U.S. Markets closed

Want To Watch This Year's Best Movies Online? Too Bad.

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

As 2014 slowly gets into gear, the weather outside is crummy across much of America. Why not stay in and catch up on some of last year’s best movies?

Well, you may need some luck with that.

For the first time in a few years, I decided to check the online availability—rental, purchase, streaming or download—of major critics’ picks. And once again, I came away disappointed.

Among the top 15 movies of 2013 commended by the New York Times’ A. O. Scott, eight are not available in any form online. Subscribers can watch two at no additional cost: Netflix carries the indie comedy “Frances Ha,” while Amazon Prime has the dark satire “Spring Breakers.” 

You can also rent or purchase those movies at Amazon and iTunes, along with four others: “Hannah Ahrendt,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Bling Ring,” and “Pain and Gain.” “Enough Said,” however, is a purchase-only proposition. 

(The links in the preceding paragraph go to the site Can I Stream It?, a nifty if sometimes erratic resource developed by NYC-based Urban Pixels; the Motion Picture Association of America should treat those guys to lunch at some point.)

I know, I know; many of these titles are still playing in theaters and a few are only weeks old. Let’s be fair and look at Scott’s favorites of 2012 instead. 

Of those ten, you can watch only two with a Netflix or Amazon Prime subscription: the French romance “Goodbye, First Love” and the Liam Neeson action-adventure flick “The Grey.” A third, the Brazilian drama “Neighboring Sounds,” is Netflix-only. The other seven are only available for purchase.

Will blockbuster titles be easier to find online than quirky indie releases you’ve never heard of? Among the flicks that put the most butts in seats in 2013, you can buy but not rent digital downloads of ”Iron Man 3” and “Oz the Great and Powerful,” with another five available as rentals or purchases: “Despicable Me 2,” “Man of Steel,”  “Frozen,”  “Monsters University,” “Fast & Furious 6,” “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

M/strike>“Frozen” is only available at Wal-Mart’s Vudu site, for reasons that escape me. Two movies, “Gravity” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” still require you to buy a ticket. None have shown up as freebies for Netflix or Amazon Prime subscribers.

The top box-office grosses of 2012 should be easier to find, right? Wrong. Only one, “The Hunger Games,” is available as a subscription stream, a rental download and a purchased download. I see eight (“Marvel’s The Avengers,” ”The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Brave,” “Ted,” and “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”) that can only be bought digitally, not rented. 

“Skyfall” is a free stream at Netflix and Amazon Prime and can be bought at multiple sites, but nobody seems to rent it. There’s just no middle ground with some people!

Meanwhile, if you turn your attention to year’s-best lists in other mediums, “take my money, please?” is no longer a multiple-choice question. For instance, all ten of the New York Times’ best books of 2013 are available at the Kindle Store as well as Google’s Play Store and Apple’s iBooks. 

Things are best of all in music. You can listen to any of NYT music critic Jon Pareles’ top-10 albums of 2013 for free at Spotify, then buy the ones you want at Amazon MP3 and iTunes. And since those songs, unlike movie downloads and e-books, come without usage-restricting “digital rights management,” you can enjoy them on the devices of your choice and can’t get locked out of them later on.

It’s certainly gotten easier to be an honest online movie viewer than in 2008, when I could only find three of Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday’s 10 favorites in any legitimate digital form. You can even see some movies showing up on iTunes or Amazon before their DVD release—an overdue response to the ease of copying a DVD and putting it online. And I can’t whine too much about not being able to watch something for free on Netflix when I can rent it for a few bucks for Amazon, Apple or Google.

But a market in which titles can appear and disappear at random, and in which you need to have accounts at three or four different stores to avoid missing something—that’s not exactly the efficient capitalism they teach in freshman-year econ classes. It’s sad that the optimistic read on Hollywood’s openness to digital distribution can still be a quote along the lines of “The people I talk to at the studios, they’re not stupid.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of the article referred to a different movie named "Frozen."