Hey there, film lover. How’s your January? I know, I know, not much in the way of new movies worth seeing this month, what with January being the Hollywood dumping ground and all. How’s about just staying in and streaming some Netflix? What’s that? You dropped your subscription because they raised the price by five bucks? Way to take a stand! Okay, so, go hit the Redbox. Yeah, you’re right, it’s pretty cold out. No need to bundle up and head all the way over to the Walgreens, only to go find that they’re all out of Fast Five. So what now?
Well, come to find out, your old pal YouTube has a surprisingly excellent collection of feature-length flicks streaming for the bargain price of zero dollars. I know, right? And, sure, a lot of them are junk, or the same public-domain titles that have been turning up on bargain DVDs at the Dollar Tree for years now. But there are some gems in there, and (being a service-oriented organization), we’ve sifted through their offerings to find the best of the bunch. Check ’em out after the jump.
It’s awfully easy to dismiss Al Pacino these days, what with all the Righteous Kills and 88 Minuteses and Two for the Moneys he’s accumulated, but don’t forget: when the guy gets a good role and a strong director, he still delivers like nobody in the business. Take a look at his HBO movies Angels in America or You Don’t Know Jack, or theatrical efforts like The Insider, Insomnia, and this terrific 1997 gangster picture from director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and Funeral). As downbeat grinder “Lefty” Ruggiero, Pacino is less Michael Corleone than Willy Loman; his portrayal of the workaday goodfella who’s watched the parade pass by is one of his most layered and intriguing to date. Oh, and did we mention Johnny Depp is in it? Johnny Depp is in it.
Film noir doesn’t get darker or more gripping than in Edgar G. Ulmer’s celebrated 1945 low-budget marvel, shot for “poverty row” outfit Producers Releasing Corporation. While recent research has indicated that its legendary six-day schedule and $20,000 cost may have been inaccurate, there’s no denying that the picture was made on the fast and cheap — and that the required efficiency helps give Detour its stripped-down intensity. The film, Roger Ebert wrote over 50 years later, “should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.”
When it comes to our favorite of the silent clowns, YouTube offers a wealth of riches — aside from several of his wonderful two-reelers, his feature-length classics Steamboat Bill, Jr. , Go West , and College are all available. But any discussion of Keaton must begin with his masterpiece, The General. Basing his story on a real incident in the Civil War, Keaton (who also directed) took pains to recreate the era with an attention to detail and accuracy all but unheard of in comedy; his film is like Matthew Brady photographs come to life. And then it’s funny, on top of that. The General is basically a film-length chase — railroad engineer Buster’s locomotive is stolen, so he commandeers another locomotive in pursuit, and once he gets his train back, he’s chased all the way home. The simple (but elegantly told) plot provides an ample framework for Keaton’s ingenious gags; the picture is both thrilling and uproarious, providing us with one of the earliest examples of the action/comedy hybrid.
The Charlie Chaplin Festival
There’s plenty of the Little Tramp to choose from as well: his poignant and charming feature The Kid , his WWI-set four-reeler Shoulder Arms , shorts galore, and even Tillie’s Punctured Romance (not a great film, and much more in director Mack Sennett’s style than Chaplin’s, but historically noteworthy as the first feature-length comedy ever made — common wisdom was that audiences would only tolerate short comedies). But The Charlie Chaplin Festival spotlights our favorite period of the iconic comedian’s life: the eighteen months he spent making two-reelers for the Mutual Film Corporation, which show the actor (and director) working at the height of his powers. Festival collects four of the best from that period: The Adventurer, The Cure, Easy Street, and The Immigrant. All are masterful, though we’re especially fond of the knockabout drunk humor of The Cure and the sweetness of The Immigrant.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
“German Expressionism” is one of those pieces of cinephilic shorthand (like mise en scene and diegesis) that’s thrown around so much, it’s very easy to just nod and agree without actually knowing what the hell the user is talking about. As a form, it’s easier to show than explain, and that’s where a viewing of Robert Wiene’s 1920 silent classic comes in handy; with its stylized sets, lighting, and technique, Caligari set an aesthetic that influenced everyone from Hitchcock to Welles to Tim Burton. And M. Night Shyamalan — Caligari features one of film’s first “twist endings.”
The Atomic Café
The rise of Internet video streaming (and specialty DVD labels) has led to an increased interest and affection for newsreels, classroom shorts, and other pieces of unintentionally hilarious “found footage” ephemera. But filmmakers Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty were way ahead of the curve on this one, assembling this clever look at Cold War-era America clear back in 1982. They shot no new footage and added no narration; they merely assembled propaganda films, ads, TV news footage, and the like to assemble a portrait of a prosperous country in quiet panic. The results are funny, smart, and occasionally shocking; this unique documentary is a testament to the power of montage to both inform and entertain.
Nanook of the North
That power was evident in this, the first feature-length documentary film, in which director Robert J. Flaherty shows us the life and struggles of the Inuit Nanook and his family. The picture is somewhat controversial amongst documentary filmmakers and historians these days; partially due to the constraints of filming at the time, partially per the documentary traditions of the day, Flaherty staged much of the film’s action and events. But the fascinating film’s value cannot be disputed — Nanook set the stylistic template for decades of documentary (if you’re looking for an entry point, think of it as a very early episode of Ice Road Truckers).
The story of a humble mariachi mistaken for a ruthless killer doesn’t sound the like the kind of fare typically selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry, but the organization did just that when they included Robert Rodriguez’s 1992 action picture in this year’s picks. Its importance is less about what’s inside the frame than out of it: Rodriguez famously made the film for all of $7,000, intending it solely for release on the Mexican home video market (hence its Spanish dialogue — Rodriguez was born and raised in Texas and was a native English speaker). Instead, it caught the attention of Columbia Pictures, which bought distribution rights, blew it up to 35mm, and released it to American theaters. Mariachi’s backstory (along with that of Clerks, released the following year) inspired countless wannabe filmmakers to scrape together whatever chump change they could and just go make a damn movie. Rodriguez, meanwhile, made a sequel for Columbia with a much bigger budget and star: the ridiculously entertaining Antonio Banderas vehicle Desperado (also streaming for free).
John Wayne cranked out something like 60 films between The Big Trail, the 1930 film that was supposed to be his big break, and Stagecoach, the 1939 film that actually was his big break. Most of them were low-budget “oaters” for Poverty Row studios like Monogram and Mascot, and there’s no shortage of that stuff available on YouTube for Duke fans — scores of them fell into public domain. But some of his later stuff is also streaming: the 1947 “fish out of water” film Angel and the Badman , and Wayne’s 1963 comedy/Western take on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, McLintock! As you’d expect with both a Taming adaptation and an early-’60s Duke film, the sexual politics are somewhat, erm, problematic. But it’s an enjoyable picture nonetheless; Wayne is in top form, and the broad comic bits mostly land.
Plan 9 from Outer Space
Okay, so there are some real dogs among the free YouTube movies. But that’s also part of the fun; they’ve got deliciously bad stuff on there, turkeys like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter , The Amazing Transparent Man , Child Bride , Assassin of Youth , Sex Madness , and Reefer Madness . Also worth noting: several titles familiar to fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, so you can take your own crack at riffing on dogs like Eegah!, Santa Claus, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians , The Killer Shrews , and Bride of The Monster . That last title isn’t the only free offering from the oeuvre of the great/awful Ed Wood; there’s his lesser-known Jail Bait , or his magnum opus: Plan 9 From Outer Space. And yep, it’s just as bad as you’ve heard, from the inexplicable day-to-night shifts to the ponderous Criswell bookends to the goofy props to the laughable dialogue (“You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”). Its reputation as “the worst movie ever made” has dimmed a bit, thanks to the notoriety of far worse films like Troll 2, The Room, and the MST3K discovery Manos: The Hands of Fate , but it is still a wonderfully awful way to spend 79 minutes.
A few other titles worth checking out: M , Carnival of Souls, Battleship Potemkin, Night of the Living Dead, Nosferatu, The Best of W.C. Fields, The Stranger, The Last Man on Earth, The Brother from Another Planet, The Man with the Golden Arm, The Inspector General, Road to Bali , Terror By Night, and Real Genius.
You can peruse YouTube’s free movies here — share your discoveries in the comments.