Sometimes the best things in life really are free, whether it’s going for a jaunty stroll down the block on a bright summer day or watching your entire family collectively losing it when somebody brings up politics at Thanksgiving. The same is sometimes true with streaming services. Why pay $5, $10 or $20 a month when you can just use the library card or student ID in your pocket to have instant access to some of the best movies ever made for no money down. That’s Kanopy: the free streaming service that collects many of the most highly regarded films, documentaries and educational materials for students and library patrons all over the country. So if you need to shake up your regular viewing habits with something educational or out there or just plain different, this might just be the streaming service you’ve been looking for.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – Kanopy’s primary purpose as a streaming service is education. Sometimes this takes the form of documentaries and at other times it takes the forms of highlight classic and worldly films that our usual, blockbuster-laden movie diets don’t often intersect with. And one thing that modern viewers seem to desperately be missing is a sense of the early years of the medium: before sound was an industry staple, when shorts were still in high demand and when so much of the basic grammar of film was in flux. Now, I mentioned Lon Chaney before when speaking to the surprise presence of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) on Hulu, in which the legendary character actor played the deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo. But the man was a chameleon of the silver screen, constantly transforming into ever more inventive and unrecognizable creations for the delight and terror of his viewers. Perhaps his most famous turn on the big screen was as the titular Phantom of the Opera in this early entry into the Universal horror canon. Even today – when we are so used to these classic terrors, transformative prosthetics on actors and even a musical rendition of the same subject – his film stands strong as the gold standard for Gaston Leroux’s nightmarish Phantom lurking beneath the Pars opera house. A significant improvement on the novel upon which it’s based and beyond the reproach of every adaptation which followed it, the combination of Universal’s sprawling sets, the stripped-down treatment of the Leroux’s narrative and the singular skill of Mr. Chaney create a one-of-a-kind effect that still succeeds in eliciting a dark thrill in modern-day audiences curious enough to seek it out.
The Battle of Algiers (1966) – As if we didn’t have enough on our hands with a global pandemic and a deranged despot in the White House, the long and troubled history of police brutality against communities of color has come to a boiling point in the United States over the past month. No longer content to sit quietly on the sidelines, activists and allies have taken to the street, to social media, to any possible avenue at their disposal to make themselves heard and affect real, substantive change with how we dispense justice in the United States. But this is not the first time that we’ve been at this juncture – either at home or abroad – and its riveting films like The Battle of Algiers that keep the cultural memory of these events alive today outside of the classroom. A powerful depiction of revolution, war and the peace that (hopefully) follows, the film has greatly appreciated in critical esteem since its incendiary release more than fifty years ago. Varyingly banned in France until 1971, Oscar-nominated in the United States and listed in Sight & Sound‘s 2012 poll, Il Messaggero‘s list of “100 Italian Films to be Saved,” Empire’s “500 Greatest Movies of All Time” and “100 Best Films of World Cinema” lists and Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” it has proven to be an arresting firebrand of revolutionary sentiment for decades, and stands firm as one of the most powerful calls to arms that the medium has yet to offer.
Yeelen (1987) – When we talk about “Black films” in the United States, we tend to take a far too limiting look at what the term has to offer: oftentimes just those fortunate enough to be directed by a Black American. But, obviously, the term can be applied to a great many more films beside that: written by Black writers, performed by Black actors or wholesale being made outside of the purview of the United States. And, even then, when we tentatively venture beyond our own meager borders, we tend to look no further than the nearest copy of Black Girl (1966) or Touki Bouki (1975) (both of which you should admittedly seek out all the same). But for me, one of the best and most interesting Black-made films ever set to the screen is Souleymane Cissè’s Yeelen. Far more obscure than the works of Ousmane Sembène and Djibril Diop Mambèty, this West African fantasy film, based on the mythic legends of the Bambara people, is an engrossing story that is so extraordinarily different than the usual sorts of post-Colonial stories that are so often the focus of continent’s filmmakers. And, what’s more, is it is incredibly engaging, being not just a film of monumental importance, but also one that is often incredibly fun to watch as well.
Memento (2001) – Like every garden variety Film Bro of my generation, I love Christopher Nolan. He is an incredible talent whose practical, stripped-down aesthetic has been able to straddle both the arthouse and blockbuster scenes without missing a beat, granting great gravitas and potency to any number of thoughtful and action-packed films. His best, however, isn’t The Dark Knight (2008) nor Inception (2010) nor even Dunkirk (2017), but an increasingly memory-holed arthouse film that is far less casually accessible than even his most die-hard fans are often willing to try out. But Memento – a film told in reverse so as to mirror its protagonist’s inability to form long-term memories – is a gripping neo-noir that follows one man’s attempt to solve a murder based on clues he gives to himself via hand-written notes, tattoos and the kindness of strangers (who he can only assume that he’s met before). You can definitely see the filmmaker straining against the confines of the medium and what his audience is willing to put up with throughout the film, but those able to take the journey with him will find a cinematic experience that you’re unlikely to find in any other film and an increasingly hidden gem to spring on that friend of yours that thinks they’ve seen everything.
Moonlight (2016) – The culmination of the first “wave” of #OscarsSoWhite activism, Moonlight is the rare best film of the year that actually does win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (the only other ones being Schindler’s List, The Silence of the Lambs, the two Godfather movies, Lawrence of Arabia and maybe Parasite); that’s pretty rare company to be in. And it’s really no wonder to see why. It combines the sweeping breadth of Boyhood (2014) with the sprawling cast of The Godfather (1972) and the directorial vision of a Spielberg, Hitchcock or Lee. It is a towering accomplishment in subtly, in intimately-drawn characters and in insightful visual storytelling. And, for this, many – myself included – have justly called it one of the best and most essential movies of the last decade.
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