My Top Ten – an author's favourites by John Berra (take 2 - American Independent Films)

John Berra is the editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: American Independent (2010), the latest volume in Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema series which examines all aspects of American Independent Cinema from dysfunctional families, to homicidal maniacs and Generation-X slackers. He is also the author of Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production (2008) and the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (2010). John also contributes reviews and interviews to Electric Sheep, Film International, The Big Picture and Scope. To coincide with the publication of the Directory of World Cinema: American Independent, John picks his Top Ten American Independent films.


DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)

The balance - or battle - between art and commerce is often discussed in relation to American Independent Cinema, and it is an argument that is both philosophically and commercially exemplified by the riveting documentary DiG! Filmed over a lengthy period, DiG! follows the contrasting fortunes of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, two West Coast bands that seem destined for the big time, only for the former to implode due to in-fighting and drug abuse which the latter achieves commercial success. The egocentric, and occasionally abusive, personality of Brian Jonestown front-man Anton Newcombe is captured by in all its self-destructive glory, although the fact that DiG! revitalised interest in his music proves that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Currently available on DVD in the UK from Tartan.


Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989)

Bob (Matt Dillon) is a lifelong junkie who feeds his habit by robbing drugstores and hospitals with the assistance of his wife (Kelly Lynch) and a crew of younger addicts who look up to him as a surrogate father figure. Adapted from an unpublished novel by James Fogle, Drugstore Cowboy follows their Portland-based exploits until the bad karma caused by a hat on the bed suddenly forces Bob to consider the shortcomings of his lifestyle. Following his striking debut Mala Noche (1985), Gus Van Sant laces his second feature with dark humour and subverts the ‘indie’ staple of the road genre; Bob and his crew may be on the move, spending their nights in cheap motels, but their chemical dependency means that they are rarely far from a pharmacy, and never venture outside the familiarity of their own zip code.

Currently available on DVD in the UK from


Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)

Five Easy Pieces was developed by BBS Productions following their breakthrough success with the counter-culture road movie Easy Rider (1969), but while the presence of Jack Nicholson and the tagline ‘He Rode the Fast Lane on the Road to Nowhere’ suggest an unofficial sequel to Dennis Hopper’s biker odyssey, Bob Rafelson’s film is comparatively understated and serves as a cinematic bridge between the idealism of the 1960s and the cynicism of the 1970s. Nicholson is compelling as Bobby Dupea, the self-contradictory music prodigy who has turned his back on his gift and his family to live a blue collar lifestyle of beer, bowling and loose women and Rafelson’s deft direction identifies the insecurities which make prevent Bobby from maintaining personal relationships and professional goals.

Currently available on DVD in the UK from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.


Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

A box office phenomenon that cost a mere $320,000, and effectively invented the format of the ‘slasher’ movie, John Carpenter’s Halloween is a master-class in big screen suspense. On the anniversary of his murder of his parents, masked lunatic Michael Myers breaks out of the asylum that has been his home for decades and returns to his home town of Haddonfield to stalk his younger sister, Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis); from this simple premise – succinctly summarised by the tagline ‘the night he came home’ - Carpenter delivers a lean, mean, scare machine that was ripe for imitation. Hollywood swiftly jumped on the bandwagon, picking up such independently-produced rip-offs as Friday the 13th (1980) whilst developing their own entries into an almost immediately over-populated sub-genre.

Currently available on DVD in the UK from Anchor Bay.


Lone Star (John Sayles, 1996)

In the small Texas border town of Frontera, located on the Rio Grande opposite its poor Mexican cousin Ciudad Leon, the body of a sheriff who went missing in the 1950s is discovered, leading to an investigation which sheds light on the darker aspects of community history. Although this relatively simple unsolved mystery occupies the narrative centre, Lone Star is a sprawling cinematic tapestry that finds writer-director John Sayles taking a typically leisurely yet sure-footed approach to the intertwined subjects of historical identity, education and politics within the context of an ethnically diverse community. Sayles works wonders with his ensemble (including Chris Cooper, Elisabeth Peña, Joe Morton and Kris Kristofferson) to make Lone Star a richly satisfying experience.

Currently Unavailable on DVD in the UK.


Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)

Martin Scorsese is often cited as the ‘godfather’ of American Independent Cinema, although to assign such status to the Bronx-born maestro is to overlook the fact that such classics as Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990) have been made within the economic confines of the Hollywood studio system. However, Mean Streets is the real deal, a semi-autobiographical account of growing up on the lower East Side of New York that was shot on a shoestring budget and remains a visceral slice of lowlife drama, propelled by a dynamic soundtrack sourced from the director’s record collection. Robert De Niro’s incendiary, star-making performance as the self-destructive Johnny Boy is the perfect counterpoint to Harvey Keitel’s spiritually-conflicted debt collector Charlie.

Currently available on DVD in the UK from


Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989)

The films of Jim Jarmusch have often observed American culture from the perspective of oddballs and outsiders, and his third feature Mystery Train offers the Memphis experiences of a Japanese couple who argue about whether Carl Perkins was superior to Elvis Presley and an Italian widow who must spend the night in the city before taking her husband’s body back home, while punk icon Joe Strummer turns up as a small-time crook who holds-up a liquor store. Mystery Train is perhaps the best example of the ‘portmanteau’ format favoured by many American independent filmmakers before the emergence of the ‘network narrative’, but Jarmusch’s sense of humour is so deadpan, and his sense of time and place so spot-on, that any structural trickery almost goes unnoticed.

Currently available on DVD in the UK as part of The Jim Jarmusch Collection Vol. 2 (also including Night on Earth and Dead Man) from Optimum Home Entertainment.


Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)

Filmed at weekends over a lengthy period and not reviewed by the mainstream press until it had been playing on the drive-in circuit for over a year, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead deals with the social breakdown that occurs when a strange epidemic causes the dead to walk the Earth as zombies. The film exhibits a documentary aesthetic which separates it from other exploitation items and enables Romero’s scathing critique of the American presence in Vietnam to rise above the threadbare production values. Night of the Living Dead has more in common with the American underground than the zombie features of Monogram Pictures, with the casting of a black actor as the most sympathetic character enabling Romero to immediately establish his marginal credentials.

Currently available on DVD in the UK from Network.


Suture (Scott McGehee & David Seigel, 1995)

Bizarre and brilliant, the sparse genius of Scott McGehee and David Seigel‘s debut feature recalls such ‘cosmetic nightmare’ movies as Seconds (1966) and The Face of Another (1966) but adds a unique conceit that is emphasised by its black-and-white cinematography: the beneficiary of the plastic surgery is an African-American male, but a case of mistaken identity following a car accident leads him to be identified as his white half-brother. Surprisingly little-seen, Suture is a fascinating commentary on how physical reconstruction can also lead to personal alteration in that the central protagonist finds his persona shifting from open and easy-going to cold and cautious as he gradually immerses himself in the identity of a businessman from the other side of the social-economic fence.

Currently unavailable on DVD in the UK.


Trees Lounge (Steve Buscemi, 1996)

Taking inspiration from John Cassavetes, who pioneered the independent film movement by investing Hollywood paycheques in personal productions, character actor Steve Buscemi parlayed the cult status he acquired from playing Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and the hard cash earned from studio assignments into this portrait of a small town barfly. Trees Lounge offers no easy answers regarding alcoholism, and the closing shot of Buscemi staring into space whilst sitting at the bar of his neighbourhood watering hole is appropriately ambiguous. However, the film also has the laid-back vibe of an after-hours drinking session and terrific supporting turns from Chloë Sevigny as the jailbait niece of Buscemi’s former girlfriend and Mark Boone Junior as a fellow alcoholic caught in mid-life crisis.

Currently available on DVD in the UK from BMG.



Posted by James Campbell at 11:29 (0) comments
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