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Declaration of Independents: The 30 Greatest American Indie Films

From personal documentaries to pop-pulp gamechangers, here are the indie flicks that went against the grain and beat Hollywood at its own game

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Miramax Films; Everett; Courtesy Everett Collection/Everett Collection; Fox Searchlight/Courtesy: Everett Collection

What better way to celebrate Independence Day than to tip our caps to the men and women who broke away (or didn't even bother with) the system, and made their movies by hook or by crook? In the post-Sundance, post-SXSW, post-digital cinema era, we take the notion of non-Hollywood moviemaking for granted. But to get to this moment, a number of weirdos, mavericks, muckrakers, anti-corporate agitators, enthusiastic amateurs and outright pioneers persevered to make sure their personal vision made it to a theater near you. Low budgets and low-fidelity results weren't going to deter them any more than closed studio gates (real and metaphoric) were.

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So here are 30 of the greatest examples of independent filmmaking done right, the ones that inspired, irritated the mainstream and influenced other moviemakers to pick up cameras and tell their stories. In the end, these films did it their way.

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30. ‘Return of the Secaucus Seven’ (1979)

A genuine O.G. indie filmmaker, John Sayles was making outside-the-mainstream, up-by-your-boostraps movies when most of the Sundance class of 1994 was still watching Saturday morning cartoons. Saving up some script-writing fees after working with Roger Corman, Sayles shot this tale of Sixties radicals who reunite at a friend's house quickly, casting pals to play the somewhat disillusioned adults and rarely shooting more than one take. But what emerged from this modest production was something rich and rewarding — a character study about an idealistic generation on the cusp of Reagan-era burnout. It's a nice complement to the star-studded, similarly themed The Big Chill, but more importantly, the drama introduced the world to a talent who's kept his independence and shown others how to sustain a career on the margins without being marginal.—DAVID FEAR

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29. ‘Sherman’s March’ (1985)

Making a documentary about the process of making a documentary can be the laziest kind of nonfiction cliché, the equivalent of turning in an essay about why you couldn't do your homework. But in the case of Ross McElwee's masterpiece, the chronicle of his personal history doubles as an exploration of how history itself is written. McElwee's initial plans to make a movie about Union general William Tecumseh Sherman's notorious march through the South starts playing secoind banana to the filmmaker's attempt to find a new girlfriend after a traumatic breakup. In the pre-camcorder era, McElwee still managed to turn himself into a crew of one, and the result is a movie that feels as if it might have emerged full-blown from its maker's mind, as expansive and idiosyncratic as thought itself.—SAM ADAMS

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28. ‘Funny Ha Ha’ (2002)

Don't hold the fact that Andrew Bujalski's stellar character study about an aimless twentysomething female gave birth to the term "mumblecore" and, by extension, a wave of movies about postgrad ennui in Brooklyn and/or Austin apartments. It's one of the better films to come out of this generation's no-fi film scene, and his ability to capture the rhythms of life swirling around the drain of actual adulthood is peerless. Accept no substitutes.—DAVID FEAR

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27. ‘Born in Flames’ (1983)

When fans asked Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna for an autograph, she'd never sign her name. She would, however, write "Lizzie Borden," along with the title of Borden's 1983 movie Born in Flames. Although it's sometimes referred to as science fiction, what's striking about the movies is how familiar its speculative future seems. Women are still fighting for fair wages, their own safety, and each other: White intellectuals (including a young Kathryn Bigelow) urges mild reforms, while the black-lesbian equivalent of Che Guevara advocates armed struggle. Borden shot for five years in Manhattan's nether regions, back before CBGB's was a John Varvatos store, and the movie serves a vivid, if unintentional, document of those dangerous but colorful times (No Wave musician Adele Bertei plays one of the key roles). Three decades later, there's still nothing like it.—SAM ADAMS

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26. ‘Nothing But a Man’ (1964)

One of the most notable portraits of African-American life — and best portraits of everyday American life circa 1964, period — Michael Roemer's story of a railroad worker (Hogan's Heroes' Ivan Dixon) courting a preacher's daughter borrowed several pages from Italy's neorealism playbook. The end product is pure Amerindie, however, deespite being made long before the term was coined; character trumps plot, intimate moments and off-the-cuff exchanges take the place of melodramatic grandstanding, and the sense that you're eavesdropping on these lovers rather than watching acting with a capital A holds throughout.—DAVID FEAR

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25. ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006)

For better and for worse, Little Miss Sunshine popularized a particular kind of star-studded, broad-appeal mainstream indie. (For better because it showcased Steve Carell's dramatic range and earned national treasure Alan Arkin his first Oscar. For worse because it provided a blueprint for Fox Searchlight quirk-lite and Sundance copycats like The Way Way Back.) But this potentially familiar story of a dysfunctional family on the road is consistently enriched by the pathos beneath the comedy: This is a film not about quirkiness but, rather, the stink of failure and the pain of having that disgrace be so evident to those closest to you.—TIM GRIERSON

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24. ‘Easy Rider’ (1969)

The missing link between the exploitation-a-go-go cinema of Roger Corman (another indie-film godfather), the more far-out European art-house movies of the Sixties and the New Hollywood wave that would follow right behind it, Dennis Hopper's chronicle of three guys lookin' for America (and who couldn't find it anywhere) was never going to get made at a studio. Not the way he wanted it made, at least, so Hopper gathered up his friends, hooked up with producer Bert Schneider (who'd help form the seminal outlier production company BBS) and hit the road, with cameras, cast and countercultural bona fides in tow. The movie he eventually handed over to Columbia Pictures for distribution was scrappy, jagged and a movie made by showbiz outsiders for youth-culture insiders. It was also a runaway hit, and proof that you didn't need the studio system to get your motor runnin'.—DAVID FEAR

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23. ‘Chelsea Girls’ (1966)

No discussion of American independent cinema would be complete without namechecking Andy Warhol at least once, and this magnum opus from the Pop Artist/avant-gardist involving split screens, superstars and boho hedonism is easily the best thing he and collaborator Paul Morrissey did together. It's a time capsule for Factory life and late Sixties late-night dabbling, as well as a trip in every sense.—DAVID FEAR

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22. ‘Portrait of Jason’ (1967)

Composed entirely of interview footage shot in a single drunken evening, Shirley Clarke's portrait of Jason Holliday, a black gay hustler and self-described "houseboy," is aesthetically rigorous and unfailingly intense. Clarke confessed that her initial goal was to break down the elaborate act from which he never wavered, "to do him in, get back at him, kill him." But as Clarke edited the film, she said, she grew to love her subject, whose presence on movie screens in 1967 was little short of revolutionary. Keeping the look of the film deliberately rough, leaving in offscreen questions and patches of black leader, Clarke turned a one-sided interrogation into a tense back-and-forth in which Jason gives at least as good as he gets.—SAM ADAMS

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21. ‘Rushmore’ (1998)

Wes Anderson's first film was the scrappy, lovable Bottle Rocket, but its follow-up was the real start of his trademark style. Prickly protagonists, melancholy love stories, precise doll-house artificiality, a just-right wistful performance from Bill Murray: Rushmore introduced all of these now-familiar Anderson tropes with a pleased precociousness worthy of its main character, the angry, lonely teen Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) who just wants to write hit plays and woo the comely Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). For some, this wry, gently touching comedy was the filmmaker's peak. For the rest of us, it was just the beginning.—TIM GRIERSON

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20. ‘Dont Look Back’ (1967)

Rock's Sixties heroes weren't just immensely talented but also impossibly young, and both facts are on display, unadorned, in D.A. Pennebaker's fly-on-the-wall documentary. Chronicling 23-year-old Bob Dylan as he tours the U.K. and negotiates his newfound superstardom, this milestone in the development of direct cinema gives us intimate access to an anxious young man who's a genius and a brat simultaneously, still growing into himself and yet also somehow fully-formed. What did Dylan himself think of the movie? "I'd like it a lot more if I got paid for it," he later said.—TIM GRIERSON

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19. ‘Salt of the Earth’ (1954)

Its very existence is a miracle of persistence and determination — the independent spirit made flesh (or rather, celluloid). Herbert Biberman, Paul Jarrico and Michael Wilson were all drummed out of the movie industry by the Hollywood blacklist. But rather than abandon their principles, they put their talents to work on the story of a Mexican miner's wife who rises up to fight both anti-union forces and domestic sexism. The conditions were unfavorable and the actors largely untrained, but the movie's very roughness lends it a feeling of hard-won authenticity; you can feel every trudging step taken on the way to its completion. Shots were fired at the set; labs refused to process the rushes; and the leading actress had to be replaced by a double after she was deported to Mexico. Although it was denounced as communist propaganda, the movie's politics seem relatively mild in the post-Cold War era, even if the climate is no kinder to organized labor now than it was then.—SAM ADAMS

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18. ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’ (1971)

Let's say you're the average director, circa the early Seventies, and you have a multi-picture deal at a studio. You develop a story around a black man who challenges the status quo; the studio shakes its head and acts as if you've lost your mind. Most filmmakers would move on to the next project. If you're Melvin Van Peebles, you flip the suits the bird, take a loan from your friend Bill Cosby and shoot the film you want to make — complete with sex, violence and unabashed militancy — on your own. You also change the course of African-American cinema (though don't talk about "blaxploitation"; Van Peebles hated the term and refused to take credit for inspiring the genre) and independent filmmaking. For a while, Van Peebles' ragged magnum opus of rage was the most successful indie of all time, and tapped into cultural vein as well as a creative wellspring. It's a revolutionary movie in more ways than one.—DAVID FEAR  

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17. ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974)

Director Tobe Hooper and a group of Austin film students made do with month's worth of over 100-degree days and a $125,000 budget when they were making the goriest adaptation of serial killer Ed Gein's story. But the stench of real slaughterhouse carcasses, a hanging human skeleton (cheaper than a fake!) and one real, very sharp chainsaw were worth it. The film, which followed a group of freewheeling co-eds as they crossed paths with a very creepy and hungry family of psychopaths, would go on to scare up $30 million at the box office.—KORY GROW

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16. ‘Roger & Me’ (1989)

Welcome to Flint, Michigan, home to closing auto plants, rampany unemployment and a filmmaker named Michael Moore. Long before he was shaming the President from Oscar podiums and becoming a hero to the New Left, Moore was simply a guy with a camera, a sly sense of humor and a burning desire for accountability. This story of his search for General Motors CEO Roger Smith helped whet audience appetites for docs, but equally as important is the fact that established a new mode of political doc-making: one with a righteous sense of muckraking and a gonzo edge.—DAVID FEAR

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15. ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999)

The story of The Blair Witch Project is now inseparable from the legend of its making: Unknown directors recruit unknown actors to improvise their roles as doomed amateur documentarians investigating a local boogieman. Presented as a nonfiction assemblage of the disappeared filmmakers' recovered work (a conceit innovatively enhanced by Blair Witch's faux-fact-based website), this low-budget, gore-free chiller paved the way for found-footage horror, shaky-cam cinema and ingenious viral marketing campaigns. What you may not know: Indie cinema's greatest one-hit wonder still outclasses most of what came in its wake.—TIM GRIERSON

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14. ‘Pink Flamingos’ (1972)

Shot for $10,000 in a Baltimore suburb, John Waters' immortal midnight movie revolves around a contest for the title of "Filthiest Person Alive" — which is appropriate, since its escalating parade of offenses might have been cooked up on a dare. Frank and Connie Marble (Waters' regulars David Lochary and Mink Stole) order their manservant to impregnate young women, sell the babies and get off by crushing a chicken between their naked bodies; up-and-comer Babs Johnson (the iconic Divine) rises to the challenge by fellating her own son. The film's kicker, where Divine scarfs down a freshly laid dog turd, is merely a how-low-can-you-go gross-out, but what comes before is as sustained and exhilarating an attack on bourgeois values and American hypocrisy as has ever been mounted. Cultural provocations tend to have a short shelf life, but 42 years later, Pink Flamingos still shocks — and as the film proved, shock sells.—SAM ADAMS

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13. ‘Killer of Sheep’ (1979)

Charles Burnett gave so little thought to the theatrical release of his first feature that he scored the film with records taken from his personal collection; although his lyrical portrait of life in working-class black Los Angeles was quickly recognized as a landmark, it took 30 years and $150,000, much of it donated by Steven Soderbergh, to clear the music rights for a theatrical release. At once brutal and tender, Killer of Sheep does not shy from the ugliness of life — the central character works in a slaughterhouse, a context in which he's worth no more than than the animals he kills. But neither does it succumb to dead-end nihilism; even in these bleak surroundings, there is warmth and love, as well as moments of absurdist comedy. Burnett dwells on quotidian details that give the film an almost documentary quality, like the way the central family's Southern roots show through in small, almost vestigial turns of phrase.—SAM ADAMS

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12. ‘Eraserhead’ (1977)

With a drastically limited budget estimated to be between $20,000 and $100,000, David Lynch crafted a expressionistic, black & white world full of ladies in radiators, grisly baby creatures and one wild hairdo. Between its slow pace, sparse dialogue and slowly unfolding nightmare of a plot, the movie was as suffocating as it was disturbing; it was so effectual that Stanley Kubrick reportedly made the cast of The Shining watch it to get the mood right for that movie. To this day, Lynch will say little about the movie's meaning, sparking enough mass curiosity to make it a cult hit that brought in an estimated $7 million at the box office. Within three years, Lynch was making another black-and-white body horror masterpiece, The Elephant Man, this time for Paramount. His debut's minimalist sense of urban dread, however, quickly established the template for the indie world's go-to vision of lo-fi social breakdown.—KORY GROW

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11. ‘The Thin Blue Line’ (1988)

Errol Morris' third documentary set a standard that's all but impossible to meet, and not only because it helped get a death row inmate freed from prison. Faced with laying out the details of a murder based on conflicting witness statements, Morris painstakingly recreated them in exacting and contradictory detail, presenting every version of the crime except the one it would eventually argue was the truth. Thanks to Miramax's marketing campaign, The Thin Blue Line helped break down preconceived notions about who would see a documentary in a theater, and its stylized recreations would soon become the stuff of a thousand TV procedurals. At the time, Morris' break with vérité aesthetics seemed both revolutionary and heretical. By having subjects look directly into the lens — a technique he'd perfect with his custom-built Interrotron — Morris created an uncanny sense of intimacy and urgency.—SAM ADAMS

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10. ‘Mean Streets’ (1973)

Legend has it that Martin Scorsese showed John Cassavetes a cut of his Corman-funded cheapie Boxcar Bertha, and the indie-film godhead replied, "Congratulations, you just spent a year making a piece of shit. Now, what do you really want to do?" Scorsese replied that he'd been kicking around a personal story about some guys from the old neighborhood, and the rest is history. You could argue that, because the film was partially funded by Warner Brothers (who'd distribute the movie down the line), the movie isn't strictly independent. But the idea of a filmmaker and some up-and-coming actors (Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro) stealing shots on street corners and in friends' apartments, totally outside the confines of a studio lot and going after such a raw look, sounds like textbook indie cinema to us.—DAVID FEAR

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9. ‘Scorpio Rising’ (1964)

It was just a 28-minute featurette, a free-form mediation on homoerotic bikers, the occult, rock and roll, male genitalia, and religious iconography that flew its freak flag high. But Kenneth Anger's avant-garde short movie ended up being a pebble that caused major ripples when it was thrown into a larger pond, starting with its groundbreaking marriage of pop music and imagery (both MTV and Martin Scorsese owe the film a major debt) and ending with the film winning a First-Amendment victory in the California Surpreme Court. More importantly, like Jack Smith's cinematic soul mate Flaming Creatures (1963), Anger's obscenity-charge-baiting ode to his obsessions would inspire generations of outsider filmmakers to follow their muse and push envelopes. Notes from the underground don't get more above-ground influential than this.—DAVID FEAR

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8. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968)

George Romero directed his flesh-eating ghoul flick for an estimated budget of $114,000, stretching it out by filming the movie in black & white and setting it in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, Romero's thriftiness led him make a movie about strangers banding together to fight off the undead that felt realistic enough to be believable, in a Twilight Zone kind of way, especially in contrast to the glut of easily forgettable fright flicks like that came out that year. It was a drive-in success story,  but in a twist ending more cutting than the one in the movie, its distributor forgot to include the copyright info on the movie. It eventually fell into the public domain, proving to be a financial horror to Romero & Co. and a cautionary tale for future DIY horror-meisters.—KORY GROW

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7. ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ (1986)

Watch the trailer of Spike Lee's feature length debut — featuring the man himself selling tube socks in order to "put butter on my whole wheat bread" — and you can see glimpses of the indie-flick hustler and the onscreen huckster that Spike personified circa 1986. But watch this tale of a young African-American woman breezily flitting between three men, and you'll also see Spike Lee the artist, a filmmaker who already understood how to use the vocabulary of cinema and pop culture to get his message across by any means necessary. The movie was a major gamechanger for low-budget American movies in the pre-Sundance Renaissance era, and though Lee has expressed reservations about the film — he recently said he wished he hadn't included a sequence involving a sexual assault — it's a bold announcement of a bold talent. The film still has it.—DAVID FEAR

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6. ‘Poison’ (1991)

Todd Haynes' first full-length feature, an elliptical triptych involving B movies, After-School Specials and Jean Genet adaptations, would've been a sensation for its formal inventiveness and its frank engagement with transgressive desire. But it became a cause célèbre, as well as a political football, when it became ensnared in right-wing attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts, which had contributed some of its funding. The attacks by fundamentalist critics, one of who called the movie "perverse and denigrating and violent and homoerotic," gave Haynes a  much-needed P.R. boost and helped establish Poison as one of the pillars of the New Queer Cinema. Even today, it's still radical for the way it mingles prison sex with horror-movie pastiche and a lyrical sequence about a missing boy, all shot in different styles and interwoven to form a single seamless fabric.—SAM ADAMS

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5. ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

Filmed around the time that alternative rock was cementing its mainstream ascendance, Quentin Tarantino's magnum opus did the same for independent cinema, bringing the underground to a wider audience that would embrace its outsider ethos. (It was the first indie film to break the $100 million mark, and thus upped the stakes substantially.) Reviving John Travolta's career, establishing Samuel L. Jackson's bad-motherfucker persona, creating a subgenre of movies (dubbed "Tarantino-esque") populated with verbose underworld characters, Pulp Fiction didn't reinvent movies. Rather, it remixed them, giddily demonstrating how cinema's old building blocks could be put together in new ways. Twenty years later, Jackson can still recite all of Ezekiel 25:17. You probably can, too.—TIM GRIERSON

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4. ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ (1984)

Take two downtown New York musician/scenesters, put them in a Lower East Side apartment, and have them trade deadpan observations and quips. Black out the screen after each scene, then start over. Introduce a visiting Hungarian cousin. Occasionally, move the action to Cleveland or Florida, but keep everything on a low simmer. It might not sound like much on paper, but Jim Jarmusch's breakthrough film introduced a too-cool-for-film-school minimalism into the indie-world mix that's still prevalent and helped pave the way for a wave of low-fi success stories. And Louie fans should note that long before Eszter Balint was beguiling Louis C.K., she had cast her spell on filmgoers with a weakness for accents and Eastern European glaring.—DAVID FEAR

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3. ‘Slacker’ (1991)

A weird, rambling tour of Austin's freaks and geeks, Richard Linklater's breakthrough movie did more than coin a term for 1990s laybaouts; it translated a whole boho ethos into something that could sustain a full-length movie and practically spawned a Gen-X genre of giddy, semi-stoned gabfests. Conspiracy theorists and coffee-house regulars mix with elderly anarchists and weirdos hawking pop-star pap smears, and everyone talks, talks, talks about whatever is on their mind. Once the conversation stalls, Linklater lets the baton pass to another group of kooks and it all starts over again. The director would go on to do everything from star-vehicle remakes to romantic, Rohmeresque flights of fancy (see the Before trilogy), but regardless of where his creative restlessness takes him, you can see the roots of his it's-all-good sensibility right here.—DAVID FEAR

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2. ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ (1989)

You can almost divide up the history of American independent filmmaking into "before" and "after" periods, centered around this extraordinary Steven Soderbergh drama involving a cryptic visitor (James Spader, already in creepy-on-ice mode), a married couple and the three elements listed in the title. Before, you had a handful of mavericks working in small communities/cliques or largely on their own, a film festival in Utah that had trouble filling screenings and a handful of distributors working the art-house circuit. Shortly after Sex, you had the first sproutings of the Sundance nation, the collective sense that there might be high-end results to be had from low-budget idiosyncrasies and an "Independent" shelf at your local video store. "It's all downhill from here," Soderbergh mock-lamented when his movie won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. In fact, it was all starting to blow up in a big way.—DAVID FEAR 

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1. ‘Shadows’ (1959)

Having worked as a Hollywood actor for years, John Cassavetes knew the benefits of working within the system — and its limitations when it came to a more personal type of storytelling. So the would-be director took some of his earnings from his TV show Johnny Staccato, solicted more funds from listerners of Jean Sheperd's Night People radio program, and began to expand some exercises he'd developed from an acting workshop he taught into an "improvised" film. The first version of his rough, raw black-and-white drama about uptown jazzbos fell short of his expectations; a second version, however, played the Venice Film Festival, won admirers in London and Paris and, in a sense, gave birth to a DIY filmmaking movement that would evolve into a viable alternative to the mainstream. It helped establish Cassavetes as, in David Thomson's words, "really the first modern American independent"; though he would arguably make "better" movies (A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie), the maverick wouldn't make a more influential one. Shadows didn't just provide a template for indie cinema — it proved non-studio filmmaking could exist, period.—DAVID FEAR    

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