When I was twenty years old I had the best job in the world as an assistant manager at Blockbuster Video. Face it, for a college student, the job was perfect. It allowed me to work in the afternoons and evenings after class, employees were allowed to rent up to seven movies per week for free, and the actual work itself wasn’t very challenging. As the assistant manager, I had just enough power that I got a self esteem boost and a little bit more money, but not enough that it went to my head. Over the year and a half I worked there I made some great friends that I still connect with to this day fifteen years later. It’s safe to say that while many people lament the fact that Blockbuster is no longer part of our landscape (a handful of franchise locations supposedly remain open in Alaska and Texas, but the last of the corporate stores closed in January 2014), I will always have a small hole in my heart that they are gone.
So it was with a twinge of sadness earlier this week when I stumbled upon a funny meme a friend of mine shared on my Facebook wall:
The image brought back the nostalgia of my days as an employee at Blockbuster, but also of the concept of a walk-in, physical, video store where you could browse and stumble upon an unsuspecting gem. Long before I worked at Blockbuster, I was a customer. I often looked forward to the weekend routine of rushing out after school to rent a new release movie or game for a sleepover before the crowd beat me to all the good stuff. As a young teenager, I could spend hours gathering up the perfect collection of classics for a five-for-$5 deal, making each dollar count and finding some surprises along the way.
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other streaming services are great and can serve up some great recommendations on what to watch. Despite my love of physical media, I acknowledge that having cut the cord in 2006, I helped contribute to the rise in media streaming and the downfall of the very same Blockbuster I loved. There is no arguing the convenience and value gained from those streaming services. That said, Netflix is not a perfect substitute for Blockbuster, much less those long-lost local mom and pop shops.
Modern-day streaming services are smart. They take into account your viewing history, the ratings you volunteered for different movies, throw in some witchcraft or leprechaun magic and offer up a daily list of suggestions for what you should watch next. I’ll give it to them, some of the movies they suggest are right up my alley. In fact, many of the suggestions are movies that I’ve already seen and enjoyed, but just didn’t view on that particular service. Wearing my tin foil hat, I even have a sinking suspicion that many suggestions are contractually obligated offerings for particular movies while other properties sit in the proverbial dust bin never coming across my screen. Sure, “because I like X, I’ll probably like Y” is tempting, but I want surprises and I can only browse so deep into Netflix’s library before I give up. I miss “staff picks.”
“Staff picks,” or employee-suggested films, were a grab bag of awesome. When browsing a local video store, I always checked out the new releases first, but after that I immediately wanted to see what the “experts” recommended. Everyone has different tastes in films, so each staff pick was a small reflection of whomever suggested the movie. With thousands of movies to choose from in any given video store, checking out the staff picks was a quick way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sure, I knew right off the bat that some wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but others … I was willing to give them a shot. Sitting on the “suggested viewing” shelf meant that each film was hand-picked by an actual person for a particular reason. Maybe it was the funniest movie they had ever seen, perhaps the saddest. Movies that didn’t have huge studio releases could finally find a much-deserved audience, and films like these are often how unknown flops slowly became cult classics.
Choosing your particular “staff picks” is an art. When I rose to the ranks of video store clerk myself, I felt an obligation to offer a variety of film styles and genres to my customers. Poignant movies (Empire of the Sun), sappy romantic comedies (Blast From the Past), quirky documentaries (Crumb), lighthearted ’80s cheese (Quicksilver), or gross-out goodness (The Toxic Avenger) – it didn’t matter as long as I thought they deserved to be seen. Taking people out of their comfort zones and away from the familiar allows people an opportunity to find something they may never have dreamed they would fall in love with. It always felt good seeing someone renting my selection and striking up a conversation. So much of what is shoved down our throats these days is forced on us without reason. Why is this good? What makes you think I’ll like it? These are questions we want answers to! At the video store, you could just go ask the clerk. On Netflix? Just keep scrolling.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the sense of adventure in finding a movie I had never heard about and miss the excitement of finding a sleeper hit, a new cult classic, or something from left field that takes you completely by surprise. In the spirit of those old video store shelves, we here at GeekDad want to offer up some of our personal selections for “Staff Picks.” We’re going to share more themed options in the future, but right now, here’s a wide ranging variety of some of our go-to movies we think deserve some front-facing, marquee shelf space.
“Before Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) became an awards-season darling with Slumdog Millionaire, he made the gorgeous sci-fi epic Sunshine about the crew of the Icarus II, on an ambitious mission to kickstart our failing sun and avert a solar winter. Yes, you’ll have to suspend all of your disbelief to accept the film’s premise and be able to swallow the third-act plot twists, but it’s a downright beautiful film to watch. As the crew gets closer to the sun, the visuals and effects are stunning. It’s the closest thing we’ve gotten to Alien since Aliens, and Cillian Murphy turns in a fantastic performance as always.” – Jamie Greene
“An unsettling horror movie. All the dread of an unstoppable force you’d get from a zombie flick with none of the rot and gore. The synth-heavy soundtrack is perfectly creepy and composed by Disasterpeace, who also created the soundtrack for Indie video game hit, Fez. Release date is July 14, 2015. (The Canadian release includes the Disasterpeace soundtrack.)” – Stephen Clark
“My favorite Studio Ghibli film hands-down. Ashitaka heads west to find the source of the disease spreading in the land. The film takes a very balanced look at the struggle of nature versus progress while still maintaining a fantastical feel with great characters. Add to that the brilliantly translated script by Neil Gaiman and you have a can’t-miss hit.” – Will James
“Imagine that in the somewhat hasty (seven days!) creation of the universe, blunders were made that caused ‘time holes.’ Imagine further meeting a group of dwarves bound on becoming ‘stinkingly rich’ through a few historic heists, where the time holes are used as escape car. That is the premise of Terry Gilliam’s (he of Monty Python fame) Time Bandits, and the movie continues in that vein. It is full of crazy ideas and laugh-out-loud funny, but at the same time a wonderful adventure story, and this particular combination has made me watch it again and again.” – Bernd Grobauer
“Despite having originally aired in the U.S. nearly 15 years ago, there’s a reason that we still geek out hard over Cowboy Bebop. It’s like Star Wars, Casablanca, and Charlie Parker had a chain smoking, kung-fu kick-throwing, bullet-blasting, spaceship-racing baby. The mash-up of genres is so dense, it makes your brain hurt. And yet, at its core, Cowboy Bebop is simply about a crew of outlaws, just trying to work past their demons and find a little redemption on the other side. It’s vibrant. It’s brilliant. And it still makes me hold my breath every time I watch it.” – Anthony Karcz
“One of 2015’s best movies is also one of the most interesting looks at the possible future of AI filmed to date. It features phenomenal performances from Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, an amazing soundtrack and Academy Award-worthy writing and directing by Alex Garland. Available on Blu-ray and DVD on July 14.” – Rob Huddleston
“A movie about the group of Australian scientists that were pivotal in enabling the world to watch Neil and Buzz take mankind’s first steps on the lunar surface. Extremely well done.” – Skip Owens
Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team
“‘Hey, Kids? Remember the Cold War? No? Mike Eruzione sure does!’ Sit down and take a seat and watch some young American college kids wage war on the ice against the toughest Soviets on skates! This documentary goes behind the scenes and takes viewers on an emotional ride of the iconic 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Possibly one of the best sports documentaries ever made.” – Preston Burt
Run Lola Run
“Two lovers with only 20 minutes to change their entire life. My favorite retelling of the tried and true Butterfly effect formula. Frenetic from moment one, this is a story driven by an pulsing soundtrack with dark humor, action, and tragedy. Don’t let the subtitles scare you off!” – Kishore Hari
Léon the Professional
“Long before Potter and Star Wars, Gary Oldman and Natalie Portman deliver brilliant performances, alongside Jean Reno as Leon, the hitman who finds himself trying to care for a young girl. Beautifully shot and gripping throughout, this film can be watched again and again.” – Robin Brooks
The Spitfire Grill
“A young woman, recently released from prison, tries to start over in the small town of Gilead, Maine. The local sheriff, who serves as her parole officer, helps her get a job at the local diner, which the cantankerous owner has been trying to sell for years. She brings a new optimism and energy to the moribund town, but secrets and prejudices threaten to deprive her of the new beginning she seeks. The film, directed by Lee David Zlotoff (creator of the MacGyver TV series), was Audience winner at the 1996 Sundance Festival, and was adapted into a stage musical in 2001.” – Jim MacQuarrie