5 “Brazil” (1985)
In the mid-’80s, Terry Gilliam was best known for his Monty Python films, which were cult classics in the U.S. in their own right. But “Brazil” was something different—a masterful Orwellian dystopia focused on the exploits of a bureaucrat accused of being an enemy of the state. Studio executives initially shelved the title amid concerns it wouldn’t be a box-office draw for mainstream audiences—it was just too bizarre. Gilliam took matters into his own hands and secretly showed the film to critics, who loved it. With critical acclaim, the studio had no choice really but to release the film – which did just as poorly as expected. However, Gilliam’s fans rallied around the film when it was released on DVD, bringing cult status to what is widely considered to be one of the best films Gilliam ever made.
4 “Akira” (1988)
“Akira” was a fairly major Japanese release in 1988, but anime had not yet gained tremendous popularity in the U.S. and few Americans saw it at the time. Years later, DVD availability and its near-ubiquitous presence on late-night cable television gained this post-apocalyptic film a strong cult following. Based on Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga of the same name, “Akira” introduced many Westerners to the world of Japanese animation and set the standard for future anime films. Beyond that, “Akira” has been credited for inspiring many blockbuster live-action films, including “The Matrix” trilogy, “Dark City” and “Inception.”
3 “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984)
It’s hard to be the first mockumentary. Director Rob Reiner suspected this movie’s lukewarm theatrical reception was due to the fact people thought it was a real documentary about a band they’d never heard of—evidently there were no hipsters in the mid-’80s. Fast-forward a couple decades, though, and you’d hear real musicians talking about Spinal Tap like they were a real band—and they did go on tour, so maybe they technically were. Part of the film’s cult appeal comes from the realization on the part of later viewers that in parodying the rock-and-roll lifestyle, “This Is Spinal Tap” managed to present a more accurate portrayal of musicians on tour than actual documentaries ever did.
2 “Heathers” (1989)
Long before “The Plastics” were terrorizing high school halls, there were “The Heathers”—the original mean girls in this dark comedy cult classic from 1989. And really, the plastics were tame compared to the Heathers. People died in “Heathers”— and it wasn’t an accident. Starring a pre-“Beverly Hills 90210” Shannon Doherty and a pre-obscurity Christian Slater alongside Winona Ryder and some people you never heard from again, the award-winning script is really what brought this movie its rabid following.
1 “Scarface” (1983)
For a film that has achieved such cultural significance 30 years after its release, it’s hard to believe “Scarface” was a box-office flop. With such big names as Al Pacino starring, Oliver Stone writing, and Brian De Palma directing, this now-classic gangster film should’ve been a huge success—except it wasn’t. Critics panned it, moviegoers skipped it, and studios dismissed it. The over-the-top acting and gratuitous violence may have seemed like borderline parody to some, but to the many stars of rap and hip-hop for whom glorifying the American underworld is a way of life, “Scarface” was a curse-laden instruction manual.