During times of crisis, people react in different ways. Some try to avoid the bad things, try to counter them with positivity and humor. So in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, they turn to lighthearted, funny fare.
Others confront the situation head-on, which explains the current popularity of movies like Contagion and Outbreak. Still others might refuse to be affected in any way. Some people might think it's not worth their time (whatever the circumstances) to watch a movie that isn't great. Why bother?
This list is dedicated to those folks, the great movie lovers. Here are 15 great (or near-great) movies that are available for streaming on various free services, either library-based, or ad-based.
Adaptation (Roku, Crackle)
The brilliant Adaptation (2002) came about when acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) was hired to write a film version of Susan Orlean's non-fiction book The Orchid Thief and couldn't figure out how to do it. Instead he wrote this story about a nerdy, anxious, blocked screenwriter, Charlie (Nicolas Cage)—also trying to adapt The Orchid Thief—and his outgoing, vivacious twin brother, Donald (also Cage), who wants to write a brain-dead Hollywood thriller.
Meryl Streep is magnificent as Orlean, and Chris Cooper won an Oscar as John Laroche, the actual orchid thief. Kaufman and director Spike Jonze take their masterful meta-movie as far as it can possibly go, from Laroche's explanation of the theory of "adaptation" as it applies to flowers, to the movie's own flipped-on-its-side brain-dead Hollywood chase scene. Tilda Swinton co-stars as an intimidating agent, Maggie Gyllenhaal is Donald's girlfriend, and Brian Cox is a screenwriting guru.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Pluto TV)
Before Stanley Kubrick died in 1999 he bequeathed this project to his friend Steven Spielberg; the latter then went above and beyond to make one of his most divisive, challenging films, and also one of his very best. Based on a short story by Brian Aldiss, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) involves a robot boy David (Haley Joel Osment) of the future. Grieving mom Monica (Frances O'Connor), whose son lies ill, obtains David and activates his "love" function, but when her real son recovers, David is eventually discarded.
David decides to find the "Blue Fairy," who he hopes can turn him into a real boy so his "mother" will love him again. Another android, "Gigolo Joe" (Jude Law), helps. The controversial final leg of David's journey is actually indescribably lovely and tragic. The movie as a whole is great-looking and as fluid as any of Spielberg's movies, and with a power that's hard to deny. See it in a double feature with another great Spielberg sci-fi film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, available on Crackle.
Ball of Fire (Hoopla)
This sexy screwball comedy classic is one of the unsung masterpieces, bursting with an amazing collection of talents. A kind of twist on the Snow White story, Ball of Fire (1941) stars Gary Cooper as timid professor Bertram Potts, who, along with seven older colleagues, is writing an encyclopedia. Realizing his section on slang is hopelessly outdated, he ventures to a nightclub and becomes fascinated by Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), who says things like "What's buzzin', cousin?"
When the police begin investigating her gangster boyfriend (Dana Andrews), she decides to hide out with the professors and "help" them with their slang. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote the snappy screenplay, Gregg Toland shot the movie in his trademark deep-focus black-and-white cinematography (he shot Citizen Kane the same year), and the great jazz drummer Gene Krupa plays. It was directed by genre master Howard Hawks, who made Sergeant York with Cooper the same year.
The Conversation (Crackle, PopcornFlix, Pluto TV, Kanopy)
Along with The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979), The Conversation (1974) helped establish director Francis Ford Coppola as perhaps the greatest American director of the 1970s. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance man in San Francisco, perhaps the best in his field. His latest job consists of eavesdropping on a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they walk around Union Square, trying to look and sound normal, but clearly wary, or afraid, of something.
Harry obsessively re-jiggers the recording, searching for clues and becoming more and more paranoid. Coppola's original screenplay and striking images (Harry's weird, opaque raincoat), as well as Walter Murch's powerfully precise editing and haunting sound design, all contribute to a truly masterful film. John Cazale plays Harry's colleague Stan, Teri Garr plays his sometime girlfriend, and in brief appearances, Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall are his sinister employers.
Dark City (Vudu Free)
This incredible, assured sci-fi film is so intricately designed that it holds up to multiple viewings. Dark City (1998) didn't catch on at the time of its release (even though Roger Ebert called it the year's best film and compared it to Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey) but eventually became a cult classic. A man (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a hotel room with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He discovers that he has a wife (Jennifer Connelly), who works as a torch singer. He also discovers that he may be responsible for the murders of several women.
Australian director Alex Proyas (The Crow) designs the movie as a quiet, otherworldly film noir, radiating mystery and strangeness as the mind-bending puzzle unlocks itself. Keifer Sutherland co-stars as a weird doctor, William Hurt is a detective, and Richard O'Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) is "Mr. Hand," one of a group of sinister "Strangers." (This is the original 100-minute theatrical cut.)
Dr. Strangelove (Crackle)
Director Stanley Kubrick's films are sometimes accused of being "cold," but here's a hilarious dark comedy, one of the funniest ever made, to counter that notion. Shot in black-and-white, Dr. Strangelove (subtitled Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964) features some of Kubrick's awesome, cavernous visuals, especially in the War Room sequences, but it moves at a good clip and never stops tickling the brain or the funny bone.
The insane Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders a nuclear strike on Russia, while the nervous RAF captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) tries to placate him. Major T. J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) pilots the B-52 bomber that receives the order, while General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) meets with the U.S. President (Sellers again) and other chiefs of staff to discuss some of the (hilarious, disturbing) options. Sellers plays a third role as the bizarre, wacky title character, an ex-Nazi advisor, and he received an Oscar nomination for his incredible, triple-threat work.
Ghost World (IMDB TV, Roku, Hoopla, Pluto TV)
After his highly acclaimed documentary Crumb, director Terry Zwigoff made his feature fiction debut with the masterpiece Ghost World (2001). A dark, yet dryly funny and sympathetic look at outsiders and artists, it contains many personal Zwigoff touches and established him as one of the most fascinating of American directors. Adapted from Daniel Clowes's graphic novel—Clowes and Zwigoff received an Oscar nomination for their screenplay—the movie stars Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as Enid and Rebecca, two friends who agree to get an apartment together after graduating high school.
But Enid first must take a summer school art class—taught by the constricting Roberta Allsworth (Illeana Douglas)—and becomes obsessed with reclusive record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi), and eventually the girls' friendship becomes strained. Despite its healthy dose of comic cynicism, the movie is really quite touching, and even enlightening. Bob Balaban and Brad Renfro co-star, with Dave Sheridan as the mullet-head "Doug" and comedian David Cross.