In the eighties and nineties, a film’s release on home video before any form of a theatrical release was quite damning. Cheap movies, b-movies, bad movies, or sequel titles with no one involved in the original film are what came to mind when one heard the words, “straight to video release”. That stigma (for better or worse remains to be seen) has currently been lifted, and today’s reality is that anyone wanting something different, adult, or challenging will primarily have to find it on streaming sites or VOD services.
All of the films on this list had their national premiere, through one platform or another, in the online world. A few titles are inherently flawed and were silently dumped online to be forgotten or ignored. Many titles are quiet masterpieces that have either found their rightful audience online or are still begging for their moment in the sun. The remainders are memorable (though not entirely successful) experiments that fall somewhere in between.
The online world of home video releases started out as the new art house theatre just a few years ago, but has now predominately taken over the market for anything not designed for spectacle and franchises. It’s where different, experimental, and mature films are now predominately seen. Unfortunately, while everyone is still finding their footing in the ever-changing industry, it’s where many great films are now lost, as well.
30, 29. (tie) Accidental Love (2015), Dying of the Light (2014)
The dark side of having so many films readily available at our fingertips today is that it’s also that much easier for films that should legitimately never see the light of day to be released and seen. Such is the case for both these titles.
Accidental Love is the butchered remains of an abandoned David O. Russell project that is as lifeless as it is unfunny. Dying of the Light was taken from director Paul Schrader, quickly re-edited, and even more quickly released without his approval or consent. The result is a film that is flat, boring, and utterly pointless.
In today’s day and age, especially, stories like the ones behind these two abominations shouldn’t exist. It’s poor business that invariably creates bad films, not to mention utterly disrespectful to their filmmakers. With so many films in circulation today, do a little reading on them beforehand, do yourself a favor, and skip the ones whose directors don’t even want you to see them.
28. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
Spike Lee will always be the man who gave us She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues, Malcom X, Crooklyn, Clockers, Summer of Sam, He Got Game, and The 25th Hour. You can’t take that from him or his most loyal fans, who still hope he will regain his place in mainstream filmmaking one day so he can get the resources he needs to finance his greater, more important works again.
In the meantime, we can let him have fun and try not to scratch our heads too furiously over efforts like Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. While it has the makings of a potential cult film years down the road and has some, to say the least, interesting directorial flourishes, Lee’s film just doesn’t appear have much of a point for its audience.
At least, not one he was able to successfully communicate. In the end, however, it’s positive that a filmmaker as accomplished as Lee is still hungry to experiment cheaply and responsibly with a Kickstarter-funded project like this one.
27. Life After Beth (2014)
This is the kind of smart horror comedy that doesn’t seem to be too high in demand right now, but will also hopefully find its own, small audience of appreciators over time. One of the most interesting young actors working today, Dane DeHaan stars as a young man who loses his beloved girlfriend only to have her miraculously come back to life, though not quite the way he remembered her. Echoing the work of Sam Raimi and Joss Whedon,
Life After Beth is a fun, well-written, and clever little film that communicates some meaningful young adult life lessons into a well done horror-and-humor-based story. It’s a perfectly scaled project for online distribution.
26. The Frozen Ground (2013)
Based on a true story behind the manhunt of an Alaskan serial killer, The Frozen Ground is an earnest and non-exploitative film that gives an interesting, if not entirely original, perspective on police procedure.
Though it often feels like a very capable made-for-cable movie of the week, The Frozen Ground remains notable for its taste, restraint, and for the three excellent performances given by the film’s leads.
Nicolas Cage showcases a subtlety and focus he’s never quite nailed before as the investigating officer in charge. John Cusack is disturbingly empty as the ice-cold and cunning killer. Vanessa Hudgens, most impressively, shows a depth and maturity well beyond her years as an escaped victim who helps Cage track down Cusack’s disturbed murderer.
The film never would have stood out in today’s theatrical market, but it’s solid presence and wise, quiet execution make it the perfect home video experience and the perfect showcase for some fantastic acting talent.
25. Lovelace (2013)
This was one of the first major releases with a major actress (Amanda Seyfried stars as porn star Linda Lovelace) to test out the online market. While the film itself is a flawed work whose best qualities (Seyfried’s excellent performance, the film’s ability to not paint Lovelace as a boring victim) are overshadowed by its worst (it’s rather sloppily told and glosses over some of the darker aspects of the story).
Regardless, Lovelace earns its place on this list because it did ultimately find some success, being the first film to simultaneously premiere in theatres and on VOD to also make the VOD Top Ten sales its opening weekend.
24. The Congress (2014)
This is an example of a wildly experimental, imaginative, and beautifully made film being readily available to mass audiences in a way it never would have been ten years earlier. There are positive and negatives to this.
Positive, in that The Congress has potential to reach all the people who want to see it, but negative in the fact that it will never get the special attention it needs from the media for the public to be aware of its quality. For now, like many other films on this list, The Congress will have to wait and see whether it will ever fully receive it’s true day of recognition.
23. Escape From Tomorrow (2013)
A wild experience, Escape From Tomorrow is a notable film because it’s one of the few true independent (a widely misused term these days) films to receive national recognition at the time of its premiere online. Most this came from a great production backstory: it was filmed completely guerilla-style on Canon DSLR cameras at Disney World and Disneyland without any written or legal permission to do so.
The finished film, which lives up to the hype as a strange but accomplished, would have had trouble sticking out in the theatrical market today. A solid online release, however, turned it into one of the best indie success stories since Robert Rodriguez sold his body to medical science to make El Mariachi.
22. Maggie (2015)
You have to hand it to Arnold Schwarzenegger: he knows how to survive in the movie business. He probably won’t ever be the number one star he was in eighties and nineties again, but who cares? While his most recent, post-Governer work hasn’t been entirely successful, he’s still taking chances and at least trying to do some interesting things in the twilight years of his career.
Maggie, a strange drama about a teenage girl who is slowly turning into a zombie, is both involving and effective. It’s also Schwarzenegger’s best work in years as the girl’s heartbroken but loyal father. Schwarzenegger finds a subtlety and stillness in his work he never before tapped into, and the result is not only believable but also quite moving. Maggie is an interesting film and an interesting work that works quite well as a solid and quality home video release.
21. Frank (2014)
It is a wonderful thing that the film Frank exists and that we live in a world where a healthy number of people have taken advantage of how easy it is to find it online. To attempt to explain the film is trivial (a young man joins an avant garde rock band led by a singer who wears an overly-large fake head over his real one at all times), but to ignore it would be a shame.
Michael Fassbender shed the remains of his ego and stars as the mysterious band front man, his famous face completely hidden for the vast majority of the film. Frank, in its inception and design, was an undeniable risk that somehow paid off in a market that certainly isn’t welcoming anything as indisputably different or original as this.