Whether you’re sheltering in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus or you’re just looking for great deals in home entertainment, streaming a good movie over the internet is a fabulous way to pass the time. But who has the budget to pay for all those high-profile services? Well, here are 15 movies you can stream for the grand total of zero dollars.
You’ll need to put up with pauses for ads in some cases, and you might need to sign up for the services offering the flicks, but the films themselves are uncut and you can watch them on your schedule (unlike old-fashioned TV broadcasts). Hoopla and Kanopy are available to just about anyone with a library card:, while Crackle, iMDB, Popcornflix, PlutoTV, the Roku Channel, TubiTV, Vudu, and YouTube can be accessed with either a web browser or a smart TV app (on your TV, cable/satellite set-top box, or other media-streaming box).
The following pick-me-up recommendations revolve around distractions, surprises, and general entertainment. They’re not exactly kid-fare, but you don’t need to worry about upsetting your kids if they come in while you’re watching them. We’ll publish a second installment of this story on Friday. You can click the links after each recommended film to go directly to the service(s) where they can be streamed.
Updated shortly after publication to report that Hoopla has bumped the limit on content that patrons of participating libraries can check out to 25 items per month (streaming videos, music, and audobooks, as well as ebooks). Kanopy, which is available to participating library patrons as well as college students and staff, has increased its streaming-movie limit to 15 titles per month.
The Adventures of Tintin
Steven Spielberg’s computer-animated adventure The Adventures of Tintin (2011)—based on the popular Belgian comic book series—is an exhilarating ride, recalling his Indiana Jones movies, but with an intrepid kid, Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) and his dog, Snowy, rather than an archeologist. They team up with Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) to seek a treasure, a clue to the location of which is hidden inside a model ship. English filmmakers Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), co-wrote the delightfully goofy screenplay, and their favorite actors, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, provide character voices.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown
This skillful, unpretentious Western finds a fresh take on an old, classic story. When the hero, Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda) is murdered, the story shifts focus to Edward’s dopey, misfit sidekick of some forty years, the loyal Lefty (Bill Pullman), who tries to find the killer. Thanks to Pullman’s unhurried, expert performance, he becomes a commanding character, unwise in the ways of the civilization, but at home while riding the range. Director Jared Moshe shot The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017) on glorious film stock, framing characters against overcast skies, with rays of light occasionally streaming across.
You can watch The Ballad of Lefty Brown at Kanopy.
After many films about misfits and outsiders, director Tim Burton turned toward an adult story with Big Fish (2003). A no-nonsense journalist, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup), visits his dying father Edward (Albert Finney), a notorious spinner of tall tales. Edward tells his fanciful life story in flashback, with Ewan McGregor as young Edward, in a strange and glorious fantasy world involving circuses, a giant, and a big fish. Will tries to figure out the truth of it, and where he, himself fits in. The movie’s most touching sequence don’t involve flashbacks at all, but reflect the bittersweet sadness of leaving childish things behind.
You can watch Big Fish at Crackle.
Escape from New York
Made between the horror classics Halloween and The Thing, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) is a futuristic, dystopian sci-fi classic, as well as an action movie, but also one with a lot of laughs. The best joke is the repeated “I thought you were dead” anytime anyone encounters the stoic, growling, eyepatched hero, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). He is chosen to enter the crime-ridden warzone that is New York, 1997, to rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence). If he fails, tiny explosives will kill him. The incredible cast also includes Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine (as a cabbie), Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, and Adrienne Barbeau. Snake returned 15 years later in Escape from L.A.
You can watch Escape from New York at iMDB.
Though it shares the same name as Tod Browning’s unforgettable 1932 cult classic, this new Freaks (2019), made by Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein (who met when they both lost a filmmaking reality show in 2007), is an exceedingly clever and entertaining low-budget sci-fi film in its own right. A frazzled, panicked father (Emile Hirsch) lives with his 7 year-old daughter Chloe (Lexy Kolker) in a ramshackle house. He coaches her on what lies to tell in case anyone approaches, but otherwise, she’s not allowed to go outside. But she is tempted by an ice cream man Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern), and, from there, things go completely differently from anything we were expecting.
You can watch Freaks at Hoopla.
Buster Keaton’s silent-era masterpiece The General (1927) was, weirdly, a financial failure during its time, largely because of an expensive—and spectacular—climactic stunt. It’s now considered one of the greatest and funniest movies ever made. Keaton stars as Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer in the South at the beginning of the Civil War. His girl, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) informs him that she won’t marry him unless he enlists. He tries, but is rejected (his status as an engineer is more important). Then, Union soldiers steal his train, and kidnap Annabelle to boot, so he jumps on a hand car and gives chase. The entire movie is basically two chases, there and back, and filled with absolutely mind-blowing and ingenious visual gags, as well as unforgettable bittersweet moments.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Before making the ultra-successful Thor: Ragnarok and winning an Oscar for Jojo Rabbit, New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi made this wonderful, very funny coming-of-age story. A troubled foster child, Ricky (Julian Dennison), chubby and covered in “bling” is taken in by kindly farmer Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grumpy husband Hec (Sam Neill). After an accident, Child Protective Services threatens to take Ricky back, so Hec grabs Ricky and they hide out in the bush together, bickering and living off the land. Waititi keeps everything breezy and pleasing, with the singsongy dialog flowing on top of the unpredictable, beautiful, outdoors. The director appears as an oddball priest. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) was (and possibly still is?) the highest-grossing movie in New Zealand history.
Kung Fu Hustle
Stephen Chow’s enormously entertaining Kung Fu Hustle (2004) became the highest-grossing box office hit of all time in Hong Kong, topping Chow’s own earlier film Shaolin Soccer. In this one, he plays a small-time crook in Pig Sty Alley who tries to swindle his neighbors by pretending to be a member of the notorious Axe Gang. Unfortunately, the real Axe Gang turns up, forcing Chow to fight a series of “bosses,” each more powerful than the one before. Chow directs all this with a goofy sense of humor and wild visual effects, incorporating exaggerated cartoon-style actions (combatants are blasted miles into the sky, etc.) and even silent movie-type comedy. But the martial arts, choreographed by two legends, Yuen Woo-ping and Sammo Hung, are still seriously impressive. (In Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles.)
You can watch Kung Fu Hustle Crackle.
Little Women (1994)
Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel was recently in theaters, and this equally good version is also worth seeing. Directed by Australian-born Gillian Armstrong, the smart, sweet Little Women (1994) tells of the trials and tribulations of the March family, led by matriarch Marmee (Susan Sarandon) and populated by firebrand Jo (Winona Ryder), eldest sister Meg (Trini Alvarado), sweet, sickly Beth (Claire Danes) and the youngest, Amy (played by Kirsten Dunst as a child and Samantha Mathis as a young woman). There are fights and makeups, sicknesses and poverty, and men coming in and out of their lives. Jo becomes the source for that oldest of movie clichés: she’s going to write this particular story into a great novel. But, no matter; it’s all quite vivid and beautiful.
You can watch the 1994 version of Little Women at Crackle.
This fairly low-budget second feature by Christopher Nolan is still arguably the cleverest of all his movies, worth seeing again and again (it was co-written by his brother Jonathan, based on Jonathan’s short story). In Memento (2001), a bottle-blonde man, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), has a kind of amnesia that leaves him unable to make new memories. Each time his brain starts over, he relies on tattoos and notes that he has left for himself, reminding himself that he’s hunting for his wife’s killer. The movie’s brilliant conceit is that it’s told backwards, with each scene coming chronologically before the one we’ve just seen. So, the start of each new scene is just as jarring to us as it is to Leonard. Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano co-star, and Stephen Tobolowsky appears in flashbacks as Sammy Jankis, who sheds more light on Leonard’s situation.
Much Ado About Nothing
Between directing gargantuan Avengers movies, writer/director Joss Whedon relaxed by making this low-budget William Shakespeare movie with his friends, in black-and-white, at his own house. One of Shakespeare’s lightest plays, Much Ado About Nothing (2013) is graceful, breezy, and easy to follow, and with gorgeous music; it feels like a relaxing vacation. In fact, it works slightly better than even Kenneth Branagh’s colorful 1993 version. Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, and Reed Diamond are in a deceptive love triangle, and bickering enemies Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker begin to see each other in new ways. Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson from the Avengers movies) co-stars, but it’s Nathan Fillion (from Whedon’s TV series Firefly and 2005 movie Serenity) as the constable Dogberry that effortlessly steals the show.
This brilliant, time-bending sci-fi movie—based on a Robert A. Heinlein story—came and went almost unnoticed at the beginning of 2015, but it deserves to be discovered. Ethan Hawke plays a time-traveling secret agent on the trail of a notorious bomber. Working undercover as a bartender, he meets a young man who was born as a woman (Sarah Snook), and has an incredible tale to tell. It would be wrong to give any more away, but the twin writer/directors, Michael and Peter Spierig, from Australia, work miracles in expanding the short story into a full-length film that is compact, visually interesting, suspenseful, and with constant tricks up its sleeve. Best of all, Predestination (2015) contains a truly astonishing performance by Snook, whose role is shockingly complex. Noah Taylor co-stars.
You can watch Predestination at Crackle.
With Roman Holiday (1953), Audrey Hepburn made one of the most impactful acting debuts in movie history (though, technically, she was in a few tiny parts before). Both regal and pixieish, porcelain and charming, she plays Ann, a princess on a goodwill tour of Europe. In Rome, and bored with her rigid schedule, she escapes. American newspaperman Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) finds her and senses an opportunity for a story, bringing along photographer Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) to get candid snapshots of their adventures. But of course, Joe falls in love. Director William Wyler was known for his polished, prestigious productions, and he managed to find an appealing balance between silly comedy-romance and a realistic feel, elevating the entire thing. Blacklisted Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay under a pseudonym, but his name has since been digitally added to the credits.
The Station Agent
Tom McCarthy has made a career out of “small” movies that move intricately and gracefully, focusing on characters and capturing moments that feel true. The Station Agent (2003) at first looks like a gimmicky Sundance-type movie, but it’s a wonderfully touching story of three sad, lost people who find each other. Train nut Finbar (Peter Dinklage) inherits a dilapidated train station in upstate New York and moves there. Though he’s quiet and keeps to himself, he soon attracts the attention of two neighbors, talky hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) and a ditsy artist (Patricia Clarkson). While they seem to have nothing in common, they discover a genuine connection. Even though it’s largely talk, the movie maintains a strong emotional flow, and even moments of suspense. Michelle Williams co-stars.
You can watch The Station Agent at Hoopla.
Nacho Vigalondo’s ingenious time-travel movie, from Spain (with English subtitles), is a cleverly economical story, using only a few characters and locations and set over the course of one day, but it maintains a constant stream of amazing shocks and surprises. Hector (Karra Elejalde) and his wife Clara (Candela Fernandez) have moved into a new home, and Hector decides to relax by looking through his binoculars. In the woods, he sees a pretty girl (Barbara Goenaga), and something else rather strange. He investigates, encounters a man wrapped all in bandages and wielding a pair of scissors, and escapes by ducking into an active time machine in a nearby laboratory. The machine transports him back to a point earlier in the same day, and he must re-experience the same events, while making sure he doesn’t change anything.
You can watch Timecrimes at Hoopla.
Be sure to come back Friday for our second installment!