1. Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
While still just a speck on the festival circuit, the 1985 Sundance Film Festival introduced two major filmmaking forces in its competition section: The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who won the Grand Prize for their debut feature Blood Simple, and Jim Jarmusch, who was there with his fine minimalist comedy Stranger Than Paradise. Both parties went on to do extraordinary things, but Stranger Than Paradise had arguably the stronger impact on the independent scene, because in form and content, it broke more radically from the American mainstream. While studios looked for the extraordinary, Jarmusch settled on the lives of New York City's most banal and disaffected, following two loveable losers and a Czech immigrant as they venture to Cleveland and Florida—though existentially speaking, they never get anywhere. In the year of Back To The Future, Jarmusch got to his destination one static shot (and a cut to black) at a time.
2. Sherman's March (1986)
Though documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee had been making quirkily personal essay films for over a decade before bringing Sherman's March to Park City, something about the film's combination of Cold War anxiety, relationship woes, and McElwee's conflicted feelings about his Southern origins clicked with a wider audience, dragging McElwee (and, arguably, Sundance) out of the "regional film" ghetto and into multiple festival appearances and PBS airings for the next couple of years. Sherman's March won the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category in 1987, setting the stage for the likes of Michael Moore and every other first-person filmmaker who, in years to come, would use the Sundance forum to turn the camera on themselves and express their concerns—though usually with little of McElwee's wit or deftness.
3. sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
Steven Soderbergh's 1989 jet to success took off in January at Sundance, where Soderbergh brought a print still wet from the lab and won the Audience Award, on his way to the Palme D'Or at Cannes a few months later, and a late-summer platform release that brought in 20 times the film's million-dollar budget. Soderbergh's debut feature is in many ways a typical "regional film," set in a Southern suburb, and populated by soft-spoken characters in spiritual crisis. But it's slicker in style and franker in tone than the more primitive proto-indies, and the use of budding young character actors James Spader and Peter Gallagher in lead roles helped establish the new Hollywood star system, in which semi-celebs bounce between the contractual perks of big-budget studio fare and two weeks in a dingy motel in BFE, doing "one for myself."
4. The Unbelievable Truth (1989)
A few years before Quentin Tarantino came along, writer-director Hal Hartley sparked what has been called the "cinema of cool" with his debut comedy, which looked at modern relationships through distinctively stylized dialogue and performances. In telling the slight story of an ex-con who returns to his home town and falls for his employer's daughter, Hartley serves up hyper-literate language, which he coached his actors to deliver in a near-robotic cadence. Yet the film—and subsequent Hartley gems like Trust, Amateur, and Henry Fool—struck a chord with self-selected viewers and introduced the late Adrienne Shelly, who was for a time the thinking person's obscure object of desire.
5. Poison (1991)
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in 1991, Todd Haynes' triptych of Jean Genet-inspired vignettes proved to be a watershed moment in gay cinema. Haynes' NC-17-rated feature was a commercially dicey prospect, but it landed in the sure hands of still-active New York specialty distributor Zeitgeist, which patiently rolled it out and found a market that few thought existed. Poison grossed more than $1 million, which isn't much by today's standards, but it blazed a trail that hundreds of gay-themed independent films have followed in the 17 years since.
6. Slacker (1991)
Low budgets and small subjects were common to independent filmmaking from the beginning, but Richard Linklater's Slacker expanded the possibilities for a lot of budding filmmakers, showing that it's possible to find an audience with a plotless film about people who hang out and philosophize on a lazy Texas day. Kevin Smith famously said that when he first saw Linklater's acclaimed, elliptical portrait of college-town hangers-on, he realized he could make a movie too. But try not to hold that against Slacker.
7. El Mariachi (1992)
Sundance has been host to many DIY success stories over the years, from Clerks to The Blair Witch Project to Primer, but it all started with Robert Rodriguez's remarkable homemade production, which was shot on 16mm for a mere $7,000. The commentary track on the El Mariachi DVD is like an 80-minute tutorial on no-budget filmmaking, with Rodriguez telling stories of improvised wheelchair dollies, constantly recycled extras, and other ingenious shortcuts. Though Rodriguez more or less remade the film a few years later with Desperado, that remake is missing the playfulness of the original, which had more to do with the sheer joy of filmmaking than the forgettable genre fare it was supporting.
8. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Because so many indie films in the mid-'90s tried to follow Reservoir Dogs' model of hip talk, casual violence, and twisty narratives, a lot of people forget that the Quentin Tarantino revolution was slow in developing. The movie won no awards at Sundance—though it was a Grand Jury Prize nominee—and it had a weak, under-$3 million showing at the box office, in large part because it repulsed the arthouse audiences of the day. But select critics and audience members started spreading the gospel of Tarantino as soon as Reservoir Dogs debuted, and some young cineastes who'd been making a habit of seeing every tasteful sub-Merchant-Ivory film that came down the pike in the late '80s and early '90s started salivating at the prospect of a down-and-dirty American independent film with balls. That emerging audience would become the Tarantino generation of filmgoers, craving pulpy stories told with style.
9. Crumb (1994)
In the age of reality television, having cameras poke into other people's private lives has become de rigueur, but Terry Zwigoff's documentary remains extraordinary for its creepy intimacy and for expanding the limits of screen biography. Given unlimited access to cartoonist R. Crumb, his family, and assorted weirdoes and hangers-on, Zwigoff discovers the co-existence of genius and madness, with Crumb finding a kind of salvation on the artistic fringe. The film also showed how a documentary could be a collaboration between director and subject, with each pushing the other to question their impulses and better define their art in the process.
10. The Brothers McMullen (1995)
Ed Burns' slight comedy about his Irish-American roots isn't terribly distinguished or memorable as a film, but it epitomizes the co-option of independent films by the studios. Picked up by the nascent Fox Searchlight, The Brothers McMullen was basically a mainstream movie on a cut-rate budget, accessible to millions for the low, low price of $25 grand. Though Burns has continued to labor independently, at least as a writer-director, McMullen inspired a flood of "calling-card" movies that continue to this day, as opportunistic young filmmakers shoot what are essentially quirkified Hollywood films as an entrée into the business. Any think-piece on the death of independent film would do well to start here.