When the 1990s started, the biggest boom of independent films from America began. The VHS and tape school kids finally got behind the camera and started to make their own films. With this great abundance of films, there were some independent films that never really had a life afterwards. Sure, they might have played at Sundance, when it was still an independent film festival, and even won awards, but now, they are rarely talked about.
Fortunately for today, they are starting to have a new life from retrospective screenings and streaming services; but be careful, you might quickly gaze over them. Here are 10 great American independent films that no one talks about.
1. Queen of Diamonds (1991, Nina Menkes)
A film that we cinephiles can imagine Chantal Akerman applauding, not for a style influence, but for putting the psychologically alienated woman in the forefront of this bold film. Menkes focuses on a lonely blackjack dealer in Las Vegas in her desert surroundings with a missing husband and domestic abuse couple next door.
Not much happens in the film as the takes play out in real time, but with immense beauty. One example can be the burning of a palm tree in the desert, but not just for a visual – for what it represents underneath for the dealer, played by the director’s sister, Tinka Menkes. In a stark 77-minute runtime, Nina Menkes wastes no time in her experimental narrative that leaves a strong impression once the film ends.
2. The Daytrippers (1996, Greg Mottola)
The only film from Mottola for nearly a decade, we get a great cast of Hoe Davis, Parker Posey, Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott, Anne Meara, Live Schreiber, and the list goes on as it tells a story of a dysfunctional family that convinces the happily married woman to confront her husband about a possible affair. Therefore, hilarity ensues.
The film represents a time capsule for 1990s Manhattan via Long Island as the middle-class family shuffles around time. It never feels out of place with quirky dialogue, the now-vintage 1990 look of an indie, and eccentric cast of characters. Take for example Schreiber’s preppy intellectual boyfriend, who is constantly battling the family just by being himself; he believes he is right in every situation, which is clearly not the case. Add five more zany characters and you have a very “of the moment” New York type of film. And of course, when you add the indie go-go queen Parker Posey to the mix, you can’t go wrong in this under-appreciated film.
3. Flirt (1995, Hal Hartley)
This entire list could be filled with Hal Hartley films from “Trust,” “Simple Men,” “Henry Fool” or “Amateur,” but with his interconnected metaphysical retelling of the same story in New York, Berlin, and Tokyo, we see how far Hartley can push it.
With different actors, languages, and settings for each of the three stories, it is consistently fresh and unique how he tells the moments from the phone booth or bathroom stall, but with clarity of emotion. It never feels repetitious and if it does, it somehow draws us more into the story.
In the end, Hartley, adapting from his own short, expands this story told over a few years, just adding to the independent realm of the process. This might not be his standout film, but certainly a film we should place higher in his filmography.
4. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992, Leslie Harris)
A film that left an impact upon release by writer / director Leslie Harris, but was quickly gone from the film scene, stands up as a no-holds-barred story of a Brooklyn teen played by Ariyan A. Johnson who tries to avoid the pitfalls of falling into the circled lifestyle in the projects of Brooklyn.
From the opening scene capturing a long-gone New York as she narrates in the first person over hip-hop music, you know you are going into a world rarely captured. From Johnson’s Chantel’s rants to the camera, numerous boyfriends, to an eventual birth scene as intense and raw with thrilling aspects a scene can get, it’s truly an original coming-of-age story.
Despite the harsh environment or early adulthood of Chantel, it’s her charismatic energy on the streets and on the dance floor that make her stand out. And with Johnson’s attention to detail in her story, it’s a shame we don’t talk about this as well.
5. Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991, Matty Rich)
It may sound like a typical crime thriller from the hood as a young man who decides to rob a drug dealer to provide for his family, but it’s not. Starring a young Larry Gilliard Jr. and directed by a 19-year-old Matty Rich, its a real portrayal of people, in this case a black family in Brooklyn and a young man trying to get ahead.
The film depicts a documentary-like portrayal of the projects, falling in the grind, the backdrop of the city, doing survival jobs but never being able to get ahead. It’s the scenes on the stoop between father and son or amongst friends on the rooftops or diner scenes that truly add to a real, gritty portrayal, and thus proving the independence of this film that quickly faded after its premiere.