A cult classic is a movie whose reputation has improved over time to the point that it is remembered as a classic even though it wasn’t celebrated in its time.
Last year’s The Classics feature grouped all the classic movies from 2000 into one post with separate categories. One of the categories was “Cult Status.” Looking back at that post is laughable now. Requiem for a Dream doesn’t belong in the cult classic category- it was very respected in its time. Memento doesn’t belong in that post at all- it was released in 2001! But hey, I’m not going to dwell on the mistakes of my past. This post is about the here and now, and I think every movie here and now belongs in the cult classic category.
After the cult classics I included some of my personal favorites that got left off last week’s post and this week’s, for various reasons. They might not be classics, but I couldn’t help but highlight them anyway.
Why it’s a cult classic: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence doesn’t fit the expected profile of a cult hit. Yes, it was less than successful at the box office and critics were widely mixed on its quality. But it’s a Spielberg movie; Spielberg doesn’t make cult classics, right? And yet over time A.I. has quietly grown in critical estimation to the point that it’s now included on many “Best of the 2000s” lists.
My take: I saw this a long time ago, and I thought what many critics at the time did- it’s a wildly ambitious movie that somehow doesn’t manage to reach the heights its premise promises. Steven Spielberg tackling an unfinished Kubrick science-fiction story? I was ready to love this movie, and it disappointed me. But the exuberance with which critics hail it now makes me want to take another stab at it.
Why it’s a cult classic: Audition was the first of the modern wave of torture porn movies, and as such it could only ever be a cult classic. Directed by the polarizing Takashi Miike, Audition tells the story of a widower auditioning replacements for his wife, which is twisted enough without the macabre, unexpected turn the story takes. The movie is known as one of the most disturbing of all time.
My take: Never seen it! I kind of want to but I kind of don’t want to.
Why it’s a cult classic: Donnie Darko grossed $1.2 million and went mostly unheralded by critics, but it’s aged well, thanks to a real star turn from newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal and the zeitgeist-seizing Frank the rabbit. Director Richard Kelly made this at age 25, which has only grown more impressive with time. You’re not supposed to make your best movie that young, let alone one of the defining cult classics of the 2000s.
My take: I was skeptical going into it, since it has a human-sized rabbit named Frank and all. But Donnie Darko has an existential appeal, taking the weight of adolescence and funneling it through an absurdist view of the world. I loved it, and I wanted to watch it again right when I was done so I could parse through the plot. But I didn’t, because I’m a responsible adult.
Why it’s a cult classic: The Man Who Wasn’t There was one of the least acclaimed movies in the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. It’s not that critics thought or think it was bad, they just didn’t think much of it at all. As a black-and-white film noir released in 2001, audiences stayed away. And as a result of neglect from both critics and audiences, it had very little lasting power at first. But, as so often happens with Coen brothers movies, The Man Who Wasn’t There has floated up the leaderboard of the brothers’ movies, and it’s now revered as one of their best.
My take: Never seen it! I definitely want to.
Why it’s a cult classic: Sexy Beast was a hit with critics, but British gangster dramas don’t exactly scream big box office either. Jonathan Glazer’s movie has endured and flourished since it was released largely on the strength of its visual style and of Ben Kingsley’s supporting performance as a violent gangster.
My take: Never seen it! I do want to.
Why it’s a cult classic: Waking Life, as an animated discourse on philosophy and dreams, was never going to be popular. Critical reception was good, but it scored $2.9 million at the box office. It wasn’t a set thing that Waking Life would become a cult hit on video either. As strong as director Richard Linklater’s fanbase might be, Waking Life literally has no plot, no conflict, no hook. But its uniqueness in that regard has served it well over time, as has the way Linklater has built his overall filmography into that of a real auteur.
My take: This movie was so boring. Watch Linklater’s Before trilogy instead. It’s got the same stoner conversations with actual context.
Why it’s a cult classic: Werckmeister Harmonies is a film by Hungarian master Béla Tarr, and it’s known primarily for its long takes. These aren’t the long takes of Alfonso Cuarón, which are impressive and effective because they follow action over long periods of time. Tarr and his wife/co-director, Ágnes Hranitzky, specialized in still long takes, allowing the structure of the mise en scène to capture his viewers and hold their gaze.
My take: Never seen it! You’ll notice I said nothing of the plot, and that’s because the movie’s plot seems to be…hard to describe. So I don’t know if I want to see it or not.
Personal Favorites Left Off
Ali: Ali saw its two stars, Will Smith and Jon Voight, nominated for acting Oscars, and it was directed by the largely revered Michael Mann. Maybe it’s because Mann’s work has fallen off lately (I submit last year’s Blackhat for your consideration), but for some reason Ali has been largely forgotten in his filmography. I think it’s a really great, insightful look at one of the most important people of the 20th century, and the boxing scenes are truly something to behold.
Black Hawk Down: I guess I can understand why Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down hasn’t lasted. It’s a busy war movie, and there aren’t the sweeping moralizations of war that are so characteristic of other war movies. But I find it’s one of the best at portraying both the cost of and the motivation of being a soldier.
Monsoon Wedding: Mira Nair’s family epic about the wedding of an arranged marriage in India went overlooked in 2001 and continues to be overlooked now.
Monster’s Ball: You’d think the movie that featured the first African-American Best Actress Oscar winner in Halle Berry would have become a classic. While the moment of her win is a classic one in the Academy’s history, the movie received mixed reviews at the time and has a mixed history since.
No Man’s Land: This was the Best Foreign Language Film winner at that year’s Oscars, but Amélie was the nominee that became classic. No Man’s Land is a brilliant war movie about the conflict between Bosnia and Herzegovina in which two opposing soldiers get trapped together in a demilitarized zone, and it deserves to be remembered.
The Others: There are scarier horror movies, but few are so exquisitely rendered to both frighten and entrance. Directed by the underemployed Alejandro Amenábar, who was responsible for the great sci-fi mind-bender Open Your Eyes and went on to direct The Sea Inside, The Others leaves a psychological impression that only the best horror can.
Alright, that’s it for the classics from 2001. Disagree? Sound off below in the comments section.
Next up in The Classics: I’ll tackle the classic albums from 1996 in a few months, so get excited for me having to include a Beck album with albums that are actually good!