The rare-earth metals have important technological applications due to their magnetic properties, but are scarce and expensive. Development of high-performance magnetic materials with less rare-earth content is desired, but theoretical modeling is hampered by complexities of the rare earths electronic structure. The existence of correlated (atomic-like) 4f electrons in the vicinity of the valence band makes any first-principles theory challenging. Here, we apply and evaluate the efficacy of density-functional theory for the series of lanthanides (rare earths), investigating the influence of the electron exchange and correlation functional, spin-orbit interaction, and orbital polarization. As a reference, the results are compared with those of the so-called ‘standard model’ of the lanthanides in which electrons are constrained to occupy 4f core states with no hybridization with the valence electrons. Some comparisons are also made with models designed for strong electron correlations. Our results suggest that spin-orbit coupling and orbital polarization are important, particularly for the magnitude of the magnetic moments, and that calculated equilibrium volumes, bulk moduli, and magnetic moments show correct trends overall. However, the precision of the calculated properties is not at the level of that found for simpler metals in the Periodic Table of Elements, and the electronic structures do not accurately reproduce x-ray photoemission spectra.