1. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
The midnight-movie tradition that gave second life to films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and El Topo thrived in the pre-video '70s and early '80s, then shrank as viewers increasingly just stayed home to watch weird stuff at ungodly hours on their own. But there's much to be said for the pleasures of staying up late in a theater filled with strangeness-seeking, possibly under-the-influence fellow moviegoers, and watching something that makes more sense under those conditions than on the other side of midnight. Name a better way to watch a movie about an old-folks' home in which an aged Elvis (Bruce Campbell) teams up with a man who claims to be John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis) to fight an ancient mummy curse? There isn't one, particularly when it's served up with this much panache, courtesy of the stars, writer-director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, The Beastmaster), and colorful Texas author Joe R. Lansdale.
2. Donnie Darko (2001)
Classic midnight movies often fall into one of two categories: raucous crowd-pleasers that keep viewers' adrenaline pumped even after hours, and trippy think-pieces that seem all the more cosmic once sleep-dep starts to set in. Richard Kelly's sophisticated feature debut is unabashedly the latter: Its story about time-travel, apocalypse, and a 6-foot-tall rabbit named Frank has a lucid-nightmare quality that's eerie even by the light of day. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Donnie Darko, a teenager suffering from creepy visions that bring an unsettling surreality to his wholesome life in the '80s.
3. Office Space (1999)
Dumped into theaters by Fox (see also: Idiocracy, below), Mike Judge's dead-on assessment of industrial parks and cubicle culture includes scenes more devastating than a year's worth of Dilbert comic strips. Judge's cartoony sensibility leads to some inspiring casting choices, especially Gary Cole as the world's most passive-aggressive boss ("Mmmmmm… yeeeeeeaaahh, I'm going to need you to come in on Saturday…") and Stephen Root as a put-upon employee, but they're balanced out by Ron Livingston's perfect Everyman despair. Endlessly quotable and cathartic for the data processor in everyone.
4. Memento (2001)
A murder mystery told in reverse chronology, centering on a hero (Guy Pearce) whose short-term-memory loss causes him to retain only 15 minutes of experiences at a time, Christopher Nolan's mind-bending film requires repeat viewings, if not full-blown obsession. Though Nolan's script is completely worked out, the details are so complicated and the backward order so disorienting that it takes time to sort out the particulars. It sounds like a pain in the neck, but there's a reason why people keep returning to Memento over and over again, and it isn't because they're all masochistic puzzle-junkies.
5. Femme Fatale (2002)
After floundering for a decade in the Hollywood system, Brian De Palma scooped up some funding from his ardent French admirers and returned with the sort of florid, kinky, unashamedly trashy Hitchcockian thriller on which he made his name. The opening sequence at the Cannes Film Festival sets the tone: Paced to a score that shamelessly imitates "Bolero," it follows icy anti-heroine Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as she follows another impossibly beautiful woman into the bathroom and seduces her out of a diamond-encrusted serpent-shaped designer top. And it only gets sleazier from there.
6. Alone In The Dark (2005)
God bless Uwe Boll. With today's big budgets and competitive exhibition markets, it would seem impossible for a director of Ed Wood-like ineptitude to make movies, but thanks to a loophole in the German tax system, he's been able to make video-game adaptations that make Super Mario Brothers look like the Marx Brothers. Alone In The Dark stands out from the pack for several reasons, including the longest, most baffling opening crawl in cinema history, plus a cast of C-list stars (Christian Slater, Stephen Dorff, Tara Reid) that looks like it was assembled at a rehab facility. Reid is a special delight as a brainy archaeologist who's brilliant in nerd glasses and sexy when she lets her hair down.
7. Idiocracy (2006)
Midnight-movie audiences frequently adopt quirky little cinematic orphans abandoned by the short-sighted, bottom-line-oriented studios that produced them. That will hopefully be the case with Mike Judge's Idiocracy, a brilliant combination of lowbrow comedy and smart social satire that was unceremoniously dumped by Fox, but should enjoy a healthy afterlife as a midnight movie.
8. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
USA Films didn't seem to know what to do with Wet Hot American Summer, but fans of Stella and The State flocked to it. Director David Wain and his co-writer Michael Showalter insist that they didn't set out to spoof '80s summer-camp comedies, but the film works equally well as a parody of Meatballs knockoffs and as a high-spirited showcase for the Stella fellas and their talented pals. The filmmakers nail the period details, right down to the font used in the opening credits.
9. American Psycho (2000)
Director Mary Harron lent a Kubrickian perfection to her darkly comic adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' sledgehammer satire of yuppie nihilism taken to its murderous extreme. In a career-making performance, Christian Bale savagely spoofs Tom Cruise's all-American cockiness in a cult classic that looks more slyly subversive with each year.
10. Waking Life (2001)
Richard Linklater's hypnotic animated sleeper raises dorm-room philosophizing to the level of pop art. Like Linklater's Slacker, the film is powered by dream logic and stream-of-consciousness weirdness rather than a conventional plot, and the lovely rotoscoping pushes things deeper and deeper into the realm of the subconscious. Is there any better time to experience Linklater's masterful fever-dream of a movie than when much of humanity is already asleep?
[pagebreak] 11. Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2001)
In theory, John Cameron Mitchell's gender-bending rock musical about a transsexual's doomed love affair with a soon-to-be superstar should be a Rocky Horror-style goof. In practice, it plays like The Wall, Quadrophenia, and every other visionary art-pop film that ties a lust for music to an impulse toward outsider-dom. When the blonde-wigged Mitchell connects polysexuality to Plato in the rousing, beautiful Stephen Trask song "The Origin Of Love," his call for a new romantic order unifies the kinds of transgressive loners who'd be at a midnight movie in the first place.
12. Series 7: The Contenders (2001)
As a satire of reality TV and its appeal to our bloodlust, this mockumentary about organized televised manhunts isn't all that toothy. But writer-director Daniel Minahan at least gets the look and feel of reality TV creepily right, including the nagging sense that we aren't being told all we really need to know. And the cast—led by dewy-eyed neurotic Brooke Smith—nails the genre's "types" without lapsing into broad parody. The movie's also funny and exciting, and spiked with crowd-inciting violence. What was that about bloodlust again?
13. The Happiness Of The Katakuris (2001)
Ridiculously prolific Japanese art-pulp director Takashi Miike has been touted as the new master of the midnight movie for at least five years now, but his films tend to be so slow-paced, inscrutable, and uneven that even hardcore midnighters have to fight off the urge to take a nap in the middle. Not so with The Happiness Of The Katakuris, a brisk, bright black-comedy musical about a family protecting the viability of its resort-hotel business by quietly disposing of the guests who "accidentally" die there. Whenever the violence gets too gruesome, Miike switches from live-action to claymation, which somehow makes death simultaneously cuter and more unsettling.
14. The Devil's Rejects (2005)
In his short filmmaking career, Rob Zombie has been trying so hard to make a neo-midnight movie that his work has been too self-conscious. But even given its carefully applied retro-grime, The Devil's Rejects still works as a vulgar, corrosive revenge thriller, about a family of serial killers who look down the other end of a shotgun for a change (while "Freebird" plays, loud and true). This is one ugly movie, but watching it in a multiplex at a time when the U.S. is undergoing an escalating moral lockdown can be perversely liberating.
15. Bad Santa (2003)
Some Christmas movies affirm the basic decency of the human spirit. Then there's this one, which takes the long, long route to a similar destination as an alcoholic thief (Billy Bob Thornton) poses as Santa in order to steal as much as possible before the holiday season ends. Only a brain-dead fat kid and a Santa-fixated bartender (Lauren Graham) appeal to what little of his better self remains beneath all that booze. It's the perfect thing to sneak off to once the miserable bastards are tucked in and waiting for Kris Kringle.
16. Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004)
Not exactly the most challenging or intellectual film to come out of the past decade, Harold & Kumar is a dopey, good-natured stoner-quest movie, a sort of multi-ethnic Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure or Dude, Where's My Car? Two stressed, seriously buzzed dudes get the munchies and decide (after a zoned-out viewing of a food-porn commercial) that only White Castle will do, but getting there proves difficult. Dude director Danny Leiner gives the proceedings the expected laid-back feel, but excellent performances and genuinely funny incidents (particularly the one involving a strung-out Neil Patrick Harris) make this movie a genuinely fun time even for the non-altered.
17. 28 Days Later (2002)
George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead was an early midnight-movie staple, and it has a worthy 21st-century successor in 28 Days Later, an apocalyptic zombie movie that trades the horrors of the walking dead for the guilty pleasure of getting to run around a virtually abandoned England where nobody can tell you what to do. It's an invitation to the kinds of creepy thoughts that often sneak in once the sun goes down. Also highly recommended: Shaun Of The Dead.
18. Kung-Fu Hustle (2004)
Stephen Chow's previous martial-arts-and-CGI extravaganza, Shaolin Soccer, held together better as a coherent story (not to mention a conscious genre satire), but his 2004 goof Kung-Fu Hustle goes further over the top in every way. Chow stars as a gangster-wannabe in a town overrun with axe-wielding, dapper thugs whose takeover attempts encounter little resistance until they run across the unlikely martial-arts masters of a slum called Pig Sty. Then the ludicrous effects kick into place, the bodies fly like popcorn kernels, and the whole thing becomes a flamboyant, energetic, living cartoon, guaranteed to keep sleepy eyes wide with wonder.
19. I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Another entry on the "trippy" side of the midnight-movie divide, David O. Russell's "existential comedy" has less of a miserablist edge than his dark comedy Spanking The Monkey, or his less-dark comedy Flirting With Disaster. (Made, incidentally, back when Ben Stiller was tolerable. Funny, even.) Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman hires a pair of "existential detectives" (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to follow him and determine the meaning of his life, and why it includes so many chance encounters with one particular stranger. That's just one thread in a complicated, playful, thoroughly surprising weave that lets Russell dole out the Woody Allen-style dry wit and his own flavor of visual games. No matter how late it is, no matter how sleepy you're getting, don't freak out when the screen starts coming apart in pieces. Just keep telling yourself "It's only a midnight movie."