10 Best American Independent Films

Friday, January 28 by Alan Rankin

Hollywood makes some great films, but the 10 best American independent films prove you don’t have to have studio backing to make a classic. Each of these films was produced outside of the Hollywood studio system, usually for a fraction of the cost of a big-budget film. And each has become an influential landmark in the history of great movies.

  1. “The Steel Helmet.” Screenwriter Sam Fuller directed this 1953 anti-war film set in Korea while the real Korean War was still going on. Rather than make a gung-ho John Wayne movie with a Hollywood studio, Fuller shot the film himself, using college students and a plywood tank. It was a hit, launching Fuller on a long career of making controversial, socially conscious films for both studios and independent producers.
  2. ”The Little Shop of Horrors.” Independent legend Roger Corman produced more than 500 movies, most of them outside of the Hollywood system. None is more influential than this 1960 horror comedy, shot in only two days on another film’s sets. It inspired a big-budget Broadway musical and film remake, as well as launching the career of Jack Nicholson, who plays a small but amusing role.
  3. “Night of the Living Dead.” Director George Romero changed the horror film for all time with his 1968 classic, inventing the modern zombie at the same time. He filmed it in Pittsburgh and got financing from local backers, including a butcher who provided realistically gory props. Sadly, a legal fight left the film in the public domain and cost Romero millions in royalties.
  4. “Matewan.” For forty years, John Sayles has lived by the credo “one for the studio, one for me” – writing screenplays for big-budget Hollywood features, then using the money to produce and direct his own low-budget classics. This 1987 film, about a real-life miner’s strike, was nominated for numerous awards and introduced actors Chris Cooper and Mary McDonnell to the world. Not bad for the writer of “Alligator” and the original “Piranha.”
  5. “Roger & Me.” Michael Moore exemplified the term “maverick director” with his 1989 documentary. The elusive Roger of the title, the CEO of General Motors, came to symbolize the vanishing American economy for laid-off autoworkers in Moore’s Michigan hometown. The results made Moore a leading light of muckraking journalism in the Bush-Clinton-Bush era.
  6. “Blue Velvet.” David Lynch made the perfect independent film with the bizarre but beautiful “Eraserhead” in 1977. Then he agreed to direct a big-budget space epic in exchange for a quirky film of his own design. The space epic flopped royally, but the quirky film, “Blue Velvet,” became a creepy classic of postmodern crime and horror, with a chilling lead villain played by Dennis Hopper.
  7. “Slacker.” Richard Linklater’s storyless 1991 comedy presented a typically trippy day in the life of Austin, Texas. It was a surprise hit, launchin the American independent film movement of the 1990's. This was a victory for producer John Pierson, who also introduced the film world to directors Michael Moore, Spike Lee and Errol Morris, among others.
  8. “Reservoir Dogs.” By 1992, independent films had come a long way since the 50's, but nobody was prepared for the directorial debut of a former video-store clerk named Quentin Tarantino. The 50's-style crime saga was infused with 90's-style violence and high production values. In this and his later films, Tarantino revealed his love of every movie ever made – but especially the low-budget indies.
  9. “El Mariachi.” Texan writer-director Robert Rodriguez subjected himself to medical experiments to get the money for this Spanish-language action drama. All he wanted to do was make a good movie as cheaply as possible. The $7000 result got him Hollywood’s attention and led to “Spy Kids,” “Desperado” and “Sin City.”
  10. “Clerks.” Kevin Smith likewise sold his comic-book collection to finance his own directorial debut. Against all odds, a film buyer for Miramax saw it in its one film-festival screening on a bleary Sunday morning. Smith’s flair for filthy comedy proved a perfect match for the gross-out generation of the 90's and 00's.
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