In recent years, appreciation for films that don’t conform to the traditional Hollywood arc has been on the rise. Originally inspired by French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism in the ‘40s and ‘50s, filmmakers through the ages have turned away from the archetypal film framework of the romance, the gangster film, the superhero, the chick flick. Instead, they favour more intimate, often realistic themes. Independent cinema, especially those not attached to a production company at all, generally means a much lower budget; but this doesn’t necessarily mean a lower class of film. In fact, some of the small, low-budget films have been the best ever released. In no particular order, here are some of my top picks for some of the best films that, chances are, you probably haven’t heard of.
This Beautiful Fantastic (2016)
This film is for you if you like: About Time (2013); Emma (2020); Brooklyn (2015); Atonement (2007).
If you can look past the truly awful name, This Beautiful Fantastic (Dir. Simon Aboud)has some hidden gem performances. Bella Brown (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a librarian who suffers with OCD, consequently neglecting her garden until her landlord threatens to evict her. Over time, she forms a friendship with a begrudging neighbour (Tom Wilkinson) and his household, and an inventor often seen in the library (Jeremy Irvine). I won’t spoil the ending, but the plot goes pretty much how you’d expect. The storyline itself is admittedly riddled with holes – the first being why doesn’t Bella just hire a gardener – but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief a little, this film is still one to watch.
The combination of Jessica Brown Findlay and Andrew Scott has been done multiple times; they received deservingly stellar reviews for their roles as Hamlet and Ophelia at the Almeida in 2017. Here they are both equally charming and captivating as Bella and chef Vernon, alongside the wonderful Tom Wilkinson, whose presence can entirely carry a film. The cast is a medley of gentle, quirky acting and stylised, Tennessee-Williams-esque dialogue. Props must also be given to the production design team and cinematographer Mike Eley; they use colour, or lack of colour, as a subtle representation of class, style, emotion, and mental state. The name truly does still baffle me, but if you’re a fan of quality actors doing their thing, this is a must-watch.
This film is for you if you like:Wonder (2017); Good Will Hunting (1997); Matilda (1996).
Now, I’m not sure how much this film counts, given it A) wasn’t independent, B) was directed by Marc Webb, and C) stars Chris Evans, Lindsay Duncan and Octavia Spencer. But, I’m going to count it, given any time I have mentioned this film, no one has ever heard of it. Gifted is an absolute gem of a film, beautifully shot and with the most wonderful soundtrack, including ‘The Wind’ by Yusef (previously known as Cat Stevens) and ‘Pretty Bird’ by Crooked Still. It is the best showcase of child acting I have seen to this date. McKenna Grace stars as young prodigy Mary, and her relationship with father-figure / uncle Frank (Chris Evans) is one of genuine, raw chemistry. He treats her like a mini adult (“You’re gonna meet kids today you can borrow money from for the rest of your life.”) and she, in turn, asks him Big Questions. There is a scene where the pair talk about God that is one of the most wonderful pieces of screenwriting in history. Mary is swept into an adult world too early amongst loss, custody battles, and her education, and I wind up in tears every time I watch it. Marc Webb has captured something special in a very simple, clean plot, focusing on relationships and the dangers of forcing a child to grow up before they’re ready.
Easy Rider (1969)
This film is for you if you like:The Great Gatsby (2013), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Taxi Driver (1976), Scorpio Rising (1963), True Grit (2010).
Easy Rider, directed by star Dennis Hopper, is technically a classic American Independent film. It is the epitome of the road film, and the inspiration for many a current Hollywood hit. But, given this is a university-student-led magazine, it’s being included on my list given it is a film made way before our generation’s time, and has been lost in our consciousness in a way that classics such as Taxi Driver (1976) and Pulp Fiction (1994) have not.
Easy Rider follows two men on their motorbikes across America. Having smuggled cocaine across the Mexican border, they head to New Orleans to visit the Mardi Gras festival. This film, for the most part, is the ultimate counter-cultural feel good film, with two men attempting to fulfil the ever-elusive American Dream (with an LSD trip thrown in for good measure). It is accompanied by an epic American soundtrack, including Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’, and some tactical colour grading to create a hot-American-summer feel. The best part about this film, however, is the ending (no spoilers here). With wonderful supporting performances by the likes of Jack Nicholson, this is an underrated classic that has inspired many of the biggest films we see today.
This film is for you if you like:Brooklyn (2015); Silver Linings Playbook (2012); La La Land (2016).
Once, written and directed on a micro-budget by John Carney and premiered at Galway Film Fleadh, is one of the most unusual films you’ll ever watch. A gentle, melancholy situation-ship between an Irish busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech flower seller (Markéta Irglová) plays out on the streets of Dublin, shot in seventeen days without permits and using a long lens so that passers by didn’t realise filming was occurring. Carney used friend’s flats and the actors’ houses (and friends) to film party scenes, using mostly natural light. Both Hansard and Irglová were not actors, but musicians, and the filmmaking style helped actors relax and forget the camera was there; hence, lots of dialogue was improvised. The film itself has the aesthetic of something you film on your phone, but as a result, it has a feeling of unmatched intimacy.
It is perhaps this that makes the music so magical. The soundtrack (written by the two lead actors) won a Grammy nomination, and ‘Falling Slowly’ received an Academy Award for Best Original Song. They are gorgeous, gentle songs written by natural songwriters. If nothing else, the film is a true inspiration to shoestring-budget filmmakers; if a film payed for by just the salary of the director can gross $23.3 million at box office, why can’t you?
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
This film is for you if you like:JoJo Rabbit (2019); Lion (2016); The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019); Up (2009); What We Do in the Shadows (2014).
Okay, granted, you might have heard of this one. An adaptation of Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress and written and directed by Taika Waititi, it encapsulates everything wonderful about New Zealand cinema. It follows reluctant adoptive parent Hec and child delinquent Ricky as they hide from New Zealand’s authorities in the Bush. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival and was shot in just 5 weeks, using just one camera for the most part. It employs his classic blunt comedy combined skilfully with meaningful and emotional moments between Hec (Sam Neill) and Ricky (Julian Dennison). The film gets its audience onside to the extent that the pinnacle scene, as incredulous as it appears, has you laughing along and believing it entirely. If for no other reason, this film is a must-see purely for the scenery. Shot in New Zealand, moments of the film show the beautiful country at its best, from its forests to mountain ranges to lakes. Waititi’s pride in his indigenous roots are apparent in this film; not only is it a witty, loving story, but it feels like an ode to the director’s home turf.
If you enjoyed this, keep your eyes peeled for part 2 in the coming weeks!