The venerable old BBC gives us plenty for our licence fee – including a decent online catch-up service that lets us watch all the telly we missed when we were watching Netflix and Amazon instead. But it’s not just TV shows that stream on the iPlayer.
It might not have the back catalogue to match its big American rivals, but the BBC curates an interesting roster of films on its own free platform. There are rarely ever more than thirty titles available to view (and they all have an annoyingly short lifespan before they disappear – even if you download them) but there’s also always something on there that’s worth a watch.
Everything on the iPlayer comes with a ticking clock that lets you know how long it’s got left, so it’s handy to know what’s worth catching for free before it vanishes.
We’ll keep this list updated with all the latest changes so check back regularly to see what you don’t want to miss.
Watch sometime (over a year left on the clock)
Cat People (1942)
Director Jacques Tourneur is one of the greatest auteurs to ever be forgotten about. If you haven’t seen one of his films before, Cat People is the place to start (followed by The Curse Of The Cat People, also on iPlayer, I Walked With A Zombie (see below), and then the excellent Martin Scorsese documentary on Tourneur’s producing partner, Val Lewton: The Man In The Shadows). Like all of Tourneur’s films, Cat People is a complex psychological character study masquerading as a cheapo B-movie – but that doesn’t mean it’s not bloody scary at the same time.
In fact, the film features the first use of the now-overused horror technique known as “the Lewton bus”. Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) waits for a jump scare to come from a woman who’s just turned into a panther, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, a bus screeches past, scaring Alice (and us) instead. See the same thing happen when Ripley gets startled by Jonesy the cat instead of the xenomorph, or every time a phone rings at the wrong time in a slasher movie.
I Walked With A Zombie (1943)
Of all Tourneur’s films, I Walked With A Zombie is his best – and his most inappropriately titled. Not actually about zombies at all (the title was added to sell more tickets), Tourneur’s film is actually an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre – moving the narrative from 19th century England to 20th century Haiti.
Francis Dee stars as the Canadian nurse who takes a job on a Caribbean sugar plantation caring for the wife of a wealthy landowner (Tom Conway). The real star though is the gothic atmosphere, which Tourneur brilliantly builds through a fog of tribal superstition and sweaty island heat.
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
If it’s real zombies you’re after, you literally can’t do any better than George A. Romero’s classic. Library shelves have been filled with commentary on the film’s importance – both as a genre milestone and as an important step in the independent film movement – and a million imitators have since tried hard to pay it homage, but there’s still something viscerally exciting about the film that feels slightly indefinable. Maybe it’s because it’s the first – maybe it’s the rawness of the blurry black and white camerawork – but even Romero’s own landmark sequels didn’t quite capture the creeping menace of his original.
Simon Amstell’s debut is technically a mockumentary, but there’s nothing particularly mocking about it. Set in an imagined vegan future, the film looks back at the days when humans actually ate animals (even after they found out they could live off plants!) making our own present look particularly cruel and bizarre in fake-retrospect. Whatever your stance on meat-eating, Carnage is a particularly effective way of turning sci-fi comedy into cutting social commentary, coming off like an even spikier episode of Black Mirror and rarely feeling preachy. What else will future generations read about us with disgust in their history books?
Watch soon (one month left on the clock)
A Simple Plan (1998)
Between Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead days and his Spider-Man run, he took a detour to cover pretty much every other genre around – from westerns (The Quick And The Dead) and sports movies (For The Love Of The Game) to thrillers (The Gift). The best of this 90s period seems to have a bit of a Coen Brothers influence (who Raimi worked with on The Hudsucker Proxy), with A Simple Plan feeling very Fargo. That’s not a bad thing though, and Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda turn a smart neo-noir script into one of the best modern fables around – at each others throats in the Minnesota mountains after they stumble upon a bag of stolen money.
Man On The Moon (1999)
Before you watch Man On The Moon, make sure you’ve at least seen a few episodes of Taxi (or a few old SNL clips on YouTube) to remind yourself of just how great, and how odd, comedian Andy Kaufman really was.
After you’ve seen Man On The Moon, head over to Netflix to watch Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, which is a terrific doc about how Jim Carrey got into Kaufman’s head to play him for the film.
But somewhere in between, make sure you watch Man On The Moon itself, the beautifully odd centrepiece in the ever-evolving story of Kaufman – with Carrey in one of the best roles of his career, and director Miloš Foreman turning in a suitably exceptional biopic.
Wonder Boys (2000)
Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel didn’t do itself any favours when it came out in 2000. Released a week after the Academy Award nominations were announced, the film was dumped in the industry dead zone – with all the marketing money spent elsewhere. That also explains the film’s awful poster, which had a close-up of a creepy looking Michael Douglas peering over his glasses like a coy Elmer Fudd. In fact, Wonder Boys is a smart, funny, brilliantly made ensemble piece – with Douglas starring as a college professor who can’t finish his own novel alongside the likes of Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand and Robert Downey Jr.
Watch now (last chance to see)
Disappears on Wednesday 14th November
Ava DuVernay directed Selma before moving on to A Wrinkle In Time and New Gods – with her Martin Luther King Jr. biopic picking up enough attention (and enough awards) for Disney and DC to come calling. In fairness, David Oyelowo deserves a lot of the credit, anchoring an important, suspenseful, well-written history lesson with an exceptional performance as King. The cast list is swollen with famous names (Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi, Wendell Pierce, Lakeith Stanfield, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth, Opera Winfrey, Martin Sheen…), but it’s Oyelowo’s film, and indisputably King’s story. Inspirational stuff.