When evaluating new movies, sometimes a critic will try to envision their staying power. It goes without saying that most movies have no shelf life; they're designed for one opening weekend, or perhaps a few months of buzz leading to an award, but that's it. A year from now, people will be ignoring them on airplanes and then they'll be on sale in the DVD bargain bin. Only a very few titles enter into the general zeitgeist forever, becoming a "cult film." A cult film can be a resurrected flop, something like The Wizard of Oz or Donnie Darko, or it can be a beloved hit, such as Casablanca or the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings films. The only constant is that it's impossible to predict. When I first reviewed Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski (1998), I thought it suffered in comparison to Fargo, but now it has become a cult classic even bigger than its predecessor. Regardless, I thought I'd look at some of the movies currently playing on less than 400 screens and guess their fates.

I'll start with an easy one: Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd (316 screens). This is Burton and Johnny Depp's sixth film together, and they bring out the very best instincts in one another. They remind me of no less than Tod Browning and Lon Chaney's sinister collaborations during the silent era. (Their 1927 film The Unknown needs to be seen by everyone.) Depp gets to indulge in his taste for disguise (and funny voices) while Burton taps into his childlike nightmares for new images and ideas. Sure, they will probably never really make a grown-up movie, but several of their collaborations have already stood the test of time, and at least two: Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994) have cracked the edges of cult status. In fact, I'd go so far as to add Burton's Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Depp's Dead Man and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to make a great cult film festival.



It's not much of a stretch to imply that New Line wanted to make The Golden Compass (251 screens) into a profitable cult franchise not unlike The Lord of the Rings. They even cast one of the all-time great cult actors, Christopher Lee, in a small part. But the fact is they forgot to make a movie that humans could identify with; it's all digital effects and sci-fi terminology. As far as kids' movies go, I think Enchanted (226 screens) will have a much longer life. It's not perfect; it doesn't go very far in establishing and following a coherent universe, but it's full of wonderful jokes and songs that somehow manage to both skewer and pay homage to Disney cartoons. I also hope that families will eventually re-discover the neglected Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (90 screens).

Bad horror films have always had a strange allure to cults. When I was a teenager a group of my friends was inexplicably drawn to an awful film called Frankenstein Island, and I have taken great pleasure in films like The Unearthly, The Fear Chamber and Monster Dog. And of course, Plan 9 from Outer Space is the granddaddy of them all. This may be a stretch, but I suspect that One Missed Call (122 screens) could be one of these, for the simple reason that it's bad in a kind of laid-back way rather than bad in an aggressive way. Some horror films assault you and leave you angry and exhausted, but One Missed Call is more moody and atmospheric, not to mention laughable. It also has the advantage of a cultish cast: Shannyn Sossamon, Ray Wise and Meagan Good in the "Janet Leigh role."

The Orphanage (98 screens) is another easy one. Any above-average horror film sticks around forever, returning every year at Halloween, although this one -- with its powerful, maternal drama -- may have a harder time finding a passionate audience of young males. Frank Darabont's The Mist (4 screens) is a little iffier; it's effective in certain ways, but it's preachy and oppressive in other ways. Other current movies that have a chance at cult status include: Todd Hayne's "rock" film I'm Not There (50 screens), Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream (45 screens), which will be re-evaluated someday; Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (25 screens), Teeth (13 screens), and possibly The Darjeeling Limited and Youth Without Youth (10 screens each).

Then we have a list of movies that will definitely not be cult films, movies that try too hard with too little risk, like Charlie Wilson's War (318 screens), The Kite Runner (174 screens) or In the Valley of Elah (9 screens), but I thought I would close with three genuine cult classics that have already earned their status and have proven it with theatrical revivals. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (5 screens) is one of my favorite films, a sci-fi classic with low-tech visuals and a refreshing lack of technological jibber-jabber. Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain (1 screen) is a bizarre work of hubris of the type rarely seen anymore, even with today's giant-sized egos. And Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva (1 screen) is a highly designed, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink mishmash. Looking at these three proves that the key ingredient for culthood is a little madness.