The Most Influential Indie Films of All Time, As Seen from 1996

John Cassavetes' "A Woman Under the Influence"I just stumbled across an old document on my computer, in which I was responding to a request from Filmmaker Magazine for a list of the “Top 10 American Indies.” The timestamp indicates that I wrote this in July of 1996, and I have no recollection of whether it actually ran in the magazine. However, I thought I would throw it up here and see if I can get a rise out of anyone.

I think the list holds up well, and the only film I would be tempted to add is “Pulp Fiction,” which I would characterize as the film that started the decline and eventual end to what we used to call American Independent Cinema.

For what it’s worth, here is the list. Feel free to comment with your own ideas.

These, in order, would be my choices for the top 10 most important (as in influential or breakthrough) American Independent Films:

1. “A Woman Under the Influence” While there are earlier, and arguably better Cassavetes films, this one is particularly significant in that Cassavetes mounted an ambitious and successful self-distribution effort, setting the stage for much of the independent distribution movement. 

2. “Return of the Secaucus Seven” In addition to launching the career of John Sayles, independent film’s poster child, this was the first micro-budgeted film to break through the consciousness of mainstream America, essentially becoming the dream model for aspiring filmmakers.

3. “sex, lies and videotape”, By winning the Palm D’or in Cannes, and topping the $20 million mark domestically, Steven Soderberg’s movie broke independent film into world-wide popular culture, and in the process put the Sundance Festival on the map.

4. “Parting Glances”, Way ahead of its time, Bill Sherwood’s landmark film told an accessible story that dealt with gay life at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. The progenitor of the “New Queer Cinema.”

5. “El Norte” , Greg Nava’s ambitious, beautifully conceived epic film, which proved that independent films need not look or feel low budget, but instead could adapt the esthetic to the subject in ways that Hollywood economics would never permit.

6. “Girlfriends” , Moving from documentaries into an independent feature, Claudia Weill became one of the first women to break into the directorial ranks.

7. “She’s Gotta Have It”, A movie that still leaves me cold, but one cannot deny the influence it has had on a generation of Black filmmakers, not to mention the debut of a formidable talent.

8. “Come Back to the Five & Dime…” , This 16mm film made with cable money showed that independent filmmaking was not just a stepping stone to a career in Hollywood, but also a way for established maverick filmmakers to continue to press the envelope without giving in to the Hollywood mainstream. Altman set the stage for independent film to be seen as an alternative vision rather than just a stepping stone.

9. “Stranger Than Paradise” , The film that created the low budget esthetic—in which the lack of resources becomes an asset rather than a problem. The film’s success both critically and financially, began the flood of “no-budget” filmmaking that is with us to this day.

10. “Harlan County, USA”, The first serious documentary to receive broad mainstream acceptance as if it were a fiction film—without it, a success on the order of “Hoop Dreams” would not have been possible.

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5 Responses to The Most Influential Indie Films of All Time, As Seen from 1996

  1. Dennis Doros says:

    I was all ready to argue (it’s my nature) but it’s a very good list and I agree about PULP FICTION. Another title that might have made that list in 1996 would be DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST.

    I would suggest, though I’m prejudiced, that since it’s re-release in 2007, KILLER OF SHEEP has become a film that only now deserves to be on that list. It’s influenced a lot of filmmakers over the past six years. WANDA might be another example of a film that’s become far more important after its restoration.

    Lastly, PARTING GLANCES deserves a new release using the UCLA restoration. The fact that there’s no new DVD and BluRay is criminal.

  2. Hi Ira,

    Yes, your picks were factored into our list, which was the cover of that issue. You picked the #1 film and most of your others made it as well. We don’t have the full piece online, but here are some selections:

    http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/archives/issues/fall1996/50most.php#.UsMqeupdW7I

    We have thought of redoing this list and will someday…

    Happy New Year!

  3. Adam Hohenberg says:

    Hi Ira,

    I like all the films on your list. I am curious as to why you would characterize Pulp Fiction as film that “started the decline and eventual end to what we used to call American Independent Cinema.” What is the distinction you are making there?
    As far as “She’s Gotta Have It” – I was attending film school in 1986 and would argue that it not only influenced African American filmmakers but all young aspiring filmmakers who saw the movie, got something out of it, and received some sort of inspiration from it, much like “Stranger Than Paradise.”

  4. Adam Collis says:

    Hi Ira,

    I am a long time distant admirer. You are a true champ of great visionary cinema.

    What would you say are the closest modern equivalents to this list? In other words, your favorite indie films of the last 10 years.

    Adam Collis

  5. Ira says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Adam. Some of the films that immediately cross my mind are “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and more recently “Boyhood,” two films that push independent film is new creative directions, proving that filmmakers don’t have to abandon art to reach an audience. On a completely different note, another film that comes to mind is “Margin Call,” which was the first theatrical success that was available on VOD simultaneously, and thus proved you could have it both ways. There are plenty of other examples, but time will tell how influential any of them might become.

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