I’ve hosted quite a few projector nights over the years, including a few float-and-watch in-the-pool parties (which are the best!). I’ve found that certain movies play better than others in this type of setting, and there’s definitely a formula to follow for optimum fun. First, the movie needs to be lighthearted enough for people to feel comfortable interjecting their own commentary, talking, and laughing throughout. Movies with a strong seasonal theme make for memorable nights—and of course, a killer soundtrack never hurts. With all that in mind, I’ve rounded up 15 cult classic movies that would be perfect for your next backyard movie night.
I’m assuming you already know about Dirty Dancing and Blue Crush, so this list focuses on a few great summer films you might have missed. (Be sure to put the kids to bed first, because some of these aren’t exactly family-friendly.)
Even if you don’t have an outdoor movie setup happening, there’s something particularly special about summertime cult classic movies. It’s about the vibe, you know? That said, if you are looking to get an outdoor movie night going, there are plenty of projectors available on Amazon at a variety of price points, so it’s the kind of summer activity that can be in reach for all.
It’s time to break out the projector and popcorn and sink into summer with one of these 15 backyard cult classic movies.
featured photo by buff strickland
Inherent Vice, 2014.
Follow drug-fueled private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) through 1970s beachside California as he tries to track down a missing ex-girlfriend. This is a stoner romp that pays tribute to The Big Lebowski, while still being its own wonderfully weird thing. Directed by P.T. Anderson.
Dazed and Confused, 1993.
Richard Linklater’s cult classic just celebrated its 25th birthday, and it’s still just as watchable (and quotable) as it was in 1993. A group of bored teenagers search for something to do in small-town Texas on the first night of summer in 1976, dropping hilarious insights and theories along the way. Be sure and follow up by watching the McConaughey audition tape afterward. You’re welcome, ladies.
This is a summer story like you’ve never seen before. Shot completely on iPhone, Sean Baker’s award-winning film follows transgender sex worker Sin De-Rella and best friend Alexandra as they attempt to track down her cheating boyfriend/pimp Chester in West Hollywood. This little movie about friendship is pure heart, with plenty of swag to boot.
Lords of Dogtown, 2005.
I’ve honestly never understood why this movie is so poorly reviewed. Maybe it’s because Dogtown and Z Boys (a documentary about the same group of guys) is so good. In any case, I really like Lords of Dogtown, and so does Chanel. It’s based on the true story of the guys in Venice Beach who invented modern skateboarding and was written by one of them himself. This movie has major 70s summer vibes, the skateboarding scenes are really fun, and the cast is adorable. You only thought you were over skater guys.
If you’re too young to remember when Johnny Depp was hot (and I mean crazy hot) then this movie is your next assignment. He and Penelope Cruz are FIRE in this biopic about cocaine lords George Jung, Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder Riva. Blow is (much like a certain substance) a real fun ride that seems like it could keep going forever. Until it doesn’t.
Three geeky high school friends (who happen to be obsessed with 90s hip hop) find themselves accidentally entangled in a drug deal gone wrong in this lighthearted comedy set in Inglewood, California. Dope was a big hit at SXSW a few years ago, and cast members Zoe Kravitz and Shameik Moore have already gone on to big things.
Little Darlings, 1980.
This coming-of-age film is a true cult classic. You’ll recognize a very young Cynthia Nixon (aka Miranda) among a group of girls spending the summer at a camp in Georgia. When two of the 15-year-old campers make a bet about who can lose their virginity first, the entire camp gets involved. This is definitely the most serious film on our list (in tone) but a classic summer movie nonetheless.
Bottle Rocket, 1996.
This is Wes Anderson’s first feature-length film and the one that launched his career (as well as brothers Owen and Luke Wilson.) It’s a great little road trip movie, and it’s fun to see the trademarks of the director’s style already present in a low-budget indie. Three friends embark on a half-baked crime spree through West Texas, never quite escaping the mundane realities of regular life.
This would be a really fun one for a float-and-watch party, especially because it’s a concert documentary (so plenty of time to chat with friends during songs.) Wattstax was a benefit concert hosted by Stax Records in 1972 on the anniversary of the 1965 riots in the African-American community of Watts, Los Angeles. With great performances by Isaac Hayes, Luther Ingram, and Pops Staples, Wattstax is dripping with seventies style and attitude. This film is a serious window into African American culture in the 70s, and one of our fave cult classic movies—with lots of humor and fun moments along the way.
Wet Hot American Summer, 2001.
This camp spoof is definitely divisive (critics and audiences generally hated it when it was released back in 2001.) But since then it’s gained a cult following, and Netflix even revived it as a series in 2015. The counseling staff of Camp Firewood attempt to make romantic connections as the summer term comes to an end in 1981, while also putting on the greatest talent show, Camp Firewood has ever seen.
The Big Lebowski, 1998
It doesn’t get much more iconic than The Dude! This movie is stacked with big-name stars like Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, and the beloved Philip Seymour Hoffman—all of whom deliver bombastic, wild, and hilarious performances. This ragtag group of bowling buddies goes on an unforgettable adventure with silly, yet high, stakes and a lot of laughs.
Empire Records, 1995
Empire Records is up there with Reality Bites and High Fidelity as what may possibly be one of the most quintessential films about Gen X. Liv Tyler is at her most angelic, Renee Zellweger couldn’t be cooler, and sweet Ethan Embry is as cute as can be. This cult classic movie takes place during 24 hours and explores the lives of the young employees at a record store that is in peril of being bought by a larger company.
Romeo + Juliet, 1996
I hate to play favorites, but there was something particularly formative about Baz Luhrman’s sexy take on Romeo and Juliet for those of us who were coming of age in the mid-90s. This film takes one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, retains the original dialogue, and juxtaposes it with modern clothing, music, and style. The soundtrack alone makes this film a standout, and stunning performances from Claire Danes, Harold Perrineau, and John Leguizamo elevate it to more than just a teen romance.
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998
Based on the classic book by Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing features one of Johnny Depp’s most iconic performances. Not for the faint of heart, it follows a journalist and his insane lawyer on a drug-fueled road trip to Las Vegas filled with psychedelic escapades.
The Fifth Element, 1997
The Fifth Element has long been considered one of the most significant cult classic movies by film buffs, but in recent years it’s gotten an almost fanatical following—even by those who aren’t normally drawn to sci-fi. Written and directed by Luc Besson, it’s vivid, bold, sexy, and fantastical, with a dash of otherworldly weirdness. It’s the perfect movie to have on in the background during summertime outdoor hangs.
This post was originally published on July 19, 2019, and has since been updated.