“Red Rock West” (1994)
“Red Rock West” takes us back to a time when Nicolas Cage was a great, risk-taking actor. Director John Dahl had the misfortune of having both “Red Rock West” and “The Last Seduction” get troubled releases in 1993/1994. “The Last Seduction” had its debut on HBO and thus was ineligible for the Oscars, which essentially robbed Linda Fiorentino of a much deserved nomination (the film did, however, get a limited theatrical run after its HBO debut). “Red Rock West” was Dahl’s indisputably great straight-to-video movie. When Cage’s Mike enters a mysterious small town and is mistaken for a hitman, he takes the money and runs before the kill. Bad idea, Mixing surreal sequences with nasty violence, Dahl is a master at work here, infusing his film with clever noir relics and an abundance of plot twists. Best of all is Dennis Hopper, who basically does what Dennis Hopper does best: Play a homicidal maniac.
“Ripley’s Game” (2004)
Most movie fans are very familiar with Matt Damon’s turn as Tom Ripley in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” but John Malkovich? In 2004’s “Ripley’s Game,” John Malkovich is a highly convincing Ripley, outdoing Damon’s 1999 role in the process. Malkovich oozed charm as the slick, conniving con artist who convinces a man dying of leukemia to join in on an assassination scheme. Malkovich’s Ripley is exactly what author Patricia Highsmith had in mind when she wrote the famous novel. Amicable, funny, dashing, seductive, but ultimately evil, Malkovich’s Tom Ripley deserved awards praise but didn’t get it because the film never had a theatrical release stateside. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers stated in his rave review of the film that Malkovich had “his rightful place among the nominees for Best Actor at next year’s Oscar.” So did the movie.
“The Boondock Saints” (1999)
The story of “The Boondock Saints” is an infamously peculiar one. It actually did get released in theaters, but in just five cinemas during a single week span that saw it gain no notoriety whatsoever. Director Troy Duffy later funded private screenings of the film with the help of Blockbuster. He later said, “Blockbuster saved us,” and for good reason; the video store retail giant released the film on video/DVD as a “Blockbuster Exclusive” and from then on, it became a bestseller. Word of mouth was key in building up the cult fan base that it has today. The movie is essentially a Tarantino rip-off and it’s easy to understand why the critical reaction towards the film was harsh, but a 20% Rotten Tomatoes score seems a bit absurd. There’s immeasurable B-movie joy in watching this film, with director Duffy navigating through a mix of religion, murder, brutality, humor, horror, mysticism and cinematic love.
“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” (2013)
The greatest animated Batman movie was released on October 8, 2013, and the film also serves as the basis for the upcoming Zack Snyder sure-to-be-blocksbuster “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” If that movie is half as good as “The Dark Knight Returns,” Batman fans are in for a real treat. Based on Frank Miller’s masterful graphic novel, this 148-minute animated masterpiece features a publicly shamed Batman coming out of retirement to set a terrorist-filled Gotham straight again. Obstacles arise, most notably Two Face, The Joker, The Mutants and -– of course -– Superman, in an epic fight that will hopefully translate well to the live-action version. It’s an exhilarating movie that makes a good case for some of these DC Comics gems to break through to the big screen one day. Director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Bob Goodman did serious justice to the beautiful comic, giving audiences a realistic, Nolan-esque point of view on a classic story made modern.
“Batman: Under the Red Hood” (2010)
“Batman: Under the Red Hood” is another DC Comics straight-to-DVD gem. Along with “The Dark Knight Returns,” the debate continues as to which of the two is greatest superhero animated movie. The film is an adaptation of two stories from the Batman comic books, starting with “A Death in the Family” and ending with “Under the Hood.” The storyline isn’t for the faint of heart, involving many bombs, beatings, stabbings, shootings and more brutal violence to highlight its message. This film portrays graphic execution and torture scenes, and might just be the most violent Batman movie ever made. The story is expertly told, revolving around a mysterious figure in a red mask, who calls himself Red Hood, and his mysterious campaign against Batman. The voice work is also impeccable, and features incredible work by Bruce Greenwood as Batman and Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing.
“Trick ‘r Treat” (2009)
One of the 21st century’s quintessential Halloween movies went straight-to-DVD to scare up fans. You read that right, “Trick ‘r Treat” was never theatrically released (despite earning lots of fans with a variety of festival and special screenings) and yet Sam, a mysterious trick-or-treating child wearing shabby orange pajamas with a burlap sack over his head, has become an iconic figure of the spooky holiday. Despite the film having been completed since 2007, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures decided to release the film direct-to-DVD on October 6, 2009. The trick was on them, however, as the critical acclaim that followed helped the film amass an intense cult following that, to this day, abides to Sam and his satanic ways. The film, an anthology horror film centering on four interwoven Halloween-related stories, is a real treat and is more inventive than any Halloween theatrical release. Just remember to “always check your candy.”
“Get the Gringo” (2012)
What’s a blacklisted actor to do if he can’t find theatrical releases? Go straight to DVD, of course! Receiving largely positive reviews upon its release -– check out that 81% Rotten Tomatoes score -– Mel Gibson’s Mexico-set “Get the Gringo” is one of the underrated gems of this decade. Playing a career criminal who is nabbed by Mexican authorities, his performance is utterly gritty and witty. Oddly enough, the first country to theatrically release this film was Israel, followed by assorted releases around Europe. The U.S release was only on VOD, which led Gibson to comment, “We’re just in a different era. Many people just like to see things in their homes…I think it’s the future.”
“The Animatrix” (2003)
Whereas “The Matrix” explored the philosophical territory of reality and what defines it, “The Animatrix” advances that exploration into the vistas of civilization, hubris, human nature and much more. This is a mature, thought-provoking and originally told story. The nine short clips (which were released on a bevy of platforms, including online-only and limited theatrical) are stylish and gripping, integrating the stories of “The Matrix” beautifully; “Flight of the Osiris” -– a fan favorite and the definition of sci-fi eye candy -– leads into the second “Matrix” movie seamlessly. If seen with an open mind, the movie becomes more than just animation, it becomes an integral visionary experience. It is as fresh and tightly conceived as the original 1999 classic and is miles better than the two subsequent sequels.
“Black Dynamite” (2009)
“Black Dynamite” is known as the “greatest 1970s African American Kung-Fu fighting action hero ever.” He devotes his life to fighting crime and cleaning up the streets, vowing to take out all the jive turkeys who “be dealin smack to the orphans!” Things get complicated when his only brother is murdered by The Man, and the film turns into a revenge story and an incredibly witty satire that mocks Blaxploitation films of the ‘70s. Think “Airplane” meets “Shaft.” What many of the films on this list have in common is the fact that their straight-to-video profile elicited a cult following that might not have happened if they had a wide release. 2009’s Blaxploitation ode, “Black Dynamite,” is another great example of that. Yes, it did get “released” very limitedly in theaters, with special screenings taking place around the country for two weeks, but the film is very much known as a DVD release and has built its reputation that way. It acquired such a following that a spin-off was produced for the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming.
Stretch, played by Patrick Wilson, is a limo driver with a serious identity crisis and a bit of mental disorder. He owes a $6,000 gambling debt to a dangerous bookie named Ignacio, and has until midnight to pay him back. Stretch is sent a wealthy client, Roger Karos –- played by a brilliantly nutso Chris Pine –- who offers to pay off Stretch’s debt if he does everything asked of him; this includes retrieving an important briefcase for Karos. Suffice to say, our limo driver is about to embark on a crazy overnight journey that very much puts this movie as a worthy successor to “The Hangover” franchise. Joe Carnahan’s “Stretch” was originally set for a March 21, 2014 release, but was eventually scrapped for an iTunes and Amazon release in October of that same year, which the Hollywood Reporter called an “apparently unprecedented move.” Upon its release, this Patrick Wilson and Chris Pine vehicle was met with positive reviews and was a welcome addition to the “overnight” movie genre.