You Can Watch These Films For Free, Legally And Morally Justifiably

Tom Nicholson
·7-min read
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

From Esquire

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.

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're getting excited for David Fincher's making-of movie Mank too.


The Trench (1999)

Retrospective Films shares classic and under-seen films on behalf of their distributors on YouTube, so there's no shady business going on here. One of its newer titles is an early outing for both Daniel Craig and Cillian Murphy, and follows a group of teenage soldiers in the 48 hours before a big push across a muddy field in northern France which will become a byword for senseless mechanised slaughter: the Somme. Danny Dyer and Ben Whishaw pop up 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.


HyperNormalisation (2016)

After four years of Trump and a summer of Q Anon 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.


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.


The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)

It’s quite hard to emphasise quite how big this was on release: it was the biggest ever box office opening for a comedy in the UK, and is still the only example of a British sitcom successfully sending its usual cast on holiday for a big screen adventure. Will, Jay, Simon and Neil head to Magaluf for the traditional post-A-level tear-up, and much as it piles up the knob, poo and wanking gags, it also sounds a subtly elegiac note. It evokes that bittersweet summer which is both the crescendo of and definite ending to your hometown teen years, while also using the word ‘clunge’.


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