget Jones’s (Renee Zellweger) romantic and professional escapades is easily one of the most entertaining so far this century. As a bonus, you’re treated to great performances from Colin Firth and Hugh Grant as love interests. The highest of recommendations to those that have never before delighted in this movie.
Available on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu
Sweet Home Alabama (2002) By Andy Tennant
“Instantly, we want to know who Melanie was. This perfect New York fashion designer obviously had a past life that she is terrified to confront because what if she hasn’t changed? What is she’s the same Melanie she was before, just in different clothes? What if she still belongs to her real name, Melanie Smooter?”
Available to rent or buy on Amazon and iTunes.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) By Barry Jenkins
One of the best films of the decade and an all-time great book adaptation, If Beale Street Could Talk is the tender and tragic love story of Fonny and Tish set among the injustice of 1970s Harlem. It’s one of the most exquisitely shot films and the actors all bring life to characters that most readers of James Baldwin would’ve never thought possible.
Available on Hulu.
For the Person Really Missing Sports
I get it. I watch a lot of sports. The good news is that there are tons of great sports movies to fill in the gaps. And if none of these work for you, you can probably find reruns of the one time your favorite team actually won the big game (as an Atlanta sports fan, this means completely avoiding the Falcons after January 2017 and only focusing on Atlanta United’s 2018 MLS Cup win).
Some honorable mention sports movies to consume during the quarantine: Miracle, He Got Game, Bend It Like Beckham, Hoop Dreams, Rocky, and Space Jam.
White Men Can’t Jump (1992) By Ron Shelton
The greatest of all sports movies is this movie about two street basketball hustlers in LA. Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson star as the bickering, but well-matched teammates who hustle their way through as many outdoor courts as they can. If you enjoy this one, then check out Shelton’s other great sports movie: Bull Durham starring Kevin Costner as a minor league baseball player.
Available on Amazon and iTunes.
Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) By Peter Berg
One of my favorite dramatic TV shows, Friday Night Lights, focuses on a Texas high school football team and the surrounding town drama. The relationship dynamics over the course of five seasons should be plenty to fill at least a few weeks of quarantine.
Available on Hulu.
Love & Basketball (2000) By Gina Prince-Bythewood
Love & Basketball tells the romantic story of two childhood friends who aspire to be professional basketball players. The movie charts their relationship as they ascend from children all the way to the professional game, as they grow apart and grow closer. It’s a warm story that also highlights the different struggles differently gendered athletes face as they attempt to make it to the same level of play.
Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes.
For the Person Catching Up on Last Year’s Movies
First off, if this is you, take a look at our series where we discussed the best Southern movies of 2019, starting with The Peanut Butter Falcon. Maybe life was too busy in 2019 and you wondered when you’ll ever be able to watch some of the hit movies. Maybe you just didn’t catch all the indies you’d have loved to see. Here’s three under-the-radar picks you can watch at home.
Just Mercy (2019) By Destin Daniel Cretton
This true story of a lawyer who works to free men on death row is exactly as uplifting as it sounds. There are some victories. There are some losses. Overall, though, it will inspire rage for our current system and provoke viewers to question the validity of our current justice system. As a bonus, Michael B. Jordan gives one of the most convincing performances of a courtroom lawyer as I’ve ever seen.
Available to purchase on Amazon and iTunes.
Honeyland (2019) By Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov
This Oscar-nominated documentary tells the delicate story of a beekeeper in North Macedonia who takes no more than her share of honey from the bees, watches after her mother, and attempts to keep her local ecosystem in balance. When nomadic neighbors move in and upset that ecosystem, this small story suddenly seems as large and pressing as our current global environmental crisis. It’s a large story told on a small scale, and the film is absolutely worth watching.
Available on Hulu.
Crawl (2019) By Alexandre Aja
Set in Florida, Crawl is about a young woman who ventures home during a hurricane to find her dad critically injured in his basement, trapped in by a growing population of alligators. She must fight against the rising waters and against the vicious alligators to survive the natural disaster. An absolute gem for anyone who loves thrillers.
Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes.
For the Person Who, Like Me, Apparently Just Wants to Watch Gambling Flicks
I have no idea if it was last year’s Uncut Gems that spurred this long-running streak of watching any gambling-centric flick I can get my hands on, but it was at least around that time that this started. Here are some honorable mentions that are available to stream: the Oceans movies, The Cooler, Casino Royale, Molly’s Game, and 21.
Casino (1995) By Martin Scorsese
25 years after its release, Casino mostly has a reputation of being a second try at Goodfellas for Martin Scorsese. In reality, though, this movie starring Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Sharon Stone takes a lot of Scorsese’s impulses and turns them up to 11. It’s all the better for that. Even with moments of excruciating violence, Scorsese makes one of his most honest and entertaining movies.
Available on Starz.
Rounders (1998) By John Dahl
The story of law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) who is swept back into the world of gambling after his old friend Worm (Ed Norton) is released from prison. Luckily for Mike, he’s pretty great at gambling. While his life crumbles around him, he sheds the fake layers he had carefully cultivated in favor of indulging his base instincts for hustling and gambling.
Available on Netflix.
Mississippi Grind (2015) By Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
In each gambler is an unimpeachable spirit, an idea that they can’t lose forever and that eventually the tide will turn in their direction. This mentality gives way to the story of Mississippi Grind which follows veteran gambler Gerry (Ben Mendlesohn) and newbie Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) as they make their way down the Mississippi searching for the ultimate score.
Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video