Two Shelves Of Random VHS Movie Tapes I Recently Stumbled Upon, Ranked
The good, the bad, and the animated Pink Panther holiday special
I recently took a few days off, which I’m entitled to do. All blog and no chill make it difficult for John to emotionally self-regulate. So I went upstate with my girlfriend, and we pointed at trees and talked to birds, and I wandered into a store on a busy street in a small town and saw this rack of videotapes.
The store itself sold comic books and board games, and YA fiction. In the back was a corner dedicated to second-hand analog media: DVDs, CDs, and rows of beat-up-looking movie boxes, the kind that used to fill windowless mom and pop video stores before bright, shiny, family-friendly corporate megastore Blockbuster gobbled up them all up.
Once upon a time, video stores were like libraries for degenerates. Aisles and aisles of Hollywood masterpieces mixed in with b-movie shlock, with the ‘b’ standing for ‘boobs’ and ‘blood.’ And it was a pleasant bong hit of nostalgia to find a few shelves dedicated to long-lost objects. I don’t own a VCR or even a DVD player. All of my movies live in the cloud, which sounds magical, but it isn’t. Imagine thinking you own a book, but the publisher can walk into your apartment and take it back at any moment.
But I digress. The video boxes were Proustian, hurtling me back in time to late Friday afternoons looking for a movie or two to entertain me into the night. This collection of 80s and 90s hits, with a few curiosities and absolute stinkers thrown in, is an excellent representation of old-school video store offerings. I didn’t buy any, but I sure as hell ranked them from my favorite to Laser Mission starring Brandon Lee.
Which ones would you rent? And what kind of Pizza Hut pizza would you order for delivery? The answer to that one is a large thin-crust mushroom and sausage.
- Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
This is Spielberg’s best movie, a special-effects extravaganza about humanity’s first contact with aliens. This gritty fairy tale combines the French New Wave realism popular amongst young, ambitious Hollywood directors of the 70s with the eye-popping summer blockbuster aesthetic that would become popular thanks to terminal crowd-pleasers like Spielberg and Lucas. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is also the most mature realization of Spielberg’s favorite themes, like broken families and the power of childhood imagination.
- The Shining (1980)
I don’t think I will ever get bored watching Kubrick’s The Shining, his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a family terrorized by a haunted hotel. Kubrick rewrote King’s original tale, choosing to end the world with ice instead of fire. Nicholson plays a father who falls off the wagon and gets drunk with homicidal ghosts. It’s one of his greatest performances that he repeats for the next few decades.
- Galaxy Quest (1990)
There are three great science fantasy action comedies and one-runner-up. It’s a difficult sub-genre, balancing monsters and jokes. The runner-up is Marvel’s best movie, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. A wise-cracking cyborg raccoon? A giant, walking tree? Hilarious and badass. But the best is Ghostbusters, Ivan Reitman’s sardonic blue-collar shockbuster. Then there’s Galaxy Quest, a jolly, heartfelt, high-concept sci-fi romp that asks, “What if actual aliens thought the TV show Star Trek was a documentary?” Tim Allen is surprisingly heroic and cocky as a Shatner-esque diva, but his long-suffering co-stars, all almost nobodies sick of their canceled show’s preening star, that shine. Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman, especially, steal the space opera.
- Robocop (1987)
The older this dystopia gets, the sweeter its cynicism. In Robocop, cops are the property of corporations. Their newest product is a sleek crime-fighting cyborg, part machine, part murdered lawman. Peter Weller gives his tortured Iron Man a soul as the title character. Director Paul Verhoven’s unique twist on Frankenstein is a brutal satirical send-up of American bloodlust and greed. I’d buy that for a dollar! Robocop’s future is one where capitalism corrupts absolutely. There are few movies from the 80s that so clearly saw where this country was headed.
- Batman (1989)/Batman Returns (1992)
I love Tim Burton’s two Batman movies. After a pair of quirky, goth-adjacent comedies, Burton reinvented the comic book genre that props up the entire movie business today. How did he do it? He took the source material seriously, which isn’t the same as realistically. The world of Batman and Batman Returns is built around the idea that a billionaire whose parents were randomly killed by a mugger would spend his life training to become a living weapon who dresses like a giant bat. Burton’s Gotham City is a sprawling, stylized urban hellscape populated by gangster clowns, sewer-dwelling mutants, and Michelle Pfeiffer as leather-clad Catwoman, an iconic performance. Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is a short, slightly balding nerd who is obviously out of his mind, which makes his Batman the most believable, even though he exists in Burton’s Edward Gorey nightmares.
- 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam and Hollywood have a contentious relationship. He’s a madcap visionary, and the system is, well, the system. But 12 Monkeys is probably his most flawless collaboration with the Entertainment Industrial Complex, a melancholy, hallucinatory time travel epic starring big stars like Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, playing a lunatic in a role that would earn him a supporting Oscar nom.
- Back To The Future (1985)
Robert Zemeckis is responsible for directing the other great action comedy after Ghostbusters and Galaxy Quest. It’s easy to understate how good Back To The Future is; it’s been popular since it came out 37 years ago for many reasons. Cool special effects, a twisty, emotional plot, and at the center, a neurotic teen hero played by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown, a mad scientist. The cartoon Rick and Morty is a demented love letter to them both.
- Road House (1989)
Patrick Swayze is a national treasure. I don’t care what role he played: dancer, bank robber, drag queen. I thought he was always excellent, a lean, elegant, sensitive macho man. And in the redneck kung-fu western Roadhouse, he plays a butt-kicking philosopher barroom bouncer, the best in the business. Pain don’t hurt. The movie has it all: romance, Swayze shirtless, roundhouse kicks. Also: a fresh-faced middle-aged Sam Elliot as a sort of he-haw Obi-Wan.
- Bloodsport (1979)
This is The Godfather of Jean-Claude Van Damme action movies. A former U.S. soldier (with a thick Belgian accent) enters a secret underground martial arts competition. This is *chef’s kiss* choice Van Damme. He is ripe, leaping and punching and screaming. Bloodsport is the movie you show someone who mocks Van Damme. Forgive them, first of all, because they do not know any better. He is charming, for a meathead, and brutally graceful. I adore Van Damme as an action star, he’s a nice guy with huge muscles. But Bloodsport is legitimately pretty good for what it is — a variation on the boxing picture theme — and the fight scenes are bruising.
- Stripes (1981)
Years before Ghostbusters, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis starred in this Ivan Reitman-directed comedy about a pair of funny misfits who join the Army. The patriotic, warmongering Reagan years would make mocking the armed forces a no-no, but for fans of smirking, anti-authority frat humor, Stripes is still hard to beat.
- Grease (1978)
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are too old to play High School sweethearts in the beloved rock musical Grease, but who cares? This nostalgic comedy about greasers and good girls is set in Los Angeles in the 1950s has not stood the test of time. Many deem the popular musical “problematic,” and I suppose it is. But horny teens are awful, especially those that suddenly sing and dance for no reason. Grease is one of the most successful examples of “The ’70s suck let’s remember a time before civil rights.” Reminder: America was never really great, except for a few. But there’s only up from here!
- Cocoon (1985)
This movie is almost forgotten, which is too bad. Featuring a cast of aging legends, Cocoon is Ron Howard doing a reverse Spielberg: instead of aliens changing the lives of mischievous little kids, aliens change the lives of mischievous senior citizens. Specifically, the aliens make them younger. It is a movie full of sadness and wonder and Wilford Brimley at his Wilford Brimley-est.
- Planes, Trains, And Automobiles (1987)
Forget his problematic teen dramedies, writer-director John Hughes’ best movie is this raucous, surprisingly moving Thanksgiving road trip movie. Starring Steve Martin and John Candy as a pair of strangers trying to get home for the holiday, Planes, Trains, And Automobiles showcases two comedy legends in their prime. Martin is a gift, but this is Candy’s movie, a chaotic Care Bear of an actor.
- Total Recall (1990)
The director of Robocop scored again with Total Recall, a lavishly produced futuristic mind-bender starring Arnold Schwarzenneger as a regular Joe who realizes his entire life is a lie and that all of his memories have been implanted. And then he gets his ass to Mars to liberally paraphrase the movie. Both violent and goofy, Total Recall is a must-see for fans of Ah-nuld, violence, and amazing non-CGI practical special effects (there’s one scene where Austria’s finest pulls a glowing red device out of his skull through his nose using a special gun. It’s nuts.)
- Point Break (1991)
Keanu Reeves blossoming into a charming, action doofus? Patrick Swayze at his most anarchic? Yes, please. Kathryn Bigelow’s tale of adrenaline junkie surfers who dress like U.S. presidents while robbing banks and the dude who infiltrates their gang is nothing but non-stop, good ol’ fashioned stunt work. Over the course of a long, successful career, Bigelow’s movies have won Oscars and ruled the box office. But she has directed only two perfect films: the vampire western Near Dark and Point Break.
- The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
The second Jurassic Park movie is better than the next four sequels. This follow-up is directed by Spielberg, at his most mercenary. Do you want to see a T-Rex fight a bus? Sure, kid, here ya go. The first Jurassic Park was an artfully constructed dinosaur ballet, and The Lost World is a carnival ride. There are two Spielbergs: the Oscar-winning cinematic innovator whose movies are both thrilling and human and the guy who directed 64-year-old Harrison Ford in the fourth Indiana Jones movie, a despised and occasionally inspired cash-grab. The Lost World is a monster movie without the moral lesson: don’t play God. I’m a fan of both Spielbergs, btw.
- Beavis And Butthead Do America (1996)
Mike Judge is one of the finest satirists of the past thirty years. His clear-eyed worker drone comedy Office Space was a flop at first but has become pop culture canon. Idiocracy also failed at the box office, but the sci-fi satire about a future populated by absolute idiots has proven prophetic. I don’t think his animated sitcom about simple folk in Texas — King of the Hill — is praised nearly enough. But I will always be partial top Judge’s first big hit, MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, a show that directly mocked the audience watching. To that audience’s face. Beavis and Butthead weren’t just juvenile delinquents, a pair of burned-out heavy metal losers. They were the MTV audience. Dumbass teens. Judge made fun of us, and we liked it. The movie doesn’t improve on the weekly show — which mostly featured B and B laughing mindlessly at music videos — but it’s still amusing. Heh-heh-heh.
- Mystery Men (1999)
This movie made fun of Marvel’s The Avengers thirteen years before The Avengers made it to the big screen. Mystery Men is about a team of superhero losers who somehow save their city from a supervillain. It’s hard to believe this flick was greenlit years before the Golden Age of Corporate Comic Book Cape Pictures. The characters are all hilarious, including Ben Stiller as Mr. Furious, whose superpower is anger issues, and William H. Macy as The Shoveler, a mild-mannered vigilante who uses a shovel to fight crime. Jeanine Garofalo, a living legend, played The Bowler, a sudden superhero with a magic bowling ball possessed by her dead dad’s spirit. Spoiler: there are fart jokes.
- In Living Color (1990–1994)
The Emmy-winning TV sketch comedy show In Living Color is remembered for making Jim Carey famous, which is ironic because he was just the rubber-faced white guy in a cast of rock star comics of color.
The show also made the Wayans even more famous: Keenen, Damon, and Marlon. The great David Alan Grier and Tommy Davidson killed it, regularly. Jennifer Lopez was one of the dancing ‘Fly Girls.’ This show influenced comedy for years, including the classic Chapelle’s Show, which also hyped hip-hop acts every episode. Like most sketch shows, In Living Color is hit or miss. But when it hits, it hits nerves that are still raw. I’m surprised this brand has been rebooted, to be honest.
- Time Cop (1994)
I’m a fan of JCVD and movies that explain the plot in the title. In Time Cop, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a cop who can travel through time. Hell yeah. There isn’t much more to say. Everything about this movie is fine. Fine! Van Damme is so desperate to entertain you that it’s impossible not to begrudgingly like this wannabe Terminator.
- The Shadow (1994)
Yes, this movie is pretty low on the list. Directed by Russell Mulcahy, who deserves immortality for helming the likable unkillable sword master flick Highlander, The Shadow is an ambitious big-budget love letter to a golden age of radio superhero. The movie is loaded with excellent character actors: Peter Boyle, Tim Curry, Ian McKellen, and Penelope Ann Miller. As the title character, Alec Baldwin sets his voice to maximum whisper as a menacing, gun-toting fedora-wearing do-gooder who can “cloud men’s minds.” It’s chock-full of shootouts and magic and The Shadow takes itself way, way too seriously.
- Jerry Springer (1991–2018)
A few weeks ago, NASA revealed new images of space from their new Webb telescope, and one of them was of galaxies that existed billions and billions of years ago, back when the universe was still forming. Watching old episodes of the pioneering trash TV talk show ‘Jerry Springer’ is like watching cosmic dust swirl into our galaxy. If you want to understand our current pop culture universe, you need to peer back in time to when the only person standing between us and the worst of society was Jerry Springer. The one-time mayor of Cincinnati, Springer, emceed a lunatic freakshow every week. At the end of every action-packed episode, he’d look into the camera and sign off by saying: “Take care of yourself and each other.” He would slightly emphasize that last part as if he could make a difference. As if humanity would ever choose empathy.
- Weekend At Bernie’s (1989)
The premise is better than the actual movie. Weekend At Bernie’s is a black comedy starring Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy as a pair of hapless coworkers who get bad news one weekend: their boss Bernie is a crook who tried to have them both whacked. Oh, and Bernie is dead. The only way they can make it through the weekend is to pretend Bernie is still alive, which means lots of amusing corpse desecration. Ha, ha, Bernie has rigor mortis. It’s not funny… except sometimes.
- Death Wish 2 (1982)
In a way, it’s a shame Charles Bronson is most remembered for these grisly revenge movies. The first Death Wish was an inspired exploitation flick about a regular dude turned bloodthirsty vigilante after crooks murder his wife and rape his daughter. It’s a cruel movie that paints a bleak portrait of filthy, crime-ridden New York City in 1974. Death Wish 2 is more of the same, only in L.A. Bronson’s character is trying to put his life together, but tragedy strikes. Again. So it’s time to perforate scumbags with bullets. Bronson is hard to beat, a mustachioed craggy-faced everyman who mastered two main emotions: sad and “I’m going to kill you.”
- Mortal Kombat (1995)
I loved the original Mortal Kombat, a gory, fantastical, Bloodsport-like martial arts video game. The characters were a mix of stock Bruce Lee movie-inspired baddies and superpowered mutants. I saw this movie in the theater. It’s not good, but I didn’t care at the time. Its biggest star was Christopher Lambert, the star of the Highlander movies, and he’s supposed to be playing Rayden, an electrified Asian character. So, yeah. The special effects are janky, and the fighting isn’t as gruesome as in the game. The actors may know karate, but their acting is ka-rappy. And yet, in the 90s, nerds were happy for whatever they got from Hollywood. It’s no Street Fighter, though.
- PCU (1994)
Remember Jeremy Piven? He was one of the stars of HBO’s insipid early aught’s Hollywood bro-comedy Entourage, a cocktail special that was equal parts Sex in the City and Maxim Magazine. Piven played a sniveling, sarcastic agent, and he was a big star for a few seasons. Years before, however, he starred in this wannabe Gen X Animal House. PCU is a party comedy about college life in the mid-90s, which was messy — take it from me. Why did we ever do keg stands? Piven plays a wisenheimer frat boy fighting politically-correct campus party poopers. Tucker Carlson probably loved this sort of movie as a young Ivy League douchebag. I cannot find it on any streaming service, though, and maybe that’s for the best.
- Laser Mission (1989)
Probably the only truly bad movie on the rack. I haven’t seen this generic 80s action movie, and after watching the trailer, I never will. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. Starring the late, great Brandon Lee as a hero rescuing a hot lady who knows her way around a machine gun, Laser Mission looks like your typical low-budget, late-era Cold War boom opera co-starring Ernest Borgnine, the Academy Award-winning actor who never said “no” to a part. It’s my understanding that a laser is important to the plot. If this movie had been Lee’s 1994 goth kid supernatural revenge thriller The Crow, I would have put it in the top ten, at least. The Crow rules. Sadly, Lee died on the set of that movie, a tragedy for the Lee family and movies. He had his dad’s natural charm and powerful elegance.
- A Pink Christmas (1978)
This is an animated Pink Panther holiday special; I do not care about it. I probably would have watched it in the 90s. I wouldn't have rented it, but if it was on TV, I'd have laid on my couch, stoned, and not changed the channel.