Don’t worry about how you define independent cinema, or whether you do at all. Most indie fans don’t overreach much when it comes to classifying what qualifies a film as such but instead see these directors as the kind of filmmakers who consistently make the kind of films they want to make. There’s someone on this list for everyone, and if you’re a lover of challenging films with distinct voices and styles (no matter the budget), you may just want to try them all.
John Cassavetes, the pioneer
1. John Cassavetes: Known as the pioneer filmmaker of the independent film movement, his films are raw, disquieting, and semi-experimental in technique. Cassavetes often financed his films with his own earnings as an actor, and leaned on plenty of industry heavyweights to help get his films made. See everything he’s done with a patient, watchful eye, but don’t miss A Woman Under the Influence.
David Lynch, the artist
2. David Lynch: Visually distinct, mysterious, and often times confusing, Lynch films are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Look for the recurring platinum blonde muse, interesting depictions of the elderly, and unique use of sound and fire in Lynch’s pictures; start simple with The Straight Story or Wild at Heart and then move into the heavy hitters, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.
Dogme 95, the purists
Dogme 95: Started in Denmark by filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, the Dogme 95 movement was in effect an extreme attempt to bring cinema back to its simplest form by refusing extravagant post-production techniques and focusing on story and performance. The rules of requirement for Dogme 95 films can be found in the filmmakers’ “Vow of Chastity,” some of which include provisions for equipment (only hand-held cameras), lighting (only natural), and narrative (no genre, no superficial action, only here and now). Many directors associated with the movement have since gone on to work on traditional films in recent years (most notably von Trier) but there are over two hundred of these “purist” films. Start with Vinterberg’s The Celebration and if you like what you see, go from there.
Robert Rodriguez, the rebel
4. Robert Rodriguez: His budgets have grown considerably since 1992’s El Mariachi (made for just seven thousand dollars), but Rodriguez still manages to hold onto his indie roots, mostly through the themes of politics, family, and lawlessness that consistently pulse through his films. No matter how big he gets, a Rodriguez film still looks and feels like a Rodriguez film. To fully appreciate just how far he’s come, see El Mariachi and all of the others, but also check out his autobiographical book, Rebel Without a Crew, which focuses on Rodriguez’s experience making his infamous debut.
Joel and Ethan Coen, the brothers
5. The Coen Brothers: Minnesota born and raised, Joel and Ethan Coen’s films have become legendary for their idiosyncratic characters, violence, and visual style. Some Coen films are all screwball, others are serious, but the majority have an ironic mix of both, which makes for a dark yet enjoyable viewing experience. Start with lighthearted pictures such as Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou? and then move into darker themes with Fargo or No Country For Old Men, but make sure to end with The Big Lebowski.
John Sayles, the American
6. John Sayles: A writer/director with a substantial body of credible work, John Sayles still falls under most mainstream radars. Much of what he’s written and directed gets nominated for awards and accolades, the most successful being 1997’s Lone Star, but his real hidden gem is Casa de los Babys, released in 2003, which (as with Lone Star) examines identity and economy among American and Latino relations.
Spike Lee, the activist
7. Spike Lee: Racial relations are at the forefront of nearly all of Lee’s films, but visual technique, nostalgia, music, and performance contribute just as much to each picture. Even when the audience is not being directly addressed, as is common, Lee has a way of forcing audience involvement by implication; your very presence as a viewer often requires you to decide immediately how to feel about the difficult scenes in the films and your position within them. Know that Spike Lee isn’t trying to entertain you, he’s trying to wake you up. Definitely start with Lee’s landmark film, Do The Right Thing, and follow it up with Summer of Sam and Bamboozled.
Sofia Coppola, the woman
8. Sofia Coppola: Underlying themes of loneliness and a flair for both colorful visuals and popular music mark Coppola’s films. Although somewhat better suited for female viewers with an interest in distinctive narratives, Coppola’s best work is Lost in Translation for which she won an Oscar for her original screenplay. Men, see this one; women, see everything she’s done.
Spike Jonze, the achiever
9. Spike Jonze: Despite having firm roots in music videos, documentaries, and shorts, Spike Jonze (with the help of Charlie Kaufman’s writing) comes off as a director of feature films who very much enjoys his job. His films are clever, a little off-beat, and comical but not without heart; humanity is a factor as much as anything else. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation are both masterpieces; take special note of the performances and the ability of both films to laugh not only at themselves but at films and actors in general.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the thinker
10. Paul Thomas Anderson: Though most often compared with Robert Altman (another excellent indie director), PT Anderson’s films are edgier and with a style very much his own. His use of color and popular music together with his affinity for bizarre or uncomfortable moments of realism between his characters are the trademarks of many of his films, showing us a more complicated, disquieting side to human relationships. Punch Drunk Love is his most underrated film, but start with Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood–his finest writing and directing.