From Sex, Lies and Videotape to Memento: all the independent films you need to watch

52570Earlier this year I read “Down and Dirty Pictures” a hefty tome by film industry chronicler Peter Biskind that told the story of the rise of independent American cinema from the late 1980s until 2000.

Independent – or indie – films refers to low-budget films made outside the major Hollywood film studio system.

Biskind calls  Down and Dirty Pictures “something of a sequel” to his excellent “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” the book he wrote about the new wave of European-inspired film making that emerged in America in the 1960s and 1970s that I read a while back, in which film makers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola feature prominently.

“Down and Dirty Pictures” is a highly entertaining and educational account of how struggling film distribution companies like Miramax, founded by brothers Harvey (the now convicted sex felon) and Bob Weinstein, turned low-budget films made by unknown writer-directors into Academy Award winning gold and how Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival provided the  platform for these film makers to showcase their work for the first time and connect with the money men who would finance their more mainstream careers.

Biskind calls Sundance and Miramax the “twin towers of the indie movie world”.

The career journeys of directors like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino,David O Russell, and Todd Haynes feature prominently in the book as do actor/writer/directors like Billy Bob Thornton,  and emerging stars like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

While much of “Down and Dirty Pictures” focuses on the deal-making business side of film production and distribution (which may not appeal to everyone) it’s also a fantastic guide to some of the best films that were made during that time.

Rather than write a lengthy review of Biskind’s book – I highly recommend it if it’s your cup of tea – I thought I’d rather provide a run down of some of the films he talks about and which you might like to add to your ‘must watch’ lists:

(I have marked with a *HNS” films which I have not seen myself)


MV5BNDllYWVkOTQtZjRlMC00NWFjLWI0OGEtOWY4YzU4ZjMxYzg3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UY1200_CR82,0,630,1200_AL_Sex, Lies and Videotape – a tale of sexual repression and perversion, written and directed by Steven Soderbergh who would go on to make films like Erin Brokovich, Traffic and Oceans 11 to name just a few. Made for just $1.2 million, it was bought by Miramax at Sundance and ended up winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. With the big spending marketing push of the Weinsteins it went on to gross almost $25 million. The movie starred Andie McDowell, James Spader and Peter Gallagher. (HNS)



My Left Foot – directed by Jim Sheridan, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Irishman Christy Brown who overcame cerebral palsy to become a celebrated writer and artist.

MV5BM2FhYjEyYmYtMDI1Yy00YTdlLWI2NWQtYmEzNzAxOGY1NjY2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTA3NTIyNDg@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_Cinema Paradiso – Miramax helped turned this obscure Italian film by writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore into an award winner and surprise indie hit. IMDB’s synopsis: A filmmaker recalls his childhood when falling in love with the pictures at the cinema of his home village and forms a deep friendship with the cinema’s projectionist. (It actually came out in 1988, but I am going with the chronology of the book). I watched it a long time ago, but do recall its magical qualities.



Poison – a film by Todd Haynes, one the leading lights of independent cinema and the New Queer Cinema movement, whose later films included the Bob Dylan film I’m Not There and the American period drama Far From Heaven (HNS).  He also made the brilliant HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet. Touching on many taboo themes, IMDB’s synopsis of Poison reads: “A boy shoots his father and flies out the window. A man falls in love with a fellow inmate in prison. A doctor accidentally ingests his experimental sex serum, wrecking havoc on the community.” (HNS)


GasfoodmovieposterGas Food Lodging written and directed by Allison Anders. I remember seeing this coming-of-age film at the Rosebank Mall arthouse cinemas in Joburg and loving it. Set in New Mexico, it tells the story of a single mother trying to raise her two daughters, one of whom is played by the gorgeous Ione Skye. Sweet and moving.

Reservoir Dogs  the stylish gangster movie that heralded the arrival of one of the great movie talents, writer and director Quentin Tarantino. Have seen it countless times, would watch it countless times more. Great soundtrack, cracking dialogue and great performances by Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, the late Chris Penn and Michael Madsen.

The Crying Game – written and directed by Neil Jordan, a love story with a sensational twist set against the backdrop of IRA terrorism in London. I saw it years ago. My chief memory is of the American actor Forest Whittaker in cricket whites bowling in awkward fashion. Of course I also remember the famous and shocking ending, which most who saw it kept a secret for others (I won’t tell either). I would love to watch it again. Biskind’s book notes that The Crying Game grossed $62.5m and became the first indie film to earn more than $25m in America and thus become the first indie ‘blockbuster’


Clerks –  written and directed by Kevin Smith, this ultra-low budget classic (made for $27,000) tells the story – in grainy black and white- of Dante Hicks’ both mundane and crazy day behind the counter at a convenience store. Truly hilarious (I watched it again recently) and witty and infused with pop culture references, its a must-watch on my list.

Pulp_Fiction_(1994)_posterPulp Fiction – written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. A masterpiece about gangsters and crooks in Los Angeles that revived the career of John Travolta and turned Samuel L. Jackson into an A-list Hollywood superstar. Filled with so many unforgettable scenes, an amazing soundtrack and long list of incredible cameos. Became the first indie to gross over $100 million and ended up making $222 million around the world on an $8 million budget. The film that made Miramax.


Kids – written by Harmony Korine and directed by Larry Clarke. A disturbing and confronting film (as I recall it) about a group of New York teens drinking and having sex, and in some cases becoming HIV positive.

Welcome to the Dollhouse – written and directed by Todd Solondz. According to’s summary: “An awkward seventh-grader struggles to cope with inattentive parents, snobbish class-mates, a smart older brother, an attractive younger sister and her own insecurities in suburban New Jersey.” Biskind notes in his book it was originally titled “Faggots and Retards” which he said “perfectly captures the flavour of the movie”. (HNS)


Flirting with Disaster – a comedy written and directed by David O Russell and starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette and Tea Leoni. About a guy (Stiller) who drags his wife and young baby on a road trip in search of his birth mother. I don’t recall a great deal about the film, apart from laughing a lot. David O Russell went on to make a string of brilliant films including Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

Shine – directed by Scott Hicks, the biopic about the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott played by Geoffrey Rush (for which he won an Oscar) and his battles with mental illness. An uplifting film that I have watched a number of times, plus great classical music.

Fargo_(1996_movie_poster)Fargo – written and directed by the Coen Brothers. Arguably one of the best films of all time, spawned its own TV series that was equally as good. A black comedy set in the ice and snow of North Dakota and its strange Scandinavian-esque accented characters. A movie about a dim witted and crooked car salesman’s (superbly played by William H. Macy) bungled attempt to have his wife kidnapped so that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the ransom. Heavily pregnant local cop (played equally brilliantly by Frances McDormand) solves the puzzling case.

Sling Blade – written, directed and starring Billy Bob Thornton. According to IMDB: “The film tells the story of Karl Childers, a simple man hospitalized since his childhood murder of his mother and her lover, who is released to start a new life in a small town.” Biskind’s depiction of Thornton’s deepen southern accent and utter contempt for Harvey Weinstein’s threats are one of the highlights of the book. (HNS)

Citizen Ruth – written and directed by Alexander Payne and starring Laura Dern. According to IMDB: “An irresponsible, drug-addicted, recently impregnated woman finds herself in the middle of an abortion debate when both parties attempt to sway her to their respective sides.” (HNS). Alexander Payne has made a lot of great movies since Citizen Ruth including Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendents.

MV5BMzA5Zjc3ZTMtMmU5YS00YTMwLWI4MWUtYTU0YTVmNjVmODZhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjU0OTQ0OTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Trainspotting – a cult classic for many, based on the cult novel about Edinburgh junkies by Irvine Welsh. Screenplay by John Hodges and directed by Danny Boyle (the duo behind the equally brilliant Shallow Grave). Starring Ewen McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner and Johnny Lee Miller. Amazing performances, brilliant trippy dance soundtrack and astonishing storytelling and imagery.  Cost only £1.5m to make, hard to believe it grossed only $17m worldwide.


Copland written and directed by James Mangold. It’s hard to think of this as an independent film, given it stars Sylvester Stallone, Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, but it was distributed by Miramax and made for just $15m. It was also meant to resurrect the career of Stallone as a serious actor in an unusual part, that of a tired, half-deaf, portly, do-good sheriff in a New Jersey town where corrupt New York cops have settled. I watched it recently and thought it excellent. Stallone is very good in it.

Good Will Hunting  – written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, starring them and the late Robin Williams and directed by Gus Van Sant. One of the most successful independent films of all time. Made for just $10m and grossed $225m around the world.  Distributed by Miramax. The story of a janitor from the wrong side of the tracks who turns out to be a mathematical genius, but with a deeply troubled soul. Turned Damon and Affleck into Hollywood megastars.


220px-Happiness1998PosterHappiness  – written and directed by Todd Solondz with an ensemble cast that includes the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his best and most disturbing roles. A film that intertwines different stories and plenty of disturbing material (sexual perversion, pederasty to name just two). This film may appall some people, but I thought it brilliant in its depiction of a diverse mix of good, weird and evil characters in a suburban setting. Saw it a long time ago (twice). Would definitely watch it again.

Pi – written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. IMDB’s summary of the black and white psychological thriller: “A paranoid mathematician searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature. A true low budget film costing just $120,00 to make and distribute, Pi grossed $3.2 million. Aronofsky went on to make a number of brilliant bigger budget films including Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan. (HNS)

Velvet Goldmine – co-written and directed by Todd Haynes and starring Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale and Tony Colette. According to IMDB: “In 1984, British journalist Arthur Stuart investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade, who was heavily influenced in his early years by hard-living and rebellious American singer Curt Wild.”  (HNS)


71DJIt8Q3OL._SL1094_Memento  – the movie that launched the career of Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Batman films, Inception) and which many people still consider his best work. it tells the story of Leonard, a man with short-term memory loss, who attempts to track down his wife’s murderer. Starring Guy Pearce, a film I would like to watch again.

Independent films continue to be made past the millennium, but as Steven Soderbergh tells it in Down and Dirty Pictures “The independent film movement as we knew it, just doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe it can’t exist anymore. It’s over.”

Biskind chimes in: “Miramax killed it. With success. Success that was purchased at an enormous cost” by which he means the independent studios were overrun by the major studios who formed their own “indie” divisions and through commercialization.

Got any other suggestions to add to this list? Please post them a comments or send them to”





Charles Bukowski and the real Hollywood

In 1986, the writer Charles Bukowski, chronicler of American low-life, drunks, bums, dead-beats, post office workers and Los Angeles was asked to write a screenplay about himself.

Bukowski, by then in his late sixties and with a degree of success and fame, and having reached a sort of peace with the world and his drinking (red wine instead of hard liquor) was at first reluctant but ultimately agreed.

Bukowski dashed off the screenplay on his typewriter, in the upstairs room of his East Hollywood home, and this became the movie ‘Barfly’ starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, directed by Iranian-born director Barbet Schroeder.

The film is about a drunk – Henry “Hank” Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego and narrator of all of his novels – who spends most of his time drinking in dingy bars and hotels, getting into fights and into a mad, crazy relationship with ‘Wanda” – an earlier love of Bukowski, who inspired some of his best poems and who drank herself to death.

The movie was a minor arthouse hit and got a few Golden Globe nominations and mixed reviews. It’s worth watching though and there’s even a brief cameo of Bukowski himself, who died in 1993, aged 73 (an impressive achievement given his love of the bottle).

After the film came out, Bukowski wrote what would be his final novel “Hollywood” which chronicles his experiences of writing the ‘Barfly’ screenplay and mingling with a long list of Hollywood stars including Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Sean Penn, Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rosellini, directors Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Luc Goddard and David Lynch and a host of producers.

In the novel some of the actors are thinly disguised (Francis Ford Coppola is Francis Ford Lopalla) while others have entirely different names – Mickey Rourke is Jack Bledsoe, whose “beautiful smile” Bukowski mentions often.

Bukowski is Hank Chinaski, as always.

And it’s a brilliant, hilarious chronicle of the process by which the screenplay turned into a Hollywood movie, with all the twist and turns, threats, parties, meetings and booze-ups.

It’s also biting indictment of the way Hollywood operated back then, and probably still does today, with the enormous egos of the stars and players and their demands – Rourke demands a special type of Rolls Royce convertible be made available for him and then, later on, proceeds to stand on the bonnet with his friends for a photo shoot, causing thousands of dollars of damage.

The movie follows Chinaski as he traverses Los Angeles from his home in East Hollywood, accompanied by  his endearing wife Sarah, to meetings at  the homes of Hollywood stars and directors, studios, bars and hotels transformed into film sets and the race track.

Of his love/hate relationship with horse-racing he writes:

“My day out there was pleasant enough but as always I resented that 30 minute wait between races. It was too long. You can feel your life being pounded to a pulp by the useless waste of time.

“Each of the jerk-offs thinks he knows more than the other jerk-offs and there they were all together in one place. And there I was, sitting with them.”

And the description of his attitude to the races is almost exactly how he feels about Hollywood and its actors and the world they inhabit- plenty of waiting around and plenty of jerk-offs.

In the course of making Barfly, there is endless waiting around (or waiting for the phone to ring) as decisions are made, then unmade. The movie’s backers agree to fund the film. Then change their mind. Then they agree again. Then no one gets paid. Then they get paid, but the cheques bounce.

In one hilarious scene, the director, Jon Pinchot (Barbet Schroeder) takes a chainsaw to the offices of Firepower (Cannon Group), asks where he can plug it in and threatens to cut off body parts unless they agree to release the film so that someone else can make it.

This is how Bukowski describes it:

“Where’s your plug?” Jon asked


“For this…” Jon pulled the towel away revealing the Black and Decker.

“Please, Mr Pinchot…”

“Where’s the plug? Never mind, I see it…”

Jon walked over and plugged the Black and Decker into the wall.

Later as the secretary enters with coffee…Pinchot presses the button on the chainsaw.

“The blade sprung into action and began to hum.”

Apparently everything in the book is accurate and no one featured in it has ever claimed Bukowski made any of it up.

During the course of making the film, Hank (Bukowski) visits Pinchot and his friend/partner Francois (endlessly playing roulette) who have decided to live in a dangerous part of LA, populated by gangsters. There are always hands coming through the fence grabbing at things, there are bullet holes through the front door one day and later Pinchot is forced to buy back the tyres stolen from his car – and pay extra to ensure they’re not stolen again.

“Can you sleep at night,” Hank asks Pinchot.

“We have to drink to sleep. And then you can never be sure.”

In another episode, Jon tells Hank that Francine (Faye Dunaway) wants him to write a scene so she can show off her legs.

“She has great legs you know,” Jon says.

“Alright. I’ll right in a leg scene,” replies Hank.

The entire book, all his books in fact, are written in his deadpan, matter-of-fact style, straight-talking but with a certain kind of poetry. Its simplicity is hard to replicate.

In between all this there is drinking. Lots of drinking. Bukowski and Sarah are constantly seeking out a bottle of wine, drinking and refilling their glasses. They drink on set, before takes, at parties, at the cinema, in the limo on the way to premier, on the way home. At home.

And then there are the acutely brilliant observations about the Hollywood system.

At a party full of actors and Hollywood bigshots which Hank attends in the company of Victor Norman (the writer Norman Mailer), he remarks after the flashbulbs go off at Francine’s arrival:

“God I thought. What about the writer? The writer was the blood and bones and brains of these creatures…and where was the writer? Who ever photographed the writer? Who applauded?”

Then he gains some perspective.

“But just as well and damn sure just as well: the writer was where he belonged. In some dark corner watching.”

Later, when the film is finished he remarks of actors that they were “different then we were”.

“You know when you spend many hours, many years pretending to be a person who you aren’t, well that can do something to you.”

But he also realises the movie-making is a “deliberate jack-off, a salary for this and a salary for that”.

“And there’s only one man allowed to put a plug in the wall, and the sound man was pissed off at the assistant director and then the actors weren’t feeling good…

“It was all waste, waste, waste…”

But the book is certainly not a waste. It’s a brilliant send up and spotlight on Hollywood, written by the “laureate of American low life” in his unique pared-down , dry style.

It’s very, very funny and moving and touching.

Go see Barfly and then read “Hollywood” by Bukowski.

Satisfaction guaranteed.

(Here’s a short extract from the movie Barfly)

(Here’s a video of Bukowski reading one of his poems in the late 1970s)