What the hell is an independent film? It’s kind of like the Pop/Rock section of the chain store music sections. It’s a broad umbrella that covers a lot of ground. An independent film used to mean any small film not made by the studios, but now all the major studios have their own independent arms. It used to mean films that played only at tiny LA/NY theatre chains and film festivals, but now Sundance and South by Southwest, and even Fantastic Fest have become early way stations for studios to give filmmakers major releases. With the dawning of digital film, easy access to home computing editing software, and Netflix and YouTube, anyone can make a movie and get it out there for people to see. For my purposes, I defined independent film as a small, lower budget film that touches you on a personal level and speaks only to you. Unlike their bigger bloated cousins, independent films take risks, tell smaller stories, and dance to their own unique spirit. I know that sounds like a brochure for a commune, but well, I like it here.
As the resident indie jeebus of Pajiba, my reviews tend to be of movies that most people will rarely see in an actual theater. I prefer that. I like independent films. I hate formula. I don’t care if that makes me a hipster, or a snob, or uncomfortable at family gatherings. The little pictures mean something. Someone worked even harder to get that picture made. You can see their blood, their sweat, their tears, and their demolished credit cards. Indiana Jones and Star Wars made me love movies, but it was Swingers and Clerks that made me want to become a filmmaker. I thought, “I can do that.” That speaks to me. Those are the kind of films I want to make. Sure, it might never end up on a Slurpee cup, but someone, somewhere is going to buy that movie, show it to all their friends, and love it forever. While someone else is going to hate it with a fiery passion.
Independent film has been blossoming in the last several years, not just in quality, but in quantity. It’s like kudzu. If you look over all of our lists, you’ll see indies represented on every list. So that made the writing of this list particularly difficult. I mean, my number one choice is everyone’s number one choice. So it’s not on here. The original draft of this list had forty choices, and I added ten more while I was typing it up. I tore it down to a solid twenty, I kept cutting and pasting and swapping, and it was like trying to pick which child has to die. I’m still not happy with my list. I wanted to originally fill this list with movies that are cult classics, and then I wanted to represent it with Independent Spirit award winners and festival favorites. I even begged for help from the other writers.
Then I thought, fuck it. This isn’t going to be Pajiba’s Top Ten Indies. This isn’t going to even be your choices. This is going to be my indie list; Brian Prisco’s choices. These are the eleven films that meant something to me this past decade. You aren’t going to like it. You’ll probably think a bunch of them are self-indulgent overrated tripe. You’ll be horrified your favorite isn’t on there. And that’s the beauty of independent films. They shouldn’t be universally loved and adored. They should be what speaks to you. So I fully expect and welcome you to add your own favorites to the comments below. And it’s with a heavy heart I have to discount Son of Rambow, Once, The Wackness, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Chuck & Buck, Session 9, Ghost World, and Donnie Darko. Enjoy. You won’t.
11. Requiem for a Dream (2000): Darren Aronofsky burrowed a hole in the minds of viewers with his brain-melting Pi. He then made good use of that hole by skull fucking the wound with a curling iron and cauterizing it permanently open with this scarring portrayal of the dangers of drug use. Narcotics are a popular demon in independent film, but after enduring this, everything else is like an afterschool special on Sesame Street. It’s bleak, it’s horrifying, and it’s devastating — and like anything this personal, it stays with you. It doesn’t preach; it just brands the message in your grey matter for all time. It narrowly, and deservedly, should have won an Oscar for Ellen Burstyn. It made Jennifer Connelly Oscar-worthy, and it showed that Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans could act. Aronofsky proved to me he had a voice with Pi, but with Requiem, he showed it was a voice worth listening to.
10. The Woodsman (2004): Lolita is my favorite book of all time, because it fooled me into rooting for a pedophile. It’s not difficult to make a child molester unlikable, and most are portrayed as slavering ghouls — horrible twisted freaks who lurk under bridges to violate our most innocent. Even hardened criminals won’t think twice about slitting molester’s throats, while getting cheered on by Sunday school teachers who refuse to curse or eat shellfish. But Nicole Kassell’s debut film, based on the haunting play by Steven Fechter, gives us a hero who’s a monster. Kevin Bacon’s Walter is a bad man trying to redeem himself. But he can’t. He knows he’s a monster, and even when he tries to do good, it’s in a bad way. He’s stalked by an obsessed detective (Mos Def, at his absolute best), who’s just waiting until Walter makes a tiny mistake so he can throw him in the darkest hole forever. It doesn’t offer any easy answers and refuses to fall into cliche, which is why I eagerly await what Nicole can bring us next.
9. Garden State (2004): It might not have changed your life, but it changed mine. It might be overly precious and insanely hipstery, with the wallpaper shirts and crazy girls preaching the gospel of the Shins, but it was a love story told to me at the loneliest and most confusing point of my life to date. Zach Braff’s tale of a twenty-nothing who runs to California on a dream, never to have it fulfilled, only to slink home for his mother’s funeral and to the friends and father he abandoned, said something to me. We spend most of our life wasting it. Every love we encounter should shake us like a snowglobe, change us irrevocably, make us want to be a different, if not always better person, and scare the shit out of us. If you can’t look past the wearing of the trashbags and screaming into a hole to the reason WHY they are doing that, that’s your problem. If you’re satisfied with your lot in life, if you don’t think you can do any better than where you are right now, if you don’t have miles to go before you sleep, and don’t want to bother trying to rebuild bridges that might have burnt down, that’s cool. Me, I still want more.
8. Secretary (2002): To call this a quirky and non-traditional romantic comedy is to wipe barbecue sauce off your mouth with a ballgown. Secretary is everything opportunity afforded by independent film done exquisitely. It deals with uncomfortabe topics like bondage and domination and self-mutilation with love and irreverent humor. It’s never made fun of, but it’s never treated like a sacred cow. The entire film is unusual and daring, because it doesn’t make the forbidden unforgivable or sinful. Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader are delightful as the lawyer and the woman who understands him in this dark — and strangely endearing — comic study of love and power.
7. The Station Agent (2003): If you don’t know the name Thomas McCarthy, you’re missing out. He’s not just a terrific actor, but an outstanding and understated writer-director. I think it’s because he’s an established and talented actor himself that he allows his performers to just perform. His films are deceptively simple and seemingly basic, but the performances are so powerful. The Station Agent is very simply the story of a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) who wants to be left alone and a hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) who won’t let him. It’s a study of what it means to be lonely, without getting into existentialist navel-gazing or moralizing or philosophizing. The story is in the characters, and if you consider yourself a serious writer, you will watch this film and learn how to do it right.
6. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002): This is a ridiculous film. An elderly Elvis Presley and JFK in the body of a wheelchair bound black man are forced to battle a resurrected mummy preying on their fellow nursing home attendants by sucking their souls out of their buttholes. It’s pure B-movie, shot on a shoe-string by Don Coscarelli, famous for directing the Phantasm films. The rights to just one Elvis song would have cost them over half the budget of the entire film. It’s done with proper over the top humor, cheap gore and schlocky hamming, but truthfully, it’s extremely smart and astonishingly poignant. You never know if what you are seeing is true, whether these men are who they say they are, or if they are even actually battling an undead ass-to-mouth soulfficianado. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis are genuinely heartbreaking, which has an added degree of difficulty when you’re doing so playing such off-the-wall caricatures. Aside from the cornball antics of the overplot, the film is actually a serious study on what it means to become old and forgotten. It demonstrates that even the most zany premise can be layered with heart and thought.
5. Brick (2005): Rian Johnson’s debut re-imagines a gritty crime noir in a high school setting. Redoing older stories for teens is nothing new; crafting a Shakespearean plot in Converse sneakers has become its own genre. But Brick astounds because Johnson keeps the gin-mill language and nicknames while using a cast of teens. It’s mindboggling that it works, and it may seem gimmicky, but he clings to the conceit and keeps it fresh by actually having a seriously splendid murder mystery to tack his talents to. It’s Dashiel Hammett at Dawson’s Creek, without seeming cheesy. Adapting clever slang for high school students can be tricky, and giving them a patois that smacks of prohibition is a risky choice, but Johnson pulls it off with panache. The young cast, particularly stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas, make it work.
4. Primer (2004): Shane Carruth gives us a true indie masterpiece — a science-fiction time-travel study with special effects all occurring in the subconscious of the viewer. It was shot for a pittance — something like $7,000, edited on the writer-director-star’s computer, and the forced sparsity gives the film a stylistic edge. By calling Primer a time-travel picture I’m giving away so much and completely oversimplifying. The entire film sneaks up on you and does what all great hard science pictures should do — it forces you to think. It’s a daunting study on greed and capitalism among friends, like Office Space going the way of Shallow Grave. Carruth is able to do so very much with so very little, which is what all independent film should be. It’s a perfect example of making art out of practically nothing.
3. In Bruges (2008): Martin McDonagh is my hero. His plays have had a monstrous influence on my own writing — sinister character studies so brutally dark and yet incredibly sweet and touching. The Beauty Queen of Leenane Trilogy is mind-numbingly harsh — characters hacking each other with axes and battering with mallets. He’s a painter in violence and shatteringly hilarious dialogue. I worried if he’d be able to translate to the screen from the stage, and his first short film — the brilliant Six-Shooter — immediately won an Academy award. Not bad for a first-timer. But could it work feature length? Look no further than In Bruges, an astoundingly dark comedy about two hitmen on the lam. Again, as over the top as he goes with language and themes, he grounds it in a quiet character study of loneliness and death. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are simply brilliant. It’s shockingly violent yet immensely heartfelt. McDonagh proves there can be beauty in bloodshed and ruminations on death even when you are the man dealing it.
2. Black Dynamite (2009): I stand by what I wrote: “Spoof comedies stopped being funny after Mel Brooks lost his groove. Most of them are just recycled “I Love The ’80s” jokes clumped together like the genital warts around … see, I can’t even finish the punchline without stooping to their fucking level. What most writers fail to realize is that to really savage something, you need to have a begrudging respect for it. Black Dynamite is the real deal. It easily could have been 80 minutes of lazy stoned frat boys checklisting afros, ho-jokes, and kung fu into a Blaxploitation Mad Lib. Instead, the filmmakers lovingly crafted an homage that hits all the bad points, like Quentin Taratino thought he was doing with Grindhouse. It’s incredibly stupid and cheesy in an amazingly deft and intelligent way. Every line flub, scenery-chewing moment, shaky cut, and song parody is done in a precise and careful way. It’s not just a Blunchblack of Blotre Blame pun stretched out to sell DVDs, but a serious effort, and it’s gut-bustingly, ass-stompingly hilarious. Even when it reaches over the top in the mildly shaky third act, Black Dynamite stays true to its soul and devastates the competition. Forget Zombieland. Fuck The Hangover. This is the single most thigh-slapping, belly-guffawing, rip-fucking-snorting good time you will have in the theatre this year. Unless you’re some kind of honky no-joke-getting retard.”
1. Juno (2007): If you want to be the kind of jackass reject who can’t see the forest for the trees — or in this case the heart for the hamburger phone — and sit around railing about the twee dialogue penned by a stripper, just do us all a favor and choke on a bag of dicks and your better, more authentic script for the Star Trek reboot. Call it hipstery (cause it is), rag on the leads for being one note (which they aren’t), bitch and moan because you can’t stand the soundtrack, but keep on missing the entire point entirely. It does everything every other movie on this list did well — only all in one movie. It’s an unusual love story, it takes uncomfortable topics and makes fun of them, it creates its own unique patois, it does so much with so little, it elevates underappreciated actors, and it’s funny while being sweet and touching and smart. Most of all, it made me feel good. If you want to hate on it because you don’t think it’s meaningful or interesting, that’s your problem. But it shows that a clever script and a talented director can take a little bit of studio money and destroy the competition. It’s changed the playing field. Juno will always be an important film, because it marks the point when the film festivals started to matter, when comedies were taken as seriously as the dramas, and when price tags stopped mattering.