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The Beginner's Guide to Cult Cinema

Updated on April 3, 2020
Jill Townley profile image

Jill owned a video rental store in Portland, Oregon for five years, when such stores used to exist. She holds a bachelor degree in German.

Cult movies are characterized as having a small but devoted following of fans. The term cult film really took hold in the early 1980s when art films became popular with the intellectual crowd, and younger viewers were looking for movies with a strange twist. Following are the cult movies that have endured as favorites. Note the mixture of American and European talents in many of the films.

Un Chien Andalou
Un Chien Andalou

Andalusian Dog (1928)

Only 20 minutes long, this black-and-white short film was a collaboration between director Luis Bunuel and the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. It's more a series of strange scenes than a story and a little grotesque, but very cool, especially considering when it was made. Definitely one of a kind.

A bit of trivia, David Bowie opened every concert on his 1976 tour by showing this film.

Harold and Maude

Harold and Maude (1971)

Boy meets old lady at a funeral, boy stops faking suicide attempts, and old lady gets herself a little taboo nooky. Actually, this black comedy is a very sweet movie full of heart with a lively performance by Ruth Gordon and a killer soundtrack by Cat Stevens. Directed by Hal Ashby, who also directed the 1979 oddball film Being There starring Peter Sellers.

Last Tango in Paris
Last Tango in Paris

Last Tango in Paris (1974)

Marlon Brando flexes his French muscle in this international affair filmed in both English and French by the marvelous Italian director, Bernardo Bertolucci. Brando is tormented by the suicide of his wife and tries to deaden the pain with a sweaty fling. You may have to choose between the subtitled R-rated version and the dubbed NC-17 version.

The movie is worth watching for the excellent acting, authenticity, and Parisian street scenes, but the raw sexuality will borderline on difficult to watch for some.

Pink Flamingos
Pink Flamingos

Pink Flamingos (1974)

Not for the squeamish! John Waters is a major cult director who began making low-budget films in Baltimore during the 1970s. Pink Flamingos stars cross-dressing Divine as a woman obsessed with being known as the most disgusting person alive. Luckily, her chief rivals live in the same city, and they progressively try to one-up each other with gross acts. The movie is funny, but also disturbing at times. If you want to sample John Water movies that have the same flavor, but are not quite as harsh, try Desperate Living (1977) or Polyester (1981).

Pink Flamingos is not available to stream on any service currently, but the DVD can be purchased on Amazon, or check your local library collection.

The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

In his best acting performance, David Bowie stars as an alien who has come to Earth in hopes of finding water to bring back to his dying planet. The plot leaves much to the viewer's imagination, but it is so cool to watch Bowie in his prime. A very quiet movie artfully directed by fellow Englishman Nicholas Roeg. The Man Who Fell to Earth is currently free with Amazon Prime!

For even more Bowie, check out his performance as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, another must-see film.

My Dinner with Andre
My Dinner with Andre

My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Drink a cup of coffee before watching this film, because it consists solely of a long, thought-provoking conversation over dinner between the quirky Wallace Shawn and the adventurous Andre Gregory, who also co-wrote the script. Directed by the skillful Louis Malle from France.

Andre does most of the talking, sharing tales from recent travels that evolve into a philosophical manifesto that will cause some to pause for thoughtful reflection and others to burst with laughter.

Bagdad Cafe

Bagdad Cafe (1988)

After a fight with her husband while on vacation in Southwestern U.S, a German woman (Marianne Saegebrecht) inserts herself into the life a desert café owner (CCH Pounder) and her band of misfits. The light-hearted film is directed by another German, Percy Adlon, and features Jack Palance as the local painter.

The plot explores friendship, despair, and finding one's self, and the sparse soundtrack enhances the beautiful bleakness of the American desert as seen through German eyes.

Other recommended films:

Diva (1982)

Repo Man (1984)


© 2008 Jill Townley


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