You know what’s better than one film? A double bill. And you know what’s better than a double bill? Five double bills.
The best way to learn about films, in my experience, is to watch a lot of films. Duh, I know. But every film you watch teaches you how to watch the next. One of the good things about double features is that watching films together can illuminate both, each teaching you how to watch its partner. Here are five pairings that clarify genre focus, help to situate each other in history and otherwise enrich each other, both as films and as guides to future films.
One of the things that make double features such a source of fascination, for me, at least, is how two films can bring certain aspects of each other to the fore. Most great films are multifaceted and rich in theme, you can and should look at them from any number of different angles. But it can be hard to do in isolation, when all of a movie’s themes and ideas are inextricably bound up in each other. But place two films side-by-side, or, in this case, one after another, and it’s like the similarities reach out to each other, making both their common ground and their differences more apparent and easier to appreciate.
All ten of these films deal in some way with the rupture between expectation and reality, between how we dreamed our lives would be and how they turned out, between what our society claims to aspire to and what the world is actually like. They all do a great job of navigating these themes alone, but, together, they’re even better.
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.