Silver Screens from Dusty Stacks: A Look at the Free Movie-Streaming Service Available Through Many Public Libraries

Still from Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, 2012.


Last week, the New York Public Library announced that its cardholders now have access to Kanopy, a streaming service with more than 30,000 films and documentaries that is available through the library systems of more than 190 cities, from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles. Contemporary indie films are available on Kanopy, as well as a wealth of movies from the Criterion Collection, the celebrated series that devotes serious reverence to classics both old and new. Below are 13 films available to watch for free on Kanopy, if you are so inclined—from a Pedro Almodóvar sex comedy and a South Korean thriller to an essay film about American racism and a campy homage to Alfred Hitchcock.

Cléo From 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)
Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7 is about time: the inevitability of minutes and hours slipping by and lives moving slowly closer to their endings. As she awaits the results of a biopsy, a Parisian singer walks through a park, imagines a musical number, and begins to fall in love. The subject matter can be quotidian, but it is all very beautiful—and playfully and inventively rendered. Varda’s editing makes the action seem to occur in real-time, even if 90 minutes of the singer’s day aren’t quite 90 conventional minutes otherwise—one famous scene, for example, features Cléo descending a staircase in a prismatic fashion that makes it seem both longer and shorter than a regular stair walk in the non-cinematic world.

Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)
Vera Chytilová was the foremost feminist filmmaker of the Czech New Wave, and Daisies, her 1966 portrait of two fun-seeking women, remains a landmark for the way it pits femininity against repressive societal norms. The fast-paced comedy abounds with spectacular visuals, including a sequence in which footage of two women jumping on a bed appears to fracture into a series of moving shards.

Still from Very Chytilová’s Daisies, 1966.


Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
David Lynch’s essential 1977 film Eraserhead was based loosely on his experiences in Philadelphia, a city that, in the surrealist director’s vision, appears straight-up hellish. Starring Jack Nance as a disturbed protagonist with a mutant baby and a nagging wife, Eraserhead is a mysterious look at the American Dream gone awry. Nothing appears to work in the poor man’s house—not even his radiator, which, for some reason, is also the stage for a little woman who sings about heaven.

James Baldwin in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, 2016.


I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)
Raoul Peck’s searing I Am Not Your Negro relies on great source material, including excerpts of James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript for Remember This House and other writings by the thinker, read by Samuel L. Jackson. Through archival footage and clips from other films, this poetic, clear-eyed essayistic documentary links America’s racist past to its present, showing how historical Jim Crow laws, minstrelsy, and rioting connect to contemporary mass incarceration, police killings, and recent uprisings.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2001)
A love story without a single kiss, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love hovers around a man and a woman who discover their spouses might be having affairs. They decide to become friends—yet we know, based on their interactions, that something more than a friendship is at stake. The tale about unexpressed desires is told mostly through Wong’s sumptuously lensed visuals, which are bathed in dark yellow and orange tones that making their characters look like insects trapped in amber.

Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, 2012)
Melvin Poupaud brilliantly plays the title character in Laurence Anyways, a nearly-three-hour melodrama about a well-to-do professor who realizes that he identifies more as a woman than as a man. Xavier Dolan portrays Laurence’s transformation, which affects his job, his family, and his marriage, with a taste for flashy colors and lyrical cutaways. Made by a director who was just 23 when the film was released, Laurence Anyways marks a breakthrough for a director with ambitions still well beyond his years.

Still from Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, 1985.


Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader, 1985)
The tortured life of the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima is the premise for this unusual biopic directed by Paul Schrader, who is best known as the screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Rather than simply telling Mishima’s life story, Schrader instead offers truncated versions of four of his novels, which end up revealing true events from his past. (Or do they? The film is partly about how art rarely ever completely mirrors life.) Gradually, the film, which also includes Philip Glass’s best movie score, builds to Mishima’s suicide, in 1970.

Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook, 2003)

Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy helped bring South Korean thrillers to attention outside its homeland. Based on a manga comic of the same name, the stylish noir follows a man who is kidnapped one night and then, without explanation, released 15 years later. Free for the first time in more than a decade, he wanders the streets of Seoul, looking for the person who imprisoned him. Among the film’s many memorable moments are a torture scene set to Vivaldi, a spectacular fight in a hallway, and a dinner that involves a live octopus.

Still from Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, 2003.


Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
One event gives way to four different stories in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, an argument against the idea there could only be a single version of the truth. Set in 12th-century Japan, the film depicts the trial of a samurai for the murder and rape of his wife. Four witnesses recall the event, each with contradictions that raise serious questions about what actually happened. With its bold narrative experimentation, Rashomon propelled Kurosawa to international acclaim. Today, it remains one of the Japanese director’s finest films and one of the greatest films from its era.

Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)
There’s two of everything in Brian De Palma’s Sisters, a campy homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s late-career thrillers. Margot Kidder plays a Canadian model who joins a man for dinner after he wins a dinner for two on a game show. But she is hiding something, and when they go home together, havoc ensues. Part slasher film, part psychosexual thriller, and part satire, Sisters is one of De Palma’s most stylish efforts. Its centerpiece, a murder and its aftermath shown in split-screen, is not easily forgotten.

Still from Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, 1990.


Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Pedro Almodóvar, 1990)
Deliberately offensive and appropriately inappropriate, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is one of Pedro Almodóvar’s funniest sex comedies. Antonio Banderas plays a former mental patient who kidnaps a porn star, ties her up, and initially refuses to have sex with her, since that would be against his own skewed moral code. Slapped with an X rating when it was released in America, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! might be Almodóvar’s most trenchant—and most problematic—meditation on the slippery boundary between fantasy and reality.

Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux, 1920)
For years, the films of Oscar Micheaux, who is commonly regarded as the first black American director, had been lost or available only as low-quality transfers. Now, thanks to a set of early black cinema put out by Kino Lorber, Micheaux’s films are more accessible. Among his best is Within Our Gates, which follows a Southern woman who attempts to raise money for a failing girls’ school. Like much of Micheaux’s work, Within Our Gates is clear-minded in its portrayals of sexism and racism, even by today’s standards.

Still from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, 1967.


Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
There are Marxist films—and then there’s Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, a pitch-black dark comedy that ended a hot streak of stylish, seemingly light films by the French New Wave director, among them Breathless (1960), Pierrot le Fou (1965), and Masculin Féminin (1966). At the film’s start, a couple has decided to visit the woman’s parents in the French countryside. Their weekend plans are quickly upended by a series of violent events, including a mile-long traffic jam shot primarily in one take. Gradually, the couple turn radical, leaving their petit bourgeois lifestyle for something more anarchic and grotesque. In typical form for Godard, Weekend is also a meditation on film itself—an art form that, Godard proposes, has been co-opted by capitalism. With one final title card, Godard kills movie-making to start something new: “fin de cinéma”—the end of film.

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