Even more great movies cord-cutters can stream for free
Make the most of staying at home by watching some of these great films.
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
20th Century Fox
Staying home is the best way to protect your family and yourself from the novel coronavirus pandemic, and watching movies is one of the best ways to fight cabin fever. But paying for subscriptions to all the best online entertainment services—not to mention renting or buying digital movies—can put a strain on your budget. So, here are more of our picks for the best movies that you can stream online for free.
Some of the services mentioned below—including Crackle, Tubi, and PopcornFlix—support their operations with advertisements. Others, including Hoopla and Kanopy, are supported by your local library. We hope you enjoy these flicks. Here are links to our March 18 and March 20 installments, but be aware that some films in those older lists might have rotated out of the services we suggest you watch them on by the time you read this.
Assault on Precinct 13
(Shout Factory TV, Tubi, PopcornFlix, Pluto TV)
The great John Carpenter made this taut, ferocious action-thriller after his low-budget student sci-fi film Dark Star, and before the hit Halloween. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) was inspired by Howard Hawks’s Western Rio Bravo, in which a small group of mismatched misfits must defend a stronghold against an onslaught of attackers from outside. Police Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to the final few hours of a decommissioned police station in an intensely crime-infested neighborhood. Unexpectedly, a busload of prisoners arrives, as well as the father of a murdered girl, just before ruthless street gangs begin to attack. Bishop reluctantly teams up with a killer (Darwin Joston) and a secretary (Laurie Zimmer) to survive the night. Carpenter’s widescreen staging provides a perfect backdrop for the movie’s gritty energy and crackling tension. And, as usual, he also provided the pulse-pounding music score. Co-star Nancy Loomis went on to appear in Halloween.
After seemingly dozens of terrible alien-invasion movies, this fresh, smart, playful film came along, and has already become something of a cult classic. Attack the Block (2011) begins as nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) takes the wrong street on her way home and is mugged by a group of thugs, led by Moses (John Boyega, later cast as Finn in the Star Wars movies). Something strange falls from the sky, and thus begins an alien invasion. Sam finds herself joining forces with her former muggers, as well as a goofball pot dealer (Nick Frost), to try to defend their neighborhood. This clever movie is actually about flawed perceptions, not only in how the humans and aliens view each other, but also in how the different humans view each other. It was the directorial debut of English comedian Joe Cornish, and it was produced by filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead); the two friends also co-wrote The Adventures of Tintin and Ant-Man.
(Vudu Free, Hoopla, Kanopy)
New Zealand filmmaker and actor Taika Waititi gained international fame with his Thor: Ragnarok, and then won an Oscar for his Jojo Rabbit. This earlier effort is a little different, but it still has Waititi’s unique blend of humor and sincerity, as well as that lovely, sing-songy (and very funny) dialog. Boy (2010) remains one of the best coming-of-age movies of the last couple of decades. It’s the 1980s in New Zealand. “Boy” (James Rolleston) is an 11-year-old who loves an older girl almost as much as he loves Michael Jackson. His mother has passed on, and he’s in charge of his younger siblings. Suddenly, his father, Alamein (Waititi)—who is nothing more than a big, irresponsible kid himself—returns. He wishes to unearth a hidden box of money, and he makes Boy dig holes while searching for it. The father-and-son relationship goes through many ups and downs (Alamein compares his mood changes to the Incredible Hulk), but eventually reaches a touching plateau.
(Vudu Free, Pluto TV)
Cult filmmaker Don Coscarelli, who is perhaps best known for the Phantasm movies, made this bizarre, incredible horror-comedy, based on a novella by Joe R. Lansdale. In a Texas rest home, a man claiming to be Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell, from the Evil Dead films) is friends with a man claiming to be former President John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis, from Do the Right Thing), even though he is black. (Both men have hilarious, convoluted stories that explain why they are who they say they are.) If that’s not loony enough, both men must work together to stop an attack from a re-animated ancient Egyptian mummy, that, for some reason, wears cowboy gear. Despite the general weirdness inherent in Bubba Ho-Tep (2003), Coscarelli manages to bring his characters to life with many funny and touching moments, as well as crafting genuine chills and suspense. It’s one of the great modern “B” movies.
This ingenious, twisty movie was released in the fall of 2001, but after the events of 9/11, it was not quite what anyone wanted to see; it eventually found a cult following on DVD. In Donnie Darko (2001), Jake Gyllenhaal plays the teen title character, whose weird sleepwalking habit sometimes takes him miles away from home. One night his condition unexpectedly saves him when an airplane engine crashes into his room. After that, however, very strange things begin to happen, including the appearance of a weird, six-foot demonic bunny that talks to Donnie about the end of the world. Making his debut, Richard Kelly skillfully controls everything from dialog to music to imbue the movie with an intriguing sense of finality; it’s an incredible, existential puzzle. Jena Malone co-stars as the new girl in school, Drew Barrymore is a favorite teacher, and Patrick Swayze is great as a sleazy self-help guru. (This is the original 113-minute theatrical cut, which is preferable to the 134-minute director’s cut.)
Andrew Niccol’s brilliant Gattaca (1997) is one of those rare sci-fi movies that emphasizes ideas over explosions, and its eerie themes are still resonant today. The story takes place in the future, where parents can genetically pre-program their children with ideal traits. But the downside is that “natural” born people are outcasts, facing discrimination and prejudice. One of those is Vincent (Ethan Hawke), who dreams of going into space, but can only work as a janitor. He gets his chance to move up thanks to Jerome (Jude Law), who has perfect DNA but lost the use of his legs in a car crash and is no longer an “ideal” citizen. Vincent borrows Jerome’s DNA to get the job of his dreams, and he falls in love with Irene (Uma Thurman) while preparing for a possible trip to Saturn, but the risk of getting caught is excruciatingly high. Niccol’s incredible use of the widescreen frame emphasizes a sense of isolation in man-made spaces, and Michael Nyman provides a haunting music score.
Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, Heathers (1989) is the pinnacle of 1980s black comedy, taking themes like bullying, popularity, and social status in high school and bringing them to an entirely new level. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has recently been allowed to join the most elite group of girls on campus of Westerberg High, consisting of three Heathers (one played by future TV star Shannen Doherty). Meanwhile, a mysterious, cool new guy at school, J.D. (Christian Slater), turns Veronica’s head. He introduces her to a whole new way of dealing with the cool kids, and it involves murder made to look like suicide. The movie’s finishing touch is a popular song about teen suicide (“don’t do it!”) that sweeps the school. Lehmann and Waters manage to get big laughs while digging into the blackest reaches of the human soul and coming up with a fairly accurate portrait of high school. The movie has since inspired both a TV series and a musical.
Perhaps the ultimate “guy” movie, High Fidelity (2000) is part of an unofficial trilogy—with Grosse Pointe Blank and Hot Tub Time Machine—by actor/writer John Cusack and writer/director Steve Pink, about men who look to their pasts for clues to their present. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s English novel and directed by Englishman Stephen Frears, the film is set in Chicago and has an American sensibility. Cusack plays Rob Gordon, a thirtysomething who runs a worn-out record store with two misfit employees (Jack Black and Todd Louiso), regularly re-organizes his own record collection, and can’t seem to commit to his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). So, he takes a trip down memory lane and visits his “top-five” former girlfriends to get some perspective. The filmmakers allow for so many delightful moments of humor, anxiety, joy, and music that there barely even seems to be a plot. But by the time the conclusion comes, we know that these unforgettable characters have been on a real journey. (Co-star Lisa Bonet’s daughter Zoë Kravitz now appears on a new, updated Hulu series, also based on the novel.)
A slick biopic of the legendary Wing Chun martial artist who went on to train Bruce Lee, Ip Man (2008) is full of coincidence and elaborations, but it’s enthusiastic, respectful, and very satisfying. It takes place in the village of Foshan during the 1930s and 40s, where Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is a modest, noble kung-fu master. When the Japanese invade, he loses everything but eventually shows everyone how things are done in a huge showdown. Director Wilson Yip gives this movie everything he has, and it looks amazing. He shoots for maximum clarity and maximum use of space, taking into account all the various period sets and locations. The martial arts are top-notch, fast-paced, clean, beautiful, and with a powerful impact. The great Sammo Hung choreographed the fight scenes, and then went on to play a supporting role in the equally excellent sequel, Ip Man 2 (2010). Both, plus Ip Man 3 (2015)—starring Mike Tyson—are on Hoopla. [In Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, with English subtitles.]
Microbe & Gasoline
(Tubi, Hoopla, PopcornFlix, Pluto TV)
Michel Gondry’s coming-of-age road movie Microbe and Gasoline (2015) is perhaps his best film since Be Kind Rewind, or even Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a ramshackle, gritty thing, and it seems as if it could have fallen apart at any moment, but it latches onto a true sense of friendship, confusion, wonder, and doubt that the teenage years have. It’s warm and summery, heartbreaking and potent. “Microbe”—so nicknamed because he’s small—(played by Ange Dargent) is a dreamer and a doodler whose mother (Audrey Tautou) gives him philosophy books to read. He meets new kid, “Gasoline”—so nicknamed because he’s a tinkerer who can fix his own motor bike—(played by Theophile Baquet). As soon as summer break starts, they embark upon building a strange, very Gondry-ian house-car that will carry them away from their dull existence. Their requisite road-movie adventures are handled with laid-back ease and delight. [In French with English subtitles.]
Directed by David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, the smart, entertaining Moon (2009) features mostly one actor, Sam Rockwell, plus the voice of Kevin Spacey as a robot called GERTY. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who works overseeing a kind of mining operation on the moon. It’s the year 2035; machines dig up powerful gasses, and Sam bottles them up in rockets and ships them to earth. His stint is supposed to last three years, and he’s looking forward to going home. But when he accidentally crashes his moon buggy, he makes a rather astonishing discovery about his job. Making his directing and co-writing debut, Jones creates an effective world of sterile life-support instruments and computers, some a little grimy from years of repeated touching in the same places. He’s also unafraid of shying away from darkness and even cruelty, but that only makes the movie more memorable. It’s also one of those movies that benefits from—and holds up to—repeated viewings.
Although Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes (2015) isn’t a traditional Sherlock Holmes mystery as in the Arthur Conan Doyle tales, it’s deep and satisfying in many other ways. The great Ian McKellen stars as an older, retired, forgetful Sherlock, living by the seaside and tending bees. A grumpy housekeeper (an equally terrific Laura Linney) helps out, and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) takes an interest in the old detective (McKellen was aged to 93 with superb makeup). Holmes is haunted by his final case, and struggles to remember it as it really happened, and not as Dr. Watson wrote it down; he even travels to Japan to obtain some “prickly ash,” which is said to jog the memory. Director Condon (Gods and Monsters), sprinkles the thoughtful, low-key movie with flashbacks and memories and uncertainties, revealing slow connections every so often, and leading up to a touching revelation. Nicholas Rowe, the star of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), has a cameo as a fictional Holmes onscreen in a movie house.
The Return of the Living Dead
(Hoopla, Tubi, Pluto TV)
Directed by Dan O’Bannon (a co-writer on Alien), The Return of the Living Dead (1985) is a surprisingly funny, spunky entertainment. It begins at a medical supply warehouse, where a veteran employee, Frank (James Karen), shows the new kid, Freddy (Thom Mathews), some barrels of government waste, the stuff that apparently caused earlier zombie invasions. Of course, they accidentally open one, and it all begins again. Linnea Quigley plays one of a gang of punks hanging around a nearby graveyard, a red-haired girl punk called “Trash” who does a memorable dance. The film contains many hilarious lines (“send more cops”) unforgettable images (the zombie half-dog), and a soundtrack full of 1980s punk rock songs by The Cramps, T.S.O.L., Roky Erickson, The Damned. John A. Russo, co-writer of the original Night of the Living Dead, contributed to the story. It was released at around the same time as George A. Romero’s official, serious zombie movie Day of the Dead.
A Scanner Darkly
Based on a 1977 novel by sci-fi master Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (2006) takes place in a dire, dismal future, in which a drug called “Substance D” has a hold. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover agent who is, ironically, investigating himself, as well as his two roommates, Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and junkie girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder). They all take the drug and discuss conspiracy theories, and their visions of reality begin to fall apart. Director Richard Linklater used a similar technique as on his great Waking Life, shooting the film digitally, and then having animators draw over the images. The result is a strange, realistic, but hand-drawn look full of effects like characters turning into bugs. Best of all is Bob’s suit, designed to resist identity scanners. It’s a patchwork of different, constantly phasing ears, eyes, lips, shirts, ties, etc. This is a brainy film, heavy on dialog, but the crazy-quilt visuals underscore it all, creating a truly trippy atmosphere.
Don Bluth had been an animator at Disney, working on films like The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon, and directing the short film The Small One before audaciously leaving and starting his own, competing animation studio. His debut feature, The Secret of NIMH (1982)—based on a 1971 children’s novel by Robert C. O’Brien—is a beautiful, exciting adventure with a distinctive edge of darkness. Mrs. Brisby—“Mrs. Frisby” in the book, but the name had to be changed to avoid a copyright violation—(voiced by Elizabeth Hartman) lives near a farm, where plowing season approaches. She must leave to avoid the deadly plow, but her son is ill and cannot be moved. She consults a wise owl (voiced by John Carradine), who tells her about a mysterious colony of rats living under a rose bush nearby; their “secret” helps save the day. The amazing voice cast also includes Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise, Aldo Ray, Shannen Doherty, and Wil Wheaton.
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