Spend time on almost any Hollywood star's IMDB page and somewhere on their resume you'll a stand-out independent film (indie, from here on out, because that’s what the film-school kids in berets call them). This is probably because indies are sacred and fertile ground for creativity, free from the pressures of big budgets and studio meddling, where the careers of Brie Larsons are born, where Robert Pattinson-level stars go to experiment, where the narratives of Spike Leeim电竞官网-s and Jon Favreaus percolate.
im电竞官网-Indies have been around for as long as filmmaking has been around – an independent film is essentially any movie without one of the big studios backing it, which includes everything from Charlie Chaplin's first rebellions against the studio system, up to the blaxploitation films of the early Seventies.
But even though there have been 'indies' ever since Thomas Edison first monopolised filmmaking technology, the movement was arguably defined in the Nineties, when breakout hits like Pulp Fiction and Sex, Lies and Videotapeim电竞官网- made household names of their stars and directors. These were creative, challenging films that nevertheless found mainstream audiences (and tens of millions of dollars), which led to the powerhouse studios hoovering up independent film companies.
But the indie spirit is remarkably resilient to corporatisation. The dawn of the digital era in the 21st century democratised the movie-making process. With film-makers now able to shoot, distribute and market their films on budgets that would once barely have covered a day's film stock, they're free to experiment in ways once unthinkable. Today, 'indie' is less a genre and more an attitude – an anti-corporate, fiercely independent approach to filmmaking that tells the stories that big studios won't, often in ways they'd never consider (at least, not until an indie filmmaker has proved it can be done profitably). These, then, are 14 of the best indie movies made in the last four decades, and proof that the indie flame burns, somewhere, in anyone who loves cinema.
This was the first movie for indie darling writer-director Lynn Shelton – who passed away recently from a blood disorder – that put Shelton and her Seattle-based group of filmmaking friends on the map. Like all her movies, Humpday (starring Mark Duplass, an frequent collaborator, alongside Joshua Leonard) is based on fierce friendship and impossibly funny circumstances. This one? Two friends end up daring each other to make a porno in order to enter the local porn festival. Shelton was prolific in her reach throughout the indie film world, and it’s hard to pick just one for this list. If you like Humpday – and you will – seek out Your Sister’s Sister (2011), Touchy Feely and Laggies (2014).
Short Term 12 (2013)
Short Term 12 is one of those movies that you watch, and you’re left feeling both elated and depressed. Which is what any good indie should strive for, we think. A quiet story that follows at-risk youth workers and the kids they treat as so much more than just their day job, this film was written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the guy who's now helming Marvel’s latest comic book instalment, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. So, clearly, he did something right. The movie was also the breakout for not just one of today’s most sought after actors – Brie Larson – but four more hot commodities: Lakeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek and John Gallagher Jr.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
While the 1980 Italian film, Cannibal Holocaust, is credited as the first horror to use the found-footage model, it’s The Blair Witch Project – which made almost 500 times its $500,000 budget at the box office – that inspired a slew of shaky-camera lookalikes. It’s documentary-style shooting, mostly a kind of proto-selfie view up the protagonists' snotty noses – really freaked audiences out, because it felt like they might be watching something real. Plus, the set up makes you believe it could totally be real too: three film students travel into the woods to make a documentary on the legend of the local witch and their footage is found a year later. Boo!
Lost In Translation (2003)
This was Sofia Coppola’s first original feature screenplay and really set her apart from her father as an auteur, especially after it won her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The story follows the unlikely connection between a faded movie star (played by Bill Murray) and a young woman (played by Scarlett Johansson) whose husband is a dick but drags her around the world with him anyway. With a backdrop of visually stunning Tokyo, the film is a fantasy that anyone who’s ever felt lonely can relate to.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie Darko is… Donnie Darko is a… well, no one is really entirely sure what Donnie Darkoim电竞官网- is, but they all can agree that it was flipping fantastic. A sophomore film from a very young Richard Kelly – starring a very young Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone – the film nearly flopped upon release as its opening scenes involved an airplane engine falling from the sky, which wasn't well-received when it hit cinemas about a month after 9/11. It’s since found a huge cult following and remains Kelly's seminal work.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Spike Lee’s second feature film shot him into the indie cinema firmament, winning him The Award of the Youth at Cannes and Best First Feature at the Spirit Awards (the Oscars of the indie world). The dramedy was ahead of its time in portraying subjects like female sexuality and empowerment, through the story of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and her three lovers while pursuing a career in visual art. The film was so ahead of its time that in 2017, Netflix revitalised it with a modernised series.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
If you were lucky enough to catch Beasts of the Southern Wild in a theatre – or better yet, in a theatre at Sundance where it premiered – you’d have experienced a soul-shifting, fantastical tale of youth and hope, of make believe and very real problems that plague the parishes of Louisiana. Written and directed by then newcomer Benh Zeitlin, the film went on to garner four Oscar nods, including a Best Actress tip for Quvenzhané Wallis, who at nine years old was the youngest person ever nominated in that category. The fierce little one leads a cast of mostly non-actors in an allegorical tale about climate change and family bonds.
“A hooker tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart.”
We thought we might just leave it at that, since as synopses go, it’s pretty perfect. Shot completely on iPhones in the neighbourhood of West Hollywood – known for its doughnuts, Russian mafia and, of course, hookers – Tangerine has got something for everyone. Using first-time actors and former trans sex workers, this movie stunned audiences with its gumption and its heart.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Derek Connolly, who would go on to write both Jurassic World films and Star Wars IXim电竞官网-, won a Spirit Award for Best New Screenplay for this oddball sci-fi rom-com. Starring Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass (an indie film world veteran), the story starts with a wanted ad in the newspaper – Kenneth (Duplass) is looking for a partner to time travel with. Darius (Plaza) is just bored and curious enough to reply, and so ensues a quirky love story between space and time and two humans.
Both Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn had been bopping around Hollywood with minor roles in TV and movies before they got together to make Swingers, a story about two wannabe actors bopping around Hollywood trying to be cool and get girls. The meta thing worked, clearly, and Swingers (Favreau’s first screenplay and both his and Vaughn’s first lead role) became a forever hit. It grossed nearly 20 times what it cost to make it, video rentals soared for decades after and it added “Vegas, Baby!” and “You’re so money” to our vernacular.
Moonlightim电竞官网- takes its place in the canon of great indie films not only because it rose through the ranks to win three Oscars, including best picture (it was also nominated for five others), but because it is a film that stops us in our tracks. It brings the viewer inside and holds their hand while they wade in the cold and dark waters of a young man who hardly anyone sees. The film, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, follows a young black man struggling with his identity and his sexuality amidst the everyday struggles of adolescence in Miami.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Stories of dysfunctional families do really well because, for the most part, they’re really relatable. And while much of the real-life dysfunction that happens within family units doesn’t result in a happy ending, that’s precisely why we watch movies like Little Miss Sunshine. This little engine that could was so relatable, and offered such escapism from our doldrums, that it went on to be Oscar-nominated for Best Picture. The film is about a young girl – not traditional beauty pageant material – who is determined to get into the finals, with the undeterred help of her family. And though we’d seen adorable Abigail Breslin before in M Night Shyamalan’s Signs, this was certainly her breakout role.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
More sunshine, less fun. Even if it was all sci-fi, the fact that this film showed a procedure that allowed people to erase each other from their respective minds really hit a nerve. Eternal Sunshine gave all heartbroken souls hope. Michel Gondry – a prolific music video director – wrote the script (his first feature) with Charlie Kaufman (who’d penned Being John Malkovichim电竞官网-, another weird and wonderful indie film, five years previous). They cast two mega stars – Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey – and put them into roles no one had ever seen them in before. Poof! Movie magic was made.
Blue Ruin (2013)
Writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier had made precisely one film prior to the gritty Blue Ruin, but this one that became the indie darling and marked him as a deft and resourceful psychological thriller auteur. Blue Ruin, starring his best friend, Macon Blair, is a revenge drama about an amateur assassination gone wrong, with surprising cinematic aesthetics given its modest budget.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Quentin Tarantino's debut didn't make much noise when it was first released. But when its follow-up, Pulp Fiction, broke box office records two years later, critics and the public went back and discovered a blood-soaked gem that was, arguably, even better. His frenetic tale of a jewellery heist gone south helped was as inspired as it was inspiring, steering audiences towards Hong Kong action cinema and setting the template for every pop culture-referencing, black-suited gangster since.
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