Welcome to The Penny-Pinching Cinephile, a weekly spotlight of the best free flicks on the web. ‘Cuz sometimes you gotta eat.
Featuring a now-iconic score from Phillip Glass, the unique poetics of documentary/visual essay Koyaanisqatsi have spawned an entire sub-genre of transcendental filmmaking, including 2011’s Samsara. These kinds of films, predicated on visual juxtapositions that intuit social, biological and geographical connectivity, have become an emblem of sorts for the socially conscious film-goer. But the meaning of “Koyaanisquati” (literally “unbalanced life” in the Hopi language) indicts its viewer as much as it entertains with stunning images. Director Godfrey Reggio’s social activist background imbues Koyaanisqatsi with an urgency for change and action that challenges the passivity of the viewing audience. Images of people at a mini-mall intercut with those of a factory assembly line may seem heavy-handed, but it’s the sheer tonnage of visual diversity and beauty here that really impacts the viewer.
One of my all-time favorite cult comedies, Freeway is likely the most messed-up revisionist fairytale ever filmed. Starring a teenage Reese Witherspoon as Vanessa, a Red Riding Hood-esque juvenile delinquent and Kiefer Sutherland as a yuppie pedophile Big Bad Wolf, Matthew Bright’s film is a twisted, hilarious and subversive take on good and evil. Infinitely quotable, bawdy and outrageous, at times Freeway borders on live action slapstick, but the film never loses sight of it fairy tale origins. (After breaking out of prison, Vanessa escapes to her Grandmother’s house.) But it’s Witherspoon’s performance (in my opinion, the best of her career) that really elevates Freeway from funny-trashy to divine cult status. Incessantly foul-mouthed but with an unflappable determination that borders on naive optimism, Witherspoon’s Vanessa is a true feminist icon: one tough chick who beats the system and never gives in to the violent, patriarchal pitfalls of modern society.
3.) Shock Corridor
Sam Fuller’s sensational psychological drama set in a mental hospital is the stuff of cult legend. Still shocking fifty years after the fact, Shock Corridor is the story of a newspaper reporter who goes undercover in a psych ward to discover the killer of an inmate months earlier. An ambitious narcissist on the hunt for a Pulitzer prize, the reporter (Peter Breck) pretends to be a sex maniac with incestuous feelings for his sister (who’s really his girlfriend pretending to be his sister). But the intensity of the assignment soon finds the reporter confronting his own demons and quickly unraveling amidst the other inmate’s insanity. The film features a memorable gallery of psychotics, including a stellar performance by Hari Rhodes as a young African American student who suffers delusions that he’s a KKK leader. Shot in a mere ten days in a single location, Shock Corridor is alternatively chilling and comical, hard-boiled and surrealistic–an astonishing work of courage and vision.
4.) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning wuxia epic is now available to view on Crackle. The highest grossing foreign language of all-time in the United States–and arguably one of the most influential Asian films ever made–Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon helped introduce high-flying wire work to Hollywood (where it remains a staple of many an action film). Choreographed by Master Wo Ping (The Matrix, Kill Bill), the film’s fight scenes are iconic and beautiful, unlike anything filmed before or since. The story revolves around Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), a martial arts master on the verge of retirement who must regain his stolen sword from a gifted young women Jen (Ziyi Zhang) and deal with his deep, unrequited love for Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). The film upends gender roles by featuring two powerful and skilled women as leads, while dealing with gender inequality and social mores in its themes. Lee’s film is a beautifully shot, stunningly choreographed and skillfully acted masterpiece.
5.) They Made Me A Criminal
This 1939 Warner Bros. curio has a lot going for it, for a B-crime drama. Starring a young John Garfield in one of his earliest roles, They Made Me A Criminal is also a rare dramatic departure for director Busby Berkeley, famous for his elaborately choreographed musicals. Photographed by the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe and also featuring Claude Rains as a tough, New York detective (!), this unusual film is a curious collision of talent with boilerplate material, making for an above-average crime thriller. When a newspaperman is found dead in the apartment of a boxer (Garfield), the boxer (and everyone else) assume he’s the killer. In a twist, however, the real killer is killed in a car accident in which it’s assumed the boxer was a passenger. Now presumed dead, the boxer assumes a new identity, but a pesky detective (Rains) who believes he’s still alive threatens to reveal everything.
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