Netflix: $19.99 (premium). HBO Max: $14.99 (no ads). Disney Bundle: $13.99. Amazon Prime: $14.99. Paramount Plus: $10 (premium).
You get the point: streaming is expensive, especially for young Calvin grads with liberal arts degrees. And this isn’t even that excessive of a Roku lineup, absent some significant services, many live sports packages, and regular rental costs. Yet, to stream in 2023—these are “the essentials.” (With the exception of Paramount—let’s be honest. Do you really need that one?)
And, unfortunately, they are all garbage. Or, at least, they feed you garbage—designed from the ground up to keep your eyes glued to their services as long as possible, with as few distractions as possible. While I have nothing against popular entertainment, you shouldn’t have to spend a fortune creating a library of expensive streaming services to have a simulacrum of a thoughtful digital library.
And the good news is: you don’t have to! Here is a quick and easy guide to more thoughtful streaming on a budget.
Cost: 1 library card
Why Kanopy?: This should go without saying: Kanopy is the single most essential streaming service available. Its user interface may be shoddy, but the service has an excellent collection of old, foreign, recent English language, and arthouse films of all sorts—a rarity in the world of streaming. You’ll find mid-budget Dad-tier sci-fi films you forgot about, and you’ll come across Chinese war movies that you’ve never heard of; there’s something for everyone here. Their motto, “Thoughtful Entertainment,” perfectly reflects their diverse programming.
Cost: Free, $5.99, or $9.99
Why Viki?: As a cinephile addicted to the film cultures of East Asia, Viki has been the most reliable, timely, and flexible Asian film streaming service that I’ve tested. If you’re looking to diversify your media habits but want to keep things largely contemporary, Viki is the best option available.
Why Tubi?: Never know what to watch? Tubi has the largest library of any streaming service that I’m aware of. With 40,000+ titles, Tubi dwarfs Amazon Prime’s 10,500, Netflix’s 6,000, and HBO’s puny 3,000. Disney is even farther behind, with numbers so small they don’t seem to report them that often. (All numbers are approximate.) Their interface is probably the worst out there, but if you know what you want to watch prior to picking up the remote, Tubi won’t let you down. My only real criticism of the service is that they occasionally offer dubbed non-English language films without offering a version with the original language audio.
Why: YouTube has a deep catalog of free and legally available films with English captions available—including a significant library from the oldest Russian film studio, MosFilm, and an official archival effort by the South Korean government on the channel Korean Classic Film. (Also available online).
Check out this list of 385 movies available free and legal on YouTube, a list I’m sure is nowhere near complete. If you want a specific recommendation, I loved the disturbingly sexy Korean drama The Flower in Hell (1958), directed by Shin Sang-ok and staring his wife Choi Eun-hee (both of whom were later kidnapped by Kim Jung-Il and forced to make North Korean propaganda films… but that’s a story for another time.)
Cost: $10.99 per month
Why Mubi?: In a more interesting way to update their extremely curated programming, the staff over at Mubi handpicks a “Film of the Day” every day. They also present original and restored works, including many of which are only available on their website. Mubi even recently got into restoring works themselves with Metin Erksan’s Time to Love (1965), a romantic Turkish masterpiece.