Ask someone what their favorite streaming service is, and they might say something expected, like Netflix, Disney+, or the bizarrely renamed Max (formerly HBO Max). Some might go with MUBI, horror fans might say Shudder, or there’s always The Criterion Channel for those lucky enough to live in an area where it’s accessible. Fewer people would pick Wikipedia as a great streaming service (of sorts), though. Perhaps most people wouldn’t even think movies could be watched there.
Yes, calling it a full-on streaming service is probably a stretch. Still, a decent number of movies are available to watch entirely for free on the web’s largest online encyclopedia. These are generally movies in the public domain or movies where the copyright has lapsed and not been renewed for whatever reason. What follows are some of the best titles that can be watched for free on Wikipedia (accessible via the main page for each title), ranked below from good to great.
10 ‘Fear and Desire’ (1952)
While Stanley Kubrick would go on to make one of the greatest Cold War movies of all time (Dr. Strangelove) and one of the greatest Vietnam War movies of all time (Full Metal Jacket), his first war movie isn’t quite as essential. That film was 1952’s Fear and Desire, though it can be cut some slack, given it was Kubrick’s first feature film, made when he was only 24.
It’s noteworthy for not being about a specific war, though it was made shortly after World War II concluded while the Korean War was being fought. It follows several soldiers trying to survive behind enemy lines, and while it’s not amazing, it’s not bad for an independent film made in the 1950s. With it being free on Wikipedia and running for just 61 minutes, it’s worth watching for Kubrick fans.
9 ‘The Terror’ (1963)
Jack Nicholson became one of cinema’s biggest stars in the years following The Terror, but this was one of several films he made with producer/director Roger Corman that first got him some attention. It’s a loosely plotted horror/mystery film about an officer who ends up in a castle and finds himself pitted against some supernatural entity.
The Terror might not be terrifying nowadays, but it’s an interesting watch, especially considering its troubled and lengthy production history. Corman never registered the film for copyright, leaving it in the public domain and easily viewable on numerous sites, including Wikipedia.
8 ‘Suddenly’ (1954)
Everyone knows Frank Sinatra to be an iconic singer, but he was also very prolific as an actor and was surprisingly good when given the right role. Suddenly, he is up there with the best movies he ever appeared in, with the premise of this one centering on an assassin who invades an ordinary household and waits there, believing it to be the perfect location from which to assassinate the President as he passes through town.
It’s the kind of no-nonsense film noir/thriller type movie with a simple premise that instantly sounds intriguing and then explores it thoroughly over a lean, well-paced runtime. Like other movies on Wikipedia, its copyright was not renewed, with it standing as one of the better freely available movies.
7 ‘Carnival of Souls’ (1962)
Carnival of Souls is a cult classic horror movie that still holds up to this day, proving surprisingly unsettling in parts. It follows a young woman who survives a car crash and finds herself continually hallucinating strange things. For most of the film, the audience is just as in the dark as the protagonist as the truth behind all the strange occurrences.
It ends up being an effective exploration of trauma and certainly does so with more nuance than many horror films of its time. Its low budget and sometimes hammy acting could either detract or add to the film’s charm, but in any event, Carnival of Souls is still compelling stuff and free to view online.
6 ‘The Last Man on Earth (1964)
One of many great movies released in 1964, The Last Man on Earth is based on the 1954 novel I Am Legend, which was also adapted into a 2007 movie starring Will Smith. Narratively, it’s about the aftermath of a disease that’s caused most of the population to become undead, which propels a survivor to become a vampire hunter in the post-apocalyptic world.
It stars Vincent Price in the lead role, and he’s the kind of actor whose sheer screen presence can make even bad movies watchable. Thankfully, The Last Man on Earth doesn’t have to worry about being a bad movie. It’s pretty solid all around and delivers some enjoyable — and sometimes hokey — 1960s horror-centric thrills.
5 ‘Detour’ (1945)
Few classic film noir movies are quite as wonderfully straight-to-the-point as Detour. It’s a B-grade movie with A-level class and filmmaking prowess behind it, following one man’s perilous journey after he makes the decision to hitchhike from New York to Los Angeles, which ends up putting him in immense danger.
It’s an essential film noir story in the way it starts simply enough but has each scene continually take things from bad to worse and then somehow worse still. It’s a tense and consistently entertaining movie and doesn’t even have an ounce of cinematic fat on it, thanks to its lean 68-minute runtime. It’s certainly one of the best film noir movies available on Wikipedia.
4 ‘A Star Is Born’ (1937)
A Star Is Born is a title generally associated with musicals because of the four movies called A Star Is Born, three are centered around music. But the first movie to show a star being born, from 1937, had the same “rise into stardom plus tragic romance” premise as the ones that followed it, though its main characters were in the acting business rather than part of the music industry.
For what it’s worth, this version might be better than the somewhat bloated 1976 take on the story, though it probably doesn’t quite reach the heights of the 1954 or 2018 versions. But the age of this version, paired with the fact that it still holds up, presents a good argument for this being a truly timeless tale that resonates across multiple generations.
3 ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ (1950)
Another timeless story that gets continually retold throughout cinema (including as recently as 2021) is that of Cyrano de Bergerac. It’s a story rife with humor, romance, action, and tragedy, telling the tale of a skilled poet/swordsman with an unusually large nose that makes him fearful of expressing his feelings to the woman he loves.
As such, he lets another man use his poetry to woo the woman he wants, leading to plenty of conflict and eventual heartbreak. This 1950 version honestly holds up extremely well as a direct, breezy adaptation of the story and notably contains an Oscar-winning performance, thanks to José Ferrer in the titular role. It’s available on Wikipedia and stands as one of the highest-quality films that can be watched there.
2 ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ (1955)
One year after Suddenly, Frank Sinatra was in another great film noir movie that feels supremely underrated: The Man with the Golden Arm. For its time, it’s quite shocking how openly it looks at drug addiction, with Sinatra playing a man who overcomes his addiction while in prison, though he finds staying off drugs becomes harder once he’s released.
It has a great pace and feels frequently tense throughout, thanks to Sinatra’s performance and the fine line his character walks between sobriety and relapse. Kim Novak (of Vertigofame) is also very good in a supporting role, which is another reason film noir fans should check out The Man with the Golden Arm, especially considering that it’s free on Wikipedia.
1 ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968)
Its sequels may be more impressive and visceral, but Night of the Living Dead shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s a low-budget horror classic, largely codifying what would become the zombie movie genre. Naturally, it features a story about the dead rising from their graves and forcing a small group of survivors to barricade themselves in a house and fight against undead hordes.
It’s one of the most well-known public-domain movies of all time, as an error made during editing caused it never to be properly copyrighted. Its ability to be shared, remixed, and remade has made it arguably even more influential than it otherwise would’ve been, with this freely available 1968 classic arguably being responsible for zombie media as we now know it.