The double feature dominated popular cinema for thirty-odd years, back when a night out at the cinema was actually a whole night out. After sitting through a mix of newsreels, shorts, serials, cartoons and advertisements, the audience would watch two films. First, the B-movie, shorter, cheaper and uglier, with nobody actors and hacky writing, and then the main feature, with its big stars and exquisite Hollywood production values.
Nowadays, unless you’re a professional journalist, seeing multiple films in one day is, unfortunately, an extravagance. Apart from just wishing people could just see more films more often if they want, my own experience of irresponsibly blowing all my money on going to the cinema, especially around awards season, has often resulted in me discovering movies that pair wonderfully as double features, because of similar subject matter expressed in different aesthetics, opposing or at least disparate takes on the same themes, or a combination of both.
It’s not the same kind of magic as those you stumble across on your own, but I have suggestions of double features that would make a great night in. Two of them were spontaneous discoveries (the ones where both films came out the same year, obviously) while I developed the others from the highly scientific method of watching a film and thinking “huh, that would pair well with this other film I like”.
Fair warning: these are all pretty heart-wrenching movies.
Arrival (2016) / Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Arrival and Nocturnal Animals are very, very different – one is a fairly grounded, naturalistic sci-fi film, while the other is a strange arthouse film whose narrative is mostly a story within a story – but they share more than a lead in Amy Adams. They’re fundamentally about communication, how it both connects and divides us, the potential for us to understand each other better and the limits to our ability to share our inner selves.
In both films, Amy Adams plays someone trying to comprehend: in Arrival, a linguist trying to learn an alien language; in Nocturnal Animals, a gallery owner reading her ex-husband’s novel, which is full of parallels to their marriage. The former is more optimistic, even as the barriers to understanding seem to be overwhelming – the aliens aren’t even moderately human-like – while the latter is far more pessimistic, though it depicts more commonplace barriers, especially social class. Though I lean towards Arrival’s perspective, they should both be part of a balanced cinematic diet.
Triangle (2009) / The Babadook (2014)
One of the main reasons I wanted to do these recommendations is how many times I’ve seen people say The Babadook and Mama would make a good double feature, even though Mama sucks really bad and no one should watch it in general, let alone together with a modern horror masterpiece like The Babadook. I get the connection. They’re both horror films about difficult maternal relationships, but that’s hardly a narrow field in the genre. Besides, The Babadook already has the perfect partner in the comparatively little-seen Triangle.
Triangle and The Babadook both concern single mothers with developmentally disabled children, played by blonde Australian actresses, and that’s basically where the similarities end. Triangle is a sci-fi horror about time travel with a gritty camera style, while The Babadook is a fantasy/psychological horror with a colourful visual palette influenced by children’s books. But, without giving too much away, they reach very different thematic conclusions in their explorations of motherhood and redemption that will rattle around your head for months after.
Lost in Translation (2003) / Her (2013)
“Loneliness in the big city is both wide-ranging and utterly specific, daunting and always underscored by the potential to be broken given the amount of people always surrounding us,” wrote Angelica Jade Bastién in an essay on Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. There are so many connections between Lost in Translation and Her: they’re both sort of anti-romcoms with Scarlett Johannson as the female lead; both were nominated for Best Picture and both won Best Original Screenplay for their writer-directors; their directors used to be married and you can easily read an autobiographical subtext into them.
But that’s all surface-level compared to their shared interest in the suffocating isolation of the modern metropolis and their divergent portraits of people clinging desperately to the futile, finite connections that make them feel less alone. Bob and Charlotte’s relationship lasts only a few days, while Theodore and Samantha’s seem to cover at least a few months, but each journey feels epic in its emotional scope, at once crushingly intimate and sweepingly universal.
In the Bedroom (2001) / Manchester by the Sea (2016)
I watched In the Bedroom about a year after seeing Manchester by the Sea and I was surprised that no one had drawn any comparisons between the two. They’re both multiple-Oscar-nominated films about parental grief set in tiny New England fishing towns with particularly outstanding supporting actress performances from Marisa Tomei and Michelle Williams.
Todd Field, the director of In the Bedroom, works very infrequently – his only other film was Little Children in 2006 – which seems to have prevented his films from maintaining much of a profile in the zeitgeist. That’s tragic because he’s an incredible director who deserves better. In the Bedroom and Manchester by the Sea almost feel like the same film made at different points in film history, each very much of its time and therefore slowly building towards very different kinds of ending. Both ambiguous and unsettled in their way, though one is much, much darker.
The Florida Project (2017) / Good Time (2017)
I was homeless when I saw The Florida Project and Good Time, two films about homeless people struggling to care for those they love. It was quite an experience, especially when Moonee, the child lead of The Florida Project, burst into tears because her life was falling apart before her eyes and the theatre full of posh retirees started laughing while I sobbed into my sleeve.
They’re an unintuitive pairing. The Florida Project is a basically plotless drama that paints a vivid portrait of America’s invisible homeless, focused on Halley and her daughter Moonee, who struggle to live in a motel just outside Disney World. Good Time is a thriller about two bank-robbing brothers, one with an intellectual disability, as they try to escape poverty and abuse with one big score. But they both provide deep thematic cuts in their examination of how poverty makes the lives of the poor a largely inescapable hell, even as they cling to the hope that tomorrow will be better than today. I think often of Moonee telling her friend she loves to sit on a particular fallen tree because it’s “tipped over, but still growing”.
This is the first article in a series entitled Double Features. Future instalments will be found here.