50 GREATEST INDEPENDENT FILMS
(in three parts)


by Empire Magazine



50 Greatest Independent Films: Empire Magazine, a decidedly pro-British film magazine, offered their picks for the bravest, most innovative, and most creative films - the "ultimate indie lineup" of 50 of the best non-studio works ever made. Descriptions of choices for the 50 Greatest Independent Films are excerpted from the Empire Magazine website.

Facts and Commentary About the List:

  • Empire's ranking of these distinctive experimental films without big budgets and stars in cinematic history "takes into account the quality of the film, the circumstances behind its production, the achievement of the filmmakers despite monetary and logistical constraints and its influence on subsequent projects."
  • The definition of what constitutes an independent film still needs to be clarified, although it usually means a film made outside of the established studio system, by a little-known director who is working on a shoestring budget. Independent films, often with unconventional plots and characters, usually attract only small audiences (although can sometimes be breakthrough films for a director), and have little access to prime distribution markets. They often contain groundbreaking subject matter designed for sophisticated audiences, and are not necessarily produced with commercial success as the goal.
  • Similarly, Jason Wood's 2004 published book, 100 American Independent Films, a BFI Screen Guide, provided another selected list of independent films, including early pioneers like Herbert Biberman and John Cassavetes, as well as obvious choices Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes, Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch.
  • Any list of independent film-makers must include films by those mentioned above, including Roger Corman, Sam Fuller, George Romero, John Sayles, John Cassavetes, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, and Michael Moore.
  • There are no films in the Empire list by independent film-makers Herbert Biberman (Salt of the Earth (1954)), Terrence Malick (Badlands (1973)), Atom Egoyan (Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997)), Darren Aronofsky (Pi (1998) and Requiem For a Dream (2000)), Terry Zwigoff (Crumb (1994) and Ghost World (2001)), Christopher Guest (Waiting For Guffman (1996)), and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999)), to name a few.
Note: The films that are marked with a yellow star are the films that "The Greatest Films" site has selected as the "100 Greatest Films"

50 GREATEST INDEPENDENT FILMS
by Empire Magazine
(part 1, ranked order)

50. El Mariachi (1992), d. Robert Rodriguez
Robert Rodriguez may be a household name, but back in 1992 he was an impoverished would-be filmmaker who raised $3,000 of the film's $7,000 shooting budget as a volunteer for experimental drug testing. Shot on the streets of Coahuila, Mexico without storyboards (Rodriguez had no crew to show them to), equipment (sound was record with a tape recorder while most of the 'guns' were water pistols) and quite often actors (many of the smaller roles were simply passers by), El Mariachi is guerilla filmmaking at its most inventive. An action movie filmed for the price of a second hand Ford Fiesta - Michael Bay, you have much to learn.

49. Run Lola Run (1998, Ger.), d. Tom Tykwer
Brilliantly high concept, effortlessly executed by director Tom Tykwer and kept at breakneck speed by leading lady Franka Potente, this is one of the very best reasons to bury England's traditional enmity with the Germans. The story follows three attempts, largely in real time, by Lola (Potente) to get the 100,000 deutschmarks needed to save her boyfriend's life. Tykwer basically riffs on the same concept three times, ratcheting up the tension and building up the pace with each attempt as the flame-haired Lola uses increasingly inventive means of getting ahead. An object lesson in how to shoot at speed, this smashes the stereotype of the talky, heavy European indie.

48. Cube (1997, Can.), d. Vincenzo Natali
Cube is proof - if proof were needed - that you only need simple concept to make an arresting, interesting film. Taking a small group of people, a confined space and a heavy dose of sinister mystery, Vincenzo Natali probes the darker reaches of human nature, placing his unwitting characters in the ultimate prison: a network of revolving chambers interspersed with intricate (and oft-fatal) traps. Cube was shot in one-and-a-half 14' by 14' chambers and the director blagged free visual effects from a Toronto-based company keen to show their support for domestic movie making. The result is a tense and often terrifying tale, that outshines and outscares any number of budget-heavy, studio horrors.

47. Blood Feast (1963), d. Herschell Gordon Lewis
Without Herschell Gordon Lewis' low budget gore-fest, there would be no Halloween, no Evil Dead et al, and basically half of the '80s video industry would be missing. This no-budget effort was the birth of splatter. In fact, it's fair to say that with his entrail packed (however loosely) exploitationer, marketing guru Lewis opened the abattoir doors for 'meat content' in films generally - and that includes the likes of ear severing, and faces melting before the wrath of God. Even if you leave the gore aside, the film raked in $4 million from a budget of $24,500. Impressive by any studio outsider's standards.

46. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), d. Tobe Hooper
With its air of eerie verisimilitude, Tobe Hooper's chilling horror stands light years apart from the other film based on the gory exploits of the real-life serial killer, Ed Gein. Shot for around $140,000, with money allegedly re-routed from the success of runaway porn hit, Deep Throat, it's Chainsaw's dead-eyed, almost cinema verite approach that truly unnerves. The dinner scene, where Marilyn Burns comes dangerously close to having her head smashed in with a hammer, is the most memorable example of Hooper's edgy approach - something he would never capture again in a career that has since gone spectacularly off the rails.

45. Mad Max (1979, Aus.), d. George Miller
Australians love their cars – something Dr. George Miller was well aware of when he changed careers from physician to filmmaker. Not letting a paltry budget of $400,000 phase him, he fused the cult American sci-fi flick A Boy And His Dog with his own penchant for seeing muscle cars and road bikes moving fast and coming to a scattered end. Acknowledging a massive thirst for automotive action and raking in more than $100 million, it spawned one superior sequel (still one of the greatest 'real' action films), which in turn led to dozens of cheap 'post apocalyptic warzone' straight-to-video jobs.

44. Amores Perros (2000, Mex.), d. Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu
21 Grams may have grabbed the Oscar headlines, but Alejandro González Iñárritu perfected his techniques in overlapping storylines, stunning cinematography and the creative use of car crashes in this Mexican smash about three separate lives linked together by one common event. Remarkable for its stellar performances from a cast previously unknown outside their home country, for taking the fractured narrative to a whole new level, and for tackling subjects that studios avoid like the plague - dog fighting, anyone? - this burst like a firework on the indie world, and acted as a wake-up call to the US indie scene. You're not the only ones setting the pace now, guys.

43. Shadows (1959), d. John Cassavetes
Inventing American indie cinema before QT was even born, writer-director John Cassavetes' debut feature is a rough hewn landmark. Taking a subject matter that '50s Hollywood wouldn't touch with a barge-pole - the tensions within a black family arising when a young woman (Leila Goldoni) starts dating white men - Cassavetes ignores all the tricks of the mainstream to jazz up his simple story, instead opting for an almost home movie approach where you are allowed to get under the skin of the central character. It may seem somewhat dated now but as both a document of 60s Bohemian New York and the birth of American indie, this is essential.

42. Swingers (1996), d. Doug Liman
A true indie, this one, given that large sections of this film - in the casino, and on the highway - were shot without the proper permits, while director and stars pretended that the camera was turned off as the cops stood by. But the results of this largely plotless story of friends rallying round their suddenly single pal are undeniable. One of the very best buddy comedies out there, embraced by men the world over as somehow descriptive of their twenties, it's a perfect example of what happens when that strange alchemy between cast, crew, script and tone all work perfectly.

41. Dead Man's Shoes (2004, UK), d. Shane Meadows
Most films on this list are here because of the man behind the camera. In this case, and with no disrespect to Shane Meadows' assured direction, it's the stunning turn by its star and co-writer, Paddy Considine that's won it a place. He's the central character, an ex-soldier who returns to his hometown and brings down a world of pain on the men who bullied his younger brother. A showcase for a deserving actor, and a perfect example of the indie sector's ability to tackle storylines that studios would shy away from, this is one of the finest British films in years.

40. The Descent (2005, UK), d. Neil Marshall
Howling onto the scene with surprise werewolf hit, Dog Soldiers, Neil Marshall surpassed himself with this claustrophobic follow-up that sees six female potholers trapped in the dark, far underground. Set in the US (where these things more routinely seem to happen) but shot at Pinewood and on location in Scotland, The Descent is by far and away the best Brit horror in years. It's achievement is unrelenting terror - hell, the film wrings out a succession of solid scares before the film's primary menace is even introduced! Ultimately a simple concept, this is skillfully executed, with a well-balanced character dynamic underpinning Marshall's expert grasp of horror filmmaking.

39. The Passion Of The Christ (2004, It./US), d. Mel Gibson
It almost defies belief that an R-rated, independent film, shot entirely in two dead languages went on to make $370 million at the box office. Even more so considering that distributors, mindful of the inevitable controversy, originally wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot Roman spear. But Mel Gibson's vision did pay off and despite the bluster of indignant religious leaders and the righteous smiting of the Lord (two crew members, including star Jim Caviezel, were struck by lightning during the shoot) the film succeeded: spreading the gospel and raking in an ungodly amount of cash for good measure.

38. Grosse Point Blank (1997), d. George Armitage
John Cusack's turn as repentant hit man Martin Blank marks the single greatest '80s throwback, killer-for-hire rom-com ever made. You know the story: boy meets girl, boy stands up girl on prom night, girl's heart is broken, boy becomes professional killer. It's an age-old tale and, thanks to Cusack's charming killer and a fresh-faced appearance from Minnie Driver, manages to be both charmingly romantic (he literally kills for her) and darkly comic. This remains the only film from screenwriter Tom Jankiewicz and a delightfully different romcom that stands head and shoulders above its peers - and boasts a more impressive bodycount to boot.

37. Being John Malkovich (1999), d. Spike Jonze
This film makes the list for one simple reason: it proved, once and for all, that a film doesn't have to make any sense to be great. Impossible to sum up in any thirty-second studio pitch - low ceilings, puppets, and a sinister conspiracy focusing on John Malkovich's brain and the New Jersey turnpike are all involved. But what's great is that Charlie Kaufman's insane script, Spike Jonze's delirious direction and a cast of A-listers playing wackily against type somehow add up to one of the cleverest, silliest and utterly weirdest films you'll ever see.

36. Buffalo '66 (1998), d. Vincent Gallo
Get it straight - Vincent Gallo doesn't give a f--k what you think about his movie. It's brilliant, and if you can't see that then it's your own tough luck. He's so fiercely independent he uses Yes on the soundtrack. And you know what? He's absolutely right. This film is a mini masterpiece. Using only a small but highly talented crew and cast, he bombards us with belligerent, unlikeable characters for 100-odd minutes, and manages to make the most saccharine of endings - about the power of love, of all things - appetising. A beautifully balanced debut from a precocious talent - surely what indie is all about?

35. THX-1138 (1971), d. George Lucas
Before there was Star Wars, George Lucas made this dystopian vision of a future in a galaxy quite close by. Robert Duvall plays the eponymous THX-1138, a worker in a society where sex is outlawed and drugs used to control the populace, who rebels and begins the search for a better life. What's remarkable in this film are the visuals - the sterile, almost colourless world and menacing robot police provide a stark backdrop for the increasingly passionate feelings of the central characters. Lucas' visions may have become bigger and more colourful as he developed his career, but nothing since has mixed intellectual debate and action so effectively.

34. The Blair Witch Project (1999), d. Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
The scariest movie ever made? Of course not but you'd never have known it through the hype that surrounded Blair Witch upon release. Not bad for a film shot for $35,000 on a camera bought at Wal-Mart (and subsequently returned for a refund). The film was almost entirely improvised by the three leads (who were often just as terrified as the audience) and initially passed off as a documentary, a ruse given credence by an entirely fictitious web-based backstory. It's far from the most frightening cinema experience imaginable but an ingenious piece of creative filmmaking it certainly is.

33. Shallow Grave (1994, UK), d. Danny Boyle
A wave of hype followed this thriller, almost swamping it under proclamations that the British were coming, that Scotland was sexy, that Ewan McGregor might do well for himself. Well, that's all true - but there's more to Shallow Grave than a (temporary) reinvigoration of British cinema. Danny Boyle's immensely stylish tale of dead bodies, a suitcase full of money and rampant paranoia is an inspired blend of pitch-black comedy and bloody violence, held together by career-making performances and scathing wit. Three central characters this flawed are a rare sight in American cinema - even in the independent sector - which, along with the sheer panache of this film, make it a must-see.

32. Two Lane Blacktop (1971), d. Monte Hellman
As much a testament to Godfather of American indie cinema Monte Hellman (he was the rain check director for at least two films on this list) as the film itself, this is his best effort behind the megaphone, and the best of the post- Easy Rider road movies of the '70s. On the surface it ticks a lot of cliché boxes - European influence (Antonioni), absence of dialogue, arcless characters and an unresolved plot, but rather than coming across as pretentious, it's precisely this ambiguity - along with the avoidance of simply being a love poem to the open road - that continues to hold audiences.

31. Pink Flamingos (1972), d. John Waters
Let's get the dog turd out of the way first. Yes, Divine does wolf down a real live, freshly laid parcel of pooch poo in John Waters' trashy cult classic, but that's not reason alone for its place on this list. And it's not just it's rather shoddy production values either (independent doesn't mean badly made). Instead, Pink Flamingos is on this list because of the sheer chutzpah of Waters' story - two families compete with each to see who can be the most disgusting - and willingness to push back the barriers of tat, taste and what audiences were willing to tolerate waaaaay back in 1972. Without Waters, we might never have had the literal flood of jizz/piss/poo jokes that assailed us all in recent years. Believe it or not, but that's something to thank him for.



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