At some point toward the end of last year, my husband and I realized that watching TV wasn’t as fun as it used to be. Oh, the watching itself was as easy and pleasant as ever. Every night after our toddler went to bed, we’d gulp down a few episodes of the hot prestige series of the moment. But in between “big” shows, we’d spend weeks half-watching familiar sitcom reruns while scrolling through our phones. We were in a rut.
And so we decided to try something new in 2019: We would spend the year watching movies, and only movies—not as a backup plan when we were between TV shows, but as intentional programming. The idea was to reset our screen habits, and perhaps to do a bit of cultural self-improvement along the way. We canceled most of our streaming services, bought a new DVD player, and signed up for a $15.99/month subscription to DVD.com, Netflix’s vestigial DVD-by-mail service. It felt old-fashioned, restorative, even wholesome.
This has meant some cultural sacrifices, to be sure. We’ve completely missed out on The Crown, in a season of IRL royal intrigue. I just know I’d love Succession. And we didn’t see a minute of Russian Doll, even when everyone around us was gushing over it. Watchmen, Chernobyl, the final season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: nope, nope, nope.
So yes, we’ve missed some good stuff. (Although I did watch Fleabag for work—duty calls.) But the upside has been pretty darn thrilling. We’ve watched 128 movies so far, according to the list I started keeping on Jan. 2 (Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton, 1924). To give ourselves at least a loose parameter, we came up with our own version of Michael Pollan’s dietary rule: Watch movies, not too recent, mostly American. But really, we just followed our whims. We rewatched some old favorites (Rushmore, Mulholland Drive) and some classics I had somehow missed (Lawrence of Arabia, Robert Altman’s Nashville). We’ve watched seven Hitchcock movies and five each by Altman, Nicholas Ray, and John Ford. The supposed classics Diner and High Noon were, for us, disappointments. Others I’d never heard of blew my mind, like Dorothy Arzner’s 1940 feminist comedy Dance, Girl, Dance, starring a pre-sitcom Lucille Ball.
We also followed along with the Slate podcast Flashback, in which critics Dana Stevens and K. Austin Collins discuss older movies “with a contemporary, critical eye.” Stevens and Collins feature a new movie every two weeks, and as soon as they announce the next selection, we add it to the queue. The show prompted us to watch the 1927 silent film Wings, the Kurosawa masterpiece High and Low, and the screwball classic The Awful Truth, one of my favorites of the year. One thing I’ve missed in this year of watching random old movies is that it’s harder to find fresh, insightful criticism to help me process what I watch. Flashback has provided just that.
Here I must stress the crucial role of DVD.com in this project. Many movies can only be streamed for a fee, and those $3.99 payments would add up fast. But the bigger problem is access. The promise of streaming services was that “everything” would be available at any time. Instead, a morass of legal hang-ups and commercial demands has conspired to keep countless great movies unavailable to stream. Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, to name just a few we’ve watched this year, can’t be streamed anywhere in the United States, at any price. Streaming services obviously don’t emphasize this point, and Netflix won’t even say how many titles it offers in the two branches of its business. But when CNN reported recently on the quirky remnant of Americans who still receive DVDs by mail, it estimated that Netflix offers fewer than 6,000 movies and TV shows to stream, while its DVD service has about 100,000 discs. If you really want to watch old movies, you still need access to DVDs.
As a practical matter, using the DVD service means we don’t spend the beginning of the night toggling between streaming services and painstakingly clicking out search terms with a janky Roku remote. Instead, we curate our ever-expanding queue in our downtime, and most nights we have just two or three DVDs to choose from. We pop one in, put down our phones, and voila—it’s movie night in America.
I’m not trying to pretend I invented the concept of watching movies at home. But for me, the past year has been a genuinely revelatory experience. The frisson of TV FOMO has dissipated; I haven’t heard anyone talk about Russian Doll or Chernobyl in months, after all. Meanwhile, our evening screen time has turned into something of an event. “Date night” may be putting it too strongly, since we’re still on our own couch, but it feels like we have a joint hobby, and we’re spending more time talking with each other about what we watch. The project went so well, in fact, that next year we’re producing a sequel.