If the only way filmmakers could process life in quarantine was scripted Zoom conversations, the art form might be screwed. “Homemade,” a wondrous and mostly satisfying anthology of 17 short films made over the past two months around the world, proves the opposite. A dense collection of inquisitive, unpredictable and often life-affirming responses to the pandemic from some of the most astute directors working today, “Homemade” is pure filmmaking talent in bite-sized pieces that doubles as a lively, scattershot collage of the world in 2020.
Whereas many anthology projects can feel like mixed bags by default, “Homemade” has been tailor-made to fit its Netflix-sanctioned format, with shorts divided up into chapters that range from four to 11 minutes, and few that feel extraneous. As a diverse assemble of style and substance from active filmmakers with unique sensibilities, it doubles as an overview of international cinema and entry point to many of its strongest active voices, while giving them the opportunity to capture a unique moment in the history of the medium, not to mention humanity itself.
In that sense, established auteurs such as Paolo Sorrentino and Gurinder Chadha gel nicely alongside relative newcomers to the director’s chair, from Maggie Gyllenhaal to Kristen Stewart, who provide just enough snippets of potential to suggest more around the corner. “Homemade,” then, both affirms existing filmmaking talent in spite of the global crisis, and hints at its future.
Though Netflix’s accompanying description encourages viewers to “Watch These Short Films in Any Order” (and labels the project “Volume 1,” though there has been no indication yet of more to come), “Homemade” benefits from a linear experience: It’s bookended by two shrewd statements on the socioeconomic and cultural impact of the pandemic — from Ladj Ly and Ana Lily Amirpour, respectively — while everything in between sorts through the details. “Homemade” gives us touching snapshots of filmmakers with their families and friends, dreamlike meditations on isolation, breakups, fantasies, and even a musical.
It’s a lot to take in, but like the 2007 anthology “To Each His Own Cinema” (commissioned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival), the global perspective (and, presumably, some savvy behind-the-scenes curation) means that each installment feels distinct from the others. In each one, end credits allow the filmmakers to explain the conditions of their quarantine (nobody seems to have broken the rules) and the technology they used, deepening the personable nature of the project as well as the innovation on display.
Ly’s opening entry is a sequel of sorts, following teenager Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly, the director’s son), whose drone videos captured police violence in Ly’s Oscar-nominated debut “Les Miserables.” Here, Buzz once again sends his drone across the neighborhood of Clichy-Montfermeil in Paris’ Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the French neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic. In “Les Miserables,” Buzz’s roving camera captured the injustices on the streets; here, it captures snippets of lives from windows and rooftops, establishing the nature of a project designed to expose the sheer volume of stories percolating in confinement.
From there, “Homemade” careens through funny, moving, and strange installments, few of which feel rushed. Sorrentino’s quasi-animated entry uses action figures to imagine a hangout session between the Pope and the Queen (voiced with touching nuances by Javier Cámara and Olivia Williams) over the course of a surreal meeting that suggests “The Two Popes” by way of Todd Haynes’ “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.” And like Sorrentino’s “The New Pope,” the one-liners are as poignant and absurd (“You and I are symbols, which is why we don’t know how to do anything,” the Queen suggests) as the plot, which involves skinny-dipping, dancing, and the glorious landscape of an empty Rome.
The few filmmakers whose entries take the form of modern technology find fresh ways energizing it. “I Am Not a Witch” director Rungano Nyoni imagines the hilarious breakup and reconciliation of a biracial British couple exclusively through text message, while Pablo Larraín (whose company, Fabula, produced the project) uses a montage of video calls to portray the savage, hilarious comeuppance faced by a promiscuous old man dying from the virus.
The surprises keep coming. Sebastian Schnipper, best known for his one-take heist thriller “Victoria,” brings one of the more original approaches to the collection with an amusing look at solo life in quarantine in which he confronts multiple aspects of himself (think “Multiplicity” with a deadpan twist). Kristen Stewart’s entry takes a similar approach into the arena of a psychological thriller, as she endures a psychological breakdown in closeup (while her partner Dylan Meyer addresses her off-screen) and struggles to sort out whether she’s dreaming or wide awake. There’s not much to it beyond her frantic expressions, but the actor-director allows herself to deliver her most unnerving turn since “Personal Shopper.”
A few of the entries feel less like homemade movies than just home movies, but some work better than others. Naomi Kawase’s poetic installment amounts to little more than winsome montage, and Nadine Labaki’s recording of her daughter is basically just glorified playtime. Other filmmakers use their children to more satisfying ends: Cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Rachel Morrison delivers a moving ode to her five-year-old son against the expressionistic imagery of his active life, while Chinese filmmaker Johnny Ma writes a letter of his own to his mother, explaining his newfound family life in Mexico (come for the bittersweet observations, stay for the dumpling recipe over the credits).
Yet the highlights of these more intimate portraits include one entry from “Starred Up” director David Mackenzie, whose daughter Ferosa provides an edgy window into the righteous anger of adolescents forced to grow up in confinement, and “Blinded By the Light” director Chadha’s charming and profound window into her London family’s life. In under 10 minutes, Chadha has her son narrate a range of experiences, from learning about their Indian heritage to the tragedy of losing Chadha’s far-off mother to the virus. It’s one of the few chapters with enough distinctive characters that it could benefit from future installments.
Some filmmakers used the opportunity to experiment with genre and form, such as Antonio Campos, quarantined in South America with Christopher Abbott and casting the actor in a peculiar Hitchcockian thriller about a strange visitor at a seaside home. “A Fantastic Woman” director Sebastian Lelio, meanwhile, delivers the most endearing installment, a self-reflexive musical starring Amalia Kassai as she sings and dances her way through a domestic routine. “Jeanne Dielman” by way of Miranda July, Lelio’s lament about the slow-burn meltdown caused by endless days will be a familiar song to many.
While “Homemade” often functions as a document of modern times, at times it takes the long view. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sci-fi selection stars her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, wandering empty farmland as the moon looms far too large in the sky, apparently on the verge slamming into the Earth; radio dispatches suggest the virus has been eating away at every aspect of the cosmos. Despite a loopy and inexplicable sexual twist in its closing minutes, Gyllenhaal’s polished vision of an imminent apocalypse works as a clever riff on the blend of tranquility and dread that many have experienced while shut off from the world.
But Ana Lily Amirpour’s closing entry brings the whole thing home. The director of “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” has crafted a savvy response to the state of a universe put on hold, with a dispassionate voiceover from Cate Blanchett following the masked filmmaker as she bikes around an empty Los Angeles. While Blanchett’s observations about the pandemic don’t reveal much in the way of new information, they take on deeper connotations against dramatic backdrop of vacant streets. Ultimately, Amirpour arrives at a rumination on the crisis facing cinema that all of the contributors to “Homemade” must confront, with an overhead shot of Hollywood Boulevard and the empty Chinese Theatre mourning the blow to an art form that excels at wrestling with our complicated times.
Yet as this anthology project seeks to address that gap, the finale ends with some modicum of hope. “Art is just a way to force a new perspective on the familiar,” Blanchett muses, and “Homemade” proves the truth behind that assessment. We don’t know how history will look back on the pandemic and the way humanity chose to respond to an unprecedented existential threat, but when it does, “Homemade” may offer some direction.
“Homemade” is now streaming on Netflix.