From Panic Room to Cabin Fever: films about isolation, to watch in self-isolation

Self-isolating alone

Cast Away
With Tom Hanks currently in Australia fighting Covid-19, let’s remember him in shaggier times: on an enforced Robinson Crusoe training retreat, with only a beachball and do-it-yourself dentistry to amuse himself with. Hang on in there, Hanx.

The last word in claustrophobic scenarios: Ryan Reynolds wakes up inside a coffin, six feet underground, armed only with a lighter and a cellphone. An unlikely scenario, but it will make your under-stairs cupboard feel positively capacious by comparison.

Chiming horribly with our present predicament, Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece isolates Julianne Moore’s frail, privileged homemaker in a bubble of her own paranoia and anxiety, brought on by an ever-expanding palette of allergies. Does her affliction come from within? Is she curing herself or making things worse? We can all relate to the uncertainty.

127 Hours
Who needs the outdoors anyway? It’s not so great for James Franco’s carefree climber dude when he becomes stuck between a rock and a messy self-amputation on a solo canyon-jumping jaunt. Staying at home never looked so sensible. Or leaving a note saying where you’re going.

Should we airbrush Repulsion from history because it was directed by Roman Polanski? We’d also be erasing Catherine Deneuve’s incredible performance, and a vivid waking nightmare of mental illness and (problematically) male predation. This London sure ain’t swinging for Deneuve – trapped in her own psychosis as much as her sister’s apartment.

If you’re isolating with children/family

Let Brie Larson be your guide in selfless, resourceful parenting in confinement situations. She makes the best of her appalling imprisonment for the sake of her son, conjuring games, activities and surprises out of practically nothing. This is what people did before Netflix. And she manages for seven years.

The Shining
Use the time indoors to do something creative, they said. Silver linings and all that. But then you remember how it worked out for Jack Nicholson and family at the Overlook Hotel. As long as there are no ghosts, twins, psychic janitors, loud carpets or Native American burial grounds around, you’re probably fine.

Panic Room
Self-isolation is a lifesaver for Jodie Foster and her daughter Kristen Stewart when her Upper West Side brownstone is besieged by celebrity marauders (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam). That concrete security room seemed like an expensive extra but it sure comes in handy. The cat-and-mouse games are somewhat predictable, but David Fincher proves he can do his swoopy camerawork even in small spaces.

Swiss Family Robinson
Corny and creaky it may be, but the 1960 Disney adventure shows a shipwrecked family cheerily working together to make their desert island a happy makeshift home. They do a better job than Tom Hanks in Cast Away – so good, in fact, that when rescue arrives, they don’t want to go back. Which doesn’t say much for Switzerland.

A sobering reminder that house arrest is nothing new to some: in this case five, formerly carefree, Turkish sisters, whose conservative uncle decides to cage them indoors until they are ready to marry off. Informed by director Deniz Gamze Erguven’s own experience, it’s a rousing mix of social critique, escape thriller and modern-day fairytale.

If you’re isolating with your partner

Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse, directed by Robert Eggers.
Masculine face-off … Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse. Photograph: A24 Films

The Lighthouse
As its maker Robert Eggers put it: “Nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus.” We feel like we’re stuck inside this retro hallucination with them, caught in the crossfire as salty sea dogs Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson work, drink, fight and wank themselves into a florid, frenzied masculine face-off. Thank God for GPS.

“You’ll want to live here forever,” purrs the creepy estate agent as he shows Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots round an eerily generic starter home. They don’t have a choice: all escape attempts lead back to their front door in this sharp little sci-fi – somewhere between Groundhog Day, The Truman Show and, most chillingly of all, everyday domesticity. (Released on digital platforms and DVD on 27 March.)

The African Queen
Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart are hardly a match made on Guardian Soulmates, but what doesn’t kill them (disease, rapids, nature, Germans) makes their bond stronger in this classic river adventure. When you’re stranded together in adverse circumstances, you make the best of it.

In which Joanna Hogg illustrates how a couple can live together yet apart. Her elegant, mysterious film is set almost entirely within the confines of a modernist London home. It is both a prison and a sanctuary for artist couple Viv Albertine and Liam Gillick, whose marriage has arrived at some sort of crisis point. Albertine at least finds a creative outlet for her alienation and frustration.

If you’re isolating with friends

The Exterminating Angel.
After-dinner conversation … The Exterminating Angel. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

The Exterminating Angel
After a lavish dinner party, the guests (bourgeois, charmless, indiscreet) find themselves unable to leave the room for some reason. The servants have gone, supplies are dwindling, the veneer of civility peels away as hours become days. Surrealist mischief-maker Luis Buñuel gives no answers or explanations. His savage satire still cuts deep.

Cabin Fever
Any “cabin in the woods” movie could apply, but Eli Roth’s 2002 entry both reinvigorates the subgenre and deals specifically with a virus – a flesh-eating one many times more aggressive than Covid-19. Savour the gory spectacle of teens making dumb, cruel and selfish decisions, and consider this a lesson in how not to do it.

The Breakfast Club
Saturday detention feels like an eternity when you’re a teenager, which doesn’t bode well for an extended quarantine, but at least these misfits leave in a better state than when they went in. From today’s social media-saturated perspective, John Hughes’s cult chamber piece feels like an argument for just sitting down and talking to each other.

High Life
Spare a thought for Claire Denis’s crew in this elegantly doomy sci-fi, and be grateful you’re not trapped in a shipful of convicts and rapists, consigned to an interstellar suicide mission, or being experimented on by an unhinged fertility scientist. And there’s a queue for the masturbation chamber. Then again, for many, there are fates worse than being locked in a spaceship with Robert Pattinson.

If you’re losing hope

The Martian
Left for dead on the red planet, Matt Damon’s stranded Nasa scientist is surely the loneliest person in movie history, but does he sit around and mope? No, he gets busy MacGyvering a way to survive. Added to which, he’s got friends, who disobey orders and turn back to rescue him – with a little help, let’s not forget, from the Chinese.

Before escape rooms, we had to make do with this ingeniously bizarre sci-fi, in which a group of strangers find themselves locked in a labyrinth of cubical rooms, most of which want to kill them. Seen in the right light, it’s a testament to cooperation, resourcefulness and binge-watching The Crystal Maze.

It literally takes a village in this bracing Brazilian neo-western, though guns and hallucinogens also help. Cut off from the rest of the country, threatened by corrupt politicians and ruthless American mercenaries, a harmonious, indigenous community bands together to preserve their identity and protect what’s theirs.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Any form of confinement will feel like liberty compared to the plight of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), trapped inside his own body after a stroke and paralysed save for one eye. Out of this unimaginable, almost unfilmable situation, Bauby undertakes a heroic inner journey (that resulted in the memoir of the title), and director Julian Schnabel crafts a gorgeous film free of schmaltz and full of hope.