Independent films are making a quiet comeback, not in the arthouse theaters, but rather on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. Twenty-five years ago, Quentin Tarantino was poised to reshape the cinematic landscape, as he was shooting his forthcoming opus Pulp Fiction, and basking in the glory of the out-of-nowhere 1993 indie hit Reservoir Dogs. The second half of the 90’s, fueled by Fiction’s success and the emerging powerhouse independent film studio Miramax, was the age when independent films finally had their day in the spotlight. Arthouse theaters could actually turn a decent profit as the audience for their films swelled beyond the typical college/urban crowd. The Oscars were regularly showering indie pics like Fiction, The English Patient, and Good Will Hunting with major nominations and wins. Commercially, indie films hit their zenith in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project, grossing nearly $250 million on a $60,000 budget. It seemed like the creative and monetary possibilities of independent films were endless. Yet, as quickly as they roared in, independent films eventually retreated back to their niche audiences, as the masses turned back to studio blockbusters, fueled by the Marvel juggernaut. Here we look back at some choice selections from the indie film heyday.
I personally recall making the hour pilgrimage to the new Kendall Square theater in Cambridge to see a number of indie pics in the 90’s. Some of the films I saw there included: Shine, Affliction, and Boogie Nights. In addition, I would regularly patronize a place called The Wilton Town Theater, in rural Wilton NH, where old-school theater charm made up for the lack of seat comfort. Despite being located in a tiny town, they somehow continue to this day to make a profit off of showing almost exclusively independent films – including some of the more obscure ones that no theaters would show outside of major cities. Sad to say I haven’t been there in years, where I had been going there every other month back in the late 90’s. I should make a point to get back there and see a film sometime. Here are a sampling of some of my memorable independent films:
One of the best aspects of the independent film surge of the 90’s was the influx of new talent in acting, writing, and directing from both the US and all over the world. The stranglehold of the Hollywood Studio system had historically made it so difficult to break into the industry, and it allowed the power of greenlighting films to be concentrated in the hands of a few power brokers. The newfound popularity of indie films went a long way to change that. If I’m being honest, before I looked up Shine online, I couldn’t have told you what the story of this film was. But what I DO remember, is the immersive and mesmerizing performance of Geoffrey Rush. He would go on to win Best Actor for his biographical role as David Helfgott, a pianist prodigy who suffered a mental breakdown and spent years in a mental institution. His struggle to engage the world outside of the institutions and the narrative of his troubled relationship with his father was heartbreaking. Indie films allowed for the depth of character exploration that most Hollywood films eschewed for fear of boring the audience. In fact, the success of CGI in 1993’s Jurassic Park had sparked a sort of CGI arms race, where each summer studios tried to create the newest CG spectacle (think Twister, Independence Day), further relegating acting, story and character development to the sideline. I do believe this is one of the reasons indie films surged in popularity in the mid-late 90’s, as at least some of the movie-going audience tired of the sensory overload of computer generated dinosaurs, exploding White Houses and tornadoes. In any event, Shine kicked-off a run of seeing independent films in theaters for me that went well into the early 00’s.
DJ: You hit the nail on the head with this one, it’s about Geoffrey Rush’s amzing performance more than the film itself. This film allowed him to make money off dreck like The Pirates of the Caribbean films. These films were allowed to show very different stories, interesting and complex.
One of the drawbacks of the indie film movement was that it typically featured intense dramas and character studies, but there weren’t many comedies. Swingers was one of those truly low-budget independents that came out of nowhere to be a modest hit and cult favorite. Possibly due to the subsequent stardom of Vince Vaughn, this film is still relevant in pop culture today, and I still see it being played on cable stations from time to time. It even inspired the brief ska/swing movement of the late 90’s. Vaughn’s semi-whacky performance (“that’s money!”) was the flashier element to the film, but I liked Jon Favreau’s sad sack, whose character was trying to make it in LA as a comedian while struggling to get over his NY girlfriend. The dynamic between Vaughn and Favreau fueled the film and set-up most of the comedic moments in the film. Favreau also wrote the screenplay for the film, his debut, which I found inspirational at the time. I was 3 years out of film school at that point, and while my directing dreams were on the wane, I still thought I could make it by selling a screenplay someday. Indie films, particularly the truly low-budget ones, gave so many aspiring filmmakers the (false?) hope that they too could breakthrough by making or being part of a film made on a shoestring budget.
DJ: Who doesn’t love this film? The pronouncement of Vince Vaughn’s career, he was never better. Jon Favreau’s character also fantastic. I always go back to the cringe-worthy answering machine scene and feeling how he would feel I had left those messages. It’s a funny film that still gets quoted today.
MG: Funny, I think about that answering machine scene too when I think of this film.
So by the time the new millennium rolled around, Hollywood was taking notice of the success of independent films, specifically they saw how nice the profit margins could be. For example, Swingers had a budget of $200,000 but grossed over $4.5 million worldwide. Instead of putting all their eggs in $150 million summer spectacles, and risk a massive failure, they could make 20-30+ small films with that money, and hope to get both profits and the prestige of Academy Awards. Suddenly every big studio had an “independent” label (i.e. Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, Focus Features – owned by Universal). Memento was one of these newer independent films, with a relatively robust $9 million budget, which dwarfs a Clerks, Swingers or Blair Witch, but was far below the typical Hollywood budget. I think it was a good thing, however, to have these in-between independent films, as it opened up another storytelling avenue, where the production values could be at a higher level, but the focus was still on the artistry. I still remember being blown away when I saw this in the theater, having only heard positive buzz but knowing nothing of the plot or unique way the story was told. I had seen Guy Pearce in a few other films, and liked his acting style – committed but not overly intense – and Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano were both excellent in their supporting roles. But it was Christopher Nolan who really made this film what it was, with a specific visual style and keen attention to the details of every aspect of the filmmaking – not only the acting, but the framing, editing, and even use of different film stock. It was invigorating seeing a new directing talent break onto the scene. I’ve eagerly anticipated all of his work since Memento, and he has yet to make a bad film.
DJ: Another great film, kind of a gimmicky film, but it works. It’s been tried to be replicated to poor results. Never was a fan of Guy Pearce’s performances but the supporting cast is terrific. I am still not 100% sure what is going on in this film and I think it’s part of its charm.
I can clearly say that I did not grow up on independent films, probably known then more as art house or foreign films. I was watching mostly big-budget action films, I didn’t even appreciate Hitchcock or Chaplin back then. It did take me a bit and I think I was probably dragged to my first few before I appreciated independent cinema. And for a while, I felt like I was a little bit of a film snob almost wanting to exclusively go to art house cinemas and see these fascinating films. But those days have passed for me as well, nights at the Wilton Town Theater have been non-existent for many years. If I go to the theater it’s mostly animated films or big budget spectaculars. The smaller films reserved for an occasional on-demand viewing. I know it seems like the boon of independent filmmaking has diminished, it really hasn’t it’s just been a bit harder to find these films. 2015’s The Witch, for example, was a great piece of filmmaking.
Not to be confused with the Paul Bettany 2011 horror flick of the same name, Priest was the 1994 film starring Tom Wilkinson and pre-Law and Order Linus Roache. Raised Roman Catholic I always had some affinity for films that dealt with the Christian faith, especially when it questions it. This film does exactly that, Roache plays Father Thomas, a young gay priest who is recently assigned to a new parish and has a few moral dilemmas to deal with including his own homosexuality. The head priest of the parish has a live-in female lover which Father Thomas struggles with due to the priest’s code of celibacy. His biggest question of faith is when a young girl comes to confessional to tell of her sexual abuse at the hands of her father and the father comes to confess about it and that he will not stop. This is the age-old Catholic quandary of the seal of confessional. If he says nothing like church law indicates the girl continues to be abused if he tells, he goes against the church and can no longer be trusted. Of course, to complicate things, while all of this is happening, Father Thomas also gets caught in a car with another man and gets arrested. The ending is powerful and emotional. I love the themes that director Antonia Bird explores. Having loving relationships and being able to protect children, should be part of what religion is about, not cover-ups and secrecy. Roache is fantastic in the role, unfortunately outside of some TV he hasn’t really got the recognition. Tom Wilkinson blew up after this, getting parts in other independent films The Full Monty, Oscar and Lucinda, and his Oscar-nominated film In the Bedroom. This film is not widely shown much anymore, with all the controversy it brought, it’s kind of surprising.
Bonus: Robert Carlyle plays the man that Father Thomas has a fling with, Carlyle was an indie darling for a bit as well, starring in The Full Monty and Trainspotting.
MG: I too grew up strict Roman Catholic, and earlier me would have deemed this film blasphemy without even seeing it. It was a powerful film – the quintessential indie film with a story that mainstream Hollywood would never touch. Its themes were very much before their time and it’s too bad this film has been mostly forgotten as it is very relevant today.
Little Voice (1998)
Little Voice is a much more joyful film than Priest. It’s a 1998 film starring Brenda Blethyn, Ewan McGregor, Sir Michael Caine and Jane Horrocks as the title character. Little Voice, LV for short is a woman who lives with her abusive mother, stays in her room, and sings to herself in remembrance of her dad. Her mother’s boyfriend Ray, played by Caine discovers her and gets her to sing a one-time event at a nightclub. Ray looks at this as his ticket to riches. It reminds me of the greedy construction worker in the Looney Tune “One Froggy Evening” that tries to make a buck on a singing frog. Like the cartoon, things don’t go quite as planned. The end of the film doesn’t really tie everything up in a bow but the overall theme here is about someone being able to find their voice, literally or figuratively. Indie films are unique in they’re often more about the themes then they are the clean Hollywood ending. Jane Horrocks is fantastic as LV. Her mimicking of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland as she sings their songs is truly the highlight of this film. Speaking of the music, they use some old standards, great music from Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg among others. Horrocks hasn’t done too much in front of the camera lately but does a ton of voice work. Ewan McGregor does a nice job playing a telephone engineer who befriends LV. McGregor was in his independent film heyday when he did this film, already starring in the underrated Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and Brassed Off. Similiar to Priest this film has seemed to disappear as well – it shouldn’t, as it’s a nice film with some great performances.
Bonus: This film is actually an adaptation of a play that was specifically written for Horrocks based on her expert mimicry of the singers of the 50’s.
MG: I remember this film when it came out, but I don’t recall if I actually saw the whole thing. I do remember the scenes of Horrocks singing in the style of Garland and Monroe. This film is a great example of the variety of stories that could be told in the independent film universe – so many tales that would get laughed at in the Hollywood boardroom.
The 1994 comedy Clerks is director Kevin Smith’s welcome to the world. It’s about a day in the life of two retail clerks (convenience store and video store). When I saw this for the first time I was blown away. It was so different from what was out there. For one it’s black and white and not for reasons that The Artist or Schindler’s List was. The dialogue is rapid fire and truer to form to what normal people talk about when they are just hanging out. The conversation about the independent contractors on the second Death Star from Return of the Jedi is magic. Being a Star Wars nerd I have had many discussions that could have been inserted there. The movie is definitely funny. The characters of Jay and Silent Bob (played by Smith himself) add to the humor. This was an important film to the industry and opened the doors to a lot of different filmmakers to try their own thing. For Smith, this was a very personal New Jersey film. It also created his own Kevin Smith Cinematic Universe, before that was a thing, with characters showing up in many of his subsequent films, such as Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Save the World, and of course Clerks II. It spurred an animated series. Out of Smith’s body of work, I still like Clerks the best. The rest of his work doesn’t have that same rawness of the original. Smith has done tons of TV directing work, and as a self-proclaimed geek shows up for lots of superhero/sci-fi panels and YouTube appearances. Clerks is still a popular film today and it holds up. I never saw Clerks II since I preferred to have Clerks untarnished. I often still think of the line, “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”
Bonus: Clerks III has been talked about for years as a possibility and seemed certain in 2017 but one of the four main characters had to back out.
MG: This is definitely the film that made so many young aspiring filmmakers, including me, think they could go and make a film with $10,000 and their friends as actors and hit the big time. Unfortunately, few were able to duplicate Smith’s success. He captured lighting in a bottle with this one. The associated films that came after had their moments, but never worked as well as Clerks. I still think about some of the lines from this film from time to time – including the hilarious list of porn titles in the phone order for the video store.