The 10 greatest American independent movies of the 1990s

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The 10 greatest American independent movies of the 1990s

In the contemporary world, if you have a mobile phone, you also have the ability to create a comedy sketch, podcast, short film, or even a feature-length project, but this wasn’t always the case. Back in the mid-20th century, the equipment necessary to make a movie was inaccessible and expensive, discriminating against thousands of creative voices from across the globe, but the independent film circuit would upend all this. 

This changed considerably in the 1980s and 1990s, however, when innovations in consumer technology allowed people to get their hands on affordable recording equipment, finally giving a cinematic voice to an immeasurable number of people. The result of this was a boom in American independent cinema, particularly in the 1990s, where the likes of Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater rose to underground fame.



Once audiences saw the unfettered visions of such aforementioned directors, who were allowed full creative freedom without the overbearing shadow of a demanding film studio, others wanted to join the party. Such films were vibrant and liberating personal visions, with such classics as Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, Anderson’s Rushmore, Todd Solondz’s Welcome To The Dollhouse, and Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich thrilling critics and audiences alike.

Take a look at our picks for the ten greatest American independent movies of the 1990s below, which regrettably omits the aforementioned classics of the era and only includes one film from each seminal director.

The 10 best independent movies of the 1990s:

10. The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick, 1999)

If we’re defining the greatest movies of the 1990s as being the best critical achievements as well as the most important of the decade, then we can’t not include the horror genre game-changer The Blair Witch Project. Defining the spontaneity and homemade nature of independent cinema, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s faux documentary was a game changer upon release, re-defining what a film could do and look like. 

A simple concept that would go on to change the face of 21st-century horror, the 1999 film tells the story of three film students who get lost in the forests of Maryland whilst trying to track down the local legend of the Blair Witch.

9. Pi (Darren Aronofsky, 1998)

Although the American filmmaker Darren Aronofsky might have gone onto ‘bigger and better’ things, he has never made a better film than his 1998 debut Pi. A DIY drama made on a budget of just $134,815, the intense monochrome adventure follows the story of a paranoid mathematician searching for a mythical number that will unlock the secret to the universe that he can visualise around him.

Starring Sean Gullette and Mark Margolis, the strength of Aronofsky’s film was in its sheer resourcefulness, making something out of essentially nothing, largely through the proficiency of an electric soundtrack and immersive visuals. 

8. Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994)

There’s a vein to Kevin Smith’s 1994 film Clerks that is not too dissimilar from the sheer humdrum expressiveness of the French new-wave movies of the 1960s, moving with the same approach to comedy and character whilst both sharing a monochrome appearance. Smith’s directorial debut follows the lives of two convenience clerks and how they pass the time as strange customers come and go. 

Starring the likes of Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes, the small-scale comedy is beloved for a reason, making the most of its slacker identity with a group of characters you feel like you could chill with forever. 

7. The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)

Forget Francis Ford Coppola, who dominated Hollywood filmmaking throughout the 1970s, the 1990s and early 2000s were championed by his daughter, Sofia Coppola, kicking off her creative work with the release of The Virgin Suicides in 1999. A strange, dreamlike coming-of-age drama, Coppola’s romance tells the story of a group of male friends who become infatuated with five sisters sheltered by their religious parents.

Alongside the likes of Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion and Nora Ephron, Coppola was a pioneering female voice of the late 1990s, with her film being a powerful, mesmerising comment on the tragedy of youth.

6. Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)

Speaking about movies that would lay the groundwork for decades to come, Todd Haynes‘ 1995 drama Safe is the kind of film that feels more relevant to the contemporary world than the zeitgeist within which it was made. Starring Julianne Moore, the film tells the story of an affluent homemaker living in the suburbs of Los Angeles who begins to develop several chemical sensitivities as a result of the ever-changing world around her.

More than a mere straightforward drama, Haynes’ film speaks to a deeper truth about existential health anxiety, where one feels like anything and everything is detrimental to their physical wellbeing. It’s an eerie watch that feels transcendent of its time.

5. Kids (Larry Clark, 1995)

Each one of the films on this list goes far to define the landscape of independent American cinema in the 1990s, but arguably, no movie does this better than 1995’s Kids. Helmed by maverick filmmaker Larry Clark, the movie told the story of a ragtag group of teenagers floating around New York City, smoking, drinking and getting up to general debauchery. 

Yet, Clark didn’t want the film to be a stuffy adult’s interpretation of the world of teenagers, stating in a past interview: “I wanted to present the way kids see things, but without all this baggage, this morality that these old middle aged Hollywood guys bring to it. Kids don’t think that way”. As a result, he brought onboard 18-year-old Harmony Korine to pen the script, making a unique expression of ‘90s childhood that felt painfully authentic. 

The result is a devastating piece of cinema that feels raw, powerful, honest and remarkably original. 

4. Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997)

It would be incredibly wrong to discuss the greatest independent American movies of the 1990s without mentioning the great Gus Van Sant. Although he also released My Own Private Idaho in 1991, Van Sant found monumental critical and commercial success with Good Will Hunting in 1997, a heartwarming drama that starred Matt Damon as an undiscovered maths genius searching for a direction in life with the help of a psychologist, played by Robin Williams.

Penned by Damon and Ben Affleck, who would each earn acclaim in the following decade, Good Will Hunting became one of the most seminal movies of the era, standing out as an inspiring, well-constructed drama that would make a name for every individual involved.

3. The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 1998)

The Coen brothers were iconic figures in late 20th-century cinema, releasing a trio of classic independent movies during the 1990s, including Barton Fink, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Whilst we could’ve opted for any of these films for our Coen brothers pick, we’ve gone for Lebowski, purely due to its sheer timelessness in modern cinema, influencing countless directors and movies, inspired by its unique sense of humour and vivid characterisation. 

A slacker movie on a somewhat grand scale, the film tells the story of ‘The Dude’, played by Jeff Bridges, a man mistaken for a millionaire who sets out on a mission to seek financial reparations for a ruined rug. With a supporting cast that includes John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Julianne Moore, The Big Lebowski is a special piece of ‘90s filmmaking that effortlessly defines the era.

2. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

Arguably, it was due to director Quentin Tarantino that independent cinema flourished so beautifully in 1990s America, with his debut film Reservoir Dogs startling the industry awake in 1992 with its brash, stylish vision. Yet, his 1994 Palme d’Or winner, Pulp Fiction, is undoubtedly more seminal, capturing the mood and frenetic nature of ‘90s cinema with a film that bubbled with intensity. 

With an all-star cast of classic Hollywood icons, including John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Harvey Keitel, Pulp Fiction is a postmodern masterpiece that taught the industry how to enjoy the sheer frivolity of cinema in the final decade of the 20th century. 

1. Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)

There’s no doubt that Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction made an enormous impact on cinema in the 1990s, but arguably, it’s Richard Linklater’s quiet romantic drama Before Sunrise that better bottles the sensitivity and emotion that was emerging from the industry at the time. 

Having also gifted audiences Slacker in 1990 and Dazed and Confused in 1993, two films that well-captured the beautiful aimlessness of ‘90s youth, the director’s fourth feature film was his most mature to date. Starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, the film tells the story of a young man and woman who meet on a train in Europe and end up spending a spontaneous evening together in Vienna. 

A slacker movie injected with boundless charm, Before Sunrise speaks to the very best of ‘90s filmmaking, allowing a director the creative freedom to spend 90 minutes with two characters in order to capture the untampered purity of a singular moment in time. Cinema has never been simpler, nor so beautiful. 

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