Streaming might represent the future of film, but that future doesn’t have to come at the expense of its past. Netflix, however, doesn’t seem to care. A platform so monolithic that it’s become synonymous with streaming itself, Netflix may offer a seemingly bottomless library of content, but their “classic movies” section contains a whopping 42 titles, and one of them is “The Parent Trap.” No disrespect to “The Parent Trap” — a movie so good that it was rendered obsolete by a remake starring Lindsay Lohan — but it’s not exactly “Citizen Kane.” Hell, it’s not even “Citizen Ruth.” It feels like these films were left here by accident, like someone came by to clear out space for a new season of “Fuller House” and this random selection of stuff is just what fell through the cracks.
Physical media and repertory screenings are still the best options for cinephiles, but Netflix is ultimately not the only game in town, and the digital world is starting to accommodate people who like to watch movies that were made before 1990. Partnering with Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection, Filmstruck has quickly emerged as an essential service, establishing itself as the most extensive (and extensively curated) online hub for great cinema. Meanwhile, more niche outfits like Mubi, Fandor, and Shudder have each staked their claim, appealing to their own subset of streamers. Every month, their rosters get deeper, and every month, we’re going to highlight the best classic films that have been added to these sites — all you have to do is pick your poison.
One quick note before we get started: For the purposes of this column, “classic” will refer to anything made before 1990. Yes, 1990. While that might seem like an absurd cutoff date, it also seems to be the one that Netflix uses when determining what’s relevant to their subscribers. It’s their town, we’re just streaming in it.
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5. “L’enfance nue” (1968)
Perhaps the only Maurice Pialat film that could be confused for the work of Ken Loach (especially if you watch with the subtitles off), this sober yet soulful little drama is equal parts “Kes” and “The 400 Blows.” Michel Terrazon plays François, a 10-year-old terror. We hate the little scamp before we pity him, and Pialat — who never did anything halfway — ensures that we feel both of those sentiments with similar force.
At first, before it’s clear that François is a foster kid who’s been floating around the system for his entire life, the boy just seems like a sociopath in the making; he terrorizes his foster mother’s beloved “natural” daughter, and joins a group of ruffians in dropping a cat down a staircase. But he thaws after moving into a new house, whose considerably older resident challenge the child’s penchant for destruction. Translating to “Naked Childhood,” Pialat’s debut feature is a tough, tender-hearted portrait of France’s working class, as well as an exquisitely affecting examination of the extent to which people are shaped by the love they’re given.
Available on Filmstruck’s Criterion Channel (10/27)
4. “A Fistful of Dollars”
The al dente Spaghetti Western that sparked an entire genre (and inspired a well-founded lawsuit from “Yojimbo” filmmaker Akira Kurosawa), “A Fistful of Dollars” is the kind of movie so iconic that it makes you feel embarrassed about using the word “iconic” to describe other movies. The first chapter of Sergio Leone’s “The Man with No Name Trilogy” may lack the epic sweep of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” or the characteristically deranged Klaus Kinski cameo that highlights “For a Few Dollars More,” but its swagger is on a scale of its own. Clint Eastwood has delivered a lot of killer one-liners in his day, but “Get three coffins ready” will never be topped. Yes, it should be a criminal misdemeanor to watch this movie on a small screen, but “A Fistful of Dollars” is such an incredible gateway drug that we’re willing to look the other way just this once.
Available on Hulu (10/2)
3. “Carnival of Souls” (1962)
Movies are not the result of simple addition, where various components are added together into a cleanly divisible whole. On the contrary, movies are alchemy, a strange brew of ingredients that burble together into something more (or less) than the sum of their parts. Case in point: “Carnival of Souls,” a micro-budget horror film that casts a spell that can’t be copied (and Hollywood has definitely tried). A singular one-off that’s become almost as storied as “Night of the Hunter,” Herk Harvey’s only completed feature stars Candace Hilligoss as Mary, the sole survivor of an ill-fated drag race. Dredging herself out of the water and reentering a world that feels ominously shadowed by her near-death experience, Mary soon finds herself trapped in a stretch of American nowhere that’s as inescapable as the Twilight Zone, and twice as dark.
As ghoulish as its title suggests, “Carnival of Souls” is nothing short of a waking nightmare, Gene Moore’s skinless organ score guiding us through a funhouse of our deepest fears. Once upon a time, this was the kind of nameless movie you might stumble upon at 2 A.M. on TCM and only remember the next afternoon, when you could no longer be sure if you hadn’t just imagined the whole thing. Now, even when seeking it out and streaming it on your laptop, Harvey’s unnerving masterpiece still retains the same delirious power.
Available on Filmstruck’s Criterion Channel (10/11)
2. “Le Samouraï” (1967)
One of the very coolest films ever made, Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterful crime noir is such a fiercely self-possessed pastiche that it resolves into something that feels utterly singular. Of course, it helps that “Le Samouraï” has now inspired as many tropes as it recycled, exerting a profound influence on everyone from John Woo to Walter Hill, and on everything from anime to Madonna. Beginning with a completely invented quote from “The Book of Bushido” and building to a finale that crystallizes its anti-hero’s monastic sense of morality, this terse crime parable tells the tragic story of a blank French assassin (Alain Delon) who can’t blend into the Parisian underworld quite as well as he might like. But the story isn’t the thing here; this is a movie that fetishizes the details, that strips away meaning until all that’s left of a man is his code. It’s the essence of nothingness wrapped in a velvety jazz smoke, a bonsai tree of a film that doesn’t have a cut out of place.
Available on Filmstruck’s Criterion Channel (10/18)
1. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
It would be fair to say that “Night of the Living Dead” hasn’t aged a day since it first screened 49 years ago, but it would be more accurate — and more damning — to say that George Romero’s formative indie landmark is more relevant than ever. The “zombie” genre has come a long way since Romero practically invented it, but the social ills that ate his characters alive haven’t changed, only rotted even further. We still live in a world where it’s hard to believe the terrible things we hear on the news, where decent people are victimized because of the color of their skin, and where hordes of thoughtless Americans have been stripped of their brain power and set upon the rest of us.
And “Night of the Living Dead” never lets you forget it. From the natural look of the undead (a far cry from the sheets of makeup that Romero would later cake on his extras) to the dynamism of his handheld camerawork, this is still the most urgent film of its kind. Zombies used to be people, but Romero’s ghouls still are.
Available on Mubi (10/1)