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SYFY WIRE Decade in Review

The 10 best cult hits of the decade

By Matthew Jackson
Decade in Review: Best cult hits

Welcome to SYFY WIRE's Decade in Review, a series of articles that will look to catalog the best, worst, and weirdest cultural and entertainment moments of the 2010s as we look toward the future. Today, we celebrate the movies that took the world — or, at least, a very specific group of die-hard fans — by surprise. Here are the best cult hits of the decade!

We all know the feeling, that tingling rush that hits you when someone mentions that one very specific movie that you love beyond words. Most people in the room cringe at the sound of the title alone, but your eyes light up, and then you see one other person with their eyes also aglow with recognition and affection. Your eyes meet, and that's how you meet the love of your life.

That might be a little extreme, but the point is cult classics unite us in a way that universally beloved films simply don't. There's a specificity to the kind of love we have for films that most other people shy away from because they're too weird or too incomprehensible or too violent for them. When you get it, you get it in a way that means you've bound yourself to that particular piece of pop culture for life, and when you get to share that with someone else, your friendship hits another level.

The 2010s have been a decade packed with mega-blockbusters, from shared universe franchise films to big-budget remakes, but in among all the tentpoles, filmmakers still found time to make some movies that drew their own small but rabid followers. Here are our picks for the 10 best cult hits of the 2010s.

01. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

Edgar Wright is a master of the pop culture mash-up, whether he's merging slacker comedy with the zombie apocalypse (Shaun of the Dead) or the timing and rhythms of the movie musical with the precision and speed of car chases (Baby Driver). This knack for fusing various tropes and sensibilities with a heavy dose of levity made him the perfect candidate to adapt Bryan Lee O'Malley's acclaimed Scott Pilgrim graphic novels for the screen, and the result is a movie that... well, it's a lot.

Even by Edgar Wright standards, there's a feeling of sensory overload that permeates the film, like you're trying to play two arcade consoles at once while jacked up on way too much caffeine. From the pixelated Universal Pictures logo at the beginning of the film to the little stat cards given to major characters to the rapid-fire, almost deliriously kinetic final fight, it's a film that pummels you with its own specific sense of fun. It might take a little while, but once it clicks that the film is all about the sense of overload that comes with dramatic young love in all its awkwardness, it's like a power-up bar going up and up until it hits your heart.

02. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)

Sometimes the best cult films are the ones you have to sit with a little while before they really reveal their strange sensibility to you. You have to let them unfold a little, let a few layers peel back from the surface before you really see the fun of what's happening. At first brush, you might think you know what Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is going to give you. After all, the set-up for the film feels like equal parts Evil Dead II and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and if you're familiar with horror movie rhythms you might think it's easy to plot the film's course.

Then the film turns into a wild, perfectly executed comedy of errors that just happens to have some killer gore effects thrown in. Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine are clearly having a blast as the titular hillbillies who are just trying to enjoy their new vacation home, and the rest of the cast is clearly game to play into all the expected horror movie rhythms as the film then rips those rhythms apart. It's a masterclass in subversion that also somehow delivers the horror goods in all the right places.

03. Attack the Block (2011)

"What if aliens invaded a housing project in South London and the only people who knew were a wannabe street gang?" That's the elevator pitch for Attack the Block, Joe Cornish's lean, mean little film that follows in the grand tradition of kid gang pictures like The Goonies and The Monster Squad while also transporting that sense of primal adventure into a place many of us haven't spent much time in.

Perhaps the film seems a little too impenetrable to some because of its full-on South London style, from accents and slang to dingy flats, but even if you're not familiar with the titular Block all it takes is a few minutes to realize there's something universal about the film. John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker are fantastic as two people who come to find they have much more in common than they previously thought, and by the time the film hits its explosive conclusion a fair bit of social commentary has been sprinkled in amid all the alien mayhem. Attack the Block is specific in its way, yes, but it's also the kind of movie that could be a sci-fi gateway drug for the right young audience.

04. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

What's most impressive about The Cabin in the Woods — beyond even its terrific ensemble cast and solid horror storytelling instincts — is that the film could have been something much simpler than it turned out to be. Its title is a deliberate attempt to evoke horror films that genre fans have seen dozens of times over, so much so that you might believe you know what the film's going to be based on that alone.

Just as it could have retained that sense of simplicity, Cabin could have also swung wildly in the other direction, using its elaborate inner mythology as a crutch without any real focus on the kids in the cabin.

Instead, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard chart a more ambitious course, merging the classic horror sensibilities that inspired the film with their own instantly compelling mythology to create a film that both honors the predictable story beats of what came before and weaves everything but the kitchen sink into its plot. That famous shot in which all the monsters have been let out of containment would have been hamfisted and cheap in another film. Here it feels like a celebration.

05. You're Next (2011)

You're Next is another one of those films that you might think you understand completely after only watching the trailer, but the full film reveals a more complex nature. Yes, it's a home invasion horror movie, and yes the body count keeps piling up until a resourceful final girl finally figures out exactly what's going on, but there's so much more happening here, and it's not just because the killers are in weird animal masks.

Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett understand that some genre fans might think they've got the movie pegged from the beginning, and so they infuse You're Next with a sense of ghoulish fun that almost makes it feel like the best unsanctioned Home Alone sequel out there. Once the first kill lands, the film zips forward at breakneck pace, delivering unexpected gore and more than a few outrageous laughs along the way. The result is a horror-comedy that leans more horror but throws just enough darkly comic fun in to keep you off balance in the best way.

It also earns the award for best use of a blender in a film this decade.

06. Under the Skin (2013)

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin is one of the most patient exercise in judiciously deployed genre storytelling of the last decade, and as a result it might take certain viewers a little while to get used to its rhythms. Once you're hooked, though, you almost feel like another victim of the strange woman (played with deceptive simplicity by Scarlett Johansson), wading through her void until you're lost in the film's depths.

It's a film about an alien creature who hunts down and seemingly consumes unwitting men on the streets of Glasgow, but Under the Skin is not interested in playing by the same rules that a more violent, effects-heavy film might adopt. It's more interested in deliberately throwing the viewer of balance, making us all feeling like strangers in a strange land. This generates a tremendous current of empathy running through the story, so that by the time the final confrontation ensues you're wrapped up in its dark symphony of strangeness so thoroughly that the film lives on in your brain like a parasite. Plus, when the effects-landed genre sequences do kick in, they never really leave you.

07. Pacific Rim (2013)

Guillermo del Toro's robots vs. monsters epic Pacific Rim did well enough at the worldwide box office to justify a sequel, but only just, and that's a bit of a shame. The film is a merging of eastern and western cinematic sensibilities, a love letter to everything from Neon Genesis Evangelion to Godzilla, and del Toro poured as much passion and inventiveness into it as he did into Oscar-winning projects like The Shape of Water.

Those of us who love the film, though, really love it. Pacific Rim may not hold the same place in the blockbuster consciousness as things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Transformers films, but you'll still find more than a few people who refer to themselves and their friends as "drift compatible." The deliberately bombastic, grand-scale world that del Toro and company built is still cheer-worthy, from the epic action cinema monologuing to the moments of sheer creature feature joy.

08. The Babadook (2014)

There's a reason that the title character of Jennifer Kent's The Babadook became one of the internet's favorite monsters in the 2010s, and it's not just because he has a fabulously creepy look and was lucky enough to be claimed by the LGBTQ community. It's because he's at the heart of a truly scary film that utilizes an extremely specific tone and visual sensibility to tell a universal story about loneliness, grief, and being overwhelmed.

Kent achieves this by creating a world within the film that almost looks like an alien landscape. The cold, somber tones of the light and the walls within Amelia and Samuel's house combined with Samuel's own peculiar behavior combine to create the sense of a place that cannot be escaped, only survived. Essie Davis' magnificent leading performance does the rest, and those of who are willing to follow her into The Badabook's very particular darkness are rewarded with one of the scariest films of the decade. Also, and it's really important to emphasize this, the monster is great.

09. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

"A mockumentary about vampires" feels like something in retrospect that was bound to happen in the post-Twilight era of pop culture whether we wanted to see it or not. A major Hollywood studio could have decided they loved the idea, populated the concept with a number of recognizable stars, and pumped it out as a quick cash-in. Thankfully for all of us, a group of goofballs from New Zealand got to it first.

What We Do in the Shadows succeeds not by doing everything we'd never expect from its concept, but by doing all of the things we'd expect in rather unexpected ways. From the moment we meet this strange little coven of vampire pals they're doing things like cheering "Yes, night time!" when they peer through the curtains and scolding each other for the mundane sin of not cleaning up after their victims. The film hits all those vampire comedy notes you'd expect, right down to the vampire hunter sneaking in through the basement, but it reveals in a cheerful sense of the ordinary that drives its comedic performances to new heights of weird brilliance.

10. The Love Witch (2016)

We've talked a little in this discussion of cult films about movies that work very hard to create a specific tone, often so specific that certain viewers simply can't wrap their heads around it. Even in the company of these other films, though, The Love Witch goes above and beyond with its sense of visual, tonal, and thematic specificity, so much so that the film itself often feels like a time machine in the best possible way.

Writer and director Anna Biller pours so much energy into making the film look like it might have been a Hammer production from the late 1960s that you'd be forgiven for thinking that The Love Witch was made 40 years ago. The effect is so dazzling and convincing that you could watch the film with the sound off and simply be entranced by its gorgeous throwback stylings. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a film that's using that sensibility to say some deep, and often wickedly funny, things about the roles society forces men and women (even witches) into. Throw in a terrific performance from Samantha Robinson in the title role, and you've got one of the most incisive cult films of the decade.