10 Great Movies You Can't (Legally) Stream
It may seem odd for a newsletter that specializes in recommending movies on demand to devote a post to movies that you can’t get on demand, but it’s a slow January, I’ve got a little time before the Sundance Film Festival goes online on Thursday (the physical event was cancelled as of two weeks ago), and it cheeses me off that you can’t stream “Mississippi Masala” anywhere.
Do you remember “Mississippi Masala”? A charming 1991 romance starring an impossibly young Denzel Washington and a new arrival named Sarita Choudhury (“Homeland,” “And Just Like That…”), above, directed by Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”) as her first American production following the success of her Oscar-nominated “Salaam Bombay” (1988). Wonderful film, and if you want to spend $40 for the DVD, you can own it and watch it any time you like. But it’s not on any streaming platform other than a bootleg print with English subtitles on YouTube. (“Salaam Bombay” is even more AWOL.)
I’m using “Mississippi Masala” as a stand-in for any number of worthy films from the recent and distant past that you can’t see even in this era of instant media gratification. Some you can find on video if you’re willing to do the legwork and still own a DVD player. If you live near a good library (or a good library network), you might be able to borrow some of the titles. Otherwise, you’re out of luck. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this is an argument in favor of physical media.)
The problem, in 9 cases out of 10, is a rights issue. Who owns a movie, particularly one from the post-studio/pre-corporate era of the 1960s through 1990s, can be maddeningly difficult to divine unless you’re a psychic or an entertainment lawyer. Companies dissolve, rights holders die, films and film libraries get bought and bought again and sometimes just disappear into a parallel universe. In many cases, legal contracts detailing a movie’s post-theatrical rights were written in the VHS era or earlier and made no provision for a streaming technology no one back then had the foresight to imagine.
And sometimes films just end up in weird places. Why did (or does) the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers (now Bristol Myers Squibb) own the rights to two 1972 films, Elaine May’s brilliantly uncomfortable “The Heartbreak Kid” (above) and the Michael Caine-Laurence Olivier mystery-thriller “Sleuth”? Because it was a thing in the 1970s for large corporations to dip their toes in entertainment industry waters. For what it’s worth, “The Heartbreak Kid” can only be found on YouTube in what looks like an extra-legal (but quite watchable) print, and “Sleuth” is available on DVD but nowhere to be found online. (Both films were remade to lesser effect in the late 2000s, and those versions can be rented just about anywhere. Caveat emptor.)
To me, the great white whale of lost movies is “Truly Madly Deeply” (1990), above, a.k.a. the thinking person’s “Ghost,” a.k.a. What to Give the Severus Snape Idolator Who Has Everything Else. Yes, the “Harry Potter” movies and, yes, Hans Gruber in “Die Hard,” but this may be the best thing the late Alan Rickman ever did – the dead husband of an inconsolable Juliet Stevenson who returns as a friendly, sympathetic phantom to help her past her grief. It’s a happy/sad cult movie whose members have been warming their hands over a fire that went out three decades ago, or whenever “T/M/D” last played HBO. You can buy a copy in England, so you’re good to go if you have a region-free DVD player lying around, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say there are bootleg copies in squidgy corners of the Internet if you know where to look (but that would be wrong). Directed by Anthony Minghella, who also left us too soon, “Truly Madly Deeply” is one of those movies that you want to pester all of your friends to see, and it’s just annoying that we’re unable to.
Other VOD MIAs include:
“Act of Violence” (1948) – A harrowing film noir from the young Fred Zinneman, with returning war hero Van Heflin stalked by a vengeful former platoon mate played by Robert Ryan in one of that actor’s most terrifying and tender performances. Featuring Janet Leigh in her fourth film appearance, this is a nightmare dreamscape verging on the surreal and one of the few post-WWII films to directly address wartime trauma. Available only in a twofer DVD set with 1950’s “Mystery Street,” a decent pre-“CSI” forensic crime thriller notable for its Boston-area location shooting.
“The Flamingo Kid” (1984) – It’s on DVD and Blu-ray, but sometimes you just want to dial up Matt Dillon as a Brooklyn cabana boy at a ritzy Long Island beach club, cleaning Richard Crenna’s clock at gin and taking orders from a hotsy/frosty Jessica Walter. And you can’t.
“Get Crazy” (1983) – Insane rock-concert comedy/early-80s time capsule from the people who made “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” (1979), the latter of which is essential and available everywhere. Malcolm McDowell plays an imitation Mick Jagger named Reggie Wanker, Lou Reed is cast as a Bob Dylan clone named Auden, Bobby Sherman and Fabian play goons, and Howard Kaylan of the Turtles is “Captain Cloud,” a.k.a Jerry Garcia. With Daniel Stern (“Breaking Away,” “Home Alone”) as the romantic lead. It’s stupid and it’s perfect. You can find it on DVD, Blu-ray, and a crappy dub on YouTube.
“Leave Her to Heaven” (1945) – “There’s nothing the matter with Ellen. She just loves too much.” So says one character about the homicidal newlywed played by Gene Tierney in this eepy-creepy suspense thriller, a rare example of Technicolor noir. Back in the 1990s, when I worked at Entertainment Weekly, one of the younger staff writers was really hung up on this movie; her name was Gillian Flynn, and if you want to know where a good chunk of the DNA of “Gone Girl” came from, watch this – if you can find it. Criterion has released a DVD and Blu-ray edition, but the only place it’s streaming is on a second-tier VOD rental platform called FlixFling in a grainy, squeezed print. Avoid, and hope it turns up on the Criterion Channel soon.
“Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” — (2005) One of the most charming films of the 2000s, it’s a simple tale of an elderly London woman (Joan Plowright) and her friendship with a footloose young writer (Rupert Friend, Wickham in the Keira Knightley “Pride and Prejudice”). In my 2005 Boston Globe review, I wrote: “Age, says this unassuming jewel of a movie, lets us see farther. Youth lets us see closer. Those who have both are the blessed.” It’s available on an out-of-print DVD, on demand only via the library streaming service Hoopla — and, hey, wait, you’re in luck, here’s a decent unofficial print on YouTube. Pounce.
“Taking Off” (1971) – A truly lost classic, the first American film of Czech director Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus”) is a sweet-and-sour comedy of the generation gap, with Buck Henry (below) as a straight-arrow suburban dad seeking his runaway daughter (Linnea Heacock, in her only film) and ending up naked at a pot party. Featuring Vincent Schiavelli as a weed instructor, an appearance by Ike and Tina Turner, and cameos in the astonishing audition sequence by Carly Simon and Kathy Bates, this is a rough-edged relic of early-70s filmmaking – but shot through with a gentle European gaze on our all-American follies. There’s a French import DVD that won’t play on your disc player, and that’s it. I can’t even find a trailer for this baby. It deserves better.
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