50 New Cult Classic Movies Released This Century

50 New Cult Classic Movies Released This Century
Screenshot: Wet Hot American Summer/Netflix

What defines a “cult classic” film? Unfortunately, there exists no cohesive, comprehensive, widely recognised definition that can be used to classify a film as either undeniably cult, or undeniably not. It’s all far too slippery.

It’s easy to look at a movie’s box office take and gauge its financial success (well, pre-COVID anyway), but figuring out how large and how passionate a movie’s fanbase is years after its release is a lot trickier — and even more so, figuring out the moment when a movie’s cult appeal moves beyond the niche to mainstream recognition. For me, the bigger demarcator of a cult film is the passion of its followers, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. Box office success is a trickier metric; some would define “cult” in a way that requires a film to have come from nowhere and made nothing, which seems a bit too limiting. But generally, a cult film should be a grower rather than a show-er.

Gauging the cult appeal of Eraserhead, Rocky Horror, or Dark Star is relatively easy; with decades of eyes on those movies, opinions are relatively settled. Listing the defining cult films of the more recent past requires a bit more flexibility, but there are a few inarguable criteria: movies that were written off upon initial release but experienced an unexpected afterlife, gaining fans slowly whether because they were ahead of their time, displayed layers few noticed at first, or, sometimes, because of their undeniable (often unintended) camp value. These 50 new cult classics movies fall into one or more of those categories, and all of them are worth a second look.

Ginger Snaps (2000)

Equally effective as satire and as horror, Ginger Snaps makes brilliant use of werewolves as a metaphor for puberty generally, but also links lycanthropy to menstruation in a way that is much more specific and interesting. The special effects are old-school great, the leads are fabulous and, although it lost a ton of money at the box office, it quickly developed enough of a following to beget two pretty decent sequels and a planned upcoming TV series.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

A movie musical (based on an Off-Broadway cult hit in its own right) about a gender-queer punk rocker with a title referring to the results of a botched gender affirmation procedure was only ever going to be a cult classic. But the film’s overwhelmingly large heart and a score that genuinely rocks have cemented its reputation as a genuinely great film rather than merely a novelty.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s sporadic output over the last couple of decades makes this one of only two feature-length film projects he’s completed in that time. Though it barely made any money back in 2001 and opened to very mixed reviews, this love/hate letter to Hollywood has come to be (justly) regarded as one of his best, and most oddly crowd-pleasing, works: an L.A. noir about murder and obsession and a blue box that’s very significant of…something.

Ghost World (2001)

The slightly meandering graphic novel adaptation is also a funny and real portrait of teenage alienation, and has the good sense to position Steve Buscemi as an unlikely love interest. (Thora Birch and a pre-breakout Scarlet Johansson play irresistibly glum teens.)

Session 9 (2001)

Director Brad Anderson took a hard right turn from romantic comedy into psychological horror with this wildly atmospheric, but little seen, thriller about an asbestos abatement crew doing clean up at an old-timey abandoned mental asylum. Which you’d definitely expect to go well.

Super Troopers (2001)

A movie of patchwork scenes that somehow birthed not only a bevy of in-jokes but a couple of decades worth of sequels and side-quels (Super Troopers 2, Beerfest, Club Dread, The Slammin’ Salmon, etc.). This one actually did decent box office business, but its afterlife has been wildly out of proportion to its initial reception.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

David Wain and Michael Showalter produced, perhaps, the fullest expression of their smart/silly sensibilities with Wet Hot, a movie that lost tons of money on release and somehow wound up on lists of 2001’s best and worst movies. It’s a delight, and caught on so big that it inspired two follow-up series for Netflix that lost none of its awkward specificity.

Paid in Full (2002)

Produced by Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Jay-Z and Dame Dash and dramatizing a tale of legendary NYC drug dealers, this crime drama derives much of its cult status from the hip-hop fans who appreciate its realistic characters, if not its more derivative plot.

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Bruce Campbell plays an aged Elvis Presley alongside Ossie Davis’ John F. Kennedy in a nursing home plagued by an ancient Egyptian mummy. That enjoyably silly premise (not to mention Campbell’s involvement) is nearly enough to guarantee the film’s cult status, but writer/director Don Coscarelli treats his lead characters with a surprising and elevating dignity.

Oldboy (2003)

Oh Dae-su is abducted off the street and imprisoned for 15 years, becoming enmeshed in a web of conspiracy when he’s finally released and sets off to seek vengeance. This ultra-violent classic is thrillingly vibrant but too punishingly violent for the mainstream (which Spike Lee found out when he tried to remake it in English).

High Tension (2003)

This movie did decent business in France and less well upon its U.S. release, but quickly became one of the standard-bearers for a wave of films classified as the “New French Extremity.” A throwback to the gnarly, grisly thrillers of the ‘70s, slasher Haute Tension is as bloody as they come, and picks up points for placing queer female characters in the lead, not just as victims, but then loses them with a last-act twist doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Still, it’s bloody memorable.

Tiptoes (2003)

Not only bad, but indefensible, this movie ended the career of its director, Mark Bright, and its big-name stars (Matthew McConaughey, Kate Beckinsale, Gary Oldman, Patricia Arquette, and Peter Dinklage) never speak of it. McConaughey plays the only average-height member of a family of short-statured individuals. Including Gary Oldman, cast as a person with dwarfism. It frequently comes up on lists of worst movies ever, which does lend it a bit of how-did-this-get-made appeal. Which is how many cult movies kick off in the first place.

American Splendor (2003)

Along with Ghost World, American Splendor offered an (as yet) unrealized promise that we might see more comic and graphic novel adaptations not involving Batman. Starring greats Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis as underground comic creators Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, it’s a stylish portrait of a couple of everyday people who also happen to be great American artists.

The Room (2003)

Oh, hi Mark! Tommy Wiseau’s film became a cultural moment purely on the strength of its unaffected strangeness. Full of weird extended sex scenes and nearly incomprehensible dialogue, it’s a vanity project par excellence, and the kind of camp classic that could only be made by someone who thought they were making something entirely serious.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

It did OK at the box office back in 2004, but found new life on DVD later on. In plenty of other stoner-type comedies, Indian- and Korean-Americans are most likely to show up as secondary characters and broad stereotypes — here they’re in the lead. It doesn’t hurt that the talented John Cho and Kal Penn have gone on to wildly successful careers beyond playing Harold and Kumar in this film and its two (less worthwhile) sequels.

Birth (2004)

This meditative, twisty psychological drama from Jonathan Glazer alienated audiences and critics alike upon release, probably because the creepy premise — a woman (Nicole Kidman) is convinced a 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) is the reincarnation of her dead husband — was so, well, creepy. But if you can look past being weirded out that they share a (entirely non-sexual) bath together, it’s a moving consideration of grief and obsession, and it has attracted some quite fervent adherents.

Maqbool (2004)

An Indian take on MacBeth set against the backdrop of the modern Mumbai underworld, Maqbooi boasts thoroughly impressive style, dark wit, and a stirring central performance from star Irrfan Khan. It’s didn’t do terribly well at the Indian box office in 2004, but won acclaim and built a fanbase almost immediately.

Brick (2005)

Rian Johnson has never made a bad movie (I said what I said), and that streak started with his neo-noir riff on the hardboiled crime novels of Dashiell Hammett. By transplanting those elements to a story about heroin and high school, Johnson could have wound up with something silly — but instead produced a low-budget early triumph (that is, OK, still slightly silly).

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

High-concept screenplay specialist Shane Black kicked off his career as a director with a hard-action satire that proved his credentials as a filmmaker and launched a career resurgence for Robert Downey Jr. that reminded us of everything we liked about him, just in time for Iron Man.

Lords of Dogtown (2005)

Catherine Hardwicke’s skateboarding drama (involving a fictionalized version of the skateboarding team portrayed in the 2001 Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary) tanked at the box office and received mixed reviews, but time has been kind to the film, particularly among skateboarders, and especially for Heath Ledger’s turn as the volatile Skip Engblom.

Black Snake Moan (2006)

With a great Mississippi Blues soundtrack, a steamy atmosphere, and all-in performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, the story of a blues musician who sets out to cure a young sex addict by any means necessary is very much a love-it-or-hate it affair — but it’s certainly memorable.

The Wicker Man (2006)

While the 2006 Wicker Man remake lacks the original’s sly creepiness or folk horror sensibilities, it does have Nicholas Cage in full-on Nicholas Cage mode, the whole thing playing as parody — intentional or not (though, I think, not). It’s easy to see why audiences stayed away in 2006, and just as easy to see why it developed a reputation as a minor cult classic.

Sunshine (2007)

A slow-moving (until it isn’t) psychological thriller, Danny Boyle’s story of astronauts on a mission to reignite the sun is the kind of science fiction movie it would be nice to have more of. More’s the pity that it tanked initially, though its reputation has grown in the 15 years since.

Timecrimes (2007)

A wild physics puzzle of a film that, before long, leans into horror, this Spanish-language film involves a regular guy named Héctor who finds himself in the middle of a time travel experiment. A tragic mistake leads him to go around again in an attempt to make things right…which only makes things much, much worse.

Mr. Nobody (2009)

A more wistful sci-fi take, Mr. Nobody stars Jared Leto as the last mortal person on Earth at 118 years old. Surrounded by virtually ageless fellow humans, he reflects on his life and the roads not taken. It’s ambitious and beautifully shot, and either fascinating or interminable, depending on the viewer.

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Diablo Cody’s feminist-infused satanic satire was marketed as a straight-up horror back in the day, probably explaining its mixed reception. Megan Fox plays the demonically possessed title high schooler, who winds up seeking revenge against the men who tried to sacrifice her for their own advancement but instead only made her more powerful. It should be no surprise that those themes have only gotten more relevant with time.

The House of the Devil (2009)

Ti West made his name as a horror writer/director with this smart and stylish haunted house story set during the satanic panic era.

Antichrist (2009)

A grotesque meditation on death and sex, Lars Von Trier’s thoroughly arthouse horror movie has attracted as many filmgoers as it has repulsed (well, probably not quite as many). Wherever you land, the performances from Christopher Walken and Charlotte Charlotte Gainsbourg are remarkable.

Black Dynamite (2009)

Black Dynamite made something like $US300,000 ($416,460) on a $US3 ($4) million budget — not a great take by any measure, but the modern assessment of the blaxploitation era has gone on to spawn an animated series and a (maybe) upcoming sequel. It works as both a satire and a subversion of ‘70s-era genre tropes as well as a celebration of them, as smart as it is silly…and it is very silly.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

The visually stylish and clever graphic novel adaptation didn’t come close to making its money back, but was received passionately by those who did happen to catch it. It might be one of the last times that a comic book movie felt truly unique.

Pariah (2011)

Being the feature-length expansion of an acclaimed and much-loved short film, Dee Rees’ Pariah already had a bit of a built-in audience, but the coming-of-age story about a Black teenager embracing her lesbian identity was probably never going to be a box office smash. Still, the gorgeous and heartfelt film introduced the world to the director as well as to actor Adepero Oduye, lending the groundbreaking film an impressive afterlife.

Chillerama (2011)

Though it’s a bit too self-consciously campy, some over-the-top queer humour sells this direct-to-video horror anthology. Shorts include stories of giant sperm monsters and leather-daddy werebears terrorizing the beach.

Take Shelter (2011)

Michael Shannon is perfectly cast as a father who’s not sure whether he’s protecting his family from the storm that he believes is coming, or if his paranoid delusions are the real threat. Shannon manages to project both fatherly concern and cold terror in equal measure.

Juan of the Dead (2011)

With 40-year-old slacker Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) in the lead, this Cuban film breathes unexpected life into the zombie film in part by bringing to it a distinctive sense of humour, but also by remembering that the whole genre was built on political and social consciousness.

Attack the Block (2011)

We’re still in 2011, a good year for great movies that nobody went to see in theatres. In Attack the Block, aliens invade a council estate in South London, not counting on the teenage street gang led by John Boyega to defend it. The movie quickly developed a cult following, but drew renewed interest as its leads (Boyega and Jodie Whitaker) went on to become the stars of Star Wars and Doctor Who, respectively.

John Dies at the End (2012)

Another from director John Coscarelli (after Bubba Ho-Tep), who’s made a career out of making eventual cult classics, starting with Phantasm way back in 1979. Based on a twisted novel by Jason Pargin, this one’s pretty wild, with a story about a designer drug called Soy Sauce that inspires nightmarish hallucinations before summoning interdimensional demons…for a start. It’s a lot of fun for viewers who don’t mind feeling like they’ve taken some of the Sauce themselves. Paul Giamatti and Doug Jones are along for the trip.

Only God Forgives (2013)

His earlier film, Drive, had a bit more of a moment in the zeitgeist, but writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up is every bit as accomplished, even if the response to it was far more polarised. The modern-day-western tropes of Drive are taken further — characters are more laconic, and the violence is more visceral. Audiences who liked those elements of Drive will appreciate Only God Forgives that much more.

Blue Ruin (2013)

The stylishly grim revenge drama was an early product of movie crowdfunding via Kickstarter. It does a lot on a relatively low budget and, though it did respectably well at the box office and garnered some excellent reviews, it has truly found a following via home video and streaming.

Under the Skin (2013)

Oh look, Jonathan Glazer (Birth) once again. Scarlett Johansson plays an otherworldly woman (maybe an alien?) stalking men along the road in Scotland. The movie presents lots of interesting ideas without trying very hard to pin viewers down to any particular interpretation of events. When done right, such open-endedness can inspire both debate and repeat viewings, and Under the Skin does it right.

Locke (2013)

One character carries this movie, almost literally. Tom Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a construction foreman who trows everything aside to be present for the premature birth of his child by the woman with whom he had a one-night-stand many months prior. It’s a risky premise that works, thanks to Hardy and the voices that pop up on the phone while he drives (including Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, and Tom Holland).

Coherence (2013)

With not much more than a house to shoot in, the filmmakers (lead by writer/director James Ward Byrkit) create a twisty metaphysical puzzle involving alternate universes and parallel lives.

Tangerine (2015)

Sin-Dee Rella, fresh from prison, meets up with her best friend Alexandra, and the two trans sex workers set out on a mission to find and punish Sin-Dee’s cheating boyfriend. With a sense of fun and a stylishly low-budget aesthetic, it’s one of the most vibrant independent movies of the last decade.

Krisha (2015)

Before his breakout with It Comes at Night, Trey Edward Shults directed this stunningly original family drama about the title character, who, after struggling with addiction for decades, hopes to reconcile with her family at Thanksgiving. The raw drama that follows plays almost like a horror movie.

Swiss Army Man (2016)

Daniel Radcliffe surely has one of the most impressive career trajectories in film history. From Harry Potter to flatulent corpse Manny, whose erections serve as an aid to navigation (and it’s not like he stopped here). What’s so wildly impressive about Swiss Army Man is not how funny it is, but how sweet. (Co-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s follow-up Everything Everywhere All At Once just came out and already seems destined for cult status.)

Slack Bay (2016)

There’s just no fathoming French filmmaking sometimes, and the world is so much the better for it. Slack Bay is a comedy of manners and class involving cannibal fisherfolk, incest, and an inexplicably floating police inspector…with Juliette Binoche! It’s glorious, even if I have no idea what it’s about.

Popstar: Never Stop Stopping (2016)

Like a lot of the Lonely Island-style movies and shorts, rock mockumentary Popstar is a reasonably good blend of smart and stupid, hitting its targets (mostly modern celebrity and pop fandom) more often than not. It’s no This is Spinal Tap, but it’s in the arena. A surprising flop with surprisingly passionate fans.

God’s Own Country (2017)

A charming, believable romantic drama involving a Yorkshire sheep farmer and a migrant worker from Romania, God’s Own Country is a gay drama that doesn’t lean to complete tragedy, which felt like a minor revelation back in 2017. It’s already become a minor classic.

Cats (2019)

Head to the absolute bottom of the uncanny valley, and you’ll find a whole bunch of cats, it turns out. An all-star cast lead by Idris Elba and Judi Dench star in one of the most gloriously bizarre of all major Hollywood productions. Before COVID, it had already become a midnight movie sensation; hopefully when theatres come roaring back, Cats will follow.

The Vast of Night (2019)

A wildly confident debut from director Andrew Patterson, this Twilight Zone riff about kids who try to track down the source of a mysterious radio sugnal succeeds on the strength of its low-budget atmosphere and impressive performances from Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz.

Mandibles (2020)

Just a wildly stupid but surprisingly funny, comedy about a pair of doofuses on a road trip who encounter a giant fly and decide to teach it to rob banks for them. Like one does.

Malignant (2021)

I have no idea how to judge a movie’s success in today’s world of bifurcated theatrical/streaming releases — and I’m pretty sure the studios don’t either. There’s also no way to predict what movie might become cult classics. All that being said, and even though this is a major release from popular director James Wan — it is utterly batshit, and I’m not convinced that a wide audience was ever going to find the movie’s wild twists and turns palatable. I predict cult status, but only time will tell.

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