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.)
1989: sex, lies, and videotape
The impact of Steven Soderbergh’s debut film cannot be understated: here, at the end of one of the loudest and dumbest decades in Hollywood history, was a movie that was basically about four people talking. It didn’t hurt that they were talking about sex (nothing like a provocative title to pack ‘em in at the art house), but this was, in many ways, the template for the ‘90s indie boom: actors on the rise, low budget, brainy subject matter, muted but memorable style. The picture’s surprise win at Cannes and successful wide release via up-and-coming distributor Miramax jump-started the upcoming indie movement — and, nice bonus, the picture holds up well (even Andie MacDowell is good in it!).
1990: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Chicago producers Malik and Waleed Ali thought they were just hiring director John McNaughton to make a cheap, quick, lucrative throwaway when they gave him $110,000 to make a 16mm horror flick. What he brought back was something else entirely: a brutal, unnerving, and disturbing picture, loosely based on the confessions of killer Henry Lee Lucas, shot in a flat, eavesdropped style that refused to allow audiences the easy outs of irony and humor provided by most horror films. It sat unreleased for years (and battled with the MPAA, a frequent occurrence in indie-land) before it was finally released in 1990 with strong critical support; it remains tough to sit through, but an important moment in modern independent cinema’s expansion into rough violence and taboo subject matter.
Newcomer Richard Linklater spent $23,000 on this shambling, rambling, and oddly innovative love letter to his beloved Austin, Texas. With no plot to speak of and admittedly rough production values and performances, its subsequent cult success proved one of the tenets of the indie era: audiences were just fine with no-name stars and low budgets, so long as they were employed to tell a story they hadn’t heard before.
1992: Reservoir Dogs
A first-time writer/director with an odd manner and a video-store résumé became the talk of the 1992 Sundance Film Festival with his bloody, funny, inventive, and über-violent tale of a heist gone awry. Reservoir Dogs didn’t make much of a splash in its original domestic release (a notion that seems impossible from this vantage point), but it became a cult phenomenon here and abroad, its reconfigured genre trappings begetting countless imitators. And that barely 30-year-old filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, would become independent cinema’s foremost rock star.
1993: El Mariachi
Twenty-three-year-old director Robert Rodriguez raised $7000 for his debut feature, mostly via an extended stay in a lab facility, where he was a human guinea pig in a drug trial. While there, he wrote this simple story of mistaken identity in a small border town, intending to make it as cheaply as possible and sell it to the Mexican home video market. Instead, its kinetic action sequences and roughhouse style caught the eye of Columbia Pictures, which cleaned it up, blew it up, and gave it a big-screen release, making Rodriguez the hero to a generation of DIY filmmakers.
New Jersey convenience store clerk Kevin Smith was inspired to shake off his 20-something ennui and pick up a camera by a late-night visit to NYC for a screening of Slacker. His response (roughly: “Hey, if this is a movie, I can make one too!”) inspired Clerks, which consequently inspired countless young filmmakers itself. Smith learned early on the most valuable lesson of the young indie moviemaker: use what you’ve got. So he shot at his job (and the video store next door, where he also pulled shifts) during closing hours, still working his day shifts during production. The resulting film was wildly uneven and looked like hell, but it had a unique voice and quotable dialogue, and captured something specific and indelible about Generation X.
1995: The Usual Suspects
It would be easy to dismiss — as some did at the time — Bryan Singer’s indie noir riff as Tarantino Lite, one of the countless imitators that emerged from the long shadow of Reservoir Dogs and 1994’s Pulp Fiction. But Suspects was its own beast, an ingenious puzzle movie that challenged how viewers (and filmmakers) approached the mere act of storytelling.
1996: Bottle Rocket
Five years after Slacker, another indie star was born in the Lone Star State when Wes Anderson first brought his idiosyncratic, deadpan vision of American life to the screen. Bottle Rocket’s low budget meant he wasn’t able to exhibit the kind of obsessive control over design elements that would come to define his aesthetic — and as a result, this first feature feels more like Anderson’s vision captured in the wild.
1997: In the Company of Men
Playwright-turned-filmmaker Neil LaBute’s debut film sparked fierce discussion at festivals and indie houses across the country for presenting a brutal, sour, and arguably misogynistic portrait of gender roles and relations in the modern workplace — and treating them as nothing less than warfare. Filmed for a pittance with unknown actors in a flat, unobtrusive style, the picture launched the careers of LaBute and star Aaron Eckhart, and kicked off a wave of provocative “men behaving badly” pictures that would dominate indie screens for years to come.
Mainstream independent cinema tended to fall into easily defined categories of chatty relationship dramas, chatty relationship comedies, and chatty crime pictures. Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature blew up those classifications by floating the notion that a micro-budget ($60,000) indie film could also work as a sci-fi thriller. Shot in high-contrast super-16mm black-and-white film with the look of a paranoid nightmare, Pi was distinctive, scary, and dazzling.
1999: The Blair Witch Project
No-budget filmmaking went very, very big in the summer of 1999, when the national cinematic conversation was dominated by another $60,000 movie that rode a tasty premise and ingenious marketing campaign all the way to a $140 million gross. Its widespread success confirmed that audiences were just fine with films that were shot on video, a format that had earlier been shut out of multiplexes; indie cinema would never be the same.
2000: George Washington
Long before he became the dubious king of stoner comedy, David Gordon Green made a considerable splash with this modest, lyrical, and remarkable indie drama. At the time, it was as remarkable for what it was as for what it was not: a film more about observed behavior than impeccably crafted (and pop culture-obsessed) dialogue, less about performance than mere presence.
Christopher Nolan made a considerable splash with this, his second film, a marvelous wind-up toy of a picture that took the tools of noir style, unreliable narrators, and shuffle-the-deck chronology and assembled them into something both smashingly familiar and astonishingly fresh and new.
Since sex, lies, and videotape, independent film has been blessed by the ability to go further into the realm of human sexuality that the majors were willing to tread. And that brings us to Steven Shainberg’s strange, daring, and altogether affectionate boy-meets-girl-and-they-find-an-arrangement-that-works story — which looked at the kind of relationship that doesn’t usually make it into movies, and did so without any of the baggage that usually shows up when they do.
2003: American Splendor
Documentary filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini fused the conventions of fiction and non-fiction to delightful effect with this biographical portrait of everyman cartoonist Harvey Pekar. With a loosey-goosey structure that made room for the real thing, the actor playing him, and his animated incarnation, Splendor made clear that the staid and boring conventions of the “biopic” could be subverted, with playfulness and verve.
The heir apparent to Pi, Shane Carruth’s brainy time travel story (made for all of $7000) flipped convention and focused squarely on the “science” half of the science fiction equation. Terse, thoughtful, and utterly convincing, Primer (and Donnie Darko a few years earlier) eschewed the dumbed-down requirements of a mass audience, instead crafting the kind of dense, difficult narratives that require repeat viewings from dedicated obsessives.
2005: Funny Ha Ha
Those involved in the movement would detest its moniker, but “mumblecore” became the defining independent film movement of the back half of the ‘00s, merging a DIY work ethic, improvisational tendencies, and an up-close (insular, its detractors would argue) worldview. Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha was one of the instigating moments of the movement, a rough-edged character study with a spiky sensibility and off-the-cuff charm.
2006: Half Nelson
The weightless acting of Ryan Gosling and open, inviting filmmaking of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden found each other’s ideal compliment in this scrappy, searing indie drama. This fascinating story of a drug-addled teacher and the student he reaches out to managed to artfully dodge the clichés of addiction narratives and White Savior dramas — or, saving that, to bracingly comment on them.
After years of absence and forgettable toss-offs, William Friedkin came roaring back to life with this taut, raw, powerful examination of fear, paranoia, and madness in an Oklahoma motel room. Coaxing a career-best performance out of Ashley Judd and a star-making turn from Michael Shannon, Friedkin proved unequivocally that vibrant independent cinema is far from merely a young man’s game.
2008: Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman, screenwriting master of the cinematic mindfuck, made his directorial debut with this big, bold, weird look at what happens when a man’s life becomes his life’s work, and vice versa. Its absurdist style and overwhelming sadness alienated even the most diehard art-house viewers, but no less an authority than Roger Ebert proclaimed it the best film of the decade.
The rest of director Lee Daniels’ filmography may well be borderline unwatchable, but he got something very right with this tenderly crafted and sensitively acted story of a young woman who discovers that, contrary to what everyone and everything around her indicates, she has worth. It is a classical tragedy in the Greek sense, and runs its characters (and viewers) through a wringer of pity and terror on the way to its devastating catharsis.
2010: Winter’s Bone
A young sitcom actress named Jennifer Lawrence made a sublime breakthrough in this snowy, scary, and powerful drama from director Debra Granik. While many independent filmmakers seize on the beauty and folksiness of rural locations, Granik masterfully conveys their danger — it’s a film that richly evokes a specific time and place, and leaves the viewer with a harrowed sense of having been there just a hair too long.
2011: Take Shelter
The end of the world has been an increasingly popular topic for cinema over the past few years, with everyone from Seth Rogen to Lars von Trier taking a stab at the zeitgeist’s obsession with the apocalypse. But director Jeff Nichols may well have done it best, by keeping it simple and personal: his protagonist (the great Michael Shannon, again) is so thoroughly, totally convinced that the end is nigh that his dread pervades the entire picture.
2012: The Middle of Nowhere
The dearth of women of color in the director’s chair has been a problem both in studio and independent films, but publicist-turned-filmmaker Ava DuVernay is spearheading a new renaissance of black cinema (partially by using the tools of her former career). But she’s not just a savvy promoter — she’s also a helluva filmmaker, crafting this sublime story of a talented young woman who has put her life on hold while the man she loves is behind bars. It’s the kind of deeply felt and keenly observed storytelling indie cinema is supposed to be all about; it’s also a tip towards the sort of diversity in cinema that the coming years will hopefully make the norm rather than the exception.
And 2013 (so far): Before Midnight
And when you come down to it, this may be the purest distillation of the independent cinema: a camera and two people, having a conversation. But it’s not as simple as that (it never is); director Richard Linklater and his star/co-writers have, for three films (thus far) burrowed into the nooks and crannies of conversation, and here come up with a portrait of marriage that is both tender and terrifying. Its release this summer dominated conversations among independent film fans and critics, and for good reason, because this is what indie cinema can be: movies about grown-ups, for grown-ups, by grown-ups.