The Mill's William McGregor Talks Best Public Domain Movies for Lockdown
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The Mill’s William McGregor, director of BAFTA winning and BIFA nominated feature film ‘Gwen’ and TV such as MisFits and His Dark Materials, talks through his all-time favourite free-to-watch movies
It’s yet another list of films to add to the ever growing pile of content you still haven’t caught up on or re-watched. But hear me out, if you are filling a few lockdown hours with a session on the sofa, then why not check out something you might not have watched otherwise...
These classics are genuine treasures and are available to all for free. Some of them might be nearly 100 years old, but I guarantee they will still surprise and delight. And when the industry reawakens after this enforced down time, I promise you will be all the more inspired for checking them out.
Roland West’s 1926 tale of a mysterious figure dressed as a bat terrorising the guests of an old house is not only one of the first haunted house films ever made, but it also served as inspiration for the creation of Batman. Shot almost entirely at night and with gorgeous use of shadow, this slice of 20’s Gothic mystery is still a masterclass in cinematography.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC
This is one of my all time favourite films, I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen, introduced by Bela Tar at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018. And despite having my own film ‘Gwen’ premiering in the festival that year, this was my favourite screening of the festival. Carl Theodore Dreyer is a Swedish filmmaker who deserves to be seen on the same level as Bergman. And for his use of powerful close ups alone, The Passion of Joan of Arc is worth the watch. It is minimalist filmmaking at its greatest with framing and composition that most art directors would kill for.
THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE
A film so good Kubrik stole from it. It’s also our second Swedish film, the director Victor Sjostrom was actually Carl Theodore Dreyer’s mentor, and his work deserves just as much attention. This early ghost story is as uncanny and spellbinding as the day it was made in 1921. And if you're not hacking a door down with an axe to watch this one then you should be.
Another from 1926... but you can’t make a list of films in the public domain without including Buster Keaton, and why not go for The General, which the man himself is said to have regarded as his favourite of his own films and is without doubt one of the most revered comedy films of the silent era. Endearing, funny and surprisingly emotional. Any single scene in this masterpiece is a treasure trove of ideas and inspiration for creatives.
THE ANIMATIONS OF LOTTE REINIGER
OK so I’m cheating... I’ve just bundled an entire director's work into one of my selected movies. A decade before Disney, there was a female animator in Germany making exquisite fairy tale films with her hand cut shadow puppets that still inspire cinematic blockbusters today (I’m looking at you Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). I’ve included a link to the 10 minute short of The Sleeping Beauty from 1954, hopefully this serves as a gateway to an afternoon well spent spiralling through a YouTube hole of Lotte Reiniger's enchanting films.
THE GOLD RUSH
Lame title pun warning...but this film is GOLD! (Yeah, I know, sorry). We couldn’t have Buster without his British counterpart Charlie. Mr Chaplin proves his theory that tragedy and comedy are never far apart. This masterclass in physical comedy is an emotional ride, and without angering the City Lights fans out there, I would go as far as to say it’s Charlie Chaplin’s best work. Although if you fancied a Little Tramp double bill, why not watch both.
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Alright, so maybe you don’t feel in the mood for an experimental 1929 Soviet era silent documentary, but hear me out. This is one of the most inventive and inspiring films ever made, and the second film in my list with a fantastic train sequence. As a side note, I recommend watching the version with the Cinematic Orchestra’s 2003 soundtrack.
And whilst we are in Russia... why not check out one of the greatest films of all time. Sergie Eisenstein’s magnum opus about a revolt by sailors on the titicular battleship. This film has genuinely been claimed to be the actual GOAT. Although the BFI had it at a lowly 7th in their poll back in 2012. The Odessa Steps sequence is one of those scenes that is part of the collective consciousness, and is possibly even more famous than the film itself.
Understandably the Bram Stoker estate weren’t that happy about Nosferatu and sued the filmmakers, Nosferatu an unofficial and unauthorised adaptation of Dracula. All copies of the print were ordered to be destroyed. Fortunately for us a few copies survived. And if anything this only adds to the gothic mystique of this eerie masterpiece of German Expressionism.
William’s debut feature film Gwen is available to rent on Amazon, Sky Movies and iTunes. His latest TV work on His Dark Materials is currently through the iPlayer app and you can see his commercial work with The Mill here.