Movie marketers and writers alike are quick to throw around the phrase “cult classic movies” in reference to a favorite low-budget, off-beat, underappreciated and often twisted film. For the Netflix genre “Cult Movies,” the company seems to take a completely scattershot, even contradictory, approach. How else could one explain the (rather limited) list including a classic 1970s kung-fu film like The Five Venoms, a widely released studio Adam Sandler comedy Billy Madison and the 1994 adaptation of Little Women? Rather than trying to decide for ourselves what qualifies as a “Cult Movie,” we’ve just left the heavy lifting to Netflix algorithms and pulled out some favorites.
Here are the 15 best cult movies on Netflix:
10. Legendary Weapons of China
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Though a bit of a storytelling Gordian knot, Legendary Weapons of China’s interconnected plots makes for tons of colorful characters and combat. Its main narrative revolves around a group of “spiritual boxers,” martial artists attempting to train their bodies to resist the bullets of Western imperialist guns, committed also to hunting down former members of the group who have since admitted that stopping a bullet by flexing your abs probably isn’t possible. The film’s real attraction is the incredible array of styles: Ti Tan the impenetrable monk played by Gordon Liu, Maoshan “magic boxers” and more.
As if that’s not enough, you also have the reason for the title: This film highlights the styles and uses of traditional Chinese weaponry better than few others of its ilk. Lau Kar-leung features 18 different weapons in total, many during the epic final scene where the hero and villain cycle through all of the legendary weapons as they probe the strengths and weaknesses of each bit of armament. It’s magnificent.
9. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Director: Edgar Wright
The films of Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto trilogy” may get more emphasis as the core of the director’s oeuvre, but allow me to submit that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the “most Edgar Wright” film we’ve witnessed yet in the still-young filmmaker’s career. A brilliant adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book series of the same name, Scott Pilgrim is a perfectly cast wonder of an action comedy that translates with preternatural ability the comic tension between banality and bombast present on the page.
Scott’s (Michael Cera) existence as a slacker musician in a crappy Toronto indie rock band isn’t exciting or glamorous, which makes it all the funnier when his day-to-day romantic life is a series of climactic, overly dramatic videogame boss battles. Each Wright presents with a hyperkinetic style that revels in its joyful disconnect from reality or consequences. Freed from such trivial matters, Wright can present dynamic action sequences that still have time for clever asides and the type of workplace humor that wouldn’t be out of place on The Office, simultaneously getting the absolute best out of every person he casts.
Really: When has Brandon Routh, as an actor, been put to better use than as an egomaniacal vegan with psychic powers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World? An early-career Brie Larson as rock singer Envy Adams is a bonus.
Director: F. Gary Gray
In Straight Outta Compton we witness Ice Cube finish writing Friday with finality, as if he’d begun a week prior by declaring, “I will now write a screenplay,” and then a week later at his kitchen table putting down a pen and saying, “There. I’m finished writing a screenplay.” We’re willing to accept that Ice Cube once did little more than decide to write a screenplay, and then did, and then made the movie, and then people loved it, because in that movie Ice Cube is our hero, a person who found no real difference, no barrier of entry, between wanting to do and then doing, despite much of his world forcefully telling him otherwise.
In Friday, Ice Cube plays Craig, a young guy from south central L.A. whose best friend Smokey (Chris Tucker) implicates him in a $200 debt to Big Worm (Faizon Love), among the many problems Craig encounters throughout the course of the day. Chief among them: Deebo (Tony Lister Jr.), the neighborhood bully so without human empathy he’ll steal a man’s bike and then wait for the man to return just to uppercut him so hard the man’s lifted a few feet in the air.
At least that’s how Smokey tells it. Craig even responds, laughing, “You’re lying,” but later Smokey’s story is proven true, at least in spirit, when Craig brains Deebo with a brick instead of shooting Deebo with a gun, which up until that point seemed to be the only viable option. The gun never fires, though it was introduced in the first act. Even if something like that matters to you, chances are that in Friday you never noticed.
7. Spring Breakers
Director: Harmony Korine
Watching James Franco in Spring Breakers, one has to ask: Is this a put-on? But the scarier question is: What if it’s not? The brilliance of his portrayal of Alien, a Scarface-aspiring dirt-bag, is that no matter how outlandishly over-the-top it goes—“Look at my shit!”—there remains a deeply unsettling edge to the performance that suggests a white-trash nightmare who could do real damage to those around him. We laugh at Franco as Alien, but the laughs get stuck in our throat: Just like the movie, his performance is a wickedly satiric look at our worst impressions of youth culture—until it gets so frighteningly real that we’re left dazed and amazed.
Director: Tobe Hooper
Although Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is considered the key instigator of the PG-13 rating, another work from Steven Spielberg helped push enough censorship buttons to form the middle ground between PG and R. Featuring ghouls designed by Alien illustrator H.R. Geiger, Poltergeist is packed with macabre haunts and notorious one-liners that anyone who grew up in the ’80s remembered late into the night. The house may have ended up clean, but few can forget the image of a stuffed clown strangling a 10-year-old.
Director: Michael Lehmann
As much an homage to ’80s teen romps—care of stalwarts like John Hughes and Cameron Crowe—as it is an attempt to push that genre to its near tasteless extremes, Heathers is a hilarious glimpse into the festering core of the teenage id, all sunglasses and cigarettes and jail bait and misunderstood kitsch. Like any coming-of-age teen soap opera, much of the film’s appeal is in its vaunting of style over substance—coining whole ways of speaking, dressing and posturing for an impressionable generation brought up on Hollywood tropes. But Heathers embraces its style as an essential keystone to filmmaking, recognizing that even the most bloated melodrama can be sold through a well-manicured image. And some of Heathers’ images are indelible: J.D. (Christian Slater) whipping out a gun on some school bullies in the lunch room, or Veronica (Winona Ryder) passively lighting her cigarette with the flames licking from the explosion of her former boyfriend. It makes sense that writer Daniel Waters originally wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct his script: Heathers is a filmmaker’s (teen) film.
4. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Directors: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
It sucks that some of the shine has been taken off Holy Grail by its own overwhelming ubiquity. Nowadays, when we hear a “flesh wound,” a “ni!” or a “huge tracts of land,” our first thoughts are often of having full scenes repeated to us by clueless, obsessive nerds. Or, in my case, of repeating full scenes to people as a clueless, obsessive nerd. But, if you try and distance yourself from the over-saturation factor, and revisit the film after a few years, you’ll find new jokes that feel as fresh and hysterical as the ones we all know. Holy Grail is, indeed, the most densely packed comedy in the Python canon. There are so many jokes in this movie, and it’s surprising how easily we forget that, considering its reputation.
If you’re truly and irreversibly burnt out from this movie, watch it again with commentary, and discover the second level of appreciation that comes from the inventiveness with which it was made. It certainly doesn’t look like a $400,000 movie, and it’s delightful to discover which of the gags (like the coconut halves) were born from a need for low-budget workarounds. The first-time co-direction from onscreen performer Terry Jones (who only sporadically directed after Python broke up) and lone American Terry Gilliam (who prolifically bent Python’s cinematic style into his own unique brand of nightmarish fantasy) moves with a surreal efficiency.
3. The Five Venoms
Director: Chang Cheh
This is what vintage kung fu—and martial arts cinema—is all about. The mythology alone is exquisite: The Five Venoms (aka Five Deadly Venoms) is the first Venom Mob film, and gave each of them a name for the rest of their careers. There’s the blinding speed of the Centipede (Lu Feng), the trickery and guile of the Snake (Wei Pei), the stinging kicks of the Scorpion (Sun Chien), the wall-climbing and gravity-defying acrobatics of the Lizard Kuo Chui), and the nigh-invincibility of the Toad (Lo Mang), along with the so-called “hybrid venom” protagonist, Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng), who is a novice in all of the styles. It’s a film typical of both Chang Cheh and the Shaw Brothers: high budget, great costumes, beautiful sets and stylish action. Is it on the cheesy side? Sure, but how many great martial arts films are completely dour? It’s emblematic of an entire era of Hong Kong cinema and the joy taken in delivering beautiful choreography and timeless stories of good vs. evil.
2. Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Director: Terry Jones
Pretty much made on George Harrison’s dime and considered, even if apocryphally, by the legendary comedy troupe to be their best film (probably because it’s the closest they’ve come to a three-act narrative with obvious “thematic concerns”), Life of Brian got banned by a lot of countries at the butt-end of the ’70s. As a Christ story, the telling of how squealy mama’s boy, Brian (Graham Chapman) mistakenly finds himself as one of many messiah figures rising in Judea under the shadow of Roman occupation (around 33 AD, on a Saturday afternoon-ish), Monty Python’s follow-up to Holy Grail may be the most political film of its ilk. As such, the British comedy group stripped all romanticism and nobility from the story’s bones, lampooning everything from radical revolutionaries to religious institutions to government bureaucracy while never stooping to pick on the figure of Jesus or his empathetic teachings.
Of course, Life of Brian isn’t the first film about Jesus (or: Jesus adjacent) to focus on the human side of the so-called savior—Martin Scorsese’s take popularly did so less than a decade later—but it feels like the first to leverage human weakness against the absurdity of the Divine’s expectations. Steeped in satire fixing on everything from Spartacus to Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, and buttressed by as many iconic lines as there are crucifixes holding up the film’s frames (as Brian’s equally squealy mother hollers to the swarming masses, “He’s not the messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!”), the film explores Jesus’s life by obsessing over the context around it. Maybe a “virgin birth” was really just called that to cover up a Roman centurion’s sexual crimes.
Maybe coincidence (and also class struggle) is reality’s only guiding force. Maybe the standard of what makes a miracle should be a little higher. And maybe the one true through line of history is that stupid people will always follow stupid people, whistling on the way to our meaningless, futile deaths.
1. Pulp Fiction
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Still Quentin Tarantino’s greatest accomplishment, Pulp Fiction rehashes a handful of other great gangster movies to form a modern masterpiece. In a full-circle plot of crossings and complications, the smart aleck of a movie takes us on an ultra-violent and ultra-funny ride with John Travolta at his best and Samuel L. Jackson dropping F-bombs like no one else.