Last night on Twitter, Dan McLaughlin asked:
Q for my under-30 followers: what would you regard as cult classic films made after 2000?
— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) December 1, 2012
It’s an interesting question, one that I’m not sure how to answer because it all kinda depends on how you define “cult.” Once upon a time, a “cult classic” was a film that few people had seen but those few who had seen it (and would see it multiple times) loved it intensely. Fans would gather at midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead and titter and feel a sense of community at being in on something.
In our modern, hyperconnected age, however, a key component of “cult” is lost. If you’ve heard of a film, you can see it. It’s on TV and if it’s not on TV it’s on a streaming service and if it’s not on a streaming service it’s on DVD and if it’s not on DVD you can probably torrent it. That element of discovery, of being in on something no one else is in on, is lost.
In many ways, the cult classic has been replaced by what I like to call the cable classic: There is a certain class of film that was lightly attended in theaters and derided by critics only to find a huge audience on cable and DVD. Zoolander is probably my favorite example of this phenomenon: Zoolander has gone on to find a huge audience in home viewings, is highly quotable (a key component to any “cable classic”), and is constantly the subject of sequel rumors.
But even Zoolander made $45M at the box office—not a huge sum, but not an embarrassing flop, either. The same goes for Cabin the Woods, suggested by Peter Suderman as a potential modern “cult classic.” It grossed $42M. Can they really be considered “cult” after debuting on thousands of screens all over the nation? Wes Anderson’s highest-grossing film has only pulled in $52M; would you consider anything he’s done since Bottle Rocket to be cult?* I don’t really think so.
So what does count? Here are a few suggestions:
Requiem for a Dream (2000): Grossed less than $4M, currently tops a record number of “brilliant films I never want to see again” lists.
Pootie Tang (2001): So cult that a number of you probably haven’t even heard of it, Pootie Tang is due for a reappraisal if only because it was written and directed by Louis C.K. It also grossed less than $4M.
Black Dynamite (2009): Despite grossing less than $250,000, this blaxploiparody is well-beloved by a number of people in the smart set. Not really my cup of tea, but I think it fits the bill.
Hard Candy (2006): Ellen Page starred in this intense drama about an underage teen trying to find out if a man she has met is a pedophile. Grossed $1M, generally well-regarded. Though perhaps not popular enough to make this list?
Idiocracy (2006): Ted Frank recommended this on Twitter, and I think it’s a good call. Mike Judge has a habit of making films that are ever-so-slightly ahead of their time, and Idiocracy is no exception: Grossing less than half-a-million on release, it is now shorthand amongst the smart set for what America is slowly becoming.
Oldboy (2005): Perhaps a bit of a cheat since it’s a foreign film, but I think it’s worth putting on this list. Grossed less than a million, was passed around by fervent fans, now being remade by Spike Lee for some reason.
Update: The Room (2003): I totally spaced on this (though I mentioned it last night, so, you know, I have some immunity from being called a moron). But it actually perfectly fits into that Rocky Horror/Eraserhead mold of midnight screenings and the rest. Definitely should be on this list.
Update x2: A lot of people on Twitter and in the comments are suggesting Donnie Darko (2001). I’d pair that flick with Boondock Saints (2000)** as early examples of DVD helping a flick obtain cult status and kind of shattering what it meant to be “cult.” I kind of spaced on those flicks because they are so ubiquitous at this point as to not be considered “cult classics.” I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen these films—they were objects of veneration in my college dorms and apartments, but they were also easily accessible via DVD. They were objects of cult affection, but none of the typical cult rituals were needed to obtain the experience of seeing them.
*The Life Aquatic might count; it has found a larger audience since being rejected by theatrical audiences. But hell, even that movie grossed more than Rushmore, and Rushmore isn’t cult. This is all very confusing, you see?
**Boondock Saints is one of those films the smart set likes to crap on, and I kind of get why. But the piling on in recent years strikes me as a bit unfair.