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’90s Indie Films That Became a Mainstream Attraction

By David Young · May 22, 2023

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Indie films weren’t always all the rage, as the name suggests. Instead, independent movies started making their big splash in the zeitgeist in the 1990s. Whether it’s introspective dramas, crime films, or stoner comedies, 90s indie films ran the gamut of genres in a way that huge studios weren’t willing to try. The result includes some of the biggest cult classics and most important trailblazing films of that decade!

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Dazed and Confused

As school ends, you find yourself going through some new growing pains: Expectations about life after high school, discovering your individuality, and trying new things are all a part of that. As an indie coming-of-age movie from the ’90s, Dazed and Confused resonated with young audiences everywhere with the same questions. If ever there were movies that spoke to the teenage zeitgeist, this was one of them — and even though it was made independently, it’s now a known mainstay in the list of formative ’90s flicks.

Read More: Puff, Puff, Pass: The Dopest Stoner Comedies

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In 1998, a psychological thriller made many people question reality — and being independently made, it’s an even bigger accomplishment to unsettle such a large audience. This film acted as Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut as a director, exploring the idea that numbers can have surreal — even metaphysical — meaning. Pi is a movie that pushed boundaries and depicted paranoia in fresh, nightmarish ways. This made the movie a common callout for anyone looking to define or understand the genre of psychological thrillers, even in the present day.

Read More: The Top 10 Thrillers of the 90’s

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Being John Malkovich

Anyone who loves indie films can agree that it’s often a playground for surrealism. Charlie Kaufman enjoys that and meta-references quite a lot — and maybe that’s why he originally wrote Being John Malkovich. It’s the story of a puppeteer who enters the mind of the famous actor. As a self-aware writer, Kaufman’s handiwork in this is very apparent. If you wonder what emboldened other creators to do this kind of experimental work, you can bet your arm that Being John Malkovich had a big role to play as the ’90s came to an end.

Read More: 5 Plot Point Breakdown: Being John Malkovich (1999)

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Malcolm X

Spike Lee is a multihyphenate whose work always brings the Black American experience to the forefront. This is seen most literally in films like the biopic he developed for the thought leader and Black Nationalist icon Malcolm X. In working with Denzel Washington, Lee develops a clearer picture of the historical leader than superficial history texts tend to show. Here, he also further cemented his mark as an auteur using his motif of the “big, crazy plan.”

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Another movie dedicated to the shift into stoner comedies, Kevin Smith’s Clerks is known for its catapulting an entire universe of characters — as well as for its mundane world, its interesting, stylistic presentation, and now its status as a cult classic. As well as it launched the lives of Smith’s most famous characters, Jay and Silent Bob, Clerks also showcased a definitive tone that would permeate numerous films in the next decade — especially in mainstream comedies to come.

Read More: The Script Lab Podcast: Kevin Smith

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The Big Lebowski

Independent films often do a great job of taking mundane problems and turning them into larger-than-life struggles. This involves a lot of good comedic writing and impressive character work from your actors. Thanks to the Coen Brothers and several stars aboard, The Big Lebowski had both, and its crime dramedy approach made it shine as an icon of what was possible for the years to come — a calling card for Ethan and Joel Coen that earned them plenty of work, trust from studios, and love from audiences.

Read More: Creative Complex Characters: The Big Lebowski

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Boogie Nights

Paul Thomas Anderson has been known for his creations that choose to vignette deep character struggles rather than following a strictly narrative arc. Boogie Nights was one of these stories, hearkening back to the Golden Age of porn as a business and using as a backdrop PTA’s seemingly favorite setting for visual information delivery: America in the 1970s. It’s a story that also helped people of the ’90s understand and explore the dark side of that era through the screen — a motif that Anderson has since adopted on a regular basis.

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The Virgin Suicides

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, The Virgin Suicides is a story that focuses on developing mood without relying on dialogue, nostalgic visual settings, and the inscrutability of human interaction — all things that led to her astounding success with the 2003 film Lost in Translation. It’s this narrative about intense fascination, gossip, and repression that set the stage for Coppola as she developed a cinematic voice that only continued to thrive after the ’90s.

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Wes Anderson is now one of the most recognizable auteurs in film today, but his successes started with indie film. He kicked off a lot of his motifs with a film called Rushmore, a story about an ill-developed romance triangle that turns a teenager’s life upside-down. That world is a small one, one of the most recognizable writing motifs of Anderson’s work. That said, it’s because of this small world’s big change that showcases points of interest like emotionally immature adults or a revenge-and-manipulation plot better than studio films of the time cared to do.

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Pulp Fiction

Hailed as one of the most important indie films of the ’90s, Pulp Fiction moved mountains with Quentin Tarantino’s writing. He uses storytelling structures that were completely unconventional at the time. Along with incredibly fast-paced and darkly funny dialogue, this film put itself at the top of the list for film aficionados of the ’90s and well after. It was the first technically independent film that surpassed $100 million at the box office, making it definitive proof that indie film could make a profit and retain a high level of quality in its artistic approach. 

Read More: Tarantino and The Pulp Fiction Effect

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El Mariachi

Crime action films are one of Robert Rodriguez’s common outputs, and a definitive step in that trending pattern was El Mariachi. This helped to develop Rodriguez’s emerging trilogy about the titular character, his love for exploring conflicts in Spanish (even in films that are primarily English-language), and intense cinematography that’s willing to be a bit silly — a result of the “quick and dirty” process he took to make this movie about an ill-fated mariachi.

After cementing himself in such filmic language, he became the icon whose creations range from Desperado and Machete to the Spy Kids franchise, allowing him to continue exploring humor and action in tandem onscreen in the years afterward.

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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when a movie makes its effect on the world — but looking back is often easier. Looking back at the ’90s, for example, tells us a lot about the film industry. In a time when a lot of movies weren’t pushing all the buttons, there were other films that were willing to try something new.

With unconventional character studies, realism and surrealism, or even brand new comedy genres, that decade made its mark in several ways using indie films that are now commonplace parts of the cinematic mainstream years later. As cult classics and Oscar films start from anywhere now, we have the 1990s to thank in particular. The independent film market made it so far thanks to movies like these.

Read More: The Top 10 Directors of the 90s

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