The 20 Best American Independent Films of The 1990s


What is it with cinephiles and independent cinema? A quick look at any respected critics best of the year list or, indeed, participation in conversation with any good film buff will quickly lead one to realise that indie films are generally more favoured and acclaimed than blockbusters. Why? Because, generally, they are made without the financial expectations if a big studio business to burden creativity. Simply put, they are generally made by the artist rather than by the machine.

Vehicilizing unique voice rather than big budget grandeur, this is where the maverick director truly shines; though stellar performances are often wielded in the process also. Furthermore, thanks to mavericks like Scorsese, Coppolla, Altman, Jim Jarmush, and the Coen Brothers, the United States has been at the forefront of discipline for over 40 years.

The 1990s was a golden era for independent cinema in America, a true resurrection of the ideals of the 60s and 70s. Suddenly, after a big studio revival in the 1980s, film geeks raised as cineastes were once again taking to cameras and small budgets to make a unique American cinema.

Some of these 1990s gems are comedic, some are downright strange, some are obscene; others, of course, are all of the above. However, more than anything else, these independent films are from the very heart of a decade with a real predilection towards the indie ideal.


20. El Mariachi (1992)


Even in a genre of shoestring budgets, 23 year old Robert Rodriguez had a financial mountain to climb in delivering this exploitation-influenced mob caper. In fact, the two week production only had 7000 dollars to spend. Still, with turtles, kids with heads and many a mariachi number, the film was far from conservative. Even dogs are given dramatic reaction shots in this display of indie film exuberance. Rodriguez certainly seems keen to show us that his is relishing his debut.

The plot, following an amicable wandering drifter known simply as El Mariachi with a guitar who is mistaken for a hitman and pursued by undesirable murderers, gives way to what fans will attest is testament to the fact that small budget genre films can be more visually engaging than big budget affairs.

The action, right from the opening prison sequence, is high octane. Of course, Rodriguez’s trademark steamy romance is on display too in the form of Mariachi’s relationship with the exotic belle Domino. The conclusion is fitting, leaving one with a profound sense of the heart-on-sleeve imagination that film fans associate with indie film as a whole.


19. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)


Perhaps the most startling aspect of this bizarre revision on the coming of age genre is the fact that notoriously cynical director Todd Solondz seems intent on balancing the grim elements of the film with genuine heart.

Indeed, this is a film for anybody interested in punk rock, bad fashion, parenthood, sibling rivalry, junior high and, not least, being an adolescent girl in a world where kids are cruel. Built around a towering performance from newcomer Heather Matarazzo, Dawn Wiener is, in her own ironic way, about as sympathetic a high school misfit as ever portrayed onscreen.

Known to her peers as “Wiener Dog”, Dawn is never far from threats of physical violence, taunts about her appearance and tragic dress sense, and even rape insinuations. Yet, she trudges forward with her curious life. Overlooked by her own parents in favour of her pretty yet cold sister Missy, she hopes that the boy of her dreams, hopeless musician architype Steve can one day rescue her.

Typical of Todd Solondz, this film takes place in a cynical world where even the cool kids are misfits and oddballs and nobody is quite successful. Yet, for followers of the film, Dawn delivers empathy and sweetness in abundance. As the tone of the lively title song suggests, youth is a bittersweet pill to swallow.


18. Kids (1995)

Kids (1995)

Kids is technically a coming of age movie, but it is no ordinary one. In fact, it is a film so boldly nihilistic and brutal that it cannot take its place among the crop, instead it stands devilishly above it, daring filmgoers to watch and discuss it.

Released to many headlines in 1995, it inspired Werner Herzog to declare 18 year old writer Harmonie Korine “the future of American cinema”, while many other critics and insiders simply decried it as filth. Wherever you stand on this one, it’s message is clear, the kids are not alright.

The shock value is obvious. From the disturbing slow paced first scene in which our sleazy protagonist Telly convinces a 12 year old girl to consent to sex, the film is brutally honest about the graphic side of teen relations. An extended conversation between girls about sexual preference is particularly unsettling, as is the moment where passion turns to violence as a youth is beaten to a pulp in a park.

However, what is often missed is that a clear sense of consequence is evident, as HIV is featured prominently in the film also. Chloe Sevigny’s Jenny is the conscience of the film, a moral center and perceived victim of her culture through which the audience is somewhat guided through a unapologetically grim film. For better or worse, this film is a must see.


17. To Die For (1995)


With a bravura central performance in what can perhaps best be described as a courageously shallow protagonist, Nicole Kidman found some of her best-received form in this bitter black comedy from Gus Van Sant. The film, too, shines at most turns. Indeed, with tongue firmly in cheek, Van Sant finds luminous style in this seedy murder story. There is wicked humour, betrayal, lies, and murder- and primarily in that order.

The film follows a housewife named Suzanne (Kidman) who desperately want to be a news-anchor, so much so that she has taken to hosting a limited access show on teens in the local high school. When she meets a potential lover in teenage Jimmy (a young Joaquin Phoenix), she also spots a way in which to get her oafish husband Larry (Matt Dillon), the man she perceives as holding her back out of the way.

The film is an enbittered attack on the desperation held by many for fame, as Suzanne gradually sells her soul for success. The seedy, comic tone allows for many stand-out performances, not least Ileana Douglas as Suzanne’s sister in law Janice, who has long suspected and lathed Suzanne.

Some take too many risks, some are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and at least one meets their fate as a result of a cosmic coincidence. It is also vivdly shot and stylized, which maintains a pleasure to proceedings. This film will keep you guessing, and quite probably laughing in spite of yourself.


16. Chasing Amy (1997)


Kevin Smith’s breezy, postmodern style has been well-established by 1997, as had his passion for juvenile subject matter. This, however, only served to make Chasing Amy all the more of a revelation. Simply put, Chasing Amy is a dark film. That said, its beginnings is most definitely in line with the Kevin Smith canon.

A comic book artist from New York meets the girl of his dreams at a comic convention, she a fellow comic artist. There is only one problem, she is a lesbian. Still, he aims to convert her sure enough. Cue the mandatory pop culture banter at a trendy rock gig, and a now infamous Jaws homage in which our protagonists compare scars they have received performing oral sex, and it appears that we are very much in for standard Kevin Smith fare.

Yet, the confusion, sexual insecurities, and screaming commences. Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams play their characters with utter pathos. A scene in a parking lot becomes as tense as anything one could possibly imagine in a Kevin Smith caper. In the end, doomed romance is on the menu at large.

Particular commendation, however, came for Jason Lee as Banky. While Holden and Alyssa are the bedrock of the film, it is Banky’s repressed sexual urges that come as perhaps the most startling, given the roguish best friend archetype that exists in most romantic films. With drama like this, the Jay and Silent Bob cameo actually comes as tonally jarring.


15. The Usual Suspects (1995)


If this film has not in part already been ruined for you, or indeed if you can get beyond the long discussed twist, this film has long been celebrated as a means unto itself. Known for it’s visual form and narrative structure, the film maintains a tense immediacy from the first shot to the last. Beginning with a calm pan shot over a body of water, there is an eerie serenity to proceeding initially.

With an invalid innocently telling the tale under police interrogation, we are introduced to a true rag tag group of thieves. As illustrated by one of cinemas most memorable police line-up sequences, these are a fun loving, boisterous group that the audience is intrigued to spend time with. There is but one problem- they have all been betrayed and murdered by the unseen Kaiser Soze.

The question of who Kaiser Soze is appears almost impenetrable. The more the protagonists attempt to chase down a meeting with him, the more his cohorts inform them that, alas, they are once again one step behind him. But, in the end, a true classic is found on the questions rather than the answers.

The climax to the film takes place on a ship, and it is known for its frenetic and engaging pace. The performances from the likes of Gaybriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Benicio Del Toro, and Cazz Palminteri are memorable. With any luck, the film itself will stay with you every bit as much as the final reveal.