10 great breakthrough American indie films

With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints the latest release to herald the arrival of a bright young thing of American independent cinema, we count down 10 US indie films that made the movie world sit up and listen.

Paul O’Callaghan
Updated:

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, arriving in UK cinemas this week, is one of the American indie success stories of 2013. Writer-director David Lowery anticipated shooting his slow-burning modern western by any means necessary, in the manner of his previous micro-budget film St. Nick (2009). However his script began to gain traction in Hollywood after being accepted into the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab in January 2012. Lowery consequently attracted an impressive cast to the project headed by Casey Affleck, who stars as Bob, a young criminal who escapes from prison and embarks on a journey across Texas to find his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara).

The film premiered to widespread acclaim and a Grand Jury Prize nomination at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, before heading to Cannes, where it screened to further positive notices as part of the Critics’ Week selection. Though Lowery has worked as an editor and cinematographer for over a decade, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is his first feature as director to receive distribution, and as such offers the rare, if perhaps illusory, thrill of a new cinematic talent appearing before audiences fully formed.

With two very promising US debuts – Daniel Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces and John Krokidas’s Kill Your Darlings – propping up the First Feature Competition of this year’s BFI London Film Festival, we’ve selected 10 shining examples of American independent filmmakers who made a major impact at the outset of their directorial careers.

Shadows (1959)

Director John Cassavetes

“Why don’t you do something? Learn something? There are thousands of things to do in New York City. Why don’t you do something different?” John Cassavetes’ Shadows was by no means the first film made outside the Hollywood studio system, but its radical DIY approach served as a call-to-arms for aspiring American filmmakers, just as François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups did in France the very same year.

A loose, improvised snapshot of Beat-era Manhattan, centred around a household of three African-American siblings, Shadows feels thrillingly modern and authentic even today. As we follow our protagonists on a restless tour of jazz clubs, diners and Manhattan landmarks, a profound sense of their inner lives begins to take shape. It’s sometimes hilarious – a scene set at a ‘literary party’ brilliantly skewers urban pseudo-intellectualism, while the Museum of Modern Art is petulantly dismissed at one point as “a place for a bunch of sexless women who don’t have any love in their life”. But it handles weightier issues just as elegantly, offering a depiction of a fraught interracial relationship which is frank and unwavering, but never didactic.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director George A. Romero

Night of the Living Dead represents nothing less than the birth of the modern horror film. While Hollywood had been serving audiences a steady diet of camp, creaky chillers since the 1930s, George A. Romero’s nihilistic brand of terror was like nothing before seen. Its uncompromising bleakness paved the way not only for the zombie movie as we know it today, but also the slasher and home invasion films of the 70s. It offered a truly subversive critique of America at the time – the fate of black protagonist Ben (Duane Jones) seems audaciously provocative when you consider that the film was released just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In purely commercial terms, it might be the most significant independent film ever made. On release it became the most successful horror film produced outside the studio system, and remains to this day one of the most profitable films of all time, based on return on investment. Since its release, filmmakers have sought to replicate Romero’s winning formula of big scares delivered on a small budget, occasionally striking gold with the likes of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007). 

Badlands (1973)

Director Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick’s mesmerising debut feels like the work of a master filmmaker at the height of his powers. In many ways it remains the most satisfying of Malick’s films – it contains all the lyrical beauty of his subsequent work, but allies this to the taut, gripping tale of Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), a young couple who embark on a killing a spree across Dakota in the late 1950s.

Over the years Malick has acquired a reputation for earnest solemnity, but one of the great pleasures of Badlands is its wonderfully underplayed sense of humour. Rather than fleeing town and, say, checking into a motel after killing Holly’s father, the couple retreat to the woods and build themselves a treehouse – a gloriously absurdist spectacle which calls to mind Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971). Holly’s pervasive voiceover is also peppered with deadpan observations, which juxtapose ironically with her increasingly bleak situation. But equally her narration offers up moments of searingly poetic insight. As Kit drives towards his inevitable arrest, Holly explains that “for an instant, the sight of the mountains in the dawn light got his hopes back up”, before Malick’s camera turns towards the morning sky. The effect is startlingly, spine-tinglingly beautiful.

Eraserhead (1976)

Director David Lynch

David Lynch’s gloriously leftfield debut remains, with the possible exception of three-hour digital opus INLAND EMPIRE (2006), his most uncompromisingly avant-garde film. But while this unsettling tale of a man adrift in a bleak industrial landscape is tricky to summarise in narrative terms, Lynch takes great care to ground his surrealist flights of fancy in everyday human anxieties. The excruciating encounter between Henry (Jack Nance) and his girlfriend’s family is a classic meet-the-parents scenario spun out to nightmarish extremes, which will strike a chord with anyone who has felt a twinge of awkwardness meeting the parents of a sexual partner for the first time.

Its central sequence, in which Henry and Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) care for their grotesquely deformed ‘baby’, is arguably cinema’s most idiosyncratic ode to the trials and traumas of first-time parenthood. A film that oscillates compellingly between pitch-black surrealist humour and raw psychological terror, Eraserhead stands as a singular work from a truly inimitable artist.

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Director Charles Burnett

Shot on a $10,000 budget over the course of a year, and submitted by director Charles Burnett as his master’s thesis, Killer of Sheep must surely rank as one of the all-time great student films. For years it languished as a lost classic – rights issues surrounding the soundtrack prevented it from receiving a theatrical release until a restored version was completed in 2007. Happily this release was met with international critical enthusiasm, leading to something of a belated breakthrough for the film. Yet still it remains criminally under-seen.

Through brief, sometimes abstract vignettes, Burnett follows the daily life of Stan, an African-American slaughterhouse worker living in Watts, Los Angeles. Though there is little in the way of conventional exposition, we see Stan worn down by the grim monotony of his job, and the damaging impact of this on his family life. There are strong similarities with the work of Cassavetes – Burnett shares his totally non-judgmental stance towards characters, and his documentarian’s eye for detail and nuance.

Metropolitan (1990)

Director Whit Stillman

The Oscar-nominated script is the star in Whit Stillman’s impossibly droll urban comedy of manners. Metropolitan charts the induction of Tom (Edward Clements), a middle-class Princeton student, into the world of the Manhattan debutante ball over the course of a Christmas holiday. Here he falls in with a circle of wealthy, earnestly intellectual Park Avenue twentysomethings, and becomes romantically entangled with Audrey (Carolyn Farina), who seems intent on living her life in the manner of a Jane Austen heroine.

Certain members of the group are driven by an almost pathological need to establish precisely where they fit into New York’s complex social hierarchy (settling on the term ‘Urban Haute Bourgeoisie’), while others seek to define themselves through their romantic relationships. In this sense the film serves as a fascinating forerunner for Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, in which a subsequent generation of privileged, hyper self-aware young New Yorkers have decamped to Brooklyn to talk out their sexual and status concerns at a succession of warehouse parties and gallery openings.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Director Quentin Tarantino

Watching the diner-set opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs today, it’s easy to fixate on the negative aspects of the film’s considerable legacy. As Mr Brown, played by writer-director Quentin Tarantino, delivers his expletive-laden diatribe on Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’, one is instantly reminded of the numerous inferior imitators the young auteur’s verbose, provocative writing style would go on to inspire – what once seemed thrillingly radical now evokes painful, long-repressed memories of Guy Ritchie.

Viewed in the context of his subsequent career, there are also early traces here of Tarantino’s least appealing traits as a filmmaker: the smug delight he takes in his own cleverness; his childish preoccupation with racist slurs; his baffling insistence on casting himself in his own work – he remains to this day a terrible actor.

But persevere beyond the opening credits, and you’ll be rewarded with an exhilarating film that hurtles towards its blood-soaked climax at a ferocious pace, and sustains an operatic level of intensity over its taut 100-minute running time. Tarantino can also take credit for ushering in a resurgence of non-linear storytelling in mainstream cinema, paving the way for the likes of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) and Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001). 

High Art (1998)

Director Lisa Cholodenko

The opening scenes of Lisa Cholodenko’s intoxicating melodrama are almost comically mundane, charting as they do a young Manhattan publishing assistant’s quest to fix a leak in her bathroom. But said plumbing emergency swiftly introduces clean-cut twentysomething Syd (Radha Mitchell) to the dangerously alluring world of her neighbour Lucy (Ally Sheedy), a queer photographer who lives a reclusive, drug-addled existence amid a close circle of bohemian friends.

Syd spots an opportunity to tempt Lucy out of retirement while advancing her own fledgling career, and the pair’s professional relationship turns romantic. Syd is initially thrilled to escape the monotony of domestic life with her boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann), but is soon confronted with the destructive role that heroin plays in Lucy’s relationship with her partner Greta (Patricia Clarkson).

Conceived by Cholodenko as a response to the ‘heroin chic’ aesthetic that infiltrated the worlds of art and fashion in the mid-1990s, High Art is a thought-provoking, richly atmospheric, sexually charged experience. Patricia Clarkson is revelatory in her breakthrough performance as Greta, an embittered junkie actress desperately clinging to memories of her glory years working with maverick filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Shotgun Stories (2007)

Director Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols’ exquisitely understated, Arkansas-set debut charts the escalation of a long-standing feud between two groups of half-siblings following the death of their father. Michael Shannon is on typically excellent form as Son Hayes, a transparently flawed man of few words, who nevertheless seeks to do right by his damaged, dysfunctional family.

Shotgun Stories is by no means groundbreaking – visually it is heavily indebted to Malick’s Badlands, while narratively it is as sparse and straightforward as a Bible story. However the precision of Nichols’s filmmaking is consistently impressive, and occasionally breathtaking. In one remarkable scene, Son visits his neglectful mother and accuses her of setting an avoidable cycle of violence in motion: “You raised us to hate those boys, and we do. And now it’s come to this.” We feel a lifetime of pain and resentment expressed in 16 words – a feat of minimalism worthy of Hemingway. With equally impressive follow-ups Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012) under his belt, Nichols is swiftly maturing into one of the most accomplished directors working in America today.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Director Benh Zeitlin

You certainly can’t fault writer-director-composer Benh Zeitlin for ambition. Beasts of the Southern Wild is an expansive magical-realist fable shot on location in rural Louisiana, with an untrained six-year-old actor in the lead role, which attempts complex CGI fantasy sequences on a $1.3 million budget.

With its ramshackle DIY aesthetic and tendency to shamelessly pull at the heartstrings, the film is arguably an acquired taste. Indeed some took against the very notion of a story of impoverished African-Americans in the Deep South being authored by a young, white, middle-class New Yorker. But many more were captivated by the film’s boundless energy and willingness to experiment, and by Quvenzhané Wallace’s spellbinding central performance as Hushpuppy.

Furthermore, its commercial success and multiple Oscar nominations stand as reassuring proof to emerging filmmakers that, even in these culturally conservative times, creative risk-taking might still occasionally be recognised and rewarded by the mainstream.

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Available to buy

  • Shadows

    Shadows

    John Cassavetes, directorial debut follows the relationship between a mixed-race woman and a white man.

  • Killer of Sheep

    Killer of Sheep

    The tender, witty and affectionate tale of a disillusioned slaughterhouse worker, and the solace to be found in the simplest moments of life.

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