30-Day Film Challenge: Your Favorite Independent Film

Day 27
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Blood Simple (1984) by Shawn Bourdo

Independent films. By definition, I believe we are talking about low-budget, limited-release films. Unless it's your first student film that you're making with your buddies on your credit cards (yes, you, Robert Rodriguez) then most films aren't truly "independent" - they rely on the "system" in one form or another. But the spirit is that these are creator-owned and -directed products. That there wasn't a studio executive breathing down the neck of the director to make sure that the Coke can was properly placed. These are movies typically driven by story not by actors. Maybe that explains why I'm so drawn to them. Maybe that is part of the reason I opened up a store in 1993 dedicated to them.

The most obvious choices are the two Mt. Rushmore's of Indie cinema in the '90s - Clerks or Reservoir Dogs. Both are worthy choices and I hope that someone has those as their favorites. I could have done either of them on "Movies You Can Quote The Best". More recently I'm a huge fan of City Of God and Memento. I could go back before my awareness of the category and pick Sweet Sweetback Baadassss' Song or Mean Streets or even the under appreciated Two-Lane Blacktop. But I wanted to pick one that exemplifies my love for the genre.

In 1984, about the same time I was discovering foreign films, I discovered a little film called Blood Simple. I hadn't heard of the Coen Brothers - no one had. I didn't know anything about the movie except for the poster on the wall at the Bijou Theater. It looked like a murder mystery and seemed worth a shot. I've never looked back. I had to see it twice in the first week after that. I had yet to be exposed to film noir and this was the perfect introduction. I didn't know any of the actors that well and the film style wasn't like the blockbusters of 1984.

The love triangle of Ray and Abby and Julian is ratcheted up with the arrival of private detective Visser (played by the brilliant M. Emmet Walsh). The number of double-crosses and red herrings is almost too much to fathom. There's a couple different stories that intertwine through the film as we try to follow who's dead and who's alive, where the guns are and where the bag of money is. It's all brilliantly played by the Coens. And it's probably the reason I went on to explore more and more indie films late in the '80s and early '90s.

The Coen Brothers would go on to do superior films to this - Miller's Crossing and Fargo being the best examples. But none of them had the innocent - "we can do anything we want" feel that this film has. This film is unrelentingly dark. It'll also happen to scare the pants off you. But it's exactly what I needed to make me a fan of this genre.

The Unbelievable Truth (1989) by Dusty Somers

These days, "indie" has become a word with practically no meaning and an aesthetic co-opted by studios for their own focus-grouped marketing purposes. Mention independent film to somebody, and you're likely to hear, "Oh yeah, I loved Juno."

The truly independent filmmakers -- John Cassavetes in the 1960s and 1970s, Jim Jarmusch in the 1980s and 1990s -- made their marks by blazing totally new cinematic trails. Hal Hartley stands alongside them as a truly unique voice working outside the confines of mainstream moviemaking.

Many will point to his 1990 film Trust as his ultimate achievement (and it's a great indie in its own right), but I have a soft spot for his debut feature, The Unbelievable Truth, which pointed toward the great things to come from Hartley. It's a charming distillation of his core style -- literate but heightened dialogue and a distinct non-naturalism from his actors -- and a fully formed film that doesn't need to be given any concessions because it's an early work.

Plus, it's the film that gave us the indelible Adrienne Shelly, tragically murdered at 40 in 2006. Her fresh-faced beauty and sardonic wit are magnetic as she battles with her father (Christopher Cooke) over her future and falls in love with a man (Robert John Burke) who might just be a murderer.

High Fidelity (2000) by Amanda Salazar

Again, not that I am one to complain, but I wish there was some more qualifications for these categories. Is an independent film one that is made on a tight budget? A film that is distributed but by the independent wing of a studio? A limited cast, or an unknown cast? A film that that had a life at film festivals but then floundered?

The nice thing about not knowing this criteria is that you can make up your own rules and for my favorite "independent" film I went with has to be High Fidelity. Based on the book by Nick Hornby, John Cusack plays Ron, a record-store owner who is having problems with his girlfriend. He decides to revisit his Top 5 girlfriends of the past to figure out where he went wrong and along the way he learns a lot more than he planed.

The film has a small cast, with up-and-coming Jack Black in an amazing role as Barry, one of the record-shop employees, and a simple story that doesn't put the protagonist in the best light. The film premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin before it opened, which is a fitting place for this film being that it all about music. If there are really no guidelines to what an independent film is, then this is the perfect choice for my favorite indie picture as it is dingy, has a small cast with limited star power, and a great setting, the record shop.

The Wizard of Speed and Time (1988) by El Bicho

Way back before studios had "independent" divisions and before Pulp Fiction helped make "indie" mainstream, just as Nirvana's Nevermind did for alternative music, many independent films were the work of unknowns or barely knowns. Some were successful; many were not.  And if you didn't live in L.A. or N.Y., they might never be seen in your town. Even today in Los Angeles, there are still a number of movies that play one theater for a week because that's all anyone could afford and aren't heard from again. To honor all those who have tried, I am going to use my pick to name a movie I consdiered as my "most obscure" title.

Animator Mike Jittlov worked for Disney and while there, he made a short film entitled "The Wizard of Speed and Time" in 1979 for the TV special Major Effects. In it, Jittlov is the wizard and he runs amazingly fast thanks to camera tricks. It became a cult hit from frequent screenings at science fiction conventions.  A few years later, he shot a feature entitled The Wizard of Speed and Time about a guy trying to make a feature-length film.  Jittlov's struggles to get his film made and experiences in Hollywood likely influenced the story.

Filmed in 1983 and not released until 1988 or '89, it's obviously a low-budget film and is admittedly a tad lacking in areas such as acting and writing, but Jittlov's love for movie-making is palpable throughout and should hit the soft spot of anyone who have the same attachment for the medium. As a bonus, Jittlov created an updated version of the short included in the film.

The original short:

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