Lost reels: 15 directors pick great films you won’t find on UK streaming – The Guardian

In theory, there has never been a better time to be a movie fan. The ubiquity of streaming platforms means that films are more accessible than ever before. One click, and we can be transported to any country, genre or period. Or at least, that’s the idea. In practice, it’s not quite as simple as all that. Despite the wide choice of mainstream modern titles offered by big hitters such as Netflix, Disney+ and Prime Video; and the sterling work done by bespoke platforms such as Mubi, Curzon, BFI Player and regional specialist Klassiki, numerous films remain unavailable to be streamed by UK audiences (legally at least). And we’re not just talking about obscure arthouse titles (although my personal holy grail of missing movies, Alexei German Jr’s Paper Soldier, probably fits that description): a surprising number of high-profile pictures seem to have slipped through the streaming cracks. Jane Campion’s feature film debut, Sweetie, is currently unavailable to stream; so, remarkably, is David Lynch’s debut, Eraserhead.

Why is this? In the case of older titles, restoration and digitisation are key factors. Thousands of pictures exist as film prints, stored in canisters in archives and cinematheques, but not in the digital format that would be required for inclusion on a streaming platform. Or if they have been digitised in the past, the file doesn’t meet the quality standard that is now required, something that evolves increasingly rapidly as technology advances. It is an expensive and time-consuming process. Add to that the common problem of a “rights void”: when it is unclear who holds the rights to a film, licensing or restoring it becomes unviable.

Elsewhere, films that were previously available to stream have been disappearing from platforms at an alarming rate. This is the result of a combination of factors: expired licences and rights renegotiations; and cost-cutting measures – erasing a movie from a library can be a tax write-off and also reduces the residuals owed (fees paid to the creatives when a film is broadcast). All of which are obstacles to the instant gratification of online viewing. All in all, it’s a strong argument in favour of collecting films on physical media, such as DVDs, where possible.

But there’s a flip side: for many movie buffs, part of the pleasure of reconnecting with half-remembered, long-cherished films is the thrill of the hunt. Clicking play on a laptop is all very well, but there’s a satisfaction to be had in finally tracking down a missing movie that is hard to beat. We asked 15 film-makers to pick their favourite hard-to-find titles that are currently unavailable to stream in the UK. Movie detectives: you have your mission.

(Alexis Kanner, 1981, not widely available on streaming or DVD)

Award-winning London-Irish playwright and film-maker whose best known films include In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Banshees of Inisherin

Patrick McGoohan and Alexis Kanner in Kings and Desperate Men.
Patrick McGoohan and Alexis Kanner in Kings and Desperate Men. Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

I’d been a big fan of The Prisoner, the TV show, for years before I saw this film. The star is Patrick McGoohan, and it’s written and directed by Alexis Kanner, who plays a character in The Prisoner. I first saw it at the cinema – I was about 14, in 1984 – and I was blown away. It’s about a terrorist group who hijack a radio talk show host to try to get a guy out of prison who’s been sentenced to 15 years for accidentally killing a policeman in a hit and run. So it’s a thriller set-up that discusses the politics of the time, but then unfolds in twisty-turny ways. It’s quite an avant garde Canadian movie – you don’t see many of those. It’s got a medieval score throughout, which is unusual for a film set in the late 70s. But it’s really well written: funny, with a big, quirky performance from McGoohan. It also stars Margaret Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s mother – for that reason alone, we should be able to see it. She’s really good in it. Sadly Kanner never made another film, and died pretty young, aged 61. So that added a strange, sad quality to it, too.

It’s been really hard to find it in the years since. I’ve got a VHS of it, and it’s on YouTube in a horrible faded version. But of all the films I saw back then and haven’t been able to find, that’s the one that stuck in my mind the most. I watched it again a couple of nights ago and it really stands up. It’s the perfect encapsulation of indie movie-making – I think any young film-maker would learn a lot from it.

Mark Jenkin

(Frank Perry, 1969, not widely available)

Jenkin is a Cornish film-maker known for Bait (2019), which won a Bafta for outstanding debut, and 2022’s folk horror Enys Men

Richard Thomas, Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison on the beach look up as Catherine Burns (Rhoda) arrives in Last Summer (1969)
Left to right: Richard Thomas, Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison and Catherine Burns in Last Summer (1969). Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

I’ve only seen this film once, when I was a teenager, and it had a real impact on me. I’m not sure whether I saw it on TV or VHS, but I’ve never been able to find it since, so my semi-obsession with it has grown. And I don’t know whether that’s because of the film or because it’s unobtainable. It’s about three teenagers who are holidaying on Fire Island in New York, where they meet another girl. It follows their dynamic, then takes a horrific dark turn at the end. I grew up in Cornwall, which is probably why it resonated with me so strongly: it looked a bit like my life, hanging around on the beach and long, endless summers.

I just checked, which I do from time to time, and I can get a VHS from the States, but it’s about $350. I’m amazed nobody’s ever put the film on YouTube – there are clips, but no complete version. Apparently there are no 35mm prints of it in existence. There’s one 16mm print that was found in Australia, which was last screened about 20 years ago. But other than that, the film doesn’t exist. I’ve become slightly obsessed with this 16mm print. I’d love to be at a screening of that, because it looks absolutely luminous.

The fact that you can now find most things online removes a bit of the magic for me. It’s almost nice to have a reminder every now and then, like with Last Summer, that it’s not all available to stream. It’s just one of these films that’s fallen through the gaps, that comes from a time when there was no digitising and no archiving: there are a huge number of films that that’s the case for. But it does become quite a terrifying thought. That’s why I like physical media: I still buy DVDs, and I collect VHS tapes. I find that very exciting, going through old secondhand shops and boxes of DVDs, searching for rarities. I also like collecting film prints: the last one I got was an 11-minute cut down of Jesus Christ Superstar on Super 8, which is one of my treasured possessions at the moment.

Carol Morley

(Jane Campion, 1989, available on DVD)

Director of Dreams of a Life, The Falling and Out of Blue. Her latest film, Typist Artist Pirate King, is in cinemas now

Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) sits next o her sister Kay (Karen Colston), whom she has buried in the sand on the beach, in a scene from Sweetie
Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) with – buried in the sand – Kay (Karen Colston) in a scene from Sweetie. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

I can’t believe this isn’t available on streaming. It’s Jane Campion’s first feature, and it concerns two sisters, Sweetie and Kay. It’s a psychosexual melodrama about difficult relationships and mental illness – it’s a really interesting study of a family trying to connect and disconnect from one another. It’s brilliant. One of my favourite scenes is when Kay goes to a meditation class and she just can’t get on with it, but then begins to have visions of a tree they’ve planted in the garden, which I guess stands for the family tree.

I don’t remember where or how exactly I saw it – I’m pretty sure it was at the cinema around the time of release, when I started to study film. I’ve seen it projected since. I have the DVD, which has lots of brilliant extras, and also a VHS. I still have my VHS player, and a spare DVD player that’s brand new in a box because I’m so afraid of all that going defunct. During the pandemic I did a Friday film club, and I would use this website – archive.org/movies – to link to films legally. It’s very good: people upload films there when they are out of copyright. Often when things aren’t available, it’s because of rights issues. I don’t know why someone’s not gone after the rights for Sweetie – maybe because it’s not going to make money. But it would be a crime if it wasn’t available for everybody: it’s a great film, it was at Cannes, it was a breakout film for Jane Campion. It’s part of film history.

Michael Winterbottom

(Bertrand Tavernier, 1974, available on DVD)

Award-winning director whose films include 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs, The Road to Guantanamo, A Mighty Heart, The Trip and Greed

Philippe Noiret in The Clockmaker of St Paul.
Philippe Noiret in The Clockmaker of St Paul. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

I first watched this on telly in Blackburn when I was still at school. I remember loving the way it evoked a particular community in Lyon in France. When I left school and went abroad for the first time, I went to Lyon especially to visit where the film was shot. It’s a crime story, but it’s more about the relationship between a father and his son who has committed the crime – the father, played by the great Philippe Noiret, is coming to terms with what he knew and didn’t know about his son. It’s based on a book by Georges Simenon, that great chronicler of French life, but strangely the book is set in America, so Tavernier took it and transposed it to his home town. As I remember it, it’s a very low-key, intimate film, a subtle reflection on family life and on father-and-son alienation. For all those reasons, I would love to get a chance to watch it again if it came online and remind myself how good it is.

TV was the place where I saw most of the interesting films before I left home. So I don’t think anyone should be too snobbish about people watching stuff at home, because that’s the way most people who don’t live in big cities or have access to arthouse cinemas watch films.

Asif Kapadia

(Wong Kar-wai, 1994, available on DVD)

Award-winning director whose films include Senna, Amy, Diego Maradona and 2022’s Akram Khan collaboration Creature

Faye Wong and Tony Leung in Chungking Express
Faye Wong and Tony Leung in Chungking Express. Photograph: Prod.DB/Alamy

My personal passion is world cinema, and I’m increasingly aware of its erasure from streaming services. In the 90s and early 00s, when I was at college and university, it was a peak period for Asian film, and the movies that moved me most, and made me want to make films, came from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam; it was an extraordinary period that inspired a new generation of film-makers. I was really shocked when I saw that Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express isn’t available to watch in the UK. Of all the Asian films from that period, this is the one that really blew up. It’s a game-changer in so many ways: the production design, the use of music, Christopher Doyle’s camerawork. It’s such a cool, meandering, beautiful film.

If a really high-profile film like that is hard to find, imagine how hard it is to watch less well-known Asian films. There’s currently no way of watching The Story of Qiu Ju by Zianh Yimou, or Tra Anh Hung’s Cyclo, and they both won the Golden Lion at Venice. It seems there’s a huge archiving backlog on streaming services, and the right people aren’t deciding what should be preserved and restored. Cinema is a worldwide art form, but if that international language is being lost then young people won’t understand the breadth and richness of cinema, and that’s a serious tragedy.

Prano Bailey-Bond

(David Lynch, 1977, available on DVD)

Welsh director and writer; her debut feature film, Censor, starring Niamh Algar, was released in 2021

Jack Nance in Eraserhead.
Jack Nance in Eraserhead. Photograph: Libra Films/Allstar

I was so surprised to find that Eraserhead isn’t available online – I searched three times expecting different results, but it’s still not there. I first saw it when I was very young, probably 11 or 12. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, with limited access to cinema. The internet didn’t exist, but I was really lucky that my parents had great taste in films and we had this amazing shelf full of videos. Eraserhead had been recorded off the telly, I think by my dad, and I peeled it off that shelf and put it in the video player. I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s important that it’s available: seeing a film like that at that age opens up what cinema can be in a totally different way.

In a nutshell, it’s a very strange film about a man who is coming to terms with being a parent for the first time – although that doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s a work of art, really. It was probably one of the films that inspired me to want to make films because it was operating on a different level from other work I’d seen. It tapped into a different feeling – like something you recognise from your own subconscious that is being shown back to you, in a way that’s fascinating and beautiful and weirdly funny. When you think of what a terrifying film might be, Eraserhead is not what anybody else would imagine. It’s terrifying on some deeper level of dread that is almost illogical, in the same way that a nightmare is.

I don’t understand how it can’t be on any streamer. It’s a film by one of, if not the greatest living director. It’s his debut, and the film he made on his own terms. I think it has to be an oversight. If I can’t find a film online, there are places such as Second Sight, Vinegar Syndrome, Arrow and Criterion that may have physical media you can buy; otherwise I’d start asking my friends who’s got a copy of something. But we’re in a time now where if you’re not a cinephile or a film-maker, you’re less likely to buy physical media. So we’re relying more on streaming in order for young people and potential film-makers of the future to discover these movies and be inspired by them.

Peter Strickland

(Peter Solan, 1965, available on DVD)

Director and screenwriter whose work includes Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy, In Fabric and Flux Gourmet

Josef Kemr in The Case of Barnabás Kos.
Josef Kemr in The Case of Barnabáš Kos. Photograph: MUBI

This is a great political satire. Even though it was made at the height of communism, its absurd premise – centred on a triangle player’s promotion to orchestra director – sadly has contemporary parallels when it comes to party loyalists propped up in positions beyond their talents. Kafka was an influence, especially The Trial. It’s also a really funny film. This character discards so much classical music because it doesn’t feature the triangle, and he tries to wedge it into pieces by Bach and so on. There’s a centrepiece of the film where it’s a cacophony of triangles.

I used to live in Slovakia, which is maybe why it resonated. So many films from the Czech new wave made it to Britain: Věra Chytilová’s Daisies, Juraj Herz’s The Cremator. This one doesn’t deserve to be obscure: it has a lot going for it. I saw it quite recently, in 2019, when it came out on DVD. At the moment you have to order it from Slovakia and with Brexit it’s going to cost you a fortune, but Second Run is releasing it on Blu-ray next year.

I’m still a bit old school. I don’t subscribe to any streaming services: even if films are on streaming, sometimes they get taken off and you’ve got no control over it. This is why I still buy DVDs. I like going to Fopp in Covent Garden, or Foyles. But so many shops have disappeared now. The DVD section of His Master’s Voice feels like a ghost town. I’m not against streaming – it’s great for so many people, for example if you live far away from a cinema, or if you’re strapped for cash – but you just want both things to stay active: you don’t want one to monopolise the other.

Harry Wootliff

(John Cassavetes, 1984, available on DVD)

Film and television director and screenwriter; her award-winning debut, Only You, was released in 2018, followed in 2021 by True Things

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands in Love Streams.
John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands in Love Streams. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Love Streams is the last proper independent film Cassavetes made. He was at death’s door at the time, but it’s a striking, beautiful film about two very dysfunctional siblings and the love between them: the brother is an alcoholic, and the sister is unable to look after her own daughter, obsessively in love with her ex-husband who clearly doesn’t care about her. One of the powerful things about Cassavetes is he doesn’t explain everything; he leaves gaps, which allow you to reflect on the characters and their stories. As a writer that’s an important challenge: you don’t want things too tied up, but you don’t want to be too ambiguous.

I think people underestimate Cassavetes. There’s a mythology that all the performances are improvised, but I don’t think that’s true. From what I’ve read he had his actors improvise while developing his scripts, but not once they were shooting, and that’s what makes the dialogue so brilliant. He also has a gift for making a domestic melodrama feel cinematic: there’s so much technique in the camerawork, though you don’t notice his artistry unless you’re looking for it.

It feels like a loss if films like this aren’t available to watch, because the next generation won’t have the opportunity to discover them. I was trying to explain to my seven-year-old how we used to go into shops to find and choose a film, just like we do with books. He was like: “What?

Charlotte Wells

(Marie-Claude Treilhou, 1980, not widely available)

Scottish director, writer and producer whose film Aftersun won numerous awards, including a Bafta for outstanding debut

Simone Barbes Or Virtue.
‘Delightful to watch’: Simone Barbes Or Virtue. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

Simone is an usher at a Parisian pornography theatre; the lead actor, Ingrid Borgoin, is a former colleague of the director, Marie-Claude Treilhou, at that same theatre. It’s a portrait of people, of place, of the night. Almost as difficult to find as it is delightful to watch, I was lucky to catch it in a cinema for the first time earlier this year, but wish I could surrender to it at will more often. Sublime.

Joe Cornish

(Elaine May, 1972, available on DVD)

Film-maker and comedian, half of Adam and Joe; his films include Attack the Block and The Kid Who Would Be King

Charles Grodin and Jeannie Berlin in The Heartbreak Kid.
Charles Grodin and Jeannie Berlin in The Heartbreak Kid. Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

This is a classic early-70s comedy from a golden era of American film-making – it came out the same year as Cabaret and The Godfather – when everything was shot on location and the performances were full of detail. Elaine May, who directed it, is one of the greatest comedians who’s ever lived, and it stars the brilliant Charles Grodin as this awful jerk – you can just look at his face and laugh. It’s a particular kind of black comedy you don’t get in cinema any more: incredibly naturalistic, more interested in character than funny lines (although there is a famous dinner scene where Grodin’s character, trying to ingratiate himself with his future in-laws, says “there’s no insincerity in those potatoes”).

I think a lot of great old movies fell between the cracks when Disney bought 20th Century Fox, and never made it to streaming. I couldn’t even find The Heartbreak Kid on DVD or Blu-ray, and searching for it reminded me of the time before digital media, when I would dedicate months of my life to treasure-hunting for a single VHS or Japanese laserdisc. That treasure-hunt mentality is still alive on the internet: finding 360p bootleg videos on YouTube, exchanging secret links. One of my favourite hobbies is subscribing to foreign streaming services to access hard-to-find films – my most recent discovery is a Spanish one called FlixOlé.

Romola Garai

(Andrzej Żuławski, 1988, not widely available)

Actor and director, whose directorial debut was 2020’s horror film Amulet

On the Silver Globe.
‘An extraordinary film’: On the Silver Globe. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

This film immediately jumped to mind. I’ve written a dystopian science-fiction film about space, and somebody said: “Oh, you must have been very influenced by this film.” And I hadn’t seen it. So I watched it and it was a transcendent, transformative experience. I think you can get it on DVD, but it’s really hard to get hold of – I was actually sent a link to it. It’s a shame streamers don’t offer films like this more, because it’s the kind of movie that reminds me of the point of watching films at all.

It’s about a group of astronauts who arrive on a distant and unknown planet and encounter the civilisation that lives there. It’s about colonialism and faith, but told through the prism of science fiction. It’s about what it means to be a human being, as opposed to an animal or a piece of technology: at a time when art has been taken over by algorithms and there’s this increasing conformity, the film felt unlike anything else I’d ever seen. It’s so physical in its execution. There’s a whole host of different design elements to it, and its geography is really hard to pin down – sometimes duney beaches, at other times post-industrial landscapes. It was really meditative.

It was an extremely difficult film to make, because Żuławski was constantly having to battle the communist authorities: at one stage, half the film mysteriously went missing and he had to remake it. It’s not just an extraordinary film in its content, it’s also an amazing testament to the act of somebody really needing to make a film against considerable opposition from a monolithic power, which is something a lot of film-makers today can relate to.

Kim Longinotto

(Nisha Pahuja, 2022, not widely available)

Documentary film-maker whose work often focuses on the female experience; her films include Sisters in Law, Dreamcatcher and Shooting the Mafia

A scene from To Kill a Tiger
‘Empowering, inspired and dedicated’: To Kill a Tiger. Photograph: Notice Pictures Inc./NFB

I was on the jury for the ImagineIndia film festival earlier this year and was asked to judge this documentary. It’s about a 13-year-old girl in a village in India who is raped by three men during a wedding party. Normally, she would have been made to marry one of the men so that she could keep her honour. What I absolutely love about the film is that her father supports her in taking these men to court. At the start, the father is really apologetic and shrunk into himself, but over the course of the film he becomes stronger and more confident, despite the fact that everyone in the village is against them.

There was some debate on the jury about whether it was right to show the girl’s face, but I thought the shame should be with the perpetrators. It’s a really empowering, inspiring and dedicated film. By the end you feel that you’ve really been part of this village and you know all the characters. I would love everybody to see it.

William Oldroyd

(Robert Altman, 1993, available on DVD)

Director of the Bafta-nominated Lady Macbeth (2016). His second feature, Eileen, adapted from Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, is in cinemas from 1 December

Anne Archer in Short Cuts.
Anne Archer in Short Cuts. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

The reason I know this is not on streaming is because I went to go and watch it and I couldn’t. I was surprised. I would have thought that all of Robert Altman’s movies would be available: he’s such an important American director. And it’s an ensemble cast of brilliant actors: Robert Downey Jr, Andie MacDowell, Jack Lemmon, Juliane Moore, Lily Tomlin, Tim Robbins, Tom Waits, a young Frances McDormand.

So I haven’t seen Short Cuts, but essentially it’s an adaptation of several Raymond Carver short stories. I think Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia is very similar to it in terms of structure. The reason I wanted to watch Short Cuts was because I was trying to explain to a writer the nature of the overlapping dialogue that Altman does so brilliantly. His scenes, for me, are so alive; the rhythms of speech are so natural. And that’s very hard, I think, to try and get on the page. So I wanted to show him an example of what I was trying to say, but then you see it also in The Long Goodbye, so at least I could show him that.

Mubi and the BFI Player cover a lot of movies I want to watch, but I’m very happy to have been introduced to JustWatch.com because sometimes I get very confused about where to see something – now I can see where it is showing. I used to go to the film library in Bethnal Green, and I’ve actually moved to Rome, where there’s the cinematheque Casa Del Cinema, and there’s a fantastic movie library at Cinema Troisi. They also have huge retrospectives all the time, and there’s lots of great independent cinemas that show these films.

Thea Sharrock

Thea Sharrock on The Commitments

(Alan Parker, 1991, available on DVD)

Director of Me Before You and The One and Only Ivan. Her new film Wicked Little Letters is in cinemas from 23 February 2024

The cast of The Commitments.
The cast of The Commitments. Photograph: Universal/Alamy

The director Alan Parker died in the middle of 2020, at the height of lockdown. I wanted to reconnect with his work so I sat down and watched The Commitments with my kids – on DVD because it wasn’t available online. I’d seen it when it came out in 1991: I remember being blown away by the voice of Andrew Strong, who plays the lead singer, Deco Cuffe. Like Strong, most of the cast had never acted before, but Parker could draw great performances from people almost without them realising. The film follows the rise and fall of a soul band in inner-city Dublin. Jimmy Rabbitte puts the band together, gathering a wonderful mixture of talents, but as they get bigger and better, the dynamics between them become more complicated. It’s simple storytelling, filmed in an almost documentary style, but Parker brings such heart and soul to the film and turns it into a beautifully realistic world. It’s as much about love and jealousy and learning to grow up as it is a depiction of working-class Dublin. My kids loved it. The performances are fantastic, the music is brilliant. It’s just a joy to watch.

Fyzal Boulifa

(Tsui Hark, 1986, not widely available)

British-Moroccan director known for 2019’s Lynn + Lucy and last year’s The Damned Don’t Cry; his short films have won a number of awards

Peking Opera Blues.
‘An incredible anarchic mix of kung fu, revolutionary politics and playing with gender’: Peking Opera Blues. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

I saw this late at night on Channel 4 when I was 10 or 11, and I was completely captivated. It had already started so I didn’t know the title until many years later, but it really lodged itself into my memory. It’s about three female characters who are thrown together during the 1911 revolution in China, and it’s an incredible anarchic mix of kung fu, revolutionary politics and playing with gender. As a gay boy growing up, this female friendship aspect of it really appealed to me. The film has a real sense of adventure and peril, and there’s this acrobatic finale which takes place on the roof of a theatre – it’s absurd, but so beautifully choreographed there’s almost a transcendence to it. There’s a physicality to the film that recalls Chaplin or the Marx brothers – it’s less tethered to the more psychological lines along which Hollywood cinema developed.

I must have been around 20 when I was able to locate the name of the film on the internet. It’s always been a mystery to me why it’s not canonised. It is very well respected – Quentin Tarantino is a big fan. But it’s very strange: I think it was distributed when it was made, but it’s never been released on DVD outside of Hong Kong. So that’s what I got – it was the only way to see it. I was almost scared to watch it because I thought maybe I had just been young and naive. But it was a very pleasant surprise when I finally got to see it again and it was a wonderful, wonderful film. I think I’ve seen it 10 or 15 times in total, and even now I find it completely sublime. But the English translation is horrific – I’m desperate to see it with subtitles that make sense.

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