The 20 Best American Independent Films of The 1990s

14. Swingers (1996)


Upon the release of Swingers fans instantly gravitated to the buddy pairing of Vince Vaughan and Jon Favreau. Together, Vaughan’s gleefully juvenile Trant is the perfect foil to Favreau’s angst ridden and often emasculated Mike. Together, they come to represent two polar opposite sides of the male persona.

This is particularly evident during an early trip to Vegas in which Trent duly seduces a cocktail waitress while Mike is left to lament his ex to her best friend. The scene male polarity incarnate. Vaughan is bolstered by the material available to him- wrestling matches over video games and gun possession revelations accumulate and seem to have made Trent an effortless entry into the annals of film history.

Of course, the film benefits greatly from the already established 1990s indie revolution. There is a deliberate Reservoir Dogs homage, which dutifully follows a debate on the merits of Scorsese over Tarantino.

Yet, centering around struggling actors, the film makes unique over-use of slang phrases like “money”, which gives the film a very real sense of time and era, not to mention the fan favourite quotes that is crucial to attaining cult status. The emotionally resonant climax and final scene, too, ensures a circular narrative, as well as a confirmation that director Doug Liman would rather be a Mike than a Trent.


13. Following (1998)


Often credited as one of the least expensive films ever made, this stark petty gangland thriller represents the debut of none other than Christopher Nolan. Indeed, what an undertaking it was for a young Nolan. Nolan served as the writer, director, director of photography, and editor of the film.

By means of cost saving measures, Nolan used available light in the absence of lighting equipment. He also rehearsed scenes heavily with the actors so that less takes would be needed, thus sparing the expense of the 6mm film of which Nolan was personally purchasing. The story of a nameless young man, a blonde femme fatale, and an alluring yet elusive gangster named Cobb is a simple but brutal one which, given the burden of the production on Nolan’s life, is somewhat ironic.

There isn’t much of a happy ending for Nolan’s protagonist. A budding novelist, his days spent following strangers on the streets of London soon leads to, as he puts it himself, the “mistake” of following the same people twice. His attraction to the Blonde and his morbid fascination with Cobb soon escalates out of control.

The slow, tense pacing of the film makes violent moments all the more startling. The actors, only semi-professionals, feel authentic to London. The bleak visuals, too, feel like an experience. For Nolan fans, this film represents an invitation to see the filmmaker before the big budgets, but not before the vision.


12. Dead Man (1995)


A wandering, sprawling, largely plotless epic, Deadman seems to have been born of the cult ideal like few others. But them, what else is to be expected from a pairing of Johnny Depp and director Jim Jarmusch.

A morbid, mordant film, its protagonist William Blake (it is not quite established whether or not he is the William Blake) is doomed from the beginning by virtue of the film’s very title; not to mention a jealous husbands gun shot. The film is about the journey into another life, and the attempt to find yourself in the process.

Pursued through the forest and with only a Native American spirit guide for company, there is much strangeness awaiting Blake over many chance encounters, not mention some not so chance ones. A vicious gang includes a grizzled cross dresser, a hitman crushes a man’s skull.

Yet, the film is oddly peaceful. A trip across a river finds a deeply spiritual journey through an Native American town, and towards the end in more ways than one. Was this the real world? Was it the afterlife? Does it matter? Food for thought, indeed.


11. Happiness (1998)


Happiness represented the biggest risk of a risky career for controversial auteur Todd Solodnz and, indeed, one of the greatest risks an indie director has ever taken. Running at over two hours the film is lengthier than average for an indie film. As such, it comes across as somewhat of an epic elegy to inappropriate an often horrifying material.

One scarcely knows where to start explaining the film’s audacity: with the pedophile father who drugs and sodomises his friend’s son, with the successful but vapid daughter who is in love with an abusive stranger who makes obscene phones calls to her house, the directionless phone sales woman, or the elderly divorced couple ruminating on dying alone; and, for your information, all of these people are part of the one family.

Largely seen as a pitch black comedy, this is without question a film that aims to provoke its audience. Thankfully, the film boasts an impressive cast to guide us through the mirk. Lara Flynn Boyle and Philip Seyour Hoffman have a dour and unsettling chemistry. Jane Adams is somewhat of an innocent as Joy and earns sympathy where other characters perhaps often cannot.

Notable also is young Rufus Read as Billy, who really shines in the film’s climax. However, the linchpin can perhaps still be seen in Dylan Baker’s pedophilic Bill, who will test the boundaries of audience sympathy to no end as he discusses the prospect of incest with his own son. This film truly chills.


10. The Limey (1999)

The Limey

As cinematically exuberant a vigilante thrill ride as one will ever find on screen, this was Steven Soderberg’s last authentically indie film before breaking the big time with Traffic the following year.

Like all good cult films, a band of passionate devotees have very much kept this sleeper classic’s legacy alive. Its not hard to see why in terms of the film’s tone, from the opening sequence, set to The Who’s The Seeker, this is a riotous opera of rock and roll classics, ageing cult actors (Peter Fonda and Terrence Stamp), quotable dialogue, and black humour attributed to murderous vigilante violence. It is as though Soderberg was consciously bidding farewell to his indie persona, and perhaps he was.

There are potentially divisive elements at play, such as Wilson’s fondness for Cockney rhyme in expressing himself and Peter Fonda’s Valentine and his occasional cartoonish mannerisms. However, there is a clear beating heart at the center of the narrative, concerning the alienation of a family and the death of a daughter.

It is, at under 90 minutes of runtime, a potent shot in the arm of a film. Those accustomed to the vigilante genre should find novel tones and revisions to interest them. In the end, you may find the line ‘tell him I’m coming!” echoing in your mind for days afterwards.


9. Rushmore (1998)


When history looks back at the great one liners of Bill Murray, it is unlikely that she was my Rushmore, Max” will make the list. Though, as fans of Wes Anderson’s first quintessentially Anderson-esque film will quickly tell you, that is the list’s loss. This is the film that discovered Jason Schwartzman, not to mention potentially being the main instigation behind the revival of Bill Murray’s career.

In teenage protagonist Max Fisher (Schwartzman), we find one of cinema’s memorable dreamers, and one of cinemas memorable schemers. What defines Max is that he is, as an opening fantasy sequence will inform you, distinctly unremarkable.

He has no particular skill or distinction, his performances on the school wrestling team, in fights with other students, and as a playwright are all merely admirable blunders of youth. Yet, Max carries himself with grace and charm like a man who truly owns the world around him.

The story of barber’s son Max and unhappy millionaire Herman Blume and how they fight over the same woman, Max’s teacher Rosemary Cross, is a long and serendipitous one. The story both embodies and defies coming of age film conventions, with resolution found but nobody quite ever saving the day.

Watching Max continue to wear his private school uniform, despite now attending public school is both funny and tragic, as is Bill Murray sinking to the bottom of his back yard pool as his wife flirts with another man to little chagrin. In the end, as we listen to “Ooh La La” by The Faces, one feels that the anthem’s use has been earned.


8. Hard Eight (1996)

hard eight pic

Indie films are the perfect opportunity to uncover new talent that would fall under the radar of major studios and their understandable yet occasionally frustrating desire for ticket sales. Here, we find the debut of perennial indie favourite Paul Thomas Anderson. Though he would go on to make smash hits like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, one gets the impression that this understated debut may well have been very special to him.

Opening with a minimalist score, an ominous stranger walks slowly towards a downtrodden young male outside a roadside cafe. Things feel ominous, yet soon take an oddly fatherly tone. An old gambler take a young man under his wing, and a complicated tale of petty crime ensues.

The Anderson traits are there, long single shot takes, raucous dialogue, odd humour, and distinct use of music. There is even a cameo appearance from Anderson’s favourite actor, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. It must be noted that the chemistry between Philip Baker Hall’s mysterious Captain and John C. Reilly John is both believable and palpably poignant throughout.

The real standout for fans of the film, however, is Gwyneth Paltro as Clementine, sassy, vulnerable, and sweet in equal measure. There are dark secrets in the charatcer’s world and, as they are uncovered, the character’s earn our suspense as we feel the weight of their world as it disintegrates.