My expertise on this subject has dwindled considerably in the past 18 months, but I'll scrape what I can from distant memories of air travel to talk about my favorite genre of film: The Plane Movie.
In my ideal plane movie, nothing happens. This is also my ideal non-plane movie. I love a film that rambles through the ins and outs of a solvable conundrum or documents a moment in time that would be totally insignificant, if someone hadn't decided to write a script about it.
These types of movies have a frustrating commonality: They're hard to describe. The Before Sunrise trilogy takes up three spots in my Top 10, but if I tried to explain the plot, I'd have to nudge you awake. "It's a conversation...between two people...as they take a long walk....also sometimes public transportation..."
The Nonexistent Plot Line Genre is perfect for an airplane, which is such a strange surreal setting for anything to happen: eating a snack, chatting with a neighbor, flipping through channels, looking at clouds. It's equal parts astounding and administrative. Caspar David Friedrich would lose his mind if he knew that we were all zipping around the sea of fog he painted in 1818, and yet it's become an inconvenience for us.
I still find airplanes romantic in their otherworldly oddness: all that sterile food to unwrap as the plane tips to the side and you can see villages you'll never visit, then back to your 5th episode of a new TV show. Emotions run high, but so does boredom. It's a goofy combo that lends itself very well to a stronger tolerance for movies where nothing happens. One notices much more on an airplane, and one can more easily get lost in a very subtle plot.
Here are my top 5 plane movies:
"Caramel revolves around the intersecting lives of five Lebanese women." That's accurate, and exactly how I'd explain the low-stakes storyline, but it doesn't really matter what happens in this movie: it just oozes delight. The imagery, music, and wonderful actors are all so scrumptious that I was able to watch this movie several times without subtitles--I don't speak Arabic--when I got a bootleg DVD while living abroad, and it quickly became one of my favorites even without understanding the dialogue. It sucks you into a kaleidoscope world and you just want to stay there and luxuriate, so much so that the last time I watched Caramel on a plane, the woman behind me asked, "What's the name of that movie you were watching? I couldn't keep my eyes off it."
Rating: 10/10 for making your seat mates jealous
Gimme the Loot
Another world that is so fun to inhabit for 80 minutes: the New York of two teenage graffiti artists who accidentally give us a touching blueprint for platonic love. I've watched this movie with a few different friends, and each has reported the same sentiment: "This is the exact tone I was looking for today." Whether they were hungover, broken-hearted, newly in love, anxious, or stoned into tranquility, Gimme the Loot either elevated their mood to lightheartedness or deepened it to tenderness.
Rating: 10/10 for meeting you where you are
Crazy Rich Asians
Is this the perfect plane movie? It's splashy, it's fun, it's ridiculous, it's moving. I'm not an Action Movie Individual, but I suspect it scratches a similar itch: it's somehow both exciting and predictable, and a complete escape. (I had to google 'appeal of action movies' to make sure I got this right.) The plot is a little more advanced than the Nonexistent Plot Line Genre, but you can breathe easy knowing that your years of rom com consumption have prepared you well to anticipate the ending.
Rating: 10/10 for bringing some glamour to coach class
Nicole Holefcener is the ultimate director of the Nonexistent Plot Line Genre. She must be an incredible observer of people (which leads me to suspect she was once a waitress or perhaps had a stint working in retail) because she picks up on such funny intimate truths that you may wonder if she's been listening to your audio messages. She seems to be particularly interested in wealthy white people with totally manageable problems, but it's the subtleties of her characters' interactions that make her movies relatable and human. The plot barely matters: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is newly dating James Gandolfini, a situation made complicated when the ex-wife character played by Catherine Keener gets involved. There's really nothing to see here, but the little vulnerable moments along the way are so sweet and captivating that your morning flight to Nashville will fly by.
Rating: 10/10 for Gandolfini's laugh
A Quiet Place
I'm making a couple exceptions here: One, this movie definitely has a plot. Two, I have a strict policy against watching scary movies, but I've seen this a few times. Since I have a phobia of flying, sometimes it's actually helpful to get my mind off that fact that I'm 36,000 feet above ground and on to someone's real issues: like the fact that this family can't make noise or they'll be attacked and killed by monsters. When you're looking to speed up time and soothe a flight phobia, I suppose a scary movie is your best bet. A Quiet Place happens to be my favorite, since it's a lot more softhearted than your average slasher.
Rating: 10/10 for getting you to jump out of your seat, no turbulence required