Right, first off: we are extremely not into pirated streaming. You got a virus off some cruddy streaming site? Buddy, you deserve it!
After the year that the cinema industry's had, there's no excuse for draining any more money away from it, especially given how easy it is to find legal, cheap access to pretty much any film ever on streaming services. If you can, chip into your local independent cinema with a gift card or a membership, and rent new films to watch at home while cinemas are shut.
So no, we're not saying you necessarily have to cheapskate it all the time. However, there are loads of legal, high quality places to watch films for free if things are a bit tight at the minute. Some classic titles' copyrights have lapsed, and some newer documentaries and features have found alternative routes to release online. They're entirely legit and safe, so enjoy without feeling your conscience screaming.
Public information films tended to come in two flavours back in the Seventies: kooky animations where everything is brown; and absolutely terrifying art films. This is the latter. It’s about the dangers of running around and having a laugh on farms, which was apparently one of the main dangers facing kids in the Seventies, and is narrated by a boy called Danny. He and his mates are the Apaches of the title, playing cowboys and Indians on a farm. Unfortunately, only one survives: one gets run over by a tractor, one gets crushed by a gate and another drowns in a slurry pit. There’s a woozy, surreal quality to it, with gore skipped over in favour of abstract compositions which nonetheless tell you that if you knock back a refreshing glass of pesticides then you’ll die. This was for kids! This was meant to be watched by children!
Another Bloody Sunday (1981)
Within sports documentary there’s a rich seam of films about fundamentally hopeless teams who keep on plugging away at their (badly) chosen game. Another Bloody Sunday is about the fans of Doncaster’s rugby league team, and when we meet them they’ve just been entered into the Guinness Book of Records for most games without a win: 40. With four games to go, the fans just want something to cheer at their decrepit, tyre-strewn Tattersfield ground. Poignant and very funny, there’s a great juxtaposition between the bombast of the score and South Yorkshire’s power stations and coal mines – this is a place of “men who expect life to issue a personal challenge”, the voiceover tells us – and the unfailing optimism of the few who hope Doncaster can turn it around.
Whitney: Can I Be Me? (2018)
The stratospheric career, staggering talent and sad end of Whitney Houston is laid out plainly in Nick Broomfield’s film, which gathers together her collaborators and friends to riddle out the source of her musical gifts, how she got to the top, and how she came to be dead at 48 in a Beverly Hills hotel bathroom. If you didn’t know her story before, start here; if you did, there’s plenty of unseen archive and fresh live performance footage you won’t have seen.
Stan & Ollie (2018)
Part Golden Age Hollywood celebration, part wintry peek behind the curtain, Stan & Ollie follows Laurel and Hardy's lacklustre 1953 tour of Britain. Once the biggest box office draw in the world, the pair now find themselves judging beauty pageants in Worthing. The strain of the tour opens up old wounds, but also reminds the pair of exactly why they need each other. Steve Coogan's gift for impressions finally found its greatest expression in his twitchy, hangdog Stan Laurel, while John C Reilly's laconic Oliver Hardy is played with a light touch. Altogether, it stays just the right side of syrupy.
A Star is Born (1937)
A fading screen icon meets a bright young thing and helps her on her way to fame and glory, but can't save himself from tumbling further into obscurity. It might not be a tale quite as old as time, but it's a Hollywood tale nearly as old as Hollywood itself. The first of the four A Star is Borns to be birthed set the template for remakes in 1954, 1976 and 2018, and this isn't even the first evidence that Hollywood loves feeding its own myth: What Price Hollywood? pulled some of the same moves in 1932 – aspiring actress heads to the city, meets alcoholic insider, and their careers go on opposing trajectories – but not with A Star is Born's mixture of melodrama and waspish commentary on fame.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Mary Henry should be dead. She survived plunging into a ravine in a car after a drag race, but she has no idea how. Something's changed, though. She moves to a new city but she's followed and overtaken by something she can't understand, and an empty funhouse keeps calling her toward it. The scares come from director Herk Harvey's jarring, clanging use of sound and lighting, as well as giving a hallucinatory vibe to even the most mundane moments.
After being almost completely ignored on release, Carnival of Souls was rediscovered when arthouses started playing it again around Halloween 1989. Since then it's become part of the Sixties horror firmament alongside Night of the Living Dead and an inspiration to David Lynch and a generation of avant-garde filmmakers.
The Kid (1921)
Charlie Chaplin's first masterpiece has just turned 100 years old, and a century's distance hasn't dulled its brilliance. A mother abandons her child in a rich man's car, but the wee mite ends up being raised by the Tramp. They haven't got a lot, but they do have two things: love, and a pretty sweet little racket where the kid breaks windows and the Tramp gets paid to replace them.
Quite by chance, though, the kid's mother moves into their orbit, and the pair are pulled apart. Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited and starred in his first feature, which purportedly had to be smuggled to Salt Lake City in coffee tins to stop Chaplin's ex-wife taking it in their divorce settlement, and which started shooting just 10 days after his infant son had died. That might explain the tenderness and pain behind the comedy.
Night Mail (1936)
Unlikely as it sounds, the General Post Office was home to a lot of the most exciting experimental British films of the Thirties. One of the BFI Player's free selections is Night Mail, a huge landmark in the history of documentaries, which follows the postal train taking letters and parcels from Euston to the Scottish Highlands. What begins as a pseudo-slice of life celebration of modern life's advances climaxes with WH Auden's breathless poem of the same name, its rhythm matching the hammering beat of pistons as the train heaves north. Len Lye's extraordinary, kinetic 1936 animation 'Rainbow Dance', also from the GPO Films Unit, is well worth five minutes of your time too: it's joyous, surreal, vibrant, and it only exists to flog government savings bonds.
The Edge (2019)
Even if you're not bothered about cricket, don't worry: while this doc tells the story of how England bounced back from embarrassment in 2010 to become the world's best Test team in 2012, it's not just about cricket. It's about what happens in your head when the tiniest fraction of a movement is the difference between being indispensable and being a liability. Beanpole bowler Steven Finn's rise, fall and mental disintegration is a case in point, and the relentless pursuit of success also chewed up Monty Panesar and Jonathan Trott. It's very funny on top of that, and the music by ex-Maccabee and now-Tailender Felix White is belting too.
Fourteen Days in May (1987)
Edward Earl Johnson has been found guilty of rape and murder, and has been sentenced to death at Mississippi State Penitentiary. He protests that his confession was made under duress, but the state won't listen. This BBC documentary follows the last two weeks of Johnson's life, and is as eloquent an argument against capital punishment and the justice system's institutional racism as there's ever been. It's a riveting and thoroughly harrowing experience, and easily one of the most powerful documentaries you'll ever watch.
Citizen Kane (1941)
The BBC's iPlayer added a tranche of great old pictures from the archives of RKO Pictures, one of the Big Five studios of Hollywood's Golden Age. It includes perhaps the greatest film of all time: Orson Welles' life story of enigmatic tycoon Charles Kane. Very handy viewing if you want to get the most out of David Fincher's Oscar-bothering making-of movie Mank too.
Top Hat (1935)
Another of the RKO stable’s megawatt star combos is on career-best form here. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are Jerry Travers, an American dancer in London for a show, and Dale Tremont, who’s pissed off with him dancing his way through her hotel room ceiling. He falls for her and dashes all over London after her, dancing up a storm and creating one of Hollywood’s all-time great screwball fantasias in the process.
When We Were Kings (1997)
This retrospective of the 1974 'Rumble in the Jungle' is a concentrated shot of the raw power, extraordinary charisma and quicksilver wits Muhammad Ali embodied even at the end of his fighting career. "I cut the light off in my room, I was in bed before the room got dark," Ali boasts at one point.
In his way was young, strong, fearless, awesome George Foreman, who at 22 was the heavyweight champion of the world and the hot favourite. Occasionally, even Ali's front drops. "Scared of what? Ain't nothing to be scared of," Ali says at one point. Then, more uncertainly: "Scared of what?"
In Zaire, though, the people were on his side, and commentary from the likes of Spike Lee and Norman Mailer put the fight in its context and explain how Ali's technical genius and psychological smarts landed him perhaps his greatest win. The soundtrack is utterly electrifying too.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Cary Grant, a staple of RKO for decades, first made his mark in crime dramas, but he flourished as a dashing lead in head-spinningly pacy rom-coms like Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story and The Awful Truth. His Girl Friday is the peak, though. Grant's Walter Burns is a newspaper editor who tries to stop his former star reporter (and former wife) from marrying someone boring and settling down. From then on it's a bit pointless trying to explain what happens, because everything happens at enormous speed, but it still sparkles 80 years on.
King Kong (1933)
You know the crack with this one: colonial types go to the wilderness to find a gigantic ape, find ape, bring ape back to New York, attempt to turn ape into off Broadway smash, ape disagrees, ape gets horn for human woman, ape takes five on Empire State Building, planes unsportingly shoot ape, ape stacks it into the heart of NYC. But just because you've seen it parodied in a thousand places doesn't mean you really know it. Watch it now and see exactly how innovative and ambitious it still is.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Howard Hawks’ other classic Cary Grant comedy pitted his leading man against Katherine Hepburn. The production was extremely laidback – one scene took six hours to shoot because Grant and Turner kept getting the giggles, and Hawks once shut down filming so he could go to a horse race – and, like many classics, it made next to no money and looked like a flop. Paleontologist David Huxley (Grant) is sailing toward a marriage he doesn’t really want when scatter-brained free spirit Susan (Hepburn) clatters into his life. All sorts of capers ensue, mostly involving Baby. Baby is a leopard, who simply will not stay put.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
In which the dead rise from their graves to tug at all of the raw nerve endings America had in 1968. And oh boy, is that a lot of raw nerve endings. The gore here is relatively modest by the standards George A Romero would set in the more luridly splatterific later entries in his zombie series, but the sight of a seven-year-old girl vacantly gnawing on her dad’s severed arm is as nightmarish now as it was then. Brutal, bleak, brilliant.
After four years of Trump and a torrent of QAnon, coronavirus conspiracy and 5G trutherism, Adam Curtis’s documentary-essay about how we all gradually slipped into accepting the fake reality that governments, corporations and tech have created around us now only feels even more prescient now. If you’ve not seen a Curtis doc before, expect jarring juxtapositions of archive clips, massive ideas, and Burial on the soundtrack. Curtis's new series of films about the strange undercurrents and stories which made the modern world, Can't Get You Out of My Head, is on iPlayer now too.
The Babadook (2014)
Ba. Ba. Ba. Doooook. Nothing good ever comes of reading spooky children’s books in films, especially when the children doing the reading are spooky enough to begin with. Young Samuel is a spooky little boy, and his mum Amelia, a widow, is starting to fray at the seams. Then he insists on reading the story of The Babadook, a horrible top-hatted ghoul who starts to terrorise him. Underneath the scares, Jennifer Kent’s debut explores grief, motherhood, and mental illness, and lands it with an unexpectedly upbeat and hopeful note.
Pepe the Frog: Feels Good Man (2020)
That frog who appeared in alt-right and neo-fascist memes and imagery wasn’t always a noxious figure of hatred. Pepe originally appeared in Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club zine, but this colourful and empathetic doc traces how a happy frog who liked to take a whizz with his pants around his ankles came to represent the particularly greasy, sincerely insincere irony which racist groups have taken on, and the steps which Furie has taken to take Pepe out of their hands.
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