Top 10 American Indie Films

When you’re tired of formulaic, big-budget Hollywood blockbusters you can often find solace in indie films. Neal Damiano takes a look at 10 of the best.

More top 10 lists you might like: Top 10 Christian Slater Films | Top 10 Cult Films | Top 10 Films You’ve Never Seen But Should Have | Top 10 Quintessential 1980s Films | Top 10 Slasher Films

10. Clerks (Smith, 1994)

top 10 indie films
Armed with a 16mm Arri SR2 camera using black and white film stock, Kevin Smith made the quintessential slacker film of the 90s. Miraculously, Smith funded Clerks using ten credit cards, raising the $27,575 he needed to produce the indie film. To play Dante, Smith’s wise cracking clerk of a convenience store, he hired struggling New Jersey actor Brian O’Halloran primarily for his ability to work with the verbose dialogue. Set across a single day, we meet all sorts of quirky characters, the result being one of the most hilarious indie films of the 1990s.

9. Party Girl (Mayer, 1995)

top 10 indie films
There was an influx of indie films in the early 1990s and Party Girl stood out from the crowd. Parker Posey plays Mary, a free spirited club girl, who throws wild raves in her apartment to pay the rent. She finally gets arrested for illegally charging people before being released on bail and realising she needs to get a proper job. She calls upon her godmother for help and lands a job as a library clerk. Along the way we meet very eccentric characters that are the centre of Mary’s universe. Mary finally realises she needs to grow as an adult and ironically becomes a librarian. This film put Parker Posey on the map. She went on to do several other indie films, and Hollywood affectionately labelled her the Indie Film Queen.

8. Welcome to the Dollhouse (Solondz, 1995)

top 10 indie films
During the indie film craze of the 1990s we discovered some great directors. One of them was Todd Solondz. Welcome to the Dollhouse was his second film and definitely made its mark thanks to being one of the quirkiest films of the 90s. Solondz has such a unique way of telling a story on screen that he often divides audiences. You either get him or you don’t.

7. Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch, 1984)

top 10 indie films
Stranger Than Paradise is the closest thing you can get to a reality based film without it being one; the way it’s filmed seems like you’re right there with the three protagonists, filming them yourself. Shot in black and white, Stranger Than Paradise follows three drifters travelling from New York to Florida. Jim Jarmusch had such a unique, stylised way of filming – it was way ahead of its time, in my opinion. The film really set a benchmark for the indie films to come.

6. Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969)

top 10 indie films
The ultimate independent film, Dennis Hopper directed a masterpiece in Easy Rider. The film represented anti-establishment to the core with the simple moniker – They’re not scared of you…they’re scared of what you represent. That representation is freedom from the entanglements of modern day society. Two travel buddies Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) epitomised the druggy rebellion of the 60s drop-out generation with their Wild West mentality and costumes. The film still resonates today because of the timeless theme it promoted and that is individualism.

5. Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973)

top 10 indie films

Mean Streets is Martin Scorsese’s third feature and one of his best films to date. Scorsese gives the viewer a candid glimpse into the gritty hustle of 1970s Little Italy. Shot in New York for six days on a shoestring budget, the film tells of the day to day antics of Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert Deniro) which essentially consists of brawls and gunfire. Johnny boy seems to have a death wish, which he is trying to fulfil, as he sinks deeper and deeper into debt with the local mob bosses and then spits in the face of authority. Charlie is loyal and tries to help but loses grip fast. The film brings up questions of morality, loyalty, and the brutality of your environment. Mean Streets really showed the brilliance of Robert De Niro.

4. Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1992)

top 10 indie films
Reservoir Dogs is the first feature by Quentin Tarantino. Little did anyone know that this film fanatic and ex-video store clerk would change the face of cinema as we knew it. Tarantino, obsessed with b-movies and indie films, went on to become a cultural icon in cinema. Reservoir Dogs was made for $1.2m and had virtually no promotion attached to it. It grew to prominence thanks to word of mouth, and the film set the stage for the indie film explosion in the early 90s. Heavily influenced by 70s cinema, Tarantino used witty dialogue, pop culture references, and creative shots to tell the story of a violent jewellery heist gone wrong. Reservoir Dogs is a very bloody ride from beginning to end, and features one of the most graphic scenes involving a strait edge razor and an ear you’re ever likely to see.

3. The Squid And The Whale (Baumbach, 2005)

top 10 indie films
The Squid And The Whale centres around a dysfunctional family living in Brooklyn. The family is led by a pompous writer played by Jeff Daniels. Daniels’ character is so self righteous, he’s almost unlikeable, but somehow you feel empathy for him. His wife Joan, played by Laura Linney, is so fed up with his behaviour that she walks out. Jessie Eisenberg plays the oldest son and the most troubled by far. He maintains a resentment towards women and sides with his father during the divorce. What I found so fascinating about this film is that both parents have few redeeming qualities, but somehow you still care for them. You can relate to the drama in their lives and the performances are exceptional. The movie deservedly won five Indie spirit awards.

2. Sex, Lies and Videotape (Soderbergh, 1989)

top 10 indie films
More than any other film, Sex, Lies and Videotape encapsulates the American independent film renaissance of the late 80s and early 90s. Shot in Louisiana for $1million by first time director Steven Soderbergh, the film is an erotic ride of racy thrills that made quite the splash at Sundance in 1989. The film is not conventional in any way at all until the end and that’s what makes it so quirky. The characters are on the fringes of life and devoid of emotion. It is a very dark film that deals with betrayal, voyeurism, and sexuality. James Spader is so convincing in his obsession with sexuality it’s utterly scary.

1. Buffalo ’66 (Gallo, 1988)

top 10 indie films

Writer-director-star Vincent Gallo takes the quirky film genre and makes it his own. Gallo plays Billy Brown, a slacker with no goals in mind, that reaches an all time low when he bets $10,000 on the Buffalo Bills in the 1966 Super Bowl. He doesn’t have the “vig” to pay when the Bills’ kicker misses the field goal. So to make amends with the bookie he takes the rap for a crime committed by one of the associates. Fresh out of jail he decides to kidnap a fiery little dance student named Layla (Christina Ricci) to play his wife as he returns home to have dinner with his family. The bond between the two is unlikely but does spark up and it’s interesting to see the two misfit characters relate to each other as if they are the only two people left on earth. This happens to be one of my favourite films. The chemistry between Gallo and Ricci is undeniable, you can’t take your eyes of the screen.

Written and compiled by Neal Damiano.
Follow Neal (@Nealreviews1) on Twitter by clicking here and read more of his reviews at FilmWad

More top 10 lists by Neal Damiano: Top 10 Christian Slater Films | Top 10 Cult Films | Top 10 Films You’ve Never Seen But Should Have | Top 10 Quintessential 1980s Films | Top 10 Slasher Films

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Neal Damiano calls himself “an unhip film geek” who mixes his passion for movies with an enthusiasm for travel, music and journalism.

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  1. Dan Heaton Reply

    There are some great choices in here, particularly Stranger Than Paradise and Buffalo 66. You also can’t go wrong with Mean Streets and Reservoir Dogs. I’d also try to get a film by John Sayles in there. There are a lot of great choices, including The Return of the Secaucus Seven (a big hit considering its thin budget), Lone Star, Limbo, and so many others. I’d also love to see a Whit Stillman film like Metropolitan and Kicking and Screaming (my Baumbach favorite). Still, it’s tough to fit only 10 in a category with so many good options.

  2. Stamper Reply

    Love Buffalo 66. What a great movie. It has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it way, way back! I heard Gallo and Ricci hated each other on set…I think it made their performances better.

    Clerks is a great indie film…I love how Smith maxed out a bunch of credit cards. Give the guy praise – he’s got balls. That’s what indie cinema is all about! Then he sold out, made Mallrats with Universal, and never reached the heights of Clerks again.

    Aside from Hopper, there’s some astonishing directorial talent on this list too. Good stuff Neal!

  3. Martin C Reply

    A great selection of films. If I was to add to it, I’d say The Blair Witch Project was an exceptional independent film. The cheap but effective marketing campaign was extraordinary.

  4. Neal Damiano Reply

    Thanks all, this was a very hard one to narrow down!

  5. Evan Crean Reply

    Ashamed that I’ve only seen a couple of the films on this list. Clerks is obviously one that I have, but more recently than I’d like to admit. It’s low budget filmmaking at its finest, using a fun day-in-the-life premise and hilarious dialogue to propel the story.

    The other ones I’m familiar with are Mean Streets and Resevoir Dogs. I saw Mean Streets a while ago and honestly I was a bit underwhelmed. Not one of my faovrite Scorsese films. I do love Resevoir Dogs however. Pulp Fiction may have made Tarantino’s non-linear storytelling popular, but Reservoir Dogs truly introduced the world to it. I really dig this gritty, simple crime flick and the awesome 70s music.

    For everything else that’s on the list I’ve been able to add some interesting stuff to my Netflix queue. I’m a fan of Jarmusch and Soderbergh, so I’m looking forward to their movies in particular. Thanks for the recommendations!

  6. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Evan, thanks for the input, Mean Streets is a very gritty film!
    Reservoir Dogs has always been one of my favorites from Tarantino.

    Please check out Stranger Than paradise & Sex, Lies, & Videotape, both great independent films, that have been very influential to the indie genre.

    Neal

  7. Dan Reply

    @Stamper: How about Robert Rodriguez subjecting himself to medical testing in order to raise the cash to fund El Mariachi. You’ve got to give the guy a pat on the back for his dedication to the cause. Certainly, his enthusiasm for filmmaking is second to none. That said, I’m not sure I’d remove any of Neal’s choices for El Mariachi. When it comes to independent film, Rodriguez’s bigger budget, studio-backed Desperado was far better, making his earlier, low-budget effort more of a calling card than top 10 contender.

    I do echo Martin C’s comment about The Blair Witch Project though. For me, there are few indie films that can compete with it. Not only was it a fabulous horror film – effective and supremely constructed – it set the found-footage genre alight. The genre hasn’t stopped “giving” since then – for better and for worse.

  8. Chris Reply

    Some great choices just goes to show how film-makers get to do what they want outside the studio system. Does anyone think the big studios would have let QT tear someone’s ear off to the sounds of rock n roll? Jarmusch is the man I really admire, you can’t blame him for sticking to indie cinema and doing what he damn well pleased.

  9. Roger Reply

    Nice to see The Squid and the Whale getting some recognition. Wes Anderson clearly knew he was on to a winner when giving Baumbach total creative control. That said, he’s made a number of good films. I was one of the few people who loved Kicking and Screaming.

    My favorites on here are 2, 3, 4, 5, and 10.

  10. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Roger thanks for the read, Squid And The Whale is a great indie film and is on many top lists. I always said it’s a film for people who really like film as in story telling. Definitely worth putting in collection.

  11. Mark Reply

    Another well thought through list. Other possibilities:

    (1) Evil Dead (the original)- launched Sam Raimi;

    (2) Eraserhead – launched David Lynch;

    (3) Night of the Living Dead – launched Romero and modern zombie cinema;

    (4) Man Bites Dog – didn’t give the boys who made it the traction they deserved.

    One thing that strikes me is that two of these films haven’t dated very well – that being Easy Rider and Sex, Lies ….

    The latter is understandable … until the fashion cycle goes full circle, anything that was made in the 1980s will always look like something from the 1980s. Plus we are moving into dangerous self-serving territory when the plot involves a mid 20s celebate male who’s main claim to fame, outside of having a video camera, is that he doesn’t masterbate. That’s very 80s.

    Easy Rider, on the other hand, just isn’t that good. Aside from the fact Hopper’s editing is way too self conscious and the message of the film is vague in an obvious way(who was it who facetiously wrote that when Fonda said “We blew it”, he was talking about the film?), the movie is laced with ridiculous moments.

    The obvious one is at the start of the film when they do the drug deal with Phil Spector. I mean really, who the hell would carry out such a transaction at the end of an international airstrip? With all those planes taking off and landing overhead, it’s hard to imagine sneaking down there for a lunchtime toke, let alone pulling off the deal of a lifetime (interestingly, when the film was shown on free-to-air TV in Australia during the late 1970s, this exposition was all cut out).

    The other big silly scene is the drug induced graveyard romp. Perhaps it might have worked in a Roger Corman quikie, but it just slows the whole film down.

    Still, regardless of my many gripes, both these movies DO have legitimate claims to be in a top 10 indie list ….

  12. Dan Reply

    @Mark: I like the inclusion of Evil Dead and Night of the Living Dead. It is great to see a filmmaker launch his or her career off the back of a film they’ve not only sunk every moment of their recent lives into…but every penny they’ve had as well. I think that’s why I can really appreciate what Rodriguez did with El Mariachi.

    …it is also great to see, in hindsight, how these indie efforts launched such successful careers. Strange then that the makers of The Blair Witch Project – one of the greatest horror films ever made in my opinion – have done next to nothing of note since.

  13. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Mark, thanks or the input, on Easy Rider I definitely see your points of view and I agree with most of it, but I had to put it on the list, for the mere fact of the history behind the making. It truly is an indie film, it got no backing or support by the studios at all. So Hopper, Fonda, and Nicholson said f*ck it we are going to make this film anyway.

    Sex, Lies, And Vdeotape is a slow moving film and very much signature 80s, but the content was racy for its time and Soderburgh was a unknown filmmaker that got very little backing for this. The film went on to make a huge buzz at Sundance.

  14. Dave Martins Reply

    Nice to see some terrific films get the limelight. There’s few top 10 lists that would feature such a eclectic mix. This is the first time I’ve seen The Squid and The Whale ranked alongside Reservoir Dogs and Mean Streets and it is a well-earned recognition.

    However, there is a glaring omission – that being the brilliant Donnie Darko. My personal favorite. I also think The Terminator should have made the top 10. How about a Coen brothers film or an early Spike Lee too?

  15. Stamper Reply

    After some thought, I have a few alternatives: The Terminator, Blue Velvet, Dark Star, Pitch Black, The Usual Suspects, Killer of Sheep, Being John Malkovich, Grosse Point Blank, Dazed and Confused.

  16. Neal Damiano Reply

    Thanks for the read people, glad this list is picking up some momentum with the comments. I had a long time with this list, it was not easy, by far……..but I had to narrow it down to only 10 (laughing) I could easily do another top 10 and another! But I do regret not putting Bottle Rocket on here, I absolutely love that film, such a great indie film! It completely passed my mind when I was writing this.

  17. Dave Reply

    Good list. Tops for me is Reservoir Dogs mainly because you can see the constraints of the production – one main location, simple camera set ups – while knowing just how ecstatic Tarantino is behind the camera as he makes his movie. It remains my favorite Tarantino movie.

  18. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Dave Tarantino is ecstatic about film in general the man’s knowledge of cinema is amazing! It shows in his body of work, Reservoir Dogs is one of my favorite films, but I also loved Pulp Fiction it changed the way we look at cinema, very ground breaking & innovative film.

    Thanks for reading..

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