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Lookin'California:the Top 5 Cult Movies of the 90s
by Matt Berry

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The 90's saw some of the biggest box office hits in history pass through American theaters, but for every TITANIC or PHANTOM MENACE, there are dozens of movies that slip through the cracks. Some are the kind of subpar confections that deserve to fade away and never be seen again. Others, though, deserve a second (& a third & a fourth) look. Occasionally one of those outskirts flicks catches on with a specific audience who, while not sizable enough to turn a movie into INDEPENDENCE DAY, are still enamored enough to give it a mystique and a reputation that lead to longevity in the universal mind.

Because of the boom in non-studio filmmaking during the Clinton era, the 90's saw a renewed focus on creative risk-taking and an unblinking trust in the vision of the auteur. This led to a decade rife with adventurous and Avant Garde cinema crammed from FADE IN to FADE OUT with the stuff of Cult Classics. And I'd like to recognize the best of the best in a little piece I'm calling...


Every movie geek seems to define what a Cult Movie is by their own unique terms, so the merits of a Top Cult Movies list are subjective. Example: some consider PULP FICTION a cult classic, but while it looks and feels like many a Midnight Movie that came before it, PULP was simply too big a cultural phenom when it first arrived to be a true cult film. In fact, there are a series of movies whose lack of qualifications for being in this list I find much easier to rattle off than the explanation for those that are. For my own purposes (and the validity of my precious list), I often find it easier to define what ISN'T a Cult Movie. So, in the interest of clarifying what DID make my list, here are some movies that did NOT make the roster & why.

Clerks certainly appears to be the ultimate Cult Movie. Shoestring budget: check. Limited theatrical run: check. Discovered on video by a quickly loyal fan base who appreciate the film's nontraditional narrative and irreverent sense of humor: check. The downside of CLERKS as a contender for cult status championing is that it has the unfortunate luck of having been made by KEVIN SMITH, who is terrible and whose films are terrible, and who will never have a work included on any list of mine that doesn't have the word WORST somewhere in its title. In its defense, though, it is the best Kevin Smith movie. But that's tantamount to saying that Diabetes is God's best disease. Sure, it's not as bad as Cancer, I'll give you that, but...it's Diabetes. And well...it's CLERKS!

This brilliant work, definitely aimed at a narrow audience and certainly a film that references a thin sliver of the pop culture pie, has simply become too mainstream to the most UN-cult-like of Holidays and too ubiquitous in its seasonal TV and merchandise presence to qualify any longer for true Cult status. A cult following fueled this film's eventual ascendancy to Christmas Classic, but the cult is no more. Hard to call something obscure when Wal-Mart carries its line of action figures.

Another movie that, 10 years ago, was still enjoying an enthusiastic audience thanks to word of mouth praise and "hey, you gotta see this"
Never did crime & punishment look so good

Never did crime & punishment look so good
nudging, the epitome of a Cult Classic. Over the course of the last decade, though, OFFICE SPACE has nosed its way into a wider acceptance (thanks in no small part to relentless airings on Comedy Central), its characters and catchphrases becoming as much a part of the culture as any quote from JURRASIC PARK, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION or FORREST GUMP.

12 MONKEYS, too, has a lot of the hallmarks of a movie that would tumble from the mind of a mad Brit and find a small, devoted band of admirers happy to waste many time traveling hours pouring over the film's circular plotting and kaleidoscopic images. Alas, having Oscar noms and names like WILLIS & PITT in its DNA make it, in my opinion, a bit too Hollywood to be considered a true cult phenomenon.

Ah, my dear, beloved RUSHMORE. I've already written too much about you in the last 6 months to thrust my unchecked love and unparalleled adoration on my readers yet again (at least not so soon). In my perfect world, you top nearly all Best Of lists, and no one ever tires of hearing about how much I heart you and why.

This just barely missed inclusion on my list. If I did a TOP 6, it would be there. In THE CROW, Alex Proyas took the dark, surreal playland invented by TIM BURTON in his two BATMAN movies and injected a dose of dirty 90's rock 'n' roll. And it works like gangbusters. Add to the strange invitation of Proyas' atmospheric production design all the real life tragedy that permeated the film's production, and you've got the makings of a bona fide pop culture curio.

This film is trippingly great & probably meets all the fundamental requirements of a Cult flick...but it's a foreign film. Aren't ALL great foreign films relegated to cult status in the states? Don't we consider anything nondomestic to be a little culty? Is that xenophobic? Should I not be writing this? Is it even fair to categorize something as "foreign" simply because my perspective deems it so? Okay, this is turning into a Camus novel. Anyway, I've already got a list of the Best Foreign Films of the 90's going, so this will show up there eventually.

See above explanation...

In any other decade, CHARLIE KAUFMAN & SPIKE JONZE's ingenious nesting doll drama about identity and reality and the twain that never meets would have been the culty-est cult hit of its day, hands down. But we're talking about the 90's, where the alternative WAS the mainstream, where weird was expected, and where the more eccentric a movie was, the more it was potentially heralded. So, this movie grew to be pretty popular and made a pretty penny from the mouthbreathing public at large, despite its plethora of mindbending sci-fi ticks and quirky characters, and the genuinely odd ideas driving its plot.

I love this movie and often hold it up in discussions as one of the great black comedies and satires of our generation. And typically, anti-war comedies end up as Cult faves rather than populace successes. 3 Kings, however, misses the list by a slight margin because of its initial box office take. Because of overwhelmingly positive critical acceptance and the rising star of one Mr. George
Too big for Cult status? I say yeah.

Too big for Cult status? I say yeah.
Clooney, this one paid out a few too many back end points to truly be "Cult."

Celebrating the loopy, giddy, dizzying brilliance of LARRY KARASZEWSKI and SCOTT ALEXANDER'S trio of esoteric 90'S bio-pics is something I'm saving for its own column space. Nuff said.

It doesn't get much more culty than the Kids in the Hall, those eccentric sketch mavens from late night TV and the Canadian Wilderness and themselves connoisseurs and parodists of fringe cinema. Their late 80's Lorne Michaels produced television experiment would happily top my list of Best Cult TV Shows and the Kids would sit high on a list of my favorite comedians and comedy troops, but BRAIN CANDY, a dark look at the growing power of the pharmaceutical industry, just doesn't do for me what their other vehicles do. As a film, I find it bloated, off the mark, and just plain boring. Not words I would otherwise be throwing at the eternally silly boys in dresses.

So those are the movies that just missed or simply didn't make the list. Here are the 5 that did!

I couldn't decide which of these 90's Noirs I liked better, so I included them both at #5. KALIFORNIA (yeah, I know I disqualified 12 MONKEYS 'cause Pitt is such a big star, but Kalifornia never got a wide release and was never considered during Awards Season) is a dark ride (literally) through an America populated with sociopathic predators and salivating serial killers, lurking behind every cracked door, waiting for the chance to drag unsuspecting victims to some dank basement and their imminent demise. BOUND is a potboiler pulp about a couple of tough cookies taking on the mob and one hell of a bad husband. Both films do what great noirs do: they build a sense of corruption and decay and looming doom that informs every scene, every frame, every goddamn line with a palpable dread that hangs over all things said and done between opening and closing titles. Each film serves a very particular vision of the world as rotting corpse and each is successful in delivering its dystopian diatribe while obtaining a mood all its own. Where BOUND is a tightly wound, incessantly ticking timebomb of toil and tension (before finally exploding in a splash of comic book violence), KALIFORNIA sprawls, spreads, and seeps outward, forever outward, like spilled blood on the floor. Neither film is suited for bravura box office, both pitched ideally at two very specific classes of crime movie fanatics, which makes them, in addition to fine crime dramas, perfect for small bands of devoted, and twisted, followers.

RICHARD LINKLATER'S ambling, rambling tale of Texas eccentrics and the inscrutably weird rhythms of what we can assume is a typical Austin afternoon is an acquired taste for sure. Like all great Cult films, SLACKER speaks to those drawn in by its ramshackle charms and chatty disposition and tends to alienate those looking for stock characters and recognizable act structure. To those who "get" it, it is a masterstroke of guerilla filmmaking by a kid fresh off a decade of cutting experimental shorts and one truly bizarre debut feature. SLACKER coasts along for about an hour & a half on the pure adrenaline
It's a movie about watching a movie

It's a movie about watching a movie
of its own non-concept and Linklater's obsession with idle chit chat. And if you're along for the ramble, you're in for the long haul.

Everything that BRAIN CANDY (and the STRANGERS WITH CANDY movie for that matter) isn't...the MST3K movie is. It does what the SIMPSONS & SOUTH PARK movies did right; it transplants its source material's premise and playfulness from the boob tube to the big screen without losing the charm of what made it work in the first place. The MST3K movie, spawned from a show with as devoted a cult following as you're ever likely to see this side of a DR. WHO convention, brings it big for the franchise's theatrical debut (and swan song as it turned out) but still hangs on to the same sense of character and audience connection that made the show so popular with its hardcore fans. Essentially, a more elaborate episode of the show, you wouldn't think that watching a movie about people (okay, a guy and two robots) watching a movie would work. But MST3K took the show to whole new venue...and found the same obsessive audience that watched it every week on television.

The seemingly insurmountable task of transferring DANIEL CLOWES' acerbic & eccentric comic book series into a 2 hour movie is handled admirably by the equally acerbic and eccentric TERRY ZWIGOFF. As JOHN WATERS and GUS VAN ZANT had done before him, Zwigoff crafts a tale of misfits coming together, colliding and bouncing, pinball pawns in a chaotic universe, who find happiness, sadness, and all those other icky human emotions between each other and the sheets. Though critical acclaim was high for the film, it was destined to dwell as a DVD passed around by friends, shared by acquainted movie lovers, and discussed at Denny's in the middle of the night over French toast and hot chocolate. Because of its frankness, its attention to the rhythms of relationships in the real world, and its understanding of the ennui of the young and the old alike, GHOST WORLD was never meant for mainstream approval. It is perfectly suited, as are the wiles of Enid Coleslaw, to a select but emphatic few.

Another film that thrives in its inability to dumb down and speak to a wider movie going public, DAVID O. RUSSELL's road pic about a Gen X-er looking for his biological parents, a good name for his newborn kid, and, as a side note, the very meaning of family and identity, is a delightfully dark and risqué comedy that touches on all manner of topics both big & small. It is serious yet silly, sardonic yet sentimental, and manages the particularly impressive hat trick of tightrope walking sensitive and smutty. Perfectly cast and performed, FWD was a film never destined for big box office, never destined for the gold dust of Awards Season, and never meant for the mainstream audience

I rank it #1 for 2 reasons. It is my personal favorite of all the movies I would label Cult. And it meets all the criteria of a great Cult picture: it is specific in its vision, dark in its voice (too dark even for the lights out culture of the American Cineplex), and subversive in its intentions. Hey, I guess I DO know how to define what I think makes a movie a Cult Movie. Let me start this all over again...

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They Called Them The Rebel Kind
Every other Tuesday

The 90’s was one of the great decades in American Cinema, and I intend to explore it one film, genre, or director at a time.

Other Columns
Other columns by Matt Berry:

The Top 10 Most Influential Films of the 90's

The Darkness Reaching Out For the Darkness


Let's Get Ramblin': the words of Tarantino (VOL 2)

Let's Get Ramblin': the words of Quentin Tarantino

All Columns

Matt Berry
Matt Berry is a copy writer, music journalist & occasional author of Weird Tales-inspired short fiction from Illinois who loves talking and writing about movies and music almost as much as he loves the music and the movies themselves. And the more coffee, pie, and cigarettes consumed during those discussions, the better!

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Matt Berry by clicking here.

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