As streaming services raise prices and physical media slowly starts disappearing, it can be difficult to find cheap, easy access to quality films without resorting to illegal methods.
Thankfully, many services — such as Tubi, FreeVee and Pluto TV — allow users to stream films completely for free — as long as they don’t mind sitting through advertisements. Surprisingly, YouTube is also one of these services.
The video-sharing website offers tons of films for rent or purchase, along with a selection marked as “Free with Ads” that can be enjoyed by any users. Although there are hundreds of films in this category, I’ve compiled a list to help anyone get started. From Academy Award winners to non-English classics to your parents’ favorites, this collection should offer something for everyone.
‘The Hunger Games’ franchise
2012-2015, dir. Gary Ross & Francis Lawrence
One of the biggest cultural phenomena of the past decade, “The Hunger Games” is still going strong as a franchise, with the latest film “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” due in theaters later this year. Before that releases, it might be nice to catch up on what came before.
YouTube features all four films — "The Hunger Games", “Catching Fire,” “Mockingjay - Part 1” and “Mockingjay - Part 2” — as part of its “Free with Ads” label. Whether you’re indulging in nostalgia or catching up for the first time, this is a great way to experience the series without needing to pay.
‘Godzilla’ franchise (Shōwa era)
1954-1975, dir. Ishirō Honda, Motoyoshi Oda, Jun Fukuda & Yoshimitsu Banno
Godzilla is one of Japan’s most iconic pop culture figures; originally a metaphor for anxieties following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the giant monster has evolved into a juggernaut of a franchise, with dozens of films produced across multiple continents.
YouTube is allowing anyone to witness the origins of Godzilla with the original run of Japanese films (colloquially known as the Shōwa era) available for free. This includes the original “Godzilla” all the way through “Terror of Mechagodzilla,” a total of 14 films for old and new fans to dive into.
Note: “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962) is not included due to rights issues.
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2000, dir. Cameron Crowe
Known for films like “Say Anything …” and “Jerry Maguire,” Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” follows a young music writer as he tags along with a touring rock band and witnesses the highs and lows of stardom.
The film oscillates between humor and drama and can appeal to those interested in the entertainment industry or a complex coming-of-age story. It also features a stacked ensemble cast of talented actors including Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy’
2004, dir. Adam McKay
Another film involving journalism — though approached from a much different angle — is “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.”
This Will Ferrell comedy about a local news team has reached 2000s classic status, so take this opportunity for a first-time viewing or rewatch. It’s also a comedy that works best shared with others, whether it’s a roommate or dorm floor.
‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’
1961, dir. Blake Edwards
Despite being an older film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” has earned an enduring legacy across multiple generations. The stylish drama starring Audrey Hepburn was acclaimed at its original release and has remained an American classic for its beautiful costumes and interpersonal drama.
While certain aspects of the film haven’t aged well (especially Mickey Rooney’s racist caricature of a Japanese man), it’s still worth checking out for its cultural significance.
1976, dir. Brian De Palma
For horror fans, “Carrie” tells the story of a bullied 16-year-old girl who develops supernatural powers.
Based on the Stephen King novel and helmed by acclaimed director Brian De Palma (“Mission: Impossible,” “Scarface,” “The Untouchables”), the film is known for its creepy atmosphere and shocking prom finale. It’s sure to spook anyone who watches.
2000, dir. Robert Zemeckis
In Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks plays a FedEx employee who ends up stranded on a deserted island fighting for his survival. Its story is harrowing, but Hanks gives an incredibly compelling performance and manages to carry the film almost entirely on his own.
While its tone can be grim, the film does also have its moments of levity. It’s worth a watch just for Hanks’ performance alone, though the rest of the film is engaging as well.
‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’
2000, dir. Ang Lee
Martial arts films have been a staple of Asian cinema for decades, and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is one that managed to cross-over and be acclaimed around the world.
Directed by Ang Lee, who also helmed “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi,” the film follows a group of warriors in a chase for a stolen sword. Featuring multiple heavy hitters from the genre, including Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat, it’s one of the most approachable martial arts films and greatly entertaining, even for those unfamiliar with what came before.
‘Dead Poets Society’
1989, dir. Peter Weir
Another coming-of-age classic, “Dead Poets Society” stars Robin Williams as an English teacher at a boarding school who guides students through their adolescence. Williams’ presence in the film is wonderful, bringing a shining warmth to a film that features some fairly dark moments. With multiple inspiring scenes and monologues, the movie offers a lot for young people trying to find their way in the world.
‘Ghost in the Shell’
1995, dir. Mamoru Oshii
“Ghost in the Shell” is a classic of Japanese animation and a massively influential science fiction film about a cyborg security guard hunting a rogue hacker.
Some of the most popular science fiction stories of the past several decades owe much to the film, and the manga it’s based on written by Masamune Shirow. Its futuristic aesthetic and gorgeous animation hold up wonderfully, and it’s definitely worth watching.
‘The King’s Speech’
2010, dir. Tom Hooper
Winner of Best Picture at the 83rd Academy Awards, “The King’s Speech” may be primarily known as the film that beat “The Social Network” at the Oscars, but it’s also a sturdy drama in its own right.
Based on the true story of King George VI working to overcome a significant stutter before taking power, the film is a largely pleasant experience that offers an interesting look at a significant moment in the British monarchy. It may not be overly challenging, but it’s certainly better than what Tom Hooper would go on to direct.