“Making a list of movies that seem underrated or underappreciated is one thing; accounting for the ones that generate religious fervor is another,” Adam Nayman writes in this history of the cult movie. “Cult films come in all varieties—and sometimes with vigorous debate about their status attached—but genuine, possessive devotion is the baseline.”
This week on The Ringer, we celebrate those movies that from humble or overlooked beginnings rose to prominence through the support of their obsessive fan bases. The movies that were too heady for mainstream audiences; the comedies that were before their time; the small indies that changed the direction of Hollywood. Welcome to Cult Movie Week.
To kick things off: a ranking. This ranking was assembled through the votes of Ringer staff members. And though there is no official definition for a cult movie—most times, you know it when you see it—voters were asked to consider only films that (a) were not successful at the box office, (b) were not widely and initially praised by critics, and (c) gained popularity only after they left theaters, whether by word of mouth, midnight screenings, or home-video success. Without further ado, here is The Ringer’s ranking of the 50 best cult movies. Perhaps it’ll make you mad and inspire you to defend your favorites. But that’s OK—after all, that’s what cult movies are all about.
50. Escape From New York
On his way to an international peace summit in, of all places, Hartford, Connecticut—which might be the the most batshit part of a batshit movie—the president’s plane is hijacked by terrorists. POTUS (Donald Pleasence) manages to get away in an escape pod, which is good. But the pod crashes in Manhattan, which is bad. In this dystopian version of America, Manhattan has been converted into an open prison—the bridges are carpeted with mines and a 50-foot-high wall surrounds the island. Prisoners are condemned to life and run amok. It is not a place you want to be trapped in, and someone must rescue the president—that someone is Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a disgraced former special operations soldier who was convicted of robbing the Federal Reserve and rocks a mean eye patch. The government offers Snake a pardon if he rescues the president, but just to make sure he doesn’t try any funny business, they jab him with a needle and inject him with “micro explosives” that will detonate in less than 24 hours if he doesn’t get the job done. Then they send him off to infiltrate the island on a stealth glider, which Snake naturally lands on top of one of the towers at the World Trade Center. The movie was made in 1981. I imagine cocaine was involved. —John Gonzalez
49. The Wicker Man
A cult movie in every sense of the word—and not to be mistaken with the Nic Cage–starring remake that is iconic for a completely different reason—The Wicker Man is part of the grand tradition of horror movies pulling the rug from under its audience. Any sensible viewer would find Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward)—a stern, devoutly Christian police sergeant saving himself for marriage—as a major buzzkill on a Scottish isle where Celtic gods are worshipped, the ale flows freely, and promiscuity is highly encouraged. But as Sergeant Howie dutifully searches the isle for a missing local girl, the carefree attitude of the inhabitants gives way to something far more sinister. Much of The Wicker Man’s slow burn appeal lies in the way that first-time director Robin Hardy builds an uneasy atmosphere with Pagan imagery, and shifts your allegiances to the most milquetoast protagonist imaginable. By the time the actual Wicker Man pops into frame for the film’s terrifying climax, The Wicker Man cements itself as one of the genre’s all-time greats. —Miles Surrey
48. The Man Who Fell to Earth
A true cult movie is no mere crowd-pleaser: It’s challenging, it’s exasperating, it’s chilly to the point of frigidity. So it went for Nicolas Roeg’s uncompromising 1976 sci-fi classic, which starred a flame-haired David Bowie and inspired reviews packed with phrases like “preposterous and posturing” (that was Roger Ebert) or “mad and brilliantly infuriating” (that was Little White Lies and got proudly blurbed in the trailer for the 40th-anniversary restoration). The Man Who Fell to Earth is long, eerie, unsettlingly erotic (look out for that pistol), confusing to many, and fiercely beloved by anyone who sticks with it. “The atmosphere is hazy and medicated,” wrote The Ringer’s own Adam Nayman in his eulogy for Roeg in 2018, “and every so often, images emerge from the fog to shock and startle.” Give it your full attention and it’ll give you the world. Because when it comes to David Bowie in cinema, accept no substitutes. —Rob Harvilla
47. Ghost World
Enid doesn’t want to go to college. She doesn’t want a job. She doesn’t want her dad to get back together with Maxine. Looking at the wide world after her college graduation, she doesn’t really know what she wants—it’s the pressure of having to make a choice that rubs her the wrong way. Does she have to?
It makes sense that Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 comedy has earned the title of cult classic. Despite working with what appears to be a shoestring budget, the costumes (Enid rocks a dazzling new fit in nearly every scene), set designs, soundtrack, and performances are all top notch, and so unique. But the film has that time-machine quality in more than just the visuals. The general ennui and discontentment of the early aughts captured here and expressed mostly by Enid are not told with a stoic rallying cry, but more of a long, drawn-out, overdramatic sigh. —Mose Bergmann
In his early 50s, Larry Clark took up skateboarding. Already a famed—but controversial—photographer for his series documenting drug abuse and sex work, Clark had his sights set on directing his first feature. But he needed it to feel authentic. So he spent a few years at the beginning of the 1990s hanging around New York City’s growing skate scene. He studied how the kids dressed and talked. He watched them fight and get high. He wanted to understand them. The resulting film, Kids, may not exactly do that, but it did scare the hell out of parents and made a generation of young people feel like someone was trying to hear them.
Initially released in 1995—one week after Clueless—Kids focuses on 24 hours in the life of a group of New York teens at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Clarke hired a 19-year-old Harmony Korine to write the script—it took him three weeks, he says—and cast a group of relative unknowns to act. (Skaters Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter were the closest Kids had to stars, but the two female leads, Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, would soon break out.) Kids captures underage sex (and sexual assault), drug use, and violence with a documentary-like feel. For some critics, it was little more than filth. But for kids like me, ones who were about to come of age and were obsessed with skateboarding and rap music, it was vital. —Justin Sayles
45. La Haine
Mathieu Kassovitz’s black-and-white portrait of a Paris banlieue follows three residents—Vinz, a hotheaded Jew who dreams of going full-on Taxi Driver on a cop; Hubert, a Black boxer and staunch non-interventionist; and Saïd, a North African ladies’ man and mediator—in the 24-hour aftermath of a violent clash with the police that left their friend Abdel in critical condition. As their day unfolds, and the audience is fed crumbs of plot, a simple, daunting question presents itself: What happens when three men on the brink get a hold of a cop’s .44 Magnum revolver? The eventual answer offers a clear-eyed view of systemic racism, police brutality, and the hatred (la haine) that pulsed through poor French neighborhoods in the late ’80s and ’90s. La Haine’s 1995 premiere at Cannes moved the audience to a standing ovation, and its popularity in France inspired the then-prime minister to hold a mandatory screening for his entire cabinet. Twenty-six years later, the film feels eerily prescient, even in its scant political references: In one scene, Saïd recites a spontaneous derogatory poem about Jean-Marie Le Pen, a far-right politician who built his career on immigration fear mongering throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Years later, his daughter, Marine, reemerged to do the same, recycling that same xenophobia for the age of the internet. La Haine reminds us that no matter how their policies are packaged, they sow inhumanity all the same. —Alyssa Bereznak
44. Harold and Maude
It’s not ridiculous to say that watching Harold and Maude can change your life. On paper, the film may seem like a dark romantic comedy based on the relationship between a 20-year-old boy infatuated with suicide and an 79-year-old woman who lives each day like it’s her last, but it digs so much deeper than that. Harold and Maude is a celebration of life. Director Hal Ashby wants to eliminate societal tropes like age and gender in order to fully cherish living and appreciate the freedom of it all. It feels like watching a dream that’s speaking directly to you, urging you to understand that life is worth living—not in any particular way, but in whatever way feels authentic. Cult movies are beloved for being weird or campy, and Harold and Maude is no exception, but the appeal goes beyond that. I could go on and on; instead I’ll leave you with the Cat Stevens lyrics that reverberate through the movie:
Well if you want to sing out, sing out
And if you want to be free, be free
‘Cause there’s a million things to be
You know that there are.
It took me a decade or so to appreciate Katsuhiro Otomo’s grotesque masterpiece Akira, an existential crisis masquerading as an action movie. It’s postwar Japanese history reimagined as a cyberpunk ecstasy, but it’s more thoughtful and melancholy than its more splashy and violent elements might suggest. In Neo-Tokyo, the gang leader Tetsuo and his best friend, Kaneda, stumble—or, rather, crash—into a paranormal research project undertaken by the Japan Self-Defense Forces, imbuing Tetsuo with psychokinetic powers. Tetsuo’s awakening culminates in his spectacular self-destruction, taking the city down with him. There’s so much shouting and dismemberment in Akira: “Tetsuo!” “Kaneda!” “Tetsuo!” “Kaneda!” But above all, Akira sketches a civilization caught between its previous collapse and imminent decline. —Justin Charity
42. Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
Terry Gilliam movies are experiences, man. The former Monty Python player has a knack for making movies that go heavy on the spice, so to speak. If you blend together themes of grotesqueness, wonder, beauty, profundity, rage, and nihilism, you wouldn’t necessarily expect the resulting movie to work. But Gilliam makes it work—Fear and Loathing is probably the best example of that. Adapted from Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel of the same name, Fear and Loathing isn’t necessarily a fun watch. The diabolical drug-addled Vegas trip taken by Johnny Depp’s Raoul and Benicio Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo takes a turn for the worse, not just once but at least three times, and each time it’s a little more sickening. But it’s the moments after these nightmarish encounters of profound clarity and truth, that are so often found in the midst of a hungover stupor, that elevate the film from being just a wild, sick, ride. —Bergmann
41. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
It belonged on our list of the 40 Best Movie Musicals of the past 40 years, and it belongs here, too. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s bombastic Off-Broadway rock opera sensation made a seamless transition to the silver screen with Mitchell both directing and starring—the later the showing the better, the louder the sound system the better, the more scandalized the unprepared viewers around you the better. “Angry Inch” is the angriest, gnarliest, and most infectious rock-anthem-as-X-rated-plot summary ever born, and “The Origin of Love” is a goosebump power ballad orders of magnitude prettier than it has any right to be. Hedwig is defiantly fearless, proudly tasteless, and for all its fealty to ’70s glam and ’90s downtown-NYC cool, triumphantly timeless. —Harvilla
40. Stranger Than Paradise
The true power of Jim Jarmusch’s breakout sophomore feature is how it takes elements of art-house cinema—experimental pacing, cinemagraphic nods to Fellini, deadpan humor—and makes them so accessible. Broken into 67 uninterrupted shots and focused on Hungarian expat Willie, his emigrating cousin Eva, and his best pal Eddie, the movie is at once a commentary of the dullness of life and the hollowness of the American experience. It’s also a road-trip movie—though when they’re viewed through Jarmusch’s black-and-white lens, Florida, Manhattan, and a frozen Lake Erie all look similar. (“You know, it’s funny—you come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same,” Eddie comments at one point.) But mostly, Stranger Than Paradise is a hilarious story about a couple of good-natured dimwits and the cousin who gets caught in their schemes. Today, the movie is considered one of the more influential films of the 1980s. Even nearly 40 years later, it’ll put a spell on you, just like Eva’s favorite song. —Sayles
39. Empire Records
This movie earned just $300,000 at the box office despite its $10 million budget. It’s also hardly a cinematic masterpiece—Empire Records holds just a 29 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So how did the movie go from unmitigated disaster to cult classic? That begins with repeat plays on cable TV in the late ’90s (and later on cheap DVDs at the advent of the medium). It also boasts loads of camp appeal, with cheesy one-liners and a Breakfast Club–lite ensemble of teens that gave many people at least one character to identify with. But Empire Records also focused on something that feels quaint now: how to stay true and avoid selling out (in this case, how to keep your indie record shop from falling into the hands of a Tower Records stand-in). That resonated at the time, even if it came in a bomb of a movie. And that’s reason enough to celebrate Rex Manning Day all over again. —Sayles
You can kind of understand why Clue irked people when it was released in 1985. Its silliness is almost rebelliously unceasing; it hardly seems like it has any interest in resembling a normal movie; it has multiple endings. But those are the sort of things that can age like wine and engender a devoted following. Anchored by the manic energy of cult movie icon Tim Curry—who’s surrounded by several top-level character actors like Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, and Michael McKean—this movie based on a board game just wants to take you for a ride. It’s so self-assured in its humor that it’s practically waving in its compatriots, and thumbing its nose at its detractors. If you don’t like it, well, that’s on you. You just don’t get it, and you’re more than welcome to go the way of the singing telegram girl. —Andrew Gruttadaro
37. Event Horizon
Perhaps an R-rated sci-fi film in which the hero from Jurassic Park rips out his eyes and tries to send Laurence Fishburne to a hell dimension was always destined to be a box office bomb, but take nothing away from Event Horizon: this movie absolutely rips. Mixing elements of The Shining and Hellraiser on a doomed spaceship orbiting Neptune, director Paul W.S. Anderson goes all in on a film whose initial cut horrified test audiences and Paramount executives, who assumed he was making a darker version of Star Trek instead of employing porn stars as extras for graphic sequences of sex and violence. (In Anderson’s own words: “I think that maybe they thought we were shooting close-ups of people pressing buttons or something like that.”) That something as diabolically inventive as Event Horizon came through the major studio pipeline is incredible in and of itself. And while it might’ve bombed upon release in the ’90s, Event Horizon endures as a batshit masterpiece. —Surrey
Labyrinth is famous for its status as one of Jim Henson’s darker and weirder films; and for its role in catapulting the young Jennifer Connelly to stardom; and for putting David Bowie in high-heeled boots and a Tina Turner wig. As well it should be—the movie sometimes gets a little lost in the mid-’80s fantasy canon, but it’s a foundational example of the genre and should be respected as such. However, Labyrinth’s greatest contribution to the culture is “Magic Dance,” the anthemic fantasy power pop number that stops the show halfway through and ends with Goblin King Ziggy Stardust chucking a toddler about 30 feet up in the air. This song is a jam and a banger, and it’s among the best the Hensonverse has produced. —Michael Baumann
A couple of years ago, I wrote about the enduring wonderfulness of “Weird” Al Yankovic’s Reagan-era media spoof—a film tuned into the same irreverent, quasi-surrealist wavelength as Airplane! and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that played to mostly empty theaters before being reclaimed as a cult item on VHS. At home, it was possible for viewers to rewind and replay every inane, absurd joke (“What time is it?” [Hand punches through the drywall displaying a wristwatch.] “7:30? Oh no!”) and to appreciate the level of visual and sonic detail in Yankovic’s movie and music-video parodies. As somebody who saw the video for “Beverly Hillbillies” long before catching “Money for Nothing,” there’s no question which one keeps playing on a loop in my head. —Adam Nayman
34. Paid in Full
The thing about a peak cult classic is that it never really concerns itself with who’s going to tune in. It’s just there, unmoving and unflinching. If, by chance, you decide to give it a go, then good. If not, oh well. There’s something stubborn and abrasive about that, but also something tremendously endearing. Despite all the odds, Paid in Full is a distillation of that ethos. It is a film backed by Jay-Z and Damon Dash, cofounders of the once-titanic and now-defunct rap label Roc-a-Fella Records, at their cultural and capitalistic zenith. It is also an adaptation of a real-life story about brothers and cash and drugs that had, over a number of years, taken on a folklorish hue in certain corners of New York—a tale laced with equal amounts of greed and love, serendipity and machination. That it is set in a world known only to a few, and has been upheld by a likewise exclusive network, is kind of the point. If you know, you know. —Lex Pryor
33. Big Trouble in Little China
Kurt Russell is a tough-as-nails truck driver who has to rescue his friend’s fiancée from a crime lord slash sorcerer. What more do you want from a movie? It fits all the criteria for a cult movie: it doesn’t make any sense, it’s extremely campy, and it had a disastrous initial release. Big Trouble in Little China was originally scripted as a Western but was rewritten as a fantasy martial arts movie—perfect for action sci-fi icon John Carpenter, who flexes his muscle throughout the film. From supernatural powers to badass weapons, the action scenes are absurd and consistently chaotic; the acting is super cringe and the colors are overly vibrant. Yet somehow this movie continues to be rewatchable. A 78 percent Rotten Tomatoes score is rare for a cult movie, but like most cult movies, Big Trouble in Little China only gets better over time. —Yoo
32. Super Troopers
Good cult movies launch a bevy of inside jokes. Great cult movies spark an entire cinematic universe, which is what Super Troopers did for Broken Lizard. Not just the 2018 sequel but Beerfest, Club Dread, even The Slammin’ Salmon all sprouted from one extremely silly barracks of the Vermont State Police. Super Troopers is so much a part of the cultural furniture it’s even ruining mid-inning interviews in baseball games.
I’m going to end this blurb because the only thing in my mind right now is Brian Cox saying, “Shut up, Farva.” —Baumann
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil—which does not take place in Brazil, and is instead named for the song “Aquarela do Brasil”—is like 1984 on acid. And though Orwell’s most famous work inspired the movie, the comparison doesn’t really do the dystopian comedy justice. It has some of the weirdest visuals ever seen on film. Take, for example, the scene in which Jim Broadbent’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Jaffe, promises to make Katherine Helmond’s Ida Lowry look 20 years younger. The doctor spends several minutes yanking on his patient’s face like he’s a salt water taffy pulling machine—while she’s awake and talking to him.
According to Helmond, who died at 89 in 2019, Gilliam’s sales pitch for the role was simple: “I have a part for you, and I want you to come over and do it, but you’re not going to look very nice in it.” —Alan Siegel
30. The Raid: Redemption
If you’ve kept up with action movies over the past decade, you’ve seen The Raid even if you’ve never seen The Raid. It’s typical of a cult movie in that way, more influential than it was profitable. Maybe there’s still time to pull royalties from John Wick (which featured The Raid 2 stars Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian in its third installment) or Atomic Blonde, among the many other American movies that owe Gareth Evans and Co. an obvious debt. Even all these years after the fact, it remains incredible that hand-to-hand combat this fast could also be this clear; the staging and movement of every scene tracks smoothly, even as martial artists and stunt professionals run across the tabletops of a drug lab and slide through mounds of cocaine. The script for The Raid is probably a pamphlet, but the storyboarding must be a tome. Its choreography begs to be shared, parceled out to friends a clip at a time until they submit to its head-bashing beauty. What they find when they watch it in full is a story of survival—the physical act of it, exhaustingly told through what amounts to a full-movie set piece. —Rob Mahoney
The biggest issue with Idiocracy is that the movie forecasted a gradual descent into crass, incompetent, lowest-common-denominator dystopia. Protagonist Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) wakes up after 500 years in suspended animation to find an anti-intellectual country in shambles under ex-wrestler/porn star President Camacho (Terry Crews), a vulgar, arrogant gasbag; as director and cowriter Mike Judge said in 2016, “I was off by 490 years.” Judge also said that the movie wasn’t marketed at the time of its 2006 release in large part because Fox thought the film would follow Office Space into the cult-movie canon. If so, Fox proved prescient too. Trump/Camacho comps have abounded since 2015, raising Idiocracy’s reputation and profile to the point that it’s remembered less as an uneven comedy than as an unheeded cautionary tale. In his Office Space review, Roger Ebert observed that Judge, an ex-animator, “treats his characters a little like cartoon creatures.” As it turns out, plenty of prominent real-life characters are like cartoon creatures too. —Ben Lindbergh
“‘MacGruber’ was a dumb idea written to the height of its intelligence,” former SNL head writer Seth Meyers told The Ringer in 2020. “That’s why it continued to get better the longer they did it.” Starring a profoundly committed Will Forte—at one point his character has sex with his dead wife’s ghost in a cemetery—MacGruber is far better than it has any obligation to be. And while the Jorma Taccone–directed, 1980s action movie parody with a star-studded cast—Val Kilmer, Ryan Phillippe, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Powers Boothe—bombed at the box office, 10 years later it’s still one of the most quotable comedies of the 2000s.
In 2021, NBC is bringing MacGruber back for a streaming series. It’s unclear whether its hero will also bring back his infamous celery-aided diversionary tactic. —Siegel
27. Slap Shot
There’s a lot that’s already cultlike about hockey fans: They bow down to charismatic mulleted men; they’re always going on about leadership and something called “the code;” they’re simultaneously desperate to spread the good word about the thing they love most and immediately suspicious of anyone who wants to listen. So it’s no surprise that Slap Shot, 1977’s raucous, inspired-by-real-life film about cartoonish machismo and minor league hockey, is a movie with a cultish trajectory. The Paul Newman vehicle may have premiered to mixed reviews and middling box office returns—20 other releases that year grossed higher—but it’s now a fixture on any list of best sports movies and practically a rite of passage for the too-young-and-soon-to-be-scandalized hockey fan.
What’s more, it will be inspiring referential, reverential costumes for time immemorial, an essential component of any cult film. I’ve done the math over the years, and in any given room of, say, a dozen Halloween revelers, you’re bound to find at least one Hanson brother—and probably three—shouting “I’m listening to the fucking song!” at everybody and nobody in particular. —Katie Baker
26. American Psycho
A great movie for Christian Bale and people who want to beat Jared Leto to death with an ax; kind of an awkward movie for people who unironically like Huey Lewis and the News. Some films gain cult status by reflecting niche social or artistic groups who don’t often get lionized in pop culture: goths, stoners, theater geeks, and so on. American Psycho is a bracing look at the orthodox and the aspirational, caricaturing a certain class and type of man by reducing him, like a jam, to his barest urges. It’s unsettling not only because of its graphic violence, but because Bale—in the hands of writer-director Mary Harron—is so uncanny. —Baumann
25. They Live
Around the halfway mark of John Carpenter’s 1988 classic They Live, the two leads, played by Roddy Piper and Keith David, get into a fight. See, Piper’s character Nada has discovered a pair of sweet-looking sunglasses that when looked through, reveal the presence of alien infiltrators in our society who have been manipulating humans into subservient complacency through the media. Nada wants David’s character Frank, to see for himself. Frank doesn’t want to. What follows is arguably the greatest, weirdest, longest, most brutal, most funny, most intimate fight scene ever put to film.
I suspect that any movie that has such an iconic scene would reach the status of cult classic, but the rest of the movie is just as worthy. Carpenter’s blend of post-Reagan American anticapitalist anxiety and extreme ’80s camp with a dash of WWE sensibilities—all tied together with his extremely fun direction and score—results in a truly delightful experience, made all the better by Piper’s star performance and iconic one-liners. —Bergmann
The Kumite is an illegal, no-holds-barred underground martial arts tournament in Hong Kong. The best fighters in the world participate; some of them die. This evidently sounds like a good time to Army Captain Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who goes AWOL when Uncle Sam denies his request to compete in the international fight club. (Dux is an American but, delightfully, retains Van Damme’s distinctive Belgian-dusted accent.) In Hong Kong, Dux becomes fast friends with Ray Jackson, another American fighter. Jackson almost immediately calls out Chong Li, the defending champ and the baddest of asses. This turns out to be a bad idea: Chong Li is a supervillain after all—we did a whole podcast on him—and he beats Jackson to within an inch of his life during their fight. Then he snatches Jackson’s biker bandana and, while he lies there immobile, waves it around like a trophy. All of which sets up the final showdown between Chong Li and Frank Dux—but not before Dux does the splits multiple times, including in his hotel room and on the edge of a building high atop Hong Kong while soft rock plays in the background. Because it was Van Damme, and it was the ’80s. —Gonzalez
I wasn’t even supposed to be here today! For a movie that luxuriates in the recesses of central-Jersey stagnation, Clerks makes for one hell of an origin story of a major Hollywood (and Twitter) ascendence. Filmmaker Kevin Smith maxed out credit cards and sold off his comic books to cobble together $27,575 to self-produce the black-and-white 1994 movie that was filmed at night in the New Jersey Quick Stop and video store where he worked by day. From there, it gained momentum like, well, a snowball: going from Sundance to Cannes to Miramax to the desk of Alan Dershowitz to LaserDisc to, decades later, the Library of Congress.
Like a proto-High Maintenance, Smith’s debut features the drudgery of commerce and the faded tapestry of the customers who roll through. (Not all will leave the place alive, and the main character, Dante, was almost one of them: Smith’s original cut left the poor guy shot dead, a choice that only adds to the project’s lore.) And it spawned a loose but interwoven universe of characters and actors—including Smith himself as the droll dealer Silent Bob—who appeared in Smith’s subsequent films, from Mallrats to Chasing Amy to Dogma and beyond. —Baker
22. The Evil Dead
If there’s a blueprint for a cult flick, this indie provided it. Combine a talented director (Sam Raimi), an unknown but quirkily charismatic star (Bruce Campbell), a producer with a golden touch (Cannes Film Festival cofounder Irvin Shapiro), and a famous fan who helped push for a studio release (Stephen King), and chances are you’ll get a word-of-mouth hit.
Raimi’s gnarly first professional film, which takes place in a cabin in the woods, features the Book of the Dead (the original title), five possessed college kids, and terrifyingly demonic trees. Not only did the horror classic spawn a beloved franchise and make Campbell a B-movie icon, its influence can still be seen in scary movies to this day. Every single horror-comedy of the past 40 years owes The Evil Dead. —Siegel
“Life sucks, shit happens … I’m a student of T-shirts.” As fortune-cookie worldviews go, this line beats the hell out of Forrest Gump, and while Showgirls’ reputation as the cinematic equivalent of a wet T-shirt contest officially ended Paul Verhoeven’s winning streak as Hollywood’s reigning king of stupid is as stupid does, it’s clearly the superior movie about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By exclusively populating their Las Vegas “exposé” with American idiots—wannabe flash dancers; sharp-taloned showbiz lifers; corporate coke heads Robert Davi—Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas weren’t so much taking the path of least resistance as committing to a satirical vision whose scurrilous, picaresque excess proved even more alienating than intended. Twenty-five years later, it’s probably harder to find people who don’t “get” Showgirls (or claim to) than people using it as a pop-cultural punch line. There’s poetry in that—in the idea of an ugly, ruthless, surpassingly cynical movie whose time has come. —Nayman
20. The Thing
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a better theatrical experience than sitting in a packed house for The Thing with enough newcomers to scream in panic when the hostility building among the crew of an Antarctic research base finally gives way to pure body-snatching (or really, body-destroying) terror. Leave it to John Carpenter to find the suspense in a blood test. The entire movie rides on the razor’s edge between ambiguity and explanation; even during the most thrilling reveals, we learn only enough to forget, for a moment, everything we still don’t know. Characters disappear at critical times. Desperation reads as suspect. The Thing dispenses with the denial that often infects the first act of aliens-among-us sci-fi and mainlines the paranoia instead, cutting off rooms and backing its characters into corners until the entire base is burned to the ground. It’s moody, it’s gross, it’s absolutely perfect. How did a world that loved both Alien and Halloween ever turn up its nose at The Thing? —Mahoney
19. Fire Walk With Me
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was not met kindly upon its release, highlighted by its premiere being booed at Cannes in 1992. But while the initial consensus was disappointingly misguided, you can understand the impulse. Twin Peaks had just wrapped up its second and final season on ABC with a major cliffhanger, and David Lynch chose to follow up the series with what’s essentially a prequel of Laura Palmer’s final days. But Lynch has never been one for nostalgia, as evinced by the masterful 18-episode odyssey of Twin Peaks: The Return, and Fire Walk With Me excels on its own terms. No longer just the homecoming queen found dead and wrapped in plastic, Fire Walk With Me unsparingly lets the viewer in on Laura’s loneliness and suffering—along with the bone-deep terror of her realization that the demonic presence assaulting her is actually her father. It’s a film of overwhelming pain, sorrow, and sympathy, held together with a committed lead performance by Sheryl Lee that should’ve been showered with accolades. All told, Lynch put together a damn fine prequel that’s just as great as its predecessor. —Surrey
18. Army of Darkness
I could do this all day. In my twenties, I did do this all day. Horror superfans will rightly stick with the first two no-budget ’80s Evil Dead movies directed by Sam Raimi and starring B-movie deity Bruce Campbell, and you guys have fun with that. But the R-rated Looney Tunes absurdity of 1992’s trilogy-capping Army of Darkness is where it’s at, sending Bruce back to the Middle Ages, dialing down the gore (just a little), cranking up the Three Stooges slapstick, and emerging with the dumbest and most ingenious quote-machine Midnight Movie of all time. Just remember: Klaatu Barada Nikto. —Harvilla
17. The Warriors
Public-transportation trips to Coney Island—the New York City subway system’s southernmost terminal—are arduous enough under normal circumstances. They’re way worse when you’re being hunted by police and a pack of murderous, sadistic gangs. But The Warriors, Walter Hill’s 1979 adaptation of Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel, showed us that the ingredients of a really crappy commute—including a bus that tries to run you over rather than pick you up, a fire in a building right next to the train tracks, and locals with Molotov cocktails—can make for a memorable movie. The gritty, pulpy, stylized flick was conceived as a fantasy story, and its juxtaposition of a blighted real-life landscape and a surreal, largely lawless struggle for survival make it disquieting and ludicrous at the same time. Its humdrum dialogue doesn’t match its visual flair, but its menacing selection of creatively themed, matchy-matchy gangs make it an oft-referenced film more than 40 years after its violence-ridden release. —Lindbergh
16. Repo Man
The most important thing you need to know about this movie is that its main character is a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu. This car is everything. There may be lethal aliens in the trunk. It glows green. And it might be a spaceship. Also, Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton play key roles. And the soundtrack features songs by hardcore bands like Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, and Circle Jerks. But let’s stop there. Sharing any more plot details might ruin the fun. The beauty of Repo Man is in its strangeness.
Alex Cox’s violent and hilarious directorial debut, for which Iggy Pop provided the opening theme, is supposed to satirize the consumerism running rampant during the Reagan era. But the Los Angeles–set film—which was made for just $1.5 million—is one of the best movies of the ’80s simply because it’s full of endearingly weird shit. —Siegel
Oldboy isn’t a movie you recommend to someone so much as one you inflict on them. At its core is a mystery: Oh Dae-su, the sort of drunk who has to slur through a call to his daughter to explain why he missed her fourth birthday, is abducted off the street and imprisoned for 15 years without explanation. Why would this happen? Who would go to such trouble to keep Dae-su captive in what looks the part of a grimy, locked-down motel room? The answers to those questions are so shocking and so artfully revealed that they compelled viewers to pass around the Oldboy DVD to whomever would take it, if only to see their own shattered viewing experience reflected back to them. It’s a fitting course to cult status, considering Oldboy is ultimately a film about trauma and the tragedies we share. The noir of it all brings us in, but Choi Min-sik’s leading performance—through every wailing fight and haunted smile—pulls us even to the places we’d rather not go. After watching it through, we can finally see the whole brutal mess for what it always was: the slow climb of an elevator to the penthouse floor. —Mahoney
14. The Room
Cult movies don’t have to be bad movies—that category received a separate Ringer ranking—but The Room sits at the center of any Venn diagram that contains the two. No movie epitomizes “unintentionally terrible” better than Tommy Wiseau’s endlessly quotable and confounding disasterpiece. It’s still unclear what Wiseau’s goals were or whether any element of The Room’s weirdness was intentional—the consensus seems to be “no”—but the movie’s uncanny valley quality is part of its appeal. The Room is best enjoyed with an audience that’s in on the joke, and if the pandemic does away with movie theaters, midnight screenings of the 99-minute … drama? … will be one of the most regrettable losses (even though the environment will be better off without the wasted spoons). The 2003 title, which was memorably promoted with one billboard in Hollywood, is such a rich text that the making of the movie inspired multiple memoirs, a documentary, and an Oscar-nominated film, a distinction few other cult movies can claim. Like its spiritual predecessor Ed Wood, The Disaster Artist is a testament to the hold cult movies have on our minds, even (or especially) when they look like nothing else we’ve watched. —Lindbergh
13. Evil Dead II
The sequel to Sam Raimi’s seminal cabin-in-the-woods splatter-fest isn’t technically a one-man show, but a good portion of Evil Dead II is devoted to watching Bruce Campbell fend off an army of darkness single-handedly. Few actors can claim to have earned their late-career, Comic Con victory lap more than Campbell, whose brilliantly physical acting—cast iron jaw; flailing limbs; pratfalling body—provided Raimi with his most valuable special effect. No less than 1987’s other brilliant live-action Looney Tunes movie—Raising Arizona, by Raimi pals Joel and Ethan Coen—Evil Dead II revels in the propulsive possibilities of camera movement, taking the subjective stalker POV pioneered by John Carpenter in Halloween and turbocharging it into a tour de force roller-coaster ride. As for the gore, it flies around in such a colorful, expressionistic matter that nobody with an art gallery membership could even pretend to be offended: You might as well storm out of a Jackson Pollock exhibition. “Level One viewers will say [the film] is in bad taste,” wrote Roger Ebert. “Level Two folks such as myself will perceive that it is about bad taste.” He was, of course, correct. —Nayman
12. Reservoir Dogs
What happens when a cult film drills so deep into the underbelly of moviegoing culture that it comes out on the other side a mainstream staple? In the case of Reservoir Dogs, the tunnel it dug became a gateway—first for a generation of filmgoers into talky independent cinema, but then for decades after as its acclaimed director served as an ambassador for schlock, genre, and international fare. It’s impossible to separate Reservoir Dogs from the rise of Quentin Tarantino, especially as it heads its own subgenre within this list, flanked by Dazed and Confused, Eraserhead, and This Is Spinal Tap as early triumphs of soon-to-be-revered filmmakers. The lack of theatrical success came at least in part from the fact that Tarantino wasn’t yet Tarantino; he was just some former video store clerk tapping into what he loved about movies, serving up his own gangster classic named (perhaps apocryphally) from the botched pronunciation of a memoir by French new-wave icon Louis Malle. For a director who takes so liberally from his influences, the operating principle was right there in the title. Reservoir Dogs eventually found its audience on home video, so much as to inspire legions of Mr. Pinks to try to pass off observational monologues as personal philosophy. It is, after all, a film built on words—a heist movie that dares not to show us the heist, its stakes driven by urgent conversations and steered with an eager knife. —Mahoney
It’s been more than two decades since Wes Anderson debuted his coming-of-age comedy classic, the tale of earnest teen Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) who tries his hand at everything, isn’t particularly good at anything, and finds himself—in his mind, if no one else’s—in a love triangle with a rich businessman named Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and a school teacher named Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). It’s dry and funny. It’s also deeply dark and twisted. Consider: After Rosemary remarks that she likes fish, Max tries to build an unauthorized aquarium on the school’s baseball field. When she says her deceased husband had “more creativity in one fingernail,” a lovesick Max angrily retorts, “one dead fingernail.” In another ill-conceived ploy, he shows up at her window in a rainstorm, covered in fake blood, pretending to have been hit by a car. He’s a loner who gets expelled from his tony private academy, relentlessly stalks a widow, has endless delusions of grandeur, lies about everything to everyone (including himself), and secures a stockpile of dynamite. It’s actually a movie about a horror villain, which is delightful. —Gonzalez
10. Office Space
You never forget the first time you see a printer get murdered. Office Space—much like the other Mike Judge movie on this list, Idiocracy—was partially ignored upon its release because it was too ahead of its time. Through protagonist Peter, the movie pinpoints the growing ennui of a modern society plagued by technology and desk jobs—yet it was made eight years before the iPhone came out. It’s a humbly made film that became a generational text. Its unflinching honesty is part of the reason why; the other part is that it’s just endlessly quotable—“two chicks at the same time”; “the O face”; Michael Bolton; and in a word, “Yyyyyyyyyyyyeah.” —Gruttadaro
“The question of, ‘Do you think the movie could be made today?’ is always kind of amusing,” Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters told Glamour about his flirty and murderous 1989 high school film. “Because it’s not like it could really be made then either. It was kind of outrageous for its time.” Indeed, when Heathers—an extra-dark comedy that featured a red scrunchie and Christian Slater’s eyebrows and wove together the auras of both John Hughes and John Waters—debuted in theaters, it was fucked gently with a chainsaw, so to speak, earning barely over a million bucks. But with its mix of startling crime scenes, rude social commentary, big fits, and mean girls, the film took off once it hit VHS. How very! Elements of the movie, already unsettling at the time, have not improved with age, from its casual homophobia to its foreshadowing of today’s acts of school violence. And yet there’s an overarching timelessness to its “LIFE SUCKS” message that makes much of the movie still resonate. “Well, I guess I picked the wrong time to be a human being,” says Winona Ryder’s character, a rare non-Heather named Veronica, sarcastically. But is there ever really a right time? —Baker
8. Monty Python & the Holy Grail
Only inexperienced filmmakers would have had the audacity to try to make a medieval epic on a budget of £200,000, much of it chipped in by British rock stars in search of tax breaks. The Monty Python Terrys (Gilliam and Jones) were rookie directors when they made Holy Grail, and it shows. So do the budget constraints that led to the troupe adopting clopping coconuts instead of horses, a borrowed bloody rabbit, and an arrest scene that replaced a pricey big battle. Despite the salaries slashed and corners cut, the project ran out of money, forcing the Pythons to finish the film however they could. (One establishing shot was achieved by holding up a page ripped from a book, with an out-of-frame candle conferring a shimmering haze.) But the budget cuts were just flesh wounds, and the obvious concessions to the seat-of-the-pants production process only enhanced the absurdity of the script. Holy Grail had its detractors when it was released, but the inspired silliness of the shrubbery-craving Knights of Ni, the Bridge of Death exchange about the airspeed of swallows, the indefatigable Black Knight, and a dozen other brilliant bits soon cemented its status as a contender for comedy GOAT. —Lindbergh
Before David Lynch had a sizable following for his work and could corral ascendant movie stars, he made Eraserhead. A film scraped together with funding from the American Film Institute when Lynch was a student—and after that money ran out, he took a paper route for The Wall Street Journal—Eraserhead is as bizarre as it is inscrutable. Taking place in some unnamed industrial hellscape, Lynch’s first feature-length film concerns a meek label printer named Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), whose girlfriend gives birth to a deformed infant that looks like a cross between E.T. and a monitor lizard. Anyone hoping to find answers in Lynch’s movie is fighting a losing battle; instead, Eraserhead is best appreciated as a disturbingly assured debut whose traces can be found in the rest of the auteur’s oeuvre. From the ambient sound design to the uncompromising body horror to its creeping sense of dread, Eraserhead is pure, unfiltered Lynch—and the ultimate cult film. —Surrey
6. Wet Hot American Summer
It’s almost like someone from 2015 made a list of all the most famous comic actors and then put them in a movie that came out more than a decade earlier. From Paul Rudd to Amy Poehler to Bradley Cooper to Elizabeth Banks, David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer is loaded. How was this not the biggest movie of 2001? Well, part of the reason why is because it struggled to find a distributor and was released in less than 30 cities. Hollywood didn’t like the talking can of peas, I guess, but sometimes Hollywood makes bad choices. That’s how a cult movie is born, though, and Wet Hot American Summer was too good to not become a word-of-mouth, discover-it-on-cable classic—and also the launchpad from which The State’s zany, highly meta comedy style crashed into the mainstream. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go fondle my sweaters. —Gruttadaro
5. Donnie Darko
Has any movie ever sparked more dorm-room debates? Donnie Darko’s labyrinthine plot deals with the philosophy of time travel, has strong religious overtones, and is anchored by a Holden Caulfield–type protagonist—a horny antihero who’s smarter than the adults around him, but still has to figure things out for himself. In other words, it’s perfect for 18-to-22-year-olds who love to hear themselves think out loud. Donnie Darko rewards multiple viewings, and even though writer-director Richard Kelly has gone to great lengths to overexplain the plot in the 20 years since its release, no two fans have exactly the same theory as to what it all means, man. (Trust me, I know: While attending college in the 2000s, I was briefly locked in a weeks-long back-and-forth with another student in which we both scribbled our thoughts on the film on a dry-erase board in the campus commuter lounge. We both thought Donnie was supposed to be a Christ-like figure, but couldn’t agree on much else. We never actually met, and this isn’t embarrassing at all to admit.)
My colleague Alan Siegel wrote an excellent oral history on Donnie Darko for its 20th anniversary last week that gets into the many things that make the film great, from the music, to the acting, to Kelly’s script, to the painstaking attempts to make the time-travel stuff all work, to how it overcame its pitiful box-office showing to become a cult classic. But even without that history, Donnie Darko is a special movie for people of a certain age—the kind of film that makes you feel smarter than the adults around you, even if you still have to figure things out for yourself. —Sayles
4. This Is Spinal Tap
Again, I could do this all day; until the day I die, I will do this all day. This Is Spinal Tap—starring the immortal and armadillo-trouser’d trio of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, all of whom cowrote it alongside suavely ballcap’d director Rob Reiner—is the silliest and stupidest and truest rock ’n’ roll movie ever made, and very arguably the funniest movie ever made, full stop. Every last line is quotable enough to be carved into granite. It is a masterpiece in D-minor, the saddest of all keys. It is a majestic tidal wave of lukewarm water. There is none more black. It is a monolith worthy of, yes, Stonehenge. Yes, I’m still doing this. No, I’ll never stop. —Harvilla
3. Dazed and Confused
I was way too young to appreciate Dazed and Confused when it came out, and I saw it late enough that my introduction to the film was through jokes about how two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum looked a little like Mitch Kramer. In the intervening 15 or so years, David Wooderson had been elevated to near-Burgundarian levels of movie quotability and about two-thirds of its teen cast had gone on to significant careers in TV and film. Not just Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck, but Milla Jovovich, Cole Hauser, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, Anthony Rapp, Adam Goldberg—by the time I was in college, Dazed and Confused was like a high school yearbook for every famous person from the early 2000s.
By now, as much as it’s memorialized the summer of 1976 in which it was set, it seems almost equally planted in 1993, and you can see its tentacles in every 24-hour high school party movie that followed, from Can’t Hardly Wait to Superbad to Booksmart. It’s hard to believe it was ever just a small-budget indie comedy, rather than what it’s grown into. —Baumann
2. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Of course the friend who first showed me The Rocky Horror Picture Show was the youngest of five. It’s why that videotape, with those big, red, glossy lips on its box, was floating around her house’s grody, shag-rugged den in the first place. It’s maybe also why her mom never seemed to care that two tweens were in total thrall to a tantalizing and weird-as-hell movie described by Roger Ebert as “a horror-rock-transvestite-camp-omnisexual-musical parody.” There was murder-by-pickaxe, and the deflowering of Susan Sarandon, and catchy, horny tunes. And my memory forever links all of it to that wonderfully lawless home.
Such meta-awareness is part and parcel of the Rocky Horror experience. This isn’t a movie you watch, it’s a work you closely encounter. Originally a stage production in London, the film premiered with a whimper but found its forever foothold about a year later thanks to vibrant, absurd, interactive midnight showings that carry on to this day. Tim Curry, who stars as the hirsute, lingerie-clad Dr. Frank-N-Furter, told NPR that he once met the late Princess Diana, who mentioned the film. “I’m sure that you haven’t seen it,” Curry replied politely, to which Diana said: “Oh, yes. It quite completed my education.” I’ve never felt more like royalty. —Baker
1. The Big Lebowski
Fun fact: The first time I saw The Big Lebowski, my parents had rented it sight unseen for a family movie night with my brother (then 8) and me (then 14). They were then subjected to weeks of their children crowing “shut the fuck up, Donnie!” and “shomer fucking Shabbos!” around the house. There was a time when not everyone knew what this movie was; that seems hard to believe now.
The saga of the Dude (Jeff Bridges) wasn’t exactly lost on a young teenager, but repeat viewings—and The Big Lebowski demands repeat viewings—reveal a movie that’s shrewder and more endlessly quotable than its most outrageous moments. (No comment on The Jesus Rolls, its unsanctioned spinoff.) The Dude’s laziness is almost defiantly noble when held up against the malevolent industry of the tycoon who shares his legal name; the fraternal bond between he and haunted veteran Walter (John Goodman) is a scrap of decency in a chaotic world. My colleague Adam Nayman has written extensively on Lebowski’s meaning and lasting impact, yet it remains as instantly appealing as it was more than a decade ago on my parents’ couch. Even when the Coen Brothers are doing chill stoner drag, they can still make a movie that’s tight as a drum. —Alison Herman
An earlier version of this piece misstated the year Slap Shot was released.