When people think of indie films, they think of certain core characteristics. Indie films feature quirky plots and lots of underground bands. They’re about going back to your hometown and still feeling more alone than ever. That is certainly true of some indie cinema, but the only thing that really defines an indie movie is its budget and where that money comes from.
Independent movies come without the funding of a major studio, and typically, they don’t cost a lot of money to make. What makes an indie film great, then, is its ability to take its relatively small budget and make a movie that doesn’t feel small at all. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the sets need to be grand or you need to book major stars. Instead, great indie films know how to do a lot with a little.
Quentin Tarantino is a Hollywood legend, but each one of his movies still shares something in common with Reservoir Dogs, the independent feature that first put him on the map. The film is set almost entirely in a single location, and follows the aftermath of a heist gone wrong. The six robbers who were hired to complete the job and survived the ensuing shootout meetup at their rendezvous point, and begin trying to figure out who set them up.
The movie is tight, thrilling, and filled with the kind of witticisms that would become Tarantino’s default operating mode. It wasn’t a very expensive movie (it cost roughly $1.2 million), but Tarantino puts every penny of the budget on screen. When combined with excellent performances and a tight script, Reservoir Dogs was more than enough to force people to take notice of the rising auteur.
Whether you love him or hate him, it’s kind of impossible to imagine a time when people didn’t know who Martin Scorsese was. Mean Streets isn’t his first feature, but it is the one that would introduce so much of what Scorsese would fixate on through the rest of his career.
The film barely made any money, but in chronicling the life of a petty criminal who gets in debt over his head, it came to be seen as a template for much of Scorsese’s later work. Mean Streets also marks Scorsese’s first collaboration with Robert De Niro, who would go on to be his defining onscreen partner, and would win an Oscar just a year later for The Godfather Part II.
James Cameron is not exactly an indie auteur, but The Terminator, his second directing effort, was independently financed, and became one of the most successful independent movies of all time. The film cost just $6.4 million, and went on to gross almost $80 million, firmly cementing Cameron as the great director of modern blockbusters that he would eventually become.
The Terminator was not an obvious hit on the page, with its combination of horror and science fiction genre tropes. In Cameron’s hands, though, it spawned an entire franchise that still exists today.
Sex, Lies and Videotape
Steven Soderbergh is still making indie films, but Sex, Lies and Videotape may forever be his best work. The movie, which tells the story of two college friends who reunite as very different people, is incredibly seedy, but that’s part of what makes it great. James Spader plays Graham Dalton, an impotent young man who films conversations he has with women about sex.
Andie MacDowell is equally good as Ann, the wife of Graham’s college friend who becomes thorougly intrigued by Graham’s lifestyle. It’s a movie about repression and what it means to have good sex. Ann’s layers slowly fall away, and watching her fall for Graham is both beautiful and thrilling.
Night of the Living Dead
Few indie movies can claim to invent an entire type of horror movie, but Night of the Living Dead did just that, when it showed audiences just how scary zombies could be. The film launched a number of sequels, but George Romero’s original film cost just $114,000 and made more than 200 times that.
Set largely inside a single house, the film follows a group of people as they try to make sense of a zombie apocalypse. It’s not all that complicated, but it is hugely effective, especially in its final moments. Night of the Living Dead can be a blunt metaphor, but its foregrounding of a competent Black man in the 1960s was somewhat radical, and the ending only drives home the movie’s larger point about race in America.
Indie movies are often a platform for launching the blockbuster directors of tomorrow, and Memento may be one of the very best examples of that. Filmed on a budget of roughly $5 million, Memento contains all of the hallmarks that would eventually become evident in director Christopher Nolan‘s larger filmography, its preoccupations with linear time and identity in particular.
Memento operates at a much smaller scale than the one Nolan would work on later on in his career, but the film is still highly effective as it follows Leonard, a man with short-term memory loss. as he hunts his wife’s killer. That short-term memory loss allows Nolan to play with audience expectations, and the result is a twisty, mind-bending movie that proved Nolan had what it take to tell complex, intricate stories.
The Evil Dead II
Sam Raimi has had a very strange career, and Evil Dead II is the reason he’s been allowed to do what he wants. The movie is an ostensible sequel to Raimi’s first Evil Dead movie, but it’s essentially a remake of the first film. This time, though, Raimi got a real budget (roughly 10 times larger than the first film) and had a much better sense of how to tell a filmic story.
Both Evil Dead and Evil Dead II have the spirit of a tiny indie and the gonzo sensibility that Raimi would eventually become famous for. In Evil Dead II, though, everything feels more carefully crafted and planned out. This story of a haunted cabin has been parodied to death, but it’s never been done better than in Evil Dead II.
The indie movie to end all indie movies, Easy Rider defined an entire generation cinematically, for better and for worse. The film follows Wyatt and Billy, two motorbike-riding hippies who travel across the country in search of spiritual truth. Their journey winds its way through various regions of the country as they run across other young people seeking alternative lifestyles, as well as a fair amount of drugs and bigotry.
Easy Rider is iconic in part because of the imagery of America that it revealed, but also because it seemed to encapsulate the hopes and fears of a young generation that was about to face a dark and uncompromising decade. Easy Rider is a beautiful movie, but its dark, harrowing ending is a reminder than the hippy vision of the world may never be fully realized.
In addition to being Jennifer Lawrence‘s breakout, Winter’s Bone earned its spot on this list because it has such a distinctly independent feel. The film stars Lawrence as a teenager who goes in search of her criminal father in order to save their home from foreclosure. The film has elements of a thriller, but it’s also a portrait of an Appalachian community that always feels like it’s on the verge of vanishing completely.
Lawrence is phenomenal in the central role — so good that she earned an Oscar nomination and was cast in The Hunger Games as a result. Those now familiar with Lawrence’s star persona may be shocked by the gritty, grounded reality of Winter’s Bone, which is as raw as independent cinema gets.
Moonlight was not a blockbuster, but its success with critics and awards bodies proved that it was a wise investment. Winning best picture at the Oscars doesn’t necessarily mean a movie is good, but Moonlight manages to be much better than good.
The movie, which tells the story of a gay Black boy living in Miami in three distinct time periods, is a moving achievement, and one that gets beneath the cliches and tropes that often define this genre. Moonlight is also chock full of truly stunning imagery. It’s one of the best movies of the decade, and one that will hopefully guarantee director Barry Jenkins can do whatever he wants for the rest of his career.
The Blair Witch Project
A movie so independent that some people believed it was a documentary, The Blair Witch Project is still one of the most profitable independent film of all time, and one of the most profitable movies in the history of Hollywood. The movie tells the story of three student filmmakers who go into the woods to film a movie and find themselves terrified by the spirits that haunt the woods.
The movie was a sensation when it was initially released, understandably so. The Blair Witch Project isn’t just totemic, it’s also a successful horror movie. It shows the viewer almost nothing, but the sense of mounting dread is undeniable.