The 50 Greatest American Independent Movies

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As much as blockbusters can thrill us, beyond the well-tended flowerbeds and spacious corner offices of Hollywood there's a world bubbling with creativity, free spirits and up-and-coming talent. Some of the heroes of American indie cinema have gone on to try their hand at multiplex fodder; some have stayed resolutely outside the mainstream. This roll of honour celebrates both, as well as some of the names that didn't achieve the acclaim they deserve. But how you define 'indie'? Do big studios' independent arms count? Should Miramax's output qualify? Our criteria is aesthetic rather than financial: if it feels like an indie, it's in; if it's The Phantom Menace, it's not. Ultimately though, whether they're made for millions or 50p and bits of pocket fluff, it's about great movies that are worth celebrating again...

1. Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets

Director: Martin Scorsese

Father Martin Scorsese. Stated simply like that, those three words just don't scan correctly, but if Martin Scorsese 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 Lower East Side 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. It’s strange to think that with a quirk of casting it could have been Jon Voight joining the ranks of the mooks.

2. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs

Director: Quentin Tarantino

A modern noir classic, Reservoir Dogs announced Quentin Tarantino to the world in a spray of blood, severed ears and Mexican stand-offs. The plotting is as tight as anything since Spade’s days of gumshoeing, but it was the needle-jab dialogue that made us fall instantly in love with QT. From those long, nutso riffs on Madonna, tipping and John Holmes’ willy to the raw despair of Tim Roth bleeding to death in the back of a getaway car, it grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go. Consider, too, 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. Harvey Keitel lent his weight to raise the $1.2 million budget. It garnered rave reviews, but Dogs' box office performance wasn't great - again, it had to wait for word of mouth. Since its arrival, however, more than one generation has had its eyes opened to the long-snubbed world of moviemaking's outsiders, be it American mavericks, foreign actioners, or just plain old B pictures. You only have to look through the homages and rip-offs that have abounded. Just consider how many more films since have boasted suited gunmen, feature heists gone wrong, people riffing on pop culture, or a fractured narrative? We're not the only ones with something to thank Tarantino for.

3. Donnie Darko (2001)

Donnie Darko

Director: 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 Richard Kelly had in mind when he wrote this story 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. It's part supernatural chiller, part '80s teen drama and part philosophical musing on the transience of human existence - not a film that lends itself to easy categorisation. Unwilling to compromise his vision for studio palates, 27 year-old writer/director Kelly was nearly forced 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 setting 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.

4. The Terminator (1984)


Director: 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 - 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 world 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.

5. Evil Dead II (1987)

Evil Dead II

Director: Sam Raimi

If you're a youngster and your main contact with Sam Raimi came through the Spider-Man movies, you may have been astounded and impressed by his sweeping, demented camera moves during, say, Spider-Man 2's operating theatre attack by Doc Ock's evil arms. If you're among Evil Dead II's army of darkness fans, however, that scene will have offered delights of a different kind, as a reminder of the sort of virtuoso, giddy enthusiasm for film that Raimi displayed here. Although it wasn’t made in the harsh conditions that forged The Evil Dead – where crew walkouts, a lack of money and freezing weather combined to make Bruce Campbell’s life even more miserable than Sam Raimi was aiming for – Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn is a blazing triumph of low-budget moxie. Employing every camera trick, and angle, known to man, not to mention a raft of great sound effects, editing tricks and, in leading man Campbell, the greatest effect of them all, Raimi’s horror-comedy classic (note that running order; Evil Dead II is as jump-scary as it is hilarious) is enormously influential. It’s hard to imagine, frankly, what Edgar Wright and Peter Jackson’s films would look like without it.

6. Shadows (1959)

Director: John Cassevetes

Inventing American indie cinema before QT was even born, writer-director John Cassavetes’ debut feature is a rough hewn landmark and one of the most influential indies of all time. Taking a subject matter that the Hollywood of the time wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole, the tensions within a black family arising when a young woman (Leila Goldoni) starts dating white men - Cassavetes ignores all the tricks of the mainstream to jazz up (literally) his simple story, instead opting for an almost home movie approach where you are allowed to get under the skin of the central character. It may seem somewhat dated now but as both a document of late '50s Bohemian New York and the birth of American indie, this is essential.

7. She's Gotta Have It (1986)

Director: 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.

8. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead

Director: George Romero

Night Of The Living Dead is the ultimate yin/yang example of indie filmmaking. The movie itself is a brilliant, bleak, monochrome horror classic, the standard-bearer for a wave of realistic frightflicks that flooded the '70s. It's also 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, but the true horror of a zombie takeover and siege situation is adroitly realised. 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! Okay, so the financial morass that swamped Romero afterwards is a warning signal to all would-be filmmakers. 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 serviceable sequels like Land Of The Dead continuing his undead legacy.

9. Blood Simple

Blood Simple

Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

The Coen Brothers launched themselves upon an unsuspecting world with this noir throwback 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.

10. Lost In Translation

Lost in Translation

Director: Sofia Coppola

Isolation and loneliness run through the veins of Sofia Coppola’s second film, which finds bored photographer’s wife Scarlett Johansson drifting through her life a she accompanies her seemingly oblivious hubby (Giovanni Ribisi) on a trip to Tokyo. But the real revelation here is Bill Murray, offering up a beautifully controlled portrait of Bob Harris, an actor stuck in a rut after agreeing to work on a Japanese whisky ad. While Murray is well-known for his desert-dry tones, here he brings new depths to his performance. He and Johansson interact in such a satisfying, unexpected and cliché-free way that it’s hardly surprising that the script snatched Coppola an Oscar. And as for that oft-speculated upon final whispered moment? Best left to the imagination...

11. Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Bad Lieutenant

Director: 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 pulls over two girls on the freeway...

12. sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

sex, lies, and videotape

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Indie doyen 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 Palme 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 James Spader, first-time lead Andie MacDowell, and then unknowns Laura San Giacomo and Peter Gallagher. Soderbergh understood his subject (voyeurism and secrecy) perfectly. It's one of those films where not much actually happens, but the director's use of first-person camera rings the voyeuristic bell of a pre-internet audience. It was the template for shaking up financially economic cinematography that would be employed by Soderbergh time and again, and garnered sl&v buzz enough to revive an ailing Sundance and provide Miramax with its first big success. And two years before Tarantino's arrival, it awakened a new generation to the possibilities of low-budget filmmaking.

13. Eraserhead


Director: 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.

14. Memento (2000)


Director: Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan's modestly budgeted sleeper hit managed to claw its 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, Bourne aside), 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 at once 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.

15. Evil Dead

Evil Dead

Director: Sam Raimi

The making of Evil Dead very nearly lives up to the movie's tagline, 'the ultimate experience in grueling terror'. In 1979, three Detroit wannabe filmmakers - 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 filmmaker of the last 20 years has cribbed from Raimi's box of camera tricks.

16. Stranger Than Paradise

Stranger Than Paradise

Director: 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 (Dead Man) the box office remains 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 Gregg Araki.

17. Slacker


Director: 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 twentysomethings up to not much, really, one summer day in Austin. Free-thinkers all - some would call them, ahem, weirdos - Linklater's characters already display the spontaneous, free-flowing dialogue that would become his trademark. The innovative structure (the characters meet, and the camera switches from one to the next) also 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.

18. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

Killer of Sheep

Director: 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 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.

19. Clerks (1994)


Director: 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, he didn't really have time to show it. Clerks was quickly picked up by Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, who overlooked its dodgy production values, ropey 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 humour that ensured that Clerks connected instantly with disenfranchised tweens and shop workers everywhere. The rest is history for Smith, from Chasing Amy to the continuing adventures of Jay & Silent Bob, to awards and domination of the geek world. Or, as Wor Kev might say it, motherfucking cocksucking history.

20. Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy

Director: Gus Van Sant

Wanna check the indie credentials of Drugstore Cowboy? Okay, never mind that Gus Van Sant - perhaps the most indie-centric, experimental filmmaker 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...

21. Matewan (1987)


Director: John Sayles

Practically all of John Sayles’ filmography could be on this list, but in the interest of sharing the wealth, we’ll exercise a bit of restraint. The story, built around the actual events of the Matewan massacre of 1920, follows pacifist union organiser Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) arriving in the West Virginian town under the iron fist of brutal coal companies. The film not only marked a significant turning point in Sayles’ career (it was his first film to attract anything like a mainstream audience), it's arguably an even more relevant, cautionary tale today than it was during the Reagan/Thatcher controlled-climate of its release year.

22. Pi (1998)


Director: Darren Aronofsky

Well and truly announcing the arrival of a major talent in Darren Aronofsky, Pi channels many of the themes that have cropped up in his later work, paranoia and obsession to the fore. Co-writer Sean Gullette stars as braniac maths whizz Max Cohen, a man searching for a key number that might just help him unravel the mysteries of the universe, while also exposing him to serious attention from both Wall Street and a local cadre of Hasidic Jews. Jittery and stylish even given the low-budget limitations, Pi is numerics-meets-noir and remains superbly effective at playing with your assumptions. It’s a smarter-than-your-average indie debut.

23. Lone Star (1996)

Lone Star

Director: John Sayles

John Sayles has never helmed within the studio system in his 25 years as a director, making him a rarity: an indie filmmaker that hasn't (a) become part of that 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.

24. THX-1138 (1971)


Director: George Lucas

Before there was Star Wars, George Lucas made this dystopian vision of a future in a galaxy quite close by. Robert Duvall plays the eponymous THX-1138, a worker in a society where sex is outlawed and drugs used to control the populace, who rebels and begins the search for a better life. What's remarkable in this film are the visuals - the sterile, almost colourless world and menacing robot police provide a stark backdrop for the increasingly passionate feelings of the central characters. Lucas' visions may have become bigger and more colourful as he developed his career, but nothing since has mixed intellectual debate and action so effectively.

25. Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet

Director: David Lynch

After being critically slapped around for Dune, you could have forgiven David Lynch if he’d never wanted to make another film again. Thank your lucky stars, then, that Lynch is an optimist at heart. For Blue Velvet he again placed his trust in Dune overseer, Dino De Laurentis, who afforded him final cut in exchange for a two hour movie made for less than $6 million. The result is, of course, a strangely personal journey back to a seemingly more innocent time both in Lynch’s own childhood and America as a whole. Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern are the peachy-keen, wholesome couple colliding with life’s underbelly, but it’s Dennis Hopper who not only steals the show, but dry-humps it at knifepoint. It’s an icon of American cinema - and of Americana - and a shining example of why some artists should be left to their own devices.

26. Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider

Director: Dennis Hopper

If there was an indie movie that defined its own time, it’s Easy Rider. In the shadow of free love, the hippie movement, Vietnam and American counterculture generally, it’s a ramshackle deconstruction of what cinema had become in 1969. It was originally conceived as a 220-minute long 2001-like epic before extensive editing saw the pseudo-Western hacked back into a more manageable – but still intentionally bewildering – 94 minutes. Shot in natural light, it wears its independent spirit like a flag on its back, garnering die-hard fans in their millions as soon as it was released. Plus, Jack Nicholson playing a mad, drunk, Southern lawyer? That’s practically the definition of indie.

27. Short Cuts (1993)

Short Cuts

Director: Robert Altman

Loosely based on Raymond Carver’s writings, Robert Altman’s portmanteau set of tales about disconnected, dislocated and largely depressed Los Angeles dwellers is one of his best. Tapping into the fears and frustrations of its many characters, most of who are desperately unhappy in their lives, Altman digs out honesty and beauty while turning a mirror on America in the mid-1990s. And what a cast: Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe and many more pour their hearts and souls into the work. Short Cuts might not always be the easiest film to watch, particularly if you see something in it that makes you think about your own life, but it’s stellar work.

28. The Usual Suspects

Usual Suspects

Director: Bryan Singer

A film that gained fame on the strength of that ending, 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), the Christopher McQuarrie-penned heist thriller is 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. Sleight of hand and misdirection are the tools on display, with viewers led by the nose, perceptions akimbo, before the final coup de cinema. 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 indie filmmaking, as simple in inception as it’s elegant in execution.

29. Killer of Sheep (1977)

Killer of Sheep

Director: Charles Burnett

The fires that burned in John Singleton’s South Central were still embers when Charles Burnett took his pocket crew onto the streets of Watts for his debut. The story of Henry G. Sanders’ abattoir worker trying to shield his family from the grinding pain of poverty was, unbelievably, Burnett’s UCLA thesis. He made it for $10,000 over the course of a year of weekends. It’s not flawless – the naturalistic acting is occasionally wooden, the dialogue sporadically lumpy – but it’s a gritty call to alms with a lo-fi jazz score that sets Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong and Elmore James alongside other greats of African-American music. The scale of Burnett’s achievement is reflected by the film’s place in the Congress Library. Not bad for a uni submission.

30. Runaway Train (1985)

Runaway Train

Director: Andrei Konchalovsky

Never mind Unstoppable, this is the be-all-and-end-all of out-of-control, rail-beast movies. Konchalovsky’s movie is a minor miracle. It began life as an Akira Kurosawa project, and its writ-large metaphor linking escapee Manny’s unbowed spirit on a journey to oblivion certainly resonates on a scale interesting to Japanese master at that time, but funding could never be solidified (he would make Ran instead), and the screenplay changed further. As a consequence, the story careers between prison escape, ‘80s actioner with moments of tension to match The Wages Of Fear, and philosophical study of man’s capacity for mercy and compassion in the absence of any given to him. Sounds bonkers, but it works brilliantly.

31. Being John Malkovich (1999)

Being John Malkovich

Director: Spike Jonze

This film makes the list for one simple reason: it proved, once and for all, that a film doesn't have to make any sense to be great. It's entirely impossible to sum up in any thirty-second studio pitch. There are low ceilings, marionettes, and a sinister conspiracy focusing on John Malkovich's brain and the New Jersey turnpike. Beyond that, who can say. But what elevates it from a mere inner-space oddity to something truly enduring is Charlie Kaufman's insane script, Spike Jonze's delirious direction and a cast of A-listers playing wackily against type. Together they add up to one of the cleverest, silliest and downright strange films you'll ever see.

32. Grosse Point Blank (1997)

Grosse Point Blank

Director: George Armitage

John Cusack's turn as repentant hit man Martin Blank marks the single greatest '80s throwback, killer-for-hire romcom ever made. You know the story: boy meets girl, boy stands up girl on prom night, girl's heart is broken, boy becomes professional killer. It's an age-old tale (kinda) and thanks to Cusack's charming killer and a fresh-faced appearance from Minnie Driver, it manages to be both charmingly romantic (he literally kills for her) and darkly comic. This remains the only film from screenwriter Tom Jankiewicz and a delightfully different romance that stands head and shoulders above its peers - and boasts a more impressive bodycount to boot.

33. Happiness (1998)


Director: 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 paedophile 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 Dollhouse is equally eligible in terms of indie-ness, but this is firstly a more accomplished film, and wins kudos points for keepin' it real after the success of his previous feature.

34. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Two-Lane Blacktop

Director: Monte Hellman

As much a testament to Godfather of American indie cinema Monte Hellman (he was the rain-check director for at least two films on this list) as the film itself, this is his best effort behind the megaphone, and the best of the post-Easy Rider road movies of the '70s. On the surface it ticks a lot of cliché boxes: European influence (Antonioni), absence of dialogue, arcless characters and an unresolved plot. But rather than coming across as pretentious, it's precisely this ambiguity - along with the avoidance of simply being a love song to the open road - that continues to hold audiences.

35. Dazed And Confused (1993)

Dazed and Confused

Director: Richard Linklater

Director Richard Linklater largely eschews traditional narrative tropes for a freeform wander through one afternoon and night in a small Texas town as high-schoolers start their summer break and troll the streets looking for fun, love, lust, sex and laughs. Everyone’s aiming to have a good time, and Linklater chronicles it all in a loose, realistic fashion that never feels forced. A roster of actors who would go on to bigger things – Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey and more (including an uncredited Renee Zellweger) drift through the frame cracking wise and getting high. It’s authentic and always watchable.

36. Dark Star (1974)

Dark Star

Director: John Carpenter

There are those that 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), a 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.

37. Poison (1991)


Director: Todd Haynes

One of those handy catch-all terms film critics invent to make life easier for themselves, ‘New Queer Cinema’ embraces a pretty broad range of indie filmmakers from Todd Haynes, who’d veer closer to the mainstream with Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven, to Tom Kalin and Gregg Araki, who definitely wouldn’t. There are obvious common strands – outsiders, excess, the spectre of AIDS - but Haynes’s debut pushed things further, faster. Poison, made for healthy $300,000, was a full-bore assault on conservative America that had right-wingers calling for Haynes’s head on a plate – or, at least, nowhere near a movie camera. Fierce, uncompromising and polarising, you're not likely to find this one on David Cameron's DVD shelf.

38. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine

Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Pain, truth and comedy blend like a perfectly made martini in this story of a dysfunctional family trying to help its youngest member (Abigail Breslin’s sparky Olive) live her dream of competing in a regional beauty contest. A chaotic road-trip throws the various members together, including Greg Kinnear’s bitter motivational speaker dad, Paul Dano’s moody teen and Steve Carell’s suicidal gay uncle, and forces them to confront their issues in the most entertaining way possible while also maintaining sympathy for their problems. And not forgetting Alan Arkin, who delivers a standout, Oscar-winning performance as the grouchy, opinionated grandfather with a sailor’s mouth and a deep, abiding love for his granddaughter.

39. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Blair Witch Project

Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez

The scariest movie ever made? Not hardly, but you'd never have known it through the hype that surrounded Blair Witch upon release. Not bad for a film shot for $35,000 on a camera bought at Walmart (and subsequently returned for a refund). The film was almost entirely improvised by the three leads (who were often just as terrified as the audience) and initially passed off as a documentary, a ruse given credence by an entirely fictitious web-based backstory and a much-aped viral marketing strategy. It's far from the most frightening cinema experience imaginable but an ingenious piece of creative filmmaking it certainly is.

40. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Director: Tobe Hooper

With its air of eerie verisimilitude, Tobe Hooper's chilling horror stands light years apart from the other film based on the gory exploits of the real-life serial killer, Ed Gein. Shot for around $140,000, with money allegedly re-routed from the success of runaway porn hit, Deep Throat, it's Chainsaw's dead-eyed, almost cinema vérité approach that truly unnerves. The dinner scene, where Marilyn Burns comes dangerously close to having her head smashed in with a hammer, is the most memorable example of Hooper's edgy approach - something he would never capture again in a career that has since gone spectacularly off the rails.

41. Pitch Black (2000)

Pitch Black

Director: David Twohy

As this low-budget sci-fi opens we see passengers of a spacecraft in suspended animation and Vin Diesel’s granite voiceover explains: “They say most of your brain shuts down in cryosleep. All but the primitive side… (pause)… The Animal Side… (longer pause)… No wonder I’m still awake.” Happily, the rest of David Twohy’s stylish sci-fi horror-thriller lives up to this enticing hook – only without a mega budget or wall-to-wall CGI. The plot is familiar yet tantalising: we follow the ragtag bunch as they crash on a three sun-bleached planet full of vicious, light-repelled creatures - just as a rare eclipse is about to occur. The un-famous ensemble ups the tension as we have no idea who’ll cark it next, while Diesel is a growling hulk of presence in his breakthrough. Taut, lean and suspenseful, it’s everything that empty follow-up The Chronicles Of Riddick wasn’t.

42. Black Swan (2011)

Black Swan

Director: Darren Aronofsky

The shower-in-a-teacup over how much Oscar-winner Natalie Portman danced in Darren Aronofsky’s twisted little ballet-horror dunderheadedly missed the point(e). Her performance is this film’s roaring engine (just as Aronofsky made sure Mickey Rourke would power his previous movie, The Wrestler), and her director never lets her forget it, keeping his (mostly handheld) camera right up in her face. Mutating from blown-glass fragility into fierce, heaving sensuality, Portman charts a woman’s pressure-cooked, perfection-seeking descent into all-consuming, self-immolating delusion without putting a foot wrong. It’s not about dance training, it’s about acting. Which is why she’s just as impressive portraying Nina phone her mother to tell her she’s bagged the role of the Swan Queen as she is on stage performing the Queen herself.

43. Winter's Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone

Director: Deborah Granik

Boasting an Oscar-nominated performance that put Jennifer Lawrence firmly on Hollywood’s radar, Deborah Granik’s hard-edged tale of survival, family, crime and danger proved to be one of those films that translates Sundance critical kudos into real, mainstream success. And that’s despite the raw tale of Ree (Lawrence), a young woman dealing with a wayward, drug-dealing father and struggling to keep her younger siblings safe in a world where she’s never treated with the respect she so clearly deserves. Unflinchingly on a quest for truth, she’s alternately helped and/or hindered by the likes of Garret Dillahunt’s sheriff and her uncle Teardrop, a performance that earned John Hawkes one of the movie’s other well-deserved Oscar nods.

44. Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999)

Ghost Dog

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Like many other films on the list, Ghost Dog probably won't satisfy those with purely mainstream tastes. A quirky hybrid of gangsters movies, samurai culture and hip-hop, many won't 'get' the way indie proponent Jim Jarmusch flits between lightweight, Mickey Blue Eyes-ish clichéd mobsters, the RZA's gangsta' score and deadly-serious voiceovers about the Japanese warrior code. Heavily influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 classic Le Samourai, the plots follows Forest Whitaker's eponymous hitman who works loyally for a middle-ranking mobster (communicating via carrier pigeon) until a compromised hit results in the whole Mob coming after him. Perfectly-underplayed, there's a peculiar beauty to Whitaker's meditative loner, especially when he's practicing sword moves on his rooftop shack sanctuary. Despite the fact it's covered in bird shit.

45. In The Company Of Men (1997)

In the Company of Men

Director: 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's white-collar creeps are the slime of the universe.

46. Juno (2007) Juno

Director: Jason Reitman

All in all, Juno made $231 million. Not bad for a movie starring two relative unknowns about a perennially “difficult” topic, shot for $7 million over 30 days, right? Amazingly, Jason Reitman read and loved the script before his debut, Thank You For Smoking, had even been released, meaning that it was down to the script’s own charm to win over the cast. The resulting film is an absolute joy, an endearing, beautiful indie that manages to discuss abortion in a frank and balanced way while its whipcrack dialogue zinged (zang?) off screen. Plus, it helped eBay Hamburgerphone sales skyrocket, which can only be a good thing, right? Right?

47. Cube (1997)


Director: Vincenzo Natali

Cube is proof - if proof were needed - that you only need a simple concept to make an arresting film. Taking a small group of people, a confined space and a heavy dose of sinister mystery, Vincenzo Natali probes the darker reaches of human nature, placing his unwitting characters in the ultimate prison: a network of revolving chambers interspersed with intricate (and oft-fatal) traps. Cube was shot in one-and-a-half 14' by 14' chambers and the director blagged free visual effects from a Toronto-based company keen to show their support for domestic movie-making. The result is a tense and often terrifying tale that outshines and outscares any number of budget-heavy, studio horrors.

48. In Search Of A Midnight Kiss (2008)

In Search of a Midnight Kiss

Director: Alex Holdridge

In his 2007 mumblecore masterpiece, Alex Holdridge looked at love in an unfamiliar Los Angeles — not the blue-lit, hostile metropolis of Michael Mann, nor the sterile petri dish of Hollywood/Beverly Hills, nor the mean streets of the Crips and the Bloods, but an endearingly normal town full of normal (well, kinda) people with normal desires and anxieties. Adopting Richard Linklater’s tried-and-tested walk-around-talking path to romance, it’s melancholy but quietly moving look at twentysomething love, as Wilson (Scoot McNairy) hooks up on New Year’s Eve, via that coldest of Cupids: the internet dating site. Shot in black-and-white, Holdridge takes a shades-of-grey approach to relationships, as his menagerie of characters stumble from one heartache/betrayal/misunderstanding to the next and, like fellow Texan Linklater, offers not conclusions but ambiguities. In Search... also brought McNairy to a wider audience, now a true indie stalwart thanks to his starring role in Gareth Edwards’ excellent Monsters.

49. Swingers (1996)


Director: Doug Liman

A true indie, this one, given that large sections of this film - in the casino, and on the highway - were shot without the proper permits, while director and stars pretended that the camera was turned off as the cops stood by. But the results of this largely plotless story of friends rallying round their suddenly single pal are undeniable. One of the very best buddy comedies out there, embraced by men the world over as somehow descriptive of their twenties, it's a perfect example of what happens when that strange alchemy between cast, crew, script and tone all work perfectly

50. The Wrestler (2009)


Director: Darren Aronofsky

Bearing in mind his capacity to divide opinion - much like indie filmmaking as a whole - it's perhaps fitting that Darren Aronofsky kicks off this identity parade of the great and good of US indieland. He took a huge leap of faith casting Mickey Rourke as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson – originally, Nic Cage was set for the role, with big studio backing coming with it, but Aronofsky knew he needed Rourke. Notoriously unreliable, hadn’t-had-a-proper-job-in-years Rourke. But friends rallied round, with Axl Rose donating the use of Guns N' Roses' ‘Sweet Child O' Mine’ free of charge, Bruce Springsteen writing the title song, and the whole film getting done in just 40 days. The result? Rourke and Tomei getting BAFTA, Golden Globe and Oscar nods, and The Wrestler appearing on dozens of critics’ Top Ten Best Lists 2008.