American independent cinema has always been a difficult concept to define. For the majority of people with a basic knowledge of American cinema, independent film making consists of low-budget projects made by mostly young filmmakers with a strong personal vision away from the influence and pressures of the few major conglomerates that control tightly the American Film Industry. They are provocative, unusual, autonomous, offbeat, arty, low-budget, and niche-oriented. Here is a list of independent films that departed from the dominant and the established Hollywood cinema in a large number of ways.
Body and Soul (1947)
Director Robert Rossen’s pessimistic critique of the boxing world influenced almost every boxing film that came after it and reinforced the dominant themes of the noir films that populated the late 1940s. The riveting drama centers on a former pugilist who looks back on his life in and out of the ring and realizes that self-respect is a more important prize than winning. On one level the film is a brilliant melodrama and expose of the fight game, and on another level, a savage indictment of money capitalism where the individual has only commodity value, and the artisan and worker is owned body and soul by the capitalist.
As one of the first movies to be produced outside of the Hollywood studio system, John Cassavetes’ self-financed debut is a pioneering movie in the history of American independent cinema. Favoring an approach influenced by theatre, Cassavetes cast amateur actors and friends in a semi-improvised character study about three siblings living in 1950’s New York. The film was shot in Cassavetes’ own apartment and out on the streets of Manhattan, while friends stood on the lookout watching for the police.
Shock Corridor (1963)
Determined to pull in the Pulitzer Prize, reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) will go to any length necessary to win the coveted award. When he learns of an unsolved murder committed at a mental institution, Barrett devises a scheme to solve it and earn himself recognition. With the assistance of a psychiatrist and his girlfriend, Barrett convinces the doctors at the institution to commit him. Once inside, he begins his investigation – and gradually loses his mind. Sam Fuller masterfully charts the uneasy terrain between sanity and dementia.
The Easy Raider (1969)
This definitive counterculture film embodies the feeling of being a hippie as two friends head cross-country in search of their “American Dream”. They sample the highs and lows of America in a stoned-out quest for life’s true meaning. The film had little background or historical development of characters, a lack of typical heroes, uneven pacing, jump cuts and flash-forward transitions between scenes, an improvisational style and mood of acting and dialogue, background rock ‘n’ roll music to complement the narrative, and the equation of motorbikes with freedom on the road rather than with delinquent behaviors.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
The film is one of the finest studies of human relationships by making use of masterly character development and the heavy-hitting rationalization of choices and consequences. Joe Buck (Jon Voight) decides to strike it rich as a playboy and male prostitute for the rich and famous – a job he believes will lend to a luxurious, lucrative lifestyle. Later, after getting ripped off by Enrico Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a conman, Buck forms an unlikely alliance with the thief, and the pair struggles to survive in the destitute reality of their high-rise dreams.
American Graffiti (1973)
The film is set at the end of the summer of 1962 in Southern California, a group of friends gathers together to spend one last night cruising their hometown before they all part ways for college in the fall. Over the course of one night, their lives are changed as they make choices that affect everything. George Lucas crafted a very entertaining film that takes us to the nights of driving the strip, fantastic music and innocence on the edge of being lost.
The character Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) upon learning that a past romance has resulted in an impending pregnancy, agrees to wed mother-to-be Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and moves her into his tiny, squalid flat. Their baby is born hideously mutated, a strange, reptilian creature whose piercing cries never cease. Mary soon flees in horror and disgust, leaving Henry to fall prey to the seduction of the girl across the hall. Shot in dilapidated industrial settings, seething with rumbles and hisses, peopled with disfigured and eccentric characters and featuring a famously indefinable creature described as a premature baby, the film propels viewers into a shocking, black & white dreamscape.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Directed by Sam Raimi the film follows the story of a group of five friends that go to stay in a cabin in the woods where down in the basement they stumble across the Necronomicon and a taped translation of the text by the previous occupant and decide to have a little fun by reading from it even though the book is perhaps the creepiest damn thing that anyone could find in a mysterious cabin hidden deep among Mother Nature. Obviously, a poor decision and bad things happen as the woods come alive.
Blood Simple (1984)
In the first Coen Brothers film, the owner of a seedy small-town Texas bar discovers that one of his employees is having an affair with his wife. A chaotic chain of misunderstandings, lies, and mischief ensues after he devises a plot to have them murdered. Blending elements from pulp fiction and low-budget horror flicks, the film reinvented the film-noir genre for a new generation, marking the arrival of a film making ensemble that would transform the American independent cinema scene.
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
The film is a road movie in three parts—New York, Cleveland, and Florida—that follows the awkward love triangle between two schmendrik grifters, Willie (John Lurie) and Eddie (Richard Edson), and Willie’s 16-year-old Hungarian cousin, Eva (Eszter Balint). The film is basically a story about America, as seen through the eyes of strangers. It’s a story about exile both from one’s country and oneself, and about connections that are just barely missed. The minimalist style that captures the barren landscapes along with the unenergetic black-and-white cinematography communicates the same message with a high correlation.
Sex Lies and Videotape (1989)
Steven Soderbergh kickstarted the independent film movement of the 1990s with this landmark drama about the tangled relationships among four people and a video camera. The story concerns a lonely, enigmatic video maker (James Spader) who conducts one-on-one interviews with women about their sex lives. When he returns to his college town to make peace with his past and strikes up a friendship with a former classmate’s wife (Andie MacDowell), both find their lives taking an unexpected turn. The film demonstrates that the camera, for all its distancing tendencies, can paradoxically bring people closer together.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The debut of Quentin Tarantino narrates the aftermath of a diamond heist that goes horribly wrong and the surviving members of a criminal gang reunite with the suspicion that one of them is not what he seems. Shocking and dramatic, but intensely achingly cool, the unique dialogue and colorful characters prompted a boom in independent cinema in the 90’s.
The film takes place over a day in the life of two characters, Dante (Brian O’Halloran), who is a convenience store clerk and Randall (Jeff Anderson), who is a video store employee. Dante and Randall spend most of their time ditching work to attend to more important endeavors like playing street hockey on the store’s roof. People talk mostly about sex. Relationships surge and falter. Much like real life, there is palpable boredom.
The debut film from Darren Aronofsky tells the story a mathematical genius Maximilian Cohen (Sean Gullette), who is on the verge of decoding the numerical pattern beneath the ultimate system of ordered chaos—the stock market. However, as he works, an aggressive Wall Street firm set on stealing the code in order to dominate the financial landscape is pursuing him. It was the first ever film to be made available for download on the Internet.
In the film, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) embarks on a grim quest for vengeance to find out who murdered his wife. His pursuit is compounded by the rare and untreatable form of memory loss he suffers from and uses notes and tattoos to aid his trip down his memory lane. The film employs a unique timeline of moving backward in a chronological order with distinctive anchor points allowing the audiences to follow each scene, thereby launching the career of Christopher Nolan in full swing.