A Salute to the BFI Player: 30 Great Films You Can Watch Right Now

Even if I didn’t live in a flat where other people were footing the bill for Netflix, Amazon Video, and Disney +, the BFI Player would still be the only streamer for which I would pay subscription. It’s a stupendous service by a public body which deserves as much help as possible.

My advice to anyone looking to diversify their cultural consumption during lockdown is to start a 14-day free trial, and then for £4.99 a month have access to a wealth of rich and strange films while supporting film making and preservation.

I’ll assume that movies like, say, The General, Bande à part, or Rashomon require no introduction. If, like me, you never had the chance to watch these ineffaceable masterpieces until now then I’m sure you don’t need my encouragement to seize this opportunity. For the purposes of this list I’m restricting myself to movies that I must unequivocally thank the good people of the British Film Institute for bringing to my attention, or at the very least for promoting them from the peripheries of my cultural awareness.

I’ll be writing about some of these films in greater detail in further posts, but for now please accept these tweet-length blurbs as my recommendations for expanding your cinematic horizons. Enjoy these in no particular order:

Heaven Knows What

The Safdie Brothers’ breakthrough, and still their most singular feature. Based on an unpublished memoir by its lead actress, which I can only imagine would read like a combination of William Burroughs and Eileen Myles. Arielle Holmes brings the material, and an unforgettable charisma.

Daisies

I first saw this antic, antinomian, and indelible movie over a year ago, when it took up permanent residence in my imagination. A propulsive succession of playful and libidinal images, I’ve yet to find anything else with its ability to combine plotlessless with narrative outrage.

The Draughtsman’s Contract

It’s only slightly unfair to call this the movie The Favourite wanted to be. As an elliptical and enigmatic portrait of England post-1688, I don’t think it will ever be bettered. As a glimpse into blinkered and obsessive artistry, it would make an ideal double-bill with Blow-Up.

Romance & Cigarettes

I’ve always suspected that John Turturro’s is a rare and wry intelligence. This is confirmed in abundance by this boundlessly joy-giving and exuberant musical. From iambic screaming rows to Janis Joplin and Engelbert Humperdinck. Who knew Kate Winslet could do bombshell sexuality?

Chico & Rita

As I write this I’m listening to the music of Chano Pozo. Did you know that at the height of Bop there was a gold rush on Cuban percussionists in New York City? Learn about this and more from this animated love story. Be ravished and transported by its soulful, sensual beauty.

Fantastic Planet

Imagine if they gave the human characters in this movie any individuality or personality, and then blanche at how unbearably cruel this strange and elaborate invention would suddenly become. Appreciate it as it stands: a masterpiece of Gallic and Martian detachment, a genuine one-off.

Festen

Don’t let any ideas about Dogme 95 precede your experience of this ferociously redemptive black comedy. Marvel at the sudden glimpses of buzzing life (as vivid as the best flash fiction); remember to breathe through the inexorable ratcheting of tension. Chaste but vibrant. Bleak but uplifting.

Beauty and the Beast

The animal pathos of Jean Marais’s whiskered mask. The corridor of human arms holding candelabra. Not only visually a more extravagant invention than Cocteau’s Orphée, to my mind this is the much more involving and moving feature. Has anyone watched it with the Philip Glass operatic re-scoring?

The Brood

More familiar with the cold sheen of his Viggo Mortensen collaborations, this was my first exposure to what we actually talk about when we talk about David Cronenberg. Scrappy yet patient, visceral but also sardonic, it’s also a testament to the no-frills charisma of Oliver Reed.

You and the Night

I heard of this film years ago, resolved to watch it, and promptly let the opportunity pass. Then it appeared on BFI and it was everything I wanted it to be. Both a sensuously claustrophobic chamber piece and a romantic epic on a science-fictional scale. A work of passionate and graceful intensity.

The Proposition

Of the Outback Will Self has written that “the best of Australian art, film and literature alludes to this otherness, this strangeness . . . all attempt to give definition to this penumbra, this dark shadow always around the blinding southern sun.” A nightmare vision of European colonial atrocity.

Suspiria

Among many other things, this is a masterpiece of working within technological limitations. Fingers on your volume control, because part of Argento’s genius is his use of overwhelming blocks of soundtrack and music. It’s as though he only has an On/Off switch at his disposal. Bludgeoning. Brilliant.

Pauline at the Beach

Again, I thank BFI for the chance to finally familiarise myself with the films of Eric Rohmer. The Green Ray and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend are both good starting points but this is by far my favourite: a genuine comedy of manners that runs a wider range of emotions than either of those two.

Wake in Fright

Initially sold as an exploitation movie, which belies its merciless, gimlet-eyed clarity. If you want a bracing evening, pair this with The Proposition and prepare for a double-bill of white men behaving very, very badly in the Outback, a world where human decency goes into cowardly abeyance.

Unrelated

This has been compared to Rohmer, which captures something of its loose and amiable feel but little of its coldness in anatomising the foibles and scruples of its characters and their entire social class. Where Rohmer loves his people, Joanna Hogg is more anthropological.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts

The only film on here that I didn’t actually like, which hasn’t stopped me from thinking about it a lot. Perhaps there’s no meaningful connection between its various elements, but maybe one can only depict the human cost of Australian immigration policy as a heap of broken images.

Trans-Europ-Express

Has the resemblance between Emmanuel Macron and the young Jean-Louis Trintignant been remarked upon? Just as the former is perfectly cast as a PoMo, first-as-tragedy-then-as-farce statesman, the latter is perfectly cast in this meta-film of an erotic thriller. Susan Sontag lived for this shit.

Obsession

I’ve long thought that directors really show what they’re made of when working with schlock. Others have pointed out how this rips off Vertigo, so I can only praise what De Palma does with this second-tier material. Febrile, tense, and weirdly sincere, this doesn’t bear a second’s critical thought.

Arcadia

Mark Fisher wrote that “the British landscape bristles with cinematic potential,” and he would have loved this. I’ve seen this twice and will watch it several times more. A collage of bucolia, reverie, and nudity. FFO Lewis Carroll, Richard Adams, psychogeography, and folk horror.

Shadows

It was tough being Beat. Three siblings, three skin tones — Cassavetes never explains how, and the movie’s the stronger for it — and three humiliations. So much brisker than A Woman Under the Influence (those jump cuts predate À bout de souffle by at least a year), but no less compassionate.

Electra, My Love

Sophocles behind the Iron Curtain: a tragedy in twelve takes. In my experience the greatest film to leap from the intimacy of the theatre into the limitless possibilities of the cinema. A play of individual will and collective action, rendered as a total spectacle of choreography.

Scanners

We wanted to watch some pure schlock and chanced upon this minor masterpiece of pulp paranoia. A fever dream following a Wiki-wander that took you through Thalidomide babies and Project MKUltra might look like this brain-bursting extravaganza. Gleefully saves the best until last.

Vampyr

“Was it a dream?” you ask yourself. A moonstruck river has reflected the gambolling of unseen children. A shadow has gone on walkabout before returning to its original. The waking has been infiltrated by the oneiric, and whatever else has happened, you have watched a masterpiece.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Absolute power and craven vulnerability. Klaus Kinski was a strange creature and this is Dracula as he’s meant to be experienced: animal sorrow and human madness, pallid like ivory in the moonlit darkness. That unforgettable face, that pitiful wheedling voice. A nocturnal masterpiece.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Talk about the canonical: I have gazed upon the face of Renée Falconetti. Alternations of reverie and stupour, agony and ecstasy. The uncanniness of pure ataraxy, the calm that comes from renouncing this world of weak flesh: the world of the judges, their grotesque and weather-beaten faces.

The Ninth Configuration

These doctors’ methods are both dangerous and unsound. If the Vietnam War was a bad trip, then imagine if the treatment program had been run by R.D. Laing. Also known as Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane — the quotation marks give a tiny hint of this movie’s batshit genius.

The Colour of Pomegranates

Not so much a narrative as a world of pure pictorial space, existing purely for the ravished and bedazzled spectator. There is no understanding this experience. To begin to watch it is to know that you will have to watch it again and again, and I cannot wait to give myself over once more.

Blanche

No magic, no beasts, no fair folk, nor anything egregiously out of the ordinary, and yet I have rarely seen cinema for grown-ups attain so perfectly the tone of a fairy tale. Simple and pellucid, yet melancholy and gnomic. Reminds me of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, but with a period-instrument score.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

A story about disappearance and repression, a tragedy that plays out in the shadow of deep time. The rocks are very old and have outlasted the Victorians who pitched up among their foothills. It’s as though the empire was a bad dream, conjured up and then forgotten by the land itself.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

A movie I’m very grateful to find on here while my Vengeance Trilogy box set is with friends in Bristol. The first of Park Chan-wook’s films that I ever saw, the only one of his to make my cry, and his masterpiece. A work of outrageous beauty and audacious originality, I envy you if you’re watching it for the first time.

Reader, writer, raver. Lecturer + tutor. PhD in English Literature.