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.
(For more suggestions of quality movies to help you bide the time, see our list of lighthearted pick-me-up flicks and our follow up list of 15 other Hollywood faves.)
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.
The Ghost Writer (YouTube Free, Vudu Free, TubiTV)
Decades after Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, director Roman Polanski proved he was still at the top of his game with this thriller, based on a novel by Robert Harris. Ewan McGregor plays the unnamed title character, known only as “The Ghost,” who is hired to revise the memoirs of retired British Prime Minster Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The manuscript is top secret, and the Ghost must work at Lang’s home, with various aides, and Lang’s wife (Olivia Williams) treating him suspiciously.
As he researches, he begins to discover secrets that someone does not want him to know. The material in The Ghost Writer (2010) is pretty standard, but Polanski’s handling of it is masterful, brilliantly using small details, sounds, weather, and visual spaces to ramp up a deep, genuine sense of fear and paranoia. Like Hitchcock before him, Polanski elevates pulp to art. Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, and Jon Bernthal co-star.
Good Morning, Vietnam (Roku)
In Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Robin Williams plays the real-life Adrian Cronauer, a military airman and DJ assigned to Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam, who decides to shake up military radio’s conservative rules and regulations by telling jokes and playing loud rock ‘n’ roll. Though the real Cronauer wasn’t quite as outrageous, the role was nonetheless crafted for Williams’s unique talents, allowing him to riff on any era-appropriate ideas, doing accents and characters, reading forbidden news reports, and anything else that pushed the envelope.
While Williams goes wild, director Barry Levinson keeps the movie around him smoothly and effectively on track. The character’s relentless pursuing of a Vietnamese girl (Chintara Sukapatana) seems a little iffy today, and most other actors are easily upstaged or outclassed by Williams’s energy, but it’s still an earnest, powerful, lovable, and very funny movie. Williams received the first of his four Oscar nominations for his work. Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, Robert Wuhl, J.T. Walsh and Richard Edson also star.
Henry V (Hoopla, Pluto TV)
At age 28, Kenneth Branagh audaciously took on this $9 million production of Shakespeare’s Henry V (1989), directed by and starring himself. Purists were offended that anyone would try to out-do Laurence Olivier’s beloved wartime version, but Branagh replaced Olivier’s rousing, bold colors with a muddier, bloodier, more realistic approach. It also includes “flashbacks” from other plays, illustrating Henry’s touching relationship with Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane).
The battle of Agincourt sequence is incredibly striking, including a memorable several-minutes-long take, and Branagh received dual Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Actor (the film won a single award for its costume design). It’s all quite glorious, although it helps to have a little knowledge of the Bard before going in. The cast includes Ian Holm, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench, Paul Scofield, and Emma Thompson, plus a young Christian Bale as the “luggage boy.” Derek Jacobi narrates, starting things off from a film set.
Lone Star (Vudu Free)
With his intricate, novelistic films, John Sayles has been one of the most consistent, intelligent, and culturally sensitive of American independent filmmakers since 1980; the modern, humanist Western Lone Star (1996) is now widely considered the pinnacle of his impressive career. Set in a small Texas town, sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) investigates a skeleton found in the dirt and works to solve its decades-old mystery.
At the same time, he must reckon with the shadow of his legendary sheriff father (played in flashback by Matthew McConaughey); many of the locals insist on comparing son against father. Sayles creates an entire history and political climate for the town, and a complex, shifting tapestry of ideals among the local races and cultures, but never neglects the characters and their interwoven relationships. Elizabeth Peña plays Sam’s lifelong love, the mixed-race Pilar, and Frances McDormand has a memorable scene as “Bunny,” Sam’s ex-wife. Also with Kris Kristofferson.
Once Upon a Time in the West (Crackle, PopcornFlix)
Many consider this king-sized movie by Sergio Leone to be the greatest Western ever made. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) opens with an astonishing, 10-minute sequence as three sinister-looking men in duster coats wait at a train station. Leone cuts together huge, wide landscape shots and smashes them with close-ups, and similarly slams together dark with light. Finally, a man known only as “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) arrives and easily dispatches the three would-be killers (two of them played by Woody Strode and Jack Elam).
Then, ex-prostitute Jill (Claudia Cardinale) attempts to join her new husband and his family but finds them all slaughtered. Trash-talking bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is accused, but the real villain is the cold-blooded low-down dirty dog Frank (Henry Fonda). Ennio Morricone’s amazing, startling harmonica-based music score occasionally wails under the action, ramping things up to monumental heights. Two other notable directors, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, worked on the story.
Punch-Drunk Love (Hoopla)
The beautiful, odd thing that is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is a grab-bag of ideas ranging from plungers to pudding, but it’s centered around the director’s admiration for Adam Sandler. Anderson proved that Sandler could be a great actor (a notion that was recently confirmed in Uncut Gems).
Clad in a chrome-blue suit, Barry Egan (Sandler) deals with a gaggle of bossy, bullying, overbearing sisters and tries to keep an explosive temper in check. He calls a phone sex line, meekly handing over his personal information, and finds a harmonium in the street. But then he meets and falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), and everything changes. Anderson’s prism-color scheme, awkward and distant angles, and use of music and sound (a tribute to his mentor Robert Altman), make the film into something of a dreamy unreality that’s funny, prickly, and lovely. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, and Mary Lynn Rajskub co-star.
Raging Bull (Roku, Hoopla, Vudu Free, Pluto TV)
Voted the best film of its decade, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), based on the story of the real-life middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, still feels as powerful as ever. Robert De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal of Jake over the course of decades, aging and putting on weight. He meets the teen blonde goddess Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), pursues her and eventually marries her, but can’t understand or relate to her and can’t control his violent jealousy.
Joe Pesci co-stars as Jake’s brother Joey, in a performance full of devotion, anger, pain, disappointment, and anguish. It’s a weirdly enthralling portrait of a self-destructive brute, classical and stylish with its glistening black-and-white cinematography, but raw and explosive in its savage force. Scorsese’s fight scenes are extraordinary, with cuts made to the rhythms of punches and photographers’ flash-bulbs; editor Thelma Schoonmaker won her first of three Academy Awards for her groundbreaking work.
Stories We Tell (TubiTV)
Canadian actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, the Dawn of the Dead remake) made an incredible splash when she became a director, making the highly acclaimed fiction films Away from Her (2007) and Take This Waltz (2012). But for her third film, she gets even more personal. Stories We Tell (2013) is a brave, shocking documentary about her own family. “Who cares about our family?” her sister asks at one point, but the answer is: anyone who loves a good story.
In searching for long-lost family secrets, Polley discovers that facts are subject to skewed memories, differing viewpoints, and dramatic storytelling. She dismantles the documentary format as we know it and puts everything on display. She shows herself trying to figure out where to go next, doing various takes with her father recording the narration, and even an interview with a film producer who explains why her film just won’t work. How wonderful it is to prove him wrong.