The 20 Best American Independent Films of The 1990s

7. The Blair Witch Project (1999)


In terms of success yielded in the absence of studio funding, The Blair Witch Project is both the definitive indie film of the 1990s and, financially speaking, the greatest independent film success of all time. The production was independent in the most literal sense of the world. In essence, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Bob Griffin took semi profesional actors Heather Donahue,

Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard into the woods and terrorized them by night as they attempted to react in character as student filmmakers there to make a documentary about the local legend of the Blair Witch. perhaps the only thing more remarkable than the film’s financial success is the fact that many members of the public actually bought the rumour that was brilliantly hatched by the film’s marketers- that the events were real.

A victory of marketing indeed, but there are chilling moments in this admittedly repetitive film. Though the characters wander and circle by day, the night terrors are eerily real, a trait heightened by the films Hi 8 video photography. Heather Donaghue is great also, particularly in the much parodied handicam confession, mucous shamelessly emanating from her nose as she weeps in terror at her worsening fate.

Today the choice of self-held angle on this sequence would quickly be labelled a “selfie”, but there was no such inspiration then. In the end, for a film oft decried as extended marketing gimmick, many a skeptic has admitted that the final scene is about as chilling as horror gets.


6. Clerks (1994)


Here is another breakout success built upon financial shoestrings, yet this one is celebrated for dialogue and character rather than form and finance. Here, a 23 year old Kevin Smith shows us the brazen face of 1990s counter culture in a way that few indie films can match, even in this most postmodern of decades.

There are discussions about employment conditions aboard the death star, the difficulty of being a man during intercourse, cigarettes, and pornography. All in a days work at the Quick Stop and its neighbouring video store, not to mention aboard a Kevin Smith production. And, that’s before we even get to the significance of the number 37.

But there are surprises too. Masculinity and arrested childhood is explored. A hockey rooftop hockey game may come as a tonal surprise, not to mention the presence of death- both a funeral for a schoolmate and a wild incident involving a corpse that you wont forget in a hurry.

Ultimately, Dante’s eternal line “I’m not even supposed to be here today” or less sums it all up, this is a tale of the wandering 20s, an age where most have not found any direction in life yet. In Cannes in the same year as Pulp Fiction, 1994 made it clear that torch had been passed to a new era in American cinema.


5. Barton Fink (1991)

barton fink

Born out of writers block, and as stubbornly indefinable as any film you are ever likely to see, this is really a film for artists by artists. The remarkable aspect of this film is perhaps that it succeeds without distinct genre or storytelling convention of any kind. Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a man who lacks glamour in a glamorous town.

Assigned as the script writer on a hack wrestling film in Hollywood, he mourns for the stage and his artistic integrity back home. His gloomy, cavernous motel room is his only fitting abode in Tinseltown. There he meets the charismatic but oafish Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). With only Charlie to report to, Barton falls slowly into madness in the caverns of both his room and his mind.

Of course, there are a few McGuffins to drive us forward. There is a girl of interest to Barton, in the form Of Judy Davis’s repressed housewife Audrey. Her husband WP Mayhew, played by John Mahoney, is a terrifying cautionary tale for Barton as a respected author who has fallen into an alcoholic stupor.

Of course, we come to expect Barton to follow. Given the Coen Brothers resume, it comes as little surprise that things continue to get increasingly grim, and morbidity and death soon follow nicely. As such, this could be a rather frightening movie to show the budding writer in your life.


4. Being John Malkovich (1999)


As self-aware and bizarre as any 1990s film and, indeed as self-aware and bizarre a film as has been made in any era, Being John Malkovich served as the perfect catalyst to begin the partnership of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. One wonders where to begin- with John Cusack as an obsessive puppeteer?

With a frightful looking Cameron Diaz looked in a cage? A mezzanine office with a comically low ceiling? Charlie Sheen in a wig? No, lets go with the fact that a portal exists into the mind of actor John Malkovich. Let’s go with that.

Yes, it is a tale of individuality and control. It is about who we are in relation to others and the right to self. However, it is also highly unusual. There is a fascist element to John Cusack’s Craig, abusing his wife Lotte and becoming entoxicated by his ability to control and “be Malkovich.”

It is rare in film history for a audience to be turned so violently against a protagonist that initially appears sympathetic. Sad charatcers abound in Doctor Lester and his “speech impediment” and the bitingly cynical Maxine (Catherine Keener). Fittingly, the glimmer of hope at the end is both odd and unclear. To see a major studio release idealogical puzzles like this is historically significant and can reinstate ones belief in film as a business.


3. The Last Seduction (1994)

The Last Seduction (1994)

The old adage goes that women either virgins or whores on screen. But, what about a film in which a woman shamelessly plays both, and with considerable aplomb? This film presents Linda Fiorentino as Bridget- the most vivacious, man-eater one could ever expect to see onscreen.

To watch her in the midst of a passionate encounter with Peter Berg’s Mike in an alley is to realise that, by 1994, there were few limitations left to be imposed on the femme fatale figure made into such iconic pulp in the film noir heyday. In fact, this film is itself seen as one of the most effective of the “neo-noir” callbacks to have been made in the roaring 90s.

Like most femme fatales, Bridget has numerous male victims. Her doctor husband Clay, a lovable schlub played by Bill Pullman, can do little to tame her. He is soon blackmailed into pulling off a drug deal, only to have Bridget make off with the cash and find herself in the arms of Mike.

Naturally, Mike is being used too, as a mere pawn to help keep Bridget out of trouble. The attempt to make Bridget more tragic towards the end may be seen by some as a slight misstep, but this mordant noir has acidic wit that leaves an impression on the viewer that is not easily shaken afterwards.


2. Slacker (1991)


Do Not let the title and premise fool you, this film is anything but lazy. Richard Linklater has arguably invested more in static, talky cinema than any of the other directors to emerge from the 1990s, and that is a bold statement. His gambles are always often impressive.

As with his celebrated films such as Boyhood and the Before trilogy, Slacker is boldly non-directional, centering around humans conversing with other humans, without the aid of narrative or plot. A wandering camera sweeps its way over Linklater’s beloved town of Austin, Texas, lingering on the conversations of each and every slacker that it encounters. It feels as though the film is done in a single take, without any particular plan or premise. For fans of the film, that is precisely the appeal.

Linklater himself is the film’s first protagonist. His character discusses a dream. Ironic, given the film itself was his dream vision. The topics are mostly centered around philosophy, but in highly broad and varied incarnations. Terrorism, travel, sex, and Nietzsche; it is clear that Linklater and his improvising cast are having a field day with their anti-premise.

Not surprisingly, the film inspired Kevin Smith to make the similar themed “Clerks”. Though it feels for some as though it should have ended a little earlier, for most the cathartic ending, with hand-held cameras and copious perspectives, is the ultimate way to end the party; and history would indicate that this is very much Linklater’s kind of party.


1. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

reservoir dogs acting

It is the best of indie cinema, it is the wildest of indie cinema. Reservoir Dogs is, in a manner of speaking, 90s cinema incarnate. Relishing budgetary restrictions rather than mourning them, Tarantino sets the bulk of his film in a warehouse, relying on a series of surgically placed flashback scene in other cheap locations to enhance the rhythm.

The film’s technique is virtually a complete success. Beginning at the narrative’s beginning in a coffee shop, the film then descends into Tarantino’s beloved fractured chronology. The opening discussion on Madonna announces Tarantino’s intentions, to break from the conceived ideas of audiences with regard to criminality. Criminality is anything but a formal thing here, these boys wrestle, joke, fight over names, eat fast food, and debate Pam Grier.

The film was not without its controversy. There is racism that is hard to come to terms with. Disturbing, too, is the joy one might wield from an ironically pitched torture scene in which a young cop is relieved of an ear whilst 70s hokum plays on a nearby radio.

However, the characters are well defined, be it Chris Penn’s oafish Nice Guy Eddie, the coward Mr Pink, or the shameless sociopath Mr. Blonde, this is a cast of characters that need no stunts or spectacle to hold our attention. Tarantino draws a scenario of slight tragedy at the end, but is careful not to lose his exuberant tone; a tone that would have an entire decade following suit.

Author Bio: Ross Carey is a Film Studies graduate from County Cork In Ireland. He is an award winning short filmmaker and is in the midst of writing his debut feature film. Before joining Taste if Cinema he was ran a popular blog entitled “Kino Shout! Films”. He will discuss the subject of film at any opportunity.