A “cult movie” isn’t exactly something easy to define. To achieve cult status, a film should have some degree of cultural influence in the works that came after it, but not too much as to become a mainstream hit. It should also have an innovative spirit, or a unique point of view, or simply be so damn bad it’s impossible to take your eyes off of it.
This century has seen a few of those movies released, and only time will tell if they’ll really persist as cult favorites, but I think they earned their place on this list:
10. Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2000)
A lot of weight is put on the fact that Wet Hot American Summer features a lot of then up-and-coming comic talent that would later come to define a whole generation of mainstream comedy – Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, etc. While those people and others are a big part of what makes David Wain’s film funny, they’re not what makes it a cult favorite.
Wet Hot American Summer has that kind of timeless parody quality, like the best Abrahams/Zucker movies – it’s a comedy about pop culture’s conventions and clichés, not about this or that movie specifically. As a result, anyone can read into its references and laugh at its stupid, brilliant jokes. No wonder Netflix picked it up for two prequel/sequel miniseries, that only furthered its weird appeal.
9. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
Any one of Edgar Wright’s films could fit the bill for this list, but we’re still sticking with the classic here. Shaun of the Dead revealed Wright as a stunningly creative comedic voice with a keen eye for straightforward parody as much as a good ear for deliciously fresh comedic stylings. Put that together with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s undeniable chemistry, and you have an instant cult favorite.
Smart, innovative comedies like this one seem to have an easier time achieving cult status, mainly because they exist in a genre space that normally attracts the kind of public that will make it into a cult classic through their sheer dedication to the work.
8. Sin City (Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2005)
Comic book adaptations don’t seem to be logical candidates for cult status in the 21st century, mainly because they’re part of today’s most successful sub-genre of American cinema. That’s why Robert Rodriguez’s and Frank Miller’s Sin City seems like such an anomaly, a fiercely loyal adaptation of one of the seminal works of the medium.
Almost entirely shot in starkly contrasted black and white, with a stellar cast that doesn’t let all the stylish mayhem of the film overcome its compelling content, Sin City is the cinematic equivalent of an orgasm for comic book nerds and filmmaking aficionados alike. Just stay away from its late sequel, A Dame to Kill For, released in 2014.
7. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
What started as David Lynch’s TV follow-up to cult classic Twin Peaks became his most widely acclaimed feature film of this century, Mulholland Dr., an eerie and unexpected adult fable about searching for fame and lost memories. As every Lynch film, that description scarcely makes it justice, and the script goes far and beyond the spectator’s most daring expectations.
Naomi Watts sensual and mysterious work is at the center of the film’s cult appeal as much as its general weirdness and compelling atmosphere. Clocking at almost two-and-a-half hours, Mulholland Dr. reminds us why Lynch is such an important, appealing filmmaker, and maybe that’s why we cherish it so much after 17 years.
6. Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004)
It’s true that writer-director Jared Hess never quite lived up to the promises of his deliciously quirky and funny debut, Napoleon Dynamite, but the 2004 film is still one of the biggest cult favorites of this century. A big part of it is its unique way of dealing with teenage angst and the unassuming relatability of its deeply weird, yet somehow familiar, characters.
Jared Hess, whose subsequent career also didn’t live up to the hype, makes a compelling lead out of Napoleon, a teenager as listless and alienated as any other you’ll ever met. As our young heroes Napoleon and Pedro (Efren Ramirez) quirkily go along with their plan to win the Student Body President election, every spectator finds themselves weirdly captivated.