The 25 Essential American Indie Films, 1988-2013

As summer movie season grinds on, one dumbed-down big-budget summer bomb following the next, it’s tempting to give up on cinema altogether (at least until fall — and the “prestige pictures” — arrive). But there are options. Go see an indie! Watch something new and good! Or better yet, catch up on some indie movie history. In the spirit of our year-by-year suggestions for must-read books and must-own albums, we’ve assembled a rundown of the essential American independent films from the past 25 years — by no means a definitive list, but a starting point. The qualification is simple: American films financed and produced outside of the studio system (even if some were eventually distributed by it), and for consistency’s sake, we’ll go with the year of American theatrical release. Some of these will seem obvious choices, others (hopefully) less so; all of them are intended as indicative of what American independent film was up to, and where it was going, in the year in question.

1988: The Thin Blue Line

The documentary form expanded from a PBS and classroom mainstay and into a vital sector of the independent film world over the past 25 years, and you can pin that on many factors: leaps in digital and video technology, accordant drops in production cost, the public acceptance of reality television, etc. But you can also thank Errol Morris, whose sleeper success with this stylish investigative doc proved that, contrary to conventional wisdom, documentaries didn’t have to rely solely on dry talking head interviews and battered archival footage. (Oh, and it got a guy off death row, too, so that’s a pretty big deal.)