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.