What is an independent movie? In all honesty, the term “independent” is such a subjective term that it can have any one of many definitions, depending on the person, to what it may be. In the context of myself, I would suggest that in order for a film to be deemed truly independent, it must fit within two criteria: First, the film’s budget shouldn’t exceed eight million dollars (or it ought to be very close to that amount). Second, the movie must be produced by an independent, non-big corporation agency. Distribution is a different scenario if the movie is picked up by a big-name corporation, who most of the time distribute the movie after it has garnered positive reviews and has the potential to make money.
This then asks a more personal question towards myself: Why do I prefer independent movies? The question can only be answered in the context of dollars. Most movies that are produced by big-name agencies are done with the purpose of making money. It isn’t about the artistry, the raw acting, or even the potential to uncover a dense screenplay; It is about maximizing a profit, which is why Hollywood is in despair currently with a lack of originality and having a reliance on superhero movies and movie remakes.
Independent movies do not have the luxury of having a big corporation to use as a crutch to both promote and provide life support to their finalized product. Instead, independent movies are forced to survive on their own merit and clout, which, when done correctly, their final product occasionally is even better than anything a big-budgeted, studio-backed film could ever do. Independent movies are usually indicative and dependent upon its script, meaning the movie has a foundation it adheres to, while also providing the adequate respect for the writing (which no movie could survive without). Added onto that, the actors within a independent movie, especially big-name celebrities, typically are not involved with the movie for money, but because they have either identified with or believe in the script. This actually instigates a greater devotion to the role they are portraying, which in many cases has given big-name celebrities some of their greatest performances. Overall, to use a sports analogy, independent movies are the underdog of Hollywood movie competition and box-office.
Below are 15 Independent movies, many of whom are tremendously famous now, that all moviegoers ought to see at least once:
Short Cuts (1993)
This Robert Altman film took nine of Raymond Carver’s short stories and combined them into a single 3-hour film that chronicles 5 days in the life with 22 different characters, many of whom intersect with other characters. Short Cuts is a film that perfectly, and sometimes awkwardly, captures the imperfection of life and how life sometimes gets the better of us all, which is done flawlessly with the fusion of comedy and drama. What is especially noteworthy with this film is its impressive cast, many of whom were relatively unknown when they filmed this movie: Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Mathew Modine, Anne Archer, Robert Downey Jr., Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, and Jack Lemmon, to name a few. This is a must see.
Oscar Nomination: Best Director (Robert Altman)
This is the story of a sociopath willing to do anything to become a household name, even if it means manipulating a crime in order to achieve fame. Jake Gyllenhaal got most of the credit for this film, but Nightcrawler’s true achievement was its indictment of the media and their obsession with big ratings and not asking questions when it comes to integrity and morality. Nightcrawler was grossly snubbed at at the 2015 Oscars, especially snubbing Jake Gyllenhaal, who offers the best performance of his career as Lou Bloom.
Budget: $8.5 Million
Oscar Nomination: Best Original Screenplay
A Fish Called Wanda (1989)
John Cleese wrote the script to this hilarious comedy about jewel thieves who are forced to reevaluate their scheming when things do not go exactly as they had initially planned. This movie was essentially Jamie Lee Curtis’ breakthrough movie from horror films to which she is the central character who schemes against others but grows a heart for the most unlikeliest of people. However, the highlight of this film goes to Kevin Kline and his hilarious performance as a self-absorbed idiot who gets offended if anyone calls him stupid.
Budget: $7.5 Million
Oscar Winner: Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Kline)
Oscar Nominations: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay
It’s hard to believe that one of the most famous movies ever made, that has even recently inspired a television anthology series, was actually an independent film, but it was. The movie about the “perfect crime” gone wrong was independently made, risking it from being ignored by mainstream audiences, until its critical acclaim inspired its wider theater distribution. Fargo is a must-see for anyone who wants to be taken seriously as an authority on film.
Budget: $7 Million
Oscar Winner: Best Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Original Screenplay
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing
A Single Man (2009)
Based off of the Christopher Iserwood novel, A Single Man follows George Falconer for a day as he discreetly grieves over the loss of his partner of 15 years, while maintaining “the role” he must exhibit publicly. The film is a beautiful adaptation of the classic novel that perfectly captures the heartbreak and sadness of LGBT individuals in an era when they were not accepted.
Budget: $7 Million
Oscar Nomination: Best Actor (Colin Firth)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Usual Suspects is an extraordinary example of how a script can completely captivate its audience, yet is also reliant of its actors to truly bring out the magic embedded within the sentences of the script. The movie’s narrative is simple yet effective: A murder occurs and a shipping boat is engulfed in flames. The film then goes backwards and the circumstances leading to this event is offered by a survivor, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), who recounts a tale to authorities of coercion and blackmail all for the mysterious and possibly fictitious Keyser Soze.
Budget: $6 Million
Oscar Winner: Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay
The movie isn’t necessarily a biography on the life of renowned novelist Iris Murdock, but instead focuses heavily on the theme of love between herself and her husband. The film chronicles their first encounters together, juxtaposing them with Iris’ eventual battle with Alzheimer’s disease. What is the true gem of this movie is the acting, especially from Jim Broadbent, whose role of Iris’ longtime husband is both heartbreaking and powerful to watch at the same time.
Budget: $5.5 Million
Oscar Winner: Best Supporting Actor (Jim Broadbent)
Oscar Nominated: Best Actress (Judi Dench), Best Supporting Actress (Kate Winslet)
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
When it comes to independent movies, Requiem for a Dream almost always makes the list of must-see films. This is primarily because Requiem provides one of the most brutally honest portrayals of drug addiction and the ramifications of what addiction can do to a person. Additionally, the film’s storytelling is blunt and never strives to give its audience any breaks. However, it is Ellen Burstyn’s extraordinary performance that puts this film at a must-see level with her offering an acting performance unlike anything achieved before or since.
Budget: $4.5 Million
Oscar Nomination: Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn)
Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola finally stepped outside of the shadows of her father and took a real chance with Lost in Translation and succeeded on a level nobody could have possibly anticipated. Lost in Translation is a movie about friendship between two unlikely people within a foreign country that only alienates them further. The film is highly dependent upon its script that showcased subtlety over extravagance and its two leads are so stunning human in this film and devoid of the typical Hollywood stereotypes and cliches that it makes for Lost in Translation to be one of the most honest films made in recent years about interaction and friendship.
Budget: $4 Million
Oscar Winner: Best Original Screenplay
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bill Murray)
Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie Darko is the quintessential cult classic among film buffs, not because the film is campy, but because the film offers something truly unique to moviegoers. Donnie Darko is completely unconventional as a film and that is acceptable given that the film is about a teenager who unwittingly escapes death when his imaginary friend, a six-foot rabbit named Frank, lures him to safety and informs him that the end of the world is near. While Donnie Darko is an excellent fusion of the horror and science-fiction genres, it also functions as a remarkable commentary on society, specifically about those who are deemed to be “outsiders” in a society who labels what normalcy is.
Budget: $3.8 Million
Margin Call (2011)
Margin Call perfectly captures the cutthroat and desperate demeanor of a company determined to stay alive when it’s discovered they do not have any actual revenue to further function as a company. Margin Call spans 24 hours where deception replaces any form of morality and truth becomes a liability. In many regards, Margin Call is loosely based off of the events from the infamous “Black Thursday” instigated by the investment bank, Lehman Brothers, before being forced to declare bankruptcy in 2008.
Budget: $3.5 Million
Oscar Nomination: Best Original Screenplay
Run Lola Run (1998)
Many foreign films are independently made, but the one that ought to be at the top of most lists is the German-made Run Lola Run. The film is a fast-paced narrative where time is a genuine factor within the narrative. The film centers on Lola (Franka Potente) who gets a panicked telephone call from her boyfriend who tells her he botched a money drop for the mob and he needs her to get him $20,000 dollars within 20 minutes. The film then breaks into three separate scenarios, all filmed in the span of twenty minutes, where Lola encounters the same characters and situations, yet each time it’s done slightly differently, therefore the situation changes. Run Lola Run is an effective movie because it firstly allows for the audience to decide for themselves which scenario occurred, but also perfectly captures the concept of cause-and-effect.
Budget: $1.75 Million
In the Bedroom (2001)
No movie captures the idea of raw human emotion better than Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. The film focuses on a family who are met with a sudden circumstance that forever changes their lives. In the Bedroom perfectly captures how individuals may react differently to the same situation, creating distance and resentment between those who once cherished being together. Also worth commending is the stellar acting from this movie, especially from Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, who both arguably gave the best performances of their careers within this film.
Budget: $1.7 Million
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Tom Wilkinson), Best Actress (Sissy Spacek), Best Supporting Actress (Marisa Tomei), Best Adapted Screenplay
Blue Valentine (2010)
The film is uncomfortable to watch from start to finish, but it is still one of the most compelling and honest character studies ever put on film. Blue Valentine presents audiences with a cross-cut narrative of the start and end of a relationship between two vindictive and toxic individuals who got into their relationship for their own subconscious reasons and ultimately have grown to despise each other. The film is gritty, realistic, and an uncomfortable commentary of contemporary relationships.
Budget: $1 Million
Oscar Nomination: Best Actress (Michelle Williams)
Pieces of April (2003)
If there ever was a movie that truly encompassed the claim that a movie doesn’t have to have a big-budget in order for it to be impactful, it is Pieces of April. The film is simple and precise, yet profound and touching. The film occurs on Thanksgiving where April (Katie Holmes) is aiming to host Thanksgiving dinner for her family. This is being done in an attempt to rectify her troubled past with them, especially with her mother (Patricia Clarkson), who has cancer. April’s well-meaning intentions are met with a dilemma when she realizes the day of that her oven is broken and she is unable to cook her turkey, leaving her with the trouble of trying to find an oven she can use before her family arrives. Pieces of April is an endearing film about family and the need for connection. It fuses together drama and comedy and provides a reminder that Thanksgiving is mostly about sharing memories and being there for one another. Added onto this is the must-see performance from Patricia Clarkson, who offered one of the most poignant and beautiful performances of an ordinary person being faced with her own mortality, which terrifies her but also empowers her.
Oscar Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Clarkson)