When I started this project, I thought I’d write a fun and light column about movies available to rent from DVD Netflix that are unavailable to stream anywhere. A physical media nostalgia checklist of essentials. The list of titles grew longer and exceeded my expectations. Not all were good… or even worth renting, but as a result I was inspired to do more research. I wanted to investigate the specific reasons why movies like these only lived on physical media. I don’t know why I thought this would take a quick afternoon of reading.
The search took a different shape. I started to dig into the business of physical media and the history of film distribution going back to the earliest days of cinema. I interviewed the Preservation Manager at the George Eastman Museum to discuss the treatment of old prints Pre-U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures. I saw some parallels between the old studio vertical monopoly and the current distribution environment. (Spoiler: He didn’t disagree.)
Instead of dropping this into your laps in one fell swoop, I’ve decided to break it apart into multiple installments – and at the bottom of each recommending a few titles that you can’t watch anywhere else on the Internet. This way I can clog your queue with more movies to watch and you’ll get all of my thoughts… and I have many. Consider this the ‘director’s cut’ without the unnecessary studio interference.
Only on DVD Part 1: Physical Media Nostalgia, the Value and Detriment
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a victim of physical media nostalgia. I miss flipping laserdiscs. (Is anything more directly related to illogical physical media nostalgia than flipping a laserdisc? Comment below.) I regret throwing away a few of my dubbed VHS tapes (SLP, baby!) with three movies recorded from broadcast TV, commercials included. I purchase all my new music on vinyl because I like holding the physical record in my hand, noting a clearly delineated A- and B-side, and seeing the cover art bigger than a Spotify thumbnail on my phone. Storage could become a problem, admittedly, but maybe that just prevents me from hoarding music to which I won’t actually listen.
Some of this is healthy, proof that not all nostalgia is evil. Forward progress isn’t always progress – it might only be forward.
I am also a lifelong student of film. I received my undergraduate degree in Film Theory during a time when laserdiscs and 35mm prints made up the bulk of the movies we watched for class. I didn’t appreciate the rarity of these experiences at the time. I’d just begun to scratch the surface of foreign cinema and couldn’t comprehend how rare it was to watch a 35mm print of a Grigori Kozintsev film. (On a side note, I’m almost positive the Coen Brothers have seen Kozintsev’s King Lear adaptation based on their The Tragedy of Macbeth.)
I became something of a bootleg junkie for European trash cinema when I learned about websites that could send me VHS copies of movies unavailable anywhere else in the United States. There’s a particular visceral thrill associated with showing your friends a gory Italian-language horror movie featuring only burned-in Japanese subtitles.
And before you think I’m daring to champion the wonders of bootlegged VHS tapes or cassette tapes (I do miss the 60-minute cassette mixtape – I’m not going to lie), this is my segue into the most wonderful aspect about streaming media – forgotten movies, obscure movies, foreign movies are available at the click of a button. Some pristine, from superior sources than we’ve seen on physical media, and some hacky bootlegs, hardly better than those mail-order VHS tapes. In this regard, streaming media has opened Al Capone’s vault for a generation of cinephiles restricted by limited availability and DVD region coding. Truly—there’s more to watch than we could have imagined twenty years ago. There’s more to watch than we could accommodate in a lifetime.
That is, if you can find the thing you want to watch when you want to watch it. Streaming has quickly become a blessing, but it’s also become a curse in more ways than one.
The avalanche of movies available has transformed most of our viewing lives into rote content consumption. How much can we watch in a short amount of time? We’re putting our eyes on a movie or a television series so we can check a box and move onto the next thing on our list. The question has become: Will we remember it tomorrow or will it be lost among the torrent of other content we’ve digested?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Instead of finding and playing exactly what I want to watch, I’ll scan a service’s pushed content. I’m relying upon the streaming algorithm to tell me what I want to watch. And sometimes, I let it. My wife and I recently came across a movie on Netflix – we read the description and decided to give it a shot. Except we’d already seen it. It had made such an impression that it took us fifteen minutes to recognize the repeat performance.
Caption: Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021) received a significant boost in viewership because of its Oscar buzz and easy accessibility.
I don’t mean to dismiss the value of accessibility in service of holy physical media nostalgia. I’m happy that more people saw Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021) – whether they liked it or not. There are plenty of examples where a streaming movie has become an event, but I’m willing to wager that most people click on their Netflix icon just to see what’s on in the same way they used to surf through the television channels for hours and never actually watch anything.
When you’re handling a physical disc, it’s making an impression on you. The cover art, the landing menu – these are all part of the experience. They’re not necessary – but watching every intro to a TV show I’m enjoying isn’t essential either. I find it to be part and parcel of the whole experience – just like putting a disc in the player and listening to the hum as it queues up. By making definitive, conscious choices about the movies we’re watching, we’re disrupting the ceaseless flow of time and tide. The want and the experience. Taking the time to consider double-feature theme nights and mainlining movies made by a particular actor or director. You’re going to remember these experiences, these choices you’ve made – unlike the streaming movie that I forgot I watched less than nine months ago.
For the record that movie 0n Netflix wasn’t bad, but I just wish I’d used that time to check off another box on my Cinema Shame list, something sitting right behind me on the shelf or in my DVD Netflix queue just begging to be watched.
Coming soon… Part 2: The Release Window’s Significant Shrinkage
Only on DVD Recommendations
For my first set of picks, I wanted to highlight a couple of more popular movies that might surprise you. These are movies that feel like they’re everywhere—or should be everywhere—just to illustrate the point that you never know when a movie might disappear online for a spell… or forever.
The Cannonball Run (Hal Needham, 1981)
Call me superficial, call me a simpleton, but I adore The Cannonball Run’s brand of irreverence. It doesn’t care about being a movie and seems to have been made so a bunch of famous friends had an excuse to get together over a long weekend and drink. Nobody did this brand of comedy better than Burt Reynolds, the ultimate movie star of his era. The man mugged and winked his way through even some of his legitimate cinematic productions.
Based on an actual 1979 road race, the all-star cast speeds from Connecticut to California. The characters remain purely one-dimensional, and the gags are almost exclusively low-hanging fruit. Burt, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Terry Bradshaw, Jackie Chan, Adrienne Barbeau, etc. just have fun trying to entertain us.
Its non-existence on digital platforms likely has something to do with its co-production between Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest and 20th Century Fox. After the recent sale to Disney, the mouse has locked up many 20th Century Fox catalog properties in its vault. Without reason to give it away on Disney+, the title will likely remain a title in limbo for the foreseeable future.
The Sure Thing (Rob Reiner, 1985)
This iconic teen movie of the 1980s starring John Cusack (in his breakout role) and Daphne Zuniga represented Rob Reiner’s first proper narrative film after his resplendent debut, the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap (1984).
High school seniors Walter and Lance head off to college. Walter to New England and Lance to UCLA. When girfriendless Walter finds himself in a seasonal funk, Lance invites him out to California for Christmas break. He’ll fix him up with a girl (“the sure thing,” aka Nicolette Sheridan) and Lance will get some California sunshine. Walter signs up for a ride-share to make the trip west – only he’ll have to inhabit the back seat with Alison, a girl who already hates his egotistical guts. Their bickering causes the driver to strand them on the roadside. Cross-country obstacles result in Walter and Alison developing feelings… until she discovers the real motivation for the trip.
Stephen L. Bloom’s screenplay doesn’t resort to base teenage grotesqueries to tell its story and Reiner handles the material with the perspective that films about teenagers don’t have to be juvenile. Walter and Alison do some growing up and learn how to connect with other people as humans rather than culturally reinforced stereotypes.
I don’t know if it’s true—but I remember this being a staple on basic cable. The Sure Thing (or One Crazy Summer always seemed to be on. Of course, I’d watch a bit. In 2022, however, you’re going to need to own the movie on DVD or Blu-ray.