by Patrick Bromley
On a personal note, Joe Dante is also my favorite director, which can make choosing his essential movies difficult -- they're all worth tracking down, and, in their own way, "essential." But these eight movies provide a good overview of his career and make for a good place to start for anyone interested in exploring the filmography of a great, unique and underappreciated director.
1. Piranha (1978) - From his very first outing as a solo director (following Hollywood Boulevard in '76, which he co-directed with Allan Arkush), it's very clear who Joe Dante is as a filmmaker. Funny, scary, completely self-aware and mocking the genre while at the same time belonging to it, Piranha works as both a spoof of Jaws and as an entertaining, nature-gone-wild monster movie. Plus, Dante was already developing a repertory company that included Dick Miller, Belinda Belaski and Kevin McCarthy.
3. Gremlins (1984) - The Howling caught the eye of superdirector Steven Spielberg, which led to Joe Dante's involvement in the anthology Twilight Zone: The Movie (in which he and fellow underdog George Miller completely outshone the much more famous Spielberg and John Landis), which led to Spielberg handpicking Dante to direct Gremlins in 1984. It's a great example of how Dante was Spielberg's evil twin in the '80s, working in a similar genre and with similar themes, but much darker and more subversive. Gremlins is like a scene-by-scene rebuttal of E.T. -- a funny, gleefully nasty Christmas joke that legendarily contributed to the invention of the PG-13 rating. Gremlins is a great example of how Dante was able to take a studio movie and make it very much his own thing.
5. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) - After a string of for-hire studio jobs, Dante was given carte blanche to return to his most successful film and make any kind of sequel he wanted. The result is the clearest expression of his voice ever put on screen -- an insane, anarchic comedy that, if you're a Joe Dante fan, is streets ahead of the first movie. It's incredibly dense, and has to be seen three or four times just to catch all the jokes and references.
6. Matinee (1993) - If Gremlins 2 is the single most "Joe Dante" Joe Dante movie, Matinee remains his crowning achievement as a filmmaker. It's his best, most personal movie (and one of my all-time favorites): a loving tribute to William Castle and sci-fi/horror movies as well as a statement about the role of pop art in our culture, the nature of fear and the transformative power of movies. Such a wonderful movie -- the kind that feels like it was made just for you every time you watch it.
8. Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) - Speaking of movies that deserve to be rediscovered. Joe Dante's last at-bat in the major studio system proved to be the movie that broke his spirit; it was a miserable experience for him as a director, even if that's not entirely reflected in the final version of the movie. Dante's love of the original Looney Tunes is apparent in just about every frame, and the movie represents and honest attempt to rescue the characters' reputations from that awful Space Jam shit that Warner Bros. had turned them into. There are just enough in-jokes and Dante-esque touches to make the movie especially rewarding for fans.