At the end of last year, I quit Netflix. I don’t watch House of Cards, they don’t have the full Law & Order back catalog, and a lot of what Netflix does have is bad. Like “Have you ever thought about 9/11 on DMT?” bad. It wasn’t worth the $15 a month, not when I could use my then-girlfriend’s mom’s HBO password. On a New Year’s cleaning binge, I unsubscribed.
Even though I can get my background movie fix from free sites like Crackle, I didn’t want Netflix’s lacking selection of good movies to mean I only watched bad movies from then on. I thought about switching to Hulu since they have the Criterion Collection, but I’m not a film nerd, and paying to not watch Truffaut isn’t any more appealing than paying to not watch Ancient Aliens.
I will confess that I first tried the streaming site MUBI because I thought the name was cute and I liked saying it. Moo-bee (even though, according to MUBI, it's pronounced Mu-bai.) And at $5 a month, it’s a third the cost of Netflix. But six months in, I’m a MUBI convert and zealot. Here’s how it works: There are 30 movies streaming on MUBI at any given time. Every day they add a new movie and get rid of an old one, meaning you have 30 days to watch a movie before it disappears.
As a format, I think this is pretty genius for a few reasons. First of all, getting a new movie every morning is like having an Advent Calendar that never ends. I check MUBI before I get out of bed most mornings because it’s fun to see what they picked out. It’s an experience I don’t get from any other site or app.
Second, having a month to watch a movie gives me a deadline. On Netflix, I had a queue full of great movies I probably would have loved, but streaming Blue Streak again was always easier. With MUBI, if I want to watch Lav Diaz’s five-and-a-half hour (and black-and-white, and in Tagalog) drama From What Is Before, then I have a limited timeframe in which to prove it. (sidebar: I did and it was awesome.)
These days Netflix gives off a bargain DVD bin vibe—there’s probably something good in there somewhere, but you’re going to spend as much time looking as watching.
30 movies doesn’t sound like a lot, but there’s something to be said for reducing the paradox of choice, at least a little bit. “Curation” is overused by Internet companies looking to sound investable, but MUBI does it well. If there’s enough variety and quality in those 30 choices, you almost always have something good and even save some precious “What should we watch?” time.
As a way to organize and deliver movies for streaming, MUBI is way ahead of sites like Netflix that try to be comprehensive but end up being chocked with mostly low-hanging fruit. After all, you can find a working stream or torrent of just about anything in a few minutes (if you know what you’re looking for). The Internet already has all the movies anyone could ever desire for free.
A sizable portion of MUBI's offerings are in the public domain and you can watch them on YouTube whenever you want. But just because I have access to the collected works of Charlie Chaplin or Andrei Tarkovsky doesn’t mean I’m going to seek them out without a little prompting. MUBI usually has a Chaplin flick or two, and though I’ve never thought I’d enjoy silent movies, I watched The Kid and it was surprisingly really fun. Now I get to work through his movies systematically, one or two films at a time each month.
On the other hand, lot of the films on MUBI aren’t available to stream anywhere else. Whether they’re independent, old, or foreign (or combinations thereof), MUBI's content isn’t the standard Hollywood stuff. But, that doesn’t mean it's boring or irrelevant. Did you know Romain Gavras (who directed MIA’s infamous "Born Free" video about persecuted redheads) made a feature film based on the same concept, starring Vincent Cassel and called Our Day Will Come? I didn’t, but it’s streaming on MUBI. There are a lot of cool Japanese gangster movies, and cool Russian gangster movies, and cool Thai gangster movies. There are also some classic films (but not too many).
Instead of putting themselves on a snobby pedestal, MUBI puts an angle on American film culture. It feels like a movie streaming site with a point of view, and not an obnoxious one. When Gareth Edwards was tapped to direct Star Wars Rogue One, MUBI streamed his 2010 indie alien drama Monsters. The site has played Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-Ho’s earlier films The Host and Mother. MUBI showed 35 Shots of Rum and Trouble Every Day by director Claire Denis, who made headlines recently for a planned project in English with author Zadie Smith. Also Dogtooth and Alps by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose English-language debut The Lobster just wowed at Cannes.
The curators at MUBI go out of their way to be charming and relevant with their picks. On Pride weekend, they showed Gregg Araki’s The Living End and Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein, a nearly editorial shoutout to early '90s queer nihilism while the nation celebrated gay marriage. When Jurassic World came out, MUBI showed the 1925 silent dinosaur movie The Lost World. The editors even have fun juxtaposing the stills the use, like this:
These days Netflix gives off a bargain DVD bin vibe—there’s probably something good in there somewhere, but you’re going to spend as much time looking as watching. I love MUBI because it’s more like getting a daily streaming link from a friend who loves movies, without any of the guilt that comes with not getting to something. It’s the only way movie streaming makes sense to me in the age of Popcorn Time. Throw in the app, and I’m not just willing to pay $5 a month, I’ll happily bug the rest of you about joining it, too.
Here are a few of the movies playing (for now) on MUBI:
The Turin Horse is two and a half hours of Nietzsche-inspired Hungarian desolation. There’s a farmer, his daughter, and a horse. Nothing happens. It’s great, you’ll love it.
The debut film from the Snowpiercer director—a multi-thread black comedy set in an apartment building—isn’t available to stream anywhere else online.
In this classic, Peter O’Toole plays the heir to a British Earlship who believes himself to be literally Jesus Christ. Hijinks ensue.
The famed saxophonist died last month; this documentary juxtaposes footage from across the length and breadth of his career.
Malcolm Harris is a writer in Brooklyn and an editor at The New Inquiry.