In every type of business, there has to be a bargain option. For shoes there’s Payless, for groceries, Aldi; for slightly toxic, knock-off everythings, there’s Dollar Tree. So with the sudden proliferation of streaming channels, it makes sense that there would be a “slightly used” version of subscription-based behemoths Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Enter Crackle: Unique among streaming services, its content is free and totally subscription-less. Instead, it makes its money the old-fashioned way—through commercials…and specifically through Snapple and Arby’s commercials that feel beamed straight in from 1996. These nostalgia-inducing breaks, which often interrupt programming at awkward points, contribute to the vaguely dated air of the whole service.
This datedness makes some sense considering Crackle debuted in the early ’00s as Grouper (before being purchased by Sony in 2006), and also considering the man who put it on the map: Jerry Seinfeld, whose Crackle-produced Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, along with exclusive streaming of Seinfeld, has been a boon to the channel. Despite Crackle’s commercials (remind yourself that it’s FREE), the devotion to late-era Steven Segal, and the disproportionate amount of forgotten ‘80s and ‘90s thrillers featured (plus every installment from the Leprechaun franchise—and there are more than you think), there are some real gems to be found. We’ve compiled a list of things worth watching on Crackle that you won’t really be able to find on any other streaming service (for free, remember), and will, like every other version of a list like this, probably need to update this soon enough.
10. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Director: Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was harshly criticized upon its release: It was dubbed too incoherent, without enough character development, too indulgent in its sickening display of excess—though critics had to concede that it was surprisingly faithful adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name. So for those fans of Thompson’s writing, Fear and Loathing feels right—how else to capture the hallucinatory nightmare of the original work? Gilliam and his collaborators create a staggeringly baroque vision of Las Vegas able to easily induce in any viewer the feeling that he or she has been huffing some of the same detrimental vapors inhaled onscreen. Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro are appropriately unhinged as Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr. Gonzo, respectively, and other recognizable faces (Cameron Diaz, Flea, Gary Busey) flit in and out of the film as if in a dream. It may be an incoherent mess, but it’s a one-of-a-kind mess, capturing the seductive incoherency at the heart of its source material.
9. Easy Rider
Director: Dennis Hopper
Nineteen sixty-nine was a year of upheaval for Hollywood: The studio system had more or less collapsed, and independent production companies were intent on making their mark however they could. One such company was Raybert/BBS Productions, run by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson (whose epic story of drugs, violence, and subversive cinema is told in full in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), and Easy Rider was their first film.
It was also Dennis Hopper’s first as a director—and the results are shockingly forward-thinking, both visually and thematically. Easy Rider’s barely-there story focuses on two hippies (Hopper and Peter Fonda) as they ride their motorcycles to New Orleans. Theirs is a rambling journey, but not a purposeless one: Hopper clearly set out to capture a specific moment, when a growing counterculture clashed with an increasingly fearful American populace. Appropriately, the film is full of contradictions, at once tragic and stoic, frivolous and hard-hitting. It radiates immediacy, so much so that when a character (George Hanson, played by Jack Nicholson) utters a line like “Don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free ‘cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are,” it feels like something that could’ve been written yesterday.
8. American Hardcore
Director: Paul Rachman
American Hardcore is a comprehensive documentary of the early-mid-1980s hardcore punk movement, following bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minor Threat through the many varied regional scenes and their occasional clashes. The film benefits from the fact that most of its subjects are alive and well, willing to be interviewed and able to look back on the era with candor and humor. Rachman keeps the hardcore aesthetic alive throughout, positioning his subjects in institutional hallways, in front of chipped-paint-walls, on folding chairs and ratty couches, letting the interviews speak for themselves—though some some subjects, particularly women’s limited roles in the scene and racial prejudice, go just barely commented upon. But this lack of depth is balanced by both Rachman’s subjects’ charisma and the amount of excellent footage the film incorporates. By putting us right there in the pit, American Hardcore deftly captures both the unrest of the Reagan era and the sweaty anger behind it.
7. NewsRadio (Season Three)
Creator: Paul Simms
NewsRadio had a successful, five-season run on NBC in the mid-’90s—but has it aged well? As we can now attest, that was a golden era for the television sitcom, with so much Must See TV that audiences didn’t always pay attention to the little show about a bunch of oddballs running a radio station. Still, the show has stood the test of time, not least because it was Phil Hartman’s last project before his untimely death. Hartman’s hilarious performance as egomaniac blow-hard Bill McNeil anchors the show, but it wouldn’t work without its wall-to-wall great cast, whose quirks mesh together seamlessly to forge a fictional office atmosphere in which chaos always seems right around the corner. Much like Parks and Recreation, NewsRadio’s best episodes revolve around the cast thrust together to succeed as a team, and Season Three features the lion’s share of such standouts: “Daydream,” “Halloween,” “Arcade” and, candidate for best all-time episode, “Complaint Box.” It’s the funniest season of an unheralded sitcom due to finally get the love it deserves.
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Plenty of films indulge in the spiritual aspects of baseball—in fact, just about every well-known baseball movie falls into that category. But Sugar instead focuses on the less philosophical reality: Baseball, for many players—in any professional sport, really—is an escape from poverty, from a life of limited opportunity. Boden and Fleck (Half Nelson) have made a remarkably subtle film about the legions of baseball players who come to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, facing immense pressure from their families and friends to “make it,” more for a financially stable future than for a love of the game. The film follows 20-year-old Miguel “Sugar” Santos as he pitches his way out of his impoverished San Pedro neighborhood and onto a minor league team in Iowa, where his otherness stands in sharp relief against a largely white, rural population. First-time actor Algenis Perez Soto’s quiet performance intuitively communicates Miguel’s struggle to manage expectations, and his relief when he finally lets them go. It’s a baseball story rarely told, and under Boden and Fleck, with their strong cast of non-professional actors, the film feels as vital as any other tale of hero worship.
5. The Unusuals (complete series)
Creator: Noah Hawley
Looking at the array of talent showcased in ABC’s 2009 series The Unusuals, it’s surprising that it was only on the air for two months. But that’s the unfortunate business of network television. Created by Noah Hawley (then a writer for Bones, now creator/showrunner of FX’s Fargo), the show stars Jeremy Renner (ironically, The Hurt Locker was released mere weeks after the series’ cancellation), Amber Tamblyn, Adam Goldberg, and underrated character actor Harold Perrineau (perhaps best known as Mercutio from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet). Though it’s yet another show about NYPD homicide detectives, The Unusuals approaches the tired crime procedural with its own off-kilter energy, mixing strangely chuckle-worthy stories with standard dramatic fare, plus a long-running plot about corruption within the force. Goldberg gets the meatiest role of all as a cynical cop struggling with the news that he has an inoperable—and fatal—brain tumor, and here we can really see Hawley’s pitch-black comedic sensibility begin to take shape. Though The Unusuals lasted a mere ten episodes and feels a bit unfinished, it’s an ultimately satisfying binge-watch.
4. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (complete series)
Creator: Jerry Seinfeld
For a while it didn’t seem like Jerry Seinfeld would ever find the right post-Seinfeld project, but Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, his web series (exclusively distributed by Crackle), was just the kind of low-stakes deal he needed. The show works because it takes the spotlight off of Seinfeld almost entirely and focuses on his guests—and because he seems to be friends with nearly all of them, he can get them to talk comfortably in a way they won’t on, say, a late-night talk show (it also helps that Comedians in Cars is not typically a promotional platform). Much like Comedy Central’s 1990s series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, this series offers a less conventional venue for comedians, whether they choose to casually try out material or simply chat with Jerry about comedy. At just around 15-20 minutes per episode, Comedians in Cars never overstays its welcome; instead, it’s a warm, inviting kind of program. Got some time to kill? Spend a few minutes having coffee with some of the funniest people around.
Director: John Waters
Cry-Baby occupies that sweet spot in John Waters’ filmography between Hairspray and Serial Mom, still retaining some glimmers of his outré early work, but moving slightly more toward the mainstream. One indication of the latter was the casting of then-heartthrob Johnny Depp as Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, the exaggerated bad boy rocker who sets off a teenage war between “drapes” and “squares.” A musical in the vein of Hairspray, Cry-Baby is a kind of funhouse mirror version of Grease, twisting that film’s ’70s-filtered vision of the 1950s and infusing it with Waters’ campy sensibility. This was only Depp’s third film, and it was his first truly offbeat choice in what would become a career full of them. Not to mention: He’s joined by a colorful cast, including Iggy Pop as the hillbilly uncle, Ricki Lake as a teen mom and Kim McGuire as perhaps the film’s most memorable character, Mona “Hatchet-Face” Malnorowski. In case that isn’t enough camp, also featured are Traci Lords, Troy Donahue and Patty Hearst. Cry-Baby is a John Waters experience of the highest order—maybe not be one of his most well-known works, but a can’t-miss cult classic all the same.
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb ventures into dark, dark places—where family and mental illness and creativity collide, then splinter apart. The documentary follows eccentric comic book artist R. Crumb, using his vivid and provocative artwork to illuminate his fraught relationships with women, as well as the pain of his childhood and adolescence. But it’s when Zwigoff turns the camera on Crumb’s family that the film becomes so much more than the biography of an artist, investigating Crumb’s strained relationships with his mentally troubled brothers, Charles and Maxon, as well as his shut-in mother, as they live in the shadow of a deceased, abusive father. When we watch Crumb with his older brother Charles, a once-brilliant artist who in their teens became a controlling mentor/father-figure, we see alternate fates for these damaged, creative souls: one successful, but barely holding it together, channeling everything that haunts him into his art, and one locked up in his room reading old paperbacks, unable to create or even step out of his childhood home. In the tradition of the Maysles brothers, Zwigoff has made a film that captures the complexity of the human condition: how the seeds of childhood trauma blossom inside us as we grow, powerful enough to strangle us if we let them. The film also happens to be one of Paste’s favorite documentaries of all time.
1. American Movie
Director: Chris Smith
At first American Movie (another of our favorite documentaries of all time) seems like a kind of real-life Waiting for Guffman: Small-town Wisconsin man single-mindedly pursues his dream of completing his no-budget horror movie—entitled Coven—enlisting his family and friends in the delusion that he’s destined to become a successful filmmaker. Laughing at Mark Borchardt and exploiting his band of colorful accomplices for cheap laughs would’ve been easy, but director Chris Smith wants to make an honest, grounded film about the struggle to create art in small-town, blue collar America. It’s a poignant, frequently hilarious study of one man obsessed with transcending the mundane life that seems quite firmly laid out for him, and the people around him who have already settled into it (particularly cheerful, burned-out buddy Mike Schank and cantankerous Uncle Bill). In front of a snowy midwestern backdrop, Smith’s camera captures scenes of dogged optimism (Borchardt, working as a cemetery groundskeeper, declares the act of cleaning up an overflowing latrine “profound”) and devastating emptiness (Uncle Bill slumped, elderly and alone, on the front steps of his trailer) with an equally level gaze. In this humble fashion, American Movie tells a very recognizable story: A group of people of limited means face growing up and giving up on their dreams. Except for Borchardt, who refuses to be like the rest.