What is an “independent” film? How can you recognize one? What sets an independent film apart from a commercial Hollywood movie? What are the distinguishing characteristics of an independent film? What are these films “independent of? What is the “Indy Spirit”?
What makes good independent films so unique and special and satisfying?
I took a look at my shelf of movies tonight, and I picked out every DVD box that I thought was an independent film and then lined them up on the left side of the shelf.
I came up with 12 DVDs. Here they are:
This is a realistic forbidden-love story in a dystopian future starring Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
This is a half road-movie about a really screwed-up family that is trying to get their little girl, Olive, to a beauty and talent contest for little girls. There is more pathos and hope and hysterical comedy and ultimate optimism in this film than you can imagine. The acting in this film is so emotionally ALIVE it’s a cinematic miracle.
BIGGER THAN THE SKY
This film stars Northern Exposure’s John Corbett. It’s a story about the theater and the actors who live their lives in it.
This movie stars Jack Nicholson as a insurance company employee who retires and who then tries to put some life back into his life. (A briefly naked Kathy Bates is not naked for lust value, trust me.)
Robert Redford is the rich owner of a huge rental car company, who evaluates his life, his love for his wife, and his relationship with his employees. Also, by the way, he gets kidnapped by a violent disgruntled former employee played by Willem Dafoe.
A group of scientists is flown by spaceship to our dying sun, to restart it.
THE SEA INSIDE
A man who has been lobbying for years to commit legal suicide sees the value in his life.
A Woody Allen drama about a man who doesn’t believe in God, and therefore contemplates that no one is coming to punish him… and thinks about committing murder.
THE BIG WHITE
A very funny Robin Williams comedy about falsified insurance claims involving a dead brother.
THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR
Jeff Bridges’ character’s marriage is in trouble and a young male intern of his gets involved with his sexy wife (a gorgeous, fragile, Kim Basinger).
A man is about to propose to his girlfriend on a hillside in England when a hot air balloon comes down out of the sky and bounces back up with a terrified young boy in it. The man and others run and try to hold the balloon basket down and save the boy. What happens when the balloon rises into the sky and what happens to the people scarred by the experience, creates unexpected results.
MIND THE GAP
About a young woman whose mother tells her outright that she doesn’t love her, and several other stories about people looking for aliveness, art, love, God, and forgiveness.
I just bought a new copy of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE at King Soopers for $5.
Most of the rest of these movies I got, pre-owned, at Entertainmart for $3.99-$4.99.
Please look over this list. I’m curious, how many of these films have you seen? They were all made pretty much the last five years. How many have you heard of?
That is an important point about independent films. They don’t have the advertising budgets of Hollywood blockbusters.
They are independent of the commercial expectations of unrealistic, plot-driven, cardboard-character, lowest-common denominator, Hollywood movies.
(Most people’s impression of independent films is that they are low-budget and depressing. The reality is that the majority are well-made and most are hopeful, not depressing. (I hate depressing films!!))
People who want to see these eminently worthwhile and rewatchable films make the effort to seek them out.
Maybe they join Netflix, maybe they frequent Kimball’s Theater downtown.
The second characteristic of Indy films is that they may or may not have big movie stars in them.
Most importantly, Indy films are centered on characters, not on the plot.
They are concerned with how people think and feel and what gives them hope and a feeling of aliveness in their lives.
I got more from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE in terms of soul, truth and emotion than I got from the last three times I went to church.
Fourth, usually, independent films don’t usually have $100 million dollar special effects budgets.
Most importantly, independent films are about life insights, their focus is not to create “interesting” (but fake and inhuman as cardboard) characters.
For example, Peter Parker in SPIDER-MAN 3, is a literal comic book character in a Hollywood blockbuster special effects film.
Greg Kinnear, in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE plays a realistic character who tries to put on his own Success Seminars, but is a failure at it. Now that’s an independent film character!
There is nothing about the Kinnear character that would make him unreal or amazing in a Hollywood way.
What is amazing in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is the emotional and perceptual transformations (and the love the characters (eventually!) show each other).
If there is a sex scene in an independent film, it is probably not there for a gratuitous or semi-pornographic reason, it is there to show human emotion and beauty.
Independent movies are more like visual literature and poetry (not boring– interesting), whereas Hollywood movies are more like a Stephen King novel.
Look at the list above again. Even though I picked them out honestly, I was mistaken about two of them. Two of these films are not independent movies.
Can you guess which two are not independent films–and why?
Actually, SUNSHINE and the BIG WHITE, especially, are not Indy movies.
SUNSHINE is big budget science fiction movie with mostly glam-slam characters (with the exception of Benedict Wong who was in a movie I kind of liked called CODE 46. Wong is painfully real with his portrayal of guilt.)
THE BIG WHITE is low-budget, but just fluff– unrealistic comedy entertainment.
Here are a few more great independent films:
ON A CLEAR DAY
An aging Englishman is disgusted with his life after being laid off, and decides to swim the English Channel.
OFF THE BLACK
Nick Nolte is a coach who decides to teaches a lesson to the kid who “toilet papers” his house. Also, he takes the kid to his high school reunion with the kid posing a his son.
The great Toni Collette plays a woman who must take a visiting Japanese man on a tour across the Australian outback. Things happen in this truly amazing movie journey, especially at the end, that you will absolutely never see in a Hollywood film.
OFF THE MAP
A depressed IRS agent tracks down a family in the enchanted New Mexico desert. He finds a family headed by a man who is even more depressed than he is (Sam Elliot). Sam Elliot’s portrayal of depression is the only realistic portrayal of depression I have ever seen in any movie, ever. Pure poetry. The entire film comes together in the last two minutes. A miracle! (Not depressing at all–supremely uplifting!)
Maybe start with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and see if you don’t find in that movie nourishment for your soul and something else that you have never before seen in a Hollywood movie.
These are not normal, safe, fast-paced, entertainment movies.
Some even have the power, I am not kidding, to take you to a world you’ve never been to, to give you an emotion or an insight you’ve never had, or to maybe change your perspective on life for the better.
That’s why I love independent films.
(I wrote this a while back: I would add IN AMERICA and EAGLE VS. SHARK to this list…)