The 1990s
may be the decade in which American independent moviemakers—and
the distribution companies that released their films—broke
through the glass ceiling of college-town obscurity and became
players in the eyes of movie buffs and major studios alike. But
the first half-decade of the new century has also been notable
for its surprising number of top-notch independent films.

Following the shakeups of the past decade,
the world of independent film has been split between indies that
function as the low-budget arms of the studios, like Miramax, Fox
Searchlight and Warner Independent, and those companies that go
it alone, like Newmarket and New Yorker Films. For the purpose
of this article, we’ll assume that both
of these groups can legitimately be referred to as “indies.” After
all, while the status of a company like Fox Searchlight as truly
independent is dubious, the indie sensibility of a moviemaker like
Richard Linklater (whose Waking Life the company distributed) is

As Peter Biskind documented in his gossipy
yet illuminating book Down and Dirty Pictures, much of the financial
basis of the independent moviemaking movement may have vanished
in a series of agreements between groundbreaking production companies
like Miramax and the studios. But the ideal of a great film made
for relatively little money, which harnesses together a writer,
director, actors and crew toward the realization of a collective,
unique vision, remains as strong as ever. The 20 films selected
we’ve selected below
as the “best American indies of the 21st century thus far” all
share this dedication of vision. Together they form a portrait
of the state of American independent moviemaking today, and even
of the United States, in all its multiplicity of identities and

You Can Count on

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Paramount Home Video, $14.99
Possessed with a remarkable sense of place, acclaimed playwright
Lonergan’s debut film was marked by masterful performances
from Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, and a deep understanding of the
way family bonds simultaneously connect and suffocate. Along with
many of the other films on this list (George
, In the Bedroom, Los Angeles Plays Itself), it serves as definitive proof that, like
charity, artistry begins at home.

Ghost Dog: The Way
of the Samurai

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Republic Studios, $9.98
Probably Jarmusch’s most underrated film, Ghost
is a distinctively
offbeat take on the hitman subgenre. Forest Whitaker stars as a Mafia
contract killer with a greater interest in reading Rashomon and observing
the unusual life blooming everywhere around him than in murder. Not
quite as towering as the director’s masterpiece, Dead
but an impressive achievement nonetheless.

Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti hit the road in Alexander
Payne’s Sideways (2004).

George Washington (2000)
Director: David Gordon Green
The Criterion Collection, $39.95
Another regionalist, whose fascination with the textures of Southern
life matches Lonergan’s and Todd Field’s interest in
New England, Green crafted a film more concerned with the sensation
of simply being than with plot.

In the Bedroom (2001)
Director: Todd Field
Buena Vista Home Video, $29.99
This astoundingly assured tale of grief and murder is soaked in
the minutiae of life in small-town New England: Red Sox games on
the radio, late-summer sun, the daily toil of the fisherman’s life.
Anchored by the brilliant Tom Wilkinson, In
the Bedroom
finds meaning
in nuances like the imprint of a head on a rumpled pillow or the
name on a passing truck. Field’s film is noteworthy as a
movie with the patience to observe.

Waking Life (2001)
Director: Richard Linklater
Twentieth Century Fox Home Video, $9.98
Linklater has cobbled together one of the most impressive resumes
of any American moviemaker working today, and one of the reasons
why is his refusal to tie himself down to a specific genre or style.
To say that Waking Life is an animated film is to summon up mental
pictures of Mickey and Donald or, at best, Pixar’s family-friendly
flicks. Here, he blows the doors off traditional animation to craft
a highly personal, unabashedly literate commentary on the nature
of consciousness. The film’s musings on dreams, ambition,
cinematic theory and the like are amplified and extended by the
jittery energy of the animated imagery.

Donnie Darko (2001)
Director: Richard Kelly
Twentieth Century Fox Home Video, $14.98
Without a doubt, the best indie-gonzo-science-fiction film about
time travel ever made. Extra points for the giant bunny rabbit
that makes occasional appearances, and for the astute use of ’80s
musical gems like the Church’s “Under the Milky Way.”

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Director: Wes Anderson
The Criterion Collection, $19.99
A more than worthy follow-up to the classic Rushmore, this film about
a family of eccentric former child prodigies retains the quirky comic
values of the earlier film without losing its melancholy romanticism.
Anderson is the boy-whiz of American moviemaking, and shows no signs
of letting up in his quest to be the greatest director of our era.

Ghost World (2001)
Director: Terry Zwigoff
MGM Home Video, $14.95
Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Ghost
was a
welcome dose of the reality of adolescence amongst the She’s
All Thats
Zwigoff’s subtly heartbreaking film was an elaborate ode
to geek culture that served as a worthy bookend to his brilliant
1994 documentary, Crumb.

Mulholland Drive (2001)
Director: David Lynch
Universal Studios, $14.98
An erruption of dream logic into the normally staid narratives
of the American multiplex, Lynch’s film was, quite simply, the
most original, mind-bending film of the year—and quite possibly
the decade. Much like Waking Life, Mulholland
was a celebration
of the irrational, the unusual and the uncanny, a cocktail of neo-noir
sex and violence, or in the director’s own words, “a
love story in the city of dreams.”

Jason Schwartzman and Jude Law search for the
truth in David O. Russell’s I Heart

Our Song (2001)
Director: Jim McKay
MGM Home Video, $14.95
A summer in the life of three Bronx teenagers, centered around the
marching band they all play in. Like an urban minority version of Ghost World, Our Song limned the frustrations and desires of adolescence,
painting an indelible portrait of girlhood in Giuliani-era New York.

Spellbound (2003)
Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Columbia Tri-Star, $19.95
Much like Hoop Dreams, with which it shares the honor of being
the most novelistic documentary of its era, Blitz’s film
about The National Spelling Bee pulled off the trick of being a
film about a type of person (brilliant 13-year olds) as well as
the specific children being followed. It is nearly impossible to
sit through this film and not learn something about the nature
of American childhood, immigrant dreams, parental ambitions for
their children or any one of the myriad subjects this film effortlessly
sweeps under its arm.

American Splendor (2003)
Directors: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
HBO Video, $27.90
An artful amalgam of fact and fiction, live-action and animation,
this study of nebbish comic master Harvey Pekar’s life brilliantly
deconstructs the traditional biopic format, crafting a partially
fictionalized Pekar who is somehow truer to the real Harvey than
a more scrupulous film would have allowed. American
contains footnotes in the form of the real Pekar, whose occasional
appearances serve as running commentary.

Elephant (2003)
Director: Gus Van Sant
New Line Cinema, $26.99
Van Sant in pointillist mode, going undercover at an average
American high school and returning with a carefully etched portrait
of adolescence in all its beauty and cruelty. Harris Savides’ crystal-clear
photography and Van Sant’s eye for the offbeat loveliness of
his actors adds up to one of the most ravishing—and ultimately
disturbing—films of the past five years.

The Fog of War (2003)
Director: Errol Morris
Columbia Tri-Star, $26.96
Just a man alone in a room left to ponder the vagaries of history
and the consequences of his actions. Morris’ feature-length
interrogation of former defense secretary Robert McNamara is
less a criminal prosecution than an illustrated tome on the disasters
of war.

An Injury to One (2003)
Director: Travis Wilkerson
Currently Out of Print
Wilkerson’s angry political documentary is part history lesson,
part polemic. It is also the best example of politically committed,
personal moviemaking since the heyday of Chris Marker. In Wilkerson’s
study of murdered union activist Frank Little lurks an entire
century of struggles for the betterment of the American working
classes and its flip side, the astounding rightward shift of
blue-collar America.

Everyday People (2004)
Director: Jim McKay
Warner Home Video, $26.98
A day in the life of the workers at an iconic Brooklyn restaurant,
McKay’s film is simply understated moviemaking about nothing
much—just the hopes, anxieties and daily tribulations of
a cross-section of New York City residents. As day passes into
night in the film, its premise cracks wide open, revealing an
infinite compassion for its lovingly crafted characters.

Los Angeles Plays

Director: Thom Andersen
Currently Out of Print
Andersen’s little-seen documentary is a nearly three-hour tour
through the cinematic history of Los Angeles. In contrast to the
cynical illustrations of LA life found in such Angeleno masterpieces
as Chinatown and LA Confidential, Los Angeles
Plays Itself
a greater respect for genuine history and reality as it is lived.
The film is a crusade for greater political engagement, argued with
as much wit, verve and intelligence as any film of the past few years.
In the words of critic Mark Peranson, “the film is, finally,
about the betrayal of the cinema in general with regard to our
real lives.”

Sideways (2004)
Director: Alexander Payne
In Theaters at Press Time
Paul Giamatti is note-perfect in one of the funniest, most tender
films ever made about male friendship. This unfiltered peek through
the microscope at middle-aged, schlubby failure is, like The
Royal Tenenbaums
, a bittersweet bar of chocolate that will have
you laughing with a tear in your eye.

Before Sunset (2004)
Director: Richard Linklater
Warner Home Video, $27.95
That passenger pigeon of the cinema, the artistically successful
sequel, Linklater’s latest masterpiece revisits Celine and
Jesse, the star-crossed lovers who spent a memorable day together
in Vienna in 1995. Upping the ante here, the entirety of the
film takes place in real time. Before Sunset celebrates the art
of good conversation, renders the heartache of love as deeply as
any film in recent memory and is a pocket symphony to the sheer
loveliness of Paris. Is it safe to call it a masterpiece yet?

I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Director: David O. Russell
In Theaters at Press Time
Bashed by many critics as a reach, Russell’s film managed
to encapsulate, in its messy, disheveled fashion, something of
the essence of American life as we know it, circa now. Studying
environmentalism, corporate shilling, consumerism, post-9/11 stress
and French nihilism with the same jaundiced, winking eye, I
Heart Huckabees
has the brains to critique contemporary politics and
society, and the heart to hope for better. “Shall I bring
my own chains?,” one character
asks another of a tree-hugging protest. “We always do.” MM