50 GREATEST INDEPENDENT FILMS
(in three parts)


by Empire Magazine


50 GREATEST INDEPENDENT FILMS
by Empire Magazine
(part 3, ranked order)

10. Mean Streets (1973), d. Martin Scorsese
Father Martin Scorsese. Stated simply like that, those three words just don't scan correctly, but if Martin Scorsese - the greatest living director never to win an Oscar - had gone with his first love, the priesthood, instead of his second, making movies, we'd never had GoodFellas, or Raging Bull, or Taxi Driver, or Kundun. OK, maybe forget the last one, and replace it with Mean Streets which, to this day, remains probably Scorsese's most personal and powerful work. A strange mixture of seedy violence, frank nudity and the sort of language you'd expect to hear from gangsters in New York's Little Italy, the film is nonetheless drenched in a veil of Catholic guilt (lead Harvey Keitel, as Charlie, a small-time hood who knows that he should get the hell out of the game, constantly chastises and tests himself) and seems to act as a permanent celluloid confessional for Scorsese's baser instincts. For this alone, this gritty little drama would be worth noting, but it's also shot through with hints of Scorsese's virtuosity (the wonderful pop-infused soundtrack, and the scene where a drunk Keitel teeters through a bar in one disorienting shot), and tantalising glimpses of his future preoccupations: gangsters, the mores of masculinity and a rich and varied partnership with one Mr. R. De Niro, so magnetic here as wildcard wiseguy, Johnny Boy.

9. Sideways (2004), d. Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne had already impressed audiences with a high-school satire (Election) and a witty tale of an old man's voyage into retirement (About Schmidt), but it was this one - gently and intelligently picking apart the foibles of middle-age life - that blew the critics away and confirmed his status as an arthouse auteur to be reckoned with. The deceptively simple tale of two mismatched friends who take a weekend in the wine country is simply one of the best character studies you're ever going to see. It's got it all: laughs (try to keep a straight face as Paul Giamatti flees the fat naked man), sadness (the Pinot Noir speech is heartbreaking) and a wonderfully uplifting, surprising ending. And consider this - if this had been a studio film, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church would have been bit-part players, instead of the leads (who might well have been George Clooney and Tom Hanks). For that fact alone, Sideways is worthy of its place in the top ten.

8. The Usual Suspects (1995), d. Bryan Singer
It's a film that gained fame and acclaim primarily on the strength of that ending, but The Usual Suspects is far more than just a crime yarn with a clever twist. Inspired only by the concept for its poster (five guys in a line-up), Christopher McQuarrie's mind-bending heist thriller is nothing less than an ensemble tour de force and, lest we forget, the starting pistol for both Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey's careers in the big time. The basic plot - a collection of career criminals are rounded up for a heist, decide to join forces for a job but soon find themselves on the wrong side of a legendary underworld figure - hardly does justice to the bigger picture, which is gradually assembled from a series of flashbacks. Sleight of hand and misdirection are the tools used here, the film leading viewers by the nose, playing with our perceptions before quite violently pulling the rug from under us. Complemented by a cast on top form - Stephen Baldwin and Benicio Del Toro provide the laughs with Gabriel Byrne adding a pleasingly sinister turn - The Usual Suspects is a masterwork of modern filmmaking, as simple in inception as it is elegant in execution.

7. sex, lies, and videotape (1989), d. Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh wrote this in eight days, and filmed it in five weeks on a budget of $1.2 million. The words "jammy git" should leap to mind, but subsequent films have proved him to be consistent in the freakishly talented stakes. This, his debut feature, won him the Palm D'Or and an Oscar nomination, courtesy of the brilliant screenplay and some unexpectedly deep performances from all four lead actors - nearly-was teen idol Spader, first time lead MacDowell, and then unknowns Laura San Giacomo & Peter Gallagher. Soderbergh understood his subject (voyeurism and secrecy) perfectly. It's one of those films where ostensibly not much actually happens, but the director's use of first-person camera within the story rang the voyeuristic bell of a pre-Internet audience. It was the template for a pattern of shaking up financially economic cinematography to be employed by Soderbergh time and again (The Underneath, The Limey, Traffic, et al.) S, L & V generated enough of a buzz to revive the ailing Sundance Festival, and provide Miramax with their first big success (Pete Biskind's "Down And Dirty Pictures" makes for some terrific further reading on that particular subject). And two years prior to Tarantino's arrival, it awakened a new generation to the possibilities of low-budget filmmaking.

6. Night of the Living Dead (1968), d. George Romero
Night of the Living Dead is the ultimate yin/yang example of indie film-making. The movie itself is a brilliant, bleak, black-&-white true horror classic, the standard-bearer for a wave of realistic frightflicks that flooded the '70s and beyond, and of course the movie without which the recent zombie revival would never have happened. At that fledgling stage, George Romero's technical skills were less than refined, and the shoestring budget - borrowed from local Pittsburgh companies and friends of friends - more than shows itself, but the true horror of a zombie takeover and siege situation is adroitly realized. And with that final, truly gutwrenching shot, Romero begins to expound on a theme that haunts him to this day: the bad guys aren't them. It's us! OK, so the film is all well and good, but the financial morass that swamped Romero afterwards is a warning signal to all would-be film-makers - with so many fingers in financial pies, the venerated director has never had control of the rights, which explains why so many different versions of Night are swarming around on DVD, including that dreadful colourised version. But all's well that ends well, with Land of the Dead hitting cinemas any second now...

5. Monty Python's Life Of Brian (1979, UK), d. Terry Jones
Most of us know by now the origins of Python's second proper movie - at a press conference, Eric Idle laughingly suggested that their next project would be "Jesus Christ - Lust For Glory". What they eventually came up with was much better - an unrivalled satire on religion, and quite possibly the funniest movie ever made. Trouble was, no-one in the film business had the balls to make it. From it's opening sequence (the first joke is a pratfall) it's evident that it's going to be Python of the highest standard, but it's the cohesion of the story that makes this all work so well. In sending up not Christ, but all of the petty, political, opportunist zealots around him, they had finally found in their subject, an idea ripe for ridicule large enough to accommodate their rapid gag rate and broadness of style. Of course, Brian isn't the messiah (that'd be the boy up the street), but you try telling them - and the financiers - that. Enter Empire's favourite Beatle and cornerstone of the British film industry for the next decade, George Harrison (and his money), and the rest is history. The creation of Handmade Films. Uproar. Outrage. Censorship. Genius.

4. Clerks (1994), d. Kevin Smith
All told, the credit card bills and sundry expenses amounted to somewhere in the region of $25,000. That's a lot of coin to pay back, but if Kevin Smith was ever worried about recouping his borrowed, begged but absolutely not stolen outlay for his first movie, then he didn't really have time to show it. For Clerks was quickly picked up by Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, who overlooked its dodgy production values, ropy acting and a story that resists the description 'threadbare' because he saw a raw vitality in its balls-out dialogue; a vitality and spirit and, more importantly, laugh out loud sense of humour that ensured that Clerks connected instantly with disenfranchised tweens and shop workers everywhere, and the rest is history for Smith, from Chasing Amy to the continuing adventures of Jay & Silent Bob, to domination of the geek world.

3. The Terminator (1984), d. James Cameron
Its studio-friendly sequels and slick '80s action sequences may make this appear part of the Hollywood establishment, but look a little more closely. Behind the impressive effects you'll see an untried director, an obscure leading man and a (relatively) shoestring budget - in fact, all the hallmarks of an indie movie. If you want an example of independent spirit, there's no finer example than the man behind The Terminator's apocalyptic vision. A nobody on the verge of being fired from his job on a silly horror flick about piranhas, James Cameron was fired up by a vivid nightmare he had one night about an unstoppable metal assassin. Hastily scribbling a screenplay and assembling a crew, he threw himself body and soul into the shoot, creating a whole new genre of techno-noir along the way. That The Terminator spawned one of the biggest sequels ever is testament to what a high concept and assured execution can do. Of course, it helps to have a healthy dose of iconic lines and, in Arnold Schwarzenegger, an unstoppable machine from the future - sorry, Austria - poised on the very brink of superstardom.

2. Donnie Darko (2001), d. Richard Kelly
Was Donnie schizophrenic? Is he, in fact, a supernaturally empowered avatar chosen by unknown forces? Did any of the film's events even happen? Such are the questions that sent people running to the pub to debate just what the hell Kelly had in mind when he wrote this story. That of a teenager who's warned about the end of the world by a six foot, talking rabbit after a jet engine falls on his house. Part supernatural chiller, part '80s teen drama and part philosophical musing on wormhole theory and the transience of human existence. Donnie Darko is not a film that lends itself to easy categorization and, unwilling to compromise his convoluted vision for studio palates, 27-year-old writer/director Richard Kelly almost had to launch his debut on cable television. Luckily, though, this exquisite slice of sci-fi surrealism was rescued from the precipice of DTV and went on to become a cult hit while simultaneously placing Jake Gyllenhaal on the road to stardom. A bizarre concoction it undoubtedly is but Donnie Darko raised the bar for independent thinking and reinvented the teen genre for the new Millennium. Utter genius.

1. Reservoir Dogs (1992), d. Quentin Tarantino
Some will bleat that this is an easy, obvious choice, while others will say... well, pretty much the same, but nominate differently. Our criteria for deciding the films were: firstly, the circumstances and spirit in which they were made, second, the quality of the result and, finally, its mark on the movie world. This is how Reservoir Dogs gained consensus as the winner. Consider firstly the film's creation: script written in two weeks while the author was in a dead-end day job, it barely changed from first draft to shooting script, and attracted attention by word of mouth. It garnered rave reviews, but Dogs' box office performance wasn't great - again, it had to wait for word of mouth. Most importantly, the magnitude of effect this one film has had on indie culture in the last 13 years is, to say the least, overwhelming. The fact is that more than one generation has had their eyes opened to the long-snubbed world of movie-making's outsiders, be it American mavericks, foreign actioners, or just plain old B-pictures. If it wasn't for Dogs, Hong Kong action cinema would still be a lot more marginal than it is today, and nobody would likely have got around to transferring blaxploitation titles onto DVD yet. You only have to look through the homages and ripoffs that have abounded - how many more films have suited gunmen, feature heists gone wrong, have people talking about pop culture, or 'boast' a fractured narrative? Love or hate it, Reservoir Dogs is the greatest independent movie ever made.



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