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 Lees and Jon Favreaus percolate.
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 Videotape 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.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
There was considerable hoo-ha surrounding director Noah Baumbach’s recent intense divorce drama, Marriage Story, not only because of the stand-out performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, but also the speculation about its relation to Baumbach’s own split from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. But for a slightly lighter take on divorce (emphasis on slightly), we’d recommend Baumbach’s 2005 comedy-drama, told from the perspective of two boys (Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg) watching in confusion and bewilderment as their parents (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) got through an uncoupling of the decidedly unconscious kind.
Winter's Bone (2010)
Set in the rural Ozarks, director Debra Granik’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name is a gritty, engrossing drama about 17-year-old Ree Dolly, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who is trying to hold her impoverished family together after her meth-manufacturing pop skips out on them. Matters take an even darker turn when she discovers the family home has been put up as part of his bail bond, so she sets out to find him, dead or alive, before she loses everything. The film deservedly won a Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 2010, as well as earning four Oscar nominations; the cast and crew may have left the Kodak Theater empty-handed on the night, but Lawrence walked away a bona fide star.
Director Bong Joon Ho’s black comedy – about a poor family, the Kims, fraudulently entering the service of a wealthy family, the Parks – was one of the most talked-about films of 2019, not just for its shockingly stark portrayal of wealth disparity in South Korean society, but also because it was the very first foreign language film to win the “best picture” Oscar – a shameful fact in and of itself. Thankfully the Oscars effect was considerable: though the film took under $400,000 in its opening weekend in the US (it showed in just three theatres), after the win it went on to gross $53.4m in the States and over $100m worldwide.
Made on a tiny budget and shot in just 19 days, this 2014 film from Damien Chazelle (La La Land, First Man) is electrifying from start to finish. Following young student Andrew (Miles Teller) at Shaffer Conservatory, a prestigious New York music school, Whiplash documents the rigorous practise schedule and abusive treatment the students suffer under psychopathic instructor Terence Fletcher (a never-better JK Simmons, who went on to win an Oscar for the role). As the title suggest, it's a jarring and emotional ride which will engross even those who don't know their hi-hats from their snares.
Before Christopher Nolan was able to command the biggest budgets in Hollywood he was making small budget indie films like Memento: a superbly twisty thriller about an insurance investigator suffering from amnesia which focuses on the slippery concept of memory. Like Nolan's later projects it shows his fascination with time, constructing intricate time loops each time our protagonist's mind is wiped blank and racing against the clock to track down the man who killed his wife.
Frances Ha (2012)
An expert at delving into messy relationships, Noah Baumbach makes poetic films about broken families, warring siblings and marriages falling apart. This 2012 gem features his real life partner, the director Greta Gerwig, as Frances, a zany dancer trying to make it in New York despite feeling constantly rejected by the frenetic city. Told in black and white, and with several breathless scenes which feature Gerwig running or dancing through the streets of the city in one take, the contagious energy in Frances Ha captures what it feels like to be young and lost, but hurtling forwards anyway.
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!
Director Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy – about a poor family, the Kims, fraudulently entering the service of a wealthy family, the Parks – was one of the most talked-about films of 2019, not just for its shockingly stark portrayal of wealth disparity in South Korean society, but also because it was the very first foreign language film to win the “best picture” Oscar – a shameful fact in and of itself. Thankfully the Oscars effect was considerable: though the film took under $400,000 in its opening weekend in the US (it showed in just three theatres), after the win it went on to gross $53.4m in the States and over $100m worldwide.
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 Darko 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 IX, 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.
Moonlight 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 Malkovich, 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 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 on film since.
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