One of the most asked and debated questions in the cinephile community is “What movies should I own in my DVD collection?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself, so I did as any writer does and decided to make my own list of essential movies one should have in their DVD collection. Notice the words ‘dvd collection’; I’m talking hard copies here. And it’s worth mentioning that these are not the only five movies one should have in your collection; nor is it in any way saying you have to own all five.
My aim with this series is to hopefully introduce you to some essential films you may never have heard of or, even better, cause you to reevaluate the ones you have seen. Lists are useful for helping broaden one’s base of knowledge, organizing one’s thoughts, and starting a discussion, after all.
Each entry in this article series will revolve around a specific genre or topic. Because (thankfully) movies are constantly being made, I had to set a cut-off date. What I consider The Essentials will be made up of films released before 2015.
Cult movies hold a special place in a cinephile’s heart. They may not necessarily be great, or really all that good, but they are beloved all the same. A cult movie is oftentimes precious to it’s ardent fans. They were too weird, disjointed, or ahead of their time. As the years have passed generations of movie goers have discovered them and showered them with love and praise they were denied upon release. I’m not going to lie this was one of the harder lists I’ve had to do since starting this series.
Again, these are not all the essential movies, just some of them.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)- Dir. W.D. Richter
There has never been anything, before, or since, quite like W.D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. It is a movie that almost defies description. Rarely has a movie given the audience so much information without telling them a damn thing quite like Buckaroo Banzai.
Richter and his screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch took a love of old pulp fiction dime novels and breathed them into existence. Buckaroo (Peter Weller) is a neuroscientist, a test pilot, a rock star, hero to millions, and the star of his own comic books based on his adventures. Along with his team the Hong Kong Cavaliers and a father and son duo from his volunteer corps the Blue Blazers they must stop the evil Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) and the rest of the Red Lectroids. There’s also a whole other story line dealing with Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin) who may or may not be the long lost twin sister of Buckaroo’s lost love the Queen of the Netherlands.
Buckaroo Banzai railroads through its 102 minutes run time and either leaves you breathless and in love or annoyed and confused. It never stops to explain itself, there’s no time. The Red Lectroids must be stopped. It behaves like it’s the seventh installment of a franchise but it’s the first and only one ever made. It’s an origin story without an origin or exposition. It explains itself through action and plot and either you hit the ground running with it or you’re left on the side of the road shaking your fist.
Attack the Block (2011) – Dir. Joe Cornish
Sometimes there are movies where after you reveal the description you feel compelled to add, “Trust me, it’s good.” Attack The Block is one of those movies. A movie about aliens crash landing in the ‘hood’ could have easily gone horribly awry and offensive. Instead Joe Cornish gave us a bitingly funny and surprisingly tense story with sharply drawn characters.
Attack the Block could be confused with an Edgar Wright film, except Cornish is fine with having more than one black person in his movie. The ‘block’ is an apartment building located in the poorer part of London. Cornish does not shy away from the classism and racism inherent in the setting. The heroes are a street gang led by Moses (John Boyega). We meet them as they mug a nurse Samantha (Jody Whittaker). Moses and his friends find themselves battling the strange man-eating entities along with Samantha. Cornish, who also co-wrote the script allows his characters to be blissfully ignorant of self-awareness. Jody complains about the alien invasion just proving the area is going to crap. Moses cries in disbelief, “Hey?! What’s the matter with the ‘area’?”
The arc of Moses from street thug to charismatic leader of the rebellion is a testament to Boyega’s talents. Cornish doesn’t give us easy characters to love. But neither does he gives characters we wish were eaten by Critter-esque aliens either. When other members of Moses’ gang are killed or eaten we feel for them. Attack the Block doesn’t ask you to cheer for the death of its characters. It makes you feel for them instead. Made on a shoestring budget Attack the Block never feels or looks it. It’s a slickly and smartly crafted thrill ride that has the temerity to have something to say but doesn’t shout it at you.
The Big Lebowski (1998) – Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen brothers have made several movies over the years and while they all have a certain style and tone about them they are remarkably different. Fargo, O’ Brother Where Art Thou , and The Big Lebowski are three of their biggest hits. Still if you were to draw a venn diagram there would be almost no overlap between the three.
The mood and atmosphere of The Big Lebowski is one of inspired lunacy. The Coens keep a light touch, never forcing the madness, or else the movie would fall apart. The whole movie seems effortless. We watch in stupefied awe as the Dude (Jeff Bridges) stumbles around Los Angeles tripping into one fiasco after another; but still find time to bowl a couple of frames. The Big Lebowski has an almost Dickensian cast of characters: the Dude’s best friend Walter (John Goodman), the millionaire Lebowski (David Huddleston), Maude (Julianne Moore), Jesus (John Turturo), and of course Donny (Steve Buscemi). There are scores of other characters and each one is allowed a moment to speak their mind.
The Coen brothers have the rare ability to make us feel as if the world of the film goes beyond the edges of the frames. It is a lark of a movie. It’s a comedic telling of the hard-boiled gumshoe from the days of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It’s just more of an emphasis on gums and shoes than hard boiled.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984) -Rob Reiner
It’s hard to imagine the cinematic, or even the comedic, landscape without Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap. Reiner and Christopher Guest spawned an entire subgenre of comedy of mock-u-mentaries, or fake documentaries. Often imitated but rarely ever equaled This Is Spinal Tap is a scathing yet deeply affectionate parody of the hubris and ambition of rock stars.
This Is Spinal Tap took actual stories from other hair metal bands adventures on the road and used them as comedic fodder. The film follows the characters as they struggle to recapture their glory days but it’s never cruel about it. Reiner and Guest somehow stir together a strange brew of absurdity and reality mixed together in just the right dose.
There’s an old adage “It’s funny because it’s true.” Well Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer actually formed a band called Spinal Tap. They made an actual album called This Is Spinal Tap and they’ve even gone on tour. More than any other comedy This Is Spinal Tap blurred the lines between reality and fiction in such a way to make it impossible sometimes to distinguish between the two.
Labyrinth (1986) – Dir. Jim Henson
Few movies occupy such a omnidirectional swath of the popular consciousness quite like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. It’s a rare instance where the star, David Bowie, is as magical as anything created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Although the script is credited to Terry Jones, it was rewritten and reworked by Elaine May, Dennis Lee, George Lucas, and Laura Phillips.
Labyrinth has a cheerfully fractured narrative. This is another way of saying there isn’t a lick of narrative or logical sense to be found anywhere. Sarah’s (Jennifer Connelly) baby brother is taken by the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie), because Sarah asked him to. She must then find her way through the Labyrinth and reach Jareth’s Castle in time to save her brother. It’s then we find out the only reason Jareth took her brother was because he loves Sarah? Henson’s creature creations such as Hoggle, Ludo, and the goblins only add to the strangeness of it all. There’s a beautiful ugliness to Henson’s creatures and as with all Henson creations we never doubt their actual existence.
Labyrinth is a weird and wonky movie that works because it makes enough sense as opposed to actual sense. It’s a fairy tale and behaves like one. Labyrinth deals with themes of isolation which hits at the heart of adolescence. But it also understands the magic of being a child and the joy of simply imagining things for the sheer sake of imagining things. Maybe that’s why Labyrinth has stuck with so many. Few films have understood the odd dividing line between being a child, being a teenager, and growing up. But the joy of Labyrinth comes from the notion that becoming one doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the other.