Great little movies.
July 9, 2007 1:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for the best little low-budget movies that few people you know have seen, but ought to have.

I just saw Last Night for the first time and loved it. I've got a bad habit of blindly chosing interesting-looking clunkers and so would like to know the best small-budget (generally independent) movies you've seen -- the ones you always recommend to people looking for something well written and inventive, or that have one or two truly great performances that are worth sitting through some clunkiness to see. I tend to like smart, well acted dramas and comedies with sympathetic performances: nothing either too treacly (or Lifetime for Womenish) or too mean-spirited (or Neil LaButeish). Thanks very much.
posted by melissa may to Media & Arts (67 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
i enjoyed "waydowntown" - but i watched it on a terribly small tv, with awful reception from a pirate tv station in belgrade - which might have added to its charms.
posted by dnc at 1:57 AM on July 9, 2007

I'd vote strongly for the following:
  • "Roadkill", a Bruce MacDonald film. Young woman with record-exec ambitions heads to the Canadian north to retrieve an off-the-grid indie band on tour. Great quote: "If you're gonna drive, you're gonna kill."
  • "The Tao of Steve". One of Donal Logue's early films -- truly hilarious rom-com about a fat guy who's amounted to mostly nothing as a result of his ridiculous ideas about male-female relations. Great quote: "Both men and women want to have sex. It's natural, except we're on different timetables. Women want to have sex, like, y'know, fifteen minutes after us, so if you hold out for twenty she'll be chasing you for five."

posted by mrmcsurly at 2:43 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Melvin Goes to Dinner
posted by quentiniii at 3:53 AM on July 9, 2007

posted by Eldritch at 3:57 AM on July 9, 2007

posted by Martin E. at 4:28 AM on July 9, 2007

Plan 9 From Outer Space - So Bad It's Brilliant.
posted by cholly at 4:51 AM on July 9, 2007

posted by popcassady at 5:02 AM on July 9, 2007

Thanks for this question; I'd never heard of Last Night. At least one of the films McKellar wrote the script for, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, is also great- a marvelous linked collage about the famous pianist that hangs together beautifully. Sadly, Netflix doesn't have it available, but if you can find it in a video store, it's a must-see.
posted by mediareport at 5:10 AM on July 9, 2007

Any of John Waters's early stuff; although most people have at least heard of Pink Flamingos, the films Desperate Living and Female Trouble are great, if you are into that sort of thing. Definitely not everyone's idea of fun, though. Harold and Maude is a cult classic that is worth a look.
posted by TedW at 5:14 AM on July 9, 2007

Definitely "The Hudsucker Proxy" One of my favorites
posted by jpdoane at 5:16 AM on July 9, 2007

The Hudsucker Proxy isn't a low budget movie by any standards... $25m budget... it was the Coen's attempt at a real studio feature and sent them whimpering back to low budget movies. However it IS a very good film!

I'd suggest Trees Lounge, directed by Steve Buscemi, and loosely based on an episode in his own life (he was an ice cream truck driver for a while). I wept with laughter.
posted by unSane at 5:21 AM on July 9, 2007

Definitely watch Highway 61, another Don McKellar film. Awesome, and the only people I know who have ever heard of it are people who I showed it to.
posted by tomble at 5:25 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

My Dinner With Andre
posted by mkultra at 5:29 AM on July 9, 2007

Recent-ish things that were mainly under the radar, and understated:

All the Real Girls -- flawed, but charming, with riveting chemistry between the leads. Sort of an indie/improv Say Anything
Old Joy -- starring Will Oldham! two old pals with little in common go camping.
Keane -- troubled dad (the excellent Damian Lewis) searches for abducted daughter, who may or may not exist.
Mutual Appreciation -- musician develops crush on best pal's girl
Jesus' Son -- Billy Crudup as a well-meaning junkie fumbling toward survival. Or something.
My Summer of Love -- two adolescent English girls, class difference, summer: you do the math.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:37 AM on July 9, 2007

If you're into cerebral, low-budget science fiction that doesn't really feel low-budget, or even if you don't, I can't recommend enough that everybody watch Primer, as Eldritch has. Head-scratching, tense, compelling, and absolutely demands repeat viewings.
posted by zardoz at 5:43 AM on July 9, 2007

I tend to like smart, well acted dramas and comedies with sympathetic performances

You might enjoy the films of John Sayles, melissa may. Matewan, a brilliant little film about a little known episode of union history, and Lone Star, a beautiful minor epic about small-town secrets, family and race, are probably my faves, but pretty much all of his work fits your description above.
posted by mediareport at 5:50 AM on July 9, 2007

Torch Song Trilogy
East is East

I haven't seen it yet, but a lot of people (incl myself) are excited that The Search for John Gissing has just been self-released by the writer-director-lead.
posted by Martin E. at 5:50 AM on July 9, 2007

Oh, and Mike Leigh's films, if you haven't seen them, are right up your alley as well. I'd start with Secrets and Lies (classic - a small, deep, wonderfully acted film), Life is Sweet (a perfect and very touching comedy) and Topsy Turvy (an alternately hilarious and deeply moving look at the relationship between Gilbert & Sullivan at a key point in their careers, with a great supporting cast and tons of fascinating period detail).

You cannot go wrong with any of those movies.
posted by mediareport at 6:01 AM on July 9, 2007

Manny and Lo.
posted by googly at 6:37 AM on July 9, 2007

Taffy Was Born is a great suspense/horror movie in the genre of Shirley Jackson. I saw it in NYC last year, but I'm not sure if it's been released on DVD yet. Trailer here.
posted by kimdog at 6:43 AM on July 9, 2007

The Station Agent
In America
Toto the Hero
American Splendor
Bottle Rocket
Notorious (I know it's out of place here, but... mmmm)
The Good Girl (Recently listed as a movie to walk out of)
Big Night

There's really no good movie site to link to. Rottentomatoes hurts my eyes, imdb doesn't give a good indication of the feeling of the movie. Metacritic doesn't have everything. Netflix forces you to be signed in to see anything.
posted by jiiota at 6:48 AM on July 9, 2007

Wholeheartedly seconding Station Agent, Lone Star Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Fucking Amal, Pi and Primer.

As for recommendations not already mentioned, recently I have watched and enjoyed The Magician and Schizopolis (a long time favorite of mine, actually).

I'll suggest more when I can think of 'em.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:09 AM on July 9, 2007

I can't believe no one's mentioned El Mariachi.
posted by dhammond at 7:11 AM on July 9, 2007

Withnail & I
posted by Martin E. at 7:12 AM on July 9, 2007

The Hudsucker Proxy may not be low budget but it is one of the Coen's least known films and also one of their best. If you haven't seen it, give it a chance. It's their send up of the screwball romantic comedies from the 40s and 50s. 'His Girl Friday' (an excellent movie by the way, if you haven't seen it) is one of the more pronounced inspirations.

I used to like John Sayles until I saw Lone Star. Matewan is more engrossing and has less of a history / object lesson feel to it. I think it is more beautifully filmed as well.

The characters are not too sympathetic but if you like crime fiction there have been two excellent adaptations of Jim Thompson's novels. Le Coup de Torchon is a French movie set in Algeria. After Dark, My Sweet is a small budget American film. Both of them are well executed with strong performances.

You might also like the film noir Detour (1945). This was one of the better films to come out of "Poverty Row", which was the name of the small studios that tried to survive alongside their mammoth counterparts. In some ways they were the forerunners of the indie film producers today.

Unflinching Triumph is a great "documentary" that you can watch for free on the web. Excellent depiction of the little known professional staredown circuit. One of the better comedies I've seen in the last few years.

Election is not an independent movie but I am always surprised by how many people haven't seen it. If you missed it, check it out. It's probably the best High School movie I've seen. A little better than Heathers and not nearly as dark.

And he isn't to everyone's taste but you might want to give Werner Herzog's movies a try. They range across a wide spread of genres but they are all a little strange and most are somewhat dark. That said, they have some of the most haunting images I've ever seen.
posted by BigSky at 7:20 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Le Jette is a great old movie that is very low budget. Shot entirely with photographs and the basis of 12 monkeys.
Great movie.
posted by brinkzilla at 7:27 AM on July 9, 2007

The original "Little Shop of Horrors" is legendary in this regard. The whole thing was filmed in two days, because another film had finished ahead of schedule and Roger Corman didn't want to let the stage go to waste. The budget for the film was $27,000.

It's also legendary for having one of Jack Nicholson's earliest film appearances. Nicholson is one of a large number of Hollywood names who got their start working for Roger Corman, and in his performance in this film (and in Corman's "The Raven") you can see why it is that he was immediately tagged in Hollywood as having serious star potential.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:35 AM on July 9, 2007

Metropolitan. The DVD has enjoyable commentary about the various penny-pinching measures necessary to get the movie made.
posted by escabeche at 7:46 AM on July 9, 2007

Primer - outstanding.

I'm gonna have to add Six String Samurai here as well. It's definitely low-budget, and although not a stellar movie in terms of performance, it is a hell of a lot of fun. Think of it as "The Road Warrior" meets "The Buddy Holly Story."

Any movie with a sadistic bowling team is worth checking out at least once. It scores major points for sheer balls of actually making a movie out of what is arguably an over-the-bong-one-night conversation.
posted by TeamBilly at 7:51 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Gleaners and I + The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later
lovely documentaries by Agnes Varda, you will love them!
posted by citron at 7:54 AM on July 9, 2007

Enthusiastically seconding All The Real Girls.

The Girl in the Cafe is a sweet political May-Dec romance with Bill Nighy tremendously touching as an aging G8 representative, quietly disappointed in life, who meets a beautiful but quietly angry young woman and brings her to the talks.
posted by nicwolff at 9:11 AM on July 9, 2007

I found 10 Items or Less to be perfectly delightful. I'm not sure whether it was low-budget, but it came off that way (despite the presence of Morgan Freeman).
posted by vytae at 9:14 AM on July 9, 2007

The Zero Effect. Wasn't your typical low-budget/indie film, but it was a super sleeper in the theaters and almost nobody has heard of it. Its great in many, many ways, one of those being that you'll be the only one of your friends who knows how great it is.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:18 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Most answers in this thread would serve equally well here.

And just for good measure, I’ll repeat my list from there:
All the Real Girls (BIG 2nd)
Box of Moonlight
Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her
I Am the Cheese
Melvin Goes to Dinner
The Slaughter Rule
Diamond Men
Yi Yi
His Secret Life
Lawless Heart
Funny HaHa
Squid and Whale
Me and You and Everyone we Know
Nobody Knows
Fighting Tommy Riley
posted by dpcoffin at 9:22 AM on July 9, 2007

Lots of good ones mentioned already; I strongly second The Music of Chance, My Dinner with Andre, and Big Night.

I'll add:
Spring Forward, a lovely drama
Tape, a tense, tiny thriller
Box of Moonlight, a warm, sympathetic drama about not being fun
The Daytrippers, a funny, dramatic, untreacly family movie
Sleep With Me, funny and charming despite the subject
Walking and Talking, another untreacly relationship movie
If Lucy Fell, another one
Night on Earth, a comedy that takes place only in cabs
Roger Dodger, which I have seen mentioned here before
Scotland, PA, a remake of Macbeth set in a fast food restaurant
Running Time, a real-time heist movie

I find that hardly anyone has heard of either Hal Hartley's or John Cassavetes' films (which I love), but that they're too unique a flavor for many.
posted by zebra3 at 9:27 AM on July 9, 2007

the 50 greatest independent films of all time not the greatest list but it does have a few gems such as el mariachi and two lane blacktop

independent films do not have to equal low budget. an independent film is any movie that is produced and financed outside of the major studio system. this includes films like terminator and the passion of the christ. neither of which is obscure or low budget.
posted by phil at 9:31 AM on July 9, 2007

Seconding Me and You and Everyone We Know
Adding Palindromes
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:36 AM on July 9, 2007

Clockwatchers. Looks like it's gonna be treacly, then it's almost mean-spirited, but ultimately is a really fine little film with heart.

Sweet film with a brilliant acting performance at the center.

Chuck & Buck. Mike White's first big film. Creepy and fun.

Brick. (if you don't mind high school settings or pseudo-noir style, you'll love the repartee)

Sex, Lies and Videotape. The now-classic indie drama. James Spader James Spader James Spader.

Tape. A gimmicky movie with the cast and script to back it up.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:42 AM on July 9, 2007

If you don't like Neil LaBute, I doubt you'll take to Todd Solondz. Sympathetic performances are like anathema to him. (that goes for Cassavetes and Jarmusch, to a lesser extent, as well)
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:46 AM on July 9, 2007

Bubba Ho-Tep, Local Hero, and Ginger Snaps. Happy hunting.
posted by philad at 9:46 AM on July 9, 2007

Cold Comfort Farm .
posted by brujita at 9:50 AM on July 9, 2007

Highway to Hell - A curious tale, based loosely on the Greek story of the death of Eurydice, but told as road tale, with an RV, bikers, cops, rednecks, and the ever so classic "Good Intentions" paving company.

Motorama - Another surreal road movie, this time from the writer of After Hours. 10 year old steals car, drives all over the place collecting playing pieces from an antique peel-n-win game. Meets a colorful assortment of wierdos.

Spirit of 76 - This one's just a cute send up of 1970s culture, but it's fun, and it's got a lot of bizarre cameo appearances.

Uh. Repo Man?
posted by toxic at 10:46 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is an excellent list - tastes similar to my own.

However, I don't see mention of "Run, Lola Run".
posted by jkaczor at 10:46 AM on July 9, 2007

seconding Schizopolis
-Hal Hartley's early movies,
-Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation, Stranger than Paradise and Down By Law,
-DiCillo's Living in Oblivion and Box Of Moonlight,
-the Coens Raising Arizona
-Scorcese's After Hours and The King of Comedy.
-Christopher Guest Waiting for Guffman.
-Buscemi's Trees Lounge and Lonesome Jim (it's the best of the "loser comes back to his small hometown" wave that happened 2 years ago)
Those are not really obscure but you might have missed them.
posted by SageLeVoid at 11:18 AM on July 9, 2007

I really liked Walk on Water. It was just playing on... umm.... Showtime? IFC? somewhere on the higher end of the 500s (on Directv) anyway. Got it from Netflix when I missed the first half. Not sure if it qualifies as a low-budget, but it's foreign and features no known Hollywood actors.

Basically, it's the story of a Mossad (?) agent pretending to be a travel guide to a German tourist whose grandfather is a Nazi war criminal. There's a lot more to it than that, lots of layers and twists, but just watch it. Very enjoyable, and some beautiful camera work.

It's only 15 bucks at Amazon . i'm not affiliated, i swear.
posted by yggdrasil at 12:07 PM on July 9, 2007

Swimming to Cambodia.

Broken Flowers

And enthusiastic seconds on Jesus' Son, My Dinner with Andre (riveting), Local Hero, and the Tao of Steve.
posted by Phred182 at 12:08 PM on July 9, 2007

Echo Park
Stranger than Paradise

I was also thinking of "After Hours" but I doubt that it qualifies as low budget.

posted by Rash at 12:27 PM on July 9, 2007

Noah Baumbach's Mr. Jealousy is a great romantic comedy. And I don't like romantic comedies.

If you enjoy the quirk and snark of that, Kicking and Screaming might be right up your alley.
posted by skryche at 1:19 PM on July 9, 2007

Also, Standing on Fishes (if you can find it).
posted by Rash at 2:18 PM on July 9, 2007

Response by poster: mediareport, I do indeed like John Sayles quite a bit (all the way back to The Brother From Another Planet!) and have seen some of what you've all recommended, but others are quite new to me. That's great. So keep them coming if you have them, and thanks again!
posted by melissa may at 4:56 PM on July 9, 2007

Seconding Topsy Turvy and Nthing Primer.

Chungking Express is pretty great. Mostly improvised, fairly quirky but fun. Warning, if you don't like the song California Dreaming, don't watch this!

You can count on me was Mark Ruffalo's breakout role, and Laura Linney is excellent too.

Herzog's Lessons of Darkness is just spellbinding. It's basically just footage of the 1991 Kuwait oil fires set to music, but it blows away everyone I know who's seen it.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 5:52 PM on July 9, 2007

A little on the horror end of things :

Dead Alive aka Braindead
Hard Candy
Ichi the Killer
Suicide Club
(seconding Ginger Snaps)

And this isn't horror, might be a little too mainstream but I thought it was EXCEPTIONAL : Little Children
posted by revmitcz at 7:22 PM on July 9, 2007

@phil: the OP asked for low-budget, not independently financed, films. Check my profile: I know the difference.
posted by unSane at 8:08 PM on July 9, 2007

Dead and Breakfast. It is a musical horror movie. Seriously.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 8:47 PM on July 9, 2007


Remarkable not only for its unique amalgamation of acerbic cynical wit and an ultimately deeply sympathetic take on humanity and its bottom-feeders, but also notable as the last film in which Scarlett Johansson was cool.

And it is HILARIOUS.
posted by Lieber Frau at 11:08 PM on July 9, 2007

Forgot to mention: Next Stop Wonderland (stars Hope Davis - it's a nice romantic comedy). Also try Orphans and Winter Sleepers.
posted by philad at 12:17 AM on July 10, 2007

Film Threat regularly reviews indy and low-budget movies as well as mainstream fare.

Nthing Primer. Idiocracy may be a bit mean-spirited for you, but I loved it. Call of Cthulhu and Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary are two recent low-budget silent film-style beauties. The American Astronaut is a strange and fun little movie. Lastly, Caress of the Creature (trailer) is new and at the very top of my "to see" list.
posted by cog_nate at 7:38 AM on July 10, 2007

Ok, this is a documentary, but one of the films I've enjoyed the most recently was I Like Killing Flies, which is about an eccentric restaurant in New York and the crude cook-cum-philosopher who (along with his family) runs it. It reminds me of everything I love about New York.
posted by carrienation at 11:40 PM on July 10, 2007

Brick!! it deserves a second mention :)
posted by Chris4d at 10:34 AM on July 11, 2007

Half Nelson

Idiocracy was terrible.
posted by jne1813 at 10:57 PM on July 13, 2007

Here's one no one has mentioned: Dangerous Beauty. It takes place in Venice just before and during the Inquisition, when Veronica hmm...can't remember her last name was tried for heresy. She was a poet and a prostitute who was well educated in many arts and who could hold her own (and did) with the most powerful men of her day. Beautiful setting, costumes, actors and based on a true story.

Oh, and of course it's all shot in Venice, which doesn't hurt either.
posted by workinggringa at 7:40 AM on July 15, 2007

the corndog man, a great little overlooked revenge thriller.

johnny suede, directed by tom decillo and starring brad pitt, catherine keener, and a great performance by nick cave as rocker "freak storm." it's chock-full of moments of subtle hilarity, including my favorite, where johnny and bandmate (and co-worker) deke (wonderfully acted by calvin levels) make a pros and cons list over whether he should move in with yvonne (keener).

at the time of shooting 'johnny suede', pitt was becoming famous due to 'thelma and louise.' decillo next made the aforementioned 'living in oblivion' which chronicled the tribulations of making an indie film. specifically, the tribulations of making 'johnny suede' -- interestingly, catherine keener plays "yvonne" in johnny suede and in 'living in oblivion,' she essentially plays herself, as an actress who is playing the yvonne role in the meta-film.

pitt is hilariously sent up in 'living in oblivion,' but decillo gave himself an out for the criticism, which i will not spoil here. but together, the movies make for a great 'under the radar' double feature. i cannot think of anything more "meta," actually.
posted by Hat Maui at 7:38 PM on July 30, 2007

Secrets and Lies (classic - a small, deep, wonderfully acted film)

ouch. say it ain't so. how do you get over the utterly cringeworthy melodrama of that moment where dude wigs out and says "I've had it with these secrets and lies!" The rest of the movie, if I'm being objective about it, was not bad, but that one line. ugh. can't even type about it here without getting upset.

I'd recommend L'Hypothèse du tableau volé. It's not really a drama or comedy, more of a Borgesian puzzle. But it's utterly brilliant. Has something in common with my dinner with andre in the way that the narration is/becomes compelling.
posted by juv3nal at 11:21 PM on July 30, 2007

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