I can’t tell you exactly why, but I’ve always found there’s something compelling and hypnotic about hunting for that hidden gem of an indie film. Unfettered by big studio money and unconstrained by the claustrophobic restrictions of “what sells,” indie films are inherently hit or miss.
The vast majority of indie films either glow with distinctiveness and originality or… well… radiate a toxic cloud of unfortunate stank.
The following is a list of indie films you absolutely should at least try to watch before you shuffle off this mortal coil. Will you like all of them? Probably not. Hell, you’ll probably hate some of them.
But like my cousin in Texas likes to say: “It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.” It also beats getting dragged to yet another Amway meeting by your brother-in-law.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
This horror indie film set in the deep, dark forests of Maryland is close to my heart for the same reason a lot of people spurn it as they would a rabid monkey. It’s filmed entirely in the Cinéma vérité style: meaning it’s filmed as though it is actual footage being recorded, mostly on cheap handycams.
The camera wobbles, whines, stutters and tumbles as a group of feckless documentarians are systematically pursued through the woods by … something. The plot is objectively idiotic. Their fate is beyond predictable. But it just doesn’t matter. What makes this movie great is how raw and un-cinematic their terror feels. Snot bubbles, arguing, blubbering, the need to find a scapegoat – bodily functions and human pettiness all coalesce into a very real picture of what actual, naked human terror looks like.
And it’s not pretty!
2. The Greasy Strangler (2016)
After my first time watching The Greasy Strangler, my jaw hurt. Not because I’d been laughing, crying, grinding my teeth or gnawing on popcorn. I’d simply had my mouth open in slack-jawed puzzlement for a full 93 minutes.
It’s the story of an elderly and extremely well-endowed gentleman named Donnie, who runs a disco. He and his naive son Brayden end up locked in hateful competition to win the affections of a sexily alluring temptress.
Meanwhile a heavily greased maniac is stalking the streets, seeking slimy, strangle-happy revenge. This movie just doesn’t make sense. Delightful disgust shouldn’t be a thing. But this movie absolutely proves it is, and that’s why, IMHO, it’s unmissable. It also introduced me to the phrase, “hootie tootie disco cutie,” which I now say on a near daily basis.
3. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
This movie has a tight script, amazing actors and a story which clings to you like emotional napalm. That’s all great, but it’s the dance scene at the end. You need to see this movie for the dance scene at the end.
That is all.
4. What We Do In The Shadows (2014)
Set in the obscurity of suburban New Zealand, Viago, Deacon and Vladislav are housemate vampires trying to overcome the daily domestic challenges of being a creature of the night in modern day Wellington.
Filmed as a mockumentary, this indie gem is a mashup of horror, family drama and reality TV show. But it’s so much more. If you enjoy the idea of vampires arguing about household chores and debating whose turn it is to wear the leather trousers, this movie is for you.
But for me, the single moment which brings me back to this movie time after time? It’s hearing a vampire earnestly explain why feasting on the blood of a virgin is so much better. I’ll never look at a sandwich the same way again.
5. Creep (2014)
Creep might be the strangest horror movie I’ve seen. I’m not even sure it actually is a horror movie, but it’s definitely shiver-inducing.
It’s about a terminally ill man who pays a film student to film his final days for posterity. Over a series of weird and increasingly possessive exchanges, you come to realize there’s a lot more going on… but what exactly?
You know that feeling you get when someone on the bus seems just a little too interested in you? Or the odd, fingernail-on-blackboard sensation when a person you haven’t spoken with for years suddenly likes you on Facebook and asks where you’re living? This movie makes that kind of creepy juju happen, and in a janky jumble of ways.
I adore this movie because for all but the last few minutes, it’s a sublime study of the subtle, unsettled sliver of doubt—and how that feeling can lurk just behind our rational mind’s knack for applying reason where it doesn’t reasonably belong.
As for the last few minutes? I’m totally not telling.
6. Lost In Translation (2003)
And then there’s a movie which revolves around the mystery of one single phrase you’ll never actually get to hear.
If you’ve ever travelled to a strange part of the world and felt completely, utterly drenched in incomprehension… If you’ve ever been so lost and unknowing in a culture that you feel like an amoeba floating in a vast ocean of incomprehensible alphabet soup… If you’ve ever met someone in a place and time completely devoid of reference points or familiarity… then this movie is going to hit you right in the soul giblets. Hard.
Oh and did I mention Bill Murray? Yeah. He’s so good in this dramatic role that I now find it hard to think of him as a comedian. So, the ball’s in your court!
I respectfully contend that each of these indie films brought something utterly original and unforgettable to the fevered imaginings of our story-hungry species. If you leave this time-space continuum before reveling in their strangeness, I think you’re missing out on something special.