What makes a great cult film? Does it have to be misunderstood in its time, only to grow a following, or must it somehow involve the surreal, with hints of nudity, drug use and depravity? Cult films may be considered modern-day classics like John Ford’s “The Searchers,” which wasn’t even nominated for a major Oscar when it came out in 1956 to such would-be exploitation fare as Alex Cox’s mixed genre 1984 end-of-world noir spoof “Repo Man.” And everything in between, with an emphasis on those movies which resonate best late at night, under the influence of something or other. Here’s a selection of Streampix’s 10 top cult films:
“American Psycho”: Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ disturbing novel about a Wall Street banker turned serial killer with a penchant for designer wear is now recognized as a vehicle for the emerging talents of star Christian Bale, long before he grew a pot belly and hair weave to earn an Oscar nomination as Irving Rosenfeld in “American Hustle.” With the subsequent financial crash, the movie has taken on cosmic overtones, and was originally rated NC-17 for a scene with Bale and two prostitutes (though producers later cut some footage to create an R-rated version), always plusses for cult credibility. Throw in the wildly diverse reactions to the film in the critical community and you have all the makings of a cult classic.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”: French filmmaker Michel Gondry’s surreal style is what drives this 2004 romantic fantasy featuring arguably Jim Carrey’s most affecting performance as a love-struck man who has his memory erased when he finds out his ex-girlfriend, Kate Winslet, has undergone a similar procedure. The movie brings up many metaphysical issues when it comes to emotions, playing a heady mind game that reflects back on our own lives to create an almost psychedelic feeling of euphoria crossed with ineffable sadness.
“Blade Runner”: Aside from Kubrick’s masterpiece “2001 A Space Odyssey,” Ridley Scott’s dystopian noir vision of Los Angeles circa the encroaching near-future was almost universally dismissed upon its release in 1982, with Harrison Ford as a detective tracing down the so-called replicant cyborgs in order to “retire” them. The movie has several cult bona fides, including its adaption from the very hip Phillip K. Dick sci-fi novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The movie also anticipated the cyber-punk genre. A much-ballyhooed director’s “Final Cut” came out in 2007.
“Being John Malkovich”: This year, Spike Jonze wrote and directed “Her,” a film that people will certainly return to in the future, as they will to this trippy, 1999 metaphysical comedy written by the inimitable Charlie Kaufman (and whatever happened to him?) A mind-body spoof about a puppeteer (John Cusack) who discovers himself inside the head of the title actor, the movie willfully toys with our expectations of the nature of reality to deliver the cinematic equivalent of a bong hit.
“Fast Times at Ridgmont High”: Amy Heckerling’s pre-“Clueless” 1982 teenage comedy comes from very cult-like sources, rock critic turned screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s first-person account of going undercover as a high school student. The film, of course, is best known for Sean Penn’s indelible portrayal of stoner Jeff Spicoli, memorably ordering pizza to be delivered to the classroom, much to the consternation of his teacher, “My Favorite Martian” Ray Walston, as Mr. Hand, while singlehandedly installing “Hey, bud, let’s party” into the national vernacular. Not to mention one of the great sex scenes of all time as Judge Reinhold, unh, “fantasizing” over a topless Phoebe Cates. It doesn’t get any more surreal than that, folks. Look for Phil Spector victim Lana Clarkson in a small role as Mrs. Vargas. Does that make it a cult film or what?
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“The Searchers”: John Ford’s 1956 revenge saga starring John Wayne is considered iconic today, but at its original release, it was largely ignored, famously getting shut out in that year’s major Oscar categories. It has since become a cult film to the highest degree, jump-starting the auteur theory movement in the late ‘50s and ‘60s and inspiring countless French nouvelle vague homages. AFI named it the greatest western ever, placing 12th on the organization’s 100 greatest American movies of all time. Also lent Wayne’s signature phrase, “That’ll be the day,” to Buddy Holly for his hit single.
“Midnight Run”: Martin Brest’s 1988 road movie is one of the best of the buddy-buddy genre, as mismatched Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin play a bounty hunter hauling his quarry cross-country. This underappreciated classic just gets better with age, as the repartee between its leads resonates in way that is “Waiting for Godot” meets Abbott and Costello. Although it took in more than $80 million worldwide, it was not considered a big hit, even though it did spawn three made-for-TV sequels. Brest went on to direct Al Pacino to a 1992 Oscar in “Scent of a Woman,” then Brad Pitt in 1998’s “Meet Joe Black,” but after writing and directing the major bomb, “Gigli,” with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, in 2003, he hasn’t been heard from since. Now there’s a cult film.
“Repo Man”: Perhaps the very definition of a late-night cult classic, Alex Cox’s 1984 mixed genre sci-fi/hot rod piece finds an out-of-work rocker (Emilio Estevez) offering to drive a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu out of a seedy part of town, only to discover there are aliens in the trunk. The film has a very ‘80s L.A. punk-rock vibe to it—it was produced by Monkee Mike Nesmith—and features a soundtrack by local musicians Tito Larriva and Steven Hufsteter of Los Cruzados, a local Latino-punk band which experienced some national success on Arista Records. Other rock personalities in the cast include Jimmy Buffett (?!), Rodney Bingenheimer, Zander Schloss and members of the Circle Jerks.
“Dazed and Confused”: Writer-director Richard Linklater’s 1993 movie, the follow-up to his well-received indie “Slacker,” is the ultimate stoner comedy, a coming of age tale that launched a new golden era for independent filmmaking and an impressive career for its creator and several members of its cast. There’s even an Oscar connection, with Best Actor nominee Matthew McConaughey making his feature film debut as the twenty-something slacker who still hangs with the high school kids. The film proved a launching pad for several performers, including Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Cole Hauser, Parker Posey, Adam Goldberg and Joey Lauren Adams. Also receives extra coolness quotient for taking its title from a Led Zeppelin song.
“Talk Radio”: Oliver Stone’s 1988 adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s one-0man show about an acid-tongued talk radio host is a prescient study of a Howard Stern-style political pundit who crosses over the line. The cast includes Alec Baldwin, John Pankow, so good in “Episodes,” and Zach Grenier. By all rights, this should have made the caustic Bogosian a star, though he did carve out a career as a character actor who always brought the intensity. Here, he’s at his most intense in a dark comedy that stings like a bee.