How to Find and Stream Your Favorite Classic Films
For anyone in love with the art of film, we live in a glorious age of immediate gratification. Within seconds of your being overcome with a sudden yearning to see it again, or for the first time, you can find and watch almost any title in the history of film.
But the second you’re stricken with a need for an Ernst Lubitsch comedy or a Zhang Yimou costume drama, two problems rear their ugly heads: Which streaming service do I subscribe to? Which streaming service has the greatest number of films I want to see?
I’ve put off this survey until I felt there were enough possibilities to make it worthwhile. Years ago, the battle was mostly between Netflix ($15.99/month; all prices quoted are for premium services) and Hulu ($11.99/month). I decided I had to have both: Netflix for its huge selection of DVDs, and Hulu for offering the complete Criterion Collection. Today, there are dozens of streaming services; but now, every production company -- HBO, Disney, Showtime, etc., etc. -- seems intent on withdrawing its own titles from the major aggregators so they can set up streaming services of their own. If you want to watch Snow White again, forget Netflix. You have to go to Disney+ ($6.99/month) for that -- and for films from Pixar, and the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, all of which Disney now owns or is in partnership with.
One question I’ll sidestep is that of which films constitute “classics.” You can get an idea of my opinions on the matter by reading my series of “Collector’s Corner” articles. But I don’t believe that the only classic films are the ones discussed in USC’s Cinema and Media Studies’ Introduction to Cinema. Quality is in the eye of the beholder. Who am I to pick which films a true film aficionado will find important? We all have different tastes. My neighbor has invested well over $30,000 in his home theater, and has a huge library of rips of films. His preference is for, far and away, the Marvel and DC universes of comic-book characters, and the louder and more action-packed the film, the happier he is. Then again, he loves Ariana Grande.
Do you share any of these odd longings?
I can’t imagine life without annual viewings of Singing in the Rain, It Takes a Thief, Once Upon a Time in the West, His Girl Friday, and The Quiet Man. Nor am I an old-movie snob -- I’m the first in line for any new release from Luc Besson, Zhang Yimou, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Wong Kar-wai, Darren Aronofsky, or Baz Luhrmann.
Only you can say which films you couldn’t live without. You might think it heaven to start a weekend marathon some Friday night with Requiem for a Dream, Irreversible, and Melancholia, continue on Saturday and into Sunday with the Saw octet, and finish up Sunday evening with Saw’s spiritual godfather, The Last House on the Left. I think I’d be suicidal by the wee hours of Monday morning, but I occasionally hear from readers who enjoy such punishment.
Or you may be a young parent stuck at home during the pandemic, and find yourself focusing so exclusively on Disney and Pixar that you’ve convinced yourself that the Toy Story tetralogy is the epitome of film art. Or, like my friend mentioned above, you might think that nothing else in American cinema can touch the moment that Israeli actress Gal Gadot first appeared in her Wonder Woman costume.
This column is aimed at the film lover willing to entertain the notion that Star Wars and 8½ are both great films. Or that Orson Wells and Quentin Tarantino can both appear on a list of Great Directors. Or that some nights you want to see Fred and Ginger dance the most beautiful ballroom steps, and the next night watch Donnie Yen make you believe he really could beat up 25 armed men.
In short: The odd corners of my taste dictate multiple streaming accounts. I can blame only a serious lack of self-discipline for the fact that I’m willing to spend all that money so that I can watch -- whenever I’m in the mood -- an obscurity such as the Director’s Cut of Luc Besson’s early feature The Big Blue (original title Le Grand Bleu), with its lovely music by Éric Serra, 50 extra minutes, and Besson’s original ending. To satisfy such odd yearnings, I pay the full Monty to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Apple TV, HBO Max, as well as everything (other than porn and foreign- language films) offered by Comcast’s Xfinity. But hold The Big Blue in mind for a second . . .
One sad side effect of today’s ubiquity of great films is that most of the companies that provide access have determined that you might actually pay good money to consume their product. We are now in the midst of a film-industry hurricane. Companies that once limited themselves to the distribution of film content, such as Netflix and Amazon, have decided that their real bailiwick is now the creation of that content -- and they churn out new, original series and feature films at an unprecedented pace. CBS’s premium service offers all of their old programming plus some new and highly appealing series -- like Picard. Most of their older programs used to be available through Netflix or Hulu.
The same goes for Disney and Pixar. Both used to have programming on Netflix or Hulu, but those titles are fast disappearing as Disney+ tries to squeeze more billions of bucks from their productions by calling all those old films back home. People thought Disney was crazy when they bought Lucasfilm for just north of $4 billion, but Mickey Mouse is smiling -- the last three Star Wars films alone grossed more than that, and now, anyone who wants to stream any Star Wars film must sign up with Disney+.
With all these resources, you’d think almost any movie can be found on some streaming service or other. But remember The Big Blue? Try as I might, I found it on none of the services I subscribe to -- unless I wanted to spend even more to rent it, from Apple or Amazon or one of several other services ($3.99 to rent, $4.99 to buy). This is an older film with few fans, and I have to rent it on top of my subscription fee? How about a Billy Wilder comedy? I love The Seven Year Itch -- Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell are hilarious, and this 1955 film has always been available on Netflix or another service. Not now. Want it? Rent it. Apple will happily take your $3.99. I could give you hundreds of other examples.
You must be a film fanatic, or you wouldn’t have read this far. But if you believe that subscribing to a streaming service means you can lay hands on the complete films of John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder, check again. Not gonna happen. You’ll have to pay Apple or Amazon or Comcast a separate rental fee for each film.
John Ford should be celebrated as a national treasure, and every one of his films should be made available to school children and all human beings living in English-speaking countries. This film nut finds it necessary to rewatch, at least once a year, his Cavalry Trilogy of Rio Grande, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Fort Apache, as well as The Searchers, The Quiet Man, Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Mr. Roberts. HBO Max has two of these films; Amazon, Starz, and TCM each offer one; the rest cost me $3.99 a pop.
Thankfully, most premium services -- e.g., Cinemax, HBO, Showtime, Starz -- now offer viewing on demand: you can watch items in their library whenever you like. You’re no longer locked in to seeing it at a specific time or DVR-ing it. It may be sitting on a service somewhere.
But how do you find it? Do you want to search through each and every service to see if you can find Shadow of the Thin Man, or Mothra vs. Godzilla? I don’t.
A condensed compendium
There was a time when I hoped to be able to talk about all of the streaming services, but their numbers are growing so fast that this piece will be out of date as soon as it’s published. Instead, here’s a list of the biggies, with a few of the smaller services that catch my eye.
Netflix ($15.99/month): Still the behemoth of the streaming business. How big? Try this on, from CNN in March. Apparently, Netflix is so big, the EU asked them to “reduce streaming quality in Europe for at least the next month to prevent the Internet collapsing under the strain of unprecedented usage due to the coronavirus pandemic.” One website can crash the web worldwide? Wow! Originally, your Netflix subscription got you DVDs via snail mail. Later, they added streaming at no additional cost. Now, www.netflix.com is dedicated to streaming only, and what began as a website for distributing the work of other film and TV producers has become one of the world’s largest producers of filmed content. Luddites can still access Netflix’s library of DVDs and BDs via dvd.netflix.com, which offers many films you have to pay extra for from other services, as well as many that are unavailable for streaming from anyone, anywhere. Their premium disc plan costs $11.99 a month, which allows you to always have two discs on hand.
Don’t get me wrong. Any company that can produce series on the level of quality of Narcos, Stranger Things, or Ozark has a parking space in my TV. And Netflix has rescued several shows from other networks’ chopping blocks -- I was especially pleased when they brought back Longmire and The Killing. But how well does their streaming service do with great films?
About as well as a bastard stepchild. I’d put the number of truly great films streamable from Netflix at around 50, from a collection of thousands. Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is there, as are three Spielberg classics: Schindler’s List, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Netflix has a few modern classics, such as The Irishman, Okja, and Roma. But overall, unless you subscribe to their disc-rental program, which is full of classics, you’ll be watching Netflix’s own TV shows.
Hulu ($11.99/month): Take everything I’ve just said about Netflix and miniaturize it. Hulu has some very good original programming -- e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale and Little Fires Everywhere. Classic films? Not so much. They have The Graduate and West Side Story. Their “Classics” list includes mostly films I’ve never heard of, and I can assure you that if I haven’t heard of them, they’re pretty obscure. Considering that Hulu used to be the network for The Criterion Collection, they’ve fallen very far.
Amazon Prime ($12.99/month): Sometimes, when I visit Amazon Prime, I feel I’ve fallen into a grifter’s wonderland. You pay $12.99/month or $119/year for two-day shipping of anything ordered from Amazon US (though COVID-19 has apparently made two-day shipping a thing of the past), and you also get lots of free music, books, magazines, and movies. Their collection of films is aimed at people who like older, second-rate action films, like Escape from New York. If you’re willing to dig deep, you can find a few greats, like the above-mentioned The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Charade, Once Upon a Time in the West, His Girl Friday, and the Wes-approved Hitchcock thriller To Catch a Thief. Yet I somehow feel punked when I have to spend even more money to rent something that wouldn’t cost Jeff Bezos too much to offer for free.
HBO Max ($14.99/month): This is now the 600-pound gorilla of great-film sites. Not only does it have all the old HBO series you could ever dream of, it has classic films from TCM and Studio Ghibli, home of Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest animator of all time. As if all that weren’t enough, they now offer most of The Criterion Collection’s catalog. Criterion has retained their own programming -- documentaries, makings-of, interviews, commentaries -- for their own site, but if you’re interested in only the films themselves, most of them are here. HBO Max is also a good source for Hitchcock and DC Comics films. This is the place for anyone who wants a first-class education in classic film.
Disney+ ($6.99/month): Some might call Disney’s line-up “classic.” Fantasia certainly qualifies, and so do, probably, the four Toy Story films. Miracle on 34th Street? For sure. Star Wars? Maybe a couple of them. But if you have children, or a childish imagination, you’ll find here all of Disney’s films, animated or live action, as well as Pixar’s, Marvel’s, and the Star Wars sagas -- a huge library of movies that have pleased millions of people around the world for over 80 years.
TCM (usually comes with your cable subscription): This is one of the best sources for older John Ford films. While the programmers’ sense of humor ranges from chicks-in-chains flicks to obscure Godzilla sightings, they also have an uncanny ability to find great old films that may not be recognized as classics but often should be. And their introductions are a model of the art form, including history, trivia, and production ephemera.
Peacock (free with Comcast, price for everyone else unknown): Has a small but well-chosen library of films but only a few classics.
CBS All Access ($9.99/month): Has a small and mostly uninteresting library of films. Hidden among the dreck are a few classics -- Harold and Maude, The African Queen, several Hitchcock films -- but this is the place for Star Trek fans.
The Criterion Channel ($10.99/month): It’s all here: everything The Criterion Collection currently has under contract, as well as their full slate of documentaries and commentaries. No other site on earth can provide this depth and breadth. If you have any interest at all in classic film, you must spend at least a night or two each week immersed in The Criterion Channel.
MUBI ($10.99/month): This is a carefully chosen list of films, many of them obscure, but the curators make a strong case for the inclusion of each. You can download their films to watch offline, and they add a new film every day. If you want to watch some classics but would rather avoid the decision-making process and just let a well-informed film geek pick for you, this is your site.
Fandor ($5.99/month): This site is under newish ownership, and I’m not sure where they intend to take their viewers next. They have about 150 “classic” films, as well a highly curated list of about 3000 films overall, as well as ace editorial content.
Apple TV+ ($4.99/month): Loads of rentals, with new things coming, but currently pretty boring -- which is why, I guess, they more or less give it away when you buy an Apple product.
Indieflix ($4.99/month): Has lots of shorts and a few great public-domain films that you can find for free elsewhere.
Funimation ($7.99/month): This is the site for anime, subtitled or dubbed, and lots of it. If you consider Grave of the Fireflies, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell to be the three greatest films in the history of cinema, this is your site.
I subscribe to more of these services than any human could possibly watch. But if I had to narrow it down . . .
I subscribe to CBS All Access, Netflix, and Peacock for their series. When I want a movie, I usually go to Amazon Prime, The Criterion Channel, or HBO Max. Then, way too often, I end up paying even more money to rent the films I really want to see. Amazon is convenient, since it takes me straight to the rental, if that’s the only way to get it. HBO Max has a huge selection of Criterion films, but you have to go directly to the Criterion Channel to access their definitive documentaries and commentaries.
Strategies for the true film fanatic: finding the films you want
IMDb’s search engine does a fine job, and it’s free, but it tends to steer you to Amazon -- Jeff Bezos owns both companies. Amazon’s search is simple, but it searches only Amazon. In fact, all services have their own search engines that work quite well. XFinity offers searches across its own products as well as Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix. Roku’s search is dead simple, if you use a Roku device to access your streaming services. Rotten Tomatoes offers an aggregation of their critics’ findings that then leads to lists of great films -- but a film that gets 10 votes of 100% ranks higher than a true classic that got 20,000 votes that averaged only 89.9%.
JustWatch has its fans, and I’ve used it in the past, but the easiest app is what I use: Reelgood. Let it know which film, series, actor, or director you want to focus on, and it searches the sites you subscribe to and spits out a list of where you can find it. Sadly, that list is increasingly populated with rental sites, but you can always hope that all those monthly subscriptions you pay will yield several films on your want list. Once you’ve selected which service’s version you want, Reelgood can go to a Roku and automatically cue up the film on that service. On top of all that, I’ve found JustWatch’s developers to be readily available, and they listen to recommendations.
What if I’m short of cash?
Last but not least, for the seriously broke film lover, are Crackle, RetroCrush, Tubi, and Vudu. I hate them all -- they interrupt films with ads. I understand that someone has to pay for the content, but . . . Hulu’s low-cost membership is no better. But if you want a free service and don’t mind your viewing being riddled with commercials, IMDb-TV generally keeps it down to five to seven minutes’ worth of ads per film. All of these services must find single-cell lifeforms to pick where they put those ads -- they appear at the worst possible time.
But don’t despair -- if you have a library card, you can probably get Kanopy as part of your library membership. Kanopy is a brilliant selection of classic movies that includes 50 of The Criterion Collection’s best films, and one of the best selections of documentaries you’ll find anywhere. Don’t look for Disney here. Instead, you’ll find an outstanding collection of international cinema and a surprisingly good selection of Hitchcock. They even have a very good set of guitar-instruction videos. Unfortunately, for some reason, the New York City Public Library decided that its members didn’t need free access to hundreds of the best films in history. For shame. Hopefully, your local library is smarter than that.
Finally, there’s the Internet. YouTube alone has enough fascinating content to last you several lifetimes. Unfortunately, all that great content adds up to about 0.0001% of what’s on YouTube -- until someone comes up with an effective and customizable filter system, you’d have to be a masochist or a zombie to spend much time there. Once upon a time you could watch whole TV series on YouTube, for free. About 15 years ago, I stumbled across Have Gun, Will Travel. I haven’t a clue who took the time to rip and upload all 225 episodes of that psychedelic steam-punk western, but it amazed me -- I watched each and every one of them with glee. On the other hand, I just spent the most worthless 20 minutes of my life watching a “documentary” about the hardest-to-play rock guitar solos. Still, fans of Asian film and American ephemera can often find something before YouTube’s copyright cops force its removal, and occasionally it can be life-changing. As I write this, a quick search of John Woo’s films yielded free versions of The Killer, Red Cliff, Hard Boiled, A Better Tomorrow (both films), and the commentary tracks for several of these.
And there you have it
If you don’t know where to start learning about classic films, read the three columns I wrote a few years ago (they’re linked to below). The information is still current, and offers easy entry -- armed with a list of titles you want to see and a copy of Reelgood, you can find your way to some of the world’s greatest cinema. You might not realize just how much of it you’re already paying for.
. . . Wes Marshall