Each year, hundreds of movies hit theaters and pretty much just get classified as good or bad—thanks in part to Rotten Tomatoes’s Tomatometer, word of mouth, and people’s general willingness to only see black and white, but never the gray area in between.
Clearly, that’s a mistake. In the gray area between good and bad movies, much like the gray area between any two polar opposites, there always sit a few gems that initially get overlooked. Some of these gems pick up a small, loyal following that stays quiet for a while, then slowly picks up steam and brings the movie into relevance years after it originally came out. This is when it achieves “cult” status.
Here are a few of those gems from the past 30 years. Granted, the exact criteria for a cult film is hard to define, and a couple of the ones listed below are debatable — maybe because they aren’t notable enough, or maybe if they’re actually too notable now. If you’d like to engage in a debate about any one of them, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a time and place so I can plan my yelling strategy accordingly.
Have to say, first time I saw Donnie Darko, I was straight up terrified. That murderous rabbit-human got me every time. However, a completely inventive story paired with a young Gyllenhaal and lines like “go suck a fuck” made this one destined to strike a chord within a very particular brand of film enthusiast.
Ron Livingston as the lead. Milton and his stapler. Perry Cox as one of the Bobs. Gary Cole in his most iconic role. Michael Bolton. Samir Naga..Naga..Naga..not gonna work here anymore anyway! Put together a group of B-list/C-list actors with a simple, brilliant script and see what happens. Uh, yeah…I’m gonna have to call this one a runaway cult classic. Plus it somehow made it ok for me to listen to Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta as a 10 year old white kid. Not in public, but still.
Slow claps all around when the Jamaican bobsled team carries their sled over the finish line. Low key great movie that literally never gets old despite how many times you’ve seen it. That’s pretty much the definition of a cult classic.
This Is Spinal Tap
The idea to have a fake documentary (mockumentary, if you will) about “England’s Loudest Band” was absolute genius—thank you Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest. Whether it’s turning an amp up to level 11 or composing a sad melody somewhere between Bach and Mozart, this one’s a cult hit for the ages. As long as there’s, you know, sex and drugs, I can do without the rock and roll.
Wet Hot American Summer
Here are the stars that appeared in Wet Hot American Summer all before they hit it big (in no particular order): Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Ken Marino, Janeane Garafolo, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, Christopher Meloni, Molly Shannon, Kevin Sussman, Sam Levine. If you don’t recognize a name, you’ll definitely recognize the face. First time I saw this one I started feeling kinda weird at jew camp. Fitting.
Don’t want to say much about this because I think even one more mention of its cult status would push it into too much relevance. Yep.
The Big Lebowski
Absolute king of the cult classics, and for good reason. Let’s start by pointing out that the movie is literally about nothing. Knowing that, a brother shamus (seamus?) like Jeff Bridges ends up perfect for the role of Jeffrey Lebowski, aka The Dude, His Dudeness, Duder, or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Beyond that, every scene, every character, every line—is absolute gold. If you think I’m laying it on a little too thick here, talk to the founders of Lebowski Fest. You human paraquat (THAT’S A PESTICIDE. WHAT??).
Notable Mentions: The Shawshank Redemption, Garden State, Remember The Titans, Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream, Shaun of the Dead
So there you have it. Those are the cult movies you need to watch before you die—and at the very least, pretend you’ve seen when they come up in conversation. Once you’ve got these down, you can start digging into the really deep cult material. Just make sure you don’t get lost and watch only blatantly terrible films. They won’t become cult classics. They’ll just continue to be bad.