Arts and CultureFilm & Photography

The Best Streaming Arthouse Films Right Now

Updated: Apr 26, 2020 08:54
The Bay's best newsletter for underground events & news

Since the last piece on alternative film streaming options was written, the continuation of the coronavirus crisis has brought an expansion of theaters and festivals doing video streaming.

Most notably, the Roxie Theater is no longer the only local theater doing Virtual Cinema.  It’s now been joined by the Lee Neighborhood Theatres, the CinemaSF folks, and even our local branch of the Alamo Drafthouse.  While there has been some programming overlap (e.g. If you missed “The Wild Goose Lake” at the Roxie, the Lee chain is still showing it), each theater offers something unique.  On the other hand, viewers who squirm repeatedly through Centipede Horror may well wish for something blander and tamer.  

Incidentally, save a few dollars on May 1 for the Roxie’s Virtual Cinema.  That’s when it’s premiering the documentary adaptation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital In The 21st Century.  Also, on May 3, there will be a live virtual Q&A with Piketty himself.

Capital In The 21st Century

If you haven’t seen Mailchimp Presents SXSW 2020 Shorts, you can still do so.  Catch Call Center Blues, a documentary which shows how Tijuana call centers provide employment for everybody from undocumented immigrants deported from America to people wanting to avoid involvement with the drug cartels.  Or else check out Hand In Hand, in which a Trump-style attempt at domination by power handshake turns a public treaty signing into horrific chaos.   Animation Grand Jury Prize winner Wish Upon A Snowman, which concerns a Christmas wish which goes awry, may make you feel like an underachiever as the film’s director hails from high school.

In addition, half a dozen selections from South By Southwest’s episodic TV pilot competition can now be freely streamed on Vimeo for at least the next month.  The offerings include Homecoming: The Journey Of Cardboard (documentary follows artist and cardboard lover Fuyuki Shimazu, who travels the world picking up cardboard that catches his eye), Bananas (two Asian-Australian friends talk about growing up between two cultures in Queensland), and The Dream (comedy about an aspiring film director forced to take a job as a Production Assistant and the oddball community of veteran PAs who show him the ropes).  

Finally, from April 27 to May 6, 39 features, shorts, and episodics from SXSW will stream for free on Amazon Prime video.   All you need to access this material will be an Amazon account, no Prime membership needed.  Check out Cat In The Wall (despite being divided by economics and gentrification threats, the inhabitants of a Southeast London council estate must find a way to work together to liberate an ownerless cat who’s barricaded himself inside the walls of the estate), My Darling Vivian (documentary about Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash’s first wife and the mother of his four daughters), Dieorama (by day, Abigail Goldman works as an investigator for the Public Defender’s office; by night, she makes tiny precise dioramas filled with death and dismemberment), Vert (a couple’s 20th wedding anniversary joint trip into the virtual world of Vert winds up revealing the husband’s big secret), and Cursed Films (look behind the myths and legends surrounding some of Hollywood’s most notoriously “cursed” productions (e.g. were there actual human skeletons on the set of “Poltergeist?”)).

Cat In The Wall

For the international documentary festival Visions du Reel, on the other hand, you need to set up an account to access their free online material.  But once you do, between now and May 2, you can see films that would have screened at the 2020 festival.  Viewers can access such things as a retrospective devoted to acclaimed French director Claire Denis, the feature film Punta Sacra (Sacred Point) (the small Roman district of Idroscalo de Ostia is slowly being swept into the sea, yet its inhabitants still assert the right to live on their lands), or Mirror, Mirror On The Wall (Chinese plastic surgeon Dr. Han has dedicated his life to the pursuit of beauty, yet is beauty as essential to society as people like Dr. Han thinks it is?). 

By contrast with the above festivals, New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival may seem more limiting by offering only short films.  However, some of these short films happen to be part of the Tribeca Immersive: Cinema 360 program.  Those with home VR equipment can check out Tribeca’s 15 VR films in four programs of 30-40 minutes.  For those who have just a good old-fashioned Web browser, they can check out either shorts that would have screened at the festival or are from Tribeca alumni.   For example, in Approaching A Breakthrough, college student Norman Kaminsky (Kieran Culkin) has broken up with his girlfriend, abandoned his thesis advisor, and ghosted two different therapists.  Unfortunately for Norman, a visit to Central Park leads to his concurrently encountering all four of the people he wronged.  Lady Hater concerns a group of female Brooklynites who begin to suspect their “divine feminism” yoga class may be a royal crock.  Or how about Northbound, a documentary about Norwegian skateboarders who do ollies on frozen sand against spectacular sunsets?


Sponsored by the Thessaloniki International Film Festival is the coronavirus shelter in place-inspired Project Spaces.  This short film project combines the Georges Perec book “Species Of Spaces” with the self-isolation required by coronavirus.  World-renowned directors such as Radu Jude, Jia Zhangke and Annemarie Jacir were challenged to shoot in their homes a 10-minutes-or-less film on the theme of confinement.  The filmmakers could only use what’s already in their home environment, including whatever people and animals are already there or even what they could see outside their home.  The first collection of shorts can be accessed here.  The second collection, which just came out, can be accessed here.

Another film festival reaction to the coronavirus is My Darling Quarantine Short Film Festival.  This festival offers a weekly online program of seven short films from around the world dealing with the theme of Dystopia.  The current week, for example, offers such films as “Chigger Ale” (celebration at an Addis Ababa bar goes quiet when Hitler walks in), “Contamination” (what happens when the cross-contamination of genetic material runs out of control), and “The Was” (VHS collage featuring such pop culture figures as Daria, Seinfeld, and Donnie Darko).  Not only can viewers vote on the best film in a particular week, but they can donate to a GoFundMe for both Medecins Sans Frontieres and cultural institutions and workers affected by the coronavirus shutdown.  The festival is the brainchild of Enrico Vannucci, short film advisor for the Venice International Film Festival.  Programmers from such prestigious world film festivals as Locarno, Berlin, and Cannes (among others) suggested films for My Darling Quarantine.

A more offbeat response to the wave of festival cancellations can be found in Room H.264: Quarantine.  In this video, filmmakers who would have appeared at Museum of the Moving Image, South By Southwest, and other festivals and institutions answer a single question: “Is cinema becoming a dead language?”  Creators Eric Hynes, Damon Smith, and Jeff Reichert update a famous documentary Wim Wenders made in 1982 where he asked filmmakers of the time the same question.  Yes, seeing the video is free, but be a mensch and make a $10 donation to the Museum of the Moving Image.

Room H.264: Quarantine

Mississippi’s Oxford Film Festival offers a different solution to the festival cancellation problem.  Starting this week and through the summer and fall, they’ll be running a weekly themed slate of online screenings from the titles already selected for what would have been the 2020 festival.  Some of the titles will not be available outside Mississippi.  All titles require purchasing a virtual ticket.  But half the ticket price goes to the filmmakers, which is an unique step for a film festival.  Some of the films being offered are: Dear Johnny Reb: An Argument Against Confederate Memorials (Mississippi filmmaker joined by 42 other natives of the state pens a go home letter to these Confederate statues), Bad Assistant (Devoted Hollywood assistant starts finding her limits when her boss needs help moving a corpse), and Out Of Tune (Maintenance worker who tunes the sonic shrines to the musical chord his society worships finds his job complicated by teen vandals).

The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival will put on a Virtual Showcase between May 1 and May 28.  This free digital experience substitutes for the live festival’s postponement thanks to coronavirus-ordered closures.  While the full lineup won’t be announced until April 27, two showings have been locked down.  One is a sneak preview of Episodes 3 & 4 of the new PBS series Asian Americans, a look at American history through an Asian-American lens.  The other is First Vote, which looks at the intersection between Asian-American experience and voting rights issues through the stories of four Asian-American voters living in Ohio and North Carolina. 

By contrast, the Jewish Film Institute’s Cinegogue Sessions offers specially curated dips into the Jewish Film Festival’s back catalog.  As program subjects such as baseball and food indicate, the emphasis is on sparking communion.  If you have a S.F. Public Library card, you can access these sessions for free through the library’s Kanopy video service.  On the other hand, the hidden cost of Kanopy use makes it ultimately problematic for libraries such as SFPL.   

One Small Step

A more guilt-free dip into a back catalog comes from the annual Animation Show Of Shows.  The four most-recent Shows, aka the 17th to 20th editions, are now available for home streaming.  For the uninitiated, these shows bring together the best animated shorts curator Ron Diamond has seen that year in festivals around the world.   Diamond’s shows introduced moviegoing audiences to “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos,” “Pearl,” “Weekends,” and “One Small Step” long before their Oscar nominations.  But these shows also feature such worthy if lesser known shorts such as the “night shift work is hell” musical (“My Burden”), a farce involving worker individuality and classical music (“Stripy”), and a jaw-dropping short featuring thousands of hand-drawn tools and everyday objects (“Grands Canons”).

Animated shorts are also one of the treasures to be found among the 3000 shorts and features available online on the National Film Board of Canada website.  Pay particular attention to the website’s documentary and animation sections.  Here, the interested viewer will find such films as the music documentary Ladies And Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen and animated tales such as Caterpillarplasty, a satirical science fictional look at the future of plastic surgery.

For those who want a larger sense of the breadth of the documentary form, check out the DAFilms streaming service.  Already well-established outside the US, this DocAlliance streaming channel is a joint project of such major European documentary film festivals as CPH:DOX, DOK Leipzig, and the aforementioned Visions du Reel.  Thanks to the channel’s strong curation, viewers trying this site won’t be left blindly looking for a worthwhile documentary.


Another new if smaller streaming channel of note is The Future Of Film Is Female.  Once a MOMA film series, this is the newest arm of an ongoing project to produce, exhibit, and promote women-directed films.  The channel offers both shorts and the occasional feature film, although the features are available for limited times.  Interested people can find such films as the award-winning Edgecombe (a look into the lives of three rural black families shows how trauma can repeat and re-invent itself), Red Sari (an Indian couple taking their engagement photos have fears about what married life entails), and even another way to rent the upcoming documentary Pahokee (portrait of life in a rural village in Florida’s Everglades). 

Interested in seeing films that argue for ambiguity as both survival strategy and political defiance?  Then you have until May 2 to check out for free the video program certainty is becoming our nemesis.  Originally commissioned by the McEvoy Foundation For The Arts for its “Orlando” exhibition, this collection of short avant-garde films on the subject of ambiguity is curated by S.F. Cinematheque’s Steve Polta.  The ten short films in the program include “Metamorphoses du Papillon” (a response film to Gaston Valle’s pioneering 1904 film of the same name), “The Queen Of Material” (both an homage to Kenneth Anger and a portrait of the primal allure of regal adornment), and “Shape Of A Surface” (juxtaposing the Turkish ruins of Aphrodisias with images of human bodies for a consideration of the eternity of form and the brevity of existence).  

Viewers interested in trying really off-the-beaten path films should check out the site for  Parachute Films.  They’re offering for free streaming a collection of short and feature films from Georgia (the Russian state), a mix of both award-winners and obscurities (as far as Western viewers are concerned).  There are such films as “Winter Which Was Not There” (the journey of a statue rescued from the sea becomes a metaphor for dictator Joseph Stalin’s relationship to Georgia), “Keep Smiling” (a beauty contest for mothers who have borne more than three children offers the winner a chance to start afresh with their own apartment and $25,000), and “Blood” (a plan to sell the ancestral family home goes awry when a re-visit stirs up forgotten but powerful memories).  The site can be accessed here.

It’s Called The Dawn

Let’s conclude with a place to go for those preferring their obscure cinema exposure with a bit more curation.  For years, the Kino Slang blog has presented cinematic obscurities with intriguing commentary accompanying them.  For example, a recent post featured a 1-minute live work Jean-Luc Godard did for French television (“What’s Wrong With The World”) paired with a 1955 drama from Luis Bunuel (“It’s Called The Dawn”).  In the discussion of the Bunuel film is this quote from Freddy Buache’s book “The Cinema Of Luis Bunuel”:

“…one should totally reject all taboos and all laws, and feel at all times and in all circumstances in a state of insurrection.  One’s self-respect, therefore, requires one to give refuge in one’s home to the worker who has just murdered his boss, and never to shake hands with a policeman.” 

Why Bunuel reached that conclusion, the Broke-Ass reader can discover for themselves.

Like this article? Make sure to sign up for our mailing list so you never miss a goddamn thing!
Previous post

Legendary Queer Party, Tubesteak Connection, has a Virtual Sweet 16 Celebration

Next post

COVID Resources for SF Bay Area Residents & Workers

Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.

1 Comment

  1. April 30, 2020 at 2:29 pm

    Great overview. Thanks.
    I am curious what “cat pron” is?

    The Balboa/Vogue aka Cinema SF have been doing some unique virtual events.