Designations like "action," "romance," and "horror" are all overarching genres that don't need much more explaining to the theater-going public, but the same can't be said for films tagged as "indie movies." So what exactly does that term mean?
An easy explanation is that they're projects which exist outside of the traditional Hollywood studio system. Another school of thought is that they're films that don't cost very much; usually hovering at about the $5 million mark which would probably cover craft services on a Michael Bay feature. Finally still, they could actually be films that originate from a major Hollywood system — with a decent budget — but whose themes have come to represent the indie movie genre like an eccentric main character, dysfunctional families, addiction, etc.
Perhaps the easiest answer is that indie movies could check one — or all three — of those boxes. And the one's that really stand out don't suffer from a smaller budget, nor do they seem preachy and weird for the sake of being artistic.
We've compiled a list of what we believe to be some of the most important independent movies out there that have shaped cinema and pop culture, and that we believe every Highsnobiety reader should see at least once. Read on for more.
Year: 1996 Director: Wes Anderson Budget: $7 million Rotten Tomatoes: 85 percent Editor's note: Bottle Rocket marked the feature directorial debut for Wes Anderson, as well as on-screen firsts for both Owen and Luke Wilson. Although the film still found Anderson searching for what would become his signature sensibilities — impeccable production design working in harmony with a whimsical narrative — the heist film still manages to entertain throughout.
Year: 2006 Director: Rian Johnson Budget: $500,000 Rotten Tomatoes: 79 percent Editor's note: Whereas we today equate Rian Johnson's name with the Star Wars universe, and some of the signature episodes of Breaking Bad, he had to get his start somewhere. Brick is a hardboiled detective story about a gumshoe on the case of a missing girl. Only, this is not your classic Humphrey Bogart type of story. Instead, Johnson has transported the genre into a high school setting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his protagonist. The film will probably best be remembered for its dialogue which feels like it's been torn from the pages of pulpy 1940s comic books.
City of God
Year: 2003 Director: Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund Rotten Tomatoes: 91 percent Budget: $3.3 million Editor's note: Set in the 1970s Rio favelas — a locale itself which was enlightening to audiences who didn't watch many foreign indie movies at the time — City of God introduced us all to a cast of characters who were all deeply relatable and easy to root for. Whle American films had cemented in our heads that children/kids were immune from death — no matter how dire the situation — the Brazilian film smacked us all in the face with the truth that age is not a discriminating factor when it comes to violence.
Year: 1994 Director: Kevin Smith Rotten Tomatoes: 88 percent Budget: $27,575 Editor's note: One of director Kevin Smith's best attributes as a filmmaker is understanding that if slightly heightened — say with interesting characters — the minutia of everyday life can make for a riveting indie movie. In this case, his black and white feature about life inside of a convenience store is chock full of the downtime one incurs while working a day job, which is then upended by drama that is wholly relatable to the audience.
Dazed and Confused
Year: 1993 Director: Richard Linklater Budget: $6.9 million Rotten Tomatoes: 91 percent Editor's note: Before there were seminal films exploring teen behavior like American Pie, there was Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused — one of, if not the — prime example of how sticking closely to how people really act in certain situations is a perfect recipe for both quality comedy and drama. High school is a melting pot, and Linklater does an exemplary job at showing how each group can be brought together through a magnetic pull.
Year: 2001 Director: Richard Kelly Budget: $4.5 million Rotten Tomatoes: 87 percent Editor's note: Films that get tagged with the "cult" designation often come from the independent film world. Donnie Darko remains one of the prime examples of how an unproven star — set against an unlikely premise — can produce cinema magic. Perhaps there's something to be said for coming from so far out of left field that there will always be room for debate. Once people stop talking about a film, it feels like it's gone forever. Donnie Darko seems like a film that will never go away.
Year: 2007 Director: Jason Reitman Budget: $6.5 million Rotten Tomatoes: 94 percent Editor's note: Whereas a film like Dazed and Confused existed in a spiritual plane where the teenage mindset was messy and complicated, Juno has a polished quality thanks to the snappy dialogue by writer Diablo Cody. Sure, it may be a little too refined and perfect, but in Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), Cody and Reitman give us an unapologetic and brave young woman whose viewpoint still resonates as fresh.
Year: 1995 Director: Larry Clark Budget: $1.5 million Rotten Tomatoes: 46 percent Editor's note: In order to achieve an authentic depiction of teenage life, sometimes you have to abandon the safety that trained actors provide in favor of the real people that drew a filmmaker to a project in the first place. Kids is a prime example of an indie movie that feels so genuinely authentic that if provided without context, one could mistake it for a documentary.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Year: 1999 Director: Guy Ritchie Budget: $1.35 million Rotten Tomatoes: 75 percent Editor's note: It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that Guy Ritchie rewrote the rules of the gangster flick by injecting a bit of humor and slapstick behavior into the genre. What's particularly brilliant about Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is that the film never borders on farce territory; instead, we get well fleshed out characters whose criminality exists as a necessity rather than simply as a plot device.
Lost in Translation
Year: 2003 Director: Sofia Coppola Budget: $4 million Rotten Tomatoes: 95 percent Editor's note: Lost in Translation was a certifiable hit — grossing $119 million on a meager $4 million budget. Aside from Sofia Coppola's excellent screenplay and direction, the film's success rests heavily on the shoulders of both Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson who are completely believable in the roles of a debonair, aging movie star, and a young wife whose self-worth is attached to her husband's success. Perhaps one of the best moments in the film was Coppola's ending; it wasn't tidy or neat. It allowed the characters to share something that wasn't meant for the audience — which felt both genuine, and something that they earned.
Year: 1973 Director: Martin Scorsese Budget: $500,000 Rotten Tomatoes: 96 percent Editor's note: Mean Street's was Martin Scorsese's baptism in the gangster genre. His first meditation on New York criminality wouldn't of course be his last. The film is quieter than other classics like Goodfellas and Casino. Those films spin epic yarns, while Mean Streets is a much more intimate and personal film where we come to understand how small time hoods either graduate to bigger and more grandiose criminal enterprises, or they end up leaving the life all together.
Year: 2001 Director: Christopher Nolan Budget: $9 million Rotten Tomatoes: 92 percent Editor's note: At its most basic level, Memento is a "whodunit" story about a man looking to identify who raped and murdered his wife. In the hands of a regular director, the plot would have probably played out with a few minor twists and turns. But in the hands of Christopher Nolan, we get a non-linear investigation that obliterates the senses thanks to a main character who no longer has any short-term memory. Hamstrung, guilt-ridden, and violent, our conduit into this world is unlike anything people had ever seen at the time.
Year: 2004 Director: Jared Hess Budget: $400,000 Rotten Tomatoes: 71 percent Editor's note: Napoleon Dynamite has all the makings of what could have been an emotional drama. There's the unstable home life, the lack of friends, and the shady uncle. Thankfully, Jared Hess avoided tugging at the clichés in favor of focusing on one of the more memorable characters in recent cinema history. Napoleon Dynamite is enviable because he's comfortable in his own skin. While he may be perceived as a nerd or social outcast, his existence is full of bliss.
Year: 1994 Director: Quentin Tarantino Budget: $8.5 million Rotten Tomatoes: 94 percent Editor's note: Despite his string of big-budget success in recent years, Quentin Tarantino has the spirit of an indie movie director. That is to say, he's not thinking like the past masters he reveres so much. Rather, he channels the elements that made their films work so well and put his own unique twist on them. In Pulp Fiction, the world is ripe with morally questionable people attempting to get by. Rather than jamming them into a single narrative, Tarantino lets them live on their own before artfully bringing each story together.
She's Gotta Have It
Year: 1986 Director: Spike Lee Budget: $175,000 Rotten Tomatoes: 90 percent Editor's note: Spike Lee's first feature film was a showcase of female empowerment. The protagonist, Nola Darling, was a character who as the title suggests, got what she wanted, without fear of judgement of how her sexual appetite and unwillingness to commit to one man would be perceived.
Year: 1992 Director: Quentin Tarantino Budget: $1.2 million Rotten Tomatoes: 91 percent Editor's note: Before there was Pulp Fiction, there was Reservoir Dogs. One could make the argument without the latter — which gave Tarantino his first taste at the director's chair following his writing debut on True Romance — everything else could have ended up stuck in the auteur's brain without anyone willing to finance his ideas. The story itself is rather straight forward; a bank robbery gone bad. But in the hands of Tarantino, we get an almost single-location film that feels claustrophobic and downright maniacal.
Requiem for a Dream
Year: 2000 Director: Darren Aronofsky Budget: $4.5 million Rotten Tomatoes: 79 percent Editor's note: Addiction is often handled as a character trait rather than given a proper and thorough examination of the disease. We've all seen the hard-boiled detective who drinks too much, or the hapless stoner, but Darren Aronofsky's film instead chooses to focus on how the reliance on chemicals completely erodes the body and mind.
sex, lies, and videotape
Year: 1989 Director: Steven Soderbergh Budget: $1.2 million Rotten Tomatoes: 96 percent Editor's note: It could be argued that director, Steven Soderbergh, did more for the indie movie genre than any other director thanks to the success of his 1989 film which took home the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to gross over $36 million. Considered risqué at the time, sex, lies, and videotape was a jolt to the senses and seems to have predicted the voyeuristic appeal of watching other people's romances go up in flames on reality TV.
Year: 1996 Director: Doug Liman Budget: $250,000 Rotten Tomatoes: 87 percent Editor's note: Credit Doug Liman for his impeccable casting of then-unknowns Jon Favreau as a heartbroken comedian, and Vince Vaughn as his fast-talking best friend. Together, they navigate the Los Angeles dating scene to great laughs and terrible, cringe-worthy moments.
The Big Lebowski
Year: 1998 Director: The Coen Brothers Budget: $15 million Rotten Tomatoes: 82 percent Editor's note: If you had to have ventured a guess, chances are you wouldn't have picked The Big Lebowski as the most expensive entry on this list. Perhaps the A-list class had something to do with it, or elaborate scenes involving Jeff Bridges rolling down a bowling lane costing a pretty penny in post. The Big Lebowski was a dud when it hit theaters, but over time, it has become one of the biggest cult classics in cinematic history.
The Usual Suspects
Year: Director: Bryan Singer Budget: $6 million Rotten Tomatoes: 89 percent Editor's note: In the wake of startling allegations against both Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer, it would easy to cancel The Usual Suspects for good. But if you're willing to separate the artists from the art, the film contains one of the most artfully rendered twists ever. The Usual Suspects is not a one-note film — just like The Sixth Sense which also contains a heavy reversal in the end — and instead is a thoroughly vibrant ride with an unreliable narrator that Akira Kurosawa would be proud of.
Year: 2014 Director: Damien Chazelle Budget: $3.3 million Rotten Tomatoes: 93 percent Editor's note: The words "jazz band" and "thriller" don't usually go hand in hand in constructing a polished narrative. But in the world of independent film, the two can not only coexist, but play off one another to great effect. In the case of Whiplash, it's achieved by the contrasting personalities of a drumming savant, and a power-hungry teacher — who despite their differences — are united in the idea that music can be executed perfectly.
Year: 2010 Director: Debra Granik Budget: $2 million Rotten Tomatoes: 94 percent Editor's note: Although we now think of Jennifer Lawrence as an Academy Award-winning actress for her work on Silver Linings Playbook, she had to get her start somewhere. Winter's Bone technically wasn't her first feature, but it was the first production where the narrative was placed squarely on her shoulders. As Ree, Lawrence shows a resiliency and determination of a rural teenage girl looking to find her father at all costs.