50 GREATEST INDEPENDENT FILMS
(in three parts)


by Empire Magazine


50 GREATEST INDEPENDENT FILMS
by Empire Magazine
(part 2, ranked order)

30. Sweet Sweetback Baadassss' Song (1971), d. Melvin Van Peebles
Made for $50,000 and grossing $10 million, Sweetback was financed, produced, written, directed, scored and starred by Melvin Van Peebles and one of the very few Black movies of the '70s to emerge from a completely black artistic sensibility. Obscene, frenzied, painful, the movie sees the titular hero go on the run after stomping a couple of cops unconscious, throwing up a series of violent set-pieces that comment on both Black stereotypes and blaxploitation staples. Showing a whole generation of black filmmakers the way forward, the guerrilla filmmaking and canny marketing campaign also provide pointers for every no-budget filmmaker following in its wake.

29. Bad Lieutenant (1992), d. Abel Ferrara
As uncompromising and maverick-minded as its director, Bad Lieutenant is certainly the most notorious, searingly emotional and profound of Abel Ferrara's back catalogue of scuzz and sleaze. Starring indie darling Harvey Keitel - in a mesmerising and extraordinarily brave performance - as a seriously corrupt, guilt-ridden, devoutly Catholic cop, this is a breathtaking modern-day parable of sin and redemption that is so hardcore, so unflinching in its portrayal of a man's descent into Hell and his scrabbling attempts to get into Heaven that it simply had to be an independent movie. And we haven't even mentioned the scene where Keitel quite literally pulls over two girls on the freeway...

28. In The Company Of Men (1997), d. Neil LaBute
Neil LaBute had been a powerful voice in the American theatre for a few years until he turned his hand to cinema, and knocked one out of the park first time out with this bitter, acid-edged , unwavering look at the evil that men do. In this case, the mendacious misanthropy comes from two guys (Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy), both recently dumped, who make a bet to toy with the affections of a deaf woman (Stacy Edwards). It - and LaBute - have been accused of misogyny, but the movie - as impassive as it is - leaves us in no doubt that Malloy and Eckhart are the slime of the universe.

27. Dark Star (1974), d. John Carpenter
There are those who will argue that Halloween is the better John Carpenter film, more deserving of recognition here. They're right and they're wrong. Halloween is indeed the better film - it was a terrific (in both senses), genuinely scary template for horror for the next decade, while Dark Star is a wildly uneven, low-budget-to the-point-of-impeding-your-enjoyment sci-fi. But the very fact that Dark Star found screens at all, its more creative story content (life onboard the ship being unsatisfactory, the philosophising bomb as a brilliant extension of 2001's self-aware HAL), and the issue that without it Carpenter's career wouldn't exist, gets this over the line.

26. Lost in Translation (2003), d. Sofia Coppola
Intelligence and emotional honesty are all too rarely elements that make-up a romantic comedy. Sofia Coppola's meditation on romantic and cultural alienation, however, strips out the clichés, tired chat-up lines and drunken sex, leaving us with a simple, touching collision of two lost souls. This was a plum role for Scarlett Johanssen and a long-awaited return to form for Bill Murray, coaxing forth what is arguably the best performance of his entire career. While Coppola made her bones as an indie director with her adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, this original story, with its frank but tender realism and wry humour, remains her crowning achievement.

25. Drugstore Cowboy (1989), d. Gus Van Sant
Wanna check the indie credentials of Drugstore Cowboy? OK, never mind that Gus Van Sant - perhaps the most indie-centric, experimental film-maker working just outside the American mainstream today - directed it. Never mind that it's a non-judgmental look at drug culture and the mindset of a group of people (led by a never-better Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch) who break into drugstores in order to get their prescription pill high. Never mind that it's a hazily lensed, at times bleak, at times funny and touching, near-masterpiece, always unflinching but never unfeeling. You want to know why Drugstore Cowboy is an indie film par excellence? William S. Burroughs in it. Like, wow man...

24. Happiness (1998), d. Todd Solondz
A more ironic title you will be hard put to find, as Todd Solondz takes us on a hellish trek through the lives of a string of interconnected misfits. The only thing these people - a phone sex pest and a pedophile among them - have in common is misery. Not exactly the sort of film you go to Disney to get funding for, but that's never been Todd's way. Welcome To The Doll's House is equally eligible in terms of independence, but this is firstly a more accomplished film, plus we're awarding kudos points for keepin' it real after the success of his previous feature.

23. The Evil Dead (1981), d. Sam Raimi
The making of the Evil Dead very nearly lives up to the movie's tagline, 'the ultimate experience in grueling terror'. In 1979, three Detroit wannabe film-makers - producer Rob Tapert, actor Bruce Campbell and director Sam Raimi decamped to a disused Tennessee cabin to shoot a horror movie about five kids battling demons. They had precious little money, borrowed equipment, no real clue of what they were doing and - by the end - precious little sanity. But necessity is the mother of invention, and The Evil Dead pulses with it. Virtually every horror film-maker of the last 20 years has cribbed from Raimi's box of camera tricks.

22. Nosferatu, A Symphony Of Terror (1922, Ger.) (aka Nosferatu - eine Symphonie des Grauens), d. F.W. Murnau
Not so much the Granddaddy of indie films, as the mad Great uncle, when F.W. Murnau decided he wanted to adapt Bram Stoker's Dracula, he didn't let legal threats stop him - he just changed the names and made a few tweaks. Murnau's ingenuity (and a court order) gets him in here, but Nosferatu is also one of the best silent films ever made, and one of the creepiest, sound or no. It contributed to making German Expressionism an entire chapter in the cinema history books, and is among the most homaged, pastiched, and parodied films ever made - so indie they had to make an indie film about it.

21. Roger And Me (1989), d. Michael Moore
Before the Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine and the headline grabbing Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore made a documentary about the closure of the automobile plant in his hometown of Flint, Michigan and the economic devastation that followed it, and it made his reputation. All Moore's polemic skills are apparent here - there's the same sly cross-cutting, the persistent hounding of people determined not to talk to him, and interviews with the sort of 'ordinary' everyday loons that only exist in small American towns. Arguably better than its successors - Moore punctures pomposity in others without appearing pompous himself - this is rabble-rousing stuff.

20. Slacker (1991), d. Richard Linklater
A prototype for Kevin Smith's Clerks, the film that launched Richard Linklater's career is a simple look at a group of twenty-somethings up to not much, really, one summer day in Austin. Free-thinkers all - some would call them weirdos - Linklater's characters already display the spontaneous, free-flowing dialogue that is his trademark, and the sort of innovative structure (the characters meet, and the camera switches from one to the next) that marks his best work. One of the most influential films on the indie scene, this elevated mood over plot and dialogue over action and showed that a few good characters can make a classic.

19. Lone Star (1996), d. John Sayles
John Sayles has never in his 25 years as a director, helmed within the studio system, making him a rarity: an indie filmmaker that hasn't a) become part of the system, or b) vanished up his own arse. Lone Star is where Sayles' technical skills caught up with his storytelling abilities. His familiar theme of contemporary America under the burden of its own glossed-over history is folded into a murder mystery ensemble piece, spanning two Texan generations, and utilising some of the best flashbacks ever seen. It's brilliant, it's intelligent, and it's refreshingly beyond Hollywood.

18. Withnail And I (1987, UK), d. Bruce Robinson
Another entry from Brit mini-production house Handmade, this is one of those masterpieces that almost didn't happen. Producer Denis O'Brien hated the first rushes, threatening to fire writer / director Bruce Robinson - who had already quit once already before lunch on the first day. The film is possibly one of the finest on-the-page screenplays ever written, brought to life with an understated style that the mainstream simply wouldn't dream of attempting. Sadly much of its popularity has been within the student community, who still believe that endlessly quoting the lines (often incorrectly) will make them as funny as the title characters, but don't let that sour the genius.

17. City of God (2002, Braz.), d. Kátia Lund, Fernando Meirelles
There can be no greater commitment to filmmaking than putting your life on the line to tell a story. Such are the lengths Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund and their crew went to while filming City of God in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Shooting (and trying to avoid being shot) among the gangs and street violence of and recruiting a cast from the slum kids themselves, they retell a true story of crime, corruption, degradation and a complete disregard for human life in '60s Rio's most notoriously violent slum. Heavily improvised and impressively performed, City of God is a powerful, beautiful film that's as emotionally devastating as it is technically stunning.

16. She's Gotta Have It (1986), d. Spike Lee
Non-union actors, no retakes, a director who demanded that his actors keep their drinks cans for the recycling money - budgets don't get much lower than this. Debate still rages about whether the plot - about a woman with three different boyfriends to provide different emotional and sexual needs - is a marvel of feminist filmmaking or misogyny of the worst sort, but either way the film's humour and lively characters brought Spike Lee to the attention of audiences and paved the way for his particular outlook on life. And since he was, until the arrival of John Singleton at least, the only major African-American director in Hollywood, that's an important perspective to have.

15. Blood Simple (1984), d. Joel Coen
The Coen Brothers launched themselves upon an unsuspecting world with this noir throwback in 1984, and they haven't looked back. But all their subsequent success - and many of their trademark flourishes - can be dated back to this Texas-set tale of private eyes, murder most foul and more double (triple, and quadruple) crosses than you can count. The style is present and correct in the almost black-and-white locations and bright red blood, but it's the tone that stands out. Like Fargo without the warmth of Marge Gunderson, or Miller's Crossing without the qualms of conscience, Blood Simple is the darkest, and arguably up there with the best, of the Coens' films.

14. Stranger Than Paradise (1984, W. Ger/US), d. Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch is another in the small canon of American directors who have spent their entire career outside of the mainstream - hell, even when he's got Johnny Depp in his movie the box office seems relatively unperturbed. But it's this early work - just his second feature - that stands among the best. Possibly the biggest reason for Stranger Than Paradise's inclusion here is, despite all outward appearances, Jarmusch's craftily disguising that he knows exactly what he's on about. It wasn't for another film or two that his themes of the universality of humankind, regardless of race, creed or colour, became apparent. Consider also his legacy on the likes of Wayne Wang and Greg Araki.

13. Memento (2000), d. Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan's modestly budgeted sleeper hit managed to claw it's way over the indie fence and into mainstream recognition on pure ingenuity. Before Memento, the 'character with amnesia' subgenre was, generally, a rather tired one (and has become so again since), but using the simplest of devices - telling the story's episodic structure in reverse order - the filmmakers (Nolan's brother Jonathan wrote the basis of the screenplay) forged a tale that was arse-clenchingly compelling, and ironically, unforgettable. And let's not forget it was the first major breakthrough in screenwriting structure since Pulp Fiction and its many clones, which in itself deserves an award.

12. Eraserhead (1977), d. David Lynch
Another piecemeal movie - shot over five years on a virtually non-existent budget, prompting lead Jack Nance to keep that same distinctive pre-Marge Simpson haircut for the duration of the shoot - Eraserhead is one of the strangest, most perplexing movies you'll ever see. It's jam-packed with deeply unsettling imagery, a grating, scraping, percussive soundtrack and an almost omnipresent sense of dread and doom. Despite all that, it's one of Lynch's most complete, a true surrealist masterpiece for everybody, barring the guy who made it - in Lynch's world, this is probably the equivalent of Bad Boys 2.

11. Bad Taste (1987, NZ), d. Peter Jackson
Compared to the long hard slog that was making Bad Taste, the Rings trilogy was a walk in the park. Famously funded almost entirely by himself and shot on weekends over a period of FOUR YEARS, Jackson not only wrote, directed, and appeared in a couple of roles, but supervised the special effects, constructed makeshift 'steadicam' equipment and probably made the tea, too. The result is as ramshackle as you'd imagine, but is also an endlessly inventive, vibrant alien invasion movie with extraordinary levels of gore, black comedy and an early peek of the scampish, OTT sense of humour that is evident in even the most serious and worthy of PJ's canon. At times you can almost hear him giggle himself silly, behind the camera.



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