Top 5 Cult Classics From the ’90s

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For whatever reason, some films just don’t score big in the theaters. Sometimes it’s the fault of shoddy distribution or poor marketing and promotion; other times, the film is just lacking in broad, mainstream appeal. A few of these films get plucked from relative obscurity and held aloft by rabid, dedicated fans eager to “convert” others to the genius of an unknown film—and these become cult classics. In the ’90s, these films brought us everything from laughter to ultra-violence, and helped launch the careers of directors and actors—including Quentin Tarantino and Matthew McConaughey—who today are household names.

5 “Clerks” (1994)

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In many ways, “Clerks” is the epitome of a cult film. In an era when all films are shot in color by default, “Clerks” was filmed in black and white. The entire plot of the film revolves around a convenience store clerk who gets called in to work on his day off. If you expect anything more to happen, you’ll be disappointed. Of course, this was Kevin Smith’s directorial debut, and introduced the world to Jay and Silent Bob. In many ways, it’s as though this film built up such a cult following that people often forget it’s not actually a great movie. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying it.

4 “Dazed and Confused” (1993)

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Despite the fact this film was bursting at the seams with major A-list stars—the likes of Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck—it never really lit up the box office, probably because back in 1993, no one had ever heard of them. “Dazed and Confused” follows the exploits of a group of Texas high school students on the last day of school. Nothing of any major significance happens, but you get to see Parker Posey haze incoming freshmen and Matthew McConaughey wax profound (if sleazy) about the virtues of high school girls. Little wonder this cult classic has become a dorm room staple, and almost a rite of passage itself.

3 “Office Space” (1999)

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Others have tried, but none have come close to matching the bitter irony and cathartic release that is “Office Space.” Mike Judge presented the utter mind-numbing drudgery of the white-collar and service sectors with just enough humor to reassure viewers he’s laughing with you, not at you. Unless, of course, you’re Bill Lumbergh. Character actor Gary Cole shines as the classic passive-aggressive middle manager. Fun fact: This may be the only film ever to cause a major office products company to manufacture and distribute a new product. That’s right: before “Office Space,” there was no such thing as a red Swingline stapler.

2 “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)

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Quentin Tarantino may be something of a household name now, but “Reservoir Dogs” was his directorial debut. Maybe it’s not better than “Pulp Fiction.” Maybe you think “Pulp Fiction” should be in this spot instead. But “Reservoir Dogs” came first, and it put Tarantino on the map. Back in 1992, the sort of gratuitous violence and vulgarity Tarantino is now famous for was woefully underrepresented in the art-house circuit. Tarantino took care of that, and this introduction to his style became perhaps the most cultish of all of Tarantino’s ’90s offerings. “Reservoir Dogs” launched a film style often imitated, but never duplicated—except, of course, by Tarantino himself.

1 “The Big Lebowski” (1998)

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When Joel and Ethan Coen’s odd caper comedy initially hit theaters in 1998, there wasn’t much promotion or marketing of the film, and no one was really surprised with the dismal box office returns. Movies like this normally fade into obscurity, but not this one. How a nameless character manages to enthrall audiences with his stoner wit and Zen-like wisdom is as much a mystery as the character himself. But there was just something about “The Dude,” played by Jeff Bridges, that kept people coming back. And those people wanted to share that pure enjoyment with other people, turning “The Big Lebowski” into a cultural phenomenon and rite of passage. Or maybe we just have a soft spot in our hearts for bathrobes and white Russians.

Jennifer Mueller has been writing professionally since 1995, when she began writing a bi-monthly column for "This Week in WNC." Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from the Indiana University School of Law.

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