In 2020, like I imagine many other young people my age did when they were forced home from school because of shutdowns at the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself in desperate need of some good old-fashioned comfort. Seeing that my grandparents – who I stayed with over the pandemic before going back to school – had a massive television set-up, the order of the day was always deciding what movie I would watch with my mom or grandma or brothers on that massive screen.
It was always such hassle finding something that we’d all agree on. Marvel and Star Wars were always easy choices – so easy that I ended up watching Ant-Man at least forty times in 2020 alone, blessedly before I began using Letterboxd on a regular basis. I’m pretty sure Letterboxd would have sent me an email asking if I needed psychiatric help after the tenth log in as many weeks. I can (embarrassingly) quote huge sections of the movie now, and always have the heisty-sounding score stuck in my head. It’s no wonder that another heist movie, Ocean’s 8, is also one of the movies I watched over and over during the pandemic – and one I could always get my mother on board with watching while curled up on the couch with ice cream or some red wine.
Also – all those women in gorgeous dresses, stealing shit and getting revenge on men? Swoon. I have never once been bored watching Ocean’s 8. And how could I be, when Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett are running around New York City in glamorous outfits while putting together all the details for the jewelry heist of the century? I’ve always loved fashion and the Met Gala (and women), so Ocean’s 8 scratches a very particular itch for me.
The Clone Wars – yes, the shitty animated movie from 2008 – also routinely made the rounds until it became my favorite Star Wars movie and even cracked my top four favorites on Letterboxd. And it’s this film that really makes me think deeper about the question “What makes a comfort movie a comfort movie?” I certainly don’t think that it’s the greatest movie ever made, or even the best-made Star Wars film. That honor goes unequivocally to Rogue One, another Star Wars movie on my comfort films list that I often watched with my baby brother Sam because it’s the only one we can unequivocally agree on. But there’s just something about The Clone Wars that makes me feel better every time I watch it, that makes me smile. Anakin’s line to Ahsoka – “You’re reckless, little one. You never would’ve made it as Obi-Wan’s padawan. But you might make it as mine” – stays seared into my mind forever as just… peak Star Wars.
So nostalgia, it seems, is a precondition for at least one kind of “comfort movie.” It’s probably why Monsters University makes the cut: I was yearning for the college experience and my Greek community (shout-out to everyone in the Alpha Delta Phi Society who might be reading this!) while being forced to live at home, an experience not too dissimilar from Mike and Sulley’s. I’d only been at The George Washington University for a year and a half before the pandemic sent us all home, and there was a certain bit of nostalgia flickering up in my chest each time I watched Mike and Sulley in their training montage for the Scaring Games, walking around campus and studying for class. I even jokingly posted to Facebook that it was the only film that accurately captured my college experience – especially since they more or less get kicked out of Monsters University at the end of the movie.
It’s not shocking to me that one of my top comfort movies, The Death of Stalin, also holds the place of being my favorite movie of all time. Despite being full of morally objectionable political maneuvering in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s untimely death and starring Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev – yes, Buscemi himself played the former Secretary of the Communist Party and later Premier of the USSR – of all people, the movie ticks a lot of boxes for me when it comes to genres and stories I like. I’m a big Tarantino fan, so I’ve always had a fondness for dark comedy and characters who find themselves in Situations™, but The Death of Stalin has a razor-sharp script full of dark, quick-witted humor that’s more biting than anything Quentin Tarantino could deign to write. It’s also a period piece/historical fiction, a genre I positively love; it takes all the stuffiness and self-importance out of a historical fiction film and flips it on its head by focusing on such an absurd story and presenting it within such a comic lens.
Speaking of Tarantino: I could rhapsodize about Pulp Fiction, and how much I adore it, for paragraph upon paragraph. But like I wrote at length in “Inglourious Feminists,” Pulp Fiction is one of the first movies I discovered on my own and fell in love with – for all its flaws and baggage.
National Treasure is another big, nostalgic comfort film. My dad introduced me to the series when I was a kid, sparking my love and passion for early American history and the American Revolution. Hell, the only reason I went to George Washington for undergrad is because I was intending to get a degree in History (with a focus on Early American and the intention to become just like document preserver and archivist extraordinaire Dr. Abigail Chase). It’s also just wonderfully hilarious, with Nic Cage in one of his campiest roles where he says such lines like “I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence” with the seriousness of Laurence Olivier delivering Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. The movie is absolute baloney when it comes to American history, but it jumps to such bonkers conclusions that it becomes the ultimate feel-good movie. There will literally be no better feeling than watching Ben, Abigail, Riley, and Patrick uncover each new little clue until they eventually find the Templar treasure – with that gorgeous, string-filled suite playing over the scene as they cheer triumphantly in knowing that they were right all along.
But perhaps something I haven’t taken into consideration when looking at my list of comfort movies – which I have lovingly named “I got weird comfort movies man” on Letterboxd – is Camp. Camp is definitely the name of the game when I try to think deeply about National Treasure, LEGO: Batman (the best Batman movie by far because it isn’t afraid to be a little queer), New Moon (the best Twilight movie), and Detective Pikachu. I won’t get into Susan Sontag’s infamous “Notes on Camp” too deeply because, quite frankly, that could fuel a whole separate thinkpiece itself – but I’m a strong believer in and supporter of Camp. I’ve always said that people gravitate towards Camp because the aesthetic phenomenon (as amorphous and latterly-applied as it is) is so over-the-top, unserious, and theatrical.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some very well-made films on my comfort movies list, like Spirited Away and Logan Lucky, but perhaps there’s a third reason for why some of my comfort movies are comfort movies: they’re just… good movies. And it feels refreshing to watch them and feel at ease watching a well-made movie, one that I know is well-made. Spirited Away isn’t just uplifting in its story of a little girl’s self-discovery of her inner strength, but utterly calming in its gorgeous nature visuals; Logan Lucky is a charming, down-to-earth spin on the heist genre that works because it’s also so Camp.
When I think about it, I can see the Camp in so many of my favorite movies. There’s no denying that The Clone Wars fits the bill because of its shitty animation and rescue plotline of Jabba the Hutt’s newborn child – it’s made intentionally for kids, which allows it to be a little less serious than other Star Wars fare (Camp as the franchise already is). And then there’s Detective Pikachu, whose mere story concept is like striking Camp gold: a live-action Pokemon adaptation where a Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds of all people) tries to find his human partner in a city where humans and Pokemon live side by side. You almost can’t not enjoy yourself while watching it and aww-ing at all of the sweet little Pokemon.
Camp makes the audience laugh and takes them out of the real world, even if for just a little while. And when you’re looking for something to wind down with after a hard week of classes, or a rough patch with friends or family, or a rough day at work, why not put on a film that is so singularly itself that it seems unrooted in actual reality? At least in my case, the ridiculous artificiality and uniqueness is comforting – probably because it’s not trying to be the next Academy Award-winning film, but just an enjoyable one. One that prioritizes the audience’s amusement and wants you to have a good time while watching it. And when you’re putting a film on for some reassurance that the world is gonna be okay, or some comfort like the title suggests, doesn’t it make sense to put a film on that wants you to forget the world outside and live in the fantasy for a minute?