What is the Greatest (Independent) Film of All Time?

The awards season is finally (some say blessedly) coming to a close. The acronym awards (WGAs, SAGs, and BAFTAs) have all been handed out, the Golden Globes have been given away, and all that remains are the Oscars -- oh, and the Independent Spirit Awards, which are presented by the organization I lead, Film Independent.

This is the 25th Anniversary of the Spirit Awards, and while important milestones are always a great excuse for a party (ours is Friday night), they are also a time to reflect and remember. At the moment, the independent film world is on the verge of reinvention and restructuring. The cameras may be cheaper and the distribution options more varied, but filmmakers today still face some of the same difficulties that independent directors faced in the 80's -- raising money and finding an audience. We face these challenges every day at Film Independent, as we strive to give these emerging filmmakers a leg up so they can keep creating original work.

With nominal arts funding in the U.S., and limited diversity in Hollywood, the Spirit Awards are as vital as they were in 1986, when little-known filmmakers such as Joel & Ethan Coen garnered wins for Blood Simple. Twenty-five years from now, we will be looking back at the 2010 nominees, and recall how their early films paved the way for a new generation of filmmakers.

Because this year is our 25th anniversary, I was curious about which independent films would be considered the "Greatest of All Time." Of course, what's "greatest" is in the eye of the beholder. Is it the film that had the most impact on the independent movement? A "gateway" film that introduced mainstream audiences to the world of independent cinema? Or the one that will stand the test of time to be a great film on its own merits?

Around our office, the three most frequently cited "great" independent films were:

  • Pulp Fiction - "My generation's breakthrough independent film. It broke every rule."
  • sex, lies, & videotape - "It's the film that came out of nowhere in 1989 to become a cultural phenomenon that set the course of independent film--and film festivals -- for two decades."
  • She's Gotta Have It - "I remember the theater, the people I sat next to, everything about seeing that film -- it was unlike anything I had experienced before."

And all of these films had their passionate supporters as well:

  • Badlands--"The best film ever, independent or not."
  • Ballast - "A film that will feel different and fresh and original years from now."
  • The Blair Witch Project - "There's never been anything like it."
  • City of God
  • In America
  • Killer of Sheep
  • Little Fugitive (by Morris Engel -- before independent films were known as such...)
  • Once
  • Pan's Labyrinth - "It unifies every art form; it's the most cinematic of films, where you really understand the essence of film."
  • The Player
  • Reservoir Dogs
  • The Sweet Hereafter - "A great retelling of the Pied Piper story."
  • Y Tu Mama Tambien - "I can watch it over and over again, and not get bored."

The interesting thing about the exercise is that it reminded me yet again that the qualities people admire about independent films (as diverse as they are) do ultimately define a unique genre that has far-reaching influence well beyond your local theater. They give shape to our culture and expand what's possible in movies.

So, help us further define the genre. What's your favorite independent movie of all time? And why?

[See the greatest independent films of this year Friday night, March 5, on IFC -- live, uncut, and uncensored -- 8 p.m. Pacific Time, 11 p.m. Eastern Time]