The phenomenon of the cult movie – a project that finds a devoted audience and enjoys a “second life” in the pop culture conversation, usually after a disappointing theatrical run – has benefited greatly from the rise of streaming giants like Netflix.
With at-home film and TV consumption at an all-time high, a flop at the box office isn’t the kiss of death it used to be in the movie business. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that, by introducing some of these films to new generations of fans around the world, Netflix is doing its part to keep some of these cinematic gems alive, sometimes against all odds.
That said, with thousands of movies gracing Netflix’s US catalog alone, I’m here to cut through that clutter and shine the spotlight on 10 legendary cult films that should be required viewing for any fan of entertaining storytelling. Usually weird and lovably off-beat, these movies are among the best that the ubiquitous streaming service has to offer.
Let’s get it going:
Seeing as this is a hip-hop website, let’s start with a film that has a direct connection to the genre. It was a modest hit in theaters, grossing over $28 million worldwide on a $3.5 million budget and cemented Ice Cube as a man who, after a striking debut with Boyz N The Hood, proved he wasn’t just a one-hit acting wonder, moving deftly from gritty drama to broad comedy. Co-written by Cube and directed by F. Gary Gray, the man who would go on the helm the N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, Friday is one of the most memorable comedies of the 90’s.
The movie credited with introducing Hollywood to talented newcomers like Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, and director Doug Liman, Swingers is a surprisingly complex movie. It digs deep beneath the veneer of its guy-tries-to-get-over-girl premise and mines the male psyche for raw and honest insight on what it means to be lonely and disaffected, all while taking your shot at being a star in the La La Land. Funny and poignant, Swingers still holds up more than 20 years later.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World
Director Edgar Wright may have cracked the code when it comes to delivering quirky, unique movies perfectly suited to become cult classics. Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead are also great candidates for this list, but none of his films have reached quite the same cult status as Scott Pilgrim. The script oozes relatable, awkward teenage angst and pits the titular guitarist against his new crush’s 7 ex-lovers, all of whom he must defeat in spectacularly over-the-top fashion.
From Dusk Till Dawn
A loose, stylistic crime drama that takes a sharp turn and becomes the good kind of campy horror movie, From Dusk Till Dawn is one of the lesser-known delicacies of 90’s cinema. Featuring a charismatic George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino (!) in the lead roles, it’s a very strange movie – one that seems tailor-made for a Netflix remake (don’t hate me for saying that) down the line. It also captures a pre-Spy Kids Robert Rodriguez at his genre film best. Worth a look for fans of the gleefully insane on film.
Three words for you: What. A. Cast. Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and more star in this sci-fi drama about medical students who try and play God by experimenting with near-death testing scenarios, such as stopping one’s heart and then reviving them. Of course, those actions have dire consequences in a script that goes in some startling, if predictable, directions to amp up the thrills. It’s a weird, erotic drama that, at the very least, will be unlike anything else in your Netflix queue.
Imagine this: You’re in a punk band that takes a gig playing a bar that you later discover is populated with aggressive neo-Nazi characters. No biggie, right? Well, what if you witnessed a murder in that same bar and then must fight for your life to survive their pursuit? Such is the premise of Green Room, one of the criminally underappreciated horror movies of the decade that doesn’t rely on blood and guts or gaudy special effects to keep you on the edge of your seat. Look for Starfleet veteran Sir Patrick Stewart to give one of the more chilling on-screen performance you’ll see.
Speaking of horror standouts in the cult wing of cinema history, there’s Final Destination. One of splatter subgenre's most successful entries, it has everything you want from a teen slasher flick: hot teen/twentysomething actors, creative kills, an intriguing premise and, let’s face it, more than a little cheese. The impressive statistics lie in its box-office appeal; Destination grossed over $112 million worldwide on just a $23 million budget, spawning a host of imitators and a host of meh-to-crappy sequels.
Alex Garland is another director who seems destined to have his work grace tons of cult classic lists for decades to come. The 28 Days Later writer has segued into the kind of cerebral cinema that doesn’t have mass appeal but the audience it does build brings a deep appreciation of the material to the table. Case in point would be Ex Machina, a futuristic thriller that is part robot love story, part AI social commentary and part scenes of Oscar Isaac running down hallways with a giant beard. All three are world-class cinematic ingredients and, together, they make up one tasty serving of streaming content.
She’s Gotta Have It
Here’s how you know your debut film has stood the test of time: More than 30 years after it first hit theaters in New York on limited release, Netflix chooses to give it the remake treatment in an original series. Indeed, Spike Lee’s debut feature, which he made for the ridiculously low sum of $175,000, is a classic, dealing with the complicated issue of intersecting male and female sexuality and what it means for relationships that work and those that fail. Lee also gives us a taste of Mars, a recurring character that would show up in his other movies, as well as Michael Jordan shoe commercials.
Finally, we come to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a movie that works almost entirely because, based on the first half of its running, it really shouldn’t. However, with a cast of former Disney Channel good girls surrounding a cornrows-and-grills-wearing James Franco, this drug-fueled odyssey offers up an unpredictable and darkly comedic take on every college student parent’s nightmare. The atmosphere of the film is enhanced by the fact that, according to James Franco, real gangsters were present on several shooting locations, something that freaked out some of the actors.