I truly set out to make a definitive, objective list of the biggest cult films from the last five years today. However, pinning down a usable definition of “cult film” with a truly workable set of criteria was not just challenging, but nearly impossible. The one constant in definitions for cult films, however, was that they are movies that failed commercially, not just at the box office, but often in DVD sales, yet eventually found a successful second life after their initial release.
The best I could do was to spend way more hours than I expected to researching DVD sales, rental charts, and Netflix rankings from the last five years and combine those with my own anecdotal observations as a movie critic. There’s no way to implement an algorithm to determine the standings (and actual figures are often very hard to come by), but in piecing together the evidence I could cull from a variety of places, I believe I’ve come up with a fairly definitive list of the most successful cult films since 2005, i.e., movies that achieved modest to even broad success in a second life, based on word of mouth, as well as the “so bad it’s good” factor, which actually boosts rentals and sales (and kept them elevated high for a lengthy period of time) far more than I could ever imagine.
It’s still too early, of course, to determine whether any of these titles will gain the sort of cult status that Office Space, Evil Dead 2, Clerks, Donnie Darko or Rocky Horror Picture Show have attained, but I believe — at least in the case of the top three — that that level of cult success is attainable. There are also a few titles on this list that I’ve barely even heard of and, obviously, many that we hated upon initial release. It is that critical loathing that probably helped give rise to the cult status of some of these movies, or at least those in the so-bad-it’s-good category.
At any rate, here is the list of the 15 Biggest Cult Films of the Past Five Years, at least as defined by films that gained the majority of the success after their initial release. Blurbs from our reviews provided, where available.
15. Friends with Money: Writer-director Nicole Holofcener got her start crewing for Allen, first as a production assistant on A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and then as an apprentice film editor on Hannah and Her Sisters, and she absorbed too much of his vanity and not quite enough of his charm. Her latest film, Friends With Money, is her best work yet, but it’s still a muddled story of wealthy women approaching middle age with nothing better to do than talk about each other. Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing was a stifling character study without any resolution or progress, a problem she’s half-heartedly addressed in Friends With Money: One or two of the minor plot strands wrap up, and at least one character takes a few baby steps toward something resembling a dramatic arc. But on the whole, the film is like one of the charity events its wealthy characters would be likely to attend: Entertaining enough, and temporarily diverting, but ultimately undone by its superficiality.
14. Slither: I could start off by getting all academic on you and talking about the conscious role of the metaphor of sexual violation in horror films, or I could get all polysyllabic on you and use words like “polysyllabic,” and while I can’t promise I won’t commit those sins later on in this review, dear reader, I will say at the start that Slither is one hell of an entertaining ride. It’s a comedy filled with acid-spitting zombies and a horror film full of laughs and one-liners, and the fact that the film manages to gleefully straddle the divide between such diverse genres is just one of the many things that makes it so much fun. Writer-director James Gunn uses humor to ground the outlandish situations in reality, to keep us giggling past the graveyard while telepathic slugs from outer space infect townsfolk and eat stray dogs (I’ll explain). Slither isn’t a great film by any means, but it’s certainly a good one.
13. Blood and Chocolate: In case Pajiba’s general readership hasn’t gleaned this by now, I hate films like Blood and Chocolate, the horror-fantasy-lite flicks that cast supernatural antics across teenage profundity. I don’t know what to call it — nü-Goth? (See The Covenant, as well as seemingly any show on the CW). They all seem to be selling sex and style in ways too ridiculous not to laugh at. Comic book fantasies tend to succeed when they at least pretend not to be mere playgrounds for youthful artificiality. And that’s not even remotely the case with Blood and Chocolate. One thing B&C does that might set it apart is utilize werewolves in its star-crossed-lovers template rather than vampires; I guess most people don’t think it’s sexy when someone starts lycanthroping all over the place.
12. Shortbus: Our prudery has a new counterbalance of its own: John Cameron Mitchell. Those who know Mitchell at all know him as the writer/director/star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the play and, later, film, about a transsexual East German glam rocker. Hedwig embraces a complex web of sexual identities and desires, but it is essentially a romantic and — forgive me — “life-affirming” allegory about someone who sets out to find the person who will make him whole and ultimately finds himself. After Hedwig, Mitchell wanted to go in another, bolder direction — a film that examined several sexual relationships between young people in New York and depicted explicit, unsimulated sex acts. Without a script or any specific agenda, he assembled a cast of attractive, uninhibited performers and began a two-year process of developing their characters and improvising scenes, from which he developed a final screenplay. The result, first shown last spring at Cannes to raves from audiences and critics alike, is Shortbus.
11. Bring It On: All or Nothing: Bring It On: All or Nothing is about as good as you can expect for straight-to-video fare, which isn’t saying a lot, I suppose. But for die-hard fans of the first two installments in the franchise, All or Nothing at least provides a whiff of the original’s magic fingers hidden somewhere beneath stink of the flick’s bland hormonal frenzy. The entire thing is as follow-the-bouncing-ball as you can imagine, but director Steve Rash — who gave us Pauly Shore’s finest, Son in Law — credibly transplants the spirit of the original Bring it On into the third outing, though it feels about as stay-free fresh as Paris Hilton’s nether regions. But, then again, it’s hard not to get a little worked up about a cheerleading Revenge of the Nerds, even in its third go-round, so long as the skinny white bitches get their comeuppance and a little seat cushion is promoted over Olsenian asslessness. It’s not a good film, for sure. It’s replete with third-rate Valderammian cut-downs and generic cheer-banter (“Dude, I’ll beat the dude out of you”) that befits its straight-to-video status, but the sass is still there, even if the only people to deliver it are Ally McBeal’s adopted daughter and an extra from “Guiding Light.”
10. Bloodrayne: In his short “career,” German “director” Uwe Boll has become one of the most distinguishingly inept practitioners of film since the notorious Ed Wood. If you think that’s hyperbole, go watch Alone in the Dark or House of the Dead — the most skin-peelingly awful films I’ve seen since the last broadcast of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Those movies are truly astonishing: Risibly acted, edited, and shot, disasters on such a complete scale that they transcend failure and become things of sheer delight — Alone in the Dark was last year’s best comedy by a long shot. Keeping this in mind, it’s hard to know whether to be disappointed by Toilet Boll’s third descent into video-game-makeover Hell — BloodRayne. The film is by far Boll’s best to date — which is to say, he’s made the crossover from hilariously bad camp to just plain stupid. Is this a step in the right direction? You be the judge.
9. Brick: No one knew better than John Hughes that high school is more than its own world, but a universe unto itself, with its own laws, physics, and population. The planets are the various cliques, the disparate groups of people that, not yet forced to co-exist in the real world as a result of employment and/or social graces, have chosen to stratify themselves into clearly defined and intensely loyal groups in order to survive. The reason that The Breakfast Club managed to carry weight on its release and maintain it 20 years after the fact is that kids in high school spend most of their time wanting to be or joyfully being the jock, the princess, the thug, or the brain (though there’s not much joy in the brain, actually). Entire civilizations can rise and fall in the course of seven periods and a hectic lunch. To high schoolers, the minutia of their routines and the ever-changing sociopolitical landscape of who hates whom tend to supersede rational thought. Rian Johnson, the writer and director of the phenomenal neo-noir-via-home-ec thriller Brick, understands this completely and, because he does, what could have been a gimmick becomes a shattering tale of love and heartbreak, told between the lockers and the portables. It’s one of the most willfully original thrillers to come along in quite a while, and fantastic to boot.
8. Gone Baby Gone: Affleck, belying his donkey-party politics, has taken the bootstrap path; rather than live off the table scraps that Hollywood would no doubt feed him for the next decade until his Tarantino in shining armor came along, he’s eschewed indie welfare and has chosen to pick himself up, dust the J.Lo off his ass, and direct. Yet, instead of becoming yet another talentless actor-turned-director cliché (see, e.g., Brian Robbins, Dominick Dunne, David Schwimmer), many of whom do this out of simple vanity, Affleck has taken a modest, low-key approach, allowing the material to do the work for him and letting his cast (especially his brother Casey) make him look like, if not Scorsese or Eastwood, at least a director adept enough to echo their styles without copying them wholesale. There is no real Affleckian imprimatur on Gone Baby Gone (except maybe Casey’s), but — like a gambler who bets against his own team just to break a slump — the decision not to inject himself or a style of his own into the film may have actually been the wisest decision he’s made thus far in his career.
7. Skinwalkers” Movies firmly grounded in the horror subgenre, be they slashers or werewolf/vampire films, have the disadvantage of a longstanding extant mythology; their ability to shock or otherwise engage an audience already familiar with their tenets is severely hamstrung. Ultimately, as ever, success or failure falls to the script/director’s ability to toy with these archetypes. The results in this vein for werewolf films have been particularly hit-or-miss, ending up with great sleeper-hits like Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers or the under-budgeted Canadian Ginger Snaps and, on the other hand, dreadful abominations like this year’s Blood & Chocolate or Christina Ricci’s bat-panda creature from the risible Cursed. The latest offering, Skinwalkers, can’t find anything new to add to the mix, so, like the aforementioned B&C and that Underworld series, it tries its hand at high fantasy — having werewolves exist as secret cabals with their own internal conflicts. Director James Isaac (Jason X) chucks us unbidden into a cliché-ridden werewolf war that’s so rife with genre chestnuts and bad acting that any attempt to engage the audience will be met alternatively with derision and laughter.
6. Junebug: Cultures rarely clash the way they so often do in the movies, when a slick lawyer has to deliver a calf or a redneck has to figure out how to order off a French menu. They more often clash the way they do in Junebug, when Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago art dealer, visits the North Carolina family of her husband, George (Alessandro Nivola). The characters here all have good intentions, and for the most part they’re not caricatures. They just lead lives full of very different assumptions. This leads to personal conflicts and stony silences that feel genuine. Director Phil Morrison also has a deft touch with set pieces, like the one in which Madeleine watches George earnestly deliver a hymn at a church social. It’s a beautifully rendered moment of revelation for Madeleine, and for the audience as well
5. Me and You and Everyone We Know: I saw M&Y&EWK in the theater when it first came out. I remember feeling a little skeptical, deciding that I was bored with manufactured quirkiness and sensationalized, whine-happy Garden State pathos. As soon as Christine voices an imagined conversation between the two silhouetted figures on a pasted-up picture, If you really love me let’s make a vow, I was struck by the privacy of such an endeavor and felt as though I had been taken into an exclusive confidence, despite sitting in a theater with 50 or so other people. The somewhat uncomfortable wattage of Me and You and Everyone We Know’s weirdness is softened by the film’s visuals, choreographed by Chuy Chavez, and its rosy, plunking score, composed by Michael Andrews (Donnie Darko)
4. Waiting: This film, written and directed by first-timer Rob McKittrick, offers instant appeal to anyone who’s ever been a restaurant employee. The movie takes place over the span of 24 hours in the lives of the employees of Shenaniganz, a cheerless chain restaurant filled with the typical forced zaniness of old-timey wood signs, taxidermied animals, and cheerless kitsch galore. McKittirick himself spent years working at a slew of mega-chain themed family bar and grill nightmares, and it’s this type attention to detail the gives his debut its strongest moments. Tableaus of the staff preparing for their shifts — marrying ketchup bottles, restocking sugar packets, wiping down tables — are sure to elicit groans of recognition from any servers in the audience.
3. Descent: The best way to distinguish one director from another is to have both take the same blueprint, make a film, and see what each comes up with. To further liven things up, have them operate in a firmly grounded genre — horror, which arguably has the most formulaic modus operandi and archetypes. British directors can occasionally spin familiar horror yarns in ways that give heightened style and excitement to their American flash-bang counterparts. Case in point: Neil Marshall’s horror-thriller The Descent takes an age-old Alien draft and gives it a refreshingly dark, feminine twist, while last year’s appalling schlock The Cave — which possessed a virtually identical story — left an aftertaste far more acrid than thrilling. Marshall’s success can be attributed to a number of talents he possesses in greater facility than Bruce Hunt, but most important is his willingness to imbue his characters with additional depths that give an audience genuine interest in their fates.
2. Hot Fuzz: Shaun of the Dead is arguably the best zombie movie you will ever see, because it attacks its subject with such love and verve that it’s almost impossible not to smile. The jokes come as fast as the gore (and there is plenty of both), but the film never feels like a parody or a spoof; rather, it’s both a horror film and a comedy, in equal and loving measure. Director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the 2004 film with star Simon Pegg, never let the movie slip too far into either genre, and he also never insulted the intelligence of the audience, insisting instead that the viewer keep up with the dialogue as well as the action and willingly enter a fresh new cinematic world. Wright, Pegg, and co-star Nick Frost continue that grand tradition with Hot Fuzz, a gleeful, frenetic, blood-soaked, hilarious love letter to the swaggering action films of the past 20 years, and the result is, well, awesome. If it’s not as streamlined as its predecessor, that’s more a fault of the genre and its inherent complexities than any downfall of the creative team. The principals involved infuse Hot Fuzz with the same brand of joy they brought to Shaun of the Dead, crafting a film that is thoroughly an action film as well as completely comedic. And, like I said, it’s awesome.
1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang : In his previous incarnation as one of Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriters, Shane Black wrote or co-wrote the scripts of Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, The Monster Squad, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, but he’d like you to know that he’s sorry. He no longer wants to be associated with mindless action movies; he’d like to move on to a more mature, sophisticated kind of filmmaking. And so he’s written — and, for the first time, directed — Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, an action-comedy about mismatched crime-solving partners in Los Angeles. As new leaves go, this one seems to have rotated a bit less than a full 180 degrees. But Black is at pains to point out that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a smart, character-driven action-comedy about mismatched crime-solving partners in Los Angeles. Also, one of them is gay. See? Different.