There’s an art to choosing the right film for every particular occasion, and as I nervously sit in a Qantas jet about to take off on a four-hour flight from Melbourne to Perth, the choice seems very important indeed. Choose the wrong film and I’ll be a sweating mess, feet planted into the floor as if I could bring the plane down safely by force, and desperately wondering if it might help to pray to God now, despite denying his existence for so many years.

Yes, I’m a fearful flyer, and with the ghastly disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines plane still leaking out all over the news, these are bad times for fearful flyers. But if I choose the right films for the flight, I’ll be transported out of my terror, and the hours will melt away.

Scrolling through the 20-odd films on offer on the touchscreen in front of me, certain options seem plainly preposterous. All is Lost (Robert Redford struggling to survive on a sinking yacht) and Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks struggling to survive on a ship hijacked by Somali Pirates) seem too much like a plane crash.

Slightly more promising is The Past – a superb and engrossing relationship drama set in the outer suburbs of Paris and directed by Iranian master Asghar Farhadi (A Separation). I silently congratulate the in-flight entertainment programmer (and wonder if he wants to give me his job), but I saw The Past at last year’s Melbourne Film Festival, and besides, it’s serious and solemn and subtitled. I need something light and easy.

Enough Said hits all the right buttons. A smart romantic comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Catherine Keener and the late James Gandolfini, the film had rave reviews when it opened. Directed by Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money, Please Give), it’s a funny mid-life love story about a divorced massage therapist and single mother (Louis-Dreyfuss) who befriends one of her sophisticated clients (Keener, playing an enjoyably obnoxious poet), only to find that she’s dating the woman’s ex-husband – the subject of much nasty girl-talk. Press play. I giggle while I watch, digging out salted caramel ice-cream from its little tub with a tiny plastic paddle. I do find it rather sobering that much of the plot revolves around the Gandolfini character being an overweight ‘slob’ with annoying guacamole habits, and of course knowing he died of a heart-attack not long after filming. So much for happy endings.

The flight’s only halfway over. There’s been no turbulence at all, and I’m strangely drawn to watching something difficult; a film I’d deliberately avoided at the cinema due to my very rational hatred of war films. Based on a true story, The Railway Man stars Colin Firth as an Eric Lomax, an ex-British soldier still traumatised decades after being a WWII prisoner working on the horrific Burma Railway. Tortured during captivity, Lomax seeks revenge on a particularly vicious guard, and his encounter with his former enemy is startling and powerful. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, this Australia/UK co-production was the top-grossing Australian film of 2013, much to everyone’s surprise. (Having Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman as its stars was never any guarantee of success, yet the film earned more than $7.5 million – a very respectable figure for a local film with a ‘dark’ story.)

Gripped, moved and enlightened, as we land quite smoothly, I muse that sometimes difficult films can be just as diverting as frothy fun fare.  Perhaps on the flight home I’ll try another challenging film – as long as it doesn’t involve plane crashes, terrorists or survival at sea.

The Past and All is Lost are currently in release at cinemas. Captain Phillips is now available on DVD/Blu-ray. Enough Said is coming to DVD/Blu-ray on 2 April, and The Railway Man is coming to DVD/Blu-ray on 23 April.

ACO logo