At the end of May, streaming platform MUBI launched its Library section, where subscribers now have the chance to explore hundreds and hundreds of films. While its selection may not be as large as, for example, The Criterion Channel, this exciting new platform still gives film fans the opportunity to dig through a diverse selection of titles from dozens of countries and different eras of film, including a lot of underseen gems and all-time classics. If you don’t know where to start, here are a few unmissable suggestions!
(MUBI Library, while available all over the world, its selections slightly differ from country to country. The following list consists of films that are currently available to stream in the U.S).
Nosferatu (1922), by F.W Murnau
Among the classics from the early decades of cinema available on MUBI Library, F.W Murnau’s pioneering 1922 film Nosferatu stands out as a must-watch. A pillar of the German Expressionism movement and an eternal fountain of inspiration for the horror genre, this first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula remains one of the most haunting and texturally rich films of all time. Besides the unforgettable figure of Max Schrek as the vampire Count Orlok, the staying power of Nosferatu stems from how it builds its atmosphere, with its contrastive use of light and shadow, but also with lingering, evocative shots of nature, as the film drifts away from the busyness of city life, slowly conjuring up the threat of an evil that rises from quiet, unknown places.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid
Maya Deren is an essential voice in experimental cinema, and from her deep catalog of short films, Meshes of the Afternoon, co-directed with her husband Alexander Hammid, is perhaps her most dense and accomplished work. Working with a circular narrative of a woman (played by Deren herself) walking alone, being followed by a cloaked figure with a mirror as a face, before arriving home and falling asleep, Deren maintains a constant feeling of distrust in reality, keeping us unaware of what is being dreamt or not, so as to immerse ourselves in the deepest unconscious fears of her main character. Diverse interpretations are bound to come aplenty when watching Meshes of the Afternoon, especially as the film appears to emphasize symbolism by using several small objects as motifs, but with its unorthodox camera work and striking imagery, it’s hard to imagine a film that so viscerally evokes a creeping and crushing sense of paranoia as Deren’s masterpiece.
Night of the Living Dead (1968), by George A. Romero
George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of The Living Dead has the simplest zombie movie set-up possible: the dead are rising all over America and threatening to kill the living. However, it’s everything about the execution that puts it above every other title in the genre. By setting most of the film inside a house from which the characters can’t escape (otherwise the undead will eat them), Romero allows it to gain a real-time sense of urgency and leaves space for intricate human conflict to be built, letting actors give truly great performances, especially Duane Jones who stands out as the resourceful, rational hero Ben. This tangible sense of realism is further established by the constant presence of broadcast news in the background narrating the events of this zombie apocalypse across the country, lending the film a sense of wide scope. It is also, by the end, through that built-in feeling that this is something that could potentially happen in real life that the film manages to pack its heaviest punch, revealing it in the aftermath of a gory climax.
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), by Jonas Mekas
After living in Germany and America for several years, Lithuanian avant-garde filmmaker and documentarian Jonas Mekas returned to his homeland and recorded moments of his trip back to his small, rural family home. That grainy, lo-fi home footage makes for Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania – a beautiful, personal film that with a diary-like structure captures loose moments of Mekas’ family with loving tenderness, as well as his surroundings with a raw feeling of momentary and melancholic peacefulness. It’s a heartwarming testament to the power of cinema to hold and preserve timeless memories.
Bette Gordon’s Variety follows Christine (Sandy McLeod), a once innocent, normal 20-something girl living in New York looking for a job, until she finds one at a downtown underground adult film theater. From then on, she develops a scopophiliac obsession with what she sees on screen there, leading to getting her life consumed by voyeuristic tendencies and gaining a habit of following men around at night.
Gordon’s film is an absolutely delightful oddity not only because it showcases a side of New York that we rarely see on screen nowadays, with a true sleazy seediness dripping out of every image, but also because it completely flips the typical male “peeping tom” role on its head by giving it to a woman, in a female-directed film. Variety is a real underrated gem in American indie cinema, and should be named alongside films by people like John Cassavetes as must-watches from the era.
Rebels of the Neon God (1992), by Tsai Ming-liang
Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang’s feature film debut Rebels of the Neon God hits the sweet spot between youthful, adrenaline-filled euphoria and perpetual yearning and ennui. In it, a dissatisfied teenager, Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) escapes from his parents’ house and joins the rebellious Ah-tze (Chen Chao-jung) in his careless, free-spirited lifestyle. Ming-liang captures this relationship with a strong emphasis on mood, as often the city of Taipei seems to be the main character of the film — its melancholic yet vibrant vibe seeping its way into the film’s central relationship. For those looking to delve deeper into East-Asian cinema or even start with Ming-liang’s work, Rebels of the Neon God is a slow-burn, but it’s an intoxicating and entrancing watch.
Hoop Dreams (1994), by Steve James
After watching it, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Hoop Dreams is a quintessential American story. This documentary, directed by Steve James, parallelly follows the path of two young men from Chicago throughout high school and into college: Arthur Agee and William Gates, both of them with the same dream of making it big in the NBA. Propelled by an incandescent optimism, they are both accepted into private schools to further develop their skills as promising players, and it seems like the whole world is in support of them. However, the path isn’t so linear for them, facing numerous setbacks including injuries and financial concerns along the way. But whether following the highs or the lows of these kids’ development, it’s remarkable how sensitive and empathetic Hoop Dreams always is to them, and to the struggle of their family members, who just want their dream to come through, while so many other institutions only see them as potential numbers or statistics. This film crutially addresses an American system that at once sells kids all the dreams of stardom in the world, and hinders their chances by failing to provide resources for tangible success, just because they come from an underprivileged background.
Atlantiques (2009), by Mati Diop
While Mati Diop’s feature-length debut is only available on Netflix, her short film of the same name, Atlantiques, that served as its precursor is on MUBI Library and is equally worth your time. This is the brief story of a group of young Senegalese men discussing their hopes and fears as they ponder to cross the ocean and migrate to Europe for a better life. In this conjuncture, the sound design that allocates a constant and looming presence to the sound of the sea, both alluring and threatening, is a crucial stylistic element that feeds tension to the film. But it’s also the grainy cinematography that seems to reflect the numb, transitory state of the characters’ inner lives and the mixture of hopefulness and hopelessness in their words that makes this short film such a rich experience in just 16 minutes. Mati Diop is a talent to behold.
Horse Money (2014), by Pedro Costa
MUBI Library offers a peek at the richness of current Portuguese cinema, with films like João Nicolau’s John From and João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Phantom. However, none feel as uniquely monumental as Pedro Costa’s 2014 work Horse Money. Following real-life Cape-Verdean immigrant Ventura (a multi-time collaborator of Costa) through a labyrinthic, chiaroscuro dream-like world of his own personal ghosts, Costa builds an abstract narrative that bears the weight of a legacy of haunted memories, and one where fiction and real stories seem to blur. There’s isn’t a filmmaker that tells and crystallizes personal narratives quite like Pedro Costa.
Happy Hour (2015), by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Happy Hour‘s enormous 317 minute run-time seems intimidating, but Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film diverts those expectations quickly. Like a warm embrace at first, we’re welcomed to the complicated, sometimes intertwined lives of a group of four women who share a deep friendship. The film lets us know them to such intricate detail, inner and outwardly, that it’s hard not to start thinking of them as friends too. But while the run-time breezes by — credit to the extraordinary writing and balanced directing and editing choices — by the end, Happy Hour still manages to pack a huge punch, and we’re forced to confront how difficult it can be to maintain those deep relationships with eachother as we grow older. With this film, Hamaguchi lands one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the last decade, and proves to be one of the most exciting directors working today.